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!
Today, more of God's word to us about "joy." There's a few copies of the first in this series on the table in the back. To recap: when I was on sabbatical, away from the demands of my job, I felt empty, lost, and useless. I'd given so much to this church I'd smothered my joy. And I'm not the only one. Could it be the demands of American style democracy is crushing our happiness; inferring with the joy promised each of us by God. Well, enough sacrifice, it's time to thrive.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus wants his followers to be connected - to God and, by extension, each other. This isn't just a suggestion. Selfless connection under the careful guidance of Jesus' teaching is where joy can be found. Dan Buettner has talked with the happiest people on earth. His book, "THRIVE: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way," is a great companion to our Gospel. There's three major world-wide survey's that measure happiness. I had no idea. And Buettner tells us, "If you look at the results...from 146 countries,...people who live in advanced democracies with strong interactions (connections) tend to be the happiest." Jesus says the way to follow his example is to stay deeply connected; like branches to a vine. We're an advanced democracy; some would say the most advanced. But we're not so good at the "strong social interactions" part.
Lately, the country of Denmark's been in the news. Our President had some words with Denmark, criticizing the country, and calling their Prime Minister "a nasty woman." And Denmark's the 2nd happiest country on earth. The U.S. not as much.
So let's talk a bit about Denmark, and what the second happiest people on earth might teach us. First, the Danes aren't perfect. There are certainly issues in Danish society. But here's what's interesting about Denmark: It's organized around a more level playing field. It's not unusual for royals and commoners, wealthy and workers to socialize. Danes strive for humility, modesty and shared responsibility. Kim Kardashian wouldn't last five minutes. Listen, and ask yourself how Danes stack up to Jesus' teachings compared with Americans? Our politicians can't manage a debate on health care coverage for all of its citizens. In Denmark everyone has health care covered from head to toe for life. Danes never worry about how to pay for hospitals, medicines or doctors. Universal higher education is also part of the modesty and class neutral beliefs of Danes. Dane's get free schooling through college, plus a living allowance while in school. Let's talk employment. In Denmark there's a strict 37 hour work week. Progressive employee benefits including 7 weeks of vacation. When a child's born, the second parent can choose to stay home to help their spouse for up to a year. Fourteen weeks of that's paid. Sure taxes are high. Some 65% of a Danes income supports the shared social safety net. But, no one lacks for any basic need. There's also a significantly smaller gap between the wealthiest Danes and those of more modest means. When Dan Buettner asked one wealthy Dane how he felt about his big tax bill, he wasn't bothered at all. "It's hard to complain," he said, "when most of your basic needs are covered." Danes also do well in business. But rather than more and more profits, their focus is outward; building relationships with other countries and peoples. Trust is an important value in Danish society. That's trust of each other, and with others outside of Denmark. Danes possess none of the rugged independence; "go it alone," "get ahead," "keep my business to myself" attitude of Americans. All children, even royals and elites, are encouraged to follow their dreams and gifts, rather than simply prepare for big money occupations. When Buettner asked the dad of one of the royal families why his son was an apprentice wood worker rather than a lawyer like him, he said, "I (just) want him to be happy with what he does." All Danes involve themselves in some sort of social group or club. It's a priority in Danish life.
Set aside all the partisan chatter about "socialism." When Jesus tells us to be one with God like he is, and be connected to each other the same way we're connected to him, what kind of social order do you think Jesus expects from us? Work till your dead, dog eat dog, rugged individualism, work only for ourselves and forget the other guy, super rich versus abject poor, arrogant, stubborn, status seekers? Look, I don't think Denmark's the promised land. But, when Jesus teaches, "I've said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete." When our level of happiness gets compared to some other nations, I'm amazed our America can crack the top 20.
Well, in spite of how our society can suck the life out of us, we can still thrive, and our joy can be complete. Next week, how we can have joy right now - the Gospel way.
I'm back! A month of paid time off; to stop, step away from all life's demands, and simply think and feel. What's that like? Sounds great, doesn't it? It's a privilege to be sure. But beware, there be dragons here. We Americans are different. While our European counterparts pour a million strong into the streets at the mere thought of government making their life harder. We here in the "States," just let stuff happen. Rather than bury our legislators with calls and visits, we adjust; accepting whatever gets thrown at us. It's constant compromise. Health care costs keep going up - oh, well. Real income keeps going down - oh, well. And that's just a sampling. Our personal needs as adults get kicked further and further off the agenda. And the cost can be our very happiness; our joyful spirit, our well-being. But there's only so much compromising the human person can do.
Today, I begin a sermon series about "joy". When I was able to step away from the demands of my job - first, it took almost a week to get into it. I immediately felt empty, lost, and useless. There's a sailing term - "dunsel." A dunsel's something or someone that has no meaningful or useful purpose. Stepping away from Lake Edge, I found I'd given so much to this church I had smothered my joy. Just like many of us unconsciously do.
In the Scripture from Acts, the new joy-filled Way of Jesus is just getting off the ground. Peter and John are the first to publicly witness to this way. They've no money to give to the man who begs for his daily bread. Instead, they give him something better. And the man literally leaps for joy. How did you feel when you heard this story?
As I felt how much the demands of life caused me to accommodate; literally squash my own joy, my level of misery scared me. Don't dwell on the miracle in this Gospel story. Instead, focus on what happens when joyful followers share their joy; unburdening someone else of the obstacle causing their "paralysis." This is the real miracle we all need.
Church can't merely be an hour on Sunday. I know how hard it is to get kids ready and out the door, or move weary bones and sore bodies out of bed and through the routines so we can make it to a church service. If our gathering here's becomes just another thing we must shove into an already over burdened life; it won't be long before we resent it and drift away. "Joy." It's central to our life, and not just something we get to glimpse once in a while.
Peter and John needed Jesus' joyful Spirit to live every day with their joy front and center. So do we. We need each other. First of all, we've gotta stop acting like our fears, disappointments and emptiness aren't important; to ourselves or to anyone else. Peter and John gave the paralyzed man their full attention, and with it the fullness of their "Joy." Little by little we've accepted one debilitating slight after another, until we're just as paralyzed as the guy in the story.
Well, it's time to stop accepting less than the full joy promised by our God. It's time to Thrive! The Christ the Solid Rock's coming, and we've work to do to get ready. Not to accommodate our new partner, but to begin to thrive. The advent of the Rock is the beginning of our resurgence. Over the several weeks we'll talk about how. For now ask, "What makes me joyful? How can I make my joy a priority in my life?"
This blog is an accumulative effort of the many minds, hearts, and talents of Lake Edge United Church of Christ.