Giving thanks in the darkness

“Darkness deserves gratitude. It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that all growth does not take place in the sunlight.” – Sister Joan Chittister

When my husband left me, I was terrified I was going to drown in depression. This had happened to me before — when I began seminary in 2001, over the course of three months (or so) I lost a friend to suicide, another to a fire, another to a climbing accident, a relationship I thought would become a marriage ended and my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. This was all under the cloud of 9/11. I broke. I tried to push through seminary, to follow the path I felt God had put me on, but I just couldn’t do it. The seminary I attended at the time was not a supportive place (for example, not only was the place more gossipy than high school, but I was asked to make up the Pastoral Care classes I missed for my dad’s funeral. That’s irony for you). I had great friends, but I didn’t have the internal whatever in order to push through. So I left school and moved out west to start a new life and see if I could clear my head enough to hear God again.

Fast forward almost 10 years. I had finished my seminary class work, I was a month away from finishing my internship (my final requirement) and a few days away from my final interview for candidacy in the ELCA (the process my church body puts us through in order to discern and help us discern whether we are called to ordained ministry). I was so close to achieving my dream of becoming a pastor. Then my husband told me it was over, that he didn’t love my anymore. I was crushed. I was in shock. I would wake up in the middle of the night in a total panic about nothing at all. My doctor put me on pills to calm my fight-or-flight response. I was in so much shock I didn’t even know how to cry. But I knew what could be coming: depression. Crippling depression that would end my career just before it started. I refused to let that happen, I refused to drown again, to once again fall off of this path. I had worked too hard and come to far to let this stop me. But how? 

I decided to take care of myself. I started kickboxing (for the anger), started therapy, stopped drinking any alcohol (it became known to me as crying juice during that time), and decided to pray every morning and to open every prayer with gratitude.

I couldn't find a source for this photo, I don't mean to steal. But it's kind of perfect.

I couldn’t find a source for this photo, I don’t mean to steal. But it’s kind of perfect.

Now, it shouldn’t sound to radical for a pastor to decide to pray every morning. Truth is, it is all too rare. There are many pastors with amazing, grounded prayer lives. There are also a lot of us who, like everyone else, struggle with prayer — finding the right kind of prayer, way to pray, time of day to pray, whatever. I, for example, lack discipline and the attention span required for prayer (I know both of these are fixable, but they kind of feed each other). I think the only thing I do with any consistency is eat, and even that is questionable. 

So, I woke up every morning, dragged my ass out of bed, sat on my prayer pillow, and gave thanks. 

Ever tried to give thanks when it seems like everything sucks? It ain’t easy.

I started off just being thankful for what I saw in front of me.

“Thank you God for all that I am and all that I have.” 

I always start with that. Then came the hard part.

“Thank you God for… oxygen. For the sunlight. For the fact that I have a roof over my head.”

Over time, it got easier. I thanked God for my family, my friends, my internship, my breakfast, the fact that I had healed enough from my back surgery to work out again… This practice helped me to realize that even when everything was falling apart, there was still reason to smile, still reason to hope, still reason to believe that I would be okay. 

Gratitude helped me realize that what was happening to me was not the end, but a shift, a change, and that there were even things to be thankful for inside of that pain. Gratitude not only gave me a light in my darkness, but it provided me a way out of the darkness. 

I don’t want to presume that this will work for everyone who struggles with depression. Everyone is different. All I know is that, when everything seemed to be falling apart, practicing gratitude helped me to keep it together. 

I wish I could say that I kept my practice up and was still doing it today. The better I felt, the less I prayed. I am working on this. But I can say I still practice gratitude (just in a slightly less intentional manner). I still thank God every day for all that I have and all that I am. I am thankful for all of the people who have helped me through my various periods of darkness, the new friends I have made because of the pain, the way social media enabled me to find others who knew what I was going through and supported me, my family, and the realization (however painful) that my marriage was unhealthy and I am healthier out of it than in it. I am also thankful for stuff like oxygen and sunrises and a bed and roof over my head, and much, much more. These things are my light. They are how I know it will get better, even when it sure as hell doesn’t feel like it. 

Thank you, all of you, for all that you have done for me, for all that you do for your brothers and sisters on this strange, amazing, difficult, weird journey of life. 

 

I haven’t written in a while. Since my last post, I have started two new jobs. First, as staff at Luther’s Table, an awesome Lutheran cafe/bar in Renton, WA. Then I got a call as the campus pastor for Lutheran Campus Ministries at the University of Washington for this school year. I also got ordained a few weeks ago, got a new roommate and a ton of other things. I have had so much to learn and been so busy that my writing has taken a back seat. I am more settled in and hope to write more now, including answers to come of the comments I got on my last blog, How to be a Christian without being a jerk about it. Thank you for reading 🙂

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About Elizabeth Rawlings

Lutheran. Feminist. Child of God. Thinking about how to be a leader in a church that is trying to rediscover itself and what it means to live simply so that others may simply live in tandem with what exactly is the fast God asks of us. Chronic alliterator. Generally silly person. View all posts by Elizabeth Rawlings

3 responses to “Giving thanks in the darkness

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