The Study

The road is longer than I thought.

Yes: longer, and much harder too.

The pain is great. Why weren’t we told?

You didn’t hear Him when He warned you.

The victory songs we sang were lies.

Not lies, but only half the truth.

There is no sign yet in the skies.

Not yet, but His scars are our proof.

What can we hope for, as we wait?

For grace sufficient for our thorns.

And will this see us through His gate?

Of that you can be sure.

And then will day consume our night?
The endless day will start.

And will our faith then be made sight?

Yes, sight to fill your heart. 

~ “The Road” by Matthew Pullar (After Christina Rossetti’s “Uphill”)

My study has been a place of discovery. From a tiny space no bigger than a closet at my first church to a comfortable room with an easy chair, desk, and its own bathroom in Pennsylvania; from our unfinished basement in the Finger Lakes to an austere counseling office where I sat behind a large desk in a high-back leather chair – the precise space hasn’t mattered much. What matters are the things I’ve found out about God, myself, and the world as I’ve read books, listened to music, and reflected on popular culture to prepare for weekly sermons, monthly newsletter articles, and daily e-devotions.

In the study of my bipolar mind, I have collected books, movies, and songs that have impacted my understanding of my mental illness. The reflections that follow are roughly arranged chronologically, according to when I encountered the works (or when they most affected me).

These reflections are followed by a sermon called “Spiritual Depression” which I delivered on August 17, 2008 at Greenlawn Presbyterian church. This was in the period between when I attempted suicide and when I finally went on disability. It represents, in many ways, the end of my pastoral career, and, ultimately, the beginning of my writing career.

Time and space do not permit me to share all the resources that have influenced my life with bipolar, so I’ve included a section at the end of “The Study” called “On the Shelf” that points to some practical places you might go for further information and support.

The Kitchen

My heart set me off on this life

But grace’s pulse is all I know;

My feet soon learned to rise and walk

But grace is the path, wherever I go.

And as my mind has grown to think,

My tongue has learned to teach and wound.

My God, Your grace is everything:

How merciful the sound.

My steps have learned soon to be false

But righteousness has followed me;

My heart has blocked up my own breath

But love has flowed, a cleansing sea.

A covenant from birth to death

Has held me in its open palm.

My God, my life flows out in praise;

You hold me in Your arm.

~“Thanksgiving” by Matthew Pullar (inspired by Christina Rossetti’s “The Birthday”)

In spite of the irregularities of my disordered life, the kitchen has always been one place I could count on (thanks in large part to my wife) where I could regularly come for nourishment – food and fellowship. From a cup of coffee in the morning, a brief noon-time lunch, a leisurely dinner and conversation while cleaning up – the kitchen is a space to share stories, check in on the day, and look forward to better tomorrows.

In the kitchen of my bipolar mind I have stored cherished memories that have shaped who I am, nourishing reminders of God’s abundance through brothers and sisters in Christ, and humorous perspectives that try to make sense of my struggles. Here we can sit down with a cup of coffee and a piece of rich Kentucky Derby pie and enjoy the bitter-sweetness of life.

The Prayer Closet

God shakes the footprints of the sea,

The oceans of the clouds;

Darkness trembles, hailstones flee

At his resounding sound.

He carves crevasses into earth

And tree-trunks slowly bleed;

He weaves the seasons to new birth

First with a dying seed.

A spear has pierced through his own soul,

A crown of thorns his brow;

He breaks apart to make the whole

And he shall show me how.

And so he plants thorns in my side

To teach sufficient grace

And rips away the shame of pride

To shine his radiant face.

Deep darkness is his canopy

Yet he is thick with light;

He spreads the vast, dense galaxy

That he might shine more bright.

~ “Power Perfected in Weakness” by Matthew Pullar (After William Cowper’s “Light Shining Out of Darkness”)

I have very plain tastes when it comes to rooms for prayer, preferring stark simplicity to anything that might distract me from talking to and listening for God.

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar, we were living in a house that had a very narrow space adjacent to the master bedroom that we used primarily for storage. I set up a desk in this room where I placed my Bible and my journal. I spent much time in there attempting to pray. My mind was basically mush, however, and I wound up mostly letting out sighs and groans, in the hope the Spirit would turn these into prayer.

Later, when I was serving as pastor in the Finger Lakes region of New York, I set up a prayer room at church that had a padded kneeling bench as well as a simple cross and candle on a side table. My prayers had been answered. I was back in ministry full-time and enjoying life as a husband and father. In this space I could express my gratitude to the One who had given me so much.

The prayer closet of my bipolar mind is a place where the small flame of a Christ candle shines light on God’s Word. The Word becomes here “a lamp for my feet” (to see where I am) and a “light for my path” (to see where I’m going). I keep a journal here to record my praise for all God has done and list my petitions for my heart’s desires. This is the place where I lift up sighs, moans, memories, cries and complains and I listen – carefully and prayerfully, confident God always responds in love.

From the Depths of Sheol

For great is your steadfast love toward me;

you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. (Psalm 86:13, NRSV)

In the Bible, Sheol is the place where departed souls go after death to await resurrection. It is sometimes depicted as a place of torment, but often it is simply a state of tedium and nothingness.

In my life, I have experienced Sheol as the place I go when I am in particularly dark moods. I go there for indeterminate periods of time. I never seem to know how I got there or how to get out.

Sheol is a dark bedroom with the curtains closed.

Children playing outside, unwatched.

Disembodied voices on the radio sharing unending bad news.

A lifeless womb,

A tomb of unknown

Lost opportunities.

While in Sheol, it seems I’ll never get out, but I always do. God has consistently delivered my soul from the depths. With the saving faith of Jesus Christ, I trust this pattern will continue, and one day I’ll leave Sheol behind for good.

For now, I will put my faith in the grace of God through Jesus Christ, who has descended to the depths to pick me up. There is no depth to which Christ will not descend to rescue us. Even the depths of Sheol—in this life and beyond.

The Basement

God, my soul is thick with dread

And muted tears,

Sinking deeper with every step I tread

And losing feeble years

In silence.

Heavy drags the weight of days

Pulling me under,

And still you swamp me with all of your waves

And deafen with thunder

Yet say nothing.

I look up to your sky to find

There some escape;

Instead the clouds encompass all my mind,

A heavy cloak, a cape

But no flight.

To you I call all day, all night,

My spirit splayed;

The dead cry with me, yet they have no sight

To see your grace displayed

And do not dream.

My eyes veiled from what you have done,

Already close to death,

I follow you into oblivion

With weak and fading breath

And thinning faith.

Darkness is my closest friend;

Still I pray,

For, with no resolution and no end,

You may yet mend the fray

And bring in day…

~ “Despair” by Matthew Pullar (After George Herbert’s “Deniall”)

Basements come in diverse forms and serve a variety of functions. I’ve had everything from a century-old basement crawl space suitable only for hiding from tornadoes to a finished basement on Long Island that served as a separate living quarters when I was very low.

The basement in my bipolar mind is dark and damp yet soothing almost like a womb. Sometimes I fall into it when I’m least prepared. Other times, I methodically descend one step at a time.

When I was doing my best, while serving in Ovid, New York, I set up an office in our basement.

After often spiritually grueling Sundays, I would descend the basement stairs on Monday mornings to pray, become immersed in God’s Word, and sit in front of my computer screen, dreaming of new life to emerge.

The basement can be a deep pit we fall into and from which we never come out. Yet, when we have a solid foundation, the basement is the safest place to be protected from the storms around us (and within us). Time and again, God has met me in the basement of my bipolar mind and, after reminding me of His constant care, has shown me the stairs and directed me to face the world with greater confidence, better equipped to serve in the Spirit of Christ.

The Living Room

The prince of love, he speaks in whispers,

whispers low to my heart’s deep voice.

Where deep calls to deep

in waterfalls, I stand, his breakers

crashing down around me with

their silent shuddering, the voice

of love amidst the thundering;

to me he calls.

No-one there is with eyes of such fire

seated upon his sapphire throne,

with radiance that shines my soul with its burning

and his brightness a bow in a rainy-day’s cloud.

Inexpressible, he is: how he blends such bright fury

with the gentlest whisper of his nail-scarred palms,

sparkling in glory over valleys,

the Son of Man.

Let the world have its dazzling allure and stories;

the eyes of this prince, this prince of love’s glory

shine truer than all of the world’s diamond lies.

He sits with the blind man and Zacchaeus, the road-side

his banqueting table, for Samaritans and me.

Sit with me, friends, at his morning-bright table

and we too will shine with him

eternally.

~ The Bright-Shining Lord” by Matthew Pullar (After Ann Griffith’s “I Saw Him Standing”)

In our house, there is a room just off the family room we’ve used for various purposes. It has been a “music room” with a piano and CD player. It has been a “play room” with a toy box, monster Legos, and puzzles. It has served as a “sewing room,” where Alice and our daughters have made dresses and pajamas and gathered with friends and family to create lovely quilts. It is also perfect as a “courting parlor, with a partition that separates it from the family room – providing just enough privacy and just enough connectedness.

In the house of my bipolar mind, the “living room” is the space where I meet people outside my family and find God at work in the world. Whether it be with church folks or fellow psychiatric patients, the elderly or the young, therapists or pastors, this is a space where I explore ideas beyond myself and examine my faith perspective to discover who I am and who I’m called to become.

I realize for many people who battle bipolar disorder, this is a room that can be unwelcoming, even frightening. This is just as true for church folks as well. We often prefer to “hang out” or “fellowship” with those who “get” where we are coming from, who share our “worldview.” Yet, for spiritual and psychological growth to occur, we do best to follow the example of Jesus who ate with both publicans and Pharisees instead of hiding out in a hermitage.

The Family Room

Abiram, swallowed up by earth, was taken

Into the fiery core, our spinning planet

Not pausing to release him from its vortex;

I too am drawn in.

The Potter’s Field received Judas’ silver,

His body taken into soil, the true cost

Of what he bought Caiaphas with a swift kiss

From betraying lips.

I would have taken less than thirty pieces;

I have betrayed my Saviour for a trinket.

So I, like Judas and like dead Abiram,

Deserve gravity.

There is no soil to bury my betrayal

Or hide the bones that I have stripped of all flesh.

Only the night can for a time disguise them,

Soon to be found out.

Bright light – only when You enter my insides

Can darkness’ strong pull on me be halted.

Only if You come swiftly with Your promise

Will the vortex stop.

~ “Buried Above Ground” by Matthew Pullar (After William Cowper’s “Lines Written During a Period of Insanity”)

We’ve exchanged greetings on the front porch. You’ve taken off your mud-caked shoes and placed some slippers on your feet. Now, I’d like you to follow me to the left, into the family room.

There are wide-planked wooden floors marked up more than a bit from when we’ve moved furniture around. The furniture has been handed down from generation to generation, some of it refurbished, some of it worn and tattered from family cats before we had them de-clawed. There are quilts made from old clothing and an afghan crocheted with prayer while awaiting news from one of my hospitalizations. The walls are filled with family pictures from cross-country trips to daily activities, like building snowmen and feeding the goats. Biblical verses and spiritual mottos are framed beside the photos, reminding us of our purpose and identity.

We sit down, get comfortable and talk about common things that reveal who we are, who we’ve been, and to Whom we belong. We share family stories – some funny, some tragic – not as a way to brag about our pedigree (as if we had one), but to praise God from one generation to the next.