I’m Through With Love

Sunday sermon from Sunday, August 17, 2014
Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Given at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, Virginia

When I was 15 years old my father disappeared without leaving the house. His body didn’t go anywhere new, but he disappeared, and this pale imitation showed up in his place. In some ways, it was a pretty good copy. For a while, he could go to his job, he could go to the grocery store, he could drop off the dry cleaning. I’m sure the clerk at the gas station didn’t notice anything different. But we knew, mom and I, we knew. Or at least she knew. I’d like to tell you that I was right there, that I was in the room when we first noticed that real Dad had been swapped out for some cut-rate photocopy, but I was 15, and life was busy, and I was busy with everything except the emotional health of my own parents, which had never in my life been something that I had needed to take care of. I can’t swear that I was paying close enough attention to notice that my father had in fact disappeared, but it makes me look a little better in this story if I loop myself in, so let’s just say: when I was 15, my father disappeared without leaving home, and only a very few people knew, but Mom and I, we knew.

The thing was, once you noticed, you couldn’t not notice. My father — and some of you have met him, and maybe you will recall enough to back me up — my father can talk to anyone. He’s got no end of charisma; he’s got no end of charm. He smiles with his eyes, and the way he does it is just to let out for a split second some fractional gasp of the joy that radiates in his heart, and it lights up the room, and when he disappeared, everything changed. When that pale copy of my father entered the room, you could feel the temperature drop five degrees. You could taste the shadow of a few scattered clouds drifting in front of the sunlight. He was a grayscale ghost in a technicolor world, and when you looked in his eyes – when you looked in its eyes – there was no smile. There was no joy. He didn’t want to talk to you; he didn’t want to know you, he didn’t want anything, because he wasn’t there, because he’d disappeared, without leaving home.

I don’t remember when I first heard the word “Depression,” I mean, in a clinical sense. Anybody can be depressed; everybody gets depressed, lower-case D, every once in a while. I get depressed when the Braves are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, which, judging by their performance as of late, will be any moment now, but that wasn’t this. This was the real deal. On my 16th birthday my parents, in conjunction with my dad’s therapist, decided that my father was under such a cloud of acute Clinical Depression as to merit hospitalization. As a birthday present, they waited until the day after to let me know, which, in retrospect, seems fair. He checked himself in to the psychiatric wing of Princeton hospital, the acute ward, which is the one where they take your shoelaces and your belt and anything else that you can make into a noose. It was a very grayscale place, and it fit him perfectly.

Mom and I didn’t really talk about it with the outside world, not much. What do you say that possibly sets anybody up to ask a follow-up question you might want to answer? “Well, my father’s in the hospital with acute Clinical Depression” invariably led to something like “What’s he so sad about?” which may be actually the worst possible follow-up question. Were there parts of my father’s biography helping to gather the fuel for his Depression? Absolutely. He grew up in a family where expressing your emotions wasn’t exactly smiled upon, and as a consequence it was always going to be harder for him to process anger, shame, anxiety, fear, you name it. And were there parts of my father’s life in 1995 that helped light the match? Almost certainly. His office routine was stressful in ways I don’t think anybody else has ever entirely understood, and, you know, he had a bratty teenage son who probably wasn’t helping anything. Well, I told him I loved him. More than a few times. We all did. What else can you do? I told him I loved him, because it was true, and because I didn’t know what else to say, and because I didn’t know how else I could help, and because I thought it might help, and because I thought “how could anyone be sad who is so well loved?,” and because I thought “Love never fails,” and because I thought “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” and surely, if we love him enough, if he just sees how much we love him, surely he’ll come back.

And he did come back. He came home again for the bulk of the summer and early fall, but, Mom and I knew, it wasn’t really him. Everything wasn’t better. My mother tried to coax the joy back into his heart, to coax the color back into his palette, but her tenderest affections were for nothing. And so my love affair with love ended on November 3, 1995, when, on a Friday afternoon, we found my father’s body unconscious in his study. He had taken the vast majority of the pills in the medicine cabinet — whether to end his life or escape the afternoon or just feel something else, anything else, nobody knows for sure, not even him. What I know of that evening are only fragments: catching a glimpse of his inert body; searching through trash cans for empty pill bottles; sitting on the front porch waiting for the ambulance. Of course, many of you have met him, so you know: thankfully, he did not complete his most morbid task. The doctors saved his life. He was then readmitted to the psychiatric hospital, and this time, things got better, and when he came home, finally, it was really him, and my mother and I could finally stop looking for a passing herd of swine into which to exorcise whatever demons had taken him hostage.

But here’s what I learned: Clinical Depression is a son of a bitch. It’s not a mood. It’s not what you feel when a lot of bad things happen and you get sad. Getting sad when bad things happen is a normal, rational response. But Clinical Depression interferes with the brain’s ability to have normal, rational responses. It creates a chemical imbalance. It invades the architecture of the brain and starts translating what actually happens in the world into what it wants you to think, and what it wants you to think is that you are unloved, unlovable, and unworthy. And so my father, who is my mother’s soulmate and whom she loves with abandon, and whom I love and loved then as much as any sixteen-year-old is reasonably willing to admit, my father believed himself unloved and unlovable, and every time we told him we loved him the demons living in his head took those words and rearranged them and what he heard was “You don’t really matter. Actually, we’ll be better off without you.” At a chemical level, it didn’t matter that we loved him; it didn’t matter how much we loved him, because we couldn’t say it in a way that could penetrate the shield that Depression had erected around his sense of self-worth. Yes, Dad got better. But here’s the thing: love didn’t beat his Depression. It couldn’t. It couldn’t get in. The only way to fight a chemical imbalance was with chemistry. And so they only thing that worked were pharmaceuticals.

That sounds bleak, and I know it sounds bleak. We love love. We’re big fans of love. Love can do all kinds of things; it says so right here in scripture; Paul just about falls over himself to tell the Corinthians how magical love is and how if they just stir some love into their fractured church that everything will come out just fine, or at least that’s what I think it says – “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” No wonder this passage is great for weddings, and I’m sure some of you even heard it at your own weddings, and I’m sure most of you have heard a wedding preacher get up and read this passage and tell that young couple that love will be the secret ingredient to get you through anything, that as long as you love each other, you can do anything, you just go to the back of the pantry and you pull out that secret sauce and then – voila – happiness will beat a path to your door. Today I would very much like to be that same preacher; I could stand up here give the same prescription for the wounds of the world, blood and tears and mourning in Missouri and Gaza and Iraq and West Africa and around the world, I could stand up here and say that what the world needs now is love and of course I do think the world could stand a good dose of it but I don’t actually think love can do everything. Sometimes the chemistry is just out of whack.

Now, you’ve heard my story. I don’t pretend that it’s that unusual. I don’t know your story, exactly, but Depression and other anxiety disorders affect something like 40 million adults in the United States. That’s about one in five adult Americans, or, in other words, a fair handful of those of us gathered here today, so, I can make some guesses. This is the epidemic hiding in plain sight. And of course, this week, it was a bit more on display. On Monday the tragic news broke that comedian and actor Robin Williams had succumbed to his own lifelong depression; that he had succeeded where my father had failed, or, vice versa; that the had taken his own life. And this wasn’t one of those Hollywood deaths-by-overdose that we so typically blame on drugs and alcohol, though, certainly, Williams’s prior struggles with drugs and alcohol are well-documented. But Monday’s loss was something more inexplicable, and thus somehow something more tragic. After all, said the pundits and the eulogists, after all, isn’t it particularly tragic that a man who was so beloved could himself feel so little love? Didn’t he know how much we loved him? Didn’t he know how much his family loved him? Isn’t there a way we can blame someone for this, either his family, for not loving him enough, or we ourselves, for not telling him enough, or even Williams himself, for not wanting to believe it? Isn’t there a way love could have fixed this if only whoever it is that we ought to be blaming had done what in retrospect we decide they ought to have done?

And so you see what Depression does: it turns love into a weapon of anger and guilt and shame. In Depression’s hands, love becomes the lynchpin of everything we should have done or could have done. It asks a thousand dark questions on a thousand dark nights and it turns a chemical imbalance into an opportunity for anger, and guilt, and shame. If we understand Depression as a failure of love – a failure to love, a failure to be loved – then we not only sabotage real opportunities to treat and cure the disease at a chemical level, but we also give ourselves infinite chances to plunge further headfirst into the darkness. I don’t know your story, but you now know a bit of mine, and I can tell you without any need for pity or consolation that on my darkest nights, when I have most acutely felt the weight of my father’s disease, when I have felt it as anger and guilt and shame and you could have been there for him and you could have helped him and you could have convinced him, convinced him he was worthy, convinced him he was loved, on my darkest nights the words of grace to me have been this: love can’t do everything. There’s nothing you could have said or could have done. It isn’t your fault. Having Depression doesn’t mean you’re not loved; it just means you can’t hold that love in your heart. It isn’t your fault. Curing Depression with love is like bailing out a boat with a sieve. It isn’t your fault.

So of course I don’t actually disagree with St. Paul here in First Corinthians. I just think he’s been misunderstood. He never says that love can do anything. He never says it’s a magic potion that you keep on the shelf in case of emergency. Instead I hear in these words – “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” – I hear Paul not extolling the power of love but rather its persistence. For Paul here love is not, as the poet would say of hope, the thing with feathers; it’s the thing with armor. It’s the thing with reinforced steel. It’s the thing invincible to all the chemical imbalances of creation. “As for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end,” but, for Paul, love, like those mythical post-apocalyptic cockroaches, love, for Paul, love survives everything. When the world tears us apart, love stays together. When brain chemistry runs us down, love stays on its feet. Even when all the brokenness of creation stands in our way, when we can’t see the path before us, somehow, love gets through. For Paul, love is playing rope-a-dope with the slings and arrows of creation, and someday, when sin and death run out of steam, when injustice has no more arrows in its quiver, when anger and guilt and shame have no more worlds left to conquer, someday, when all those thousand dark nights converge onto the sunrise, on that day, love will still be standing, thanks be to God, who loved us from the beginning.

So here’s what I want you to know: God loves you, and God will always love you. It’s not going to fix everything. There will still be long nights of the soul. There will still be days when the best you can do is grayscale. There will still be weeks like the one just past, weeks when the chemical imbalance of the world overflows onto the streets of Ferguson, and Gaza, and Baghdad, and even and especially when it shows up in your life looking like the ghost of someone you used to know. But God’s love doesn’t give up so easily. Here’s what I want you to know: God loves you, no matter what. God will always love you, no matter what. I want you know it. I want you to feel it. I want that thought to burrow into the inner confines of your soul, underneath all the neurons, underneath all the synapses, underneath all the chemistry, somewhere so unassailable that you can never allow yourself to think anything else.

That’s what I want, but that’s not how brains work.

So, instead, let’s just say this. God loves you, and God will always love you, and even if you can’t know it, especially if you can’t know it, especially if when I say “God loves you” the demons taking residence in your brain translate that into something that says “that really can’t be true” and “I don’t really matter,” especially then, even if you can’t believe it, it’s still true. Even when you can’t know it, it’s still true. Even if you can’t hear it, it’s still true. That’s my story. That’s your story. That’s our story. That’s the only way we ever get through. Amen.


38 thoughts on “I’m Through With Love

  1. Thanks Matt. As I was reading I had to stop and process some thoughts on paper. Then I continued reading and your paragraph “So of course…” got at some of my questions and thoughts, albeit in a slightly different way. I think the fundamental insight which is, for me at least, that chemistry shapes our ability to hear grace in ways that our conventional understanding of love cannot overcome but that chemistry doesn’t determine the reality of grace, is powerful (and freeing) on many levels. Thanks for bring a life giving Word to me today.

      • Loren shared this and it is an awesome sermon. Thanks for sharing so much of yourself and for being real. Any minister who can use S.OB. in a sermon has my sincere affection!

  2. So glad you were able to share this on Sunday. I especially appreciate the connections with the various crisis in the world. Keep preaching!

  3. I had to take a moment to get some tissues because I’m crying so hard reading this. I realize I never would have given this sermon because even I, who knows so well how Depression uses secrecy to build itself up, keep my own struggles with Depression secret. I didn’t even know I was Depressed as a child. I just thought everyone had that voice in their head saying over and over, “I hate myself.” I was 23 when I first experienced life un-Depressed and realized that voice didn’t exist in most people’s heads. That gave me new understanding. Over the years the voice has varied in volume from deafeningly loud to whispers to silence thanks to drugs that have truly been a miraculous gift. With care, I take my meds, see my fantastic therapist once a week, and surround myself with people I trust to tell me when I’m disappearing. I’m blessed with an understanding spouse and good health insurance. I can’t say I’ll never have another Depressive episode; in fact, chances are sadly high that I probably will. That’s one of the reasons I don’t speak out. I don’t want everyone (read: my parishioners) to walk on eggshells around me. I’m in complete remission, and they truly don’t need to do so. But while that might be the easiest way for me to cope, it only feeds the secrecy Depression so desperately craves. Thank you so much for your prophetic witness and for inspiring me to begin telling my own story, not only for my sake, but also to speak up for those around me who are among the one in five who may not be able to express the dark night they are going through.

    • Leslie, thanks so much for your stunning comments. I’ll admit: 20 years removed from a story that’s not entirely “mine” and it still feels strange and vulnerable to share it. That stigma is real. But if I have learned anything today, it’s that the number of folks whose lives have been touched by it far outnumber their counterparts.

  4. My family lived your story with my brother for five years. He would not seek professional help. Your story is so accurate. It is not about love, it is much more about chemical imbalance. He finally came out of the depression but we all live in anxiety it may happen again. Thanks for your thoughts. Family suffer tremendously from the depression of a family member. We support the push for better mental health services.

  5. Thank you for this. My minister (Alan Combs at Lane Memorial) shared this with me. He knows I’ve struggled with depression myself and within my family of origin. I had never thought of love and grace in this way. I’ve believed that somehow I wasn’t loving enough because I was still suffering. You’ve given me much to ponder.

  6. This post was so poignant. Depression ran rampant in my family line. My mother’s brother, my father, and my own brother lost their lives to depression through suicide. My own grief and depression as well as panic disorder drove me into God’s arms, but the battle was far from over. Church folks, in their sincere desire to prove to me that love was the answer, loved me and showed me that God loved me, but it did little to abate my depression and grief. God would not let me go. I eventually healed and am now a psychotherapist working with people who suffer from depression and suicidal thinking. You are right Matt, love is an armor. And even if the armor fails to help one win the battle, God’s love did not fail. I believe his grace is beyond our comprehension.

  7. True and excellent. Nevertheless, I’ve had the experience of people writing off a colleague when that colleague told them about the depression. We need more grace in our world–more acceptance of grace as well as giving.

  8. I didn’t discuss my “Severe, biochemical, medications resistant, chronic, clinical depression” until after my Mama died – with due respect…she let be known that revelation would have shamed her….now I think my candid disclosure has been beneficial to many. It certainly is a difficult disease! (I’m NOT “through with love” though! LOL – & YES, I CAN LOL!). This post was EXCELLENT! It blessed me & I hope/trust/pray MANY others! The only addition I could make would be, “Just BE THERE & KEEP ON LOVING!”. Thanks for this “sermon”!!

  9. So true, so understanding clinical depression.when my son was going through this I saw a picture showing a smile that looked to him like a frown and a red apple looked as if it turned black when he touched it. He could not see our love as love without his medication.but Gods love showed this family the wY to help.

  10. Oh, wow, your story sounds so similar to mine, only I was still a child (8 or 9) when my dad’s struggles with depression began. He had himself voluntarily committed once, then later attempted suicide, but fortunately called my grandma right after his overdose, and she took him to the hospital. He was committed then, too. Unfortunately, my story doesn’t have a happy ending. My dad was functioning, but never got past the depression, He died of heart failure related to diabetes when I was only 19. I sometimes call it “suicide by self-neglect”. 😥

    Now, I’m struggling, too. Luckily, I’m in a relationship with a man who understands mental illness, and is helping me the best that he can, and we are very fortunate to live in a city that has mental health resources that were never available to me before. So, I recently made an appointment with our city’s mental health services department, and am going to start seeing a counselor soon, and hopefully a psychiatrist. I’m determined not to let this beast win. I don’t want to end up like my dad or Robin Williams. (Although I was quite worried that they *were* going to commit me, especially when they found out that I’ve been having frequent suicidal thoughts! :O Luckily, I convinced them that I don’t intend to act on them, and they also gave me a number to call if I need help.) I just need to trust my therapists, myself, and God to help me find the right combination of therapies to get me through this.

  11. That was so beautiful and poetic and sad and true. Thank you for sharing this with the world. I think it will be really helpful to me as I serve as a chaplain to the elderly, who often refuse to acknowledge clinical depression and think they just need to try harder to get over it.

  12. Many many thanks for this sermon, which found its way to my inbox through a friend. I was a colleague with your mother for many years and was only vaguely aware of the struggles your family was going through. I am sure your beautiful statement will be helpful for many who struggle with depression. Jim Brashler

  13. Please put this sermon in one sentence because I have depression and I was unable to concentrate long enough to read the entire sermon to get the meaning. Thank you.

  14. thank you for sharing your story! In many ways this could have been the story of my family, my husband ‘left’ us…sadly he wasn’t willing to get the help needed, he refused counseling and stopped taking his meds over and over again. Because of the damage his depression had on the rest of the family we separated and eventually divorced.

    I appreciate your insight that love isn’t enough to fix depression… I sure felt like I was a quitter after 20 years or so of trying, although that was my experience as well.

  15. I am seventy four and going through that kind of depression and have been told that I may be stuck with it. I feel the love of so many others and have felt led to tell my story and always find others who are suffering. I simply have lost my zest for life and no longer read or watch tv. Thanks for the excellent story. our first born son who was in the Autism syndrome before it was know killed himself at age eighteen. Keep up the good work and May the Lord bring people who our voice can help keep coming.

    john acuff
    Old Country Lawyer

  16. Matt, How refreshing to hear that someone has the guts to call a spade a spade in the realm of mental health and from the pulpit no less.I have been working in the field of mental health as a licensed clinical social worker for nearly 20 years and have been a therapist/clinician for 15 years. I am a follower of Jesus and know first hand that the worst manipulation my clients have experienced is being told that their ongoing Depression was a sign of unbelief, unconfessed sin and self neglect. Clinical depression is a form of diabetes in the brain. Just like the pancreas mis-regulates the hormone insulin, the brain mis-regulates the production of its various neurochemicals. It is a medical problem that requires a medical response. Diabetes I is bad luck. Clinical Depression is the same. We don’t ask love to cure diabetes. We ask doctors to help us with hormone regulation. And this needs to be accepted whether we are looking at treating the brain, the pancreas of any other organ. I look forward to the day we can take a deep breath and follow the logic God gave us. We can all heal and support people going through this if we are armed with accurate information. Sometimes the most healing thing I can do as a therapist is teach people what is happening to them. Providing them psychoeducation makes them feel empowered to step into the medical solutions that are out there.

  17. Hey Matt, My daughter, Reagan, sent this to me on Facebook. As postings sometimes do, your sermon was read and responded to by folks that I did not expect to hear from. That is a testament to the power of this work. Your sermon is needed in our society. Lord knows that there are many of us who thought love could take care of it all. Well done Matt. Well done.

  18. Hello Matt (Gaventa), Thank you for putting into words your experience with clinical depression. I guess I appreciate the fact that our love may get lost , but God’s love never shuts down. I also discovered that when concurrent disappointments and grief happen over a period of time, with no recovery or no time for recovery, then deep depression can set in and derail us. By God’s grace when I had lost all hope, God unrelentingly moved in, when I thought He was gone and didn’t care anymore. I began to see that choice and hope were not gone and that God’s eternal and ever-present love and help in times of deep despair are always present even when we don’t feel it. He gave me solitude, scripture and much grace and restored my hope and perspectives to help me come out from the deep dark hole of 20 years. A miracle for me! I still need my medications, but not shamefully now. I am learning focus in new ways and know the things that trigger depression for me and I will always fight it, but I am thankful for the help of a therapist 10 years ago who gave me acceptance, food for thought, and help in restoring and creating even wiser choices, boundaries and perspectives. Some of that information did not make sense to me for another 10 years, probably because the depth of the depression was not allowing me to function at all. I have learned finally, that God is ALWAYS kind and He sends us what we need at the right times. Although I have experienced deep griefs and pain, I am also learning how to be still, when to be still, and how to work through these struggles with counsel and humility. Emotional pain is so totally debilitating if not addressed timely and carefully. I am so thankful for the help I received which gave me hope for survival and grace at my most needy times.
    this article entitled “I’m through With Love” is excellent! Thank you so much. sincerely, Carol wengrowich

  19. Thank you for sharing this. My minister posted this. I am going to share it with others as well. Just recently in April we lost our neighbor across the street from us due to taking his own life. He seemed like a happy go lucky person, who apparently had been struggling for a long time with these inner demons. My Only regret is that I’m not sure he knew the Lord. I hope this article will keep circulating and help lots of people.

  20. So much of this is true for me. I had never thought of the way Depression attacks those who care about the depressed person as clearly as you have stated it: “And so you see what Depression does: it turns love into a weapon of anger and guilt and shame.” I knew that my friends were suffering too and that they mistakenly thought that being a friend meant they should cure me, or contribute to that in some degree. This paragraph explains this so well. It also speaks so well to those who have lost someone to a suicide of depression even when the depressed person showed no recognizable signs of depression prior to the suicide. The guilt here can be searing.

    In addition to what you said, Matt, about Depression convincing a person that he or she is unloved and unlovable, l will add from my experience this alternative: It can make love unreal, an illusion or merely a mechanism that the human specie contains in order to survive through the generations. Likewise, it can eliminate the concepts of personal being (one is more like a cog) and beauty. I never felt unloved or unlovable. I simply didn’t believe in love anymore. Oh, and spirituality was also unbelievable. There are likely other means of blocking love from being recognized or felt by the depressed person. Your point that love can be completely blocked, completely unavailable, to a person in depression is so important for understanding the condition.

    And on the effectiveness of love towards healing. I really appreciate your telling of how this does not cure and hinders a recovery if it is the only “treatment” taken. There is a vital contribution that love makes, however. Often a person in Depression isn’t gripped by it all of the time. There are moments when the person hopes that there is a way out. This is when love seeps in far enough to open the door of hope a little wider. Such hope can move a person to endure a little longer and maybe to accept help, medical help, for the Depression. And love is what generally moves friends or family to get the depressed person into an appointment with a counselor or doctor, when this is possible.

    Thank you, thank you for your words.

  21. Matt, This is probably the best thing I’ve ever read about depression. And I’ve seen plenty; my dad’s which ended badly, my mom’s which was always with us, and my own which thankfully in this age is very treatable. Thank you for sharing your story and your work publicly. “Curing Depression with love is like bailing out a boat with a sieve. It isn’t your fault.” This way of thinking about love in the face of depression is very helpful. I will keep this piece in a file close at hand.

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