I have recently returned from a Christian festival. I have spent the last week camping in close proximity amongst 10,000 other people and have filled my days with large gatherings, seminars, conversations and non-stop human contact. As an introvert who needs a heavy dose of personal space and reflection every day just to function well this was a challenge. But it is one I generally relish after the initial shock. For the past 10 years this annual gathering has refreshed me, challenged me and nurtured both my faith and ministry. I am hugely grateful for all that this gathering, and the movement that it represents stands for. I shall be returning again next year.
There is however one element about this gathering, and perhaps others like it, and I suppose the general culture of the evangelical charismatic movement, that I continue to wrestle with. And it is this. I always spend the whole week feeling like the Cinderella at the ball, the Eeyore of the story, the killjoy and the party-pooper. There is an overwhelming positivity to these weeks that is intoxicating – a wave of smiles, and applause, ‘amazing’s and ‘fanastic’s that in themselves are great but as an almost unbroken experience just start to feel a little incongruous. And I spend the week struggling with it in a sea of people who all seem to simply lap it up.
I am a self-confessed melancholic. By which I mean, not that I suffer from depression in the sense we use it and which used to be called melancholia, but that I do tend to see the world rather glass-half-empty rather than full. I have spent years as a Christian wrestling with this disposition, even praying that somehow the joy that I am supposed to possess would be a little more exterior. But as the years have gone by, and an ever deeper appreciation of joy and grace have come without any fundamental change in this aspect of my character, I have come to see my melancholia, my sensitivity to the negative experiences and feelings of the lives of many people, as something of a gift.
So I want to stand up, in the manner of an AA meeting and confess that ‘my name is Paul and I am a Christian melancholic’. Not, to divert from the analogy, because I am unhealthily attached to seeing life so negatively, but to make a positive stand and admit for myself and to others that it might actually be good for me and the church.
The church needs melancholics. We need people who are sensitive to the negative emotions and experiences of the world around us. I love the passion and intention with which the charismatic movement of which I am a part shines a light on the inaugurated reality of the Kingdom of God. The Good News of the Kingdom is that it is here, and it is heralded by sign of wonders of the Kingdom, healings, deliverance, supernatural gifts. But, as one speaker this week helpfully put it, ‘we must continue to journey with those who still wait for healing’, or deliverance, of whatever it is they hope for. And so we need people who can ‘mourn with those who mourn’, who can empathise with those in pain, who will notice those caught up more in the ‘not yet’ of the Kingdom more than the ‘now’.
But I believe melancholics offer more than just empathy whilst we wait for the fulfilment of the Kingdom. Mary Oliver puts it beautifully:
‘Someone I loved once gave me
A box full of darkness.’
It took me years to understand
That this, too, was a gift’
While the world avoids negativity and darkness at all costs, dulling its pain and vulnerability with an assortment of narcotics, alcohol, work, busyness, sex (what Barbara Brown Taylor calls ‘artificial lights’), the Christian Gospel of hope is one that believes the darkness of our lives is not an experience where God cannot be, or an experience to be feared and avoided. Darkness is a place where God is. Indeed darkness it often the place where God does some of his best work in our lives. Darkness is even the place where God does some the work that cannot be done any other way!
A culture of fist-bumping positivity, so much the feel of the 24 – hour TV entertainment world we live in and the Facebook profile story we write for ourselves, is therefore an anaesthetic to the grace of God in these situations. It steamrollers over them. It suppresses and denies truth and the possibility of grace for those living in the shadow of death. Darkness really is a gift. But one we must discover by digging. There really are diamonds in the darkness but we must learn to mine for them.
In this sense melancholics can be ministers of hope, pausing in the darkness with those who struggle and those who weep. Melancholics can be those whose ears and hearts are attuned to the pain and anguish of the world and who can therefore help others to listen to their own pain long enough to find the voice of God within it. Melancholics need not be the Cinderella to the annual summer parties of the church – they are a profound gift to the church in this age between the now and the not-yet and we must learn to embrace the ministry that they bring.