Sunday, May 31, 2015

spurgeon's sorrows

The word is used so much today. I hesitate to bear witness to depression in my own life, lest by doing so it mocks those whose struggle with it is so serious, so debilitating. Down through the years ... the names, the faces, the situations. They fill my heart and mind as I sit down to write - as does the memory of the sheer helplessness of stumbling alongside them as they walked through the valley.

One thing I do know is that my life has been messed around enough by melancholy to ensure that there are depths of empathy inside me. I suspect Zack Eswine is the same. There is a knowingness about the way he writes Spurgeon's Sorrows (Christian Focus, 2014). He has been there too. He seems to have set himself the task of reading every sermon preached by Charles Spurgeon, the greatest preacher of the Victorian era, accumulating everything he ever says about depression and engaging with it.

In passing, Spurgeon's own battle with depression is sourced to an experience as a pastor of just 22 years of age. He was preaching to a congregation of 10,000 at the Music Hall in Royal Surrey Gardens in London when some idiot yelled, 'Fire!' - and in the panic which ensued seven people died and many more were injured. Spurgeon never recovered from this experience. It haunted him and softened him through until his death, 36 years later - and his sermons are touched by this experience, often with a surprising transparency.

There is so much to like about Eswine's book. It is short (143 pages). It is practical. Every single chapter is laced with wisdom for both 'sufferer' and 'caregiver' - for example, 'Helps that Harm' (75-83); 'Suicide and Choosing Life' (119-132). It is tender, nowhere more so than in the final chapter - 'The Benefits of Sorrow' (133-143) - and the way he writes about 'Charles', rather than 'Spurgeon'. And, in a field like counseling, where I do not always have confidence in the theological foundations underpinning the perspectives being advocated, it is good theology - like here: 'even hope demolished can become hope rebuilt, if it is realistic and rooted, not just in the cross and the empty tomb but also in the garden and the sweat-like blood' (131).

The role of metaphor and of 'a larger story' are two features which stand out for me.

1. In a world where words can be of little value, I was a little surprised by the focus on words. For example, in 'A Language for our Sorrows' (67-74), Eswine writes of the value of 'leaning on metaphors' - word-pictures, essentially. 'Poetry from God for our sorrows' (73). Spurgeon used them so much in reference to depression: 'traversing the howling desert - enduring winters, or a foggy day - caught in a hurricane - crushed, trodden in the winepress' (68-69). He reached for metaphor so often. So did the Psalmist. For Eswine, 'metaphor can handle mystery ... metaphor leaves room ... metaphor allows for nuance ... metaphor requires further exploration' (71-72). Sufferers need 'to search for metaphors to describe their experience ... and (caregivers) need to learn patience and appreciation for metaphor' (73).
Sometimes those of us who suffer depression feel the sting of the irony - the inability to find empathy and comfort from the very people who read the Bible every day but do not recognise the gift of metaphor for the sorrowing within its pages (72-73).
2. Spurgeon recognised that any current melancholy is a chapter in a bigger book, a season in a fuller year, and a midnight with a following dawn. It is this larger story that brings hope in the midst of the heavier story. Nevertheless, 'our salvation messages will prove inadequate if they do not  meaningfully account for the large portions of reality that cause screaming in the world; particularly with depression' (78). Quoting William James, Eswine writes of this 'remoter scheme' (79), or larger story, or metanarrative:
A larger story about God exists that possesses within it a language of sorrows so that the gloomy, the anguished, the dark-pathed, and the inhabitants of deep night are given voice. Such a god-story is neither cruel nor trite. Such a story begins to reveal the sympathy of God (74).
And again, later, in what is something of a summary of the book:
We think of the Bible as a violent book, of God as angry, and god-talkers as sloganeers. But Charles saw in the Bible a language for the sorrowing, an advocacy to disrupt helpers who harm, and a man of sorrows sent from God out of love for the wailing world so that those who sat in darkness could finally feel the home they were made for and enjoy the sun again. This remoter scheme or larger story becomes the means by which Charles daily reckoned with the proximity of his despair. God had offered a reason for hope that matched the intensity of our reasons for despondency (90). 

One more word on tenderness. It is there in quotation after quotation, word picture after word picture. It makes for a beautiful reading that touches the affections. Be it Spurgeon: 'The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits' (25); depression is 'a kind of mental arthritis' (61) - or, Eswine himself: 'Depression is a darkness that drapes over us wherever we go' (35); 'God's promises are a sort of lighthouse reaching out into our night seas' (94); and 'Laughter gave our tears room to breathe' (106).

Two more pieces of wisdom. One quoting Andrew Solomon: 'Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance ... depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance' (quoted on page 29). Isn't that a great discussion starter?

Then, if Spurgeon, Eswine and Solomon don't grab you, what about my grandson, Micah - barely three years of age? He loves strumming his guitar and drumming anything that can be arrayed in front of him (with his parents, over time, wising up to the need for these things to be noiseless). He has latched onto a lyric from a song played in the home. So with either guitar in hand, or pounding away on shoes, plants, boxes, or cushions - he blurts out the line: 'joy comes in the morning'.

nice chatting

Paul

PS. Both this book and A Nervous Splendor were recommended to me by my friend, Mark Meynell. Mark's blog occupies a different stratosphere to this one. More recently he has focused on writing books, with A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World, officially released later this week.

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