Beyond Blessings and Happiness - thrive UMC Official Blog

Beyond Blessings and Happiness

You know, sometimes I don’t even realize how quickly our times are changing.  Like, does anyone remember what we all used to do when a question came up before we had smart phones?  This past week I sat down and watched some TV with Kristen and an actor came on that I recognized –but I didn’t know the guy’s name, or what it was that I had seen him in last –but I just knew I’d seen him in something completely different recently.  And I asked Kristen if she knew why he looked so familiar –but she didn’t.  And I tried to sit there, and enjoy the show; but I couldn’t!  It was really bothering me –not knowing how this guy was, or what else I had just seen him in.  So I think I held out for about 30 whole seconds, before getting on my phone and checking my IMDB app. And, as it turned out, that actor looked so familiar because he was in the movie I had just been watching, immediately before we turned that show on.  And this is a compulsion I’ve noticed I’ve developed; and I’ve only had a smart phone for 3 years.

Or a while back, I was at my parent’s place, and they had their TV on but the program kept getting interrupted by –can you believe this- advertisements!  Yes, there were commercials! On their flat screen, Hi-Def TV! How incredibly annoying! Can you believe this?  I was like ‘mom and dad, did you know that there is this thing called streaming television, where you can turn your TV on and watch whatever you want and only what you want?’ This is the 21st century, after all!  But then again, my mom just put a Facebook post up this last week, wondering publicly what she should do with the VHS tapes she still has lying around. I was tempted to type back: I don’t know mom, what’d you do with all of your candles after electricity was invented?

And also this last week, I took my wonderful 5-year old daughter out to lunch at Culvers, and between bites of a chicken strip she looks up at me and asks: ‘Daddy, what did they used to do in the olden days?’

And I said: “I don’t know Katryna, you’d have to ask Grandma.”

But of course, she goes on to clarify that she wanted to know what things were like when I was a kid –or simply what life was like before she was alive.  And that’s what she called ‘the Olden days.’ Which, first of all, how humbling is that –when the ‘olden days’ were five years ago?  But before I even had time to think about it I go –oh, you mean before the internet was invented?  (Yeesh.) I mean, that’s crazy to me!  I’m not that old –I’m 34- but yet something that is now so central to the human experience as the internet was not yet in existence when I was born!

I mean, seriously, have you stopped to think about how much, and how quickly, life has changed in human civilization recently?  Just a few years ago, it was illegal for two people of the same sex to marry each other in some states.  Like 5 years ago you couldn’t buy an electric car.  10 years ago almost nobody lived in downtown Des Moines, and the Western edge of West Des Moines pretty much ended at Jordan Creek parkway. 15 years ago Social media and Wi-Fi weren’t terms in our common vocabulary.  20 years ago cell phones were reserved for the rich elite, and instant photography meant Polaroid, where we made ourselves feel like we could speed time up by shaking the image into being. 80 years ago, there was no T.V.  100 years ago, people couldn’t fly.  And you don’t have to go back too much further from that to a time before indoor plumbing.

What did we use to do with ourselves?  What’d we do when we didn’t have a global network to answer all of our questions, and satiate all of our petty curiosities?  What’d we do before all media was instant and personalized and omnipresent?  How did we enjoy a meal before we could share pictures of it with all of the people we only kind of know?  In short, how did we live?

Well, for starters, we spent a lot more time waiting, didn’t we?

But do you ever think about what we’ve left behind and the direction our lives are taking? For instance, when we think about history, and where we’ve been, to try to think about the future, are we sure that the path we’re taking is good?  Is it the best path?  I find myself thinking about that a lot –especially when I read Youtube comments. Maybe because I’m now from the ‘olden days.’  And it hits me a little more personally when my kids call me out and say “Dad, you’re always on your phone…” Or when Kristen asks me if maybe the text message couldn’t wait until after dinner… I know I wasn’t always like that.  And I don’t always think it’s an improvement. Or when I hear people talk about God and religion as things of the past.   I get this sense that humanity has lost something –or lost touch with something- without even noticing it.

It really hit me when I was reading our Bible passage for today.  The passage we’re about to read talks about being happy, which is of course something humanity still cares about.  But we have a very different framework for happiness now than humanity did in Jesus’ day, 2,000 years ago.  In Jesus’ day –regardless of your religious orientation- you thought of happiness as a primarily of spiritual phenomenon –it was a kind of relational state that had to do with whether or not the universe –or the gods- liked you.  So if you had a lot of kids, and everybody was healthy, or your crops did really well for a year, and there was relative peace in the community then –thank the gods (or spirits or ancestors or whatever)!  They gave you happiness!  Or, on other words, you were blessed.  Happiness was a gift that was given to you –and most of the time, it didn’t make any sense who got to be happy and who suffered miserably all their lives long.  If you were born into bad conditions, way more often than not, you’d die in a similar state.  So if you lost the lottery and were born in a lower class or cast, then there was practically nothing you could do to become happy –because happiness didn’t belong to you; it was a byproduct of the forces at play in the universe.

But today, what do we say?  We say things like, “make your own happiness!” And we have a whole genre of blogs more extensive that most ancient libraries detailing the step-by-step process by which you can make yourself happy. And some of this shift in the way we approach happiness has been changing gradually over time; while some of it has been the result of a very recent, very dramatic shift in how we see and appropriate what’s going on in the world. For one thing science and technology have completely revolutionized the way we see and think about everything –but especially how we think of ourselves.

And what we’ve learned by this point in history about happiness is that it is primarily an inward state determined, not by some mysterious powers at work in the air, but by mysterious chemicals at work in your nervous system.  And we have names for them.  The four major chemicals that influence happiness are dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. Most of us are familiar with at least a couple of those.  And so the human job, in order to become happy, is not to please and appease the spirits, but it is instead to serve your own body.  Do the things –make the sacrifices- to yourself to be rewarded with pleasurable feelings.  So of course, exercise!  Make a New Year’s resolution to go running or to the gym every day (which you’ve probably already broken by now), because your body will then treat you with endorphins!  We also know that our body-chemistry tends to be more favorable when we’re healthy.  So exercise, yes! It’s a key step to maximizing your happiness.  Except your body can be just as fickle as the impersonal gods of old, because the most sustainable happiness chemical is serotonin; and one of the primary ways serotonin is created and released is through eating!  Food is the offering your body most desires, so if it’s a choice between serotonin and the demanding and shorter-lived pleasure of endorphins, destiny will put you on the couch eating Cheetos and ice cream for the rest of your life.  This is why you can’t will yourself to being healthy: because serotonin is so much cheaper and more effective at making you feel happy than endorphins are.

But wait, get this: when you experience heightened levels of some of those chemicals in your system for prolonged periods of time, your brain will actually close itself off from feeling them. For instance, a lot of the illegal drugs used for recreation in this country, like cocaine and amphetamines, feel pleasurable because they dramatically increase the presence of dopamine in your neural synapses.  And apparently this feels awesome –at first. But with prolonged drug use over time, somehow your dopamine receptors will start to shut down.  And so the drugs don’t ever again feel as good as the first times you used them –because while the dopamine is there, its receptors are shut off.  It’s like being at an all-you-can-eat buffet but your mouth is sewn shut –doesn’t matter how hungry you are, or whether or not they bring out the crab legs; you’re not eating.  And a similar thing happens in your brain if your dopamine level is raised too much by food, sex, or mood-altering medications.  Your brain tries to go restore its initial equilibrium –in other words, it won’t let you experience that heightened level of happiness for too long.  It will eventually make it so you can’t feel more pleasure at all.  But, ironically, you’ll consciously still desire the pleasure-inducing substance or behavior; it will just stop feeling good for you –that’s how addiction works.

Ain’t that some stuff?  Our brains are terrible masters.  And we’re yet no closer to being happy than when we first begun!

So I want to encourage you all to just pause for just a moment to notice the tension here between what I’ll call ‘blessing’ and ‘happiness.’  I use the term blessing here to signify the old, spiritual approach to happiness: that it’s something that comes out of our relationship with everyone and everything that is.  And blessings are received somewhat passively as a gift, or maybe even sometimes as a reward.  And I want you all to hold that idea and experience of blessing next to our current approach to happiness.  Here I say happiness to name that end goal of feeling good –the heightened levels of those pleasurable brain chemicals. It’s that good feeling that comes from success and accomplishment –and maybe even a little from being in control.  It’s the accolade of the brain for being self-mastered. And I want you to hold the blessing and the happiness state side-by-side.  For surely, we have all experienced moments of both.  As, indeed, they maybe two sides of the same thing.

But Jesus, of course, has something else to say about the matter.  Even after 2,000 years of knowing the words they still strike us as strange and confounding.  This is his first teaching –we’re reading from the Gospel of Matthew, at the beginning of chapter 5.  It says this:

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. He sat down and his disciples came to him. He taught them, saying:

Happy people

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.

“Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.

“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

10 “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

11 “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. 12 Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.

Now, if you read this as a directive list for becoming happy –or for receiving God’s blessing you won’t find a lot of encouragement here.  Because, according to Jesus, the preconditions for what you’re looking for seem to be, in this order: hopelessness, grief, humility/humiliation, injustice, a lack of accountability, a deficiency of ambition, the denial of self-assertion, harassment, insult, more harassment, and slander. If you have those, then start celebrating –because hey, soon you’ll get to be just like all the guys in ancient times who were killed for speaking the truth!

….something to look forward to…

And I wrestled a great deal with how I was supposed to bring out the inner wisdom of these teachings.  But every time I tried to find the words to express the mystery of what these lessons had do say to me, it seemed like I lost precisely the thing that mattered most. And I couldn’t help but notice the fact that nowhere here does Jesus say ‘blessed are the long-winded, for they make everyone smart.’  Instead the line jumped out ‘happy are the humble, because they will inherit the earth.’  So as a gift and as a lesson for you all this morning I have only this: that, together, we take a moment of contemplation.  Let the paradox and the mystery of Jesus’ teaching help us grow.

So I’d like you all to go ahead and close your eyes for a moment.  Breathe deeply.  Imagine holding your hopes for happiness, and try to picture all the energy you’ve spent chasings after blessings. And I want you to try to hold those pictures at the same time.  Bring back to life the memories of when happiness surprised you –find a moment in your recollection when you were bathed in a sense of the beauty and wonder of this life.  Maybe it was climbing a mountain or seeing the ocean for the first time.  Maybe it was holding a new-born baby, or hearing a song that touched you.  That was a blessing. Let those old feelings take hold of you again.  And give thanks.

Next, I want you to think about a time when you were proud of yourself.  This is more difficult for some of us.  But hopefully there was a time –at least in childhood, where you did or made or accomplished something.  Maybe you got a good grade in a hard class.  Maybe you helped to win a game of basketball –maybe you painted a picture, crafted a poem, or simply said some words that touched someone else.  Relish in those moments too.  Be glad that you have powers and gifts and abilities to share with the world.  And give thanks for that too –for there were a great number of people and spirits that have gone into your being you.

And finally, spend some time with these words:

“Happy are people who are hopeless

“Happy are people who grieve

“Happy are people who are humble

“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness,

“Happy are people who show mercy

“Happy are people who have pure hearts

“Happy are people who make peace

10 “Happy are people whose lives are harassed

11 “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of Jesus. There’s an invitation here, to go deeper.  An invitation into transcendence.  An invitation here to become something, and somebody more.  Not by learning a new skill, or by making better choices, or by doing more things –but an invitation to become something more … by getting over yourself.

The desires for happiness and the pursuit of blessings will both, at some time or another, lead us right into a brick wall.  Chasing blessings tempts us to over-look and ignore the blesser; and the pursuit of dopamine and self-glorification will make us miserable and shut us down.

A wise man named Viktor Frankl has this to say: “Happpiness must ensue.  It cannot be pursued.  It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.  The more one makes happiness an aim, the more he misses the aim.”  He summarizes it in this way: “Pleasure –or, for that matter, happiness—is the side effect of living out the self-transcendence of existence. Once one has served a cause or is involved in loving another human being, happiness occurs by itself.”

In other words, this world-renowned psychologist has this to say: you’re a gift.  And if you can approach your own life as a gift to be given, you’ll end up being happy –as a blessed accident.

I was watching a TED Talk a few weeks ago, delivered by a young British gentleman who gave a talk about finding your vocation.  And his wise advise was to abandon the quest for passion.  Give up your passion, and instead seek to identify what’s valuable. And then, when you realize what has value, give that.  And in that way you too will become valuable.  Try to find a service, or a person –or entire groups of people- to whom you can offer something good.  And give it. Invest your energies and talents and skills in offering that needed thing.  And then, in a surprise move, you’ll discover passion welling up from your own sense of usefulness.

This year, thrive’s New Year’s resolution is very simple.  Our whole goal for everything we do in 2017 is to grow people.  We want people to experience their own lives more deeply, and to grow in wisdom and in relationships, and to develop the skills we all already have.  And we want to grow new relationships and new connections.  We want to serve those we’re not yet serving.  We want to welcome those who don’t yet have a community.  We want to empower those who don’t yet feel empowered to be the gift they were always created to be.

Let us hold that as our shared focus now too, for this week to come.  May we find new ways to grow and connect.  So that others might have space in this good work.  This is how we make our way.

Let’s pray.

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