Tombstone-Cleaning in a Pandemic: Fighting Depression

Pastoral ministry has been steady and unrelenting in this COVID-19 environment.  If anything, most clergy that I know have been working harder than ever, and there’s no break. Please be kind to your pastors as we keep leaning into these uncertain times. We weren’t trained in seminary to do all that we do in a virtual world with 24/7 digital access. It is stressful to the point of emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion.

My temper has been short. Sleeping has been difficult. Dreams have been vivid, but not soothing. Eating my problems away has served only to compound them. Usually it is only inanimate objects that get my goat. Lately it’s been anything, everything, and everyone who gets on my hypersensitive nerves. Lucy of “Peanuts” comic strip fame doesn’t have to charge a paltry nickel to give me the diagnosis: depression.

Usually when I’m down the sure-fire cure is to get busy on a project. All kinds of projects have been done over these 19 weeks of isolation. Beyond the constancy of ministry, there have been other tasks to do. Planting blueberry bushes was one project. It had been a long time since I used dreaded posthole-diggers but I dug ten huge holes, plus amended the soil with enough wettable sulfur to make it more acidic for the blueberries. Unfortunately, in my COVID-fog, I ordered twenty bushes instead of ten, and ended up planting two per hole, plus they sent me a couple of extras.

There were lots of such projects around the house. Cleaning out and organizing cabinets, installing shelves, gardenia bushes were planted, several foundation shrubs were replaced. Unfortunately, once you start doing home projects they begin to multiply. You can’t paint one room without it making the rest look like they need it. I have dug, piddled, planted and tried to work myself out of the funk that I’m in. The plan worked until the nutsedge invasion.

Nutsedge, otherwise known as plain old nutgrass, is insidious. When you cut your lawn, it’s the nutsedge that comes back first and rises above your manicured lawn like a greenish-yellow monster. Every time you cut the grass, it gets worse because it spreads. Half my yard is infested. I bought “Sedgehammer,” an appropriately named nutsedge killer. It’s expensive stuff, like $200 per ounce expensive, and I had to purchase a surfactant additive to make the deadly stuff stick to the invading army of nutsedge. I sprayed the whole yard multiple times. Still there. Bought a different product, same woeful results. This was a project that I made worse instead of better. The nutsedge pushed me into heinous depression. This was my tipping point: Nutsedge is something I can’t fix, and I’m a fixer! Wham!

We all like projects where we can accomplish something, and see the results. I thought maybe that would help, so I have spent quite a few days social distancing with dead people in a cemetery. I have driven 18 miles from Aiken to Edgefield, SC to clean off my brother’s grave, and my Mom and Dad’s graves. I ended up cleaning off grandparent’s tombstones, great-grandparents’ and more. Fifteen wheelbarrows of gravel have spruced up the family plot. I figured out the right combo of chemicals, tools and elbow grease to get those gray-green lichens out of the carved dogwood blossoms that encircle my parent’s marker. I have a new appreciation for dental hygienists, and the need for everyone to floss. However, let me tell you that one of the most satisfying things that I’ve done during the entire pandemic is to make my family’s multiple tombstones shine like brand new. I also sprayed on enough heavy-duty year-long grass-killer to fry the rest of my scalp off like the scorching summer sun. I wish the nutsedge was as easy!

Have you been in a funk? Are you depressed? We need projects to accomplish, but sometimes they’re futile. We need one another, and we’re made by God to have human contact, but the pandemic has relegated us to lonely cemeteries. If you’re like me, you’ve either run out of projects or the brains to fix them. Depression has set in. We perfectionists, who have more than a touch of obsessive-compulsive disorder, are FREAKED OUT by the chaos in our world. But, here’s the good news. God is God, and I am not! As much as I think that mantra is tattooed on my brain, I forget. God is God, and I am not! God give me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Whew!

The harried mother of a newborn reached for her cellphone and heard a loving voice say, “How are you, Darling? What kind of day are you having?” “Oh, Mom,” said the young mother while breaking into tears, “I’ve had such a bad day. The baby won’t eat. The garbage disposal is backed up and leaking. I need to go shopping, but don’t have the energy, and besides I’ve just sprained my ankle and have to hobble around. The house is a wreck, and I’m supposed to have two friends over for dinner tonight.”

The mother was shocked and full of sympathy. “Oh, darling,” she said, “sit down, relax, and close your eyes. I’ll be over in half an hour. I’ll do your shopping, clean up the house, and cook your dinner for you. I’ll feed the baby, and I’ll call a repairman I know who’ll be at your house to fix the garbage disposal and leak in a jiffy. Now stop crying. I’ll do everything. In fact, I’ll call George at the office and tell him to get over at your house and help, too.”

The young mother asked, “Who’s George?” Her mother replied, “Why, George! Your father… Is this 284-1373?” The young mother replied, “No, it’s 284-1376.” The older woman said in return, “Oh, I’m sorry. I guess I have the wrong number.” There was a short pause. Then the young woman asked, “Does this mean you’re not coming over?”

Are you feeling it? A lot of us are, aren’t we?  So, we pray, “Please, Lord, show up in our time of need. We don’t know what to do, or which way to turn. Save us from this pandemic; in Jesus’ name. Amen!” Thank God that we reopen the church this coming Sunday. I sure do need it!

Epiphany Blessing!

The Twelve Days of Christmas are almost over and this coming Sunday, January 6, is Epiphany Day, the commemoration of God’s revelation of the Christ Child to the Magi – a fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise that through his progeny God would bless all nations. This whole new season of Epiphany, from January 6 until Ash Wednesday’s beginning of Lent, is a series of revelations and reminders of God’s presence among all people.

Is there a better time to celebrate this marvelous epiphany? In the midst of dark and bleak midwinter most of us can use a dose of hope. Emotional cliffs still abound and Christmas bills are coming due. Therefore, Epiphany is a much needed season that focuses on God’s signs to us, divine revelations to get our attention, tangible and mysterious signs that God is with us.

However, prepackaged signs aren’t very convincing to me. In my opinion, by definition, you can’t pre-plan an epiphany. Don’t we all like the serendipity of spontaneous “Aha” moments when God suddenly pops up on our radars? It’s like what William Barclay meant when he said that there are two great days in a person’s life ­- the day we are born and the day we discover why. The latter is the kind of epiphany I want! In the rush, I sense the hush. You know what I mean. I hope.

When do your epiphanies occur? Is it during your devotions? Is it seeing some breath-taking view for the first time? Is it holding your grandchild? That’s what it was for me today. I spent a couple of hours enthralled with my 20-month-old granddaughter, Kaela, while her Mom and Dad had to go to an important meeting about their new house. I carried her around the United Methodist Center to see everyone, and then we had a picnic on my office floor. It was grand! My best epiphany of God’s presence today was when she toddled over, kissed me on the cheek and gently laid her head on my shoulder. What had been a dark crisis-laden day melted away into a sublime awareness that there’s a God that loves me. Kaela literally brightened my day!

I think that’s what most of us need spiritually and emotionally during this season of Epiphany. In our darkest worries and saddest moments, God shines a wondrous light. This is the story of how God’s voice is heard in most of our epiphanies.  This is corroborated by Gene Wilkes who pastors the Legacy Drive Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. One of his Adult Bible Study leaders, Ed Gentry, wrote this in the class’ newsletter:

“When I was a kid, we used to go to my grandparents’ dairy farm for a week each summer and each Christmas. Each morning my grandmother would wake up at 4 a.m. and head out to the pasture to round up the cows and take them to the barn to be milked. I will never forget the day I came of age. It was announced that the following morning I would be allowed to get up and go with my grandmother as she performed her duties.

By the time grandma was ready to go the next morning, so was I… decked out complete with cowboy boots, plastic chaps, genuine leather holster, metal cap gun (spit polished and with a fresh roll of caps all loaded up), bandanna, cowboy hat, and if memory serves, she found me digging around, looking for a piece of rope to be used to wrangle the particularly reluctant ‘doggies.’

You can imagine my surprise when, as we started to walk to the barn, she began to softly call out the cows’ names into the darkness. By the time we got to the barn, the first few cows were lining up to come in and get milked. I don’t remember if the surprise knocked me off my feet or if I slipped on a cow patty, but I was really bothered. This was NOT how you were supposed to round up cattle!! It bothered me for a long time.

As we studied Psalm 23 last month, this memory came rushing back (yeah, it still bothers me a little). But for some reason, my vision is of God gently calling our names out in the dark as we walk through our lives. I think cattle prods would be much more effective, but Jesus says, ‘My sheep know my voice and I know them, and they follow me: and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of my hand’ (John 10:27-28).”

This so aptly describes my need this Epiphany season. As I tread along the unseen paths of 2013, I want to hear God’s voice. God is gently and longingly speaking our names in the darkness so that we can experience the grace that is sufficient for every time of need in Jesus Christ. Epiphany is a special time for us to perk up and listen!