Happiness & The Good Life


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No matter how dark the night, how deep the pain, how irrevocable the damage…God is in control, and the Good Life awaits. First of Rev. Victor’s two-part “Happiness” series.

Sermon Video


This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Psalm 30

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.
To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication:“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
The Word of the Lord…

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Introduction: Two Tributes

Yesterday, the church lost a powerful voice. Author Rachel Held Evans died[9] at the age of 37, following a short illness. She wrote these words:

‘The world is watching,’ Christians like to say, ‘so let’s be on our best behavior and quickly hide the mess. Let’s throw up some before-and-after shots and roll that flashy footage of our miracle product blanching out every sign of dirt, hiding every sign of disease.’ But if the world is watching, we might as well tell the truth. And the truth is, the church doesn’t offer a cure. It doesn’t offer a quick fix. The church offers death and resurrection. The church offers the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation. The church offers grace. Anything else we try to peddle is snake oil. It’s not the real thing.[10]

Read the works of Rachel Held Evans if you want to experience the real thing. I hope that it is fitting that, today, this sermon is about trying to get a handle on the messiness of human emotion, healing and, in the midst of death, living into a resurrection faith.

Additionally, this sermon is dedicated to the memory of Calvary’s former pastor, Rev. Dr. James “Jim” Emerson, who, decades ago, blazed a connective trail between theology, Christian ethics and behavioral science.

 

Music

The Psalms are meant for music. Psalm means song. Perhaps Robert Alter’s new translation[11] of the Hebrew Bible is more accurate in the line “You turned my mourning into dancing”. The word for mourning v11 actually means wailing. Robert Alter puts it like this:

You have turned my dirge[12] to a dance[13] for me,

You have undone my sackcloth and bound me with joy.

 

Prayer for Illumination

 

The Big Five

The five basic human emotions, my chaplain supervisor told me, are best remembered as a rhyme: Sad, Mad, Glad, Bad, Afraid. The last one does not rhyme; perhaps it’s afraid to rhyme. I prefer them in reverse alphabetical order because…skill. Please repeat after me: Sad, Mad, Glad, Bad, Afraid. And usually the emotion left out of the list is Bad, probably because it is not very accurate. Bad is shorthand for Shame & Guilt. I feel Bad that I did not RSVP. 

To make this concept accessible, these five emotions are intentionally vague and over-simplified. Start here with these five: Sad, Mad, Glad, Bad, Afraid. Once you learn them and explore each of them, you’ll be ready to conduct your own research.

 

Sidebar: Feeling Bad (Shame, Guilt, Embarrassment)

A word about feeling bad—shame. Shame and vulnerability, says Brene Brown, shame derives its power

from being unspeakable. Shame, feeling Bad, is detrimental to your spirit and has a long shelf-life. That’s why I to come out over and over. Like other LGBT people, shame has been heaped on me because of something over which I have no control. If I am to free anyone else from the destructive forces of shame, Bad feelings that try to separate us from the love of God and from one another, I have to keep telling the truth in the faith that someone might hear it with new ears this time.

 

Chronically Mad Church People

Telling the truth of the human condition is not just for the victims, it’s for the bullies, too. I feel Sad for religious people whose public emotions are limited to Mad and Afraid. I feel Afraid for people who rely on accessible healthcare, because we follow a Savior who handed out free healthcare to women. Jesus healed the poor and the unclean, empowered those from other tribes, even Samaritans, one female Samaritan in particular. These are the examples recorded in the gospels because these are the ones humanity seems predisposed to exploit and demean. The situation of current events, readily available on any device, depicts a world where real-life struggling people are degraded and cuckoo has taken the wheel.

 

The Advanced Course in Human Emotion: Love

Where is love? you might wonder. Isn’t love an emotion? Not in this model, but it is very real. Love is a combination of vulnerability and fear (excitement) and happiness (Glad/Afraid/Bad). As in courtly love, it is painful and glorious, all at once. If you are trying to get a handle on emotions, love is the advanced course. It always includes Sad feelings and the occasional Mad outburst. Love covers all five: Sad, Mad, Glad, Bad, Afraid.

 

The Psalms & Human Emotion

And all five are all biblical topics, especially in the Psalms. In the fourth century, early church theologian, Athanasius of Alexandria wrote:

In the Psalter, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of the soul, all its changes, its up and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble or joy or gratitude, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on your way, but one learns a way to remedy your ill and uphold your faith.[14]

The Psalms contain the power to heal and form us as disciples! Consider today’s lesson, Psalm 30, alongside Psalm 130, which our choir just sang— polar opposites. Psalm 30 thanks God for drawing the Psalmist up and out of the Pit, and in Psalm 130, the Psalmist cries out de profundis, from the depths of the Pit. Psalm 130: in the Pits. Psalm 30: post-Pit thank you card.

The Pit is Sheol, the ancient Hebrew underworld of the dead. It’s not hell, and it sure ain’t heaven, it’s just death. In the 1980s movie The Neverending Story[15] there is a dark force called The Great Nothing, and it is devouring the land. The Great Nothing symbolizes complacency and inaction, and describes those who have failed to show up for their own lives, that’s what the Psalmist is talking about: the Pit, Sheol, The Great Nothing, a thief that comes to steal and destroy, antithetical to Jesus, the One who came that we may have life, and have it in abundance.[16]

 

Our Emotions: Observe & Describe

The Psalms name and describe every human emotion. Today, too many people act on emotion without any reflection. More specifically, too many religious people, yea even Christians, even Presbyterians, vent their Mad feelings destructively, hurting one another. If you have a social media account, you know this. If you have ever read the responses of a church-wide survey, you know this. If the world has gotten to you, and Mad, Bad and Afraid have become your default settings, it’s time for some Glad feelings. It’s time to live the Good Life that Jesus offers.

How do we avoid living warped lives inundated by constant negative feelings? We could go live in caves or withdraw completely, but that is not Christianity. Christians go to where the pain is greatest, we heal, we reconcile. We practice death and resurrection, healing and reconciliation, grace.

 

Narcissism in the Psalms

This past week, Rev. Cal Chinn and I attended a preaching conference led by Rev. Rodger Nishioka. Many of you know Rodger. He is a genius. I learned this mind-blowing thing from him this week. When the language of the Psalm focuses  inward—me, me, me, I, I, I—the general mood is negative, destructive, sometimes full of rage. However, when the Psalmist focuses outward, let’s say upward, toward God, Glad feelings flood the song. Everything turns on where we focus our attention. Where is your focus?

 

The Great Nothing

In today’s Psalm, verse 6 is an example of myopic narcissism:

As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”

Robert Alter argues that the word for prosperity implies silence. During my “quiet days” when I had plenty.  God is the enemy of apathy. God wants us to take this world to heart, all of this world, not just happiness. Take it all in, and do not remain quiet.

The Short Catechism of the Presbyterian Church (USA) teaches us that the “Lord who died and rose again, triumphant over death, [did so] for [your] sake. Therefore, we take those around us to heart, especially those in need, knowing that Christ died for them no less than for me.”[17]

When we give up narcissism and the cult of victimhood, we can make room for the God that calls us to realize our Happiness potential, and that’s a good feeling indeed. In Michael Cunningham’s masterpiece The Hours, he wrote:

“I remember one morning getting up at dawn. There was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling. And I… I remember thinking to myself: So this is the beginning of happiness, this is where it starts. And of course there will always be more…never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment, right then.”[18]

G.K. Chesterton once said that “Joy…is the gigantic secret of the Christian.”[19] Don’t come to the end of your days and opine in Sad emotions how you wish you had shown up. You will never find Happiness by avoiding the messiness of this life.

Amen.

 

Appendix: Another Translation of Psalm 30

Psalm 30[20]

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.

O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.

O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,

restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.

For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime.

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”

By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain;

you hid your face; I was dismayed.

To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication:

“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?

Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?

Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!”

11 You have turned my mourning into dancing;

you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,

so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.

O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

 

[1] There are many credible translations of God’s Word. However, there has just been released a “once in a generation” translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) by Robert Alter. This is Alter’s translation of Psalm 30.
[2] Alter likes using hymn as a verb.
[3] NRSV: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
[4] In easy times. NRSV: in prosperous times. How interesting that Alter equates prosperity/play/easiness with being quiet! Is he implying that we usually don’t pray when things are going well?
[5] Literally, “I won’t slip up.” NRSV: “I shall never be moved.”
[6] Adonai
[7] Literally, “wailing” NRSV: “mourning” into dancing
[8] with flute accompaniment
[9] Francesca Paris, “Rachel Held Evans, Christian Writer Who Questioned Evangelical Beliefs, Dies At 37” National Public Radio, May 4, 2019, accessed online at <https://www.npr.org/2019/05/04/720298646/rachel-held-evans-christian-writer-who-questioned-evangelical-beliefs-dies-at-37> (May 4, 2019)
[10]  Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, accessed online at <https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/3207795.Rachel_Held_Evans> (May 5, 2019)
[11] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation With Commentary in Three Volume (New York: Norton, 2019) <https://www.amazon.com/Hebrew-Bible-Translation-Commentary-Three/dp/0393292495>
[12] Literally, “wailing” NRSV: “mourning” into dancing
[13] with flute accompaniment
[14] Benjamin Wayman, Make the Words Your Own: An Early Christian Guide to the Psalms (Paraclete Press, 2014), Introduction.
[15] <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088323/>
[16] John 10:10
[17] Study Catechism 1998 of the PC(USA), accessed online at <http://www.ucc.org/beliefs_study-catechism-1998-of-the> (May 2, 2019)
[18] <https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/291716-i-remember-one-morning-getting-up-at-dawn-there-was>
[19] Suiwen Liang, “Christians, Pagans & the Good Life” The Dartmouth Apologia: A Journal of Christian Thought, Spring 2012, Volume 6, Issue 2, accessed online at <http://www.dartmouth.edu/~apologia/apol12s.pdf> (May 1, 2019)
[20] New Revised Standard Version, the translation used at Calvary, available in the pews

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