I came across an article in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Medicine which talked about depression.
The study’s findings suggested that religious people were just as likely to experience depression as non-religious people; and even more so, in some cases.
On some level, these findings are surprising. Don’t you think?
You’d think that practising one’s faith, living out one’s spirituality, actually enhances or improves one’s psychological, emotional and even physical well-being.
We know about the benefits of meditation and prayer – they’ve been widely talked about and experienced by many people.
What’s more, is that we’re regularly exposed to TV and online mega-church preachers who often preach what’s been referred to as “the prosperity gospel” –
…the idea that God wants each of us to be successful, wealthy and healthy,
…and that it’s up to us, that if we just try hard enough, if we just think positively enough,
…if we just believe and hope and have enough faith, well then, most certainly, we won’t be depressed, or experience failure (according to the society’s standards) or make mistakes or get into trouble.
All you have to do, says the “prosperity gospel,” is just “have enough faith”, or just “accept Jesus”, or just “pray harder” – and then, only then will God’s numerous blessings of success, wealth and health be activated in your life.
As attractive and popular as this “prosperity gospel” might sound, it doesn’t however truthfully and fairly represent real lives and a real world.
For many people, simply “trying harder” or “doing good” doesn’t always or necessarily lead to a desired or better result.
And that’s not because they’re not “trying,” but because life happens, “stuff happens” outside and beyond their control.
Cancer strikes out of the blue, changing one’s life forever.
One is born with mental illness, which affects so much in life.
The economy turns, and a job layoff looms.
The personality traits with which someone is born, later in life lead to feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and unpopularity… socially, at school, in the work place.
We just have to remember some of the great figures of faith in the bible and in the world, and we realize pretty soon that just being and doing good, and following the way of Jesus, doesn’t necessarily and always lead to success, wealth and health.
Jesus himself ended up tragically crucified on a cross along with common criminals. Many of his disciples – Peter, James, Thomas – met painful, tragic deaths while spreading the good news of God’s love.
The Rev’d Dr Martin Luther King Jr., one of the great religious figures of the 20th century, endured deep despair, was harassed and jailed, and in the end was brutally assassinated.
Mother Teresa, whom we’d all consider a saint, not only suffered physical pain toward the end of her life, but also a deep depression, a spiritual “dark night of the soul” where she questioned and doubted everything.
Would we ever dare say that these people didn’t have enough faith?
The reality is, suffering, sadness, “failure” – that’s all part and parcel of the human reality for all people, for all of us, including those of us who practice our religion.
The bible itself allows us to linger with sorrow. To stay there… in the mud.
As is evident with the first reading today bearing the very name “Lamentations,”
or the tragic story of the good man Job,
or in some of the Psalms,
or in the story of the exile of the Israelites in Babylon,
or Jesus weeping at the death of his close and dear friend Lazarus.
In biblical spirituality, we’re given permission to truly lament, and linger with sorrow.
The disciples in today’s Gospel reading ask Jesus to “increase” their faith. “Increase our faith Lord” they cry. Perhaps they’d become so aware of their own inability to trust in God, forgive others, love as Jesus loved.
But Jesus’ response is telling. He says, that all you need is “faith the size of a mustard seed.”
In other words, you could have an almost non-existent faith, and still, wonders, miracles, can happen.
That’s because it’s not all up to us. It’s not up to us to somehow, on our own strength, muster up some increased, high level faith… as indeed the disciples were assuming.
It’s not about us. It’s about God.
It’s about letting God do what God wants to do in our lives and world.
It’s about opening up to and allowing God’s Spirit to flow in and through us.
It’s really about surrendering, deferring to the Holy One,
and acknowledging that we can achieve great things, and accomplish a lot of good, but only with the Spirit of God working in and through us.
About a hundred years ago, when communism was getting entrenched in Russia and Eastern Europe, many churches were destroyed and blown up by the communists who detested religion.
Priests, monks and nuns were executed.
The church in these areas was in a real fragile state, on the brink of total extinction.
These broken, fragile churches, reduced to almost nothing, were occupied only by a small handful of elderly women.
And these grey-haired grandmothers would gather regularly in these crumbling sanctuaries simply to pray together.
Communist leader Vladimir Lenin saw the trajectory of these fragile churches, and once happily smirked: “Ha, once these grandmothers died, nobody will remember there had even been a church in Russia.”
But, against everyone’s expectations, these praying grandmothers proved to be the nucleus of revival, the starting point for new life, new growth in the churches.
Gradually, over decades, younger people joined these grandmothers for weekly prayer, and by the fall of the Berlin wall in 1988, many Eastern European and Russian churches were vital and growing.
And the people in these churches today testify that the source of that revival was those praying grandmothers.
They’d confidently say: “As long as the Russian church has its grandmothers, it will survive!”
We need only faith the size of a mustard seed.
We need only to “be still, and know that God is God”. (Ps 46)
Just like those praying grandmothers.
We need only to be still enough, so we can be aware, as the Lamentations passage says, that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning…[and] great is [God’s] faithfulness.”
That’s what matters: God’s faithfulness to us, even and especially in our difficult moments of pain and sorrow.
The question is: Are we open to God’s presence in our lives and in our world… open to God’s enlivening, courageous, gracious, compassionate Spirit moving in the world?
Are we still enough, quiet enough, to notice?