April 14th, 2016
You probably missed it. We were too busy waving palm branches and talking about envy to notice. But on March 20th, the world turned its despondent souls in search of mirth, merriment, and an abiding sense of well-being when it celebrated the 5th annual “International Day of Happiness” (HT: Think Theology).
Conceived of by the United Nations, the day is set aside to celebrate what all humanity longs for and which all nations ought urgently seek for their respective citizenries.
And this is no superficial appeal to collective sanguineness. The minds behind the Day have authored a guidebook in which both the marks and means of happiness are outlined. Let these be your guide (in acrostic fashion to boot!) and happiness is said to follow:
Giving – do things for others
Relating – connect with people
Exercising – take care of your body
Awareness – live life mindfully
Trying out – keep learning new things
Direction – have goals to look forward to
Resilience – find ways to bounce back
Emotions – look for what’s good
Acceptance – be comfortable with who you are
Meaning – be part of something bigger
It’s probably only someone from a 1st world country in which the experience of some idea of happiness is taken for granted who could look with amusement at this clever attempt both to define what happiness is, and also to chart a path to it. One may reasonably quibble with the list’s assumptions about how to become happy. (It’s conceivable that anyone in a war-torn country told to “find ways to bounce back” would answer with a punch–happily–to the gut.) But as far as identifying the nature of happiness as something more than the fleeting experience of joviality, you could do worse than this list. Life’s sweetness does revolve around giving and connecting. It does rest on having a sense of purpose and of manifesting an inner poise that’s derived from a sense of acceptance.
But cultivating happiness entails wisdom, too–often in the form of letting go of some of the ideas we formerly thought would make us happy. Travis Bradberry writes that happiness in large part comes down to expectations. Not that we set them low enough in order to be pleasantly surprised, but that we set them appropriately, and with some measure of optimism. There are notions that have become for us myths on the path to happiness that we do well to slough off like dead skin–like:
- Life should be fair
- Everyone should like me and should agree with me
- Things will make me happy
It’s these expectations that we come to believe as the way to happiness–only to find they are a dead-end. The sooner we leave them behind, the more we increase our chances of finding that happiness we seek.
But even with our embrace of the right ideas and avoidance of the wrong ones, we all know that enduring happiness proves elusive. Circumstances collapse upon us. Our inclinations seduce and bewilder us into moods rife with anything but happiness. And some of our best efforts to practice those “happiness virtues” are met with inexplicable obstacles to what those efforts purpose.
Which leaves us with some formidable questions: is happiness, so fundamental to how we organize our lives, really a thing to be pursued, or only something to be grateful for when it comes our way? And if so much can do so little to afflict us with so much unhappiness, what are we to do in such a world?
Last Sunday we listened to the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety. This Sunday we begin taking it in, thought by thought, for the sake of finding in it the way of flourishing, community, and witness. Or more succinctly, the way of Life. Life with a capital L because this Life is the one that will endure, because it is the way of the Kingdom coming in and through Jesus.
As we explained in our preface to the recitation, we’ll frame our consideration of each passage by asking how Jesus is reimagining life for us–how He is confronting a take on life that had become a given, what that new way of Life means, and how what He brings promises to bring this vision to reality.
His task of reimagining life begins with confronting commonplace ways of thinking about happiness. The Sermon begins, not with exhortations to an ethical system, but with blessings–“beatitudes” as they’ve come to be called. The Greek word for “blessed” (makarioi) is elsewhere translated as “happy.” And while our typical associations with happiness are probably too narrow for all that Scripture might mean by “blessed,” the blessing of God surely connotes that favor that conduces to a cheerful frame.
So in beginning His sermon with promises meant to satisfy, He proves God’s interest in our delight–corroborating what we heard not that long ago. But as we’ll find repeatedly in this Sermon, Jesus upends our expectations of how happiness–or blessedness–comes our way.
In the first beatitude we’ll listen to this week, He will re-imagine the way of happiness by re-imagining for us goodness. If happiness is the experience of being a participant in the Good, then it follows that Jesus would have something to say, and at the beginning of His Sermon, about goodness–from where it comes, on what basis it does, and by what means.
On Easter Sunday we let George Gershwin set us up. This Sunday we’ll let Rogers and Hammerstein do that–with a little help from Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.
- Q&A following worship offered rich insights and responses to the recitation of the Sermon. One was that, despite our thinking Jesus couldn’t possibly have covered as much material in one sitting as we find in the Sermon, there are ample instances of the text speaking of Jesus teaching for hours, or of the church sitting to hear a whole letter from Paul. (And if it was his letter to the church at Rome, we’d can certainly imagine a call for a bathroom break.) So long stretches of oral instruction is only inconceivable to the degree that we are unfamiliar with such a practice. That Jesus spoke into a primarily oral culture is proof that more ancient peoples had a greater capacity to take in large swaths of discourse than perhaps we do today. All to say, there may be something to taking in an author’s meaning in one sitting, rather than atomizing it into bite-sized chunks. We’ve posted this guidance before, but Joe Carter has here not just a method for imbibing whole books of the bible but a promise of what that kind of reading can do for you.
And for all the affirmation Kevin and I received at our interpretive recitation, it’s important to note that memorizing Text is more a matter of time than complexity. I am fairly certain that any one of us could reproduce the lyrics to dozens of songs with the greatest of ease. That’s because you heard them and sang them so often that it was as if their tracks had been laid down in your brain. Merely hearing words and speaking them is the best way to gain a command of them. So if you’d like to try your mind at memorizing, you could do worse than start here.
- Finally, there’s a little picnic just around the corner we’d love for all you to come out and enjoy with us. Our newest members will be our guests of honor. Details about everything, including what to bring are on The City. If you haven’t RSVP’d yet, we’d love for you to here.