When the phone rang in my hotel room in the middle of the night, I knew. I’d dreaded this call for weeks, begged God that it would never come.
Becky, more than a thousand miles away, wept on the other end. “He’s gone. My Dad’s gone.”
A couple months ago Phil asked me some tough questions: Did you feel like this when you were depressed? How long did it last? What did you do to treat it? What caused it?
My favorite pastor, my counselor, my role model, my father-in-law was in the thick of it. The most joyful man I’ve ever known was melancholy, losing hope, so tired. Depressed.
“I haven’t found a quick cure,” I told him. “We just have to fight this with doctors and good food and prayer and family and exercise and scripture and everything we’ve got. How you feel right now isn’t who you really are and this isn’t who you’ll always be. Fight.”
And he did. We all did. But after months of fighting, we lost.
Phil didn’t choose to end his life just after midnight on May 31st. Depression killed him.
Phil was determined not to let that happen too. As a pastor for 48 years, he’d sat with broken widows, with devastated moms and dads, trying to make sense of suicide. He knew its scars are indelible and the questions it leaves are unanswerable.
Not long ago, Phil preached at the funeral of his dear friend John Petty, who was also killed by depression. I’ve read the eulogy Phil delivered to John’s friends and family a dozen times since that phone call from Becky. Phil’s words have comforted me in a way no one and nothing else has been able to.
How fitting that it would be Phil himself taking our hands now, ministering to us, walking us through our grief. I pray his words comfort you too and give you words to comfort others. Phil would want that.
John Petty and I were wonderful friends through the years, he was like a son to me really. I’m old enough that he could have been my son. We spent a lot of time together. We were recently with each other at the Baptist Children’s Convention of Texas. I knew John was struggling. I called him and said, “Let’s go to the convention”. He said he didn’t want to and I said, “Neither do I but let’s go anyway”. I flew down to Harlingen and met him. We rented a car, had some good Mexican food, and some good time together. I tried to encourage John as best I could.
There is an overwhelming sense of loss in John’s death. John Petty is gone. He’s not going to come through those doors anymore. He’s not going to bring his bible up here anymore to preach anymore. He’s not going to baptize anymore.
John Petty is gone. But he is just gone physically. He’s still here. When Jesus’ disciples came to the tomb they were told, “He is not here, He has gone on ahead”. John has gone on ahead, but he is still here. He’s here in Kelly. He’s here in Davis. He’s here in Mara. He’s here in his mom. He’s here in his siblings. He’s here in his friends. He’s here in this church. His life and his influence will be here until we are all gone and we’re together again. This is the hope of the Christian faith.
The family has asked me to talk a little bit about some of what John was going through. Patrick asked the question, “Why is John gone?” All of us want to know, “Why is John gone?” We can’t answer all of the whys. Paul wrote in I Corinthian’s 13:12 in the New International, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part and then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known”. The King James Version says, “For now we see through a glass darkly but then face to face. Now I know in part but then I should know, even as I am known”.
We can know in part. And this is the part we know. John suffered from a terrible illness that we label depression. It is called a time defying sadness. It’s unlike the sadness that you and I, in the normal sense, have when we are sad and then we are glad and then we get over it and then we go our way.
Depression is a time defying sadness. Depression speaks a language of its own known only to those who are depressed. Currently, some 19,000,000 Americans suffer from chronic depression. That’s 1 out of every 15 people in America. In fact, depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States and abroad for people over 5 years of age. Depression, we’re told, may be the biggest killer on earth. It claims more lives than war, cancer, and AIDS together. Twenty-eight million people in America, 1 out of 3 Americans, are on some kind of medication to try to handle this terrible, terrible darkness, time defying sadness, and confusion of mind and emotion.
Depression speaks a language of its own. A persistent and anxious emptiness. A feeling of hopelessness and pessimism. A sense of guilt and worthlessness and helplessness. A loss of pleasure or interest in things that were once extremely enjoyable. Restlessness, irritability, insomnia, early morning waking or oversleeping.
The scriptures refer to depression as “the plague that destroys at midday” Psalm 91:6. Even in those days, in the days of the Old Testament, people would be observed at the height of their career or the greatest time in their life being extremely sad or confused or disengaged. And so the writers would say it is a plague or demon that destroys when the sun is highest at the midday.
The question is often asked, “Is depression a reality for Christians and how does one know if depression is really a reality for him or for her?” Depression is both ancient and universal. In fact, those who study it, doctors and psychiatrists, tell us that depression is the most common emotional problem in America. It has risen to immense proportions. No one is immune to it. It is not a willful fault nor is it a sin.
Why did John go this way? Why did he choose this? He didn’t. The choice was being forced upon him by an overriding and overwhelming darkness. It is not a willful fault nor is it a sin. It is a signal that something is wrong. It is a signal that we need help and we need hope. It is not a disgrace. Some of the world’s most sensitive people have been susceptible to depression. When you read history you read people like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill who suffered serious depression. J.B. Philips, the author of The New Testament in Modern English, suffered serious depression. Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the greatest preachers of the last century, suffered depression. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great English preacher, struggled with depression to the point that he had to take two or three months off every year to deal with it. In 1866, he told his congregation of his struggle. He said “I am subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go through”. He explained that during these depressions every mental and spiritual labor had to be carried on under protest of spirit.
Depression knows no educational, cultural, or financial boundaries. Depression causes people to lose pleasure in daily life. From the scriptures, we find that leaders like Moses and Elijah, Job and Jeremiah suffered from depression to the point of wanting to end their lives. Elijah’s miraculous victory over the Prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 (NIV) is followed in the next chapter with Elijah despondent and trembling with fear. The Bible says, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life and when he came to Beersheba in Judah he left his servant there and went on a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough now, LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors!” The scriptures refer to that kind of depression as demonic. Job cried out in Job 3:24-26: “For sighing comes to me instead of food, my groans pour out like water. What I feared has come upon me, what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness. I have no rest. I am only in turmoil”. It is very difficult for us to understand. We don’t know why, because depression has a language that only those who go through it understand.
Andrew Solomon, some years ago, who suffered seriously from depression, wrote a book entitled The Noonday Demon taken from the scripture. He said, “Depression is the flaw in love”. When it comes in, it degrades oneself and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or to receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made real. And destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself. If good spirits, some love themselves and some love others and some love work and some love God. Any of these passions can furnish that vital sense of purpose that is the opposite of depression. In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaningless of life itself becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.
I want you to know about your pastor. Depression is emotional pain that forces itself upon us against our will. You heard these men who have known John Petty since he was a youngster, bright, intelligent, fun and fun-loving.
I can remember him when we went to Israel together and we came to the Dead Sea. He said, “I have always wanted to float in the Dead Sea”. I said, “John, you can’t sink. Here, take this cigar and Bible and go float”. And I took a picture of him floating on the Dead Sea. If you know anything about the Dead Sea it stinks like a dead sea. When he came out he could have knocked a cat off a fish wagon with the smell that was on him.
So you cannot understand how someone like this could come to a time like this. Ordinary grief is depression in proportion to circumstance. Depression like John had is grief out of proportion to circumstance. It been described as a tumbleweed distress that thrives on thin air, growing despite its detachment from nourishing earth. It takes time to develop in one’s life as it did in John’s. Every second of being alive hurts. We don’t know that if you don’t suffer from this kind of depression. You don’t know that.
The first thing that goes in major depression is happiness. You cannot gain pleasure from anything. I think of this wonderful church, and I think of these wonderful friends, and I think of the John as a sportsman, and I see this beautiful family. And it does not make sense that John could not be enormously happy except that depression had taken over his mind and will. Soon all other emotions follow; happiness into oblivion, sadness as you have known it, the sadness that seemed to have led you here, your sense of humor, your belief in a capacity for love. Your mind is leached until you seem dimwitted even to yourself. Eventually, you are simply absent from yourself.
The Bible says we see through a glass darkly. We don’t know how dark the darkness is in someone who is depressed. Through the darkened glass they can’t see the light of life or the love of others. They can only feel the pressure of the darkness of despair in their own mind. That darkness is visible to them and often invisible to us.
Tragedy always leaves unanswered questions. Always. None of us are exempt from the troubles of life. All of us are left with unanswered questions when these troubles come. Even people, those of faith, who have the promises of God that all will be OK in the world to come cannot help experience anguish in this one.
Christ himself was a man acquainted with grief. The apostle, Paul, faced many troubles and unanswered questions. That’s why he uses the word now twice and then twice. Now unanswered, then we’ll know.
When a tragedy like this happens, the first question that comes to us is, “why?” We can see no reason for it. We’re overwhelmed by the mystery of it. Jesus Himself asked the question on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In this tragedy, it seems as if God had forsaken John.
John had given his life and energies to serving God. Why then had God forsaken him? Why had God not taken away this darkness and despair? But God had not forsaken John. God was going through this hour with John. God was where we could not be. He was in and with John during these tragic moments leading to his death. Only those who suffer from depression can know the pressures and problems John endured. We don’t know how many times he came to this precipice and walked away. We don’t know how many battles he fought successfully before he lost this one. Life puts more pressure on some than others.
Today, we remember the good person that John was and all the good things he did with his life. These will not be blotted out nor forgotten by this one final, tragic act.
More On Phil Lineberger
- Former BGCT President Dead at 69
- His Church: Sugarland Baptist Church
- Phil Lineberger Sermons from Sugarland Baptist Church