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Have you ever experienced depression? Are you experiencing depression now? Have you ever experienced burnout? Are you feeling burnt out now? Have you ever become so overwhelmed with anxiety that you can scarcely breathe in this moment let alone contemplate the future?
My reflections from this pulpit today are not abstract or conceptual theology, but something, I hope, far more pragmatic and practical than that. But at the outset, I want to say that we are thinking about depression and burnout today but please don’t think that I am trying to offer a definitive sermon on the issue. Instead, what I want to do is start the conversation and to say, more than anything else, that it’s OK for us to talk about mental health issues and that St. Andrew’s is a place of non-judgment where we can be open and honest and, hopefully, find the support we need. I see today as a staging post on our community journey, not an attempt to deal with this topic in one, definitive moment.
And we are all aware just how important this topic is: so many of us have suffered, or are suffering with depression or burnout, or anxiety or stress. And I think we need to acknowledge this as a community and allow space for people to be open if they want to be.
And I count myself amongst that group of people, because, to be absolutely honest with you, I have suffered from a prolonged period of depression in the past, and on a couple of occasions, burnout and deep anxiety.
I won’t bore you all again with my life story, but many of you know that I was a carer for 7 years from the age of 27 for my first wife before she died of cancer at the age of 36 and that my sister died of cancer at the same time at the age of 34 and, that same year, my friend died as well as two of my grandparents. I suffered depression for many years during that period.
And I have experienced burnout and anxiety in my ministry as a Parish Priest too. The expectations that are put on a priest are often too much for one person to carry: as well as leading the people of God into a closer relationship with God, we must also run a Staff Team, care for ancient buildings, raise millions of pounds, develop strategies for growth, sit with the dying, care for the bereaved, help the mentally ill and the homeless, be Trustees of Charities, Governors of schools, do weddings, baptisms, assemblies, and live with threats of physical violence on a regular basis, and so much more…And, on top of that, try to be there for literally hundreds of people as they go through their life crises; offering support and prayer as best we can. The demands, the expectations are overwhelming and it is not surprising that so many of us experience burnout and a sense of isolation.
But I don’t say this with any personal agenda other than to say that, if this is how you are feeling today: burnt out, depressed and anxious - then there are others here who have experienced their own pain and, whilst I will never say “I know how you feel”, I will say that “You are not alone”. You may feel isolated today: but we are a community who are here to support one another through dark times.
And the first passage that we heard read today, from 1 Kings 19 is, I think, a profoundly important one for us to think about and can teach us a great deal about coping when we are in a dark place.
How does this passage that we’ve heard read fit into Elijah’s story?
We need to think about what had happened to Elijah three days earlier, recorded in the previous chapter: Chapter 18.
Elijah had been on Mount Carmel, engaged in a colossal confrontation with the prophets of Baal. The reputation of Elijah’s God was at stake in this confrontation. In the presence of hundreds of Israelites, 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah, Elijah had performed a miracle that proved the existence of his God. After the miracle had happened, Elijah ordered that the false prophets should be rounded up, taken to the river and executed.
It was a huge moment in the life and ministry of Elijah. The powers of darkness had been discredited, he had challenged the political and spiritual leaders of the nation, he had vindicated his own ministry and the power of God and, into the bargain, angered Queen Jezebel so much that she sent him a death threat.
Elijah was under tremendous physical, emotional and spiritual stress and so it is not surprising that he completely burned out and suffered a breakdown.
Elijah was exhausted: he had given everything he possibly could.
Elijah was completely drained and had lost all perspective on life.
The death threat from Queen Jezebel was the final straw and we read in verse 3 that, “Elijah was afraid” and that his only thought was to escape and run away.
And, as is so often the case when we burn out or suffer from depression, it was not the reality of the present situation that impacted Elijah so much as fear and anxiety about the future. Elijah fell victim to fear and depression, tipped over the edge by what might happen in the future at the hands of the revengeful Queen. For a moment in time, Elijah lost sight of the majesty and power of God whose miraculous interventions Elijah had just proved and succumbed to the fear and anxiety of worrying about possible futures.
Interestingly, our English translations of the Bible have verse 3 as, “Elijah was afraid” but the original Hebrew says, “Elijah sees how things are”. But the truth is that Elijah did not see how things were at all: instead, he feared how things might be; his imagination was working overtime with these possible futures and that was distorting his vision of reality. Through fear and anxiety and worry for the future, Elijah had stopped responding to things spiritually and was now just reacting to the circumstances of life. Elijah had made an assessment of the situation and decided that to run away was the best option…
And so we read in verse 3 that Elijah “got up and fled for his life, and came to Beersheba”. But that was in complete contradiction to where God wanted him to be because in verse 15, God says “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus”.
Verses 3 & 4 of our passage offer us so much information about the psychology of Elijah as he suffers with his depression and burnout and we can learn a lot about ourselves from these verses; two things in particular.
The first is that depression or burnout can lead us to choose isolation.
First, in verse 4, we are told that Elijah “went a day’s journey into the wilderness”. Now this is important, because it shows us that Elijah, through his depression, was removing himself from the community of faith, his spiritual family. Elijah believed that no-one could help him. Elijah believed that no-one understood. So he left the community and went out into isolation. Elijah just wanted to be left alone, perhaps to die alone.
There is a real temptation for all of us, when we are depressed or burnt out, to stop engaging with church, to stop coming to church. But I tell you now, that is the worst thing we can do because if this church at St. Andrew’s stands for anything, it must be a place where we love one another, and support one another and encourage one another in good times and bad. If this is ever a place that tolerates gossip, or back-biting, or judgment or unfair criticism or intolerance with one another’s perceived weaknesses, then we will have utterly failed as a church. We must all be absolutely sure that we are not alone in our dark places of life and that we can get support and understanding from one another.
The second is that depression and burnout results in confused and chaotic thinking that makes no real sense at all.
There is a real contradiction in Elijah’s thinking here. In verse 3, we read that “he fled for his life”. But in verse 4, we read his prayer to God where he says, “O Lord, take away my life”. Did he want to live or die? Elijah was oscillating between a desire to survive and a desire to die. On the one hand, he wanted to fight on. But on the other hand, he wanted to just roll over, give up, and die.
Elijah was completely and utterly burned out and as verse 5 starkly states, “Then he lay down and fell asleep”. Depression is exhausting…completely mentally and physically exhausting…
So, we have a picture of the darkness that was surrounding Elijah. We have a sense of his depression, his burnout, his anxiety. Perhaps some of us can relate to this so well. But where was God in this story? How did God respond to Elijah when he was at his lowest point? What can this passage teach us about how God responds to us when we suffer depression or anxiety or burnout?
Now, the last thing you want to hear, of course, is some pie-in-the-sky spiritual platitudes: phrases like ‘God knows and understands’ don’t cut it when you are depressed or ideas like ‘Jesus took all your pain when he died on the cross’ don’t really offer too much balm to a wound – even though we know its true. So what, practically, did God do when Elijah was burnt out?
The first thing God did is absolutely crucial: he let Elijah sleep. God knew that Elijah was exhausted, so he just let him sleep.
As Christians, we don’t need to be on the go for God all the time. We don’t need to fill our days with good deeds, or prayer or Bible Study. Sometimes, we just need to sleep.
It’s a hard thing to say, and maybe for some of you to hear: but I can’t always be available for you – because I need to rest. If I am to stay sane and function as a human being, I need time with my family, time to write songs and record, time to do nothing at all…
And I know that you can’t always be available to me to volunteer for more and more ministry in this church - because you need time to rest and recuperate too.
If we are not Rested Christians, then we are no good to God, the Church, or one another…
And then, after God let Elijah sleep, he sent an angel to him who gently woke Elijah up and, in verse 5 said, “Get up and eat”.
When an angel appears, we expect some deep and profound spiritual message. We expect God to impart some really deep spiritual message to Elijah about his life and ministry. But that doesn’t happen. With real gentleness, the angel of the Lord just says, “Get up and eat”.
God is so practical! He knew Elijah needed to sleep – so he let him. He knew Elijah needed to get his strength back – so he fed him.
And then what happened next? In verse 6, we read that he then lay down again and went back to sleep. We simply cannot address spiritual and emotional depression and burnout if we do not look after ourselves physically. And God knows that, if we are to fully recover, we need to sleep and we need to eat and we need to sleep again. And then in verse 7, the angel comes back again and says, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you”. And so God provides more food…
If there’s one thing to learn from this, it surely has to be that we need to be gentle with ourselves when we are depressed or burnt out. God is gentle with us – and we must be gentle with ourselves too. Healing takes time. Healing cannot be rushed. Healing involves body, mind and spirit – and all three need to be nourished.
So take your time. God can wait for you. The world can wait for you.
God can wait for me. The world can wait for me. The parish can wait for me.
But notice again what the angel says in verse 7: “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you”. The emphasis is still on Elijah’s recuperation but, this time, there is mention of a journey. God is gently introducing to Elijah hope and promise for the future.
You see, Elijah thought that his journey with God was over. He thought that his time with God was done and that there was nothing left to do but die alone in the wilderness. But God had other ideas. God had not finished with Elijah, even though Elijah had given up on himself…
With real gentleness, God doesn’t give any details of the journey. That’s important. Elijah was still in the process of recuperating, so the last thing he needed was to hear God say, “Right Elijah, I want you to leave here and devote yourself to a life of prayer and service, walking on the edge of society, constantly vulnerable to the attacks of others so that my name will be glorified!” How lacking in compassion would that have been? It would have stressed Elijah out even more! So, no details – just the promise of a future worth living for.
And in verse 8, we read this: “He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God”. The fact that the journey lasted forty days and forty nights is highly significant because he is being likened here to Moses and his journey through the wilderness arriving at Sinai, which is the same place as Horeb, where Elijah was being led.
And so Elijah makes the journey and guess what: he arrives and goes back to sleep, verse 9: “At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there”. More rest in order to face what lay ahead…
So in this story of Elijah’s depression, we see that God has physically restored him through food and sleep, we see that God has emotionally restored him through the promise of a future, we see that God has spiritually restored him by bringing him back to a sacred place. And having been healed and restored physically, emotionally, and spiritually, Elijah is now in a place to meet with God in an intense and powerful way, which is the next phase of the story that you can read in your own time later today.
So what do we learn from this incredible passage? What does it have to say to you if you are suffering from depression or burnout today or if you feel anxious and fearful for the future and on the edge of a precipice? What does this passage have to say to me when I find this ministry here at St. Andrew’s sometimes so utterly overwhelming?
First, we are reminded to be kind to ourselves: Eat, sleep, rest up for a while. Don’t be driven by other people’s agendas at the expense of your health. Healing and restoration is a process that takes time and needs to engage with our body, mind and spirit.
Second, how you or I might be feeling now is not the end story: we don’t have to roll over and die alone in the wilderness, either physically, spiritually or emotionally. God has not given up on you – this is not the end game. There is the promise of a journey and, when you are ready, God will take you on that journey; but he won’t start it until you are ready: because he loves you too much for that. So take your time: there’s no hurry…
Third, your journey will lead you to a sacred place, into intimacy with God, if that’s where you want to go. How you are feeling today is not the end game…
I talk very often about finding God in the ordinary of life. The truth is that Christian spirituality is intensely pragmatic. God is with us in the real mess of life: that’s what the cross of Christ is all about, that’s what the Incarnation is all about; the Word became flesh…God gets his hands dirty in the mess of our lives and he works in a most pragmatic way to restore us to life in all its fullness in body, mind and spirit. That was the experience of Elijah, that is the experience of so many of us here today and that can be your experience too. There’s no rush; God is at work and will restore you and heal you at a pace you can handle.
So: get some sleep, get something to eat, hear the promise for the future and when you are good and ready, get up and follow God to the sacred places that he has in store for you…
Let’s pray a short prayer that you may want to make your own if Elijah’s experience is your own today:
Father, I cry out to you
Lift my eyes to see hope rise.
I cry out to you
Change the colour of my thoughts to a rainbow day.
I cry out to you
Blow away the dark clouds to bring your light.
I cry out to you
Break into my heavy heart and breathe your life into me.
That I may rise to a new day,
Full of your light and breathing your life.
Lord, I cry out to you.