Signs of Life: Resurrecting Hope Out of Ordinary Losses
by Stephanie Lobdell
Herald Press, October 2019
The following excerpt is from Signs of Life: Resurrecting Hope Out of Ordinary Losses by Stephanie Lobdell, copyright © 2019 Herald Press. Reproduced by permission.
I sat with my diagnosis all afternoon. I had a night class I desperately wanted to skip but couldn’t. I grabbed my bag and made my way outside into the late fall evening. The night was erasing the final streaks of light in the sky as I walked across campus, crunching through brown, lifeless leaves as I went. I pulled out my flip phone to call my mom. I only had a few minutes before class to tell her the news, but maybe that was better. Keep it brief.
“Hey, Mom,” I said when she answered, my voice heavy with fatigue from the emotions not only of this, the day of diagnosis, but of the tumultuous weeks and months prior.
“Hey, girlie. Are you okay?” Moms always know.
“Yeah, well, I went to the doctor today because I had been feeling so off, right? She put me on antidepressants.”
I don’t know what I expected. But her response could not have been more gracious. “Oh, sweetie. Okay. Now, I want you to remember what we’ve always said: Depression is no different from any other illness. You take that medicine, okay? Diabetics take insulin, right? No shame in that. Their bodies need it. And it sounds like the doctor thinks you need this. And that’s okay.” It was all love and acceptance, compassion through and through. If only that would have been enough. If only the kindness in my mom’s voice would have been enough to lift the weight of shame from my heart, to assure me that I was not broken beyond redemption.
This formal diagnosis unveiled a deep crack in my inner being, one that had been there for a long time.
But it wasn’t. This formal diagnosis unveiled a deep crack in my inner being, one that had been there for a long time. Through hard work and compulsive achievement, as well as a remarkable commitment to ignorance, I had been able to deny it. No more. The crack ran deep—so deep that my imagination for my future was paralyzed, frozen in ambiguity. I could not reconcile the future I had imagined—the future to which I thought God had called me—with this. I found these chaotic waters cold and terrifying and wholly disorienting.
With all that churning inside, I got up the next day and headed back to class once again. Because that’s what achievers do. We go back to class. We keep moving even when every move feels like walking upstream in a chest-deep river. What else is there to do?
I sat in the lobby of the religion building, waiting for class to start. In my mind’s eye, I looked normal. As I sat, trying to think of anything but the events of the last twenty-four hours, one of my professors sat down next to me. “What’s up?” he asked.
My pitiful excuse for a façade crumbled almost instantly. I had no intention of telling a professor—or anyone other than my mother—about my diagnosis or the meds, and certainly not about the deep shame that accompanied it. But it leaked out nonetheless. I have never been any good at lying. My face betrays me every time. “I’ve been diagnosed with depression and have been put on medication,” I said.
I don’t know what I expected. Maybe I expected him to treat me the way I had been treating me: with disdain or disgust or at least polite evasion.
But he simply said, “Oh really? Me too.”
The polite thing to do would have been to nod and say, “Oh, I am sorry.” But despair, fear, and disorientation tend to strip away the veneer of social mores. “No way,” I blurted. “It’s not possible. You’re a pastor and a professor. How?”
He kindly ignored my astonishment and said simply, “I have found that, each morning when I take my medicine, it is helpful to remember this: Today this pill is God’s means of grace to me.”
John Wesley recognized that the grace of God also comes to us in other less traditional or formal channels.
Today this pill is God’s means of grace to me. Although it was still early in the days of my theological education, I caught the reference. John Wesley, the pastor and theological father of many denominations, including my own, preached and taught what he described as means of grace: outward signs, words, or actions “ordained by God . . . to be the ordinary channels of God’s preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.”
Like any good evangelical, I grew up understanding those channels of grace to be practices like going to church, reading the Bible, and praying. And they are. Wesley called those things the instituted means of grace. But Wesley recognized that the grace of God also comes to us in other less traditional or formal channels, channels he called the prudential means of grace: contextual practices that mediate to us the grace of God. These unique channels reflect God’s ability to use “any means, in addition to those instituted [by Scripture], in accordance with different times and circumstances.”
Could it be that God was expressing grace to me through a little pill, so symbolic in my mind of failure and inadequacy? Could God be reaching out to me in love, not standing aloof with arms crossed in judgment or annoyance or toleration? Contrary to the clatterings of my heart, could God be making a way for me, inviting me to a good future?
I stood up and walked to class, tingling with gratitude and hope, however nascent. I had been seen. I had been seen not only by my professor but by God’s very self, through the attentiveness and gentle self-disclosure of one of God’s servants. I was not forgotten or abandoned but loved and provided for.
And with that simple experience of being seen, I began to see. I began to see pinpoints of light slipping out from under the closed door of my future. Even as I felt up to my neck in waters of chaos, I felt the stirrings of the Spirit—not simply reviving my dreams of the future but resurrecting them altogether, bringing something new to life within me.
Copyright © 2019. Reproduced by permission from Herald Press.
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