Sermons

Gross National Happiness

Ancient Testimony ~ Matthew 5: 3-10

January 11, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Alexander the Great is said to have said to Demosthenes, the philosopher, the following: “I’m going to go out and conquer the world, make it my own, and then I’m going to come back here and relax and enjoy myself.” Demosthenes is said to have said to Alexander the Great, “Why bother? Why not just stay here and relax, starting now? Leave the world conquering alone.”

You may not be Alexander the Great and you may not be Demosthenes but you probably have a bit of each in you. You promise to be happy when the mortgage is paid off, the weight is lost, the degree earned, the partner found, the book written, the cellar cleaned out, the cello learned, the house cleaned, the better job obtained, the recession over. You will conquer worlds and then you will relax and enjoy yourself. Like Oprah, you will go up and down in these ways, but no matter how much you do conquer, you will find yourself with more to overcome.

Delayed joy has many adherents. Delayed gratification is even more popular. Some actually think it a sign of maturity. I actually just heard someone say about another, “She just doesn’t know how to delay gratification. She wants it all now.” It was meant to be an insult. I want to meet her.

Today I recommend un-delaying joy. I recommend happiness. I recommend it in the name of the Beatitudes, which take our usual pictures of happiness and reverse them. The poor in spirit are actually the rich in spirit. The people in trouble are actually the people out of trouble. Those who are beside themselves are just enough out of their own way to be happy. The Beatitudes are actually a how-to list about how to be happy. They recommend a simple technique for happiness. It is to recognize your dependence on something larger than yourself. It is to be beside yourself. It is to get out of your own way. Happy, we might say, are those who know how to be beside themselves. Happy are those who know they are blessed. Happy are those who know that life is a gift and not a get. Happy are those who conquer their own self-consciousness on behalf of a larger one. The self doesn’t get left behind so much as enlarged. The self gets a frame put around its picture. The self gets a house or an apartment where it can really live, where it belongs. The self is almost forgotten and in that forgetting is remembered.

Scripture uses the word blessed to mean happy. Blessed means happy. Knowing you are blessed yields a kind of happiness that is worthy of the word joy. It could be as simple as a genuine answer to the question, “How are you?” Let’s review the usual responses. “Fine.” That usually means that the person you are talking to wants to change the subject. Or people will say, “Not bad.” That is often very honest. Roland always says “Same old, same old,” usually with a smile on his face. Roland is rarely accused of overstatement. One response heard frequently these days is, “Things aren’t great, but I am in better shape than a lot of other people.” I think of this as a beatitude response, indicating that at least the person is not so consumed by their own trouble that they can’t imagine the other.

One perfectly legitimate definition of happiness is freedom from being miserable, even if you are miserable. Blessed are the miserable, we might say, for they can be free of their own misery.

There are many words for happiness. They include contentment, delight, happiness, aliveness, well-being, centeredness, energetic radiance, a quiet feeling of connection. Or having tickets to the inauguration. Just having tickets. All these descriptions suggest a self at home with its self, a self not so bothered by itself that it can’t live. I think of the sign in the British subways, paid for by people who were sick of religious advertising. The signs say, “There is no God, so relax and be happy.”

I leafed through the Open Center’s catalogue last night. Easily forty courses are being taught to help people be happy. There is “The Inner Smile Meditation” of the Taoists, which tell us to teach our stomachs to smile. Chocolate usually does that for me, but I suppose I could take the four courses and learn a less fattening way to be joyful. There is one called the “Meditation to Invoke Joy,” which struck me as a very interesting way to learn to pray. One could pray the Beatitudes that way, for less money and fewer subway rides to the Open Center. I am impressed with Julia Cameron’s “Artist’s Way” course description. She is parroting Demosthenes:

Stop telling yourself it is too late. Stop waiting until you make enough money to do something you love. Stop telling yourself it’s just my ego when you feel the urgency to do something really wild and beautiful and creative. Stop telling yourself that dreams don’t matter, that they are only dreams and you should be more sensible. Stop fearing that your family and friends think you are crazy. Stop telling yourself that relativity is a luxury and you should be grateful for what you’ve got. Nurture and protect your inner artist.


Her advice has the same strong sense of the present that the Beatitudes have. Blessed are those who are poor in spirit for they shall inherit the time of God. Hear the “now” in the impulse to happiness. It’s not later, and it’s not then, and it’s not after: it is now.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel speaks of happiness with language that joins that of Demosthenes and Cameron. “Listen,” he says, “to the song the universe sings to itself . . . which sung shatters pyramids of callousness.” Most of us know the pyramids quite well. They are the cage of self-consciousness; the self that can’t forget itself or get outside itself; the inability to reach out and touch a dream, much less another person—and even much more less, the ability to be framed by something like God or a Holy Spirit or a universe singing a song. When we get trapped inside ourselves, we can get so poor in spirit that we cannot recognize the time of God. It may be as close as Harry Potter’s train but that doesn’t mean we have a ticket to ride.

Happiness is being beside our selves. It is letting the self-consciousness of the self go long enough to have a self about which to be fully conscious, which is to say, conscious of more than the self. It is shattering the pyramids of callousness that come to rich and poor alike. Blessed are the people of Gaza and Israel, the damned and beautiful people of Gaza and Israel, for peace will be theirs. That is full consciousness, full awareness, and full knowledge of the time of God. Blessed is the Red Cross because its peacemaking voice and its bandages are the will and time of God. Blessed is the UN because its schools, and the children in them, will not always be bombed. Blessed are the people whose agony about war spill out into listservs, petitions, and e-mails, for they are peacemakers and peacemakers do not doubt peace. Blessed is Bethene Trexel, who stands in Chicago with the City of Hope, for her experience will be peace. She will be cold but not that cold.

For me happiness is being held. It is singing that song about “someone to watch over me” and understanding that its prayer is answered. For me, happiness is being contained, framed, joined, jointed, connected, understood, and recognized. Not recognized for more than I am, nor recognized for less than I am, but recognized for what I am. Blessed are the people who are seen and who see each other, for theirs will be community and linkage and relationship. The hint we get about happiness from the Beatitudes is this: if we want someone to see and know us, see and know them. If we want to be seen, see. If we want to be recognized, recognize. If we want peace for ourselves, make peace for another. If we want not to be oppressed, refuse to oppress. These small sentences are actually very large. They can be used in a meditative way to invoke joy. Blessed are you when you mourn, for you will be comforted. Blessed are you when you comfort another. Blessed is your meekness; it will inherit the earth (take that, Alexander the would-be Great!). Blessed are the merciful, those who dispense sandwiches on the street; they will receive mercy. Blessed are those who are persecuted. Blessed are those who are fired. Blessed are those who are let go. Blessed are those who see no end to their trouble; they will see an end to their trouble. How? They will be driven more deeply into God’s time.

Where is gross national happiness? It is in the meek and the persecuted, the poor and the mourners. It is in tenderness about trouble. Happiness is not this side of trouble. Happiness is not trouble-free. Happiness is on the other side of trouble. Imagine that.

Eric Weiner spent more than ten years reporting on problems overseas, such as suicide bombings in Jerusalem and student suicides in Tokyo. Then he became intrigued with finding the places in the world where people are reportedly the happiest—and learning why. He chronicled his travels in The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World. Iceland is one of the happiest places in the world. So is Bhutan. Weiner’s deduction? The more aware people are of death and darkness, the happier they are. You figure.

I want to say a few words about how worship is a way to be happy. Worship blesses us by ritualizing our liberation from self-consciousness. Here we are beside ourselves, with each other, and with something some of us know as God. Here we work and play at liturgy or the ritual saying of what matters. Worship is also a place where we acknowledge death and darkness. Some do a confession, many pray for healing. We often have many more concerns than we have joys. Worship is Sabbath, the separation of time into layers—this layer being the one where we intentionally invoke something larger than ourselves.

We have an important conversation going on here about where to put announcements and joys and concerns in the service. Most congregations have a similar conversation going on. Full issues of clergy journals are devoted to the topic. How do we communicate what matters? Do some people talk too much? Do others talk too little? Are announcements not as holy as healing, in that they bring us to ordinary things that create our community and its mission? Are joys and concerns not a central part of our gathering? How do we get the form of worship out of the way of the content of worship so that the form helps the content be beautiful?

What matters here—in this conversation and all that we have—is the way we are held and the way we hold each other. What matters is how we contain our happiness and blessedness in such a way that we can both be ourselves and be beside ourselves here. What matters here is how much we can forget—about who is looking at us or who we are looking at, who likes us and doesn’t like us, who has the sermon right or the timing right or the clapping right during the Choral Amen. When we can forget our gross national performance, we are free to remember that we are held and watched over. Blessed are those who hold, for they shall be held. Blessed are those who watch over each other, for they will be watched over.

If you had planned on conquering a few more worlds this afternoon, I say to you, instead be blessed. That’s what matters.

Amen.

 
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