I suffered with depression for quite a long time. It’s really difficult to pinpoint when it began, but anytime I reflect on it, my memory always seems to trace it back to the relatively short amount of time we lived in Detroit, Michigan. I was born in Royal Oak, and for the first five years of my life we lived in Detroit. I was an exuberant, outgoing child who had a knack for making people laugh, but that seemed to change beginning with my racist encounters in Detroit. I haven’t exactly outlined this article, so forgive me if it seems a bit scatterbrained.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m Afro-Puerto Rican: my dad is white and my mom is half black and half Puerto Rican. As a coloured person, when I tell people I suffered racism at such a young age, they expect it to be from white people, and they would only be half right. Without going into specific details, in kindergarten I was bullied and physically abused by a white 5th grader because of the colour of my skin, and my black teacher emotionally abused me for the same reason. As I got older, most of the racism I’ve experienced has been from black people. To many of them, I’m not “black enough” because I don’t dress, act, or talk like them, or listen to the same music as them. (No one on the black side of my family is like this, fortunately.)
Anyway, I suspect Detroit is where my depression began, and I continued to be bullied throughout most of school for various reasons, and my parents’ divorce when I was 16 certainly didn’t help either. With all these factours combined, I suffered immensely with my self-worth, even after I became Christian. Although I never acted on it, I had constant thoughts of suicide, but I became awfully close one time. Determined to throw myself in the middle of the road and get run over by a car, something—I didn’t know what—moved me to call my mom. To keep the story short, she picked me up from school and took me to therapy. And at the fresh age of 17, I was diagnosed with major depression. And when therapy was ineffective and Prozac only made my depression worse, I didn’t know what or to whom I could turn. (Side note: Much later into my adulthood, I found therapy and medication very helpful.)
Even though I was still new to the Christian faith, and even though I believed God was with me, I felt that all I really had was music and poetry. Being so withdrawn, I couldn’t trust anyone with what I was going through, not even my own parents and siblings, so music and poetry became my best friends. It wasn’t because I had such terrible friends and parents (they’re all wonderful), but rather I was absolutely terrified of opening up to anyone.
Before I came to faith, poetry was more like therapy and music was simply a hobby. But as I began wrestling with my faith and depression, poetry and music sort of became a way for me to commune with God, as unLutheran as that sounds. It’s not entirely unLutheran, though, when you really think about it.
Poetry and music are what we’d call “first article gifts,” referring to the first article of the Creed. The first article is, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” which Luther explains in his Small Catechism, “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.”
In short, the first article of the Creed has to do with creation. Where did everything come from? God. Where do our needs come from? God. Where do our talents, skills, and vocations come from? God. And so on.
When I wrote poetry, I felt closer to God, whether it was a poem expressing my depression, or my love for nature, or my love for a person, or was about God Himself. When I played music, I felt closer to God, whether it was jazz or classical. When I say these made me “feel” closer to God, I suspect it might raise a red flag for my Lutheran readers, which happens for good reason. But when I say I felt closer to God, I don’t mean the enthusiasm/mysticism we rightly criticise in American evangelicalism. What I mean is that God’s love and grace became clearer to me in poetry and music. I’m not quite sure I can explain it very well, but I’ll do my best.
When I write poetry, it’s a lot like prayer for me. “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:5b-7). This is what happened, and still happens, when I write poetry. Whether the poem is praise, thanksgiving, theological, or lament, God hears my prayer, and He comforts me. I’ve written a lot of depressed poems, especially in my early days of writing poetry. These were like laments I wrote to God, and I truly believe He heard my cries when I wrote them. And I believe He was the small voice in my head that urged me to call my mom rather than following through on my planned suicide. Poetry saved my life.
At first, like I said, music was simply a hobby. Mostly, it was a distraction from my depression, loneliness, anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness. I mentioned that when I was very little, I used to be exuberant and outgoing. This changed during my depression. I became extremely withdrawn. And now, I’m introverted. And for the longest time, I built this wall around my heart and wouldn’t open up to anybody. That’s why I’m quite stoic today. I felt that I couldn’t be myself around anyone for fear of being judged, and I had good reason when I discovered that people were spreading lies about me when they found out I was depressed and going to therapy. So, I couldn’t trust anyone. I was utterly alone. All I had was poetry and music.
When I play music, everyone and everything gets shut out. In music, I am me—my raw spirit and emotions. In music, all my anger and sorrow are let out. When I play music, it’s just me and God. For me, music is God’s handwriting, and He’s given me the gift of reading it. There’s a reason why I went into professional music performance. Music saved my life.
As the years passed, I continued communing with God through poetry and music, including my career in the Army Bands. After I got out of the Army to become a pastor, the devil immediately began attacking me with doubts that I wasn’t saved. I wasn’t good enough, I sinned too much, that one big sin is unforgivable—and, as a Calvinist at the time, I didn’t produce enough fruits of repentance, so how could I truly know I was one of God’s elect?
I was going to Concordia University-Ann Arbor (CUAA) at the time, and that’s when a piece of music changed my life forever: Matins. Now, I had no idea what Lutheranism was, and the little I did know were misunderstandings I was told from other people. I was only going to a Lutheran university because CUAA has the best biblical languages programme in the state of Michigan. For once, my ignorance worked out for my benefit!
Anyway, I walked into chapel one morning and they were doing Matins. I had two reactions to this: (1) this is really weird (because I’ve never heard worship music like this before), and (2) this is so beautiful! Both poetically and musically. As a former Calvinist/evangelical, I grew up with contemporary worship music, so I had never heard anything quite so divinely poetic and musical at the same time. We stood and sang the Venite, which is unsurprisingly poetic since it’s literally just Psalm 95:1-7 (LSB pages 220-221):
O come, let us sing to the Lord, let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. Let us come into His presence with thanksgiving, let us make a joyful noise to Him with songs of praise. For the Lord is a great God and a great king above all gods. The deep places of the earth are in His hand; the strength of the hills are His also. The sea is His, for He made it, and His hand formed the dry land. O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
This music, and the poetry coming from Psalm 95, moved my heart and spirit.
But it was the Te Deum that really did it for me (LSB pages 223-225):
We praise You, O God; we acknowledge You to be the Lord. All the earth now worships You, the Father everlasting. To You all angels cry aloud, the heavens and all the pow'rs there in. To You cherubim and seraphim continually do cry: Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of the majesty of Your glory. The glorious company of the apostles praise You. The goodly fellowship of the prophets praise You. The noble army of martyrs praise You. The holy Church throughout all the world does acknowledge You: The Father of an infinite majesty; Your adorable, true, and only Son; also the Holy Ghost, the Comforter. You are the king of glory, O Christ; You are the everlasting of the Father. When You took upon Yourself to deliver man, You humbled Yourself to be born of a virgin. When You had become the sharpness of death, You opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. You sit at the right hand of God in the glory of the Father. We believe that You will come to be our judge. We therefore pray You to help Your servants, whom You have redeeméd with Your precious blood. Make them to be numbered with Your saints in glory everlasting. O Lord, save Your people and bless Your heritage. Govern them and lift them up forever. Day by day we magnify You. And we worship Your name forever and ever. Grant, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin. O Lord, have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us. O Lord, let Your mercy be upon us, as our trust is in You. O Lord, in You have I trusted; let me never be confounded.
And with this poetic music, I was literally moved to tears. After singing these words, boom! all my doubts were gone. This Matins service is what led me down the path of Lutheranism for the beauty of our extra nos theology: that God’s work of salvation and, therefore, our assurance of salvation is not within us (enthusiasm/mysticism) but is outside ourselves (extra nos) in His Word and Sacraments.
If you haven’t listened to these before, I strongly encourage you to click on the hyperlinks above and give them a listen.
Physically, poetry and music saved my life by turning me away from suicide. Spiritually, poetry and music saved my life in the extraordinarily beautiful poetry and music of the Divine Liturgy. Of course, it was Jesus who saved me, and as is His modus operandi, He saves through means (Word & Sacrament, and additionally for me, poetry and music).
To this day, I still write poetry quite avidly, and I have several poetry books in the works to be published. One of them is titled Demon of the Mind that is the collection of all my depressed poetry, which tells the story of my depression to my redemption and restoration in Christ. As of the writing of this article (very late at night on December 19, 2021), I have written 2,190 poems. (Yes, I autistically number my poems.)
Being that I no longer play professionally and am now a pastor in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, I don’t get to play music nearly as much as I used to, but I do play any chance I get, and every time I do, I find myself back in my own world where it’s just me and God. The same is true whenever I sing a hymn or the liturgy. Almost every time I sing Matins or something like the Gloria in Excelsis in Divine Service Setting Three, I am virtually moved to tears. First, as a layman, I got to commune with God via the liturgy’s poetry and music, and now I get to do that professionally as a pastor.
As we confess with David in Psalm 16, God is my refuge, and I take refuge in God through poetry and music, especially when it’s a hymn or the liturgy. Through poetry and music, all my cares and anxieties are cast upon Him—at the feet of Jesus upon the cross—and they are crucified with Him. Then I step away with His peace and easy yoke (Matthew 11:28-30) to return to these with praise in my pen and exaltation on my lips for my Lord who’s saved me.