A week or so ago, I received an email from Brad Hansen with the lyrics of a song he had composed while in a recent dark spell with depression. I was deeply touched by the words, and asked if I could share his song and story on the blog. He replied: “I would be glad to share my story. I decided long ago that I would open my life and struggles to others, with the hope that people could know that they’re not alone.” So here’s a little of Brad’s testimony to God’s grace followed by the song.
Even an old dog can learn new tricks; and even a depressed dog can be found smiling for reasons which elude the wisest of masters. This is the story of such a dog – old (which I know to be true because my sons say so) and well acquainted with depression, now for about 40 years.
The onset of depression was, for me, like a moment from Jurassic Park – the moment when a distant “thud” creates rings in a nearby puddle. You think it’s nothing, until it happens again, a bit more pronounced. Soon you realize that there is something present more mysterious and threatening than you realized.
The Bottom Drops Out
All this began taking place in my late teens, when I noticed that my mood, my energy, and my enjoyment of life would take a tumble for a few days. It was a bit unpleasant, but it wasn’t long before I was my usual self. But over the next 3-5 years the tumbles became falls hurtling deeper. What once affected my life for a few days here and there began extending to a few weeks, and later still months on end. I had graduated from college, was married, on my way through seminary, and all the while living in a fog from which I had only a few periods of relief. Somehow I muddled through. I graduated from seminary, received a call to a church, and was ordained. It was then that the bottom dropped out.
My memories of that period are (blessedly!) few. But I still remember the pattern. I would begin my day getting up, eating breakfast, showering, getting dressed, and then immobilized in bed for hours. Within a year of beginning this pastorate I found myself hospitalized in a psychiatric unit. I was experiencing what medical people would later call “Bipolar II” – a depression with varying mood swings, most of which are experienced below the water line. In those days the medical arsenal for depression was relatively slim, but I was fortunate to find relief through lithium. After two months hospitalization I was released and returned home.
Burned Out Shell
But I knew that as a person I was mostly a shell, and my inner being was burned out. It’s quite common for people to misunderstand what medication can and cannot do. In my case lithium served to level the playing field, but I had a lot of recovery to do before I began to believe “I got game.” It’s been a journey of 35-40 years with many ups and downs, which continues to this day, when the old dog learned a new trick.
Only a few weeks ago, I sat at a prayer meeting at our church on a Sunday evening. Shortly before prayer began, I felt the darkness descending on me. The best description of what this is like is to remember your last visit to the optometrist. She sets before your face a contraption with any number of lenses, and, with the eye chart out ahead of you, begins the questions: “Which is clearer – 1 or 2? Which is clearer – 3 or 4?” In between those verbal choices, of course, is a moment when the optometrist flips a lens from one side to another. One side (in theory!) is clearer than the other, and becomes so in the wink of an eye. That is what my mood swings are like. One moment, I’m fine; the next moment everything is cloudy or even dark. On that evening I wasn’t able to pray out loud; I prayed silently knowing what was happening to me, and thanking God that he was with me. I attended to some of the spoken prayers as they were spoken. But I knew that I might be in for a dark spell.
Songs From The Darkness
The following morning proved that to be the case. I was down and heavy, and my prayer to God was “Help me to do what I can today.” What happened next is a bit hard to describe. I found myself going to my table with my Bible open to Psalm 42-43, with a sudden urge to write a hymn, and retell the story of the psalmist and his God in my own words, out of my own human condition. Within a half hour I had the result: a hymn which I entitled, “Here, Lord, I Kneel to Pray.” And with hymn in hand, and John Ireland’s music (“Love Unknown”) in my head, the old dog smiled a bit, and contentment (though certainly not euphoria) reigned. My world, and welcome to it.
Since that time, I’ve turned my attention to other texts and theology, both biblical and systematic, to ply this new trade. I’ve discovered that God entrusts to his oft-depressed servants the very songs he has given to them in the darkness, for the building up of the body, to the praise of his glory. And it’s not bad work if you can find it. Cheers!
“Here, Lord, I Kneel to Pray”
Tune: Love Unknown (John Ireland)
Here, Lord, I kneel to pray;
Yet deep within my heart
There is no joy and darkness clouds its ev’ry part.
The memory of worship sweet
Stands far away while I must weep.
So my soul longs for you,
My Lord, who truly lives,
Whose presence like the flowing streams he richly gives
For thirst do I, and thus I cry.
My tears for food won’t satisfy.
Yet my Lord sings to me
His steadfast love by day,
And through the night his song is with me ‘ere I pray.
Shall he forget the cruel threat
That bids my soul my life regret?
So to myself I speak.
To my soul would I preach,
“Be not cast down, let hope become your heart’s relief.
God shall you save, begetting praise;
His light and truth are yours always.”
If you don’t know the tune, here’s a video to help you learn it: