Claiming Sanctuary (May 2013)

By Matt Dabbs

By Deana Nall

Clinical depression is like being in a room in which all of the light and air sources have been cut off. You stumble around desperately, feeling along the walls for a door or at least a light switch, but there’s nothing. You know you can’t stay in the room much longer and survive, but you can’t find a way out. Depression is a terrifying, merciless monster. It’s also invisible, so you look fine to other people. But inside, the monster’s grip tightens until you think it will crush you to death.

When I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder in 2009, I felt like I was drowning in a vast ocean with nothing to grab onto to pull myself up. Every once in a while, I would burst through the surface and catch a breath of air and hope that I was finally going to be OK. But then I would plunge back into the dark icy waters. The pain was even physical. On the worst days, a pain in the pit of my stomach kept me from standing up straight. One day, I came home from the store, dropped my grocery bags on the kitchen floor, and doubled over into a hurting, sobbing mess as my perplexed husband tried to comfort me.

I started working to climb out of those murky waters. I had never worked so hard at anything in my life. I started running and lifting weights. I tried to get out in the sunshine every day. I stopped listening to depressing music. Most of all, I clung desperately to some semblance of faith, or at least what I thought faith was. Like other people who grew up in Sunday School, I learned early on that God is everywhere. He’s with us all the time. He’s in our hearts. I understood that. But in my stifling depression, God had become, as author Lauren Winner described in her own depression, “illegible.” I knew God was there, but I couldn’t find him in my own darkness. So I decided to look where I hadn’t looked for him before. In a place apart from my own religious traditions.

I remembered the ancient (by American standards, anyway) Catholic churches I visited as a child in Santa Fe. These buildings—some a couple of hundred years old—stand open every day to welcome people in for prayer, whether they are Catholic or not. They didn’t care that I was an 11-year-old Church of Christ kid. They even let me light a candle to a saint I had never heard of. I wanted to find God in a place like that. A place with ornate stained-glass windows and heavy wooden doors and people in robes who say things like “Eucharist” and “Maundy Thursday” and “diocese” and swing metal birdcages around with incense wafting out of them. A place with kneelers and stone floors and a general air of holiness. Surely there were places like that in my city of Little Rock. I Googled and found one. Christ Church Episcopal. It was downtown, a 20-minute drive from my house. And it was refreshingly liturgical. Christ Church was known for its stone building with red doors. Sort of like a spiritual Elizabeth Arden. They kept the red doors open on weekdays for people like me to come in and pray. So I went.

I walked in through the red doors and instantly regretted wearing boots. It was so quiet in there, and my boots on the tile floor made it impossible for me to sneak in. I notice some maintenance workers working on something near the pulpit, and a janitor was mopping the tile floor. I sat toward the back and an official-looking man approached me. He apologized for all the activity going on in there, and offered to show me to the chapel. I followed him to a smaller room off to the side—a room with marble floors and wooden kneelers.

“Stay as long as you like,” he said, as he left.

I was a little disappointed he wasn’t wearing a robe. I guess they only did that on Sundays.

I looked around the room. Stained glass, of course. Candles and a gold cross engraved with “IHS.” Red prayer cushions dented by the knees of the faithful. Except for the city sounds outside, I sat in silence and took in a couple of Psalms, as well as The Book of Common Prayer in the book rack in front of me. Then I just tried to be there and be still – something so hard for me to do. I tried to focus on letting God in through all my senses. Breathing him in and letting him be… enough.

In Europe, some church buildings used to be places where people fleeing injustice or persecution could claim sanctuary, or take refuge in a consecrated place of asylum created by the church. These churches had stopped doing this by the end of the 18th Century, but that day in Little Rock in 2009, the concept of sanctuary became very real to me.

I eventually left the sanctuary that day, but I wanted to go back to this church that seemed so new and foreign, but warm and familiar at the same time. So I started going to the Sunday evening Compline service at Christ Church. And there, I became one of those people I had, until that point, never understood. The people who run into church just as it starts and run out as soon as it’s over. That had never been me. Church had always been the hub of my social life. But now I understood “the church runners.” Compline was not social hour for me. It was a place to go away and be with God since I couldn’t find him anywhere else. I figured out how to time my drive from my suburb to downtown so I would be walking in the church’s big red doors just as the Compline bells were ringing. But I didn’t run out as soon as it was over. I waited a bit for the aisle to clear so I would have a straight shot to the door. Then I ran. Except for the priest and his wife who I said “hi” to if I saw them, I didn’t want to talk to anybody. And I definitely didn’t want the church custodian to show up, mop in hand, demanding to know who left the puddle of espresso eyeliner and Maybelline Great Lash mascara on the seventh row. So I ran in and spent the 15 minutes of Compline soaking in as much God as I could. Then I ran out.

And I kept going back. I had to. At Compline, on a deeply personal level, I belonged. We all did. That entire roomful of strangers. The man behind me who muttered all the words to the service along with the officiant. The woman on the kneeler who was oblivious to everyone around her. We clung to the common thread of being sinners who longed for upright hearts; who reached upward to a Father who ever reaches down to us. Maybe church is only supposed to be about one relationship—the relationship that sin should sever, but there, amid the candlelight and ancient words, is whole.

Two years after the depression had started, I seemed to be what author Anne Lamott calls “Okay.” But I had to go back to Compline. At least one more time. If you spend enough time asking God for healing and he comes through, you don’t want to be like the nine lepers who went on their way. You want to be like the one who came back (Luke 17:11-17). So that’s what I did. In the sanctuary, I sat amid the candlelight and ancient words, trying to focus on my gratitude to God for lifting me out of a darkness that I never want to experience again. But I was distracted. I was hungry. I found myself wanting the choir to sing louder in case my stomach growled. We got to the Lord’s Prayer, which I always recited with the choir—making sure I was paying attention, because the Episcopalians lop off the end of the prayer and I have to make sure I stop reciting in time. But I was still hungry. Just as I was about to get annoyed with myself for not eating before I got there, I realized something. God was telling me to eat.

He’s done it before. After Jesus healed the not-dead-but-asleep girl at the end of Mark 5 and Luke 8, he told her caregivers to get her something to eat. And he’s told me to eat before. One other time.

August 10, 1992. The waiting room of the ICU at Anchorage’s Providence Hospital. It was a Monday evening and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast the day before. Chad’s 19-year-old sister Gina had been in a horrible accident that morning and we were keeping vigil at the hospital as she clung to life by a thread. A thread that would slip out of her hand two days later.

Of course there was food at the hospital and restaurants nearby. But I was too traumatized to eat. Every bone in Gina’s face was smashed, she was in a coma, and I was supposed to eat? It was unthinkable for me to experience some kind of comfort while Gina lay in such a state, her distraught family and friends around her.

But not eating for a couple of days isn’t so great on your body. I was getting weak and my hands were starting to involuntarily close into fists, which someone said was a sign of a potassium deficiency. Still, I wouldn’t eat. I sat in the waiting room while the visitors streamed in and out. Then something shook me out of my haze. A man and his wife were standing in front of Chad, who was sitting next to me. I heard, “You need to go take her to eat something.” The man was holding a twenty-dollar bill out to Chad.

I didn’t know this man. But I knew about him. He and his wife and baby were leaving for Russia soon to become missionaries. They were supported by a church in Anchorage—the church where Chad’s family had a number of friends. This man and his wife did not know Gina, but they heard what happened and they came. And now he was holding money out to Chad. Money for me, so I could eat. I knew, by the way they dressed and by their chosen vocation, that twenty dollars was a lot of money to this family. We had money. I could have gone to eat if I wanted to. But the man insisted.

I’ve blocked a lot of memories from those dreadful three days out of my mind. Or at least tucked them away so that I have to work to retrieve them. But the image of this missionary holding a twenty out to my husband is clearly etched in my memory. God was telling me to eat. So I did. Chad took the missionary’s money, and we went to some restaurant and, surrounded by talking, laughing strangers who were oblivious to the nightmare we were walking around in, I choked down some food. I felt better and stronger and didn’t have a problem eating after that. Which was a good thing, considering what the rest of the week would bring. I’ve never forgotten that man and his wife and what their simple gesture did for me. Twenty years later, I still remembered his name and by Googling, I found him in the mission field in Ukraine. I pray people are blessing him and his family the way he blessed me that day.<br><br>That evening at Compline, my stomach was still growling. God had healed me and now he wanted me to eat, the way Jesus healed the girl in Luke 8. So I did. On the way home, I stopped by Jason’s Deli and got a spinach veggie wrap and some black currant tea. I walked into the house with the Jason’s Deli bag and Chad’s eyebrows went up. “God told me to eat,” I said, sitting down at the table.<br><br>And this husband of mine who had been so supportive through my ordeal, who never left my side and understood or at least pretended to understand what I was going through—he didn’t do anything. He didn’t ask how much it cost, or if I thought it was wise to eat out for dinner after we had all eaten out for lunch that day. He didn’t roll his eyes. Nothing. I married a good man.

“Her spirit returned, and at once she stood up. Then Jesus told them to give her something to eat” (Luke 8:55).

categoria commentoNo Comments dataNovember 23rd, 2013
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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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