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Making the Church a Safe Place

In most churches, we feel we must put on a fake happy face when we walk through the doors. Are you as tired of that as I am? Pastor Ryan Paulson is too. Today I share a sermon he recently preached about depression and suicide and making the church a safe place for everyone. The sermon lasted 50 minutes. I share a portion of it here.

This sermon series was entitled Hills and Valleys, and was about the highs and lows the prophet Elijah experienced. First, Pastor Ryan talked about the highs Elijah experienced . . .

What do you do after you’ve been miraculously fed by ravens; they’ve brought you little cakes in the desert?  In a middle of a drought, you had a brook that gave you enough to drink.  You saw oil and flour not run out; miraculously multiplied over and over and over again; God’s provision that’s unmistakable.  You saw somebody raised from the dead, because you prayed and laid down on this young boy and he came back to life.  Then you stand on Mount Carmel and you call down fire from heaven and it comes down.  {Quick survey—How many of you have down ANY of those things?}  What do you do after that?  After that scorched earth is still breathing up the remnant of that fire, where you see these prophets that are slaughtered in this valley.  I mean, this is when, if you’re Elijah, you have people hoist you up on their shoulders and carry you down the mountain, right?  This is where you cue the confetti for the Super Bowl parade.  This is where there’s high fives and there’s no going back.  This is where you beat your chest and go, “That’s my God!” 

Then he talked about the lows Elijah experienced . . .

Only that’s not what happened!  As high as Elijah was on that hill, he drops almost immediately to the valley.

1 Kings 19.  We’re going to see more of the human, frail side of Elijah this morning.  I think maybe we can relate to that side of him a little bit better than we can relate to the side that calls fire from heaven and sees it happen. 

Verse 3 — Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.  {Wait! What??! You just saw God call down fire from heaven, dude.}  When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness.  He came to a broom brush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die.  “I have had enough, Lord,” he said.  “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”    I’ve had enough!  Have you ever been in that place?  I’ve just had enough.  I’ve had enough of the pain.  I’ve had enough of the doubt.  I’ve had enough of the questions.  I’ve had enough of the cloud that just seems to sit there.   God, I’ve had enough.  And yet, this is one of the prophets of Israel, this is one of the heroes of the faith.  One of the people we look to and go, “We should be more like Elijah.”  And what he says in this text is I’d rather die.  God, just come kill me now.  As much as he’s been on the mountain and he’s seen God work, now he’s in the valley of the shadow of death.

For some of us, there may be some cognitive dissonance there, because maybe we grew up in a church culture that said, “Well, faith is like the magic blue pill and when you take it, every one of your troubles goes away.”  If you’re depressed, if you’re upset, well all that means is you’re just not trusting Jesus enough.  Here’s what happens then—We start to play this game with ourselves where we believe the people in the Bible were sort of different from us.   If we do struggle with things like depression; if we struggle with things like suicidal ideation; if we’ve walked through, or are walking through, the valley of the shadow of death, this becomes an unsafe place to talk about it.  The place where we should find hope, we can’t because we’re unwilling to share the deepest parts of our pain and the deepest parts of ourselves.  I want you to hear as clearly as I can say it this morning, all throughout the Scriptures, we see people who are faithful followers of God struggling with mental health issues.  We see people all throughout the Scriptures who see God move mightily, and then say, “God, I don’t even want to live anymore.”  See Jonah (4:3) for example.  See David (2 Samuel 12:15-23) for example.  See the Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 1:8) for example.  After his ministry in Asia, he says:  We were under great pressure, {life was so hard there} far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 

It breaks my heart that somehow, some way, over the course of time, the church has become an unsafe place to say, “I’m not okay.”  I read a blog, this week, entitled “Proverbs and Prozac.”  This woman writes about her journey and says: “I joined a Bible study group at church.  The leader was an older, well-respected long-time member of the church.  When the topic of depression came up, her response was,

‘If you are truly a Christian, you should never be depressed.’ NOT TRUE! Tweet This

‘You have no need for antidepressants, you have Jesus.’  With comments and attitudes like that, is it any wonder we put on our church masks on Sunday mornings?  We end up keeping secrets; fearing we will be judged ‘not good enough’ or even ‘not a real Christian.’

I think we’ve gotten this wrong!  Somehow we’ve said that in order to be a follower of Jesus, you’ve got to have it all together.  The only problem with that is the people who told us about Jesus didn’t have it all together.  So I just want you to know, if you’re here today and you struggle with mental illness, if you’ve wrestled through depression, if you’ve even had thoughts of taking your own life, I want you to know, we see you.  This is a safe place.  We’re for you.  We love you.  You do not have to have it all together to be welcomed here. 

It’s okay to not be okay. Tweet This

I know for some of you it was a struggle just to get out of bed this morning.  To get your clothes on.  To put one foot in front of the other.  To decide I’m going to go after it again.  I know for some of you, walking in the doors of a place like this just raises your fear, raises your anxiety, your heart beats fast the entire time you’re in here.  I just want you to know, I’m proud of you.  Good job!  We see you.  We love you.  We care about you.  It’s a safe place to not be okay.

One of the greatest preachers the church has ever known, Charles Spurgeon, very publicly wrestled with depression.  Here’s what he wrote:  “Fits of depression come over the most of us.  Usually cheerful as we may be, we are at intervals cast down.  The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy.”   It happens to a lot of us.  The latest statistics would suggest that somewhere between 15-20% of adults in America struggle with, or will struggle with, depression of some sort.  There’s a number of different reasons for that, but if you hear nothing else from me today, please hear me say that there’s no simple answer for depression.  There’s no simple ‘this is why.’  It’s way more complicated than that.

Oftentimes, depression leads to this gloom, this sadness, this type of feeling of doom, where we don’t see any way out.  Just like Elijah, there’s people who’ve said, “I’ve had enough.”  Instead of saying to God, “Take my life,” they’ve taken their own.  Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in America today.  But listen to this, it’s the LEADING cause for death of people ages 10-24.  Let that sit on us for a second, you guys.  For our middle schoolers and our high schoolers and our college students, the leading cause for death amongst ages 10-24 is suicide. You guys, this is an epidemic!  If it doesn’t break our hearts as the church, then we’re not adequately valuing the image of God that he’s placed in every single human being that walks the face of this earth.

We’ve got to enter into that pain a little bit this morning.  I feel that God has sent me on a mission.  One is to break the silence.  To say that as a church, these are things we’re going to talk about, we need to talk about.  We cannot be silent on one of the most important issues of our day, and our time, and we will not be.  The first is to break the silence.  The second is to bring hope.  I am convinced that God has designed us for life and life abundant.  That’s not easy, but it’s possible.  If you feel like you’re at the end of your rope today, I can’t say how glad I am that you’re here.  I know my words can’t change anybody, but I believe that the Spirit of God is living and active and at work in this place today, and I’m praying that you get a word of hope today. 

What the Scriptures are going to show us through Elijah’s life and struggle with depression and suicidal ideation is this:  We are holistic beings.  We’re physical, spiritual, emotional, cognitive beings.  And it all matters!  We’ve got to learn how to fight for our wholeness.  I’m so glad we’re a church that hosts things like Celebrate Recovery.  We’ve said this is so important to us.  And it is as a church.  That we have counseling available for people.  That we have mentoring.  I’m so glad that we’ve said we want to be a church that teaches people how to fight for their wholeness, for their life, for their vitality.

Pastor Ryan, I am so glad our church is a place we can be real, that we value all people, not just those that look good on the outside. Thank you for talking about a subject that is often taboo in churches. Thank you for opening your doors to the broken, because all of us are broken in some way or another. It is true that many churches are not safe places. This is because it is full of sinners. Thankfully, God opens his arms to us. Psalm 34:18 says:

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted.

If you have found churches and Christians to not be safe, I pray you will keep searching.

May God bless you all,

Caroline

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