I have written before about the story of Elijah and depression. When I saw that we had that reading from 1 Kings 19 today about the day Elijah hit rock bottom I decided that I needed to speak about depression in my sermon today. 1 in 4 people will have a mental health problem in a given year – this means that a quarter of the people in my pews could be struggling with mental health on any given Sunday. And yet, when did you last hear a sermon that talked about it? The church should be very good at supporting people who are depressed but we have a really bad track record.
Just today my friend Dave Bambrough (who illustrated my book) posted this fab cartoon:
Today’s sermon was my little attempt to redress the fact that the church has more often got it wrong, here it is below:
Pull yourself together. If you just had faith you would be all right. What have you got to be depressed about – you have a great life! Chin up! Cheer up love, might never happen!
These are all what not to say to someone experiencing depression – I’m sure most of you have heard those phrases before, maybe you’ve said them once or twice. Mental Health problems affect 1 in 4 people – it’s one of the last great taboos in our society – slowly but surely, we’re getting a bit better at talking about mental health. I’ll never forget the contrast a close friend experienced between having breast cancer and having depression. When she had breast cancer people visited lots, rang her up for a chat, brought her food and generally surrounded her with love. A while after she recovered from breast cancer she had a period of severe depression that lasted about a year. Her friends just didn’t know how to support her, she wasn’t surrounded by even half of the love and affection that she was when she was experiencing cancer – and yet both conditions were pretty life limiting.
For some reason depression and mental health issues are considered less serious than physical illness – but for those experiencing them, they can be just as bad or in some cases even worse – mental health is often invisible and therefore people just don’t believe it’s real – and so you get unhelpful comments from people to ‘snap out of it’!
Believe it or not, the Old Testament reading we heard today teaches us something about mental health and how to approach it.
Now I need to just give you a bit of background to the story. Elijah is a prophet, one of the few true Israelites left living under the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel (yes, that Jezebel!) The people in his country are worshipping Baal. Elijah is trying to get people to worship the one true God. Baal is a god of fire and so Elijah sets up a test to see which god is real – Baal or the God of Israel. He meets with 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and they build two altars with a sacrificial offering on them. The devotees of Baal go first, praying for hours for fire to rain down on their altar. Nothing happens. Then Elijah prays and fire consumes his altar immediately. He has conclusive proof that the God of Israel is the one true God. This has to be the pinnacle of his career – a real high, right there on the mountaintop. Soon after, the evil Queen Jezebel hears of his defeat of the prophets of Baal and says she will hunt Elijah down and kill him. So he runs, as fast as he can away from Mount Carmel and his pursuers. And that is when we come to the reading we heard today, arriving in the wilderness, exhausted, Elijah sits down under a broom tree and decides he’s had enough. He wishes he was dead. He hits absolute rock bottom. All this despite the fact that he must have been on a real high immediately after defeating the 450 prophets of Baal, knowing for sure that God is on his side and that his God is all powerful.
You can imagine what some people might say to him as he is slumped by the tree in the wilderness: ‘what have you got to be depressed about?’ ‘God’s just shown you he’s real by answering your prayer, why do you want to give up now?’
And yet there he is, he tells God he’s ready to die and falls asleep under the tree.
None of us know when depression might hit, it can come at any time and even if outwardly our life looks very good, depression doesn’t discriminate.
I think there are 3 things we can learn from the way God responds to Elijah that might help us to help those suffering from depression.
Firstly, God sends an angel to provide warm food and cold water for Elijah. His basic physical needs are dealt with. If the angel was English I think it would have made him a cup of tea! A cup of tea and a slice of cake or piece of toast can really help – taking a friend out for this or taking round a cake can be a great way of showing love and support for someone who is depressed. No words, just a kind gesture. Notice too that the angel touches Elijah. Touch is very powerful, Jesus understood that too. In situations like this a gently held hand or a hug says far more than any words.
Secondly, the angel from God encourages Elijah to move and pushes him to eat more so that he will have strength for the journey ahead. Sometimes when we’re depressed we can feel really stuck. It helps to be taken out for the day – perhaps ask if your friend would like a quick trip to the shops or to join you as you walk your dog. Getting out and having a bit of gentle exercise can really help.
The third thing is to allow your friend to share their story. Elijah pours his heart out to God and God listens without judgement. God doesn’t say ‘don’t be ridiculous, you can’t die I just helped you defeat the prophets of Baal’. God lets Elijah get angry and share his anger with him. I find it so tempting to want to fix people’s problems when they share things with me but I have learnt over the years that it is better to listen and just be present and share in the person’s suffering than attempt to explain things away. This is what I have learnt from how Jesus dealt with people but also how God deals with Elijah in this story today.
Jesus in our Gospel reading today says ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven, I will raise them up on the last day’. Just as the angel provides bread to Elijah and lifts him up out of his depression, Jesus comes to us and gives us living bread. He takes us by the hand and raises us up.
When you think of Elijah, you perhaps think of one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament – he is often pictured together with Moses. After today, when you think of Elijah, remember that he knew what it was like to hit rock bottom and that his God and our God, lifted him up out of the pit and gave him a new purpose in life, he experienced resurrection, may we experience it too and as we come and receive communion today, the life giving bread and wine, may we pray for all those suffering from mental health problems that they might know that God is with them, present in that suffering and that they will be raised up with Jesus. Amen.