I've been clear these past weeks that living a joyful life isn't optional. I shared my panic during my month off, when I realized now this job had choked off my joy. Last week, I talked about the happiest countries. I even compared our nation (lower on the happy list) to Denmark; number two happiest. Without any disregard for our United States, I asked, "Which country's social system's more in line with what Jesus teaches?" Hint: It wasn't us.
It's time to demand more from our lives. It's time to thrive. Today, what we can do right now to increase our joy and ability to thrive. Dan Buettner, in his book "Thrive," cycles through what people say who live in the happiest places. Buettner says, "people who live in advanced democracies with strong social interaction tend to be the happiest." Like a vine and its branches, or seeds rooted in rich, healthy ground; Jesus teaches us deep connections are vital to our happiness. Surveys the world over bear this out. Connected to God through him, and through his "way" of life with each other. The Parable of the One Scattering Seed (the sower) pulls no punches. Jesus said last week, "I have come so you may have joy, and your joy may be complete." Our lack of joy isn't a God problem or a church problem. It's an us problem; an American problem. We don't connect.
Like seeds scattered, this world tosses us, unsupported, onto some pretty poor patches of earth, and expects us to thrive. There's only so many demands a human person can take. If we truly want a joyful and fruitful life, Americans can't be passive any longer. So what are some things can we do, right now?
Rev. Michael Mather has pastored progressive, urban, white churches (just like Lake Edge). His congregations have done the same good works all liberal churches do (just like Lake Edge). They spent a lot of money (like Lake Edge), but the poverty carousel keeps going around and around (like Madison). Poor folks, many who didn't look like them, kept asking for help. People in need kept dragging themselves into Pastor Mather's office, lower than a skunk. And once they got help, they left just as low. The whole process left Mather pretty low, too. And anonymous giving; where we'd send money to some well-intentioned program without much of a personal connection, wasn't much better. Five years ago, I went to the Triangle Ministries downtown for the monthly Second Harvest food pantry. More than charity, for me, connecting to the people helped connect to the neediness inside me. "Strong Social Connections" bring joy. Now, I hate missing those first Wednesdays.
In the case of Pastor Mather, his church, rather than handing out money, started asking people in need what those who knew them best said they were best at. And they discovered needy people also had gifts and abilities. Mather's congregation found that a few dollars "invested" in support of a good cook, a talented bike mechanic, or a gifted artisan, different from impersonal charity, helped them make money. People in need used their gifts, with a little church financial investment to support themselves; building self-esteem and deeper relationship with the church. Mather dropped charity for a revolving loan program to help people act on their gifts, make money, and take care of themselves. The connections created were exactly what all the world surveys tell us is a hallmark of happy people. Joy began to appear in unexpected places. We could do the same thing here. It'd take dedicated effort and thought. We'd need to build strong social connections with each other and our various communities, like Frank Allis, Christ the Solid Rock, and others.
But, that's just one idea. There's still more we can do. How about self-care? Joy comes when we make time for ourselves. Start with exercise. I'm never happier than when I'm on a stroll through the Saturday Dane County Farmers Market or out on my bicycle. In Denmark, there are all sorts of efforts to support bicycling for exercise and commuting. It's one key to Denmark ranking #2 happiest. Ask Jen Meudt, Anne Schoenemann or Stephanie Endres, who ran a 5k just yesterday. Running, swimming or working out matters to a happy life.
Remember, isolation's an obstacle to a happy life. Jesus tells us joy's found in connection. The happiest places make the effort to deepen connections, beyond casual get-togethers. Americans love to go to church, but we're hard pressed to truly "Be The Church" in deep, fruitful ways. We've heard Jesus these past weeks, rooted in a shallow society makes us drift and isolate. Jesus' Way's hard work.
Parents, learn to say, "No". You don't have to be an ogre. But just because your children want to do something or go somewhere or play some sport or be in some club, doesn't mean you've got to sacrifice your joy so your kids can do everything. Parents, you've got dreams and gifts. You need time to identify and act on those gifts. Pastor Mather says, "The biggest spiritual problem in (the church) is that the poor don't believe they have any gifts, and (we who are the givers) don't believe we have needs."
Seniors, learn to ask for help. Fight the urge to suffer the challenges of old age alone or rely only on your kids to help. Turn to your church. Isolation's an obstacle to happiness. Don't just sit in church on Sunday. Build deeper connections between Sunday's. Jesus commands it.
Youth. When it comes to youth programs. "The problem...is the assumption...that (teens and other younger people) didn't have something to offer, that they instead needed to be fixed or corrected (taught what to do/think)." Most youth programs, Mather says, are "aimed at teaching people what they don't know, rather than building on what they do." Youth will be far happier if pastors and elders treat them like we actually value their contribution.
Next week, I'll talk a bit about spirituality. What kind of faith brings us the most joy. Then, I'll open it up for your thoughts and questions. Think it over. It's time to thrive!