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My Year Without An Easter: A Testimony

This testimony was offered in worship on Sunday, July 8th by Cynthia Stengel.

St. Luke’s is currently part of a campaign to bring a new publicly-funded mental health center to Logan Square, Avondale, and Hermosa. Learn more here.

MY YEAR WITHOUT AN EASTER

Last week Reed preached on Jesus’ healing of a hemorrhaging woman, pointing out her painful situation:  hungering to tell her story and feel the comfort of a supportive community, but at the same time needing to hide the shameful, isolating secret of her illness. Reed described it so well… it brought me back to a time when I was caught in that same trap.  We’ve become much more open about a lot of things over the years. I remember how my mother kept her diagnosis a secret from her best friend, because cancer was somehow regarded as shameful.  Mental illness has long carried a similar stigma.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

That sermon summoned memories of the time that I think of as “my year without an Easter.”  I was the pastor of a struggling small-town church, my first call.  The prior pastor had served two churches, mine and a larger one in a nearby town. When he took another call, my congregation decided they could manage on their own, but giving didn’t keep up with expenses plus the cost of a full time pastor. I felt responsible; I should be able to help them turn things around. Other problems piled on. Some were unhappy with their first woman pastor. Worse, the local farmer  I married couldn’t handle the nosiness and gossip of small-town living so we moved to the farm. Conflict spiraled and I worried about the church’s future and my own.

In time, hopelessness overcame me, followed by depression, and I struggled to do my work. The cluster pastors met regularly to study the Sunday preaching texts and to support one another. When I couldn’t put a sermon together I begged them for help. Holy Week was approaching and I was terrified. George was a retired pastor who lived in a more distant community but came to cluster social gatherings. I let him know that I was drowning and he offered to help me out. I thanked him, but felt I needed to do those important services myself.

Maundy Thursday arrived and I dragged myself to church.  It was my custom to wash the feet of the 7th and 8th grade confirmation classes, and I did manage that.  But I froze when it came time to preach. George and his wife Mary came to that service, and he saw I was in trouble. Without a word he left his pew and came forward to preach and lead the service as though it had been planned.

Next to the pulpit was a door that led to the church office. Without saying anything to anyone, as George stepped into the pulpit I went through that door, out to the parking lot, and disappeared from view for a couple of months. I saw no one, took no phone calls and directed my husband not to tell anyone where I was.  The combination of deep depression and shame led to profound isolation.

For several weeks I lay on the sofa, barely sleeping and eating. Eventually I saw the local doctor, who prescribed a drug new on the market: Prozac. My bishop recommended hospitalization.

I was so weak I could barely walk and didn’t recognize my own shaky handwriting that day I signed myself in to the hospital. The door locked behind me. Eventually I returned home to gather recover and regain strength.  But the power of shame prevented me from ever explaining what had happened or where I had been. My bishop knew, of course, and he and George handled the church in my absence, a blessed gift of grace.

Remembering that time, I thought about the distinction between guilt and shame.  Guilt is the feeling we get when we know that we’ve done something wrong.  Shame is a similar feeling, though it’s not about what we’ve done, but how in some way we’re defective, and it’s steeped in fear. I had been deeply fearful of what others might say or do if they knew of my illness. That sounds as odd and irrational to me now as my mother’s fear of what others would think if they knew she had cancer.  No illness should be a cause for shame, including mental illness. Today I’m grateful for mental health services and medications, for George, and for our growing freedom to talk about these things.

Every year since my collapse, I lament the terrible darkness of my year without an Easter, and look forward to the celebration of the Resurrection at the end of Holy Week.

I’m sure many in Logan Square need hope and treatment for depression, PTSD, and other emotional and mental illnesses. I appreciate the St. Luke’s team that’s working toward getting a treatment facility in our neighborhood.

I empathize with that hemorrhaging woman who long ago longed for healing, and celebrate Jesus’ power to make us whole-–in body, spirit, and mind, and I’d like to see an Easter dawn for everyone who struggles with darkness. Meanwhile, as a Presbyterian pastor who lived 150 years ago said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is bearing a heavy burden.”

Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

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