Kathleen McKellar Ferguson was my guest on The Amazing Women Bible Study recently, and it was great to hear her story. I’ve got to know Kathleen well since I moved to Scotland, as she is a native Scot who has moved home after many years living elsewhere for work.
Kathleen is very well known in musical circles here in Scotland, because she has sung professionally for many years, especially in opera, and now teaches singing at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.
It’s great to meet someone who is so passionate about their work. She teaches both post-graduates as well as undergrads, and does a lot of one-to-one tuition which enables her to really get to know her students. “It’s very different teaching the ladies, the sopranos; than some of the basses and baritones”, she says, “but I teach them all”, noting that some of them are with her for the full seven years of their higher education careers. “The students are my parish, and my community” she says – again with great warmth.
When I asked her about how long she had wanted a career in music, she said that it was a dream which had gone right back to childhood. She remembered clearly telling her mother that that is what she was going to do when she was only eight years old. Music, has been a great passion for her right into adult life; as both a performer at the highest level and now training some of the finest young operatic singers in the land.
Despite knowing professional success, life has not been totally straightforward for Kathleen however. While she was living in London, teaching at the Purcell School and performing professionally all over Europe, she started to experience some difficulties. “It was one of my flat-mates who said to me, ‘I think you’re depressed’” she recalls. At the time she hadn’t heard much about depression and didn’t know a huge amount about it. Yet it was the illness which was to mark out the next three years of her life.
“People with depression have all kinds of different symptoms” she recalls now. “For me, the primary one was exhaustion.” She describes hauling herself to work, managing the day, the just sleeping and sleeping. “I may have looked superficially happy”, she said, “but inside all the color was being sucked out of my life and inside everything was black”.
When I asked her about what depression was like for her as a Christian, she was very insightful. She said that the depression challenged her faith. She recalled, reading every single verse in the Bible that referred to ‘hope, looking to see where it could be found. She says that her faith and her church both grew through the hard experience of three years of severe depression.
Her church were initially very unsure about how to respond to her illness. These days mental illness is talked about far more openly than it was then, when it still carried some sense of stigma, and was almost a taboo subject. “I decided to be open about what I was experiencing from the start” Kathleen says, “which wasn’t always comfortable for them”. It’s lovely to hear the story of how that local church learnt to walk with her through the experience.
Depression also changed Kathleen’s faith. “I learned that real faith does not depend on my feelings” she says. There is a passage in the Bible which is especially significant to Kathleen now, which comes from Isiah 45:
I will give you the treasures of darkness
And hidden riches of secret places,
That you may know that I, the Lord,
Who call you by your name,
When I asked her to explain why those words meant so much to her, she told me that we tend to assume that ‘treasures from the Lord’ will be things we gain in moments of great joy; and that we will find treasures ‘in the light’. But this verse says that God gives us treasures of darkness. I was fascinated, and asked what treasures The Lord had given her in the darkness of depression. She told me she had been given a new sensitivity to the sufferings of others; she had learnt to find vale in who she is in Christ – not in what she is able (or not able) to do; she has a stronger grasp on what is real and what matters in life; and she formed lifelong deep friendships at a level she had never previously known. There were indeed treasures there in the darkness.
When I asked her what advice she would give to people currently enduring depression she was equally helpful. “Don’t isolate yourself!” was her first response. She explained that when exhausted with depression, she used to feel that her presence was too demanding on others, and so there was a double-temptation to hide away from the world. She strongly advised against that; but urged people to stay in contact with friends and family. She added, get a good Doctor, and seek out good medical help when you need it. Then, get a counsellor with whom you can talk at whatever length you need, Some people think that getting counselling is a sign of weakness, but that’s quite wrong. Having the courage to make the call to a counselling service can be a really positive thing to do. Finally she said, “get a prayer partner”. Kathleen even now, many years later speaks with infectious warmth about the friend from her local church who came and prayed with her and for her through those three tough years.
When I asked Kathleen about what advice she would give to anyone who has friends or family who are suffering, she was equally effusive. “Never ask, how are you?” because very often the honest answer is just “I feel dreadful”. Instead learn more positive helpful conversational starters such as, “It’s so lovely to see you”. Depressed people often feel unlovable, Kathleen explained, and told me that it is so important to affirm your appreciation of them, both verbally, and by just being present in their lives. “Don’t give depressed people big, deep, books – even Christian ones” she also advised. Concentration spans for people who are unwell are often poor, and they can’t manage it. “Text a Bible verse, don’t send a tome!” was her sage advice.
Now married, and back at home in Scotland, Kathleen still engages her love of music, and singing, and can look back on that difficult time in her life with gratitude to the friends, church and God who sustained her through it all.
You can see the full interview on YouTube here: and Kathleen’s website here
Angela Courte MacKenzie is a broadcaster, pianist, vocalist, and worship leader. Her music has traveled all over the world through her Facebook live events and The Power of Praise program as a witness to the glory of God. Angela holds a B.A. degree in music/vocal performance from the University of Central Florida, and a M.A. in apologetics from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Her desire is to awaken hearts to Christ through music, Bible Teachings, blogs, one 2 one chats, the gifts of laughter and simply life in “real time.”
To find out more about Angela visit www.angela.org. To hear her music and other offerings visit her YouTube channel www.youtube.com/angelacourtemackenzieofficial.