Just over a week ago, I found myself in a state of being that I do not remember ever experiencing before. I wasn’t physically feeling quite right—I was off. Light-headed, out of sorts…now some of this could have been the smoke in the air, but it was also accompanied with a lethargy. Not my usual way of being. I didn’t want to do anything really. I felt hopeless…..like I was at in a gray fog and I really didn’t want to find my way out…..Now, it did not last too long….just over 24 hours…..but it is not something I would like to experience often and would prefer never to experience again.
I have been fortunate enough to be someone who has been mentally well my entire life. During some difficult junctures in my life, I have sought counseling or spiritual coaching, but I have never really experienced ongoing anxiety. Grief, yes, but not depression. A blessing, I know. But, I think that last week’s experience of gray was a taste of depression.
Today we hear Jesus say: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (The Message)
Beloved, I arrived in that gray fog because I was overwhelmed by all the negative situations that are realities in our world. The state of this creation as it is dying and seeing/feeling that first hand in the smoke from the Canadian fires; the decisions on a federal justice level that I consider to be taking steps back into racism and bigotry; local decisions on a county level to, again as I see it, do the same—act as if racism and bigotry is not an issue here. The injustices done to those on the economic margins. And a plethora of other big concerns. Another aspect of these realities is that I have to come face to face with the truth that many of my fellow citizens have a completely different understanding and vision of who they wish America to be, how they want this world to be—and, of course, there are always smaller, personal storms brewing within that get mixed up in the maelstrom.
Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
The first step from the bottom of the pit was telling my husband that I thought I may be experiencing depression. I named it. A little scary because it isn’t necessarily who I think myself to be. I didn’t feel ashamed but uncertain. I think the naming of it opened a window—a window still a bit out of my reach—but a window that shed some light into the gray and blew in some fresh air—and something to reach for. Because, Beloved, talking with people you love—particularly when it is about things that matter—that’s a form of prayer.
The second step is really a step that was put into place long before this period of gray began—the practice of intentional, set-aside-time-for prayer. Now, this part of my prayer life hasn’t always been rich; even since I became a priest. Like anyone I have dry spells and valleys. But especially since I have been involved with the Center for Clergy Renewal and my immersion last summer, my prayer life has been consistent. That consistency (some days rich and some days shallow) has built a strong grounding, a centering. And it provided me a path out of the fog.
And the trick is: letting go. Really. Letting go.
As I sat with the Holy, I came to realize that what was beating me down was my holding onto things that are outside of my control—-I was worrying about how other people were acting, climate change, the state of our nation, the state of our community, homelessness, poverty, injustice, my children’s and grandchildren’s lives…..
Now, these are all things we are to be concerned with—but I was dealing with them at the wrong level. Let me explain
Let’s think of it like this: in our lives, there are two circles: the Circle of Control and the Circle of Concern. What sent me over the edge is that I was overwhelmed by all the things in the Circle of Concern–all those things in pink—again, legitimate concerns and things we should be willing to do something about and adjust our behaviors due to them—but I lost my focus on the Circle of Control: those items in green. What I can actually do.
After naming my depression to Murray, instead of allowing the call to “just do nothing and retreat from humanity” have its way with me, I turned to the other whisper: Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.
You know, Beloved, times weren’t better when Jesus lived. His people were oppressed by the Romans. Many were poor and unhoused. Enslaved. Undiagnosed. Cast aside. Now, there may not have been the climate change we experience, but there were droughts and floods and other disasters to deal with. And yet, Jesus—who must have felt a lot of weight on his shoulders knowing his job description—Jesus stays grounded. Centered. In the midst of it all.
Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.
Let me point something out: even though God showed up in the flesh—in the life and ministry of Jesus—there was still poverty, thirst, and the Roman Empire. All those things were still around when Jesus left. Jesus didn’t end the crappy situations that were realities for his people. Having Jesus in their lives did not erase these situations. Let that sink in.
What Jesus gives us is a way to live abundantly in the midst of these things. That’s it.
I think that sometimes people want Jesus, want Christianity, to be a magic pill that we take and then the crap of life will no longer be true for us. Or it’s a magic train ticket so that when we die we will leave it all behind and end up in a wonderland of clouds, angels, where only the good people go.
I think both of those ways of thinking about this Way of Love that we call Christianity are bogus. False. Hot air.
The Way of Love is about how we live, not what happens to us when we die.
The Creator knows that to live in this Creation—where humans have free will and humans are self-centered until they learn and choose otherwise—the Creator knows that this life is a tumultuous ride. And because we are—every single one of us, even the dopes that cause the tumult—because we are Beloved—Love provides us a path, a grounding, a centering, and a truth that can provide us, if we choose, an abundant life—no matter the current situations. A life of joy, love, resilience and resurrection. Even in the midst of whatever the reality of the world is around us.
This path, this rope to grasp, is our connection to Love itself. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. The intertwined strands of this rope are prayer, breaking bread with others, gathering in community, work, serving and loving neighbors, silence, time away, time alone. And, of course, the Truth of Love is our grounding. And that Truth is that what we know as life is one narrative that is unfolding in time as we know it. Our day-to-day existence that is very much situated on this planet at this time. But, Beloved, to believe in God is to believe that there is another narrative that is beyond this human one; a narrative that has always been. The author of that narrative is not a person—but a force, a presence, an existence that permeates everything that is. We know this force and presence as God, as Creator; we know this force and presence as Love. And Love holds everything. Every thing.
In life and beyond this life.
As I re-centered myself—through time in Love’s company, (both in prayer and in community) by choosing to grasp that rope—I remembered this Truth. And so those concerns that are outside of my control—I handed those over to Love. I reminded myself that those are Love’s to hold, to manage. My bit is to figure out what I can do to strengthen the Love that tends to those concerns.
I reminded myself of what I am already doing–items in the green and blue on this slide–that inner circle of control that does affect and shift the outer circle of concern. I let go of all the big, overwhelming things I cannot address and filled my pockets with what I am already doing. This gave me a renewal of energy—the capacity to leave the fog. I found myself feeling desire and excitement to re-engage. Hope blew the fog of gray out of my head and heart……..After all, this is what Jesus does: Jesus tended to the neighbor in front of him, the folx around the dinner table, those who were within his listening circle. And because he kept moving, those circles of influence shifted as needed.
Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me….
Beloved, I am a do-er. So sometimes, when I care deeply, I do too much. I see too much. I carry too much. And the result isn’t always that more gets done. Sometimes what happens—at least this time what happened—is that I was slayed. Cast down.
But, because I have been blessed to be pickled in the Jesus juice my entire life—and because the Spirit has reminded me to keep jumping in the brine—I heard Love’s whisper and saw Love’s light and it gave me the way out. It resurrected me. And I know, I trust, Love will be there to do it every time I need it.
Sometimes, Beloved, and for some folx—it’s a longer time in the depths, it’s a harder road out. Let’s not romanticize this and make it seem like if you only pray right or believe right or do it right, you’ve got it made. I have loved folx who couldn’t make it out. Even though they had exceptional faith. Gifts and capacities. The fog, for them, was unrelenting.
But, I believe, Love has them, Love is holding them. And somehow their being continues where they are no longer weighed down by those things they could not let go or be released from. And I do not know why it’s that way. I can’t reason myself to an answer. All I can do is trust the Love that I know and believe to be the strongest, deepest, most elastic and resilient force in Creation.
We have heard two versions of this passage from Matthew today, let me add part of a third. This is from the First Nations Version of the Bible:
Come close to my side, you whose hearts are on the ground, you who are pushed down and worn out, and I will refresh you. Follow my teachings and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest from your troubled thoughts. Walk side by side with me and I will share in your heavy load and make it light.
Beloved, may it be so. For me, for you, for our neighbors. May it always be so.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.