1 Corinthians 13:1-13
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 to 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.
Rev. Matt Gaventa is senior pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, and previously served as pastor to Amherst Presbyterian Church in Amherst, Virginia, and as chaplain to Sweet Briar College. Matt is an acclaimed writer and preacher whose work has been featured in Working Preacher and in The Christian Century, for whom he co-hosts the podcast Sunday Morning Matinee. Matt sits on the Board of Directors of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, and on the Advisory Boards of Day1 and of The Church Lab. Matt holds degrees from Georgetown University, the University of Iowa, and Princeton Theological Seminary, and is the is the 2012 recipient of the David H.C. Read Preacher/Scholar Award from Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. He currently lives in Austin with his wife Sarah and their son Charlie.