THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him … Luke 24:30-31

Are you happy? If not, do you know why?

Several things can make us sad and stress us out. Illness, family problems, financial set-backs have their place in our day-to-day contentment quotient. But all things being equal are you a generally happy person, satisfied with the life you live?

Many of us would have to answer “no.”

Peter Moskovitz, in his article America’s Search for Happiness is Driving Us Crazy, reports that we have a multibillion dollar happiness industry bent on helping us find contentment, yet over forty million of us have diagnosed anxiety disorders.

We are obsessed with happiness, yet not finding it. Perhaps we aren’t finding it because we are pursuing it the wrong way.

Read Mercer Schuchardt suggests as much in a recent CT Mag article, The Future of the Church is Analog Not Digital, when he wrote, “The most important and biblical pieces of technology in a church today may not be the projector and the amplifier, but the crockpot and warming plate.”

Schuchardt’s peice struck a chord in a song the Spirit has been singing in my soul for some time. I hear it in Sunday School as Jamie Laine leads us through Ray Vanderlaan’s excellent video series, Becoming a Kingdom of Priests in a Prodigal World. I see it in the faces and hear it in the stories of friends attending our Alpha Course this fall. I read about it in books like Rosaria Butterfield’s Openness Unhindered and articles like Peter Moskovitz’s interview with Ruth Whippman, author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.[1]

If the song had a title it would be something like: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND, (but somebody already took that one). The chorus would be:

Sit at table with new friends,

Make room in your life for them,

You never know what God may grow,

By simply inviting them in.

Corny, I know, but it gathers up the power of God at work community. Let me explain.

Whippman notes that, “If there was one thing that’s consistent in happiness research it’s that the main source of our happiness is our relationships with other people in our communities (emphasis added). It kind of cuts across class, race, gender, age, and everything. But the focus in America is very much on happiness as kind of a personal, individual journey; looking deep inside yourself, about mindfulness, about your own thinking. All of that being inside your own head, and remaking your own thoughts from the inside.”

Here’s the thing, as long as we pursue happiness as strictly personal, as a goal only to be achieved as individuals, we will remain isolated, empty, and anxious. Happiness is found in community, in common purpose, in shared successes and sorrows, the great and the small threads we weave with others to create the fabric of a meaningful life.

I know the objections, “Other people rub me the wrong way!”  Indeed they do, but the point is, we need them to. Their idiosyncrasies reveal the cracks in our characters that Christ has yet to fill and force us all to pursue him higher up and farther into life in the Spirit.

More to the point, the life, the Shalom, that flows from the Spirit of God cannot be found, or lived, or shared in isolation. Technology can deliver a sermon to your “personal device” (see the irony?) but cannot include you or others in the body of Christ. Only you can do that as you commit to be there, both body and spirit, and to welcome others to the table.

[1] Whippman is the author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, and the interview can be found at:  https://flipboard.com/@flipboard/flip.it%2FBDcPRo-americas-search-for-happiness-is-drivin/f-869a36fce5%2Fvice.com

FIND YOUR MARGIN: How to Put Back In What Life Takes Out

A young friend, and when I say young I mean thirty years younger than I am, recently confessed that he had said yes to so many things that he finally had to say no to a regularly scheduled workday.

“I’ve found that when you have construction skills you also have lots of friends with projects that need your help,” he said. “I became so wrung out that I had to shut down for a day. I wasn’t sick, but I was going to be if I didn’t rest.”

Richard Swenson, M.D., author of the book MARGIN wrote: Something is wrong. People are tired and frazzled. People are anxious and depressed. People don’t have the time to heal anymore. There is a psychic instability in our day that prevents peace from implanting itself very firmly in the human spirit.

Swenson calls the problem marginless living. “Margin,” he says, “is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed.”

Jesus understood better than most the need for margin. He called it Sabbath. To Jesus the Sabbath was not created for its own sake; it was a gift of God to man. Its purpose was not to put man in a kind of straight jacket. It was for his good–to provide rest from labor and opportunity for worship. (Mark 2:27).

We work in a world cursed by sin. That makes work difficult and draining. It taxes us spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Sabbath compensates us for the energy we spend dealing with the challenges of living with frail bodies in a fallen world.

Fatigue, I have learned, is incremental. It is also cumulative, building up unrecognized in our souls until we become ill or have a nervous breakdown. We know we are tired, but we don’t know we are impaired, skating along the edge of physical and psychic burnout.

We need Sabbath time. It restores us.

Pastoral work doesn’t require much in the way of physical labor. But it does demand a lot of psychological energy and careful concentration on multiple strands of information, multiple relationships. It is stress inducing. Motorcycling on roads like the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) and Cherohala Skyway is one of the things that restore me. The physical exertion of wrestling a six-hundred pound bike through the mountains at speed, the concentration required to keep it on the road, and the sheer joy of experiencing grass, tree, granite and sky in beautiful combination puts something back in that work takes out. It drains me physically but restores me spiritually. It helps me think about things that the normal flow of life prohibits.

God wants us to be strengthened by the gift of Sabbath, but like so many gifts we have to learn to use it. Often all that is needed is the setting aside of a day, like Sunday, for worship and celebration and rest. But sometimes we need more than that. I find Sabbath on two wheels on the BRP. Where do you find it?

Sabbath is one of the best things you can do for your soul and your body. For, when a man or woman is not resting, he is not reflecting, she is not thinking about the things that are most important in life, he’s not thinking about what he’s investing his precious, limited time and energy in. More importantly he or she is not putting back in what life takes out.

BAGPIPE BLESSINGS

Fog deep and cool shrouded the road and the massive, borrowed 1975 Lincoln Continental that we drove down the mountain. It was the morning of our marriage, a day or two into our honeymoon near Banner Elk, North Carolina. I could barely see past the hood ornament, doing my best to follow the yellow lines a few feet at a time, wondering if I should turn around.

That’s when we heard the music; bagpipes? Yes, unmistakably, bagpipes, the sound rising from the mists, enchanted. We could not see the player until we were almost on top of her, the fog and the switchbacks conspiring to keep the young lass from view until suddenly; there she stood on a small rise, in front of an old stone church barely visible, surrounded by tombstones, blowing a blessing on us. The road curved again and just as suddenly she was gone, the notes of Amazing Grace trailing after our tail lights.

We looked at each other and smiled in awe and wonder at the sweetness, that God would give us such a gift on such a day.

Many days have passed with many mountains sweet and valleys bitter, between that one and this and I see that drive as a metaphor. Life unwinds before us, a mountain road in the morning mists. We get glimpses here and there of the highlands and of cool meadows near rushing streams, feel the blessing of those things, and are drawn by them to take the journey. But mostly, like the lass on the hill, they show up unexpected; bagpipe blessings blowing in the breeze. We cannot see beyond the hood ornament, we do not know what waits around the next bend.

Live long enough and we will meet with bitter disappointments, hurts too deep to bear. If we had known they were coming, we would have turned around, never taken that road. Having retreated, however, we would have missed the bagpipe blessings, the sweet things hiding in the morning mists.

The lessons? Never fear the fog, to live the life God has called you to, to take the journey into the unknown even when you cannot see past the hood ornament. Never linger in the bitter curves, the painful unexpected turns of life. Keep moving, keep trusting, and keep listening, for you do not know what blessings lay hidden in the mists.

We found that little stone church again last week on our vacation. Thirty-two years, many mountains and valleys later, we remain blessed by God, enchanted by grace, and following his road. May he give us thirty-two more.

Rx for Anxiety

ANXIETY, I am not immune to it. I doubt you are either. Yet something Jesus said just before his crucifixion reminds me that we have a choice about our anxieties.

The Apostle John describes the scene for us in chapters thirteen and fourteen of his gospel. Jesus, already in Jerusalem for the Passover feast, is in the upper room with his closest followers, his twelve, hand-picked men. There is a price on his head. He washes their feet, shares the bread and the cup, and most notably, predicts his betrayal. All are aghast. All are frightened. They are well aware of the threat they are under, the risks they are running by being in Jerusalem. It is a time of great anxiety.

Into this fractious moment Jesus speaks some his most familiar words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1). I’ve read those words hundreds of times, often at funerals. But this week the first three words stood out from the rest in a way they haven’t before because I realized Jesus repeated them near the end of his talk, just before they left the upper room, saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27).

The first three words of each line tell us something about ourselves that can be hard to believe: We have a choice about our anxieties. Jesus’ two “Do not let(s)…” make an emphatic statement about our ability to select worry and its gut-wrenching results, or trust and the peace that accompanies it.

The fact, the physiological fact, is that we can worry ourselves sick. Psychiatrists have reliable evidence that the more we worry, the more we fixate on some fearful thing over which we have no control, the more likely we are to push our brain chemistry out of balance. Once the neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and others get off-kilter it can be very difficult to return them to an even keel. In some cases medications are necessary to help restore the balance. But for most of us medication is a temporary fix. If we don’t address the underlying habit of fear in the first place the imbalance is likely to reoccur.

Jesus has a prescription for preventing such brain disorders in the first place. “Do not let” it happen. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust God (instead). Trust me (instead).” Do not choose worry and it cannot enslave your mind. Choose to trust God and he will set it free.

Easier said than done? Yes, certainly. But it can be done. Let me offer a couple of practical steps to help. Call it Rx for Anxiety.
First, it may be necessary to confess that we’ve allowed the source of our worry, in our minds at least, to become more powerful than God, more important to our wellbeing than Christ. That’s actually idolatry and it requires confession and repentance. “Father, thing A or thing B is occupying front and center in my life. That’s your place. I now repent of that and confess that you are God and nothing else. I confess that I am not in control.”

Second, remembering that physical expressions of worship often help us deal with difficult emotions, take a step of faith. Take that thing over which you have no control (which includes most of life, does it not?), write it down on a piece of paper, and in an act of worship offer it up to God. Then set it on fire.

Some things are more difficult to offer up like this than others. Some may require a daily offering for a while. But make it a habit with all of your worries and peace will become your companion.

We have a choice about our anxieties. As you think about all that Christ accomplished for us during his Passion this week, choose trust.

SUCCESS UNDER STRESS 3: Courage

Moral courage is often harder than physical courage. We will invest ourselves deeply in worry about the 92% of things over which we have no control in order to avoid the pain of dealing with the 8% that we can control.

Alan Loy McGinnis was a psychologist and author who wrote a few good books. In one he tells about a business man who was stressed to the max, worried about all kinds of things, until the day he analyzed his anxieties and realized that:
 40% were things that would likely never happen.
 30% were past decisions that were unchangeable.
 12% were unimportant criticism from others.
 10% were health related, but his health was generally OK.
 8% were legitimate worries that he could actually do something about.

I imagine most of us can identify with that. The problem is that lingering 8% usually requires some kind of moral courage.

For many of us, moral courage is harder than physical courage. We will invest ourselves deeply in worry about the 92% of things over which we have no control in order to avoid the pain of dealing with the 8% that we can control. Like the business woman who will waste hours and hours trying to fix a computer problem she knows nothing about when she really needs to pay somebody to fix the computer and fire the secretary that is alienating her clients. She’d rather cuss the computer than confront the secretary. It takes less courage.

The Apostle Paul’s protégé, Timothy, was in a situation like that. The church he led had serious problems. Heresy was brewing in the pews, some of the elders were caught in sin, there was disharmony and competition in the membership, and disruption in the worship service.

The Apostle’s instruction for dealing with these problems was no doubt difficult for Timothy to hear: “Tim, you are the pastor. You have the authority to deal with these difficulties. Use it.”

The Apostle wrote: “Command certain men not to teach strange doctrines … Command and teach these things … Command the rich not to be arrogant.” (1 Tim. 1:3; 4:11; 6:17-18 emphasis added).

Tim the timid needed to become Tim the courageous. Pastor Timid needed to be Pastor Fearless.

But it isn’t just Pastor Tim, is it? Moral courage is a prerequisite for anyone in leadership, especially anyone who decides to be a Christ-follower in this world.

Courage is the strength to take a risk, to persevere, to face danger, fear or difficulty. Moral courage is one of the keys to success in high stress. It’s what Timothy needed to ‘take command’ of a difficult situation. And it’s what we need to take command of ours.

SUCCESS UNDER STRESS 2

I hope you’ve had the experience of working in a high challenge, high nurture environment. That’s what Tim had with Paul. He spent the first decade or so of his ministry with the indomitable apostle. He hiked mountains, sailed the seas, argued on the Areopagus, preached in parts unknown, and learned the heights and depths of God’s love at the feet of the author of Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. Tim did all of that – but always in a supporting role – never on the point. His mentor and friend, Paul, was always there to encourage, and comfort, and most of all lead. The benefits of that kind of coaching can’t be counted, but it’s hard to leave it behind.

All of a sudden you’re out there solo. All the decisions are yours to make, yours to fly or die with. That’s where Timothy was and he was finding it hard, so hard it seems he wanted to bail out.

Thus Paul’s exhortation: Stay there. Be content where you are Tim. Fight the good fight (1 Timothy 1:18). Hold on to faith and a good conscience.

What does it mean to stay there? I suggest it means two things: being content with what we have–our possessions, and trusting God with where we are–our position.

Timothy’s position had changed. He was no longer in the high-nurture environment he once shared with Paul. He was enduring scrutiny he’d never known, making supervisory decisions without back-up (he couldn’t email Paul for help), while simultaneously trying to train the next generation of leaders. That’s a tough position for a young man.

Timothy’s “possessions,” his gifting, and temperament, and stamina were also different from Paul’s. The Apostle to the Gentiles was old – old enough to call Timothy “my son” – tough, and ambitious. Timothy wasn’t wired that way. He comes across in the text as a bit timid, eager to please, and physically handicapped by “frequent ailments.” (1 Timothy 5:23).

It would be easy for Tim, and for us, to think that with all those limits, God couldn’t use him; to bail out because of inadequacies, wimp out because of weakness, lay low because of limits. But Paul wouldn’t let him off the hook. Instead, he exhorted Tim to:

“Get the word out. Teach all these things. And don’t let anyone put you down because you’re young. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity. Stay at your post reading Scripture, giving counsel, teaching. And that special gift of ministry you were given when the leaders of the church laid hands on you and prayed—keep that dusted off and in use.” (1 Timothy 4:11-14 The Message).

Paul is telling his young friend: Tim you have powerful gifts! You don’t have to have mine to be effective! Use what you have! Use them and watch God work!

Staying there means giving yourself permission to be happy with where you are: your position, and working with what you have: your possessions.

Staying there means doing what you can, with what you have, right where you are for the glory of God.

It’s Joseph, content to interpret the dreams of fellow prisoners until it was God’s time to interpret Pharaoh’s.

It’s Moses, content to tend sheep for forty years in the desert until God called him to lead a nation out of bondage.

It’s David, content to use a sling to slay a Giant until God made him a King and gave him an army.

And it’s you and it’s me doing what we can, with what we have, right where we are for the glory of God.

SUCCESS UNDER STRESS

Are you feeling stressed? Pressured? Overloaded?

Many of you are returning to school soon, some to totally new environments, some to increasing responsibility as you near the end of your educational career and the beginning of your working career. That’s stressful.

Some of you are under tremendous pressure at work. One guy described his day as “walking into a buzz saw.” Here’s a little research on the subject:

The average office worker gets 220 messages a day—in e-mails, memos, phone calls, interruptions, and ads.

A survey of 1,313 managers on four continents found that “one-third of managers suffer from ill health as a direct consequence of stress associated with information overload. This figure increases to 43 percent among senior managers.”

The sheer volume of information you have to screen, absorb and respond to can make you sick.

Then there are those other “little” stressors that anybody with a lot of responsibility and little authority can relate to:

 Dealing with spin – information comes to us like a Clayton Kershaw curve ball. It looks like the straight stuff until it gets to the plate. The truth gets lost in the rumor mill or shady ethics.
 Office Politics – strained relationships between others in your organization make your job more difficult.
 Political Correctness – rears its head conscience requires you to say things no one wants to hear.
 Administrative Hassles – you want to hire the best qualified person, you know who it is, but you have to jump through a bunch of hoops first to keep the watchdogs happy.
 Communication Breakdown – they say the package would arrive Monday, but you heard them promise it would be there Friday.

If you can connect with any of that you can connect with Pastor Tim of the first Church of Ephesus. He was dealing with the same issues dressed in church clothes.

 Spin – Legalism, Gnosticism and superstitious mysticism were confusing the church.
 Politics – Strained relationships between church members put him in the middle.
 Political Correctness – The role of women be in the church had to be addressed.
 Administrative Issues – Who could serve as elder? Deacon? How would they be qualified?
 Communication – Tim had to set the example of clear communication and following through on commitments.

Let me go back to my original question. Are you feeling overloaded? Pressured? Stressed to the max? If so you might be feeling like Pastor Tim: RUN BABY RUN!

It’s apparent from Paul’s very first instruction to Tim that he was ready to bug out. “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus …” (1 Timothy 1:3a emphasis added).

That was not what Tim was hoping to hear. But it’s one of the keys to success in high stress. “Stay there,” he said. “Fight the good fight, hold on to your faith, keep your conscience clear, and stay there.”

If God has placed you in a tough situation, stay in it. Don’t bail out just because your palms are getting sweaty. If you’re sure God is in it, you stay in it. Problems are just opportunities dressed in scary costumes. God has something to teach you and something to accomplish through you in that difficult spot. If you bail out now you may never learn what you can be and you may never see what God can do.