Be Happy. Cultivate Optimism!

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I.

Someone has said, “Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass; it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”  One of things we realists watch out for are cliches, maxims, and moralisms that reduce the challenges to near nothingness.  I don’t know of anyone who has lived more than a few years without knowing something about pain in living; maybe a few of us get to skip over those impossible decisions that MUST be made, but not a lot of us.  The worst thing in trying to deal with a real challenge is to trivialize it—or worse, in my mind, to have someone offer us free advice that suggests, bottom line, that we trivialize whatever threatens our loved ones or us.

Some of the worst of those efforts to trivialize that I’ve heard include these.  “Well, you have to take the good with the bad.”   “We all have our crosses to bear.”  “Too blessed to be depressed.”  “God doesn’t give us anything we are unable to handle.”  “Every cloud has a silver lining.”  Then there is my maternal grandmother’s favorite line since she thought that no one had ever endured pain the way she had, “That’s nothing.  You don’t know what real pain is.  Let me tell about it.”

Back to where I began, “Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass; it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”  This one I like.  Optimism has something to do with making the most of what we have to work with, believing that the worst case scenario doesn’t have to be the one that will win out.

There are those who set out to do something good, even noble, and because their cause is clearly a good cause they somehow believe that God or the Universe will bless their efforts and, more or less, guarantee their success.  Yet, sometimes—even with divine blessing or the smile of the Universe—our good cause falls flat.  Optimism has something to do with enjoying the journey, blessing ourselves for our efforts regardless of outcome, refusing to let negativity block the little rays of light and hope.  I like what Vera Nazarian said on the subject:

People who are too optimistic seem annoying. This is an unfortunate misinterpretation of what an optimist really is.  An optimist is neither naive, nor blind to the facts, nor in denial of grim reality. An optimist believes in the optimal usage of all options available, no matter how limited. As such, an optimist always sees the big picture. How else to keep track of all that’s out there? An optimist is simply a proactive realist.

There’s a website called  “OptimistWorld.com” that I like a lot.  In fact, after years of complaining that most of the reported news in our culture is either terror or tabloid, I found OptimistWorld.  It is now the site that opens up when I click on my default browser.  If I do my internet searches through OptimistWorld there are benefactors who make contributions to charities just because I initiate my searches there.  But, that’s only one benefit for me.  I love the fact that news showing up on my screen is good news.  Yesterday, one of the lead stories had to do with the fact that scientists using human cells may have found a cure for many kinds of baldness.  Now, you may think that news is rather thin, but there’s more!  Cardiac surgeons have developed a new, less-invasive technology used to treat heart failure.  Volunteering can improve one’s mental health, and helping others may help some helpers live longer.  Admittedly, there were no stories about war or politics, but there are optimistic stories from the world of sports.

The site tells me which TV shows to watch if I want a dose of optimism.  And the website’s slogan is “100% Recycled Negativity.”

A retried ophthalmologist, Dr. David Abbott, now spends his time trying to correct the inner blindness that he calls “negativity.”    He is author of the book, Maximum Strength Positive Thinking.  This is what he says about the inner blindness of negativity:

Negative thinking is the most powerful poison in the world.  It’s the only poison I can give to my family, friends, and enemies without legal consequences.  Thought poison destroys them just as effectively as dioxin, DDT, or strychnine.  Unrestrained negative thinking will also destroy my life.  I have zero tolerance to negative thinking.  I don’t tolerate it in any form or to any degree.  I don’t say it, think it, write it, infer it, or agree with it.  It’s always wrong and never right.  It always makes my life worse and never makes it better….Drinking poison, handling cobras, and negative thinking are bad for my health, and I don’t partake of them.  I have zero tolerance to negative thinking.

There’s a story about an avid duck hunter whose old, faithful bird dog had to be retired, so the hunter found himself in the market for a new dog.  He was amazed to find the dog that had to be his!  This dog did not swim out into lakes and streams to retrieve ducks that had been shot in flight; instead, this dog walked on water.  The hunter bought the dog and couldn’t wait to put him to work.  He knew his friends wouldn’t believe any stories he might tell about a dog that walked on water so he invited one of them, the most pessimistic one in his group of friends, with him on his initial hunt as soon as season opened.  Sure enough, when the dog’s owner would shoot a duck and it would fall to the water beneath it, his dog—at most getting his paws wet—would walk across the water and retrieve the duck that would soon be someone’s dinner.  The friend whom he had brought along obviously saw what the dog was doing, but said not one word about it the whole day. Finally, on the way home, the man who owned the amazing bird dog asked his friend, “Did you notice anything unusual about my new dog?”

“Sure did,” said the friend.

“What was it?” the owner asked boastingly.

“Your dog can’t swim.”

II.

Today is Reformation Sunday. After the split with Roman Catholicism was complete and Protestantism its own entity Protestant churches began to remember every year the courage of Martin Luther in standing up to the immoral church hierarchy of his day, and the day chosen for the commemoration was the anniversary of Luther’s nailing to the castle church door in Wittenberg his laundry list of topics about which he wanted to debate the Pope himself!  This would be roughly equivalent to a priest in our time making out a long list grievances he had with the Vatican and posting them on Facebook.  It was a gutsy step to take.

Let me be quick to say, by the way, that when Protestant churches grew sufficiently to have their own hierarchies, they ended up doing exactly the kind of things that Luther protested against when unwittingly he started the Protestant movement.  Abuse of power is not the private possession of any one religious group.

Luther had to have been an unbridled optimist, despite some personality characteristics that would call that into question. Patrick Ferry, the Lutheran historian, believes that Luther’s optimism was related to his confidence in the power of preaching to convey his ideals to the common person; Luther wasn’t so much worried about the literate person or the well-to-do person.

In a sermon preached on November 25, 1531, Luther acknowledged that from all outward appearances preaching seemed rather insignificant. However, he argued that, in fact, all else was insignificant in comparison to the preaching of God’s word. He proclaimed: “In the eyes of reason the preaching of the divine Word is unimpressive next to kings and princes. But what are princes or emperor, yes, the entire world, heaven, earth, and all creatures compared with the Word? They are dirt.”

He had to have believed that something better could come about as a result of the tremendous risks he took in challenging the powerful church hierarchy of his day. Some people in those days who challenged the Pope, we’re talking certain geographical areas, could end up dead for such an affront. A priest who was drawing his income from the church, in as much as those who take vows of poverty receive funds, could be left out on the street literally with nothing. And in some areas a priest on the run from a monastery, or for that matter a nun on the run from a convent, could be legally killed and the killer congratulated.  Not many people are going to die willingly for a cause the expenditure of their lives could not improve.

You might well imagine that the mighty and powerful Pope, Pope Leo X, might have wondered if there were a speck of truth in in what Luther spoke. But like most people in power he justified all the means toward the end of keeping the church wealthy and the hierarchy unbothered by the rank-and-file church member.

It is interesting that Luther as a priest himself and a professor in a major university was so cloistered away that he did not realize the corruption of his own church until he made his pilgrimage to Rome and saw with his own eyes the abuses of the church–using all sorts of guilt tactics and superstition to milk money out of the people; eventually, out and out fear tactics would be used by those assigned by the church hierarchy to preach about the necessity of purchasing indulgences to avoid going to hell for eternity and, of more concern to some, keeping the souls of their loved ones already in purgatory from slipping on into the fires of hell.  Luther was, in a word, mortified.

The abuses of the very people whom the church existed to serve distressed Luther to the point that he could not rest. And so he took the risks as I’ve described them and openly challenged the Pope to answer for presiding over a church existing at the basest level to which he, Luther, believed the church could possibly have fallen.

Again I say, to have believed that anything anything good at all could have come from his challenge to such a powerful and paranoid hierarchy demonstrated that Luther was an optimist. He refused to believe that a church that had so much good and so much more potential good could die, the victim of self-inflicted wounds numbing the pain with the anesthesia of absolute power.

Eventually, Martin Luther realized that the church as it was, was too corrupt to be redeemed.  The church and the Pope were hindrances to the future he saw for God’s people.  Said Luther, “The Church needs a reformation. And this cannot be the work either of a single man, as the pope—but it must be that of the whole world!”

There IS a better way, Luther reasoned.  And there has to be a better day.

Anybody who doesn’t see that the church in the twenty-first century is in desperate need of reform is either an ostrich or a comfortable clergy type who wants things to stay as they are, with all the dollars flowing her or his way just as they are now.  If my read on the current Pope is anywhere close to accurate, I sense that he believes his own end of the Christendom—which is the largest and most influential in the world—is in need of reform and that he is unafraid of the fallout.

We already see that the pattern of dividing Christians up into little pockets of denominational groups strewn here and there across the world no longer works; maybe it worked to a degree for a while, but even so it is clearly not working now.  Denominations are dying.  This is one cry for modern reformation, but only one.

Here’s another.  When any branch of the church that presumes or pretends to exist as an extension of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth can act violently, professing the name of Jesus as they maim and mutilate, something is beyond wrong.  Most recently, and right in our faces, the Islamic Society of Delaware had its sacred space defaced by some group who saw themselves as some kind of representatives of Christianity and therefore took some of the debris the resulted from their destructive acts and pieced it together in the form of the cross—for good or ill, the primary, unmistakable symbol for Christianity.

I don’t see how anyone entrenched in such negativity can be optimistic about anything, much less about how their brand of so-called Christianity can endure.  Sadly, anyone who doesn’t understand that there are many different kinds of Christians in the world—and that would be a huge number of people scattered across the globe—thinks we are all the same.  The optimism I have for the future of the church rests entirely in reformation; the church of the future shouldn’t and shouldn’t want to look like the church of the past, even when parts of the church of the past were doing well.

Carey Nieuwhof is a professional dreamer, and he dreams about what the church of the future will look like.  Wanna peak at some of his dreams?  The church of the future has learned to say no to people and groups glued to way things once were.  The church of the future is passionate about people outside their walls and will establish a pattern of reaching out to people on the basis of what we can do FOR them, not what we may be able to get FROM them; it will be streamlined and flexible.  The church of the future will be more comfortable embracing smaller congregations than the church of today is; mega-churches, some of them, will still be around in the years to come, but most of us will not participate in huge congregations.  The church of the future will learn, hopefully not the hard way, to value cyber relationships and to treat online contacts as real people, significant people.  The church of the future will be less afraid of questions, and it will embrace experimentation as the needs of people change more rapidly today than ever before.

III.

There are two instances of amazing optimism in Judeo-Christian scriptures that come to mind today.  I’m sure there are many more, but these two stand out for me today.

The first is the story of Abraham and Sarah having a child together when she was 90ish, and he was tapping on 100.  No adoptions.  No surrogate.  No viagra.  Both of them laugh, separated from each other, when they hear that God has said Sarah will be impregnated by Abraham.  Frederick Buechner, years ago, in retelling this story as an example of comedy in the Bible, made the crack that Sarah delivers in the geriatric ward, and Medicare picks up the tab.  Laugher or not, along came little Isaac.

The second instance is from the final book of Christian scripture as it was ultimately collected and ordered, the book of Revelation.  The abuse of this book has made more crazy preachers rich than any other piece of holy writ in any of the religions of the world.  Alas, there is nothing fanatical about this astounding book of symbols; finally, it is a book of hope.

The book of Revelation doesn’t pretend that people and nations go unscathed by evil; it doesn’t pretend that innocent people avoid suffering through absolutely no fault of their own. The seer who had the visions that make up the episodes in the book—or the scenes in a great play, as my beloved and late Christian scripture professor James Blevins believed—saw, after much strife, that evil ultimately loses out.  Good wins, but it takes a complete restoration and reordering of things to make that work.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the dwelling place of God is among mortals.  God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God Godself will be with them.  God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be a thing of the past;  mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away permanently.”  And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” The one on the throne also said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.  It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”

Don’t worry.  Cultivate optimism!  How?  Maria Shriver evidently is quite the optimist, and she has a number of suggestions about how to cultivate optimism.  Among them are looking for solutions rather problems; acknowledging any movement, however small, toward your goals; and minimizing distractions that keep you from focusing on your happiness or on some specific goal.  I have to tell you.  Nothing saps my optimism more quickly than negativity, about which we thought earlier, and naysayers.  I’m going to have to contact Maria to find out how to get over those hurdles.

Maybe geography has something to do with optimism.  Did you see the list that just came out of the five happiest places to live in the world?  Did you ever wonder why Else is so happy, other than because of Bob?  Well, three of the five happiest places are in Scandinavia—one from each of the three Kingdoms there.  (I’m intentionally excluding Finland and Iceland, as several cultural geographers do.)   Aarhus, Denmark.  Oslo, Norway.  Malmo, Sweden. Geneva, Switzerland.  And Utrecht, the Netherlands.  The Americas—not so much.

I don’t think I’ve ever made a good decision or felt good about life when I allowed myself to remain at a place of pessimism.  How about you?

Be Happy. Clarify Purpose!

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I.
When I was growing up and at the age of you Silverside Kids, all television sets showed only black and white on the screens; there was no such thing as color t.v. And, there were only three possible television stations; there was no such thing as cable television. Shows for school-age kids came in the late afternoon–as in after school–or very early evening, ending by 8 or 8:30. Saturday morning and early afternoon were also great times for kids’ shows. My favorite shows were “The Lone Ranger,” “The Micky Mouse Club,” “Popeye,” “Roy Rogers,” “Sky King,” and “Superman.”

Every now and then, a very special movie for children would be shone on early evening television, but only once a year. The better ones in this category aired only on Sunday evenings, which was bad news for me because our church had Sunday evening services, and my parents took my sister, my brother, and me to church every Sunday morning as well as every Sunday evening. Anything that was scheduled at the same time church was scheduled got checked off our family calendar at once. Usually, I didn’t mind because going to church was fun, and most of my friends also came to the same church.
One winter, however, I had to stay at home on a Sunday evening because I was sick, and I happened to get to watch one of these amazing movies for kids that came on just once a year, “The Wizard of Oz.” I loved that film and, of course, wanted to see it again, but the next year when the movie was scheduled to be broadcast, still on a Sunday evening, I was in a fix. I couldn’t go to church AND watch “The Wizard of Oz,” so I asked my parents if I could have permission to stay at home, just that once, to see the wonderful movie I had enjoyed so much the year before. They said, “No. Church comes first.”

So, when the Sunday came on which that movie was to be shown on our little black and white television set, I told Mom and Dad that I was sick and, therefore, couldn’t go to church. It is never a good idea to tell your parents anything but the truth, but I hadn’t learned that lesson at that time in my life. My parents knew I was faking it, but they played along, and my Mom said, “Ohhhhhh, I am sooooo sorry your are not feeling well. Of course, you must stay home from church, and I will stay home with you. You can rest, and I will make you some tapioca pudding; that’s what my Mom always made for us when we were sick, and it tasted really good and usually made us feel better too. You must get as much rest as you can, and we will get you to the doctor tomorrow to make sure all is well.”

That was a terrible plan EXCEPT for the tapioca pudding! If Mom stayed home from church with me, I knew she wouldn’t let me watch the movie as she had the previous year when I really wasn’t feeling well. Furthermore, if I played sick, I knew she really would take me to the doctor the next morning, and I went to a doctor who gave shots for everything. He didn’t like to prescribe medicines to take at home. I hated shots.

So, I was in a mess, and I made the best choice I could given how many things were not going my way. I had a miraculous healing that afternoon in time to make it to church. Of course, since I wasn’t really sick, I didn’t have to get well; but since I’d played sick, without fooling my parents at all, the only way I could get out of going to the doctor and getting a shot was to get well, so I pretended to do that.  “Oh, how wonderful,” Mom said. “You are all well. You won’t have to miss church after all.”

So, I went to church and sulked the whole time because I knew that “The Wizard of Oz” was on television, and I wouldn’t get to see it. I figured that if they kept showing it only on Sunday evenings, I wouldn’t get to watch it again until I grew up and moved away from home to go to college. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what happened. I was 18 years old before I saw the movie again! You’ll have to get your parents to explain to you, if they even remember, what life was like before DVD’s and Netflix.

After that I watched it whenever it came on whenever that was, and when I had kids of my own I bought them a copy of the movie to watch at home whenever they liked. It has a couple of scary parts, but when your parents think that’s OK for you, I think it’s a very good movie for kids and adults to watch now and then.

In the story, the main character, “Dorothy,” is dreaming that she was blown away from her family by a huge wind storm, and–naturally–she wants to get back home. The whole movie is about how she does that, and getting home becomes the one thing she wants more than anything else in the world. Because getting home is the very most important thing to her, that is what she is concentrating on and focusing on all the time. For that time in her young life, this was her purpose in living, and until she got back home to her loved ones–remember, this was a dream–nothing else was as important to her.

She lucked into a pair of magic shoes, but the shoes couldn’t help her unless she said aloud what her purpose was. So, she closes her eyes and thinks of nothing but home while she clicks her heels together and says out loud three times, “There’s no place like home.” Suddenly, she was back at home in her dream, and before long she woke up from her dream to find herself surrounded by all the people she loved.

Your parents may help you decide, if you haven’t already, that during this school year, your purpose is to learn a lot and make the best grades you can make. If you don’t make that your purpose, neither of those can happen–you won’t learn much, and you probably won’t get such good grades. No matter how young you are, no one can learn for you. Good teachers can present lessons to you in such a way that you can remember what they taught, and they can encourage you to learn; but the learning has to be done by you. If you’re going to learn anything this school year, then that has to be your purpose.

You will have other purposes as you grow up, and maybe when you’re a grown up you’ll have one big purpose that you feel is more important than all the rest. It might be to have children and bring them up with the kind of love your parents have for you. Do you know that, though your parents may never had said so in words, taking care of you and loving you with the whole hearts is their main purpose in life?

Your doctor may have as her main purpose in life to help sick kids get well. If so, she puts all her energy into helping you get well as quickly as possible whenever you get sick. It’s great to have a doctor like that, isn’t it–especially if she doesn’t give you a shot every single time you go to her office? Shots are OK sometimes when necessary, but I’d prefer not to get one every time I go the doc.

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Jesus was a very important person whose teachings, though he lived long ago, still help us learn a lot about how to live. When he became an adult, he wrestled with the possibilities, and this is what he said his purpose in life would be: “to proclaim good news to the poor…to announce release to the prisoners of war and recovery of sight to the blind…to send away free those whom tyranny has crushed…” (Weymouth New Testament).

There are some big words in what I just read from Jesus’ teachings, but to say in a way that is easy for all of us to remember, Jesus’ purpose in life was helping anybody who had a personal challenge such as blindness as well as anyone who hadn’t been treated fairly in life. Today would be a good day for all of us to think about what our purpose is, for now or forever.

II.

The tenor aria, “If With All Your Hearts,” from Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” is utterly unforgettable; I mean that musically. I could also say the same theologically. The older notions of a god who was moody and capricious and bloodthirsty began to be challenged in this prophet’s, Jeremiah’s, consciousness. I say this with two specific applications. First, Jeremiah realized that words written on scrolls didn’t necessarily mean much even, let us say, when it came to covenants, which were vitally important in his world. Second, Jeremiah began to call into question the ruthlessness attributed to the god created by his forebears whose behavior fit perfectly with what we today call a terrorist.

Covenants with God were not exempt from Jeremiah’s constructive critique. It was one thing to have someone read words supposedly spoken in some kind of way by God Godself in which God made promises to do wonderful things for people who agreed to the terms of the covenant; it was entirely something else, pointed out the weeping prophet (Jeremiah’s nickname), to live by them. It’s tough, in other words, to internalize words written on a page or a scroll, as the case may be.

This is one of the reasons, I presume, that during weddings in our culture, the practice has increasingly moved away from the couple’s answering a bunch of questions tossed at them by the officiant with a couple of simple, “I do’s,” and more to the officiant’s giving the couple their vows, phrase by phrase, so that they may actually speak the words to each other face to face and in a company of witnesses. I typically tell every couple whose marriage ceremony I perform that their signatures and mine on a marriage license doesn’t make them married. Even the speaking of the vows as I’ve just described doesn’t make them married. Lasting love is from the heart. The most a marriage ceremony can do is to celebrate the love that is and the love that will grow if, with all their hearts, that is what both partners want and show it by properly nourishing the relationship day by day.

After much seeking and reflection, near the end of Jeremiah’s ministry, he finally heard God saying words that changed the whole divine-human relational paradigm: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, `Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

Earlier, Jeremiah had heard God saying, “If with all your hearts you truly seek me, you shall surely find me.” And later one’s heart is established as the only place one can find God, “I will write my law on their hearts. I will be their God. They shall be my people. No longer is there any need for people to be running around saying, `You need to find God,” because I am already nearer to them than the air they breathe.”

James Moser did a wonderful job, the last two Wednesday evenings, helping us remember many of the core contributions of the master mythologist, Joseph Campbell. With Bill Moyers tossing him meaty questions, Professor Campbell–very late in his life–answered with vigor, focus, and insight beyond compare. Any time the subjects either of the essence of God or the activity of God arose, Campbell would say, tapping over his heart, something like, “It’s all in here.”

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The incomprehensible nearness of God–which the Swiss Christian scripture scholar Eduard Schweizer described as “inescapable nearness”–doesn’t guarantee or require connection or acknowledgement. Thus, even after Jeremiah’s late-in-life realization that there was only one covenant between God and any individual (appropriately tossing the erroneous notion that God connects with small groups or nations), the fact remains that unless we seek God with our whole hearts can we ever find God to whatever degree finding God is possible. At most, we may discover love and realize that God IS love, but we will never find God all wrapped up in a neat little package waiting to be unwrapped by eager us. Just that much, though, will not happen unless we seek it with all our hearts.

If we want to find as much of God as it is possible to find, then that must become our purpose in life, or one of them. God will not overtake us; whatever God is, God is not coercive. And, even though finding God as fully as possible may well be our purpose, there will not be any assurances or controls. Jesus tried to explain that to a bone fide seeker in his day, Nicodemus, who wanted a written document, more or less, guaranteeing that he had been included in God’s family and would be with God, therefore, for eternity. “Yeah,” Jesus said, “been there. Hoped for the same thing you did. But I finally realized that God is like the wind. It comes and goes where it will; we cannot make it blow in our direction. All we can do, if that is our purpose, is to notice its effects and to be grateful when the refreshing breeze that is God blows across our faces, sweating life’s turmoil.”

III.
William Jennings Bryan, that articulate statesperson who dared to defend the biblicists in the Bible Belt–said, “Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.”

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The musical prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” film, about which I told the children at the beginning of the Gathering, is called “Wicked” and has become the highest grossing musical production in history. In “Wicked” Elphaba sings a tremendous song about clarifying purpose; its title is “Defying Gravity.” Here are the first catchy and inspiring words:

Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by the rules
Of someone else’s game

Too late for second-guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes and leap!

It’s time to try defying gravity
I think I’ll try defying gravity
Kiss me goodbye I’m defying gravity
And you wont bring me down!

I’m through accepting limits
cause someone says they’re so
Some things I cannot change
But ’til I try, I’ll never know!

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Irene Kassorla believes that the “pen that writes your life story must be held in your own hand.”

So, there’s plenty of inspiration for clarifying our life’s purpose overall or during significant episodes along the way, but how do we do it? How can we bite the bullet and do it–the first time or once and for all? There is no way, though, to remove risk from the process. It is definitely possible to devote our lives to something that doesn’t do us or anyone else any good.
Unless you’re one of those rare people born, as it were, knowing what her or his life is to be about and committed to that purpose from the get go, you will need some practice, which you get by committing to short-term purposes. Huge numbers of undergraduate students have no clue what they want to do with their lives, what might be their life’s purpose. They change majors several times searching for clues, but by enrolling in a college or university and being open to the search, they have established a purpose for now and laid the groundwork for finding their life’s purpose.

Not everyone needs to commit to some sweeping purchase that could change the world in big, noticeable ways. Thankfully, some high quality people do that. Jonas Salk, and his forebears, set out to find a cure for polio. Because of his findings, a vaccination was developed that immediately diminished incidents of polio in this country. By now, polio has just about been erased from the face of the globe. In 1988, there were some 350,000 cases of polio worldwide; last year, there were 223 cases in all the world.

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I’ve never known anyone who became a teacher without have some sense of purpose connected to improving the lives of children and teens–which means improved lives when adulthood rolls around. I’m sure there must be some teachers who have no sense of purpose, but I personally haven’t met any of those. My sister last year took early retirement after a quarter of a century in the elementary classroom not because she had lost her love for teaching, which had been her purpose since her preteen years but, because of all the nonsense that had been added to a teacher’s list of responsibilities. Impossible demands. She wasn’t thrilled in many respects when her daughter decided to follow in my sister’s career footsteps, but Kim–my sister–understood why my niece made her career choice against the odds. It had been her purpose for as long as anyone knew she was pondering career choices.

Not all life purpose goals are career related. I mentioned earlier the goal of being a superior parent when someone decides to birth or adopt a child. We all know disappointing and tragic stories of parents who shame the name, but finding the best of the best among parents isn’t particularly unusual. Many individuals or couples who decide to become parents make being the best possible parent a life goal that supersedes anything career-related. One of my undergraduate students who is getting a certificate in child advocacy believes that having to get a marriage license is a joke and that requiring prospective parents to get a license is much more worthwhile.

No seeming purpose is a real purpose unless we can commit to it with our whole hearts–to intend to be the best at some task or at least to make a significant contribution whether anyone might ever know of our contribution. A worthwhile purpose once claimed may in fact make the world a better place, but there’s also nothing wrong with a purpose that has to do with our own level of achievement in some arena. (I say “worthwhile purpose” because, sadly, there are those who make it their mission in life to hurt others, and some of those are wildly successful.)

Happier people have a laudable purpose or purposes; maybe never an overall purpose, but at least a succession of reasons-to-be for an episode in life. The alternative is the abyss of confusion about what we can do with the gift of life bestowed upon us. It is impossible, under those circumstances, ever to feel accomplished because no purpose has been claimed. A way to minimize worry, for sure, is to clarify one’s purpose–for now and maybe for the whole of life’s journey. The road may not be easy, but when we get up and get at it every day knowing toward what end our efforts for that day may be applied, happiness may be within our reach.

Amen.

Don’t Worry. Re-Value!

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I.

   Closing down the US government is a politically and pragmatically ridiculous act that puts an undisclosed number of people along with their families in a place of financial insecurity–oh, by the way, except for those who caused the shut down whose salary checks are still being processed and deposited without interruption.  It’s easy to make decisions that negatively impact others, but not ourselves, isn’t it? 

 

    Many of us have family members and friends who work for the US government and, thus, who suddenly have no income.  Maybe some of you yourselves have seen government pensions or government contracting compensation get furloughed along with the professionals who normally are engaged in making sure you get paid on time. 

 

    It’s tough for a number of people hard-hit in these ways NOT to worry, and I was worried myself when I began hearing about the possibility of a government shutdown happening right in the middle of my sermon series called, “Don’t Worry. Be Happy.”  How fair is that?!?

 

    Nonetheless, here we are–citizens of an “indefinitely gone-to-lunch” government–gathered to reflect spiritually and practically on how not to let worry win.  The hopeful word for us today is “revalue.”

 

    In the sermons that have been preached in this series so far, we have tried to consider this model:  we are not asked to try to force ourselves to be unconcerned about truly pressing issues though we must recognize that worry is worthless in problem-solving.  Even if the worry is inevitable, then, it still cannot, will not contribute anything to a solution. 

 

        Jesus asked some of those listening to one of his sermons one day, “Can all the worry in the world extend your earthly life by an hour?”  His first hearers answered immediately, “Of course not.”  Modern readers of Jesus’ material are more inclined to delay answering and then say in imaginary conversation with Jesus, “Well I don’t know for sure, Jesus.  Maybe it helps a little bit anyway.  I’d hate to be forced to give it up, Jesus.  It has been such a faithful companion.”

 

    One way of refusing to let worry have the upper hand is by doing a quick assessment of our thoughts and impressions.  Not every thought and impression we have is on target, and not all are as important as others might be.  If we’re going to take one of those and run with it, we need to be sure it deserves the priority we have placed on it.  This is what re-valuing is all about. 

 

    If we don’t master this practice, we are putting ourselves and our relationships in serious jeopardy.  There are multitudes of people who entertained the possibility of suicide but didn’t follow through; thankfully, they were not slaves to first thoughts and first impressions.  They re-valued that horrible notion, and appropriately–for their long-term benefit–let it go.

 

    Less severe than acting on a suicidal impulse is blurting out whatever crosses one’s mind. Some people feel utterly controlled by whatever crosses their minds; if they have the impression, for example, that someone is doing something wrong and, thus, that the world is going to fall apart if they don’t try to correct what they sense is the person’s error, they will offer what is often received as rude if not destructively critical.  Even would be constructive criticism tossed out to strangers is unacceptable.  Re-Value.  Realize that your impressions are not always on target, and, even if they are, you must earn the right to talk about how others think and do.  Furthermore, on that note, since none of us is an expert on everything, the corrective we can’t bear to keep to ourselves may not be the proper corrective at all.

 

    In “Macbeth,” Shakespeare has Banquo saying:  “If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then unto me.”  And Plato said, “Wise people speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.” 

II.
    Surely two of the more memorable images Jesus created, among a pile of them, were the two around which he built what was probably his most definitive teaching on worry.  The lilies of the field are decked out in all their natural beauty, mesmerizing in the finery they do absolutely nothing to own.  And the birds of the air find plenty to eat each day without fretting in the least. 

 

    Both of these images if pressed beyond the simple, surface interpretation lead to problems in understanding and application.  One could say that the lilies of the field are lovely as they develop naturally; thus, human beings are also most attractive without anything to cover them.  Pressed this far, the lilies image could become a favored scripture passage for a spirituality-focused nudist colony.  And the birds of the air who freely find food each day cannot be paradigms for people who, if they only look in a relaxed faith-oriented way, will find all the food they need, some days finding a feast-full of nourishing food items without having worked a single second to produce that food.  Obviously, this has nothing at all to do with what Jesus taught since he knew firsthand about the struggle too many of his sister- and brother-Jews faced every sunup hoping they would somehow find enough food to keep them alive another day. 

 

    So, Jesus’ teaching here about letting go of worry has nothing to do with learning to be happy in your birthday suit rather than with store-bought togas or with having enough faith to search calmly each day for readily available food.  Clearly, a drought could kill off in a matter of days all the beautiful flowers as well as the birds.

 

    Jesus’ message then is what?  If gorgeous flowers and happy go lucky birds were symbols of human beings, their default emotional settings would be “worry-free.” 

 

        The Hebrew storytellers who passed along the amazingly told myths of creation pictured a world brought into being, system by system, by God Godself in which plants, animals, and humans were intended to live a stress free, pain free, worry free existence.  Kristin Chenoweth and Brian d’Arcy James brought this memory joyfully to life singing and speaking the roles of Eve and Adam in the musical production, “The Apple Tree.”  The song, “Beautiful, Beautiful World,” is what I’m remembering from that life-lifting show:

 

I see animals and birds and flowers.
Ev’ry color, ev’ry shape and size,
Moss and pebbles and a host of wonders,
Gleaming ev’ry where I aim my eyes.
So, if ever I’m attacked by boredom
I’ll just open my eyes and see
This diversified, curious, fascinating, bountiful,
Beautiful, beautiful world.

 

And if things only were as they seem, we’d be good to go, wouldn’t we?

 

        One of the reasons that the lilies of the field and the birds of the skies are worry free as Jesus makes his point is that they don’t want anything. Now, less so in Jesus day and more so in our day, a great deal of worry is based on how much we want and what we want and when we want it.  If it doesn’t come through as anticipated or desired, we worry. 

 

 

  • “Where is Ruth, my UPS delivery person?  What could be taking so long to get those new shoes to me? Amazon promised two-day delivery on them.  Geez!”
  • “Seriously? They expect me to pay this much for a meal and then sit here half the day to be served? Please!”

 

 

        There are members of the Silverside family who make it possible for people in need not to have to want-worry about some things at least. Some of our folks sort clothing through one of the ministries of Friendship House so that when people need clothing to be clothed or for warmth, clothing donated by anonymous folks who care has been sorted and sized for those needing clothing to utilize.  And some of our people notably Marie Neal make sure that on the thirteenth of every month a tasty, healthy meal is served at Emmanuel Dining Room, and anybody around there who is hungry is free to come in without worry and know that they can eat.

 

        Even if the coat is a little too smug or little over-sized it’s still a beautiful sight to see someone who would otherwise be cold buttoning up that coat in the chill of January.   Seeing someone suitably clothed for the season is as beautiful as looking at the lilies of the field because for a bit she or he does not have to want for attire.  Similarly, seeing the people line up at the front door of Emmanuel Dining Room waiting for it to be opened at noon so that they can file in and take a seat in a comfortable place to eat is also a beautiful sight. For that meal at least they are as confident of finding food as are the birds of the skies to whom Jesus pointed; they, for a bit, do not have to want or worry.

III.

        I was pastoring in Baltimore when pagers became passé and cell phones took center tech-stage.  I’ve always been hooked on communication technology so I had a cell phone as soon as I could afford one.  One of my congregants saw me standing in the hall one day fiddling with my cell phone.  Without pausing to chat, he said as he walked right by me, “The more STUFF you have the more you have to worry with.” 

 

        “Thanks for the tip, Charles,” I said, mentally tossing aside such an antiquated attitude.  Well, I am still hooked, but I have remembered, in the midst of tech failure a hundred times or more what Charles Starr said to me that day.

 

        The Apostle Paul wrote to his spiritual charges, “I have learned to be content in all seasons of life, whether feast or famine.”  The ability to make the same claim would be incredible.  Of course, how he introduces his claim to his first readers is as important as the claim itself:  “I have learned.”   It was absolutely a process requiring tremendous effort and undertaken over a period of time–a YEARS long period of time.

 

    The “Serenity Prayer” comes to mind.  Originally penned by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1943 after circulation in oral tradition, it was first used in larger circles by the forerunner of the National Council of Churches in a prayerbook/servicebook for military personnel.  Only years after the prayer’s composition and substantial military use did Alcoholics Anonymous adopt the prayer as its official prayer.  What we read and hear used today, however, is an excerpt from a fuller prayer as Professor Niebuhr originally set his prayer to written form:

 

God, give us grace to accept with serenity 
the things that cannot be changed, 
Courage to change the things 
which should be changed, 
and the Wisdom to distinguish 
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time, 
Enjoying one moment at a time, 
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, 
Taking, as Jesus did, 
This sinful world as it is, 
Not as I would have it, 
Trusting that You will make all things right 
If I surrender to Your will, 
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, 
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

 

Not my theological cup of tea from start to finish, the prayer, nonetheless, certainly is realistic, and it contributes to the possibility of re-valuing–that is, not placing supreme importance on every thought or impression that may hit us.  The prayer also provides a model for praying that has those praying it to focus on the right now–rather than on what MAY happen out there somewhere.  Gandhi said, “I do not want to foresee the future. I am concerned with taking care of the present. God has given me no control over the moment following.”

 

    Living for today since tomorrow will surely have troubles of its own, as Jesus said it, and within this day living moment by moment causes to face the what is, rather than the what might be.  Perhaps in that focus, we may see the beautiful flowers and the happy, confident birds–living their worry free existence.  And, for a moment, if only for that moment, we may join them.

 

    Amen.