‘There was a time in my walk when . . .’ sets up a perfectly comfortable line for pastors to share something about their struggles and for us to hear from our seats. You might be familiar with the formula. There was a time in his life when he struggled with depression. There was a time in her faith when she wasn’t hearing from Gød. Problems that every member of every church in North America knows that every Christian encounters at various points in their lives are kindly legitimated by the autobiographical disclosures of our spiritual leaders. It’s great, insofar as it reminds us that it’s not just us, that maybe dark seasons, rocky relationships and desert wanderings aren’t entirely in mutual exclusion with Christian faith. Yet it does so from a safe distance. It is at once self-revelatory and calculatingly guarded.
What these disclosures tend not to tell us is that it’s OK to struggle there, from the pulpit, under the lights. This is at once a case from silence (when have you heard, unless you went to my church, ‘I was really struggling with depression this week‘?)* as it is the result of the rhetorical structure it’s fit to; that is, it’s the setup to a story’s resolution, the footnote on a larger lesson that isn’t actually about (or is too rarely about) the imminent presence of spiritual, emotional, psychological struggles. The words might say that a Christian can suffer inward persecutions—and maybe this won’t even be undercut by ‘and then I addressed the sin in my life’—but the encompassing message suggests that a more hopeful perspective (the perspective enjoyed by the preacher today) always prevails and casts out the distorting clouds that obscure the truth of Gød’s ceaseless speaking, the ever-present abundance of life in Christ.
One thing the problem amounts to is that it can subtly undercut any safe space otherwise created when invitations are issued for those experiencing spiritual distress to receive prayer; of course it’s fine for you to feel like Gød has abandoned you—you’re just a congregant, laity not leadership. Moreover, I’d want us to admit there’s a subtle pressure introduced around those partially validated experiences, such that you ought to be led out of them and into the perspective enjoyed by the majority (that of the preacher today), not that you simply are there today and maybe for an unknown while longer. No wonder why the patterns of prayer around spiritual and psychological issues often take the form of a coaxing counsel, trying to cure through cognition: if only you would understand the truth of your situation.
Another problem is what pastors communicate to ourselves, chiefly about ourselves. Namely, the selfsame things—that struggling is OK as long as it’s subordinated to wider perspective and a larger lesson, that it’s OK for our congregations to struggle spiritually but less so for us who should know better, even that ‘There was a time in my walk when . . .’ stretches the limit of our ability to self-disclose and, even if we have a present struggle to speak of, our churches are no place and now is no time to admit this. Maybe the possibility of an introverted evangelical pastor is returning to the imagination of the Church for acceptance, but I don’t foresee the day when there are enough books written about faithful pastors who live with depression as a companion on their journey of discipleship.
Sometimes Gød disappoints, and I am frequently disappointed in myself. Often this plays into a neurobiological predisposition I have toward depression and the experience of depression. Sometimes this experience of depression obscures the voice of Gød in my life, but it is not to imply that Gød speaks in the same degree of intelligibility at all times and there are not periods of silence that Gød employs at times that seem incredibly inopportune to my needs, and these are times when I feel let down, even abandoned, by Gød. This is where I am this week, right now, and it’s a place I occupy with the greatest love for the Trinity, without reservation about my ability to lead spiritually. In fact, at times, I feel it a qualification.
A very dear friend of mine left the faith many years ago, and I along with his community at the time couldn’t seem to figure out where his doubts had come from that he’d begun systematically tearing apart the faith I’d watched him built for years. Recently I formulated a theory, which if wrong is still helpful for me. I wonder if he wasn’t disappointed with Gød, if he didn’t feel like Gød had ultimately let him down for where he was at the time, and that if as a community we hadn’t failed to give him the resources and the permission to feel disappointed in Gød and to be angry with Gød and to wonder whether he loved Gød and whether Gød loved him, as a Christian. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. Maybe it still would have been right, as I think it is right today, to say that your loneliness matters today; your depression matters today; your disappointed expectations of Gød matter today—not on the condition that it comes to mean something else later but because whatever you’re experiencing is real enough to your present experience of faith and because invisibly, inaudibly, imperceptibly, Gød inhabits the present and imminent real with you, always.
Photo cred: David M Pacy Photography (https://www.flickr.com/photos/63723146@N08/9262682030/), cropped