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The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston

The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston is senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, NY.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, NY


Should This Sermon Make You Happy?

Psalm 30

6th Sunday after Epiphany - Year B

November 04, 2012

Why do people go to church?  Why do they embrace religion?  Why do they listen to religious radio programs?

One of the common answers to these questions goes like this: "People are looking for something uplifting--something that will help them make it through another week."  My father put it this way, "The work week beats you down, so Sunday should lift you up.  Life is hard.  Faith is like a shot of adrenaline.  It gets you through!"

Many of us agree, even though historically speaking, this view of Sunday morning is fairly new.  The Calvinists who settled this country did not think that the purpose of attending church was to get a boost to our wellbeing.  Instead, they spoke of moral obligation, the ordering of society, and fulfilling the commandment to keep the Sabbath.

Down through the centuries, Christians have articulated all sorts of different reasons for belonging to a faith community.  In some settings, people have spoken, first and foremost, about church being a place where you can search for God, find a personal Savior, or at least, learn the content of the Christian faith.  Others emphasize their connection to a community of love and support.  Still others point to a liturgy: to their thirst for the sacraments, the music, and the prayers.  In every age, there have been those who have expected church to provide a moral compass for themselves or their children.  Yet, others indicate that they have sought out church because they long to be part of a prophetic community--a group dedicated to meeting human need: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, reaching out to a broken world.

In recent years, though, a large number of Christians, like my Dad, give a different reason for associating with church--for having faith.  Simply put, an increasing number of people hope that faith will make them happy.  This motive for tossing back the covers on Sunday has uniquely American roots.  

My father was a big fan of "the power of positive thinking."  He grew up, went to high school, in New York City--a child of the Great Depression.  During those difficult years, his mother, my grandmother, Beatrice, used to play Norman Vincent Peale's program on the radio.  Peale married the newly minted science of psychology with Christian preaching.  The resulting message was a practical one--a positive one.  Christianity, Peale contended, can help solve your problems--your marital problems, your work problems, your financial problems.  Peale proclaimed that Christianity was a call to be optimistic about your life, a summons to cast aside negative thoughts, and an invitation to see yourself as a success. What could be wrong with that?

In 1942, my grandmother, Beatrice, turned Peale's program off.  In fact, she turned off all religion.  She did this after learning that her son Bobby, eleven years old, her first born, had been killed when he fell onto the subway tracks and touched the electrified third rail.  After that, my grandmother stopped attending church.  In fact, she never raised the subject of God in a conversation.  Once, as a teenager, pursuing an evangelical urge, I asked her why she never went to worship with us.  In a steady, almost stern voice, my grandmother told me, "No amount of positive thinking, no amount of prayer for my children's safety, changed Bobby's fate, or could bring him back." 

My dad, however, stuck by Peale, and later, embraced his chief imitator, Robert Schuler.  Schuler's repackaging of Peale's positive approach came via "The Hour of Power"--a television program originating from The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California.  I have no doubt that if my father were alive today, he would be tuning in for the latest incarnation of positive preaching, Joel Osteen, the fellow from Houston, whose big book promises "Your Best Life Now."

Despite its huge number of followers, positive thinking has its critics.  Barbara Ehrenreich wonders if our American obsession with having happy thoughts has dulled our common sense.  Aren't negative thoughts important?  Don't we wish, Ehrenreich asks, that more people, in analyzing recent real estate markets, felt nervous, pessimistic even, in the face of the belief that prices were on an eternal climb?  In our urge to find the silver lining in even the darkest cloud, are we overlooking storms that could do us harm?

Maybe.  Although, surprisingly, our emphasis on positive thinking in this country doesn't seem to make us less anxious, less worried.  Even though we are exercising our right--thank you, Thomas Jefferson--to pursue happiness, statistics indicate that Americans are the most anxious people on the planet.  We consume over two-thirds of the world's anti-depressants.  These pharmaceuticals have done wonders for many people, but they reveal something else... something basic.  As a society, we think that there is something wrong with us--something that needs to be corrected--if we don't feel happy, leading some psychologists to ask:  Are we putting too much pressure on ourselves to think positively--to be happy--all the time?  That's a good question.

As people of faith, we may want to take a step back and ask:  Is happiness really a Christian virtue?  Does God expect us to be happy?  Can church--can faith--make you a happier person?

Let's tackle that one first, and let's make it as concrete as possible.  Should this sermon make you happy? 

Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at UVA, in his riveting book, The Happiness Hypothesis, regularly asks people to think of the best thing that could ever happen to them as individuals and the worst thing that could happen them as individuals.  The most common responses Haidt gets are: the event that would increase my happiness the most is winning the lottery; the thing that would reduce my overall happiness the most is becoming a quadriplegic. 

That's what people think, says Haidt, but they are wrong.  While the initial rush of winning the lottery is indeed great and the psychological pain associated with losing control of one's body is enormous, studies have shown that within a year paraplegics and lottery winners return to "their baseline levels of happiness."  We adapt.  We recalibrate. 

If we are so adaptable, if we return so quickly to a baseline of happiness, can we really assume that church, or a sermon, or a radio program, will produce anything other than a momentary blip of cheer for our hearts and our minds?  And maybe that is ok.  The fact that happiness comes and goes so quickly should send us in pursuit of deeper things, big blue whales of things, things that swim beneath the surface storms.  The world is convinced, my friends, that happiness is humanity's chief goal, but God would have us go deeper.  God prepares us for joy.

In today's psalm, psalm 30, the writer says to God, "Hey, when I was prosperous, making the big bucks, I thought myself a self-made man, a happy camper, a hot ticket.  I said out loud, I shall never be moved.  Then everything fell to pieces.  It literally went to Sheol--to Hell.  I was miserable.  I was aching, God, mostly because I could not find your face."

Why are texts like this in the Bible?  This passage is not unusual--not at all.  If you were toss out all the stuff that doesn't sound like positive thinking, you would have to do away with at least 75% of the Good Book.  The Bible is crammed full of people speaking negative thoughts.  It is kind of hard to put a positive spin on Jesus saying, "Take up your cross and follow me."

When we try to expunge these negative things from our faith, we look silly.... Do you remember that Monty Python movie, The Life of Brian?  The film was, many said, a blasphemous attack on Jesus.  Now, I have got to divulge a trade secret here.  Don't blab on me.  I don't know a single person who went to seminary--including my Southern Baptist friends--who hasn't watched The Life of Brian and laughed.  The point of that movie was not to show how ridiculous Jesus was, but to demonstrate how ridiculous we have made Jesus.  I am thinking here of the crucifixion scene in which three men hanging side-by-side on crosses sing, "Always look on the bright side of life!" 

When we cover up the hard stuff in our faith, to proclaim a gospel centered in happiness and nothing else, we cheat ourselves.  We miss the central message that the Bible goes to great lengths to convey:  Our God is not just the God of the happy, but the God of the suffering, the sad, the lost, the sick, the confused and the downright angry.

When my Mom died, my Dad went into a tailspin.  As a complication of heart surgery, Mom developed blood clots and died after a cerebral hemorrhage.  The television preachers that Dad once embraced didn't do it for him any longer.  My brother and I couldn't seem to find the right words.  Dad sunk deeper and deeper into depression.  The local pastor, trying to toss my father a lifeline, recommended a grief group that met in the lobby of an old bank building in town. 

Soon my brother and I were joking that Dad had become a grief junkie.  He never missed a meeting.  We wondered if he was sweet on one of the women in the class.  Finally, I asked him about it.  "So, Dad, what's the grief group like?"  "Well," he said, "I have been so confused, so mad at God, and I didn't feel like anyone had any good answers.  When I went to grief group, I found people who were like me.  They taught me," he said, "the primal scream.  Do you know about the primal scream?"

"Yes, Dad," I said, "I know about the primal scream."  We used to do it at college, during exam week, at a scheduled time everyone would run out into the snow on a cold December night and scream at the top of their lungs.  It didn't seem like the kind of thing that my seventy-year old father would be into.

"Well," he replied, somewhat sheepishly, "I have been doing it.  I have been driving out past the Gunderson's farm to the crossroads there.  I have been pulling over, and with the windows down, I have been doing the primal scream.  And you know what," he said, "I'm pretty sure God heard me."

God heard me.  When Dad said that; it made me happy.  No, scratch that; it gave me joy.

God did not abandon me, says the psalmist.  God heard me, and after the crying, the mourning, the sackcloth, the ashes, there was joy.

Let us pray.  God, help us not to create an idol out of happiness.  Help us to seek out the deep waters of faith and in those waves wash up in joy.  Amen.

 


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