Sunday, June 5, 2016

Religion—good for our health and well-being

By Megan Brandsrud June 3, 2016

Religion’s necessity and relevance is up for grabs more than ever with the religiously unaffiliated (“nones”) now the second largest religious demographic in North America. According to National Geographic, U.S. nones have overtaken Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and followers of non-Christian faiths over the past decade. This has had a major impact on how people see the world and live their lives.

But all is not lost.

Several recent studies have cited the benefits of living a religious life, including one from the Pew Research Center that said 40 percent of religious U.S. adults say they are “very happy,” compared to 29 percent who are less or not religious.

How can religion and happiness be connected, what are the benefits of living a religious life and what influence does it have on people? With more people saying “no thanks” to religion, Living Lutheran took a look at the potential benefits for those who have kept the faith.

While the relationship between well-being and religion is dependent on how religious experience is understood, Thomas S. Taylor, an ELCA pastor and certified psychoanalyst and clinical social worker with the Lutheran Counseling Center on Long Island, said positive correlations between the two are “no accident.”

“Think about it,” he said. “How many other social groups and institutions are involved in someone’s life from cradle to grave? For many, religious experience is unique, maybe with the exception of family, among social institutions and groups in having the potential for a lifelong involvement and influence.”

Taylor said those who are introduced to religion at a young age start to build faith at a key developmental phase—often when they are at the peak of seeing their parents as all-knowing and caring. This creates a space for idealized authority and caregivers.

“This early childhood foundation of believing in an idealized and gracious caregiver—God—stays with us as an anchor throughout our lifespan,” he said. “But as our faith life develops, it expands in our realization that just because I’m a person of faith, I am not immune to bad things happening to me and my loved ones.”

Taylor said recognizing that reality can determine if someone continues to mature in their faith life. “When religion is seen as a key element to health and sustained happiness throughout life, it’s because it isn’t a static type of faith life, but one that is in flux, adapting and expanding to integrate the slings and arrows life offers.”

Tori Saunders, a member of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, knows firsthand about having a faith in flux. Before her son’s birth, Saunders and her husband struggled for seven years to get pregnant. The situation was painful and challenged their marriage, but their faith kept them strong.

“Throughout my struggles to get pregnant, I never stopped praying to receive a child in God’s time and in [God’s] way,” Saunders said. “When I found out I was pregnant, the struggles made me appreciate what a blessing I truly have been given with my son. But the years of struggling to get pregnant caused a slow breakdown of communication and affection between myself and my husband.”

The couple found a Christian counselor to help them work on their marriage, Saunders said, and they started a daily devotional so “God was part of our individual healing, as well as healing our marriage.” She credits her faith and the power of prayer for helping them strengthen their marriage and find themselves in a good place with a healthy toddler.

“It surprised both of us that by asking God to take the lead in healing our marriage and rebuilding trust how quickly strides were made in both areas,” Saunders said. “Without prayer and faith in God being there and directing our steps, we would be a long way from where we are now.”

Power of prayer

Saunders isn’t alone in exalting the practice of prayer, as the Pew Research Center reports that 55 percent of Americans pray every day. Prayer is so prevalent in the U.S. that the government has recognized a national day of prayer since 1952.

Taylor said prayer and other practices that accompany living a religious life can have positive benefits for one’s mental health. This is good news for people who already incorporate prayer into their everyday life.
“There are many spiritual practices, such as prayer, meditation and mindfulness, that nurture our ability to better redirect our energy outside of ourselves,” Taylor said. “When any of us become depressed or anxious, we tend to withdraw and become preoccupied with ourselves and default to survival mode. Directing our preoccupied energy outward interrupts depression’s downward spiral and anxiety’s escalation.”

Kevin Massey, vice president for mission and spiritual care at Advocate Health Care, Chicago, has witnessed the power prayer has for hospitalized patients. “People request prayer perhaps more than any other single thing,” he said. “It’s a verbal presence of God that helps them cope with their situation. People feel God’s presence closer when they’ve had the ability to hear and experience prayer.”

People of faith can also have a foundation and perspective beyond themselves that can provide comfort, strength and peace during times of crisis. Taylor said the identities of people of faith are grounded in teachings and understandings of Scripture and mission in the world.

“For Lutherans, this is based on our baptismal proclamation that we are ‘reborn children of God, made members of the church, the body of Christ,’” he said. “Remembering who and whose we are, especially when we find ourselves lost, confused or uncertain in our daily life, can be a key guidepost to navigating through life’s twisty pathways.”

Christians commit to believing in a presence that is neither material nor observable. This practice and acceptance of believing in something that can’t be seen can make people of faith well-equipped to cope with challenges because they can imagine a future beyond a crisis.

“The active component in faith that supports coping in a difficult time is the capacity of faith to kindle hope,” Massey said. “Hope is an anchor that you can throw into the future and faith is the chain on the anchor you can use to pull yourself toward the future.

“People who lack faith might lack [the understanding that the] future can hold promise. The present moment is only the present moment. The God who lives in the present also lives in our future and faith, therefore, can be a bridge to a future and enhances the ability to cope.”

Community of faith

Sometimes what benefits someone most from living a religious life is the connection to a faith community.
“In mental health we see that there are imbalances that are present in the neurology of a person, but what seems unique is that being part of a community can transform that neurology,” Massey said. “When one is part of a community, the particular senses of satisfaction and belonging, the experience of emotions can attest itself in physical ways.”

In addition to offering socialization and a sense of belonging, faith communities are characteristically known as sanctuaries of support, and this is likely most exemplified during times of crisis. Massey, who has served as a parish pastor and chaplain, said people often seek out spiritual support when they are hospitalized. While health-care chaplains play an important role for people who lack a faith community, he said a visit from someone’s congregation is superior.

Anita Marth, a member of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, Granite Bay, Calif., sustained life-threatening injuries in a small airplane crash in 2015. She doesn’t know where she and her family would be today without the support of their faith and church community.

“I have witnessed faith in action within and through the members of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection,” she said. “They showered us with prayers, cards, phone calls, visits, hugs, and offers of meals and support. I know my recovery was made possible by the love and prayers poured out to us.”

In March, Marth was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgery and has several months of chemotherapy and weeks of radiation treatment ahead of her. Again, she quickly credits her faith for helping her stay strong.

“My faith has remained growing and centered on Jesus Christ, my savior,” she said. “My faith family has rallied around my family and me once again. I am known affectionately as ‘God’s miracle.’ During my hospital stay and the cancer diagnosis, I have literally been carried by the power of healing prayer and can attest to God’s abundant grace through faith. I know God has a remarkable purpose for me.”

While there is no guarantee that a secular community that meets regularly wouldn’t have the same socialization benefits that a faith family provides, Taylor thinks religious communities have a “head start,” so to speak, because they have traditions and practices that have been passed down from generation to generation.

“Our communities of faith have centuries of practice offering support,” he said. “Crystallized in the Sermon on the Mount, Christianity’s tradition places charity and the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned and the poor at the center of our faith’s action in the world. Our communities of faith have, as a tradition and out of conviction, committed ourselves to being specialists in providing support to those in need.”

So what is religion good for? While that answer varies depending on one’s religious tradition and experiences, the more one’s faith life develops and adapts, the more possibility it has to enhance someone’s health and contribute to sustained happiness throughout life.

Can singing hymns be good for your heart?

Researchers at the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found that choral music has a calming effect on the heart—especially when sung in unison, according to a National Public Radio (NPR) article. Their research was based on a study of high school choir members’ heart rates.

“When you sing the phrases, it is a form of guided breathing,” Bjorn Vickhoff, a musicologist who led the research project, told NPR. “When you exhale, the heart slows down. The members of the choir synchronize externally with the melody and the rhythm, and now we see it has an internal counterpart.”

With music and singing being an important shared experience in religious cultures, this study could explain the calming effect singing favorite hymns in church can contrive in people of faith.

“Singing one’s faith [has been] an important part of being Lutheran from the very beginning,” said Scott Weidler, ELCA program director for worship. “The ELCA Principles for Worship says, ‘In the church, the primary musical instrument is the human voice, given by God to sing and proclaim the word of God.’ Our tradition recognizes that even if it isn’t perfect, there is something really important in congregations coming together to sing.”

Brandsrud is an associate editor of Living Lutheran.

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Standing Strong Through the Storm - THE BIBLE

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. 2 Peter 1:20-21

Daniel, a Chinese brother from Singapore, sat in the chair still shaking his head in unbelief. He had just returned from his first extensive visit to the People’s Republic of China. Now in the freedom of his home city, he was trying to assimilate and communicate all the impressions and messages he had received.

“How would you summarize what you learned on your visit, Daniel?” I asked him. He continued to shake his head and smile. Finally he began to speak.

“Probably by my visit to one particular house church,” he slowly replied. “It numbers several hundred believers who have had a lot of persecution over the past years. I asked them how they had been victorious and even grown in numbers during such terrible experiences. They quickly replied, telling me three things,” he continued. “First, obedience to the Word of God; second, communication with God, that is, prayer. And third, love for the brothers and sisters.”

This group memorized one chapter of the Bible every week. They began doing this because of a lack of Bibles, but continued doing so after they realized the blessing it brought to their lives.

The Bible is God’s written revelation of Himself and His desire for a relationship with people. It is more than just a revelation of God’s character. It is also a revelation of His intricate plan for the world. We could never have understood our great God if He had not chosen to reveal Himself.

His greatest revelation of Himself was when He came to live among us in a human body and was known as Jesus Christ. But even our knowledge of that revelation depends upon His written Word, the Bible.

Satan has conducted a massive propaganda campaign in the last century in an attempt to discredit the Bible. He would love to see Christians lose faith in the Word of God. In spite of his efforts, however, no one has ever been able to disprove its reliability. It remains the only absolute truth known to humankind.

The Bible is our God-given basis for faith, doctrine and practice. Many times Christians have knowingly departed from its teachings and suffered because of doing so. Many times when Christians depart from the Word, it is because they do not know or understand it.

The church can only be true to the revealed Word of God when its people know what it teaches. Study of God’s Word is an essential part of the Christian life. When Christians doubt, ignore or fail to understand the teachings of scripture and depart from its principles, they lose their spiritual power.

RESPONSE: Today I will recommit to the daily study and application of God’s Word, the Bible.

PRAYER: Pray for believers in many parts of the world who still yearn for a copy of the Bible.

Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz

Today the church remembers Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz, Missionary to Germany, and Martyr, 754.

One of the great achievements of the Anglo-Saxon Christians was the conversion of their cousins in Germany. The trail was blazed by Willibrord (see November 7) but the man to whom most credit is due was Boniface of Devonshire, England. His real name was Wynfrith. Boniface ("good deeds") was a nickname that stuck.

In spite of some disappointing efforts in Frisia (Holland), the missionary Boniface proceeded into the Germanic heartland. In Bavaria, Thuringia, and Hesse he won many converts to Christ. In an act of extraordinary boldness, he chopped down the sacred Oak of Thor at Geismar. With the felling of this tree, Germanic confidence in the old gods fell. From then on Boniface's work progressed rapidly. He soon organized eight German dioceses, founded the famous abbey at Fulda, and was himself consecrated the first Archbishop of Mainz. Boniface always kept in close touch with England, writing many letters to friends at home who supplied him with books, vestments, and recruits for the work in Germany.

Still concerned about the Frisians with whom he had failed, Boniface made another effort to revive the church there. In this attempt he was slain by a mob of Frisian pagans near Dokkum.

Help us to strengthen your church, O Christ, that we may do your work in the world. Amen.

Read the Wikipedia article here.

Almighty God, you called your faithful servant Boniface to be a witness and a martyr in Germany, and by his labor and suffering you raised up a people for your own possession: Pour out your Holy Spirit upon your Church in every land, that by the service and sacrifice of many your holy Name may be glorified and your kingdom enlarged; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Daily Readings for June 5, 2016 - Third Sunday of Pentecost

1 Kings 17:17-24
After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!" But he said to her, "Give me your son." He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?" Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, let this child's life come into him again." The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, "See, your son is alive." So the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth."

Psalm 30 Exaltabo te, Domine
1   I will exalt you, O LORD, because you have lifted me up and have not let my enemies triumph over me.
2   O LORD my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health.
3   You brought me up, O LORD, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.
4   Sing to the LORD, you servants of his; give thanks for the remembrance of his holiness.
5   For his wrath endures but the twinkling of an eye, his favor for a lifetime.
6   Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.
7   While I felt secure, I said, "I shall never be disturbed. You, LORD, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains."
8   Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear.
9   I cried to you, O LORD; I pleaded with the Lord, saying,
10   What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?
11   Hear, O LORD, and have mercy upon me; O LORD, be my helper."
12   You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.
13   Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O LORD my God, I will give you thanks for ever.

Galatians 1:11-24
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of me.

Luke 7:11-17
Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep." Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us!" and "God has looked favorably on his people!" This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

Continuous Reading Track

1 Kings 17:8-24
Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you." So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, "Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink." As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand." But she said, "As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die." Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth." She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah. After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!" But he said to her, "Give me your son." He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?" Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, let this child's life come into him again." The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, "See, your son is alive." So the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth."

Psalm 146 Lauda, anima mea
1   Hallelujah! Praise the LORD, O my soul! I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
2   Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them.
3   When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish.
4   Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the LORD their God;
5   Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps his promise for ever;
6   Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.
7   The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
8   The LORD loves the righteous; the LORD cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.
9   The LORD shall reign for ever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!

The Forward Day by Day Meditation for June 5, 2016 - Third Sunday of Pentecost

Psalm 146:7 The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down. 

Perhaps you have felt the anger of having your land taken from you or perhaps you have only read about such things. Perhaps you have known the kind of hunger that changes the chemistry of your brain, or perhaps you have only seen real starvation in pictures. Perhaps you have been in forced imprisonment or perhaps your primary experience of prisons and jails is from a television screen.

There is an anger that can destroy us when we consider the worst kinds of human behavior. Depression can sink in. Oppression and suffering feel overwhelming to our souls—common themes in the psalms. But there are also verses that tell of a God who delivers. The passion for God’s justice isn’t precisely like the anger we typically know. It is more powerful, like a white-hot holy light that burns with the sacred justice of God.
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Verse of the Day - June 05, 2016

1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV) Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

Read all of 1 Thessalonians 5