Overcoming Despair, Depression, and Buffalo Winters

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.      -Isaiah 40:28-31

This is the time of year when people are normally afflicted with a more deep sense of depression. Sometimes it’s called “cabin fever” or “Seasonal Affective Disorders.” Perhaps this winter in Western New York it is less severe because of its mildness. But whether it’s winter or summer human beings must deal with discouragement, despair, and depression.

Some folks believe depression is more severe in places like Buffalo because for one thing we don’t have many good hotels! Others might relate it to the losing records of our professional football and hockey teams. Some might cite the continuous decline in attendance at religious institutions. But in regard to the latter, this decline is quite common in Western democracies.

Earlier in the week I attended a two day clergy retreat the Clarion hotel in Dunkirk. The topic of the retreat was titled “The Pastor as Spiritual Director.” However the subtitle might have gone something like, “How can we stop the mass exodus from our congregations?” Much time was spent describing the continuous closing of congregations, the impending closing of seminaries, and a deep sense of depression and disillusionment among clergy leaders. Someone suggested that seminary graduations should include an honest commissioning for the few left to be titled, “A Charge to Close Churches!”

We were told the highest cost of Pension Board health plan benefits are now going toward treatment of psychological despair and dysfunction in clergy workers. Some of the ministers confided they were already taking antidepressants medications.

Discouragement, despair, and depression are as old as humanity itself. The Hebrew book of the Psalms is a book mainly of laments and songs of despair. Some of them are well known such as Psalm 22 in which the writer cries, “My God my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In Psalm 44 the writer laments among other things, “Why are you asleep, God?” Psalm 88 asks the question we so often ask ourselves, “Why have you cast us off? You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me, my companions are in darkness!” These and other descriptions of despair might actually bring comfort because they assure us that despair is as old as the humanity. Why?

Many reasons can be cited for universal despair but the one that makes the most sense to me is the acknowledgement we chose to come to this earthly journey. We chose to come here leaving our spiritual home of oneness with the Creator. We chose to leave eternity in order to enter this dimension of time and space. But having arrived into this place of separation, we discovered that much of the time here is existence in a hell of despair.

Most of us might not be aware that very many in the early church before the fourth century believed the true God did not create this world or the universe. It was created by a lesser God called the “Demiurge.” It comes from a Latin word meaning “Craftsman” and from the Platonic era carrying the idea of one who made the “material world” in contrast to the Highest Creator of the Spirit world. Some writers described it as the God of the Old Testament. The controversy was finally officially put to rest when in 325 C. E. “The Apostles Creed” was written under the orders of Emperor Constantine including the words, “God created heaven and earth.”

Many might not realize the book A Course in Miracles does not teach God created the physical world or universe. The earth and the universe are described as a “tiny mad idea” to which we, the thinkers, forgot to laugh and took it seriously! Thus the world in which we live within is our own making, our dream of being separated from our Source. The Course teaches this world is an illusion of reality. It’s always been a stressful concept for me to ponder, but over the years I can see it as a strong possibility. It helps put the manifold suffering and confusion of the world in another perspective.

One of the channels I occasionally watch is called the “Science Channel.” A few days ago I watched an hour narrated by the young English scientist Brian Cox in which he described the history of the universe. Its beginning, he pointed out, goes back 13.7 billion years when it all began with a “Big Bang!” The ending may not come for trillions of years but in the meantime, we can slip back into eternity, outside of the time/space dimension, by coming into the “now!” Neat.

Not long before I retired in 2009, a member of Wayside Church gave me an interesting article titled, The Biocentric Universe Theory: Life Creates Time, Space, and the Cosmos Itself written by scientist Robert Lanza with Bob Berman. (May 1, 2009 adapted from How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe, by Robert Lanza with Bob Berman, published by BenBella Books in May 2009). In this article the authors explain that without human perception we would have no universe! It follows the laws of sound arguments in which without a receiver, there is no sound. Thus without perception there could be no universe. I remember a scientist telling me years ago that the new quantum understanding “proves” we can change the moon by simply focusing our attention towards it. (Does this work with spouses also?!)

Such understandings draw one to Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Their deepest teachings teach the physical world as only an illusion of the unseen reality. They further say, as in The Eight Noble Truths, that all our misery is the result of our being attached to our perceptions of mortal forms.

How then does one escape the guilt and misery of living in this world? The teachings of Jesus taught the secret to peace, love and joy lies within our thinking. It is the choice one makes to search for completeness within the spiritual realm rather than in the outside material world. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is within you! Repentance is simply a word meaning to change one’s thinking. The Kingdom or the Presence of divinity is within us and around us as Spirit. By making this choice in faith and awareness, John writes in the gospel, “We are given the power to become the Sons of God!” (John 1:12, KJV)

To change our thinking to the realization everything we ever wanted is within us rather than outside, is like learning a new language. For those of us with a Calvinist tradition, it means moving from seeing our inward selves as basically sinful, bad and depraved to one with the blessed divine as our center selves. Over the past generation, as Eastern teachings continued to permeate our western, Christian culture, millions are pondering this more positive approach than the one which describes us as basically evil. We are also beginning to see this basic nature of the Christ self as taught in the Gospels. It was emphasized in the discovery in 1945 of 51 letters from the early church found in the Egyptian Nag-Hammadi documents.

In 1957, some Buddhist monks were told they had to relocate their monastery along a small road near Bangkok, Thailand. A new wider highway was coming to the growing city. The monks hired a crane to lift a large clay Buddha statute from the temple onto a truck but as it was lifted, it began to crack open. The chief monk ordered it to be set back on the ground for the night, fearing it had been ruined. During the night it rained and when the monks returned in the morning, they noticed near the crack bright gold shining through. When they looked more closely and began to scrape away dark clay, they discovered the clay Buddha was actually made as a large gold statute hundreds of years before!

Historians believe several hundred years before the Burmese army was about to invade Thailand, then called “Siam.” The Siamese monks, realizing the coming attack, covered their precious golden Buddha with an outer covering of dark clay in order to keep their treasure from being looted. Unfortunately the Burmese slaughtered all the Siamese monks and the well-kept secret of the golden Buddha remained intact until the fateful day in 1957! (http://www.inspirationalstories.com/8/855.html)

Inside each of us is a “Golden Buddha” waiting to be uncovered by a change of our thinking. It is the Presence of the Christ in us, the holy Divine Center, Jesus, Spirit, or whatever you want to name it. Finding it and begin to ponder and meditate upon this Love will begin to lift your despair today and each day as you find yourself overwhelmed with the mortality and sadness of this world.

Therefore, as we were reminded at the clergy retreat, the generation in which we now live is drawn toward this approach. People are not as concerned with creeds, rules and structures as they are with the experience of inward peace. They’re not as interested in seeking it outside themselves as they are in seeking it within.

According to government statistics everyone in this country, and we could add the whole world, is afflicted with depression. Yet more and more we are being told the cure cannot be found in simply taking anti-depressant drugs but in changing our thinking. In the eighties and nineties there was great excitement about the creation of new antidepressant drugs. However studies since then have shown these drugs over time do nothing but suppress the negative thinking and often leave many individuals with life-threatening side effects. (One example is: “Healing Depression Safely Without Antidepressants” by Bob Murray, PhD and Alicia Fortinberry, MS, September 2002 in Wellbeing Magazine.)

Therefore, if you wish to make gains against the sense of despair and depression, begin to practice the change of negative, self-defeating thinking. Learn the art of practicing meditation, sitting quietly each day and going inward listening for the voice of peace. Find and gather yourself together with a group of people practicing such positive inward looking. Today this could be one of the most important groups and functions of a religious group.

Further, practice what we meditate and pray for when together; forgiveness! It’s the ultimate test of whether or not we have remembered our “inward golden Buddha!” As we forgive ourselves our debts, sins, and errors, we thus practice forgiveness of others. We seek to grow in not taking insults, attacks, and criticisms personally. It’s a hard road for some of us, but through disciplined learning and memory and practice, we can learn it.

At the retreat, the Interim Pastor from the Presbyterian Church in Silver Creek, Rev. Thomas Burian, a native of Hungary, told the story of a nearby food market he often shops in. He was warned to never check out with a certain clerk; “She is just a mean person!” So he went to the store to shop and made sure he checked out where the “mean person” was working. He made every effort to be especially kind and forgiving to her. When she made negative comments he sought to reply with quiet assurance. He repeated this pattern for several visits. On one such visit when the clerk seemed especially mean and negative, he again spoke words of kindness and compassion to her. Suddenly this “mean person” broke down and sobbed profusely. She told him, “I don’t deserve to be treated with such kindness and compassion!” Yes, recognizing the presence of the divine within ourselves, and practicing random acts of kindness and compassion, not only brings uplifting joy to our own hearts but forgiveness and peace to those around us.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God and the creator of the ends of the earth. It is not faint row grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:28 – 31)


Reflections offered at the 1st Presbyterian Church of West Seneca, NY by Rev. David G. Persons, February 5, 2012

About David Persons

Retired minister who still writes, speaks some, hikes less, and golfs.
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