Do you know what one of the hallmarks of Clinical Depression is? Lack of Hope. Most of us when we’re feeling low, when we’re struggling, we do not lose hope, we believe things will again get better. Not so for those who are clinically depressed. Without hope we are in trouble, we can lose our motivation to keep trying, to go on. The gift of hope is not that it pretends that all is fine, no, what hope does is shine a light in the midst of our darkness; it helps us to endure challenging circumstances. So today, as we continue our exploration of the interface between mental health and our faith, we will be exploring hope. We’ll be looking both at sources of hope in respect to our faith, as well as what can challenge our sense of hope. Faith is helpful in part because it can serve to put our present struggles into perspective, as well as be a source of comfort, strength, patience and hope. So what can be a source of hope for us? There are many ways to answer this, and I imagine each of us would highlight something a bit different, but here are a few ideas…
Some find hope in the future as promised in scripture, such as we heard earlier today. “The Most High will wipe away every tear from their eyes. And death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more, for the old order has fallen.” Believing that such a time lies ahead can help us through present difficulties. For many knowing that Easter Sunday was coming enabled them to tolerate the discomfort of Good Friday. Knowing that our current struggles are not the end of the story can be a source of hope. Similarly, Jesus’s words can also be a source of hope. During funerals we often read from the 14 th chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus said:
“Do not let your heats be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? Hearing such words can stir our heart to believe, to trust, which can be a meaningful source of hope.”*
Hearing other people’s stories, testimonials as we call them, can also fill a heart with hope. Witnessing how someone’s life or attitude has changed can be quite uplifting. Hearing how a person endured a difficult experience can inspire and give us hope. For some, hope comes in a more intellectual way, through a teaching or reading; if we can make sense of the process, understand it, then we ‘know’ what to expect next and what the eventual outcome will be. Knowing how something works helps me tolerate trying circumstances as I see them as a step toward the desired end.
Another means of hope for many is children. For many, children represent the future and all the good that we hope for the future. I think of families coming through Ellis Island and the hope many had for the next generation and how that motivated and strengthened them. For some, our hope is grounded in a felt experience – especially if that experience involves feeling the presence, love or mercy of God. Any of you that have heard me preach more than once or twice know how important presence is to me. God’s felt presence can be a source of comfort, patience, strength and hope. It can change our outlook. While it is good to talk about all these sources of hope, and I ‘hope’ you have all experienced at least one of these, it is also important to acknowledge we don’t always feel hopeful, do we? If we’re honest most of us have moments of doubt and discouragement, if not downright hopelessness. So what can challenge our hope or even take it away?
There are both internal and external circumstances that can erode hope. Loss of work or a significant relationship. Repeated failures or rejection can challenge the belief that anything will ever change. Abusive relationships, which often involve controlling behavior, can lead one to feel hopeless, as can chronic pain. As I mentioned earlier, clinical depression typically involvesthoughts and feelings of hopelessness. Many feel they are in a deep, dark valley from which they will never emerge. It is this hopelessness that leads some to thoughts of suicide, as the present feels unendurable and they don’t believe their condition will ever significantly change or improve. At such times it is critically important that the person receive professional intervention as this perspective is often rooted in a chemical imbalance. When I had Lyme’s disease, many years ago, I experienced clinical depression and was amazed at the help the anti- depressant provided.
For people of deep faith, and especially if they have felt the comfort of God’s presence, to lose that sense of presence can be very painful and disconcerting. Let’s be honest, most of us don’t feel God’s presence 24/7. Many people have experienced moments, weeks or months when God felt far away. Some feel completely abandoned by God. If we are looking to our external circumstances as proof of God’s favor we are very prone to feeling this way. It is at such times that our faith community, our friends can play a critical role. When one is feeling hopeless we may depend on another’s hope, or another’s care or concern to get us through. This is when it is important for us to be the hands and feet of Christ and to reach out to those who are struggling, whether that is physical, spiritual or emotional, and show them they are loved, for in the dark valley we may not feel we are loved.
Hopelessness is often connected to helplessness – if we do not see anything we can do to fix or improve a situation we can lose hope. At such times truth is critical, and so is love. It used to be when doctors determined that a person’s condition was terminal they would not share this with the patient, as they did not want to remove the chance for hope. But what that did was create a huge barrier between the patient and everyone around them, as no one was talking about the elephant in the room. Yet doctors who broached this uncomfortable terrain learned that very often the patient knew anyway. Acknowledging the truth gave families a chance to say what needed to be said, to ask for what they wanted, and the opportunity to spend their last days together in an honest, shared experience, instead of separated by a charade inspired by denial of reality. At times we need to work to counteract hopelessness. What can help build hope is the coming together for a greater good. Recognizing a wrong and doing something to change it. Reaching out to someone in need, whether that need be physical, emotional, or spiritual, and letting them know you care – that God cares.
Let me close by sharing something that seems paradoxical. I recently read a book by a physician who studied Near Death Experiences – NDEs, the experiences of people whose bodies had died, and then were brought back to life. One of the surprising results of his studies was that those who had attempted suicide and had an NDE were less suicidal afterwards than those who had not had an NDE.
Being surrounded by unconditional love changed their outlook. One experiencer, when asked about suicide said “Oh, God no! I would never try that again.” When asked about it he said “It’s true I’m not longer afraid of death, but I’m also no longer afraid of life. . . I understand now that I’m more than just a collection of molecules . . . There’s meaning and purpose to my being back here in this body.”
One woman, Christine, described herself as an aggressive, workaholic business woman. During her NDE she says she saw “this large light, like a spotlight with a Being in it. . . My feelings in the presence of this Being, which was God, were joyful, comforting, peaceful, and lovely. It was as if I had arrived where I belonged.” She says: “this experience changed my life. I have a deep feeling of unconditional love and understanding of almost everyone. . . . I worry about nothing. I still have concern for things, but not worry. The thing that is most important in my life is not doing what people think I should do, but what I think God wants me to do. . . .Before my NDE, I was very aggressive, wanting all the material things life had to offer. . . I really didn’t like to be bothered with peopleat all . . . I had no time for anyone. . . Since my NDE, the biggest change in my life is my unconditional love and compassion for all (hu)mankind.”
So what can we take away from this? Purpose, meaning, connection to other people, they matter.
And the power of unconditional love is life-changing. Jesus offers us the water of life, which is found in truth, goodness, kindness, justice, compassion – Love.
“To those who are thirsty I will give drink freely from the spring of the water of life.” *
Come. Drink. Receive. Have hope.
Rev. Jenny Martin Caughman serves a United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. She has served Convention by being on the General Council and the Board of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies. She loves nature, writing, creativity and music.
*New Revised Standard Version Bible, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.