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Friday, June 26, 2009

Happiness

We all desire happiness. Yet we find that many people today are unhappy. Depression among baby boomers is ten times greater than among previous generations. More and more people are identifying with Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Eyeore whose gloomy outlook is expressed in the words “If it is a good day, which I doubt”. Why is our society so unhappy? Experts suggest that it is due to our having lost a sense of purpose. We have become a narcissistic society. We seek personal satisfaction and pleasure. We live in a world where pleasure has replaced purpose. We no longer believe that our lives have an ultimate purpose.

The advertising we hear and see day in and day out constantly bombards us with a message of self gratification. We are told to seek all the gusto in life and to look out for number one. And so we go through life seeking personal pleasure. Yet we are restless. When we look deep into our souls, we find there is a hollow spot inside. Something is missing. There is an uncomfortable void waiting to be filled. It is no wonder that our society is in such a depressed state! Seeking only for self gratification will lead to the unfulfilled desire for more pleasure and happiness. We will always want something better than we have. We strive to keep up with the Jones. In our discontent we seek new spouses, new jobs, new toys, etc. But these new things never bring happiness. We find ourselves more and more unhappy because the hollowness we feel inside is never filled.

Living in a meaningless world devoid of purpose leads to despair. We have nothing to live for. As the philosopher J. P. Moreland has noted “In such a world the difference between Mother Teresa and Saddam Hussein reduces to the difference between a Big Mac and a Whopper.“ In such a world neither can be considered to be better than the other. Everything is without meaning and is purposeless. Without purpose, living for self becomes our only lifestyle choice. When this proves to be illusionary, we will find ourselves asking the questions “Is that all there is?” and “Why bother?” This will always lead us to despair.

Where do we find ultimate purpose in life? It is found in loving God and serving others. It begins with having an intimate relationship with God. It continues with developing relationships with others and serving them. In the midst of these relationships our purpose is often found. In loving God we find the motivation to serve others. In serving others we find true happiness and joy. It is in the giving of oneself that true happiness is found. I am reminded of a friend whose family had escaped the Armenian genocide at the beginning of the twentieth century. He has found real joy in going back and serving the people of that country – people he once hated.

Too often today we seek to serve ourselves, not realizing that self is a cruel taskmaster. It always demands more and more. We never have enough. It leads to perpetual dissatisfaction. But when we serve God and others we find true joy, happiness and contentment. We find that we can have a meaningful purpose to our lives. And that makes all the difference! In the midst of our hustle bustle self orienting world, it is worth from time to time stopping and asking ourselves the questions: “Who am I serving, myself or others?” “What purpose has God given me to live for?”

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Mission

As a youth St. Patrick had been captured by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland as a slave. After several years he escaped and returned home to England. Eventually he felt God calling him to return to Ireland as a missionary. While preparing for his return to Ireland, he faced considerable opposition. He writes in his confessions: “For there were many who hindered this mission. They even talked among themselves behind my back, saying: ‘Who is this fellow going into danger among enemies who do not know God?’" T. M. Moore, in an essay reflecting on St. Patrick’s statement, notes that there are many today who have a similar attitude to those who opposed St. Patrick. There are many in Christendom who question whether we should go out among those who don’t like God and tell them of his love. They suggest that people know where we meet, so if they are interested they will come, especially as we have made adaptations to make them feel comfortable.

St. Patrick knew that Jesus didn’t command the world to come to the church, but for the church to go out to the world. The Great Commission was given to the disciples to go, nor for the world to come. He also knew that his journey ahead would be difficult – that he would likely face danger, difficulties and even persecution. Knowing that at such times he could depend on God, he went forward to convert Ireland.

The world we live in today is similar to that in which Patrick lived. Many enemies of Christendom hate God. Christians are often despised by the media and secular society. Under the guise of political correctness we are even persecuted. The Christian faith is relegated to something that is only done in church. This makes it easier to criticize those whom are attempting to reach out to others. Admittedly, it is much easier staying inside the closed doors of the church, waiting for them to come in than to reach out. But, as Moore says, “The world is not beating a path to the door of our churches.” All of the changes – the seeker services, contemporary music, and focus on positive things have not brought in masses of people. We must reach out to them. How do we best reach out to help people know Jesus? First, we must be sure that we know him ourselves. Jesus Christ should be the most meaningful person in our lives. Second, we must pray for others and for ourselves. We must pray that the Holy Spirit will move their hearts and aid us in living incarnational lives. Third, we must go out, getting to know people, and demonstrating Christ’s love to them. Fourth, we must build relationships that allow for conversations that will naturally share the Good News of God’s kingdom. As we relate to and share with others what is most meaningful in our lives it should be natural to bring Christ into the conversation, provided that he is the most meaningful person in our lives. It is only through this process that we will see the church grow in our day. Its urgency is seen in Moore’s final comment of his essay: ”There's no way around it - if we want our grandchildren to still have a church after we're gone, that is.”

St. Patrick’s opponents were too complacent and comfortable. They were unwilling to reach outside. Thus they criticized St. Patrick and others who were mission minded. We can either be like St. Patrick, going forward into the unknown, or like his Christian opponents who were more comfortable sitting in their pews waiting for non-Christians to join them. Whom do you more identify with?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Trouble with Mrs. Zebedee

The account of Mrs. Zebedee’s request that her sons, James and John, be given positions of authority in Jesus’ kingdom is an interesting story on several levels. It shows a good Jewish mother wanting to see her boys succeed. But it also illustrates the attraction that power and influence have upon us all. It shows how much we allow the desire to manipulate the outcomes of life to affect us. Mrs. Zebedee is not content to let her sons succeed on their own! She attempts to manipulate their success. The story also shows the extent that covetousness can gain a hold upon us. The rest of the disciples were upset with her request, feeling that they should have the positions and kicking themselves that they hadn’t asked first. Mrs. Zebedee’s request tells us a lot about human nature. Throughout history, people have faced the temptation of Zebedeeism – the desire for power, status and control.

We find ourselves reacting much as Mrs. Zebedee and the disciples did. We seek to have positions of power and authority, both within the church and within society. We want to have control over the events of our lives. We attempt to manipulate them so that things will turn out the way we want them to. We desire to see our children living successful lives. And who does not want to see their children succeed? But at times we may try to define success for them. We can push them into sports or a particular career path even though they may have no interest in them at all. We can try to live vicariously through our children’s success. When we do so, we allow Zebedeeism to infect our lives.

We can also personally become so enamored with power and status that we seek them at all cost. We may become bitter when others get ahead, coveting their positions. Stories are told of executives who are bent out of shape because when they measured one of their peer’s offices they found it to be a few square inches larger than theirs. This example illustrates the power that coveting can have on us. It illustrates how Zebedeeism can dominate our lives.

Due to human nature we have all been infected with Zebedeeism to some extent. We all face the danger of allowing it to dominate our lives. How do we avoid succumbing to it? Jesus gives the antidote in the story of Mrs. Zebedee. He states “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” (Mt 20:26b). Servanthood is the cure for the disease of Zebedeeism. Serving others removes our having a self-oriented focus. Jesus calls us to voluntarily become his servants – ones who are willing to give up claims to power and status. He wants us to be enamored with him, not with achieving great positions in the world. Service, given out of love, is a powerful deterrent to Zebedeeism. Mother Theresa is perhaps the one modern person who has done this more than most. With the strength of her character, she could have easily achieved positions of influence and power in the world. But she willingly gave up everything to serve the poor. She was willing to be a servant of Christ, reaching out to the downtrodden in society. God calls us to do the same. He calls us to reach out to those in need. But this requires that we let go. It requires a willingness to serve others. It begins with an examination of our lives, asking “How much does Zebedeeism affect my life?”