Night of Despair

Hi Friends, this is Pastor Kathy. Find a recorded video of this sermon here.

First, a Content Warning: Please be advised that this message contains references to depression and death by suicide. So, if you need to take a break, know that this will still be here when you are ready.

You are loved. 

If you hear nothing else in this sermon. Hear this. You. Are. Loved.

This is a Good Friday Message. You might be reading this on the calendar date of Good Friday, or you might be in your own Good Friday season. I hope this message finds you when you need it. 

On Good Friday we mark Jesus’s death by crucifixion on the cross. Jesus hung to death on a tree by the state. We grieve Christ’s death, we wait this evening and all tomorrow and into the late watches of Saturday night, waiting for Christ to break the chains of death, emerge from his borrowed tomb, and call his friends by name in the garden. 

But we are not there yet. Today, we sit in lament. 

Today we hear Christ call from the cross, 

“‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, 

‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matthew 27:46/Psalm 22:1) 

As Christ calls out, quoting the words of a Psalm as he is about to die, we hear the human despair that even God can hold. 

And so Jesus dies, crucified with bandits, left in agony and suspended under the sky. 

Jesus descends to death. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is not the only one who dies on Good Friday. 

So does Judas. 

Judas, who betrays Jesus with a kiss.

Judas, who sells out his friend for a bag of 30 silver pieces.

Judas, who sits and eats at the table that becomes the institution of the Lord’s Supper, only to leave into the falling night to deliver his friend into death. 

Judas. 

We read, in Matthew:

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 

He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” 

But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 

Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. 

Matthew 27:3-5 NRSV

The Word of the Lord.

Ok. There have been a bunch of different ways of interpreting Judas’s death by suicide. 

For that matter, there are a lot of different ways of seeing death by suicide. And I want to tread carefully here. Because across church history, especially, we’ve had multiple different ways of understanding death, grace, forgiveness, repentance, punishment, and atonement. Each of these ideas alone are huge in themselves. And so I want to tenderly hold this conversation, and put forth some questions, some ideas, and some hope. 

I don’t offer definitive statements, only wonder. 

And for that, I think I need to step back to speak to the looming issue of death by suicide itself, and the underlying despair that surrounds it. 

Because if we’re talking about a particular death by suicide, one that is recounted in the Gospel, then where is that good news? 

And if we are talking about death by suicide, we need to talk about depression, because we don’t talk about it enough. 

So, I wanna talk about depression. 

Depression is an illness. It’s a mental illness. But using the word mental does not mean that it is just in one’s head. It’s an illness that can affect the whole body. It’s not something one can just “happy” their way out of. It’s not a sin, and it’s not a moral failure. It’s a condition. And it’s treatable like many medical conditions with medication, with addressing underlying causes, and counseling or therapy. 

But something that makes depression so difficult to deal with is it’s elusive nature.

High blood pressure or an elevated A1C count are markable conditions that have evidence based treatments, that can be monitored with looking at numbers. Not that treating an elevated A1C count is simple, or easy, but at least it is measurable. 

Depression is… not.

Not in the same way. 

Depression, even though it is not something that is not just in your head, is still often incredibly subjective. 

Often dependent on the ability of the person who is suffering to adequately name their needs, in a condition that often leads the individual suffering to deny that their needs are relevant. 

This is one of the lies that depression loves to perpetuate. Depression often lies about the person’s worth, validity, or purpose. 

It’s why the downward spiral is so dangerous, because as the person who suffers falls deeper into the unbearable weight of nothingness, the nothingness weighs ever more heavy. 

Depression can be different for many different people, and if you or someone you care about is spiraling down into the depths, where one feels forsaken, even by God, please get help. There is information about how to access help in the video description. 

Depression lies. Depression can tell the lie that the hurt will never end. That the depths are inescapable. That the downward spiral has no way up. 

Depression can lead to despair. 

And despair, in the context of depression and other forms of mental illness, can lead to considerations of how to end the unfathomable pain. 

Which can lead to death by suicide. 

Which is a tragedy. A loss. 

But is not the fault of the one who dies. 

Or of the family of the one who dies. Or the friends. 

Death by suicide is a symptom 

of the brokenness of the world. 

I want to bring us back to Judas and Jesus. 

Judas betrays Jesus. We are clear there. 

Judas had believed the lies that the religious leaders murmured about Jesus.

But then, there’s this odd little bit in the middle of Jesus’ passion story, the story of Jesus’ death, with the focus not on Jesus and the events of his trial and crucification, but of the betrayer and what happens to him. 

Something happens as Judas sees his friend condemned to death. The bag of coins grows heavy in his hands. 

Judas returns to the chief priests and elders with his payment, his compensation for his betrayal. 

This heaviness leads him to repent, and throw the coins to the floor of the temple. 

Judas realizes he has sinned, and he turns away in despair. 

And he goes, and dies hanging. 

And we don’t know what happens. 

But. The unknowing of what happens opens the possibilities of what could happen. [Barth CD II.2 476]

Because here’s the thing. Even in this, grace is possible. 

Folks in the church throughout history have wondered if Jesus and Judas meet in death when they both die that friday afternoon. 

Jesus died. 

And in dying, Jesus meets us in death. 

Even in death by suicide. 

Jesus holds the keys of death. (Revelation 1:18)

All is not lost.

God’s Grace is greater than death. 

Even in death by suicide. Especially in Death by suicide.

God’s love stretches out across time and space, through death and into life. 

And Christ, dying on the cross on Good Friday, crying out in despair, “God! Why have you forsaken me?!” holds all that we have cried out in our own despairing seasons. 

Judas, in his confession of the innocence of Jesus, testifies to the truth of Christ’s identity, even in the midst of the lies of the religious leaders. 

And even as Judas crashes into the depths of despair, and dies in the same afternoon as his friend, whose death he facilitated, God’s love is greater than this. 

I don’t know what happened to Judas. I don’t think we can know. 

But I do know that Jesus’ love is greater than death. Even death by suicide. 

Jesus’ love is so deep that Jesus washed Judas’s feet on the night of the betrayal. Jesus served and shared a meal with him as friends. 

I know that God’s grace pursues us through our deepest spirals of despair.

I know that Hope does not depend on what lies depression yearns to weave as it works to convince us of our own worthlessness. 

You are worthy of love. Not by your own merit. We don’t earn this love. But we are loved all the same, by the one who creates us and calls us into being. 

As a community, God calls us to hold each other together, so that when the lies of depression begin to ring loudly in the ears of those who despair, the call of the community sharing the love of Jesus sounds louder still. But even when the call is lost, God’s love continues. 

For some of us, there will be days where it seems that hope is lost. 

Where it feels like there is nothing to do but escape. 

If you or someone you love has felt this lost, even to the point of considering death by suicide, know that God’s grace is deeper than the depths of your despair. 

Even there, God’s grace, hope, and love are waiting, down in the depths of the valley of the shadow of death. 

Death is not final. 

Love is.

Love holds the whole world in outstretched arms.

Love holds hope and hopelessness. 

Love holds joy and despair. 

Love does not shrink from our big feelings.

Even despair, depression, or death by suicide. 

Love holds even those who die alone. 

God is not afraid of finding us, of loving us, even if it is when we meet in death. God weeps with us. 

Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross, cried out in despair, descended to death, and holds the keys of hell. Death is not the end. 

Love holds the whole world in outstretched arms.

And that means, you, too. You are loved. 

God loves you, I love you. We love you. Jesus loves you. 

God holds you with love that reaches past all boundaries. 

God’s grace extends as an invitation to us all. 

You are loved. 

God loves you.

Can you pray with me? 

God of Grace and Mercy, your love is deeper than the depths of despair, and your grace extends into death itself. Be with those who are in the valley of the shadow of death, who despair of your presence. Be with them in the quiet watches of the night, and in the unflinching glare of the day. Make your presence known, embrace them with your love, and surround them with people who will support them and share a love louder than the lies of depression. In your wisdom, draw us close to Jesus, who died so that we might have life in the power of the Holy Spirit. All these things we pray in Jesus name,  Amen. 

If you or a loved one is in crisis, please call the crisis prevention hotline at 988

Depression lies. You can get help. 

We love you, God loves you, and we are glad you are here.

Peace be with y’all. Good bye. 

Not Knowing

It’s the not knowing. 

Sure, I’ve had two negative rapid tests… But I felt like I was drowning.

For that matter, all the tests I’ve had, ever, have been negative. But I still wonder if I have been sick with Covid, especially since we are still just calling it, “It.” (Except for that test the Red Cross did on my donation, but it maybe only proved that I had my vaccinations. I’m not sure?)

Like, “Have you had it?” “Do you think you have it?”

I spent five days in bed this past week. And lost my voice. And have a cough and really just feel… meh. But the tests are negative. 

But I still will honor my community and not go out into it. Just in case. 

But not enough to keep my kids out of school. Or from harvesting from the garden. 

Or getting work done when I can. 

At some point, one of these days, sometimes I just wish that I’d have a positive test, just to validate how poorly I feel. No, I don’t want to deal with the hassle of figuring out the current protocols, even those that are not nearly enough to keep our community safe. But, really, I’d just like to be able to point to myself and say, see, even I have had covid, for sure, and I can tell you that we should be doing everything in our power to keep it from spreading. 

I want that permission.

Would that make it so that people would listen? 

Would it legitimate what I am trying to say every day anyway?

No, I don’t want covid. 

No, I don’t want you to have covid. 

No, I don’t want to deal with it anymore. 

No, I don’t want to be afraid.

Yes, I am tired. 

Yes, I am being careful.

Yes, I am tired of being careful.

Yes, I wish it was over.

But honestly. Wishful thinking has gotten us into this current mess, so really, I’m tired of that, too. 

There’s no winning this pandemic. 

It’s not something to win. It’s something that we can work to survive. 

Not all of us will see it to the other side. 

More of us can, if we work together. 

I’m doing what I can… resting… and hoping that my cough is gone enough so I can return to church and actually make it to worship this year. 

Because yeah, that’s part of it. 

Do I want to do a third rapid test? 

I don’t want to bother with a PCR right now, because do my symptoms matter? Does the timing?

I want someone to study current cold symptoms for folks who have had covid… do their symptoms change based on a history of covid?

Because I remember losing my voice, and losing my hearing… and even coughing.

But I don’t remember this drowning feeling, where meds keep me from feeling like I’m filling up with gunk, but only just. 

I want a set of breakthrough symptoms, and to know whether a fever is common… and why I only ever seem to have a fever when I am about to give blood. 

For real though. I’d like some more answers… and fewer open gaps in what I know. 

Because I feel like I have been able to keep pretty abreast of the knowledge that is available… and simply not enough is, these days. 

What If vs What Now

Nineteen days. 

Two Saturdays ago I was walking across the grass towards my elder daughter’s soccer field and noticed a little prick of pain on my foot and by the time I sat down on our blanket I had red splotches and streaks in three or four places on my feet. I took my shoes off and noticed a couple of ants in the footbed… It was fire ants. I confirmed it when we got back to the car, and saw that our parking trestle was the center of a line of ant beds. Great. 

I got on a plane two hours later, so I didn’t really get a chance to do any first aid, or really even notice my feet as I was going through security and making sure that my bags all fit under my seat. But by that evening, waiting for my cousin, I kept noticing that, yes, I needed something to take the edge off of the pain. 

They kept me from sleeping soundly the whole time I was out of town, sleeping in a comfortable yet strange bed, with family I had’t seen in three years. 

I checked the internet, and it said that fire ant bites last four to ten days. I made sure to treat them with allergy meds and inflammation meds, and I didn’t scratch them, or pop them, or anything. But finally, I decided to put some bandages on them, but I couldn’t tell if that was helping or not, and still they haven’t healed. 

All five of my bites, one on one foot, four on the other, still are angry, red, unhealed. Nineteen days later. I mean, they don’t hurt anymore. They don’t itch. But, I’d been hoping they’d heal faster. 

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? 

Healing takes a while. 

Maybe WebMD only meant when they’d stop hurting, or itching. 

The internet has no clue how long it takes for my scars to heal. 

And so now I’m wondering if I should have put bandages on them earlier, or if I could have used ice on them (but when, who knows) or if I should have been wearing socks or if I could have avoided them altogether if I’d noticed the ant beds under our car as I was watching the busy parking lot as our kids got out to go across two lines of traffic…

There are a lot of what-ifs, I suppose. 

Maybe I should think about a what now. 

I mean. This is about covid, right? (I actually do have 19 day old ant bites… but) this is about covid. And little things adding up. And how we have so many what-ifs swirling around us… that now I really want us to switch to a what now. It’s not really helpful to say that we didn’t realize we’d be in whatever situation we find ourselves in. It’s not helpful for me, at least, unless it is to create space for grace in the situation. (Because, well… some of us did imagine that we’d still be wearing masks two years in. I did.)

And so, now: what now? 

We get our kids their shots, we get the boosters for folks who are with the kids, and those at risk, and we do what needs to be done so that our community is safe, so that our people are cared for, so that we can work together to do together what we need together so that we will be together as we live together. 

And it might be small. And it might be annoying. And it might last far longer than we ever expected. And the solutions now might not be what we do later…

But we don’t let the what-ifs overtake the what-now.

What do we need to do, now?

Isolation is an Elusive Mirror

Can you come up close to it and glance in without being afraid? Where do you go to be alone, can you? Is there a place to be alone but not lonely? How will you wait, or pause, or catch up with the time alone, in isolation, so you can see yourself in the glance of it, that the reflection looks back at you? Are you shifted in it? 

The object, perceived, changes and cannot be the same as observed as in motion. 

Who do you become when you are alone? How are you the same when you return? Can you know yourself as you are alone, and when you are with others do you recognize her? 

Isolation is an elusive mirror. 

When it shatters, what do you do with the pieces? Will they dissolve, or fall into dust, or cut deep into the flesh that seeks to be perceived? 

Is this still in only one place, concrete, defined, particular? Or do you journey to the next way house, a lean-to of rough shelter and mice in the attic, seeking the next reflection down the trail? Where will you be restored, supplied, sustenanced so that you can continue on your way? Did you pack enough apples for your journey? Did they freeze in the night? 

What will be left of you when you return? 

Where will you find the ones who wish to recognize you? Will they be at what used to be home? Or will the new place where you find yourself be the place where family is found? 

This prose poem is inspired by Metaphor dice. (Not an affiliate Link)

Nets and Bugs and Shots

When I was getting ready to move to Kenya, I didn’t know what it was going to be like. I’d been to different parts of Latin America, slept on the floor of a church an hour up a dirt road off of the pan-american highway, eaten guinea-pig from a roadside stand with classmates in a charter bus, and still I didn’t know what I was getting in to. 

I was most worried about the “bathroom” situation and the bugs. In my first week at training I had a massive GI bug, and so leapt the hurdle of pit latrines quickly and it simply became part of the landscape—really built up that quad strength.

But the bug thing. 

It was still a thing.

I’ve always been a sweet enticement to mosquitoes. 

One night while visiting family in Cocoa we went to go watch a launch at Cape Canaveral, standing on the side of the road looking across the Indian River, swatting the bugs that were pleased at the feast presented to them. The launch was scrubbed, for whatever reason, but my legs the next morning were a polka-dot compilation of pain and irritable scratchiness. My mom carefully put cream on each bite, counting as we went, and crossed fifty before we were done. 

Mosquitoes love me.

So of course, the Peace Corps medical machine sends me to sub-saharan africa, where mosquitoes seek out everyone every night. And these particular mosquitoes carry malaria with them. 

As we prepare to ship out in the midst of staging, every peace corps volunteer is given the baseline malaria prophylaxis. In 2006, when I began service, that medication was mefloquine, a noxious weekly medication that dropped my ability to sleep down to four hour segments on the first two nights after my dose, made me see things that weren’t there, and has a history of inciting suicidal ideation. This is the medication that was given to US military in malaria prone areas at the time as well. I don’t know current practices. It was cheap, and we’re volunteers. 

Every volunteer was also given a bug net for their homestay. Volunteers were hosted, in Kenya at least, in homes of host country nationals, because training is scheduled during the local school term, so the families who have children away at boarding school have a bedroom available for the forty or so volunteers in training at the time. (It’s a great idea, actually, drop your volunteers into a home and have them deal with culture shock in the middle of training, because then you still have friends around and staff that can help you navigate this wholly new thing.)

So during training I learned more about malaria. 

In South Georgia, mosquitoes are active all the time. It doesn’t matter when it is, you can get bitten. Sure, they might be happier and buzzier and swarmier at night, but any time of day is a good time of day for some tasty blood snacks. 

In Kenya, the mosquitoes that carry malaria are active at night. 

For volunteers, they are a nuisance. 

For the families we stayed with, and the families we later worked with, they are a danger. 

The denizens of Kenya, the refugees and the folks who live in the bush and the majority of all of the residents who call sub-saharan africa their home, don’t take a regular medication to prevent malaria. It’s a problem of access and longevity and cost and risk/benefit and a hundred other things. 

Instead, they sleep under nets. Everyone sleeps under a net, unless you are in a climate controlled building like a hotel or an embassy building or a movie theater. I can count on two hands the number of times I was in a climate controlled space in Kenya. 

Mothers and their children under five are given insecticide treated nets, where they share a bed and sleep, hoping there is not a new hole in the net and that the insecticide lasts long enough to stave off the next bite that could make them sick enough to threaten their life. 

Because that’s the thing, malaria for children age five and under can be deadly. Yes, there is a treatment medication that was brand new when I was in Kenya, fifteen years ago, but it’s in pill form and I don’t know about you but have you tried to get a kid to swallow a pill recently? And anyway, it’s only available at dispensaries and hospitals and its difficult to get to those quickly, or at all. 

In 2006 seven to nine hundred thousand people died from malaria, 90% of those in subsaharan africa, and two thirds of the people who died were five and under. That number was better this past year, dropping to half a million, but that’s still too many

And so, it was with great joy that I heard this week that a malaria vaccine was approved by the WHO. This is huge. It’s not perfect, requiring four injections over two years, and only 30-40% effective at preventing symptomatic disease…

Which, when one is traveling by motorbike with a cooler strapped to the seat behind you, hoping that the families that were there six months ago are there again and have their cards with them so that their vaccine schedule is up to date… it’s a lot. 

But it’s something. 

And it still means the nets are necessary, and it still means that people have to be careful and tuck their nets in and watch for holes and treat their nets once a year or more…

But 30-40% effective means that a few hundred thousand fewer children might die. 

And even though these are children that I might never meet, I still care. Black lives matter even if they are across the ocean. Every death is a tragedy, especially the preventable ones. 

So I hope this vaccine is funded, and fast. And distributed quickly. Because God knows there are too many preventable deaths happening daily right now. 

We have a 95% effective shot for another deadly pandemic right now… I’ll stand in line overnight if necessary for my kid to get it when it is approved. But I don’t have to, because we don’t have the same urgency or shared vision here. I kinda wish it was like the pesky mosquitoes, visible and irritating. We might be safer, then. 

But I’m still glad for this hope.