Eating salad during a heart attack

Today was a particularly busy day for me, laden with layers of anxiety and prefaced by a restless sleep. So, as I sipped my jasmine tea this morning, I turned my thoughts to gratitude. I listed the things I was thankful for: the capacity to do the work required of me, a dedicated team of co-workers, helpful and understanding roommates, a fantastic new apartment to move into—I mentally moved through my schedule, thanking God for the aspects of my life that made each part of my day possible. And after just a few more tastes of tea, the miracle happened: I felt better. My stress level fell and my face slipped more naturally into a smile.

I have heard the benefits of gratitude touted by everyone from my mom to the Dalai Lama, and while I believed them, I often thought that maybe I just wasn’t grateful enough. Creating lists of things I was thankful for hasn’t really had an effect on my overall mood, except perhaps to make me feel guilty for feeling bad because look at all these things I have to be thankful for!!!! That is, until this morning.

I could think up a variety of theories to explain why my gratitude list was so helpful today, but a likely candidate is that my depression is the most under control I believe it has ever been in my adult life. Gratitude is often upheld as an important antidote to depression, and while I do believe it is a necessary practice, I don’t know how effective it is against a severe depressive episode.

Practicing gratitude might be a little like eating a nourishing salad—it is undoubtedly beneficial to your health, but it’s not going to do you much good when you’re having a heart attack. Sure, eating a salad during a heart attack probably isn’t going to make things worse, and most assuredly eating a diet rich in nutritious vegetables will contribute to your heart’s overall health. But when you are experiencing the acute distress of a heart attack, you need specialized medical attention before eating a salad will have a noticeable effect on your general wellbeing.

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Now that the acute distress of my severe depression has been lifted through a network of interventions, gratitude can take its full place as a meaningful practice to maintain my mental health. In moments of stress, being thankful releases my being’s innate healing capacity and connects me to God’s renewing presence. I’m glad I practiced gratitude in the midst of my hardest depression—you don’t stop eating salad just because you discover you have a blocked artery, after all. But I’m also delighted that, when my health is strong, being thankful can actually make a marked difference to my experience of the day.

So be ever thankful, my friends. But also be ever mindful of the webs of care you might need to hold you up and help you to flourish. If you’re having a heart attack, don’t beat yourself up because your salad consumption isn’t making a difference. Get the immediate help you need, and then keep eating all the salad you want.

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This, too, shall pass

I recently found myself in a bout of happiness.

It was the little-things brand of happiness: when you look at the evergreen outside, you smile. Instead of tiredly avoiding conversation, you get excited to see your friends and acquaintances. You accomplish something, maybe even something small like checking your email without falling down an internet rabbit hole, and you feel truly accomplished. A cup of tea warms more than your body. Soft socks feel soothing. A phone-call with your family leaves you grateful rather than homesick. You dance to music because you feel so good you need to move. You can’t stop smiling. And sometimes, you don’t need a reason at all – you are just happy.

But I’ve got the pronouns wrong – it’s me that’s been feeling this. don’t need a reason at all – I am just happy. What a gift. About halfway through the first day of my first “bout,” when I found myself smiling at the sun coming through my window and laughing because I was so relieved at how easy it was to smile, I said something that may, at first, seem counter-productive or a little cynical. “This, too, shall pass,” I told myself. “This won’t last forever.”

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Usually those are words I reserve for my heaviest moments, the ones that sit on my back and breathe down my neck, or the starkest moments, the ones that suck all the color out of the world and flatten it. “This, too, shall pass,” I say. To give myself hope. “This won’t last forever.” You will make it through to the other side.

But this impermanence is no less true of a smile than it is of a sigh. And while acknowledging that fact may sound defeatist or ungrateful, for me, it was just the opposite.

This, too, shall pass. So don’t worry about holding on and making it last forever. Simply receive the moment as a gift.

This, too, shall pass. Embrace this moment for all it’s worth because it only lasts for a heartbeat.

This, too, shall pass. Because all things pass. Because you are alive – a dynamic being. To live is to breathe in and out, to be happy, to be sad, to love, to hurt, to laugh, to sob, to embrace, to push away.

This, too, shall pass. You are not required to keep yourself locked in this one place, this one experience. You will feel sad again. And that does not mean you will have have failed. It simply means you are alive. You are not required to feel happy indefinitely.

English speakers have been attempting to sort out the difference between “happiness” and “joy” for as long as English has been a language. And people have sought to understand the concepts long before that. Is one a feeling and one a way of being?  Can you have joy without happiness? Happiness without joy? What does it mean to be joyful if you’re not happy? What does joy mean in the first place?

A few weeks ago I was at the Calvin Worship Symposium, attending a seminar called “Prophetic Lament” in which writers and pastors discussed the necessity of lament in our spiritual practices. One panel member, Danjuma Gibson, talked about the tendency to hurry out of spaces of grief and pain. “But I’m not sure that lament is the opposite of joy,” he said. “I see it as a particular embodiment of joy.” He went on to define joy as “the divine, eternal conviction that, no matter what, I am somebody in God’s creation.” For Gibson, joy is confidence in the existence of my relationship to the Creator and God’s good creation, the faith that I am alive and breathing and beloved. Lament, he said, when rooted in this conviction – this faith, this joy – is the choice to make my place in the world known and heard. Heard by God – and heard by myself.

Happiness, with this definition of joy, is actually not so different from lament. Happiness is also the choice to make my place in the world known and heard. Depression tends to take away my capacity to understand my place in the world and to lift up my voice in any kind of meaningful way. It numbs me. The lifting of depression opens my capacity for all kinds of feelings.

When both happiness and lament are rooted in joy, in the faith of my being beloved by God, I don’t have worry about the passing of any particular emotion. These, too, will pass, even as the conviction of my place in God’s creation remains the same. My bout of happiness did come to an end and was replaced with a gloomy, tired couple of days. But the gloomy days ended, too, and I am smiling at small things once again.

And this, too, will pass. But what a gift this being alive thing is.

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Two Daughters

A couple weeks ago, I preached a sermon at Reba Place Church, my spiritual home in Evanston, about the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter in Mark 5.  In my seminary studies, I read about a connection between this story and another tory of an unnamed daughter of an Israelite leader, Jephthah, in Judges 11.  Jephthah’s daughter is sacrificed because of her father’s hasty and unfaithful vow, and her cut-short life is honored by Israelite women for centuries.  In the book of Judges, her sacrifice represents the fallenness of Israel and the death-dealing forces at work in the world. 

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Jairus’ daughter is saved because of her father’s faith, and her resurrection prefigures Jesus’ own resurrection.  Her healing serves as a sign of Jesus’ power for life over those death-dealing forces that surround us and speak so loudly.  For me, brining these stories together helps me notice God at work in the lives of young women across the globe and throughout history, girls who have been expendable in the hands of power and vulnerable to the violence of our societies.  I also began to look deeper into the ways God is present in my own struggle for life over the power of death.  The audio for the full sermon is here, but below is an excerpt imagining the two unnamed daughters as one young woman who Jesus calls to life.   

After clearing away the mourners, Jesus walked into the room, and he took the young girl’s cold hand in his. He said to her her, “Talitha cum!” Young woman, get up! Daughter, arise! Death is knocking hard at the walls of your heart, and death is breathing down the back of your neck, but you are not dead, only sleeping.

Daughter, arise! Do you feel the light sliding across your eyelids? Do you notice how now, again, your chest rises and falls with the wind on the breath of God? Do you sense your blood flowing again, not pooling, but racing through your limbs and circling strength back into your bones? There is a balm in Gilead, and the leaves are crushed for the healing of your being.

Daughter, arise!  Death presses in from all sides; it blinds, it maims, it tears you apart. But it will never. Have. The last. Word. Whether the overwhelming weight presses from outside or the insidious shadows grow taller inside you, I always have the last word. There are forces that want to claim you as their own, that silence the loud beating of your heart and crush the strong stance of your feet, but I will not let them destroy the purpose I have called you to. My voice calls louder still.

Daughter, arise! I call you up! I name you as alive! I pull you to myself, and you are not alone. When I pull you up, you will stand. On your own two feet. And you will walk. The light in your eyes and the breath in your lungs and the blood in your veins will all work for a common cause: to move you in the dance I have set for you. You are un-paralyzed. You are re-enfleshed. You are healed for a purpose.

Daughter, arise! I am sorry that your need was faster than my arrival. But everything wrong will be made right. Everything dead will live. I will wipe every tear from your eye, and there will be no more fear. I cast out your fear when I called you my own. Daughter, arise, he told her. And he took her hand.

And she stood up.

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Born again yogurt

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The new batch with fresh blueberries

It was the smell that did it – the rich, sour, nascent yogurt smell, rising up from the bowl where I stirred the mixture gently.  The scent was surprisingly familiar and held in it all the many times I’d made yogurt in my previous yellow kitchen as well as all the many months it had been since I’d attempted the task.  But it wasn’t a reproachful smell – it might have even been hopeful.

When I first got my yogurt maker, I’d been delighted by the weekly work of turning soy milk into soy yogurt.  It left me feeling very accomplished.  And at that time, I desperately needed something that made me feel accomplished, like I was capable of something productive.  I was deep in the obscuring grey of depression, consumed by both apathy and mind-numbing panic.  Getting out of bed was a daily battle with every protesting molecule in my body, and fearful tears threatened to overwhelm each minute of the day.  I functioned, but only on a minimal level.  Medication eased some of the pain, but I still felt like I was standing on the edge of some endless and terrifying sheer drop.  Making yogurt was grounding and normal and gave me something to eat when my energy was sapped and I couldn’t even contemplate turning on a burner.

Then school began again, with its endless parade of books and papers and projects and meetings, and eventually I gave up yogurt making – I barely had the time and energy to eat anything at all. Every once in a while I’d see my neglected yogurt maker in its kitchen drawer and envision some new, bright day when I would feel well enough to use it again.

In April, the date that marked a year since the recurrence of my depression came and went.  I was still slogging slowly through the disease.  I was still on a yogurt hiatus.

This summer, things began to shift.  The why and how of my recovery from depression, which is still ongoing, is fodder enough for its own slew of posts – a myriad of things worked together to clear the fog.  And every experience entered with interested and strength has been one more mark of returning wholeness.

So this week, knowing I had extra soy milk in the refrigerator, I pulled out my yogurt maker from its new location in my new kitchen.  I opened the box, enjoying the clink of the jars against one another.  I measured out the soy milk and located my kitchen thermometer.  When the milk just started to boil, I poured it in into my great grandmother’s mint green ceramic bowl, and I completed chores as I waited for it to cool down to the proper fermenting temperature.  Then, when it measured just under 110 degrees, I poured the cooled milk into the yogurt starter.  And that’s when the smell began. It pulled me briefly from the present moment and returned me to frightened but determined moments in my old yellow kitchen.  But the present was strong and real, and I sniffed and stirred the mixture with contentment.  The sense of accomplishment that rose up came not simply from a need to prove my worth or my health but mostly from the joy of engaging in small tasks.  Every whiff of the yogurt and ting of glass said to me you made it; you are here.  You came through a hellish year and made it to the other side, made it far enough that now you can make yogurt – because you want to, because you have the energy to, because you can enjoy the smell of fermentation and the experience of feeding yourself.  And you even have the wherewithal to write about it later.

My journey to healing is far from complete, but the simple ritual of yogurt making, at once so familiar and so new, felt like a small practice of resurrection.