Blue Christmas” is more than a holiday song famously performed by Elvis Presley. Blue Christmas, sometimes also called the Longest Night, is a day in the Advent season (usually Dec. 21 or 22) marking the lengthiest night of the year. On this day, some churches hold a service that recognizes that the holidays are sometimes “blue” or sad. You might be having a “blue” Christmas because you are away from family, alone, dealing with illness or death or are filled with thoughts of happier times.
For those of us living with depression, Christmas can be a painful time of the year when an ache fills our hearts with sorrow. A deep loneliness may seep in and make us feel as though we will never smile again. Like the child whose face is pressed to the glass of the bakery window, those with depression may watch others celebrate the season and wonder when we, too, will be able to feel a sense of love and belonging again. The bleak darkness of winter days and the waning warmth of the sun only worsens the inability to feel joy. So often when one is sad or suffering, it can feel like no one else knows our pain or understands our burden.
How do we as believers minister to those experiencing the pain of depression? Paul’s directive to the Romans is to “help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality” (Rom. 12:13, The Message; emphasis mine). What does it mean to be inventive? How can we include those who are suffering at a time when the Christian world rejoices? There are things, large and small, that we can do for our friends.
What is depression?
Members of church communities may be left out of activities, either inadvertently or on purpose, due to a lack of understanding regarding what depression is. Your friend does not have depression because they did not pray hard enough any more than the fault lies with the person ill with a somatic disease. It comes from living in a broken world. A lack of understanding can cause an awkwardness or hesitation to act because you may feel as if you don’t know the right words to say during dark times. So, knowing what depression is can be helpful.
Depressive disorders are a continuum of illnesses. Like any bodily illness, there are signs, symptoms and treatment. Signs are those things that are observable, such as reduced personal hygiene and self-care, either excessive sleeping or insomnia and perhaps an increased or decreased appetite.
Symptoms, on the other hand, are those things which the depressed person may experience or feel. This includes anhedonia—an inability to enjoy the activities one once did—body aches and pains, brain fog, difficulty concentrating or being overwhelmed by external stimuli such as excessive noise, bright lights or strong odors. Depressed people may often talk negatively about themselves or have self-deprecatory thoughts. Medical interventions such as cognitive therapy and medications, or more effectively both, can help.
One in five adults in the United States will experience a mental illness in any given year. Depression is the leading cause of disability in the world. It is important to remember that illnesses such as depression can stabilize such that the person experiencing the illness can, with treatment, live a full life and can contribute to the community. Left untreated, mental illness can worsen. However, it is never too late to seek medical care.
It is also important to note that depression is a chronic and cyclic illness. It may remit for a time, but it likely will return. It’s simply the nature of the illness, much like rheumatoid arthritis or other chronic illnesses. Therefore, it is equally important for friends and caregivers to realize this and not become cynical or doubting when depression returns.
Words of encouragement, caring
When it comes to depression, inventive hospitality includes remembering that small words of acknowledgement are many times all that is needed. Even just to honestly say, “I have no words to share, but I am here with you.”
It is so common for those who live with depression to respond to a greeting with a half-hearted smile and an answer of “fine” to the passing question of “How are you?” For those who live with depression, the obligatory greeting brings an entire set of internal self-questioning: “Do they really want to know?” “How do I answer?” And the soul-searching, “How do I really feel?”
If those asking would take a short pause and a deeper glance and say a brief word of caring, it would let the depressed person know that it’s okay for them not to really be able to verbalize how they are. You may never quite understand how depression can rob your friend or family member of a desire or even the ability to tolerate crowds, groups or family gatherings. But it can, and it does. Depression is so ubiquitous as an illness that even the smallest, most mundane tasks can become monumental to someone who lives under that veil.
You can offer to pick up your friend who is depressed and take them to dinner or to church or to pick up a few needed items at the local grocery store. Depression steals the will for any self-care and just the presence of a helper on an outing or to complete a task, even as mundane as doing dishes or folding laundry, can make all the difference. It is important to encourage self-care but not to shame the person for being unable to access that care.
Do you garden? Then share garden produce. Paint? Then offer to help with a painting project. Work on cars? Change the oil. As a person who suffers herself, I can tell you that the phone calls, notes and even texts from my friends at Butler Church when I have been seriously depressed let me know that I am not forgotten. One friend pulled weeds for me and another brought homemade butternut squash soup.
Doubts come with depression
Don’t be surprised if your offer to help is refused. Those who live with depression often doubt their own worthiness for care and love. In that case, a favorite dish—verenika casserole (see recipe below) or a homemade soup with zwieback, a canister of cookies and a Starbucks’ coffee—can lighten a mood for an hour or two, bringing with it some respite from isolation and disregard. A special card in the mail with a brief note is more appreciated than you may ever know. Just knowing someone is there and we are not in this alone is an invaluable gift.
Sharing the grace and hope of Jesus is the foundation of all that we say and do. It is a sweet reminder of belonging to the family of God’s kingdom. You can share insights from a Bible study or extend an invitation to join a celebratory event or concert. The act of sitting in stillness with one another when the tears fall gently down the face of a friend is a quiet blessing and honeyed ministration. “Laugh with your friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down” (Romans 12:15, Msg).
You may be thinking, “Yes, I should do this” or “Yes, that’s a good idea.” Time moves so fast and this world can be so distracting. And so the phone call is not made, the coffee not offered, no casseroles are baked. The gift of hospitality is a spiritual gift; however, it is one that must be cultivated and encouraged both in ourselves and in our younger generation of believers.
Those of us who suffer from depression must also feel free to reach out to our brothers and sisters in Christ when we are in distress. We are not a burden; we, too, have spiritual gifts to share with the body of Christ. It is easy to think that we are too weak or ill, too this or too that to contribute. But when we are absent from the body, something salient is lost to all.
1 Corinthians 12: 21-26 tells us: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (NIV).
During the winter months especially—but all year around—our hospitality for one another must be nourished, offered and accepted. Therefore, friends, hospitality is love displayed not only for foreigners but for the members of our own body that we might all be made whole with them in Christ Jesus.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is: 1-800-273-talk.
From the kitchen of Mrs. LaWanda Franz, Butler Church, Fresno, California
¾ – 1 lb bacon, ham or sausage ( I use honey ham)
1 cup chopped white or yellow onion
1 pint regular or low fat cottage cheese
1 pint regular or low fat sour cream
10-12 ounces bow tie noodles
½ t. salt to taste
1/8 t. pepper to taste
If using bacon or sausage sauté until soft. Also sauté onion ahead until soft.
No need to sauté ham; cut into small pieces.
Cook pasta according to directions.
Mix all ingredients together by hand. Place in greased 9” x 12” dish and bake uncovered at 350° about one hour or until light brown on top. You may adjust according to your oven. Sometimes, I check at 45-50 minutes. If top is browning fast, then I place a loose foil tent over while the rest bakes a little longer, so it doesn’t get too brown. Enjoy!
Lisa Keith is an associate professor of education at Fresno Pacific University and is the program director for the Master of Arts in Special Education. Keith is also a Mental Health First Aid certified trainer and provides annual training for teacher candidates, FPU employees and the greater Fresno community. Before joining the faculty at FPU seven years ago, Keith was a special education teacher for 20 years and specialized in working with children with emotional disturbance. Keith is a member of Butler Church, a USMB congregation in Fresno, California