It’s my most common statement these days: ”Have a nice trip!” Saying it to my friends is the polite thing to do, given that I am landlocked in my house. And to my credit, I really mean it when I say it. I really do wish them a nice trip—fun and relaxing and safe and an experience of all things good.
At the same time, my heart is always just a little shattered when someone I know embarks on a summer adventure. It makes me long for times past when my family took amazing vacations to Disney World or Sea World, to the ocean or to the mountains, to Oregon, Seattle, or Vancouver, or Gatlinburg, or Nevada, or San Francisco, New Orleans, Reno, Nashville, Nairobi, Mombasa, Athens, Mexico . . . I can’t even remember all the places. “Those were the days,” I’ve heard it said. And so they were!
Today is a very different reality. Travel is harder, for so many reasons, and being confined to home has a host of repercussions. I have experienced many of those repercussions, physical ones, spiritual ones and emotional ones. Immediately after my kidney transplant in 2019, Covid-19 descended upon us. After that, I accepted my personal reality of taking immunosuppressant medications for the rest of my life to prevent organ rejection. That personal reality meant that, no matter the lifting of mask mandates and the full re-opening of everything, I had no immune system to fight Covid or any other infection. And that means forever!
When everyone around me seems free, and carefree, I feel imprisoned. I admit, it has taken an emotional toll on me. It still does affect my sense of freedom, safety, loneliness, boredom, isolation, creativity—the things that fill your soul. I have tried hard and long for three years to stay active and creative and never to feel bored. But I have reached a kind of stasis, worn out from ”keeping busy” and from pushing myself to be productive, creative and happy.
My husband asked me yesterday if I’m depressed. I almost said, “no” before the truth hit me. I haven’t seen my son and grandchildren for two years. I haven’t seen my Atlanta cousins since November. I haven’t seen most of my friends in months. So, yes, I suppose I am depressed, though I so want to push it away by denying it.
Depression has its own trajectory. Most of the time, I just have to ride it out and wait for better days. In the meantime, to all of you travelers out there: Have a nice trip!
“Come, Ye Disconsolate” is one of my favorite hymns. You might ask why. In every person’s life, there are times of sorrow that fall very deeply into the soul. There is a sense in which deep sorrow communes with us like no other emotion. Being disconsolate can be a beautiful experience.
It is a beautiful word — disconsolate — a word full of depth and full of meaning. Yet, it is not a word we often use. It sounds a bit like an ”old” word to me, perhaps more widely used in decades past. The definition? According to Merriam-Webster, the word disconsolate means “cheerless.” I don’t find enough soul angst in that definition, but the word has many soulful synonyms.
Synonyms for disconsolate can be as heart-rending as the word itself: downcast, inconsolable, dispirited, desolate, crushed, despairing, destroyed, despondent, hopeless, heartbroken ~ comfortless
So many words, so full of sorrow. Still, I love the word disconsolate. It has been my companion on many a journey and, although I did not welcome it as an emotion, I learned to own it, which is surely the most important way to have full awareness of your spirit. The truth is, when one is disconsolate, it is an opportunity to imagine being wrapped tenderly with a soft blanket of hope. Wrapped completely, face-under-the-covers wrapped!
How can such a word remind me of a soft blanket tenderly wrapped around me? How can the soft cover be called a blanket of hope? I will offer one reason that is a personal story about my friend and colleague in ministry, Donna. When I was desperately ill with end stage kidney disease, Donna came to visit me in the hospital often. Many of those visits I can’t remember, but she came one day holding a gift in her hands. The gift was a fluffy, white crocheted blanket that her entire congregation had prayed over as they petitioned God to restore me to health.
Every time, from that day to this, that I covered myself with that blanket, I would think of Donna and her church members and their act of love and concern. I imagined them nearby and sensed their prayers becoming a part of my soul’s lament. They did not leave me comfortless.
Whenever I feel disconsolate, comfortless, it helps me to remember these words from the Gospel of John, one of the most beautifully poignant passages in all of scripture:
16 And I will pray to God who will send you another Comforter who will abide with you forever, the Spirit of truth; Sadly, the world cannot accept the Comforter, because it does not truly see her or know her. But you know her; for she dwells with you, and shall be in you.
18 I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. 19 In a little while, the world will see me no more; but you see me: because I live, you shall live also.
25 These things have I spoken unto you while I am still present with you.
26 But the Comforter — the Holy Spirit — God will send in my name,
and the Spirit will teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, all the things I have said to you.
27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you: I do not give you peace as the world gives,
Instead I give you peace as if it were from God. And so, my beloved children, do not let your heart be troubled, neither let your heart be afraid. — Jesus, recorded in John 14: 16-19; 25-27, paraphrased
During the times I felt disconsolate through the years, I have always been able to rest under the comforting wings of the Spirit, the Comforter who is with me always. Yes, it is true that many times my heart was troubled and afraid. The words of Jesus did not always repair the state of my heart or diminish my fear. But the promise of Jesus — that I would not be left comfortless — soothed and strengthened my heart.
The words of this hymn held for me a depth of meaning that has spoken comfort and truth to my disconsolate spirit — every time — easing my suffering and leaving me with hope.
Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish; come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel. Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.
Joy of the desolate, light of the straying, hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure! Here speaks the Comforter, in mercy saying, “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot cure.”
Here see the bread of life; see waters flowing forth from the throne of God, pure from above. Come to the feast prepared; come, ever knowing earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove. Thomas Moore (1779-1852)
I have experienced the “joy of the desolate” many times. It is a joy that fills my heart, in spite of how deeply desolate I feel. As for what this all means during this Lenten season. For me, it means that a Lenten experience can help me see the ”light of the straying,” and that I will experience the ”hope of the penitent” and once again hear the words of the Comforter “in mercy saying, ‘Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot cure.’”
From this time forth and forevermore. Amen.
As you spend a few quiet moments during this Second Week of Lent, the following video of this moving hymn may give you peace and hope.
I feel exasperated sometimes with the constant ups and downs that are a normal part of my life. I would surmise that ups and downs are probably a part of your life, too.
Don’t we have a knack for riding them out on something akin to a roller coaster? I have truly become a master at riding out ups and downs since my kidney transplant, but then I never really wanted a roller coaster life. So much for life plans!
Even with ups and downs, I am comforted when my faith opens up insight I have gained over the years, like not worrying about tomorrow (Matthew 6:34), not leaning on my own understanding (Proverbs 3:5) and not being anxious about anything (Philippians 4:6-7). Those stay-the-course words should surely be enough to help, shouldn’t they?
Not always! Faith and spiritual maturity and scripture are simply not enough at times to keep me from the despondency of the “downs.” That’s just the way my psyche reacts when I feel down or when a circumstance pushes me down. The trouble is, things that get me down are not always enormously critical things. Even an insignificant down moment can let depression plant itself in my spirit. That just doesn’t work for me, so I need to find a way to even out my roller coaster life and not let everything that happens be a potential for depression.
What do I want? I cannot say it simpler than this: stabilizing peace. It is not an exaggeration to say that since my transplant eighteen months ago, almost nothing has been stable. Immunosuppression medications are constantly being moved up or down; my lab numbers are constantly fluctuating; my emotions are up and down; my energy waxes and wanes; my blood sugar rises and plummets; and, on one day my kidney might be okay, but on another day, I am dealing with kidney rejection. My physical, emotional and spiritual well being rises and falls with each change.
Oh, for some stabilizing peace that stays constant through the ups and downs!
I keep going back, though, to the ultimate words that promise me the kind of constant, stabilizing peace that I so need:
Always be glad because of the Lord! I will say it again: Be glad. Always be gentle with others. The Lord will soon be here. Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything. With thankful hearts offer up your prayers and requests to God. Then, because you belong to Christ Jesus, God will bless you with peace that no one can completely understand. And this peace will control the way you think and feel.
Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly, and proper.
Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.
You know the teachings I gave you, and you know what you heard me say and saw me do. So follow my example. And God, who gives peace, will be with you.
Philippians 4:4-9 CEV
I wage war, much of the time, with depression that continues its haunting presence. It is not the debilitating kind of depression that can knock one to the ground to the point of needing medication. It is not the kind of depression that leaves one in tears and prevents any meaningful activity. It is not even the kind of depression that affects one’s life to the point of complete stagnancy. But it is a depression that hurts the heart and leaves the spirit languishing — on some days more than others.
Yet, I am grateful for lessons learned. In my times of depression — through my ups and downs — I have learned a few helpful and hopeful lessons.
These are just a few of them:
I must not fall into the bottomless pit of anticipatory anxiety. The things that fill me with such anxiety and worry rarely even happen.
My spirit is resilient, much stronger than I think it will be.
The bad things that happen to me don’t usually last forever. I can ride them out.
It is not “pie-in-the-sky” fantasy to fall back on the faith that has always sustained me. The truth is that the God who promised to be with me, really has been with me — every time.
My “downs” have always graced me with a fresh view of my soul and spirit, the deep places in me that fall to the dust but still manage to get up and move forward.
I admit I haven’t made peace with my ups and downs. I suspect I will have them as lifelong companions, but I have made peace with the soul of my being. I have discovered that there are some soul-things that I can never really touch unless I have gone as low as I can go. In those times, my emotions are discernible and my spirit is tender. In those times, there is a holy presence that will take my hands and lift me up. Of that, I am confident.
Debasiah Mridha wrote these words that are so true and so full of wisdom, “Life has its ups and downs. When you are up, enjoy the scenery. When you are down, touch the soul of your being and feel the beauty.”
I would like to be able to leave you with a sparkling, new solution for all of the times you go from up to down. I would like to be able to tell you in your ups, and in your downs, that you will find peace enough to sustain you. I wish I could tell you, even, that your life will be all “ups.” I wish I could believe it for myself. But there are very few things that any of us can count on. I intend to keep holding on tightly to my faith and my belief that God’s Spirit of Wisdom walks beside me. Sits next to me on that terrifying roller coaster!
I also love this thought that I stumbled upon in a most unlikely place. Brent Schlender, in his book entitled, Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader, made the most lovely, comforting observation. This is what he wrote: “The sun will set and the sun will rise, and it will shine upon us tomorrow in our grief and our gratitude, and we will continue to live with purpose, memory, passion, and love.”
It’s part of human nature to sometimes want to hold on to the past, cling to the “good old days” and resist the change that moves us forward. Especially when days past were very, very good and prospects for the future are less good!
I, for one, find myself clinging to the past with all my might, looking at my past life as a full and exciting one and viewing my present as being a bit of an empty wilderness. I chalk it up to aging and retirement, but this sense of emptiness, sadness, is really more than that. I think it’s more about my ability to accept myself for who I am, who I will become in the future and, most of all, what I truly need in order to be at peace with myself and my world.
Our worlds change all the time, and change brings with it the question all of us must answer: Who are you in relation to this world you are now in? If before retirement I was a nonprofit executive and an advocate for victims of violence and abuse, who am I in retirement? When I no longer have to adapt to the leadership roles I used to be a part of, what “self” might I discover in these days of new things? When I no longer have to adapt to the role of pastor, what “self” might I find myself to be when there is no congregation to care for?
According to Isaiah, my go-to Prophet, God advises us not to remember “the former things” or “the things of old.” Instead God apparently makes a provocative statement and asks an even more provocative question:
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth.
Do you not perceive it?
Isaiah 43:18 NRSV
I definitely had not perceived it, that new thing! In fact, I have been languishing about losing my “former things” for the last six years, not able to make the most of my present and certainly unable to envision a bright future. It might surprise even those who know me best how deeply disconsolate I have felt at times. Six years of languishing is not a good way to live. I made a gallant effort to make the best of it, but these six years took a toll on me in most every way — physically, emotionally and spiritually. My closest friends have ridden out this storm with me, so they know what I’ve been dealing with in clinging so closely to my good past and not being able to live into a good present.
And what is this “new thing” that God speaks of? What does the way through the wilderness take me and where are the winding, refreshing rivers in the desert?
Two weeks ago, one of those close friends gave me a passage of scripture printed on a piece of paper. I received it in quite a serendipitous way. Neither of us chose the passage (Isaiah 43:18-19). It ended up with me in a very random manner. But as it spoke of former things, old things and new things, it got my attention so completely that I pondered it several times a day for a week or so. I didn’t obsess over it or look up its context or attempt to exegete it. I simply pondered it in my heart in the quiet times.
This scripture is truly a lovely God-promise, filled with a gentle, healing grace. I appreciated it for that. I also appreciated it because its words gave me the gift of sacred pause. And in the sacred pauses it gave me, I realized that the crux of this matter is not not how I react to change or how I survive it. What I discovered is that this is not about what I can do or should do when my world changes. It’s about who I am when my world changes.
With that in mind, maybe every time my world changes, I will still be the person of deep faith that I have always been. Maybe I will greet “the new things” with gratefulness, knowing that God has made before me a way in the wilderness and has provided cool, rolling rivers in the desert. And even when my soul longs for days gone by, perhaps I will know that I will see God’s light on the path ahead of me, even in the dark, even through the wilderness, even as I feel the inevitable sorrow of letting go of all the former things I so deeply cherished. Even then, I will know that I do not walk alone.
I wonder if writers sometimes just write words — words devoid of emotion or conviction or passion. I wonder if you would read my dispassionate words today just as you read my more passionate ones on other days. And does it even matter to you if the words I write come from my heart? Or not.
I ask because today my heart feels empty, just as it has felt for several days past. It’s that sense of numbness, maybe even a soul emptiness that hurts more than full-on despair. I cannot put my finger on a reason for it. I say to my friends, “I’m depressed,” but only because I can’t think of a better description, at least not one that most people would understand.
I have two particular friends, friends with whom I have a special relationship. We talk often about our feelings, about depression or anxiety, excitement or joy. We also ask one another a question that bypasses all superfluous language and tedious, spiritless conversation. The question is this:
How is Your heart?
The question gets us to the heart of the matter (pun not at all intended). The question gets us past the need to reticently enter into meaningful conversation. It bypasses all the fluff. It requires no long discourses on how depression feels or where we think it came from. It just asks a straightforward question that calls for an upfront, honest answer.
Just this: “How is your heart?” That’s it. We save a lot of time that way!
Either we struggle for a just a few seconds to figure out our honest answer, or we simply say, “I don’t know.” I realized not too long ago when my friend asked me about my heart that I was receiving her question as one of genuine concern for my well being. I did not feel that she was asking for a bunch of words like a treatise on my current state of being. I did not feel that she was asking me to bare the plethora of my feelings. I did not feel that she wanted to hear a string of words. I certainly did not feel that she was asking for a “How are you? I am fine,” conversation (likely the most meaningless set of words ever spoken).
She was not asking me for any of that, words and words and more words. She was asking about my heart, the seat of emotions, they say. All she wanted to know about was the condition of my heart — what longing was there; what heartache was there; what joy was there in that moment.
I always answer that question because it is a holy one. It’s never just words — her question or my answer. Instead, it is a sacred pause we enter, knowing that we will share with one another thoughts that are much deeper than words. We will share from the wellsprings of our lives.
The Egyptians taught that the heart was the seat of the soul. The ancient Hindus believed that the soul was located in the heart. The Aztecs said, “The heart is the seat of the soul.
“How is your heart?”
It is a question overflowing with meaning. The wise Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) wrote that the heart is the seat of the soul. Another man of wisdom, Augustine of Hippo, actually behaved quite unwisely for a time, causing speculation that he was perhaps suffering from depression. The many wild wanderings of his youth caused him to harm his very soul and left him sitting at the salt pools of death. From that place, Augustine returned to God, like a bird to its forsaken nest. And he said in his Confessions, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in thee.”
I empathize with Augustine, if indeed he did suffer from depression. And yes, it is true that all these words have emerged from my own place of depression. Yet, even from that deep place where my heart feels wounded, I can still rest in knowing that my heart is the seat of my soul, a place I diligently guard. Gratefully, I can still rest in the fact that I am clothed in the comforting presence of my friends who never fail to ask, “How is your heart?”
To them — Sister Lee Ann and Monica — I dedicate this post.
For them, for us, the question is not just empty, superfluous words. Between us the words are sacred words, a holy question that taps into the “wellsprings” of my life. I always answer that kind of question. For these two friends, and a few other friends who keep vigil with me whenever I am depressed, I give thanks to God. Amen.
Guard your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the wellsprings of life.
I have taken many trails throughout my life and I imagine that you have as well. It’s one of the things all of us have in common. The trails we take can sometimes lead us to places unknown. Not just places on a map, but places in the soul. Our more difficult trails can push us to our limits, mostly the limits of the soul at its depth. Sometimes, today maybe, my soul is in the depths of unknowing.
What does that sentence even mean? My soul is in the depths of unknowing? If I don’t know what that means, how can I possibly talk about it with you? I can try!
I’ll try. I’ll search for words that explain how I feel, how my soul feels and what it means — the depth of unknowing.
These days I sense an unease in my soul, in its depths. I have named it depression. I have tried in vain to make an appointment with my therapist. Isn’t that what people do when they are depressed? Anyway, I did that, but cannot see her until the end of July. So I determined that I had to become my own therapist. In doing that, I decided to search myself more deeply. I determined that perhaps what I feel isn’t depression after all. Instead, what I feel may be the depth of unknowing.
For me that means chasing away the unknowing, getting rid of it because I want to know when I will feel stronger physically, or when I will see my grandchildren, or how I will handle my emotional fragility, or where I will live for the rest of my life. Just to name a few things I need to know.
And yet, the depth of the soul’s unknowing may well be exactly where my soul begins to fully know. The trails I take while inside my soul’s depths contain lessons and treasures and wisdom. The trails bend and wind leading to an unknown path that opens its way for me. I follow it willingly, blindly, yet for some reason, expectantly. The trails are most surely my depression, their unknown, perilous way distressing me as I walk. Jagged rocks on the trails, vines creeping their way onto my path, thorns, bristles and barbs — boulders sometimes — all to remind me of the hard path I walk and the heavy load I carry.
The trails I walk may be no more ominous than yours. We all walk them and we all carry burdens on the way. You and I walk no easy trails. There is “no easy walk to freedom,” the song reminds us. Truth! The trails I walk, and your trails, are many and winding, hard and confusing. The obstacles overwhelm. I suppose this describes my depression as well as any words could, and it is precisely that unease in my soul’s depths that has come to me in these days.
The difficult thing about soul-deep depression is its dogged persistence. That kind of depression has staying power and it sits in the soul, creating that terrible sense of the soul’s unknowing. It has the power to convince me that I will never know the things I want to know. Mostly, I want to know destination. Where am I headed? What jagged rocks and prickly thorns will injure me along the way? And will I survive my injuries?
There lies the depth of depression. It lies in the desire, the need, to know. We need to know the unknown — where will the trails take us and what formidable obstacles will stop us. Now understand this, if I had answers, I would have given them to you several hundred words ago. I have no answers of my own, but I do have a nugget of wisdom written by author Angie Weiland-Crosby.
Some trails defy definition, longing only for the soul.
There may be something in her words. If the trails defy our attempts to define them or to know them, perhaps we can find comfort knowing that the trails long only for our soul. The trails only want us to bare our souls along the way and to open them up to the new. The trails are meant for our good, for our spiritual maturing. And as for another comfort, the God we know has seen and known the trails before us. However you see and know God, you can rest in the knowledge that God has some hand in the work of the soul. God knows about the trails we take.
Haven’t I commanded you? Strength! Courage! Don’t be timid. Don’t get discouraged. God, your God, is with you every step you take.”
Joshua 1:9 (The Message Bible)
When all is said and done, I believe the trails I take are necessary ones. In a way, perhaps the trails I take are sacred ones, meant for opening up my soul to its depths where transformation can occur. No, God does not lay out my every trail or remove its thorns and rocks. The trails I take are strewn with rocks meant for me, thorns that pierce just enough to get my soul’s attention. I believe that. And I believe that there is for me a way to trust God wholly. My personal translation of Proverbs 3:5-6 gives me a tiny inkling of hope even when depression ravages my soul.
Trust in whoever you believe God to be in your life. Trust God with all your heart, and don’t rely only on what you understand. In all the twists and turns in your life, perceive this God as one who offers a depth of mercy, A God who sees and knows the trails you walk. And be assured, know deeply in your soul that God will direct your paths.
I want to share with you a video of a beautiful, meditative song entitled, “Depth of Mercy,” performed by students of Fountainview Academy, a Christian high school based in southern British Columbia, Canada. I also share this because of where it is filmed — a beautiful wooded area with various trails. Whatever trail the students took to arrive at their destination seemed a treacherous pathway to me, and even more treacherous, the place where they stood to play and sing.
They were on top of a magnificent ridge, but way too close to the edge for my comfort. At the end, as they sang, “Depth of mercy, can there be mercy still reserved for me?” The image pans across them to the jagged edge and then reveals a very deep and ominous gorge. Panning even farther across, you will see a most beautiful portrayal of nature, one that stirs the senses and reminds us of the depth of mercy our God reserves for us. I hope the video is meaningful to you.