What is the Value and Priority of Happiness?

Transcribed from the sermon preached August 2, 2015

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

 Scripture Readings: Sirach 13, Proverbs 3:13-35, Ephesians 4:1-16

[21] When a rich man totters, he is steadied by friends,
but when a humble man falls, he is even pushed
away by friends.
[22] If a rich man slips, his helpers are many;
he speaks unseemly words, and they justify him.
If a humble man slips, they even reproach him;
he speaks sensibly, and receives no attention.
[23] When the rich man speaks all are silent,
and they extol to the clouds what he says.
When the poor man speaks they say, “Who is this fellow?”
And should he stumble, they even push him down.
[24] Riches are good if they are free from sin,
and poverty is evil in the opinion of the ungodly.
[25] A man’s heart changes his countenance,
either for good or for evil.
[26] The mark of a happy heart is a cheerful face,
but to devise proverbs requires painful thinking.

 

Think for a moment of the people you have known who truly seem to be happy. What are the characteristics of a happy person? What is happiness? Skipping girls bring to mind that carefree kind of happiness. Watching Nyasha sprinting for the shear joy of having a body that can skip and run makes me happy. It reminds me of when I used to do that. I remember the first time I went to baby swim lessons with Kevin. Feliciana said, he just jumped in by himself and went to the bottom. I didn’t believe her. So then I set Kevin on the edge of the pool as I stepped out and put on my goggles. When I turned around he was missing. I looked down and he was at the bottom of the pool. So terrified, I dove down and he was floating with a big giant smile.

Wonder and amazement are a source of joy and happiness for me. Think of the first times you experienced something great and beautiful. The first time you flew in circles in your father’s arms. The first time you rode a horse or ate strawberry pie. The first time you saw Yosemite or the Big Sur Coast. Your first kiss!

As a teenager I was a decent kid but a bit overly self-focused and self-critical. It is funny how being self focused backfires. If we fill up most of the lens of our worldview, doesn’t it figure that we spend a lot of time worrying about ourselves, comparing ourselves to others, feeling sorry for ourselves, and being critical of ourselves? That is the way of the depressive, while the narcissist will focus on why one is self important, why others are not, how to put them down and raise oneself up, how others have done you wrong, how to do them wrong in return.   I was a typical teenager overly focused and worried about myself and an Episcopal priest took me and a bunch of kids backpacking. He woke us up on the Summer solstice an hour or two before sunrise and forced us to hike to the top of a ridge. As the moon set in the West over Mt. Whitney, and the Sun rose in the East, I realized how much bigger the world was than my little preoccupations, how much there was to explore. What a relief, what a joy, it wasn’t all about me. It was a profound moment of grace for me. I was really small, but that was all right. God was really big, and the world looked to be full of wonder and amazement.

I am still a wonder and amazement liking kind of guy even as I have evolved a little bit. I think my wife is an order and comfort kind of girl. When I have vacation I want to go out and experience wonder. When she has vacation she likes to stay home and rest, enjoy food and company. An established safe home base is an important ingredient in the happiness of most people.

A safe, healthy, and thriving family lends much to the happy life. Of course in order to have a safe, healthy and thriving family it certainly helps to have a safe, healthy and thriving community and nation. Again, it is one of those what comes around goes around things. If all of us are super focused on just our own family, the things that enable our own family to thrive are harder to come by. Common goals, hopes and dreams are important because they gets us working together, and people working together are much more powerful than individuals. Mutual visions become dreams, and dreams become hope, and hope becomes work, and work become reality.

And yet we also need a sense of our own contribution, our own unique ability to be creative and free to contribute.

We live with the residue of the Cold War and still suffer from it today. The old togetherness at the expense of individual freedom resulted in repression and poverty for the old Soviet Union, so we are to be all about freedom all of the time. What we have left out in our extreme focus on the individual freedom to pursue happiness is the why? Why are we free? Or what will we use our freedom for?

Stanley Hauerwas in the October 16, 2010 article for the Guardian entitled How Real Is America’s Faith? Writes,

“America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story. That is what Americans mean by freedom.

The problem with that story is its central paradox: you did not choose the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story.”

Even as we have increased our health, income, and freedom to choose between things on sale, depression has not decreased but increased. People have never been more free to choose, and yet we are not happier.

In a Capitalist world having no commitment to anything but freedom and no story but the story we choose when we have no story means the market gets to tell us what will make us free or happy, and offers us stories to buy and have as our own. And there is always another. In consumerism, choosing is Lord. It is not the actual having, but the ability and freedom to choose which becomes our story! It is the desire to reach for what we choose to desire. The freedom to have it our way, the freedom to be who we want or feel like being.

But there is no – why? No – what for? One of the happiest people I have known was a professor some of you have met, Mary Clark. Mary wrote a paper entitled Meaningful Social Bonding as Universal Human Need. As a biologist and ecologist, she noted that human beings evolved with the need for two things; they need connection and they need the freedom and autonomy to develop a unique way to contribute to the group they are connected to. Both the connection and our contribution give us meaning, and with a sense of meaning, with a why to life, we can bear almost any how. If we are feeling down, a great way to feel better is to help someone else – get the focus off ourselves.

We can have any number of ups and downs in our life, bad luck, hard knocks, unfair situations, and if we maintain loving connection and mange to feel like we are contributing to the longevity and betterment of that community connection, nothing can stop us. And while our children need to know love and support, especially early, we also want them to know they can survive struggles, and overcome obstacles. Pampered children become whiners, spoiled kids soft and their happiness is easily upset or disturbed. Parents can stand to learn to endure their children’s pain a little more. Kids do not need to be happy and have their way all the time.

And so the happiest people we know are not necessarily the people who have had life the easiest, but those who are grounded in a timeless purpose, and those who know something about God’s love and grace. What a blessing to realize that although you are not all that great, that you are a fallible and finite sinner, God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love for you, and God is nevertheless calling you to step up and listen for the purpose and connection.

Paul is a prisoner, and still writing with power and joy: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” You have been called for a purpose. “With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” One purpose in community…but “each of you was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Each is given a unique gift. Unity in community, but freedom and the gift from God to contribute in our own unique way.”

The commitment and community we are a part of might require some sacrifice of freedom, some discipline and limitation, but it is the kind of discipline, commitment and limitation that maintains our relationship with God and the long-term health and freedom of each within the community. It is more than momentary happiness of a great meal, great sex, or a fast car. Not that those things will necessarily be absent, but the happiness of a relationship with the God of love, in the community we call the Church will bring a sense of joy and contentment, a sense of integrity and purpose which bring a satisfaction greater than the market and its goods can provide.

In other words we don’t achieve our own happiness by pursuing it. Happiness is a byproduct of becoming who God would have us be. It is knowing we have a purpose, a purpose to promote a world of love and community united by the one Spirit, where people will care and contribute to all using our unique gifts, and developing and working those gifts to that end.