Jeff Lucas: 'My year of clinical depression'
It was a rather plain beach. Even the name of the place jars.
Bognor is actually very pleasant in the summer; as a boy, I spent some happy school holidays there. But there's nothing quite so dreary as a British seaside resort in the depths of winter.
I pulled the collar of my overcoat up in a vain attempt to keep dry as I battled the wind and rain that pummelled the promenade. The icy sea was dirty grey; piles of seaweed were strewn around the stony beach, which was deserted save for one brave, mad dog owner, his pet jumping around his feet as if in protest at their mad walk. The seafront seemed quite abandoned; penny slot arcades, their garish lights still blinking hopefully, were mostly empty. A few lonely souls, mostly elderly, sullenly fed coins in, almost dutifully. The fish and chip shops were boarded up for the winter season. If you want food, come back in six months.
I walked to the old pier, a jetty that once extended out 1,000 feet into the sea. Here visitors could hand over a penny and stroll out to enjoy the views. Built in the Victorian era, it once boasted a theatre that seated 1,400 people, a bandstand, cinema, and a dozen stores.
But the once glorious pier is now a shadow of its former self. Battered by storms, most of the pier, including the theatre and the stores, has been washed away by the sea. Now, it is a broken skeleton of what once was, a quick stroll to nowhere. Now you walk through the arcade just 200 feet or so on the decking, and the pier just ends.
I sat down on a set of wooden steps beside the pier, and stared out to sea. I imagined the grand pier in its heyday. Once it had staked its claim over the sea, marching proudly out across the turbulent waters, its mighty iron supports seemingly impervious to the elements. Once it had teemed with excited theatre-goers, streaming back from late the show in their hundreds. And now, it had all been swept away. Only a broken, useless carcass offers a hint of what used to be.
When I went through a year of clinical depression, I felt bad, and broken.
And I felt bad because I felt bad.
Where was the joy that I, as a church leader, preached about? Was I a complete hypocrite? I was sad, and deeply ashamed of my sadness. I mistakenly of thought my feelings were the barometer of my spirituality.
I'd grown out of some of the madder notions of my earliest years as a Christian. Some of what I'd believed in the early stages of faith was ridiculous spiritual quackery - but trying to sort out what was true and substantial from the illusionary was confusing.
And then there were the relational struggles that come to every leader. Most of the congregation were generous and kind to a fault, but there were some notable exceptions, including one man who would occasionally turn his chair towards the wall while I was speaking to let me know that he was not listening to me. It was unfortunate that he was also a deacon.
I was becoming disappointed by the wider church scene too. It seemed that when anyone stepped out of line by asking difficult questions about what we believe, then the Christian thought police were standing by, waiting to punish any non-compliance. Christians don't use guns, but assault each other with labelling machines. Someone asks a question, or expresses honestly their struggle with doubt, or admits to concerns about some of the doctrines that we seemingly accept without concern - and out come the labels.
It was getting worse. Sometimes I'd wake up in the night, fearing that I was drowning in the dark.
At times I couldn't make my mind up about what would be worse - if the gospel was true, then that left me with a million questions, and if it were all false, then I'd been giving my life for nothing, my youth sacrificed for a lost cause. I even worried that it my conversion was a shallow, youthful decision. Was my Christianity just another phase, like an earlier, youthful flirtation with Marxism, but one that I couldn't escape?
I began to think the unthinkable.
The church is a very effective prison. You come in, because you're damned if you don't.
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You can't leave, because the threat of damnation is still out there if you wander or walk away.
Leaders tell you what to do, apparently authorised by God to do so.
You hand over at least 10 per cent of your income, and if you don't, the inference - sometimes clear, sometimes implied - is that God will be mad with you if you don't write the check, and he'll curse your finances.....
When they finally heard that I was battling depression, some of my friends were not helpful.
I discovered that the book of Job teaches us this: when you're exhausted and ready to give up, well-intentioned people show up with ridiculous advice - and then tell you that they're speaking on behalf of God.
So, we hear that you've haven't got the victory....
What can we do to sort you out? (some well-meaning Christians are on an endless safari to sort out everyone around them...)
I bristled inwardly and thought, but did not say:
How can you help me? How about going away forever?
That'd be a great start.....
It was not that I was really disappointed with Jesus. It's more that I was disappointed with Jesus as I had imagined him to be.
He was wonderful, but not what I had expected.
I still really wanted to walk by faith with the real Jesus. But the road ahead seemed daunting, even terrifying. In trying to unravel my thoughts and sift the truth from the myths, the worrying question haunted me.
Would I have anything left?
I walked down under the pier, kicking pebbles as I crunched my way across that cold, unyielding beach. I stood and stared up at those rust ravaged, once strong Victorian supports, and I wondered.
Was my faith just like that pier, once bright and hopeful, now ravaged by storms, and broken beyond repair?
Jeff Lucas is an international speaker, writer and broadcaster. He serves as a teaching pastor at Timberline Church, Colorado. You can find out more about Jeff here and follow him on Twitter @jeffreylucas
This piece is adapted from his new book Faith in the Fog - believing in what you cannot see.