Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Secret of Happiness

Micah 6:8; Psalm 15; Matthew 5:1-12[1]

A few years ago a film called “The Secret” was all the rage. It purported to reveal an ancient principle that had enabled people for generations to achieve wealth, success and happiness. That principle was called the “Law of Attraction”: all you have to do to get everything you want in life is to simply believe that you will get it, envision your life with it, and speak about it as if it is a reality. This will then “attract” what you want into your life.[2] The more we hear of hucksters like this, the more we tend to be skeptical that there is any such thing as a “secret to happiness.” But I would say that there is a “secret” to happiness that has been recognized throughout human history, and by most of the world’s major religions. The true secret to happiness is not to hold tightly to whatever it is you want and come up with all kinds of schemes for getting it. The true secret to happiness is to let go what you want and accept life as it is. Call it what you will—trusting God, being enlightened, letting go—it is the true secret to happiness.

What does this have to do with our lessons for today? It seems to me that the qualities for living expressed in our Scripture readings today—justice, kindness, integrity, and humility—come from embracing this way of living. There is something about letting go our obsession with getting what we want and accepting what life brings us that opens us up to be able to enjoy the goodness all around us. And in turn it opens us up to relate to those around us with compassion —even those we may or may not “like.” When we can look at another human being—even one who may be an “enemy”—with compassion, we can let go all our fears and our preconceived notions, and just see a human being who is struggling to find happiness. We can be truly kind to those we see in that light, and we can also begin to care about their well-being, which means that we care about their peace and justice and we accept our calling to relate to them with integrity.

One of the reasons why this approach to living remains so elusive to us is that it requires that we accept the fact that we are broken people. We have to accept our basic vulnerability to life in order to let go and embrace life as it is. Most of us find this quite difficult, if not downright impossible. It requires that we experience some measure of brokenness—which is something most of us spend a lot of energy and effort trying to avoid. We have to encounter what Anne Lamott calls the “gift of failure.”[3] Many of us may find that language strange, but failure is a gift in that it enables you to accept the humility of looking foolish, of being broken and flawed. In a very real sense, failure enables you to embrace the vulnerability of being human. And throughout the ages, many have recognized the profound wisdom that it is only through accepting our vulnerability that we find the path to peace, the path to blessedness, the path to life and true happiness.[4]

I think this idea finds expression in our lessons most clearly in the Gospel reading—Jesus’ “Beatitudes.” Many of us may have been raised to hear these verses as an outline of character traits that we as Christians are called to embody. It may be that in a secondary way, but that is not the main point. The main point is that the Kingdom of God turns everything in this world upside down![5] “Blessed are the poor in spirit” first of all says that those whom society has deemed unfortunate are truly blessed in God’s realm. It says that those who have no reason in this world for hope or joy, those who have been deprived of their fair share of goodness and justice—these are the ones for whom God’s Kingdom and God’s justice and God’s peace are incredible gifts.[6]

Part of what makes the Beatitudes so counter-intuitive is that Jesus pronounces God’s blessing on those who expose our vulnerability![7] From that perspective, the secret to happiness—to open yourself and accept life as it is and then to live out of the compassion and integrity of that wholeness—may sound foolish.[8] Our typical approach to life is that success or wealth or power equals happiness. The problem with that is that the more you succeed, the more wealth and power you gain, the more you have to lose, and therefore the more you relate to life in fear and competition. This way of life leads us to think we can only be happy in life by winning, by beating someone else at the game.

As those who seek to follow Jesus Christ we are called to embody a completely different vision of life. We are called to spend our lives working to extend God’s mercy to the left out and beat down in this world, to seek to establish God’s peace and God’s justice for all the dispossessed and disenfranchised of this world. We are called to align our lives with those whom the world despises and rejects—which means that we too will be despised and rejected because of our commitment to God’s mercy and peace and justice. But like those whom the world tramples, when we align our lives in that way we also can rejoice when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.[9] As St. Paul says it, “God has chose what is low and despised in the world” (1 Cor. 1:28).

We may not like those words, but we cannot avoid the truth they confront us with. The only way we can truly embody Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom and God’s justice and God’s peace is by opening ourselves to accept life as it is and our own vulnerability to the pains and losses and disappointments of life. It is only as we embrace life in this way that we can find true joy, and can open ourselves enough to leave competition behind and instead relate to those around us in compassion and integrity. May God grant us the courage to embark on that path of life—to walk in the light that our savior Jesus the Christ has brought to us, and so find the true secret to blessedness.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/30/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2]Cf. : In their own words, the vendors of “The Secret” say, “Everything is possible, nothing is impossible. There are no limits. Whatever you can dream of can be yours, when you use The Secret.”

[3] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 143; she says that failure is a gift in that it “breaks through all that … tension about needing to look good.”

[4] Cf. Peter R. Gathje, “Shalom and a Consistent Ethic of Life,” The Living Pulpit (Oct-Dec 2006): 10-12. Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. McNeil, 1.1.1 (p. 36), who says it this way, “Indeed, our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God.”

[5] Cf. Patricia Farris, “Be Happy (Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12),” The Christian Century (January 26, 2005):18. She says that “the Beatitudes turn the world upside down with their shocking promise of hope to the hopeless, comfort to the bereaved, power to the powerless.” Cf. similarly, Fred B. Craddock, “Hearing God’s Blessing (Matt. 5:1-12)” The Christian Century (January 24, 1990): 74.

[6] Mark Allan Powell, “Matthew’s Beatitudes: Reversals and Rewards of the Kingdom,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58 (1996):463-470.

[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:190-92.

[8] William Willimon, “Looking Like Fools (I Cor. 1-23),” The Christian Century (March 10, 1982):261. He contrasts the “smart ones” who “know that if we work hard, achieve, get advanced degrees, adjust to the way things are, and act sensibly, we shall be in the know” with the “fools” who “see things as they are.”

[9] Ibid., 470-77.


Mahraiah Beam said...

Like this and I also think letting go is the third way. I think how the disciples had to let go of Jesus as they knew him after crucifixion. A great grief story. And then they knew him in a new way

Alan Brehm said...