(shared with the people of Friendship Church, June 13, 2004)
Not long ago, I spent some time with a friend. He’s a guy bubbling over with happiness. One of the reasons he wanted to get together with me was to share some of his story. “I want you to know that in the past few years, Mark, my faith in God has come to mean more to me than it ever has,” he said. “And I wanted to tell you why.” I was eager to listen.
The story begins, as these stories often do, with my friend’s wife. They were empty nesters, their children moved off to the four corners of the earth. Those of you who have been through this experience know that, initially the departure of your kids from home brings grief and then a sense of needing and wanting to make fresh starts yourselves. My friend, let’s call him Bob, and his wife—we’ll call her Julie—have always believed in God. But they had allowed their attendance at worship to lapse.
Bob told me, “Now, Mark, I believe that you can talk with God anywhere—in the desert, on the golf course, in your car, anywhere. But Julie convinced me that we needed to get back in worship regularly. In worship, she felt, we’d get regular reminders about God and what’s important in life.” Finally, one Sunday, Bob reluctantly agreed to go to worship with Julie. “Mark,” he said, “it has made such a difference in our lives. We just wouldn’t miss a Sunday.” And they rarely do.
At this point, you might expect me to tell you at the beginning of this series of messages on happiness, “If you want to be happy like this man, have a right relationship with God.” Well, ultimately, that is what I want to tell you. But there is more to his story. It’s not all peaches and cream.
A few months after Bob and Julie became re-engaged in an active life with God, Bob’s company went through a major reorganization and he was downsized out of the company where he’d been employed for more than twenty years. Several months later, still without a job, he got word that his mother was going to die. Week after week, month after month, Bob cared for his mother and did so until she passed away. Then, just before the death of his mom, it was learned that Julie had contracted a rare and life-threatening disease. One month later, Bob found out that he had cancer and needed to undergo treatment. Things are still up in the air. Bob’s dad and the rest of the family are still grieving. Bob is still trying to find his right career niche. And both he and Julie are fighting for their health.
“But, Mark,” Bob tells me. “We’ve been amazed at how God has taken care of us. I owe all the credit in the world to Julie. She felt that emptiness and the need for God before I did. And thank God she did, because just before all these bad things happened, we let God fill that emptiness. We couldn't have gotten through all of this without being close to God.” Bob said these words to me with a smile on his face. When I asked him later if I could tell his story—changing the particulars to protect his and Julie’s identity—he readily agreed. You see, he wants you to know that it’s possible for you to be happy too.
The psychologist David Niven, no relation to the late actor, has written an interesting and readable little book called The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It. When I’d decided some months ago that I wanted to do a series on happiness, I saw this book and was intrigued in the Introduction when Niven said that he couldn’t tell people how to be happy. But he could present information on what happy lives look like so that others could learn from them. I immediately thought, “Yet another example of science catching up with the Bible” because that's exactly what Jesus did on a mountaintop some two-thousand years ago. Jesus took His disciples apart with Him, up on this mountain, and taught them about happiness. But He didn’t say, “These are the steps to happiness.” He gave them rapid-fire pictures of happiness. “This, folks, is what happiness looks like,” He told them.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look at Jesus’ pictures of happiness, found in Matthew 5:1-12, a section of scripture often called the beatitudes. The translation of the Bible that we use during worship—the New Revised Standard Version—shows Jesus saying over and over, “Blessed are...”, “Blessed are...” But the New Testament Greek word, makarioi, translated as blessed could as easily be rendered fortunate or happy. My seminary mentor, Pastor Schein always translated makarioi as blissed out.
In today’s Bible lesson, the first of Jesus’ beatitudes, He tells us, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The happy, blessed, blissed out people are those who are “poor in spirit.”
But what does that mean?
To be poor in spirit means to be unable to face life, death, or eternity on our own. We’re all poor in spirit. Happy people acknowledge it and let God fill their emptiness. My friend Bob and his wife, Julie, learned that. God has constructed us so that we all need God and we need others. E. Stanley Jones, the great evangelist and writer, used to hold weekend retreats he called ashrams, a name he borrowed from India where he was a missionary. He began the retreats by handing out slips of paper and telling people, “No one will see what you are about to write on this paper. I want you to write what you need today.” I’ve read that every time Jones did this, as people thought, prayed, and wrote, someone would tell him, “I don’t have a need. What do I write down if I don’t have a need?” Jones would reply, “If you think you don’t have a need, then that’s your need.”
Are you willing to be poor in spirit, to admit your need of God? That’s the poverty that can make you truly rich. The poor in spirit, Jesus says, have a piece of the kingdom of heaven! It seems to me that the poor in spirit make three moves that lead to their happiness. First: They make the move from self-sufficiency to prayer. Pete Rengel was backpacking counselor at a camp in the mountains of northern California. Once, he and another counselor led ten young people on two-week wilderness journey. Seven nights into their trek, in unfamiliar territory, a freak summer blizzard dumped two feet of snow on them. They huddled together through the night. When the sun rose the next day, visibility was practically zero and the storm was still raging. The trails had disappeared. Because of the snow, their maps were useless. And because their food drop wasn’t to have happened until that day, they were low on food. Pete was scared, both because he didn’t know what to do and because the terrified kids depended on him. He agreed with his fellow counselor to set out, looking for a familiar landmark, anywhere. By now, the snow was three feet deep. After trudging on for what seemed like forever, Pete had become breathless and frozen. He writes:
My terror intensified. Finally, in desperation, I fell to my knees and prayed. I begged God to please lift the storm...
Nothing happened. Pete began to sob. He pictured headlines announcing the deaths of all the young people in his charge. Then, he pulled himself together enough to try a different route. He didn’t know why he did so. Involuntarily, he began to move in a different direction. He felt like he was being led. And so he was: Pete turned a corner and saw “the faintest evidence” of the trail. God had made a way where there was no way. The poor in spirit move from self-sufficiency to prayer.
They also move from self-sufficiency to seeking help from others. I always tell people that the folks on Friendship’s church council make me feel smarter than I really am. I know nothing about finances or audiovisual systems or a whole host of other things that the leaders of Friendship know about. The poor in spirit are willing to admit their poverty of knowledge and experience so that others can help them become their best selves, achieving the missions God gives to each of us. The poor in spirit move from self-sufficiency to admitting they need others.
They also move from self-containment to helping others. We follow a Savior Who helped us all by going to a cross and winning everlasting life for all who will turn from sin and follow Him. He called us to serve others as He served us. That’s where happiness resides, Jesus tells us.
In the week of moving ceremony and remembrance we've just experienced in America, honoring President Reagan, the most moving moment of all for me was the eulogy delivered by his successor, the elder President Bush, during the funeral at the National Cathedral. Mr. Bush told about an incident that happened back in March, 1981. Ronald Reagan was being hospitalized following the nearly-fatal assassination attempt on his life. He'd spilled a pitcher of water. Concerned that the duty nurse would be blamed for his accident, this nearly-seventy year old man, recovering from a life-threatening bullet wound, President of the United States, got down on his hands and knees to clean up the water. Orderlies happened to enter Reagan's room and found him doing this; otherwise, nobody would have known about it. Cleaning up that water from a hospital room floor was the action of a man with a servant's heart. It cannot be incidental that the people who knew Ronald Reagan well also report that he was a happy man. People with servant hearts are happy.
In an experiment, researchers revealed back in 1997 that “greater community interactions can increase happiness by almost 30 percent.” Once again, science is catching up with what the Bible, where Jesus showed us and told us two-thousand years ago all about happiness and servanthood! Albert Schweitzer, the great Lutheran missionary and Nobel Peace Prize winner, put it well when he told a group of students, “I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.” Schweitzer knew what he was talking about. He was the Mother Teresa of his time, spending decades providing medical and spiritual care for the poorest of the poor in the heart of Africa. And he too, was a happy person!
Blessed, happy, blissed out are the poor in spirit. The kingdom of heaven belongs to them because they are empty enough to know that they need to let God fill them. They move from self-sufficiency to prayer; from self-sufficiency to getting help from others; from self-containment to loving their neighbor. Tell God your need today and let Him fill it in the ways He chooses, on the timetable He establishes. Then, you will be on the road to happiness!
[The true story of Pete Rengel is recounted in The Aladdin Factor, a book I heartily recommend to all wrestling with whether to admit their poverty of spirit. While I don't agree with every assertion found on this book's pages, it is a good antidote to our American penchant for living under the oppressive delusion of self-sufficiency.
[The phrase, self-sufficiency to prayer, along with the powerful ideas behind it, are stolen from a great book by the late Dutch monk and writer, Henri Nouwen. The book is called Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. This is one of those books to buy and read over and over again!
[The research on the link between happiness and community interaction is recounted in the book on happiness by David Niven, the psychologist.
[The true story of E. Stanley Jones's ashrams is told by Robert H. Schuller in his uplifting book, The Be-Happy Attitudes: 8 Positive Attitudes That Can Transform Your Life.]