Trying hard to be happy

Mike Denton

Sermon at 1st Congregational Church of Bellevue

9/5/21

I’ve been ordained since 1999, and during that time, I decided not to preach from scripture just once. The congregation I served wanted to hear more about some work I was involved in on the congregation’s behalf. Until midweek, I was sure I would be preaching from James, a great and important text about the dangers of favoritism, bias, and prejudice. This is one of those texts that reads us more than we read it. This text and I were sharing a great conversation, and I was looking forward to telling you about it.

But then, on Wednesday, something shifted. Maybe it was the cumulative effect of bad news on top of bad news. Maybe it was hearing weariness in the voices of those reporting the new COVID variant. Maybe it was the culmination of conversations I’ve had with churches and pastors that are struggling. It was also the first day of third grade for our eight-year-old. Although I trusted the good intentions of everyone he would be encountering that day, I also knew I was sending him into one of the riskiest environments he’d been in since the beginning of the pandemic. All the parents at pick-up looked worried and were anxious to hear how their child’s day went.

But almost everyone is trying so, so hard to be happy or help make other people happy. Sure, we hear about some people who, on some days or moments, don’t seem to have that as a goal, but, truly, this desire is what I hear the most and recognize in myself.

Before the pandemic, happiness was lifted up as the goal, so we’re kind of stuck with it. We want to be happy. We want our loved ones to be happy. Saying someone “Just isn’t happy” is shorthand for something being wrong. Having the ability to do something or buy something that makes us happy has been lifted up as a definition of success. If someone calls you “emotional” it means they see you as something else other than happy. I like happy. Who doesn’t like happy?

That said, when you think about it, maybe trying to be happy all the time during a global pandemic, climate reckoning, economic instability, and a time of civil unrest is just a wee bit ambitious. There may be a few other completely normal and healthy emotions that might be more easily accessible; emotions like sadness, fear, anger, and loneliness.

Now, the preacher is preaching to the preacher here. Still, when I move into some degree of depression, it’s usually not as much about what I am feeling but the exhaustion that comes with trying to feel something – usually happiness – or trying to resist feeling something that,  although completely appropriate for the circumstance, feels messier; almost unclean.

The church has a part in this, too. In the same way, early expressions of our faith taught that ill physical health was a consequence of sin, we sometimes indicate that unhappiness is, too. We sometimes almost seem to indicate that if you can’t be happy, it’s because you’re not faithful enough.

In my official role as Conference Minister of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, let me say this: That’s a load of garbage. If I had any part in preaching that or saying that at some point, I was wrong, and I apologize. Happiness is great and fine and wonderful, but we’re not doing anything wrong when we feel something else. To suggest anything else makes happiness a false god we serve instead of one part of our spiritual and emotional life. Obsessing on it regardless of the circumstance is as unhealthy as obsessing on any emotion. It’s exhausting. If that’s what you need to do to make it through the day, I get it. At the same time, when it stops working, don’t hesitate to let it go. It’s OK.

Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Take another deep breath. Let that one out slowly, too.

Our feelings are information about our circumstances. Ideally, emotions are a gift to help us adjust to those circumstances. Sure, sometimes things get messed up, or we don’t adjust as quickly as we’d like or in the way we’d like. We go through the emotional equivalent of tripping and, and yes, tripping can have its consequences. There are many more things that might trip us up during times of stress – and we’re all in a time of stress right now. The most natural thing in the world is to try and move through stressful times more quickly, even though moving quickly can make us even more liable to an emotional stumble. We end up tired out from having to move so quickly for so long and bruised from the emotional experience of tripping over every additional worry, fear, and sadness along the way. 

Everything in us suggests we should move quickly through times of stress when we need to slow down a bit and move carefully. Every advertisement says the antidote to stress is happiness when striving for happiness during stress is just one more thing to do. These days take a lot out of us, and – as opposed to worshipping at the cult of happiness – the wiser voices are right. Slow down. Take a few breaths. Rest. Eat. Sleep. Serve others. Pray. During times of stress, our animalistic fight or flight response prioritizes escaping as more important than everything else. During times of sustained stress like this, we need to be more intentional about doing other things that help us survive.

Here’s the other reality I’m finding in my life, and maybe some of you are finding this, too. Although the wisdom about breathing, resting, eating, sleeping, serving others, and praying is absolutely right, I’m finding that even that doesn’t feel like enough some days. I know I’m not alone in this. I’m hearing from pastors and church leaders still tired after a week or two off. Don’t get me wrong. Rest is vitally important, but it’s not refilling the spiritual wells inside of us. Being in the same space as other people – even with masks on and with the distancing dances we’re learning – helps address some of the emptiness created by loneliness but not all of it. Those inner spiritual wells in many of us are beyond dry.

We’re at another stage in our living through this moment. This stage of things will come to an end. I’m not as convinced as some that this is a new normal, especially if that somehow indicates that we have to simply accept and adjust to a form of reality that humanity has had a large part in creating. This is only the new normal if we do nothing. Humanity is far from perfect, but we’re far better than some suggest. We do not have to accept this current moment as a definition of all the moments yet to come.

To do that, we’re going to have to find ways to refill those spiritual wells inside of us. We’re going to have to back out of the happiness cult. We’re going to have to acknowledge the reality of sadness, fear, anger, and loneliness in our lives. We will have to slow down a bit and move carefully through this period of high stress. We need to take a few breaths. Rest. Eat. Sleep. Serve others. Pray. We need to talk with each other and support each other.

Personally, I’ve been finding one more spiritual practice that’s helping me make it through, too. I want to share it with you.

First, take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Take another deep breath. Let that one out slowly, too.

I want to invite you to do something that might seem strange. It’s a visualization exercise of sorts, and for those of you who usually don’t like such things, I’m right there with you. So if you need to roll your eyes, let me turn away for a moment and give you that opportunity.

Good.

I want to invite you that are present to sit still or if you’re doing something else while listening to this, I’d invite you to pause for just a moment. This won’t take long.

It might help to close your eyes, but that’s completely up to you. I invite you to imagine sitting on the steps of a building or bench that has a sidewalk running in front of it. Where you’re sitting is a place you’ve sat before; sometimes to rest, sometimes waiting, sometimes to read or listen to music a bit. While you’re sitting there, you see something you haven’t noticed before. There’s a crack in the sidewalk. It’s not a huge one. It’s not big enough that someone might trip on it, but it’s a crack in the sidewalk. You have no responsibility to fix it. It has some weeds growing up through it. An ant is wandering around it as ants do. 

As you stare at it, something shifts, and you start to notice the details. Coming from the large cracks are some smaller cracks starting to form. The crack almost looks like something living. Some of those weeds have small flowers on them. There are a few different kinds of weeds starting to grow there. You look at that ant like it’s the first time you’ve ever seen an ant. You see the shininess of its body, the delicateness of its legs and antennas. It rarely stops and stays in steady motion again.

As you continue to stare at it, something else shifts. You feel something in your gut, and your heart began to change. An ever so slight smile begins to creep up on your face – in your mouth and your eyes as you start to realize something. It’s beautiful. This whole scene – the crack, the weeds, the ant – it’s beautiful. And as you recognize it, that inner well starts to fill.

Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Take another deep breath. Let that one out slowly, too.

My Siblings in Christ, there is something about beauty. I’m not talking about unrealistic standards of beauty that are used to sell us things, and I’m not talking about any equivalent between beauty and what some call perfection. I’m talking about the kind of beauty that we see when we open ourselves to the possibility that some beauty might just be everywhere; beauty that doesn’t force itself into our consciousness but is just waiting for a hint of invitation. You might find it art, music, video, the written word, the kindness of others, and virtues like courage, but beauty is also waiting to emerge from the most unlikely of places. It is waiting for you to point to it and say, I see you. It is waiting for you to show it to others. This is the work of artists, and this is one of those moments we’re all called to be artists.

Beauty is a form of truth. When you think about it, those who identify as artists aren’t creators as much as people skilled in revealing the truth hidden within raw materials like paint, stone, stories, sound… Everything. For those of you who identify yourself as an artist or maker of some sort, we need you right now. We need your leadership and example. Help us see through your eyes, touch with your hands, and hear with your ears. Help us see the beauty you already see so clearly. We need you to help us find those new songs, those new rituals, those new icons, those new poems, those new plays, those new stories that are breaking out of all these raw materials lying on the ground of the stressed-out place we find ourselves. Help us take this cluttered ground we’re rushing through and tripping over and help us slow down and savor all the truth we might be rushing by. We have always needed you but rarely so urgently or on such a large scale.

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, let there be…”

  • Genesis 1:1-3

God, who created truth, beauty, hope, and love out of a formless void gave us the ability to find it in the world and, maybe most importantly, in each other. It’s one of the reasons we need each other. We need each other to name the truth and beauty we see in each other especially in those moments its hard for us to see it in ourselves.

Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Take another deep breath. Let that one out slowly, too.

My Siblings in Christ, there is beauty everywhere waiting to invited into the world. That beauty is in you, too. I am more convinced than ever that this is true. I am becoming more convinced that this might be truth that sets us free.

Amen.

3 thoughts on “Trying hard to be happy

  1. All I can say is WOW and thank you. I find the beauty in you. Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly…..love you, Mom
    Sent from my iPad
    >

    Like

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