Lingering Over Lent

 

We’ve had quite a winter here in Montreal. My snow-blower has been getting more than its usual workout. So we’ve been looking forward to the beginning of spring this year even more than normal. I’m not sure anyone really looks forward to Lent. Advent season is a preparation for Christmas, but properly speaking, Lent is more about preparing for Good Friday than for Easter. It is a relatively solemn time that matches the weather—at least our weather here in the frozen north—so most of us are usually content if not eager to see Lent in our rearview mirrors. But these past few weeks have been rewarding enough to make me pause. Our little church here decided to embrace the season and the weather by taking this month to explore the topic of depression and it has proven to be strangely heartening. I won’t write a single argument here, I’ll just make a few points that I hope will add up to a cogent whole.

1) I’ll fill you in on my theory as to why exploring depression has been so uplifting at the end of the post, but I want to begin by noting one of the worst habits that so many of us Evangelicals (Liberal and Conservative) embrace. We are far too happy, far too self-assured, and often entirely unable to stop babbling on joyfully and nonsensically to hear what people in real pain have to say. Many non-Evangelicals (Christians included) have created Evangelical caricatures based on this common and annoying characteristic that so many of us share. The fellow depicted here may be a cartoon, but his constant habit of making lemonade out of lemons and spewing nonsensical clichés is all too familiar to many of us. Nobody wants to talk to the Neds of the world because Ned is incapable of a conversation. He may hear, but he doesn’t listen because no one can truly listen if they’re convinced that they already know the answer before they know what you are going to say.

2) A while ago I wrote about some of the most harmful clichés that Evangelicals sprinkle into their conversations with one another and with non-Evangelicals. It remains one of my best posts. Happiness is wonderful, but it’s most wonderful when it’s a response to a genuine encounter with grace and beauty. Happiness can also be a weapon, a blunt instrument that can feel like a cudgel to someone who is struggling simply to get up in the morning. Depression isn’t a choice, and when people fighting that battle are made to feel yet more pressure to “seem happy” or “act happy”, happiness can become a positive evil. The last thing people with mental illness need is some chuckling schmuck telling them “chin up buddy, God never gives us more than we can handle.” Sure he does. It is a lie to suggest that we can handle i.e. control everything. None of us can.

 

3) The Gospels can be wonderfully helpful texts for someone struggling with their own metaphorical demons, but only if we really read them closely. Too often the “functional canon” in our churches doesn’t include all of the Gospels, but only the cheerful and triumphal parts. The challenging parts are ignored. Facts: Everyone that Jesus heals and raises from the dead eventually dies. Jesus is abandoned by his friends and his God. Innocence is slaughtered and, Jesus warns, the poor will always be with us. These stories recognize pain and suffering and do not laugh it away or hide it in a corner. Nor do they rush in with quick solutions. We shouldn’t either.

4) One of the most profound things I heard from our pulpit this Lent came from a layperson in our congregation, a nurse who works to treat adolescent depression. She had a former client who struggled constantly with depression for years and confessed to really only enjoying church when it was Lent. That is the only season, he told her, when I felt like I had permission to be who I was and feel how I felt while I was in church.

My response: Fear and anger and sorrow and helplessness are such big parts of the human condition. It is a shame that we spend so little time in our churches taking them seriously and thinking theologically about them. How quick we are to treat them merely as problems to be solved. My wife will be the first one to tell you that when she comes home from work with a problem my first instinct—FIX IT!—is usually not terribly helpful. What she wants is patience and compassion, not a solution to her problem. I think churches should consider how we react to folks with emotional and mental “problems.” Maybe we shouldn’t always be in fix it mode.

5) Adam Smith is most famous for his 1776 landmark tome in economics An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, but he was also a subtle observer of human feeling and morality. All morality is, at bottom, the result of a deep and sympathetic fellow-feeling between humans. We do not think our way to good actions, but feel our way there by literally feeling the pains and pleasures of others. However, he argued, one of the chief signs of God’s grace in the world is the following counter intuitive fact. I share my joys with you, and you feel joy. The total joy increases. I share my grief and pain with you, and you feel grief and pain. BUT, the total pain and grief decreases.  Emotional response is not a zero sum game. Many of us worry, myself most especially, that “going there” with people in a deep depression may drag us down as well. We worry about giving life and energy to our darkest thoughts and worries, hoping that keeping them tucked away will immunize us. The opposite is true! Sunlight is not only a great disinfectant, it is an inoculant! Insofar as Lent is a time in which we shine a light on our worst pains and fears and feelings of helplessness and insignificance we lessen their grip on us and perhaps lessen the stigma they carry as well. That’s my theory on why this past Lent has felt so very good to me. It just feels good not to have to feel bad about feeling bad.