First Sunday of Advent
On the first Sunday of Advent, Dec. 3, 1933, when he was in London, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German pastor and theologian who courageously resisted the Nazi regime from within Germany, preached a sermon entitled “Come, O Rescuer!” In that sermon Bonhoeffer uses the metaphor of a mine disaster to describe what it means for Christ to come to the godforsaken person and rescue him.
Bonhoeffer vividly describes the entrapment of the miner and his dimming hopes for rescue when he hears a tapping from above and voices crying out: “Where are you, help is on the way!” The miner’s heart leaps and he shouts: “Here I am! I’ll hold out until you come!
Bonhoeffer draws the parallel: “We have spoken of Advent itself. That is how it is with the coming of Christ: ‘Look up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near.’
And so today this Advent 77 years later we call out: “Come, O Rescuer!”
Mario Sepulvada was the second man pulled from the Chilean mine which collapsed around 33 men leaving them trapped underground for 69 days. For 17 days no one knew that Sepulvada and his fellow miners were still alive. Not until a small hole was punched into a refuge chamber and a camera lowered 2200 feet below the surface of the earth were the miners found. Then for 52 days rescuers drilled an escape tunnel and the miners were lifted one by one to the surface in a small capsule.
When Sepulvada was asked what happened in the days prior to his rescue he replied that he saw both good and evil while entombed. “I was with God and I was with the devil. They fought and God won.” He said that he grabbed God’s hand and never doubted that he would be rescued. Other miners reported similar encounters with the God who is the maker of heaven and earth.
This morning I would like to tell you a little about what it was like to be underground like that for I myself have been there. I’ve been in a mineshaft parallel to the one in which the 33 Chilean miners were trapped. I’ve had people searching for me for 8 long months. I’ve seen God and I’ve seen the devil.
Some of you know that in the first 8 months of this year, I was deep in the mineshaft of depression. If you didn’t know, I am not surprised because it’s one of the enigmas of the disease that a person can look perfectly normal and act quite normal while at the same time being buried under the great weight of life which is crumbling all around them. But somehow I survived and am alive to tell about the disaster and my rescue.
You might be interested to know what life is like in the mine of depression. We know each other well so I am not afraid or ashamed to tell you about this. I’d like to tell you just a little about what it is like but, for God’s sake, the last thing I want to do to you this morning is to depress you. So let me begin with a joke about how complicated human life is because depression is also quite complicated. It is different and unique for each human being.
A psychologist was walking along a Hawaiian beach when he kicked a bottle poking up through the sand. Opening it, he was astonished to see a cloud of smoke and a genie smiling at him.
“For your kindness,” the genie said, “I will grant you one wish!” The psychologist paused, laughed, and replied, “I have always wanted a road from Hawaii to California.”
The genie grimaced, thought for a few minutes and said, “Listen, I’m sorry, but I can’t do that! Think of all the pilings needed to hold up the highway and how long they’d have to be to reach the bottom of the ocean. Think of the entire pavement. That’s too much to ask.”
“OK,” the psychologist said, not wanting to be unreasonable. “I’m a psychologist. Make me understand my patients. What makes them laugh and cry, why are they temperamental, why are they so difficult to get along with, why are so many of them depressed, what do they really want? Basically, teach me to understand what makes them tick!”
The genie paused, and then sighed, “Did you want two lanes or four?”
That’s how difficult and complicated is depression and the human soul that is trapped in it- at least as complicated and difficult as building a highway from California to Hawaii. And more difficult perhaps than drilling a rescue tunnel a half a mile into the earth.
What is it like down there in the mine? It is dark. It is lonely. And you feel like you are never going be rescued.
It is dark. It is so dark that there is nothing you can see which is beautiful. You see only the shadows of things and you know that they are there and you know that they are very beautiful but you can’t appreciate their beauty. That is really what the darkness is about. You see things but they are dark and ugly and you have an intense negativity about things. You see and hear things which normally you would laugh at but there is nothing funny. You see things that normally would spark wonder and amazement but there is no amazement. You see something like the Grand Canyon and it is nothing but a deep hole in the ground which is not big enough to hold all of your sadness. You hear a joke and everyone else is chuckling “har-har-dee-har” and you’re just sitting there without even a grin on your face. You go to church and you know that the hymns are joyful and you know that the communion is the body and blood of Christ but the hymns are just notes on a page and Christ is only a piece of bread and a glass of juice that are too small. That is how dark it is in the mine of depression. And you hate it and you just want to get out there.
It is lonely. There may be other miners all around you, some of them depressed and some not, but you feel like you are the only person in the world and no one really understand what you are going through. And you don’t want to tell them because you are ashamed of yourself- ashamed of yourself for the fact that you don’t have enough energy to take a shower: ashamed of yourself because you don’t respond to telephone calls; ashamed of yourself because you can’t even do your taxes and you know that April 15th has come and you know that you have to do them and you can’t do them and you can’t even fill in the one page needed to get an extension’ ashamed of yourself because you are not smart enough to find a way out of the mine. So ashamed of yourself that you don’t want to be with people. You want to spare them of having to know your shameful self. And so you just hide there in the mine and don’t even tap on the ceiling to let anyone, who might be looking for you, know that you are alive.
And it is lonely because God is not there. A clergy friend of mine said to me: Why, you are a man of God, you have faith, certainly God should be helping you to get out of your misery. God should be healing you.” And I told him that as much as I would like to think that God was helping me, the power of this disease is that it keeps God out and destroys your spirit which is totally bereft of God. The only thing I could do was cry out while drowning in a flood of tears: “Why isn’t anybody going to help me? When is God going to help me?” “There! There you see!” said my friend. “You did cry out. You did have faith.” Maybe I did but that didn’t seem like faith to me.
And for me the worst thing about the being trapped in the mine of depression is the feeling of hopelessness. There is no hope that you are ever going to get out. You are in the mine and you hope that there is some way out but there is no way out. You can tap on the ceiling but no one is hearing you. You can go around trying this passage way and that one but you can’t find any passage that is going to lead up and out of hell.
And finding no way out you begin to despair and begin to want to give up. And giving up even appears to be attractive because when you finally do get to sleep and have a nightmare you wish that you could stay asleep forever and that whatever is chasing you will keep on chasing you because you don’t want to face waking up to the terrible monster which is your real life. That is a very sad thing not wanting to wake up in the morning because life is too hard.
My friends, that is what it’s like trapped in the mine of depression. It’s dark; it’s lonely; and you are never getting out. Now that’s what I call depressing! It’s depressing even thinking about it. No six lane highway from California to Hawaii is going to get you out of that mine. I was in there for 8 months.
Then on Sunday, August 29th, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the baptism of the twin daughters of Abby Williamson whom I have known since she was three years old. Chris and Peggy Williamson were very good friends here in Meriden during the 1980’s when I was pastor of this church. Abby has been the best friend of our daughter, Jill, since they met here thirty years ago. In Cambridge, Jill was becoming the god mother of three month old Anya and Lyla.
As I was sitting in the pew and reading the worship bulletin before the beginning of worship, there on the list of people to be prayed for was the name “Greg.” Whether it was this Greg or another Greg I don’t know but it really didn’t matter because I knew it was me and I knew that someone was praying for me. Then suddenly there they were: two beautiful young women, the father, and the two little girls in the arms of their parents. Jill was holding the baptismal candles and she was radiant. I loved all of them and especially Jill because I remember the day of her baptism and how much I loved her then. As the priest held Anya and Lyla over the font and poured the baptismal water over them saying: “Beloved child of God, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” I knew how loved Anya and Lyla are and I remembered that I was baptized too and my parents placed me in the hands of God and I was loved.
It was a beautiful day. Jill and I and her mother drove up to Cape Ann to see the ocean and then, on the way back to Logan Airport, Jill and I were having such a wonderfully intense conversation that I missed the turn onto I-95 into Boston and ended up on Route 128 miles from the airport and risking that Jill would not make her plane back to Washington. I pressed hard on the accelerator and zoomed onto the Mass Turnpike and into the Ted Williams tunnel just in time for her to catch the plane.
On the way back to New Hampshire I found myself singing out loud in the car. I was singing all the old tunes my sister and I used to sing along with my parents on Sunday drives: “Oh, Susannah, oh won’t you cry for me!” “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes!” And then I realized that I was singing and I was happy and that this was the first day in more than 8 months that I had been happy and I was happy that I was happy and I kept on singing all the way back to West Lebanon.
But as I exited off I-89 I began to feel sadness setting in. I knew that I had not totally escaped. My eyes filled with tears and I began to weep because I realized that this wonderful day had ended but my rescue had not come and new life had not yet begun. I could barely see the road in front of me or control the car as I cried: “God help me! Somebody help me!” It was not Advent but it just as well could have been for I was calling out: “Come, O Rescuer!”
I know that some of you have been trapped in the same mineshaft that I have been in or ones like it. I remember when I preached on the topic of depression to my friends at Our Savior Lutheran Church there were more than a few people who said to me afterwards: “If it wasn’t for Jesus and Prozac, I wouldn’t be alive today.” And so I know that some of you are here.
“If you are going through hell,” said Winston Churchill, “keep going.” And that is what I say to all you miners. If you are going through hell then keep going through hell and keep on going through hell as difficult as hell is. There are people praying for you. There are people digging down through the earth to reach you. Jesus is calling you like he called to Lazarus to come out of the tomb. Keep on praying. Do not lose heart. God is coming. The light is coming from above.
And if it has not come then I invite you to visit me this winter in Maine where I am holed up in the Williamson’s house on the edge of Penobscot Bay. I am visiting hospice patients who are near to death and being inspired by their courage. We can sit together and wait. It’s dark in Maine during this Advent time of year.
“Where are you, help is on the way!”
“Here we are! We’ll hold out until you come!
“You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
“Come, O Rescuer!”
To the glory of God for the congregation gathered at the Meriden Congregational Church.