Monday, August 25, 2014

Sermon for August 3, 3014

Laws for Living: #5 Peace with Happiness
No one is in charge of your happiness, except you
I bless God every chance I get; my lungs expand with God’s praise.
I live and breathe God; if things aren’t going well, hear this and be happy:
Join me in spreading the news; together let’s get the word out.
God met me more than halfway, God freed me from my anxious fears.
Look at God and give warmest smile. Never hide your feelings.
When I was desperate, I called out, and God got me out of a tight spot.
God’s angel sets up a circle of protection around us while we pray.
Open your mouth and taste, open your eyes and see— how good God is.
Blessed are you who run to God.
Worship God if you want the best; worship opens doors to all God’s goodness.
Is anyone crying for help? God is listening, ready to rescue you.
If your heart is broken, you’ll find God right there;
if you’re kicked in the gut, God will help you catch your breath.
Disciples so often get into trouble; still, God is there every time.
God is your bodyguard, shielding every bone; not even a finger gets broken.

Psalm 34:1-9; 17-20

I read once that the average child laughs 400 times a day while the average adult laughs only 7 times a day. It turns out, this is only half correct. If a child was awake 12 hours per day would, that child would be laughing at least once every 1-2 minutes from sunrise till sunset. But for adults, the number may be closer to the truth. I notice a lot of adults will purposely hold back smiles and laughter during certain hilarious situations out of fear of seeming "childish.”  Or they will be too afraid to ask questions that are on their mind because they worry that asking lots of questions the way that a child does might make them feel less intelligent. In other words, we adults are good at putting on a mask – a persona – presenting an image to others of how we want to be perceived.

I’ve also noticed that sometimes, we fool ourselves into thinking the mask we wear is really who we are. Some people trick themselves into thinking we were created to be serious, solemn, and somber people. We can hide our divine light. What might happen if we trained ourselves to see beyond our cracks to the shimmering beauty that lies beneath? Might we let ourselves be content? Might we make peace with happiness?

Imagine yourself at costume party.  Everyone at the party is role playing the character they dressed up as. Except instead of dressing in a set of clothes, everyone’s costume is his or her wearing their personality. The guests come to the party wearing all their beliefs about what they are, who should be, who they shouldn’t be, what should do, and they shouldn’t do. You wear one, too. Your personality mask is a set of agreements about yourself.

Sometimes, we play the same personality role at the party of life keeps for years . . . sometimes a whole life time. Sometimes we completely throw ourselves into the role of our costumed personality. On one level, we seriously believe everything we’ve told ourselves about who we are and how we present ourselves to others. On another level,  another part of their consciousness knows it is all just made up.

What I want to know is this: Does this costume party make you happy? After all the striving to look a certain way, after all the efforts to act a certain way, after all the attempts to direct others into perceiving you a certain way . . . all things considered, are you satisfied? Are you content? Are you happy? If not, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Sometimes, in a moment of enlightenment, we look at ourselves and others and we are able to see beyond the masquerade. We sense the image of God behind the personality mask. We realize that this person is a glory-producing likeness of the Divine who us pretending to be someone else. Sometimes, in a moment of enlightenment, we flirt with happiness. And it feels good.

Social Science literature points to three factors that contribute to greater happiness:
Circumstances, personality, and intentional change. Let’s think about these for a moment.

1. Circumstances. The conditions of your life contribute to your happiness, but much less than you might think. Want to guess how much? Only around 10 – 12% total. That’s right: the things most people chase in search of happiness – money, experiences, relationships, and material stuff – all that stuff together makes up only around a tenth of our happiness level. Changing your circumstances tends to make only a short-term difference to your happiness. We might want to remind ourselves of this next time we think a sports car or a pair of awesome new boots will change life for the better.

2. Personality. Experts say about half of your happiness level is related to genes and personality. According to some research, we can blame human evolution for our desire to focus more strongly on the bad over the good. Throughout our evolutionary history, organisms that were aware of bad things were more likely to survive threats. Humans have also evolved the capacity to examine why these threats happen to us. We want to learn what happened so we can avoid going there again.

Beyond biology, we may get something out of holding on to negativity.
  • žDo you have some sort of stake in holding on to criticisms and misconceptions?
  • žDo you ever find yourself dwelling on and obsessing about the ways you feel you’ve been wronged
  • Do you ever let disapproval from others keep you up at night, fantasizing about how you will put the critics down and triumph over their meanness?
  • žHave you ever told sad stories from the past as a way to avoid judgment or win approval?
  • Have you ever believed that everything would be better if the world or other people would change?
  • Sometimes, ways we get attached to the very condition we say we don't want. We can have a hard time letting go.
3. Intentional Change.  Intentional factors make a sizable contribution to our happiness – up to 40%. These are all factors that we can change – the thinking and actions that we have control over.

We can change behaviors by doing things like exercising regularly or engaging in a productive hobby.

We can change our thinking. For instance, in our worship service today, we took time to count our blessing – to make gratitude a mindful act. It’s an act of intention. We can make an effort to recognize and appreciate the good that we have, celebrating each small success, being thankful for health, and having gratitude for the support of others. If you want an exercise to help you out here, take a cue from marriage therapist John Gottman. He says there is proven ratio needed to increase the happiness in relationships:


Positive and good interactions must outnumber the negative and bad ones by at least five to one. In other words, bad events are five times more powerful than good events. Negative events are so much more powerful than good ones, we must ensure that the good outnumber the bad in order to prevail.

We can also change our will or volition. We can do things like striving for a new goal or working on a skill. If you are stuck on this one, try doing some community service. Go out and surprise yourself with how awesome and amazing you are. Do a bike ride for charity. Sign up for a 3-Day Breast Cancer Walk. Raise money for an important cause close to your heart. Learn to play the saxophone. Take a tap dancing class. Volunteer at Shepherd’s Table. Deliver meals on wheels. Write that novel you've always dreamed of writing. Be someone who inspires happiness in others.

Bottom line: Theoretically, it is possible to be happy no matter what the external circumstance. It is useful to think of the ability to control your emotional responses to events as a muscle; just as your biceps become stronger only when you exercise them using the appropriate weights, your ability to control your emotional response to events gains strength when you take on challenges that correspond to your current ability. If you are someone who lets relatively minor events, like an encounter with a rude waitress, spoil your mood, how can you expect to maintain your happiness when a more extreme event, like a week-long visit from a unpleasant relative, unfolds? Change your thoughts if you wish to change your circumstances. Since you alone are responsible for your thoughts, only you can change them. Since you alone are responsible for your happiness, then it’s within your power to be happy. We can all be happier. We can do it by focusing more on intentional factors and paying less attention to the other stuff.

In our Christian tradition, there is another factor at play when it comes to making peace with happiness. What I am about to say may seem to contradict everything else I’ve aid up to this point. So hear me out. It’s called the surrender mindset. Taking personal responsibility for your happiness involves adopting a surrender mindset, which refers to the willingness to fully and unquestioningly accept the outcomes you are dealt in life.

Surrendering isn't the same as capitulating, by the way. In other words, a person with a surrender mindset is not a weak, rudderless individual who has "checked out" from this world. A person with the surrender mindset may dream of breaking the world record in the 100-meter dash, but if she were to discover a physical condition that prevents her from achieving this dream, she will be able to re-imagine her dream and move on to other goals without hesitation. When many of us moan when our favored outcomes don't unfold, the person with a surrender mindset is able to move on.

One effective way to develop the mindset involves faith in a larger intelligence or force. Some research says that those who believe in a good force larger than oneself will find it easier to surrender. Here is the contradiction. I just told you that nothing external to you can make you happy. Now I am telling you that there is something external that can influence your happiness. The reason for this is straightforward: if you believe that the Universe is shaped by a force more powerful than you, and that this force has your best interests at heart, then you will find it much easier to make peace with the circumstances you are given. Instead of trying to make yourself happy by purchasing a new gadget or looking for other people’s approval, the surrender mindset helps us learn to be content with any situation. It helps us realize that we may not be able to change what happens around us, but we can always change how we relate to those events. Or, if you are convinced God is always dealing you a bad hand, you are more likely to ruminate about the past than to move forward into a new future.

The author of Psalm 34 has this surrender mindset.  Listen again to the words the author uses to describe a relationship with a God who has our good in mind:
I bless God, I live and breathe God; God freed me from my anxious fears.
Look at God and give warmest smile. Never hide your feelings.
When I was desperate, I called out, and God got me out of a tight spot.
Worship God if you want the best. God is listening, ready to rescue you.
God is there every time.
Ultimately then, surrendering has to do with trust. Trusting that God is taking care of you is crucial for being happy. If we want to take personal responsibility for our own happiness, then we do something that seems illogical: we trust in the Good. We take responsibility for our own happiness by surrendering our happiness. Strange, huh?  When we figure this one out, we go enter into new types of relationships based on honesty, responsibility, courage, and wisdom.

We can be happy. In that spirit, I offer these affirmations:

Beginning with the early dawn, I will radiate my cheer to everyone I meet today. I will be the mental sunshine for all who cross my path this day.

I form new habits of thinking by seeing the good everywhere, and by beholding all things as the perfect idea of God made manifest.

I will make up my mind to be happy within myself right now, where I am today.


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