Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Happiness Project: The People Who Make a Difference

(Shared with the people of Friendship Church, June 27, 2004.)

While we should never worship heroes because God alone is worthy of our worship, I hope that none of us ever gets too old or jaded for having heroes! Heroes are people who, by their examples, demonstrate how ordinary, mortal, two-legged humanoids can be more and do more. They show us the potential that resides in each child of God.

One of my heroes, as you know, is Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War Two and for my money, one of the three best presidents of the twentieth century. Historian Stephen Ambrose said that if you and I live in a free Europe or America today, we can thank Dwight Eisenhower for it. Eisenhower, like the rest of us, was far from perfect. But he did what every person who achieves great things must do: he overcame himself. He defeated his deficiencies in order to become his better self.

As a boy, Eisenhower had a fierce temper, likely to explode at the tiniest provocation. Once, when he was ten years old, Eisenhower’s parents gave permission to his two older brothers to go “trick or treating” in their hometown of Abilene, Kansas. Dwight was told that he was too young for such an adventure. Eisenhower writes about the incident in his wonderful book, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends:

I argued and pleaded [with my parents] until the last minute. Finally, the two boys took off. I have no memory of what happened immediately afterward, but I was completely beside myself. Suddenly my father grabbed my shoulders to shock me back into consciousness. What I had been doing was standing by an old apple tree trunk and pounding it with my bleeding fists, expressing resentment in rage. My father legislated the matter with the usual hickory switch and sent me off to bed.

An hour or so later, Eisenhower says, his mother came to his room. He was still sobbing in his pillow.

Mother sat in the rocking chair by the bed for a long time. Then she began to talk about temper and controlling it. Eventually, as she often did, she drew on the Bible, paraphrasing it, I suppose. This time she said, “He that conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city.” Hatred is a futile sort of thing, she said...the only person injured [by our anger is ourselves]...This was soothing, although she added that among all her [six] boys, I was the one who had the most to learn.

Ida Eisenhower proceeded to salve and bandage young Dwight’s hands. Writing more than sixty years later, Eisenhower says:

I have always looked back on that conversation as one of the most valuable moments of my life...she got me to acknowledge that I was wrong and I felt enough ease to fall off to sleep. The incident was never mentioned again. But to this day I make it a practice to avoid hating anyone.

That simple incident, remembered vividly by Eisenhower until his dying day, may tell us everything we need to understand him. Why were the leaders and the people of the world willing to repose so much power and responsibility into his hands? In large part, it must have been because as a boy, his soft-spoken Mennonite mother, showed him the simple truth that over the long haul, whether here or in eternity, the best blessings don’t belong to the arrogant, the rude, the pushy, the self-serving, the angry, or the tyrants. She taught him the simple truth of Jesus’ words for us today: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.”

This is the third portrait of blessedness, or happiness, that Jesus presents in a portion of His teachings recorded in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. Taken together, the twelve verses we’re exploring are called The Beatitudes.

Today, Jesus tells us that happy people are meek. To our modern ears, that sounds crazy. Meek people, we think, are milquetoasts who let the world roll over them. But that isn’t the Bible’s or Jesus’ notion of meekness.

In his book, The Be Happy Attitudes, Robert Schuller mentions two people the Bible describes as being meek, possessing the sorts of personalities that will inherit the Earth.

One is Moses in the Old Testament. Moses was fierce, headstrong, prone to violence, and sometimes rebellious against God’s way of doing things. But in the end, Moses militated against his natural inclinations in order to surrender to God. Moses is meek.

Another person the Bible describes as meek is a certain carpenter from Nazareth, Jesus Himself. Jesus was God as well as man. It would have been easy for Him to diverge from the plan for His earthly life. He could have sidestepped the cross and plunged us all into eternal separation from God. Jesus wrestled with that very temptation in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of His arrest. But instead, Jesus took the painful path. He submitted to the Father’s will and went to a cross for us. Jesus was meek.

Meek people control or channel their personalities, bending them to the will of God.

They’re not weak; they’re focused, targeted to do God’s will, surrendered to God.

When meek people are leaders, they don’t lord their authority over others.

When meek people are followers, they don’t bellyache or whine; they do the work and live the life that God sets before them.

God’s meek people are happy because they in know that in turning from sin and following Christ, they will live with God forever.

The meek, it seems to me, exhibit three main characteristics. First, they’re sure of themselves and of their relationship with God. The meek don’t need to get even; but sometimes, they get a good laugh. In that same book I mentioned earlier, Robert Schuller tells a story told to him by a priest. Some nuns attended a baseball game and sat in front of some guys who’d probably had a few too many and didn‘t like Catholics. One of these guys said, “Let’s go to Texas; I hear there aren’t many Catholics there.” His friend said, “Let’s go to Oklahoma; I hear there are even fewer Catholics there.” The first guy, apparently finding himself witty, “Let’s go to Alaska; there are hardly no Catholics there.” At this, one of the nuns turned around and said, “Why don’t you both go to hell; there are no Catholics there?”

She knew that the meek will inherit the Earth!

A second characteristic of meek people is that they’re patient in doing right, even if it doesn’t seem to be paying off in the world’s way of measuring things
. This past week, you know, I spent a little time down in Florida. As always seems to happen when I travel, the prime attractions were the people I met from all over the world. As happens any time that people meet, folks asked me what sort of work I did. When I told them the story of Friendship and of how we had worshiped in a school gym for twelve-and-a-half years, some asked how the church stayed together through such a trial. I just told them how incredibly faithful the people of Friendship Church are! I let them know that the folks of Friendship are so faithful to Christ that they stick with you through thin and thin and thin and thick!

People were amazed that there were and still are people in this congregation who waited all that time before getting into a building that we really wanted not just for ourselves, but to share with the community! It is amazing! But the meek, God’s blessed, happy people are patient in doing what they think God wants them to do!

Finally, meek people aren’t bowled over by setbacks. They’re stubborn in the pursuit of loving, godly, life-giving goals.

Mattie Stepanek died this past week. He, like his three older siblings, succumbed to a rare form of muscular dystrophy with which he was born. He was confined to a wheelchair through much of his short life. This extraordinary thirteen year old, who must have been a certifiable genius, began writing reflective poetry when he was three years old. Five of his books of poetry were best sellers, according the New York Times. Starting in 2002, he was a goodwill ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. His personal hero was Jimmy Carter, who became a friend of his and of his mother. Mattie was inspired by the former president’s efforts to promote peace in the world. Perhaps knowing firsthand how fragile life is, he was appalled by war and wanted to stop it.

If any of you ever saw Mattie Stepanek on TV, you know that he was a tiny boy in a wheelchair. His lungs had to be forced to breathe because his brain no longer knew how to orchestrate respiration on its own. Mattie Stepanek was hardly an intimidating brute. He smiled constantly and exuded joy. He showed a tough will to make a difference in life in spite of the raw deal that his genetics had given him. “My life mission,” he said, “is to spread peace to the world.” He never flagged in that pursuit.

The meek aren’t wimps! They’re tough-minded people who keep relying on God to become their best selves---full of love, humility, the resolve to do God’s will, hope, and happiness!

They’re sure of God and because of God, sure of themselves; they’re patient in doing right; they’re not bowled over by setbacks.

Five years ago, at the age of eight, Mattie Stepanek wrote a piece he called, On Being a Champion. When we surrender our lives, our past, our present, and our futures to Jesus Christ, we become champions in the eyes of the only One Whose judgment matters. We become one of God’s meek people.

We may not be counted successes by the world. But we will inherit every good and perfect blessing God gives to those who follow Jesus. We will be meek. And we will be happy.

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