Psalm 1 – Choose Real Happiness

The truly happy person
    doesn’t follow wicked advice,
    doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
    and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.
Instead of doing those things,
    these persons love the Lord’s Instruction,
    and they recite God’s Instruction day and night!
They are like a tree replanted by streams of water,
    which bears fruit at just the right time
    and whose leaves don’t fade.
        Whatever they do succeeds
.

That’s not true for the wicked!
    They are like dust that the wind blows away.
And that’s why the wicked will have no standing in the court of justice—
    neither will sinners
    in the assembly of the righteous.
The Lord is intimately acquainted
    with the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked is destroyed. (Common English Bible)

True happiness happens when we conform to disciplines of a good life and eschew practices that go against the grain of goodness. That statement might be a bit difficult to accept. Frankly, it is for me, and I wrote it.

You see, I’m not much of a conformity sort of guy. I like creatively doing my own thing, man. Bucking the system and questioning the rules is just something I do. Conformity tends to have a negative connotation with me – like a group of unthinking lemmings running off a cliff to their death.

Yet, the truth is that, although there is a wide range of creative choices we have for most everything, we as humans best function and discover happiness when we are in sync with our Creator. So, we can choose to ignore our foundational human hard-wiring, or we can live into it as the unique individuals we are.

Those two ways of shaping our lives are the path of the righteous and the path of the wicked. The way of the righteous leads to human flourishing, relational connection, and a vast spiritual life. Alternatively, the way of the wicked leads to human degeneration, disconnection from others, and spiritual death. It is to be out of sync with who we are as people.

Distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked is not always as easy as it looks. Only at the end of the age, when the Day of Judgment comes, will we know for certain the righteous and the wicked.

The magisterial Reformer of the sixteenth-century, Martin Luther, framed the two opposing ways as the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. The cross of Christ is G-d’s attack on human sin. Through being crucified with Christ, we find the way to human flourishing and life. It is the narrow road of grace.

A theology of glory is seeking to be radically independent – to rely primarily, perhaps even exclusively, on our own laurels and personal way of doing things. Although these might appear to be outwardly fine, they feed and water themselves from a wicked stream, devoid of grace.

Whenever we place our complete trust in self and forsake faith in something or someone outside of ourselves, it is a highway to the grave.

It is far too easy to place faith in our good works and to do good so that others will observe our goodness, rather than doing them out of the good soil of being planted in ancient and wise instruction.

Embracing tried and true practices of righteousness; delighting in G-d’s law; meditating on sound instruction; privately pouring over the large body of wisdom we have available to us; and diligently seeking to put it all into action is the way of good people who shall surely realize human happiness. They will yield gracious fruit. They will know blessing.

Joyful are people of integrity,
    who follow the instructions of the Lord.
Joyful are those who obey his laws
    and search for him with all their hearts.

Psalm 119:1-2, NLT

Serving only to be seen; seeking public accolades and personal recognition as a sole motivator; and disrespecting others to prop up individual respect is the way of the wicked. They don’t bother to consult the ancient ways of happiness. Instead, they pridefully believe they know what is best.

“You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.” (Matthew 23:27-28, MSG)

Abundance, generosity, gentleness, and grace marks the righteous because G-d is abundantly gracious and generous. Jesus is the gentle shepherd who mercifully and lovingly leads anxious sheep to the quiet pastures of settled happiness. Indeed, the Lord watches over the way of the righteous.

Only looking out for number one, stinginess, withholding good, hoarding, and angry criticism identifies the wicked. They have judgment in their future because they add no value to the great needs of humanity. Unhappiness is their lot.

We have choices. We can choose conformity to established patterns of godly instruction and happiness – or we can choose to rely solely on our own ingenuity and/or brawn to eke out a morsel of satisfaction.

Choose wisely, my friends.

O Holy Wisdom, direct us on your path. Make us worthy of your teachings and open our hearts to accept your embrace, that we may serve you in peace and grace. Amen.

Proverbs 8:32-9:6 – Listen to Lady Wisdom

Sophia (Divine Wisdom) by Mary Plaster

Pay attention, my children!
    Follow my advice,
    and you will be happy.
Listen carefully
to my instructions,
    and you will be wise.

Come to my home each day
and listen to me.
    You will find happiness.
By finding me, you find life,
    and the Lord will be pleased
    with you.
But if you don’t find me,
    you hurt only yourself,
    and if you hate me,
    you are in love with death.

Wisdom has built her house
    with its seven columns.
She has prepared the meat
and set out the wine.
    Her feast is ready.

She has sent her servant women
    to announce her invitation
    from the highest hills:
“Everyone who is ignorant
    or foolish is invited!
    All of you are welcome
    to my meat and wine.
If you want to live,
    give up your foolishness
    and let understanding
    guide your steps.” (Contemporary English Version)

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Socrates

Know-it-all’s don’t pursue wisdom. They ignorantly believe they already know what’s best about just about everything. Yet their prideful stance betrays only foolishness.

The truth is that wisdom is a skill to be developed. It takes time, patience, humility, grace, trial-and-error, action, reflection, and, most of all, a teachable spirit.

“Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”

Albert Einstein

To be blessed is to carefully graft wisdom into one’s daily life. To go about life with meaning, humility, and confidence are the unmistakable evidence of wisdom’s work within a person. It would be difficult to overstate the great importance of wisdom. Indeed, there is no such thing as too much of it.

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament Proverbs contrasts two approaches to life, personified in the book as Lady Folly and Lady Wisdom. Lady Folly relies on clandestine encounters, secrets, and seduction in promising satisfaction and a happy life. Yet, in the end, imbibing her drink poisons the soul and kills the spirit.

Conversely, Lady Wisdom operates openly and in the daylight. She gives a clarion invitation to a genuinely good life and persuades others, without manipulation, to feast at her banquet. Eating from Lady Wisdom’s table is open to all, both the simple and the sage. She offers a perspective which brings insight and clarity to confusing situations and bewildering circumstances. Lady Wisdom sets up a person for a blessed life.

“A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.”

D. Elton Trueblood

Perhaps an illustration may assist. The COVID-19 vaccination is available. It has proven to work. The clarion call has gone out. Listen carefully, get vaccinated, practice basic human kindness through masking and proper social distancing – and there will be life. Lady Wisdom is open about the process and the procedure for health.

However, another calls goes out, as well. The vaccine is not safe. It is an attempt to control. We are mere pawns in a politician’s game. The statistics on those infected are skewed. Come, drink deeply of freedom and exercise your right to refuse medical treatment. After all, if it was so safe, why is there so much talk about its safety, to convince people of its efficacy? Lady Folly has set her trap.

Foolishness relies on manipulating emotions, making false comparisons, and promising happiness without a pathway to get there. It sets up the logical fallacy of the Strawman, misrepresenting wisdom’s argument to make it easier to attack. Lady Folly is a simpleton who makes judgments without reasoning.

Lady Wisdom invites people to consult, collaborate, converse, and cooperate with well-worn bodies of teaching passed down through the ages – to drink deeply and eat heartily of truth so as to apply cogent applications to life’s most vexing issues.

“Discipline is wisdom and vice versa.”

M. Scott Peck

You see, it is eating and drinking at wisdom’s table which brings enduring patience, proper perspective, needed perseverance, and satisfying provision for life. Impatience, narrow-mindedness, lack of action because of petty squabbling, and ignorance, are the sad results of folly’s empty promises. They only lead to death.

Wisdom can only be acquired through making daily routine decisions of faith and patience, of putting one foot in front of the other in a slow process over time. In contrast, foolishness is just so because it circumvents time and process and speaks of deliverance and happiness now, right now, without all the fuss and hardship.

So, then, in our current social and economic climate; in our world dominated with the effects of pandemic; in our own personal lives; just what is Lady Folly barking at us about? And Lady Wisdom inviting us to?…

Your answer and your response just might be the difference between life and death.

Thank you, Wise God, for being present, available, and inviting me to approach you in my times of need. Thank you for bending your gracious ear to listen and to care. There are times I feel weak, helpless, even afraid. Yet, I cling to the knowledge that God is with me. I know that you are Lord, and I am not. I know that you hold all situations in your good strong hands. Therefore, I trust you and I trust the process you have me undergoing to become wise and just. I ask for strength and wisdom so that I might endure and handle everything in a way that will bless both you and the world; through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit I pray. Amen.

The Beatitudes of Jesus: An Introduction

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12, NIV)

The human brain is hard-wired, in such a way, that it works its best when healthy rhythms of giving and receiving occur. God created us to thrive and flourish when we pay attention to particular ways of being with one another as people.

Jesus used the term “blessed” not in a financial sense, as if having lots of money is what it means to experience blessing. The word “blessed” means to have God’s stamp of approval, his favor, with the emotional and spiritual response of joy or happiness. 

Real and lasting joy comes from a right relationship with God, defined according to what Jesus says – different from the false righteousness of the religious establishment which is based on outward appearance rather than inner attitudes. We need to know how to relate to our God, instead of simply conforming to an outward form of Christianity that everybody is doing.

Our entire selves are blessed when we engage in consistent rhythms of practicing humility before the Lord; sitting with grief; putting ourselves in another’s shoes; seeking right relationships with both God and others; pursuing mercy, purity, and peace-making in all our affairs; and allowing persecution to form us in ways the good times cannot.

Jesus preached the Beatitudes to clarify what it means to be approved by God. He wanted to gain true disciples who follow God for the right reasons. The crowd was following Jesus physically, but not necessarily spiritually. They all followed for different reasons: for healing, curiosity, or a genuine desire to be a disciple. So, Jesus sat them down to communicate what a true follower and disciple is.

Imagine we are part of the crowd originally hearing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  The world in which the people lived, and the religious system which they took for granted, was highly restrictive. 

In order to approach God, enter the kingdom, and be a good citizen, one had to be Jewish, male, a faithful Law-keeper, physically whole, healthy, and able; and, if not wealthy, able to make a good living. 

Yes, this reality meant that Gentiles, women, those who struggled to keep the Law, the diseased and disabled, and the poor had no shot whatsoever in the kingdom of God. To be blessed and have God’s stamp of approval on your life meant you were a healthy and wealthy Jewish man who practiced a legalistic form of righteousness. 

Not a single one of us here would have any shot at the kingdom of God. Yet, we have heard something about this guy, Jesus. There seems to be something very compelling about him. We go seek him out, sit down on a mountainside and hear him say the most refreshing and scandalous words we have ever heard…

God approves of the spiritually bankrupt who realize they’ve got no leverage to make any deals. They shall be given the riches of God’s grace.

God approves of those who grieve over personal sin and lament the presence of sin in the world. They are the ones who will experience God’s forgiveness and comfort.

God approves of the powerless and those who use their authority to champion others. They will inherit God’s power and take up authority to command dark forces and put them in their place.

God approves of those who have a voracious appetite for right relationships and doing everything for the right reasons. Their growling spiritual stomachs will be stuffed with God’s righteousness.

God approves of those who liberally extend grace to others, being always considerate of everyone’s needs, showing neither prejudice nor favoritism. They shall receive God’s grace at the end of the age when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.

God approves of the spiritually clean who have bathed in the waters of divine mercy. They will see Jesus face to face.

God approves of those who facilitate and negotiate peace. Because that is precisely what God’s children do.

God approves of those who are persecuted for living by these counter-cultural Beatitudes. They have an inheritance that will never perish, spoil, or fade.

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of our world as your love would make it: a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor; a world where the benefits of abundant life are shared, and everyone can enjoy them; a world where different races and cultures live in tolerance and mutual respect; a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love. And give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

John 16:16-24 – There Must Be Suffering Before Glory

Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”

At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”

Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born, she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So, with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. (New International Version)

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come with patience and equanimity.”

Carl Jung

An Unpopular Message

Jesus often said things that were neither expected nor wanted. Jesus consistently told his disciples there must be suffering before glory. The disciples either could not or would not hear of it. They didn’t sign up to follow Jesus into suffering! Trying to get people to pay attention to suffering is like trying to get a bunch of Baptists to put their names down on a sign-up sheet at church.

Christ was speaking to his disciples in the Upper Room, the last meal he had with them before his death. When they were called by Jesus three years earlier, the disciples were not expecting all the gibberish about leaving and grieving. To put this in contemporary terms, the disciples’ response was akin to saying, “I only think positive. I don’t listen to things that are negative.”

Suffering, death, and grief were far from the disciples’ expectations of how things would and should shake-out. They had such a hard time understanding what the heck Jesus was saying because his words were out of alignment with their assumptions. Yes, there would be glory and joy. First, however, there must be suffering and grief.

A Real Message

Just as a woman experiences terrible pain in childbirth, then ecstatic joy over seeing her child for the first time, so the Christian’s excruciating pain in this life points to the inevitable joy at the end of that suffering. In the scope of eternity, adversity and pain last only a moment. Glorious joy, however, will be forever.

In talking with his disciples about their disappointment, even depression, about Christ’s words of leaving and grieving, Jesus graciously gave them the gift of joy. Yes, there can be and is joy even in the mourning. Not every story has a happy ending.

I can say, however, that the grandest story of all – Jesus Christ’s suffering and death – has resulted in resurrection and ascension. It will all be complete when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Then, the grand narrative of redemption will realize its conclusion of no more crying, tears, or pain. There will be only unending joy.

For now, however, we still experience heartache along with the great joy of resurrection and new life. It can be confusing, living in the awkward state of simultaneous grief and joy. Yet, keep in mind, the grief is temporary. The despair will not last. Joy, on the other hand, has staying power and will be the permanent state of the believer. It is only the smaller stories which may or may not end well. The big story of redemption already has the ending written – joy without grief.

A Good Message

Christians serve a risen and ascended Lord. Therefore, we need not wait to be happy, and we need not expect everything must go our way. The good news is that there are always fresh opportunities to be happy through asking and receiving. Imagine a Partridge Family sort of bus coming around to all the bus stops of life. Happy times and music arrive around the clock. Chances are the opportunity to be happy has already arrived. Often, it is right in front of us; we just missed the bus because we were daydreaming about a future state of joy.

We are living days of constant change followed by ever new normal. Just as there was no going back to a three-year hiatus of walking with Jesus for the disciples, so we need to embrace new and different ways of life together here on planet earth. We have the gift of joy. Its just a matter of unpacking it.

Now to him who can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.