Jesus said, “my Kingdom is not of this world.”
This week’s news reports a dramatic rise in mental health problems, including depression, among children and teenagers.
I wonder why young people seem to be getting less happy? In some ways, they have more than they’ve ever had. Luxury goods like electronics are cheaper than ever, and it’s hard to find even a really poor family without a TV, or a teenager without a mobile phone and some sort of gaming device. So how can we be less happy than the generation of old boys I met on Saturday night, whose main entertainment used to be an early morning run and a cold jug of water over the head from Matron?
Part of the answer, I think, is written in the motto of Lichfield Cathedral: inservi Deo et laetare. Serve God and be happy – the two things are linked.
Really? How could serving anyone, or anything, let alone God, make you happy? Isn’t happiness about getting what I want, not doing what someone else wants? Sure, that’s what this world teaches us, the messages that infiltrate our minds every day: buy the right things, wear the right clothes, go on the right holidays, watch the right films, go on the right diet, get the right body, listen to the right music – and you will be happy. Happiness is something you can buy, as long as you’ve got the cash or the power to take it.
But that’s not what the stats on mental health seem to be saying, at all.
When I was a parish priest back in Camden Town, I worked with a lot of very unhappy people. Drug addicts, street drinkers, homeless people, people who really had nothing, whose clothes were sometimes literally stolen off their backs. Sometimes the rich, too, worried about the next mortgage payment and whether they could keep their high-paced jobs, on the verge of breakdown from stressful careers. Poor or rich, mental health problems were the common denominator.
There were times I despaired. We could offer prayer and sanctuary, warmth, kindness, tea and blankets, and parishioners even set up a free legal advice clinic, but there was no way a poor church with one priest and elderly volunteers could plug the gaps in state welfare provision.
Then we found something that did work. It was called Camerados, an organisation set up by a local psychologist, Dr Charlie Howard. She had made a simple but profound discovery: to be happy, people need purpose. Give people a service, and they become dependent, start to feel useless. Get people helping each other, and they feel they have a reason to live. They get happy.
With help from Camerados, we set up a living room, sofas and all, in the church garden. We put a piano out there, and instead of us just giving people tea and blankets, the people themselves gave each other whatever they could – from food and drink through to games of chess, a singalong or French lessons. We made an anti-social space into a social space. And mostly, it worked. People found happiness not from getting, but from giving. People found happiness in serving.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not a place. It is not just somewhere the happy few go when they die. It is a nation here and now, without land or borders, made up of those who serve Christ as their King. His Kingdom, his kingship, is a sharp critique of the rule and power of this world, which spins the lie that happiness is won by wealth or might. It is a country where those currencies have no value, where self-giving love is the gold standard, where the rate of exchange is measured against the payment for sin by death on a Cross – where the richest is the one who gives himself completely away.
If we together live as those who serve this King, then even though we may not feel happy all the time, we may yet find in his Kingdom the deeper and enduring happiness which he wants for this world. So: inservi Deo et laetare.