Saturday, July 22, 2023

“A Scientist (?) Looks at Life from a Faith Perspective” - July 23, 2023

Text: Genesis 1:1-28, 31

On your Summer Sermon Request line, the request for today is “A favorite from the archives – for those of us who missed it the first time.”   

Well, the archives go back pretty far.  I could have chosen a sermon from 25 years ago, but the sermon that came to mind was more recent - it was actually from the time I asked for sermon suggestions a few years ago.  Back then, the suggestion slip read “A scientist (chemist) looks at life from a faith perspective.”  It was signed simply Borgen, but I knew it wasn’t from Dianne.  This was Fred’s doing.

As most of you know, Fred is a psychologist and much of his professional work focused on personality and vocation.  I have watched Fred countless times talking to students after the service.  He was especially interested in their majors and more than that, where their lives were heading.  

My undergraduate degree is in chemistry, and when Fred suggested this topic, he was really giving me more respect than I deserve.  I would not describe myself as a chemist or a scientist – that’s where the question mark in the title comes from.  I took Fred’s suggestion as really asking for both something about my personal experience – of the journey from chemistry to ministry, and something about the relationship between the two – between science and faith.

Gerald Kirkman was my high school chemistry teacher.  He was a big athletic guy with a sharp mind and a great sense of humor.  He played college football at Indiana State and was a PE major, not taking the academic side of things too seriously, until one day an assistant coach pulled him aside and said, “Kirkman, you are a decent player but you are not going to make a career of this.  You are a smart guy and you need to find yourself another major.”  (No offense to any PE majors out there.)  That assistant football coach was also Indiana State’s head basketball coach – that’s the way things worked back then.  His name was John Wooden.  Yes, the John Wooden who coached UCLA to 10 NCAA basketball championships.

I can say that Johnny Wooden had an influence on my life, because Mr. Kirkman decided to become a chemistry teacher.  He was a great teacher and was elected president of the National Science Teachers Association.  North High School offered a second year of chemistry, Advanced Chemistry.  We had to come in an hour early, before school started, to have time for the labs.  Mr. Kirkman was a great guy and I loved it.    

I went to college in my hometown, at Evansville, and majored in chemistry.  I was president of the American Chemical Society student affiliate.  I worked two summers in the research division at Mead Johnson, a pharmaceutical and nutritional manufacturer in town.

But other things were happening in my life through those years.  I became involved in the Baptist Student Union and began to feel a call to ministry.  And eventually that was the path I took.

I don’t think it really occurred to me that the scientific approach to life, if there is such a thing, could not mesh with a spiritual approach to life.  And in fact, I felt like I was better prepared for seminary than some of the students who had gone to Christian colleges and majored in religion.  

A background in chemistry helped me to think analytically.  It helped me to ask questions, to consider possibilities.  And if someone were so inclined I would encourage them as a pre-theology student to major in chemistry or biology or a similar field as a good preparation for seminary – and to take some psychology and sociology and religion courses along the way.

I also remember as a seminary student coming home and preaching at my home church.  Sitting there in the congregation was my chemistry professor and research advisor Dr. Beckman.  Some of the chemistry faculty felt like I had squandered a promising career and they kind of disowned me the spring of my senior year, after I had applied to seminary.  I think this was Dr. Beckman’s way of giving her blessing on the choice I made.  A progressive Presbyterian who came to hear me preach as a then-Southern Baptist seminary student, she had this sense that faith and ministry and science could all be toward the end of making for a better world.

Years later, after coming to this church, I earned a Doctor of Ministry degree at United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities.  My thesis project involved university congregations.  Basically what I was doing was Sociology of Religion – a scientific approach to a question about faith communities.

It strikes me that my background is similar to many of you.  I think about our church – in recent years we have we had professionals and undergraduates and grad students in agronomy, soil science, chemistry, biology, biochemistry, neuroscience, plant science, forestry, food science, nutrition,  animal science, veterinary science, computer science, and other sciences – I’m sure I’m leaving somebody out - along with just all kinds of engineers.  And then we have plenty of social science people in our church, including Dr. Borgen.

With all of these sciences represented, the question may be, which is the highest science?  Which is the most “sciencey” science?  You might think of a progression from less exact to more exact sciences – from biology to chemistry to physics to mathematics.   But centuries ago, one science stood above all others.  Do you know what it was?  It was Theology.  Theology was known as the Queen of the Sciences because it dealt with ultimate matters.  And sciences – discovering natural phenomena, solving mathematical equations, working out the laws of physics – science was understood as thinking God’s thoughts after God.  

Well, it has been a long time since theology has been thought of as the Queen of the Sciences.  But some today go so far as to see faith and science as opposed to one another.  This view comes both from secularists who see no place for matters of the spirit and from religious fundamentalists who see science as the enemy.  

The Tom Troeger hymn we sang, “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning,” speaks of the way that science and faith need each other and complement each other.  The hymn ends, “Blend, O God our faith and learning till they carve a single course; till they join as one, returning praise and thanks to you, the Source.”

I know that plenty of you are more qualified than me to speak on “A Scientist Looks at Life From a Faith Perspective.”  (We have actual chemists here in the sanctuary and on Zoom.)  I think about Bob McCarley.  Bob was a chemistry professor and chair of the department at Iowa State.  He also served as our moderator and trustee and Sunday School teacher here at First Baptist.  Nine years ago, on the Sunday before school started, I sat with Bob and Jenna at a table during fellowship time.  I remember Bob having this engaging conversation with a new student here for the first time.  And then, two days later, Bob was gone.  

I remember a story I told at Bob’s funeral.  His family was on one of those epic family trips.  They made a palette in the back of the station wagon and the four kids would lie down and go to sleep, but one was supposed to ride shotgun and keep Bob awake.  One night Bob and Jenna’s daughter Kyanne was riding shotgun.  It was a beautiful night, the sky was filled with stars, and Bob talked to her about his work.  He described the intricacy of molecules and the beauty of the way things worked and fit together in the universe.  He said that the world was so beautiful and so amazing, there had to be a higher power.

That is a chemist looking at life from a faith perspective.  For Bob, science actually pointed toward faith.  

His views were captured by the Psalmist who wrote, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.”  If the ancient world had known what we know, the writer could have just as easily written, “The atoms are declaring the glory of God and the molecules proclaim God’s handiwork.”

Our bulletin cover artwork this morning is Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.  It captures the wonder and awe of the stars in the sky.  At its best, science and art and faith all involve wonder.  Science is about being open to new possibilities.  There was an article some time ago in the Des Moines Register about Parkinson’s Disease, which I took note of because of Elizabeth Stegemöller’s research.  It is especially timely as RAGBRAI starts today.  

Dr. Jay Alberts of the Cleveland Clinic was participating in RAGBRAI.  For anybody out of town on Zoom who may be unfamiliar with RAGBRAI, it involves riding your bike across Iowa for a week along with thousands of other people and eating lots of pie.  Alberts was on a tandem bike with Cathy, a Parkinson’s patient.  The ride was intended to bring attention to the need for more Parkinson’s research.  But Alberts and Cathy stumbled onto an important finding: Cathy’s physical abilities improved after a day of pedaling, and then improved more after another day.

Alberts knew exercise was important, but how important was driven home to him on RAGBRAI.  On a tandem, Cathy was forced to go at his speed, which was significantly faster than hers.  On the bike, Cathy didn’t feel as stiff.  She was pedaling faster, and her brain function was better.  As she wrote postcards and mailed them to her family from across Iowa, her handwriting became more legible.  “It was a serendipitous discovery,” Alberts said. “Science can happen anywhere, even in the cornfields of Iowa.”

Science is about trial and error, about experimentation and observation.  It is about paying attention.  And it involves being willing to change your assumptions.  Basically, if you are doing science right, you have to have humility.

There is something called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Heisenberg was a physicist looking at subatomic particles, and the Uncertainty Principle says that both the position and the velocity of an object cannot be measured at the same time.  You can know exactly where something is, or you can know how fast it is going, but you can’t know both exactly.

I think it is awesome that science has a principle about uncertainty.  Isn’t that beautiful?  And my goodness, that certainly translates to faith.  There is plenty that we don’t know.  There is plenty we are not quite certain about.  An approach of humility is essential in faith, as in science.  The notion that the way I interpret the Bible, the way I understand the world, the way I think about life and about God might need to change, that the spirit might speak to me, that God might lead me in a new way, is essential to faith.  

Our scripture this morning is the story of creation.  God painstakingly creates the world, working all day, calling it quits for the day, looking over what had been created and calling it good.  The light, the dark, the waters, the plants, the trees, the sun, the moon, the stars, fish and sea life, wild animals and cattle and creeping things of every kinds, and finally human beings.  Human beings, created in the image of God.  And then God said that it was very good.

It is a wonderful, powerful account of creation.  It is beautiful and poetic.  God takes great care with this creation and God regards it all as good.  It tells us that the universe and this planet and all that is in it is created by God and loved by God.  It gives us a sense of our place and our value in this world.

It would be ludicrous to read this and understand this as a 21st century science text.  Instead it inspires wonder and joy and gratitude and a sense of belonging in God’s world.

Science can answer the question of how, but we need faith to answer the question of why.  Science can collect data and tell us what is, but faith has something to say about what should be.  And so science and faith need one another.

Faith that ignores the world out there is shallow.  We need the very best scientific understanding, just as we need the guidance of spiritual understanding.  When faith tries to control what is true in the realm of science, it is never a good thing.  The earth is not flat and the sun does not revolve around the earth, but there were times when the Church condemned people who did not believe those things, based on its understanding of scripture.

The world of science also needs the influence of faith.  We need sensitivity and concern.  We need compassion and integrity toward the end of applying science to help build a better world.

I think about some of the issues this world is facing:
•    Clean water and equitable water distribution
•    Medicine and new therapies and bio-medical ethics
•    Artificial intelligience
•    Cybersecurity and information systems and privacy
•    Genetics
•    All kinds of public health issues
•    And looming over all of these, global climate change, which exacerbates other issues like extreme weather and habitat destruction and income inequality and so much more

In each instance, science and faith need one another to address difficult issues.  We don’t inhabit a world of the spirit, with another natural world out there.  It is all one world.  It is all God’s world.  And God said that it is good.

Too much religion is concerned solely with individual salvation.  Which is important - and very much a part of our Baptist tradition.  We need lives committed to Jesus Christ.  But when we are committed to the way of Jesus, we will be concerned about the world out there – the world that God loves.

The word religion literally means to bring back together – re–ligio (think ligaments).  Re-ligamentize.  Your religion is the way you make connections with God and people and the world out there – the way it all holds together.  At its best, our religion brings together scientific understanding and the power and understanding of our faith as we love God, love our neighbor, and love God’s world.  May it be so.  Amen.

Saturday, July 8, 2023

“Just a Little Talk with Jesus” - July 9, 2023

Text: Hebrews 4:14-16, Philippians 4:4-7

There were a lot of suggestions turned in for sermons for this summer, and the suggestion that I am following today was kind of a fun one, a little different one.  “I’d like you to use ‘Just a Little Talk with Jesus’ as the background for a sermon.”

I was familiar with “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.”  Our men’s group did a wonderful job singing that.  It is no doubt one of the funner gospel songs to sing, especially if you are a bass.  A lot of hymns, a lot of music period, has a pretty predictable and not overly exciting bass line.  Some of the choir anthems we sing – Mindy, I have to be honest - it’s like the composer didn’t trust the basses to do very much, but “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” is one where the basses actually get to shine.  

And the notion of the song – to have a little talk with Jesus – is very appealing.  It’s a great song.  So I decided to go with this suggestion – it seemed like a good idea with a lot of possibility.  And the fact that our beloved moderator suggested it didn’t hurt.

The first thing I did was to learn a bit about who wrote it and some of the history behind this song.  Interestingly, it is not in all that many hymnals.  I’m not sure why that is.  I’ve got 10 or 12 hymnals and this song wasn’t in any of them.  Maybe it’s because it really takes 4 parts to sing it as it should be sung and most of the music in hymnals is kind of just sing-a-long style – in most hymns, everybody at least sings the same words at the same time.  Just a Little Talk with Jesus tends to be found more in chorus-type books and in some African-American church hymnals, like the National Baptist hymnal and the AME hymnal.

Well, let me share some things I learned.  The song is written by Cleavant Derricks.  He was born in 1910 in Chattanooga.  He developed an early aptitude for music and took lessons at the Cadek Conservatory of Music, run by Joseph Cadek, a violinist.  He had two years of college at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College, a historically black college in Nashville that is now Tennessee State.  Some years later, he felt called to ministry and attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, another historically black institution.

Cleavant Derricks was a Baptist pastor, choir director, musician, and composer with over 300 songs to his credit.  He served churches in Dayton, Knoxville, and Jackson, Tennessee; Beloit, Wisconsin; and Washington, D.C.  He was known to everyone simply as Rev.  He and his wife had twin sons who are both musicians and actors who appeared in movies and TV shows and on Broadway; one of his sons won a Tony award.  And in 1984 Cleavant was inducted posthumously into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

I could take most of my time to talk about Cleavant Derricks, but let me mention one more thing.  Rev. Cleavant Derricks himself did not record “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” until late in his life.  In 1975, he made a visit to Canaanland Music in Nashville and asked for the opportunity to publish some new songs and record some of his material, which they were happy to do. The head of Canaanland, Aaron Brown, learned how Derricks had never properly been paid for his work.  Brown explained the situation in an interview:

For the first time in his life, Rev. became a licensed songwriter.  What I’m trying to say is he has virtually never been paid for his songs or their performances.  If he had become affiliated with one of the three song licensing agencies, he would be a millionaire by now.  No doubt about it.  Instead, what Rev. did was to sell his songs to the Stamps-Baxter publishing company in Texas.  He would sell them for almost nothing.  In return the company would furnish him songbooks for his songs.  He would sell those to make some money.

It’s disheartening to realize he made $5 for “Just a little talk with Jesus.”  I would say every gospel singer and every gospel group in the country has recorded “Just a little talk with Jesus.”

He wasn’t kidding.  Elvis, Dolly Parton, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Statler Brothers and all kind of gospel quartets, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Andy Griffin, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson, Gladys Knight, Charlie Daniels, even Veggie Tales included it in their big hit  “O Veggie, Where art Thou,” and countless more.  

Derricks did not seem bitter about the fact that he had essentially given away the rights to what turned out to be an extremely valuable song.  But at the very end of his life, he recorded some of his music and received some of the recognition that had been lacking for so many years.

That is some of the background.  Now let’s think about the song itself, and its message.

For me, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” is powerful because it connects us with the love and the welcome and the compassion of Jesus.  “I once was lost in sin, but Jesus took me in.”  There are no hoops to jump through, there are no qualifications, we don’t have to get things cleaned up before we are acceptable.  “I once was lost in sin, but Jesus took me in.  And then a little light from heaven filled my soul.”

Now you can sing this song and feel the joy and the liveliness and think, wow, this is just the opposite of Psalm 88, our text from last week - a Psalm just filled with despair and crying out to God.  But I don’t think that is the case.  

Sometimes my path seems drear without a ray of cheer…
The mists of sin may rise and hide the starry skies…
I may have doubts and fears, my eyes be filled with tears…

One of the reasons this is such a beloved song is that it takes seriously the difficulties of life.  I mean, this was written during the depression.  There is confession of our own sinfulness, but also expression of just how hard life can be.  

And yet we can sing, “I go to him in prayer, he knows my every care.”  Again, the real power of this hymn is Jesus knows us and understands us and is there for us and with us through all the storms of life.

How does Jesus understand?  Because he has been there.

Have you been misunderstood?  Even by your own family?  Have friends let you down?  Even betrayed you?  Jesus experienced all of that.

Have you tried to do the right thing and got nothing but grief for it?  Have people ever questioned your choice of friends?  Have you ever felt unwelcome by people in the religious community?  Jesus experienced all of that.

Have you ever had to flee for your own safety?  Have you ever been wrongly accused?  Have you ever suffered unjustly?  Jesus did.

Have you ever had questions about your vocation?  Have you ever been the object of insults?  Has your family struggled financially?  Have you ever felt alone?  Have you ever worked hard and had seemingly little to show for it?

My point is, Jesus understands.    

One interesting thing about this song is that we repeatedly find the word “little.”  Did you notice that?  It’s all over the place.

“Then a little,” “just a little,” “have a little,” “feel a little,” “know a little.”  “You will find a little talk with Jesus makes it right.”

There is a way of expressing things with the word “little” to where everybody knows this is not a small thing at all – this is actually a big thing.  Calling something “little” is underselling it, maybe purposely downplaying things to call attention that this is actually a big deal.

Think of all the song titles or phrases that include the word “little.”

Crazy Little Thing Called Love
With a Little Help from My Friends
Put a Little Love in Your Heart
Try a Little Kindness
Give Me Just a Little More Time
With a Little Luck
Hey big spender, spend a little time with me.

(I was going to add Little Old Lady from Pasadena, but that doesn’t quite fit this motif.)

What I’m saying is that a little talk with Jesus is not a small thing at all.  This is important.  This is huge.

Now one part of the song that may raise a question: “When you feel a little prayer wheel turning.”  What is a prayer wheel?   Hymn scholar C. Michael Hawn notes:

A prayer wheel is a cylindrical container, perhaps made of wood, metal, or some other substance.  Inside are inscribed the words of a prayer; or prayers may be written on a piece of paper and placed inside.  Prayer wheels are commonly used in Tibetan Buddhism, and practitioners believe that as the prayer wheel is turned or spun around, each rotation results in the prayers inside being somehow prayed, even if not spoken.

But as it turns out, prayer wheels are not exclusive to Buddhism.  Hawn believed Cleavant Derricks encountered prayer wheels himself.  They have a history of being used by some charismatic and Pentecostal Christians, and they were used by some African American worshipers before and after the Civil War.  From the time and place that Derricks grew up, prayer wheels may have been used in his religious community.  The idea of a prayer wheel is of continuous prayer.

And that gets us to the message of this song, and the message of our scripture this morning, which Ann and Jim read so well all of the way from Keene, New Hampshire, about 1250 miles away:

“Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

“The Lord is near.  Do not worry 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.”

These familiar scriptures are encouraging exactly what Rev. Derricks is encouraging in his hymn.  “Now let us have a little talk with Jesus, tell him all about our troubles.”  The take home message is: don’t hesitate.  Don’t make Jesus your last resort.  Jesus will listen. Jesus will understand.

Praying about everything, the idea of continuing in prayer, like a prayer wheel, or praying “without ceasing,” as Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians – how do we do that?  

For me, prayer is not just a “little talk” every now and then but more of an ongoing conversation.  And when we have a little talk with Jesus, that doesn’t mean that we are the ones doing all the talking.  

Taking time to be reflective, to listen, to be aware, taking time to just be with God, is a spiritual practice that can take discipline, and it won’t necessarily look the same for everybody.

I got an electric bike last summer and for me it has been great.  I have been riding my bike both to commute to church and just for fun, and one of the by-products of this is enjoying life at a slower pace.  Being out in nature, having time to enjoy the natural world, time to reflect a bit.  Riding out on an open stretch out by yourself can be a time to pray.  

Some people have that kind of experience when they walk or hike or walk the dog or maybe while they knit or crochet.  Maybe it can happen on your commute.  Or maybe you just take some time each day to be quiet, to reflect, to pray, to listen, to “be still and know that I am God.”  Maybe you take time at the end of each day to review the day and have a little talk with Jesus.

There isn’t one way and there certainly isn’t a particular technique to “Have a Little Talk with Jesus,” but the point of both our scriptures and this song is that it is so important to do that.  Jesus cares, Jesus understands, Jesus welcomes us and loves us.  Have a little talk with Jesus, and Jesus will make things right.

Now, Jesus doesn’t make things right in an automatic way.  It’s not we ask, we put in our order, and Jesus delivers.  And we don’t necessarily get the answer we want or in the way that we expect.

“He will hear our faintest cry and he will answer by and by.”

Sometimes it seems more like by and by and by and by.  The answer we want, the resolution we want, doesn’t always come quickly and it may never come at all.  But pouring our hearts out to God, telling Jesus all about our troubles – that in itself makes a difference, and we can give our burdens to Jesus.  And in God’s time there may come peace and wisdom and strength and even joy we would not have expected.

And we find a little talk with Jesus makes it right.  It makes it right.  Amen.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

“Christian Faith and Mental Health” - July 2, 2023

Text: Psalm 88

One of our sermon suggestions for this summer was on the topic of Christian Faith and Mental Illness.  It would be hard to think of a more timely issue.  We have all heard that there is a mental health crisis in our country.  Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a health advisory in 2021 regarding youth mental health.  He noted that one in three high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009.  And this was before COVID.

It is not just an issue for young people.  The CDC reports that almost 20% of American of all ages have been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives.  In a separate Gallup poll just released a month ago, 18% of adults said they were depressed.  This was 7 points higher than in 2015.  The Surgeon General has also talked about an “epidemic of loneliness” in our country.  

The statistics are daunting, but if you are the one experiencing mental health concerns, it is not about statistics.  It is personal.  I would guess it may be the case that everybody here this morning has been touched by mental illness – whether it is themselves or a family member or a close friend.  It’s true for my family.  

I had a friend in college named Lynnelle.  I was the lab assistant in her chemistry lab.  She was smart, she was popular, she was a leader in her sorority, she was a person of faith.  She seemed happy but hardly anyone knew what anguish she was going through.  And one night she took her own life.  I still think about Lynnelle from time to time, thinking about what great promise she had.

The statistics are stark, but it is the Lynnelles we know that bring this home for us.  Mental health is too important for us not to talk about it.

The question before us this morning is what role does our faith play when it comes to mental health?  If our faith affects all of life then surely it has something to say here.

There are a number of scriptures that came to mind.  For some kinds of mental illness, people in the ancient world had no way to describe it other than to say that they were possessed by an outside force.  King Solomon was said to be distressed by an evil spirit.  David was called in to play his harp and to soothe King Solomon’s mind until the spirit passed.  Essentially David was doing music therapy to alleviate symptoms of mental illness.  

And then we read about Jesus driving out demons from individuals who would then be restored to their right mind.  This was the way the ancient world understood serious mental illness.

But a good place to look as we consider mental health is the Psalms.  The Psalms speak to the whole range of human emotions.  I love that the Psalms don’t mess around – they tell it exactly the way it is.  They do not put on a happy face and act like everything is hunky dory.  So when there is soaring praise and joy, you know it is real, just as when the Psalmist’s heart is poured out to God, you know that is real too.

More than a third of the Psalms are Psalms of lament, crying out to God.  They are powerful expressions of pain and grief and regret.  They express frustration and anger - with others, with themselves, with God.  

The Psalms of Lament always end with hope – hope that God had had heard their cries, hope that God will answer, hope that God will step in on their behalf.  These Psalms all end with at least a glimpse of hope.  All of them but one.  All of them except Psalm 88.

This Psalm, our text for today, ends by saying “My only friend is darkness.”  That’s the take home message.  Wow.  

Where is the Good News?  Where is the hope?  Where is God?

You know, that is exactly what the Psalmist was asking.  And for a lot of people struggling with depression and anxiety, these are real questions.

Initially, a person might read this Psalm and ask, “Why is this even in the Bible?”  But I think a better response is, “Praise the Lord there is a Psalm like this in the Bible.”

Being a person of faith does not insulate us from the difficulties of life.  It does not mean that life will always be easy and fun and joyful.  

Struggles with mental illness are not because of a lack of faith.  This Psalm is written by a person of deep faith.  Throughout the Psalm, the cries of lament are addressed to God.  The Psalmist never stops crying out to God.  Rather than a lack of faith, this Psalm is a statement of profound faith.

Through the ages, some of the most faithful and dedicated people of faith have struggled with anxiety or depression or other kinds of mental illness.  Not to try and diagnose people who lived 2 or 3000 years ago, but David, Job, Elijah, Naomi, Jeremiah and others seem to suffer from depression.  And there are those faithful Christians down through the years who faced mental illness.  In more recent years people like C.S. Lewis and Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about their struggles with mental health.

Mental illness says nothing about the person’s faith or character; it just happens.  

Our mental health is shaped by a variety of factors, from our our brain chemistry to our relationships with family and friends.  The place we live, conditions in our neighborhood and school and workplace, and all kinds of social forces out there can affect our mental health.  Those who have served in war or other through some other traumatic experience, for example, can be deeply affected by it.

And for young people in particular, it is a different world from when I was in high school.  I mean it was tough enough then, but social media has brought about all kinds of messages about self-worth – that we are not popular enough or good-looking enough or smart enough or rich enough.  Online bullying and the pressure to measure up and to fit in can feel like a 24/7 thing.  Add to this very real concerns that all people and maybe especially young people may have about things like climate change and gun violence and inequality and injustice, and it can be a tough world.

Being a Christian does not insulate us from that.  And if our faith leads us to care more about the world out there with all of its problems and concerns, being a Christian might make things even more difficult.

You may hear some Christians say things like, if you just pray more or have more faith or just be positive and optimistic, you will get over this.  Or if you were really a good Christian, you wouldn’t be like this.

Friends, that is not helpful.

The first thing we need to know is that this affects all of us.  If there is a scale of mental health and a 100 means you are in 100% perfect health, none of us is a 100 and all of us are fluctuating somewhere on that scale.  At times, we have all felt anxious, we have all felt down, we have all felt the weight of worry, we have all been affected by adverse events in life.  Some may be especially struggling, but we are all in this life together.  

Mental illness is just that – it’s an illness.  We wouldn’t tell somebody with the flu, or a broken arm, or cancer, to just get over it, or look at them as though their faith is lacking.

We wouldn’t tell a faithful Christian that they shouldn’t have asthma or shingles or an ear infection any more than we should tell a faithful person that they shouldn’t be depressed or have an eating disorder or suffer from an addiction.

So let’s be very clear: mental illness is not a faith issue.  It is a medical issue.  And just as we seek the help of professionals when we have concerns about our physical health, I am grateful for professionals who serve in the field of mental health, including counselors and therapists and psychologists in our church like Joyce Davidson and Dawn Doerr-Johnson and Fred Borgen whose work is so important and a real ministry.  

Just as there are medications that we use to treat other illnesses, I am thankful that there are medications that can treat mental illness and for researchers who develop those treatments and psychiatrists who prescribe and oversee these treatments.  

And just as we act with care and compassion toward those with physical illnesses and ailments, we are called to act with care and compassion for those facing mental illnesses – which could be any of us and based strictly on statistics is certainly a good number of us.

Our Psalm is written by someone well acquainted with depression.  The feelings are spot on.  The writer is in a bleak place.  The Psalm ends, “My only friend is darkness.”  It doesn’t get a lot bleaker than that.  But the thing is, depression can keep us from seeing clearly – telling us that we have no friends, that no one cares about us, that we are not worth caring about.  That is not true.  

As a community of faith, we are called to be there for one another, to support one another, to remind each other of God’s love and presence and indeed to be God’s love and presence for one another.  Rather than telling somebody to cheer up, we need to listen and acknowledge their pain.

And we need to work to erase the stigma that can be associated with mental illness.  When we somehow send the message that Christians should not have struggles, or this is something we shouldn’t talk about, we can add guilt onto folks who are already having a tough time.  

The Psalms certainly did not hesitate to speak about all kinds of struggles.  And a part of erasing that stigma surrounding mental illness is for all of us to be a little more real.  We don’t have to put on a fake smile and sunny disposition when we come to worship and act like we are 100% OK.  And we shouldn’t expect others to.

When we are a little more open about sharing our pain and our vulnerability and our struggles, it encourages others to be more open.  And we might find that instead of a community where everybody acts like they have everything together but doesn’t really share with a lot of depth, the church can be a community where everybody is accepted just as they are, and we are able to build deeper bonds of community, and we really are fellow travelers helping one another on the way.

I do not offer any of this as a mental health expert – there are folks in our church and in our community who are far more qualified.  But I offer this as a way of saying that when we face struggles, we are not alone.  And we can always share our pain, our frustration, our anger, our anxiety with God.  The Psalms certainly do that.

I read a story last week about Grandma Joy.  At age 93, Joy Ryan became the oldest woman to visit every national park when she and her 42 year old grandson Brad visited the National Park of American Samoa, 6700 miles from her home in Ohio.  For Joy and her grandson, it was the last of the 63 national parks for them to visit.

Several years ago, Ryan was in veterinary school and found himself in a dark place.  “It’s so hyper-competitive,” he said.  “I had boards and then this young man committed suicide.  I knew where he had been and it scared me how close I had come to that.”

Since his parents’ divorce a number of years before, Ryan had had limited contact with his grandmother.  But somehow in the midst of that dark time in vet school, he mustered up the courage to call her.  He asked Grandma Joy if she wanted to go camping in the Smoky Mountains with him.  

She was 85 and she had never slept in a tent.  In fact, she had never seen a mountain before.  But she said, “Why not!”  She would give it a try.  She struggled as they hiked up a mountain peak in the park, Ryan helping her.  When they made it to the top, she said there were some college kids at the summit who were cheering for her and celebrating.  And she was hooked.

So over the next several years they ticked off national parks one by one.  As they visited the various parks, Joy became stronger and Ryan seemed to be healing in his own way.  When they  hiked amongst the redwoods in Redwood National Park in California, Joy says those towering trees made her feel about two inches tall.  It was when she looked up that she noticed something.

“They’ve been struck by lightning,” she recalled.  “And you think: that takes courage, after you’ve been struck by lightning to say, 'I’m gonna keep on growing.'”

Mental illness can be like getting struck by lightning.  It takes courage to keep going.  It takes courage to keep growing.  And it takes courage to seek help.  

In the midst of our struggles, darkness is not our only friend.  God is there.  We are called to be there for one another.  And there is hope.  Amen.