Saturday, January 30, 2016

"Spiritual Happiness"

            During January and February, I am preaching a sermon series on the question, “Would You Like to Be a Happier Person?”  Personal happiness has been an important, trending topic for the past years.  In this sermon series, I will explore the keys to true and lasting happiness from the perspective of Christian faith.  In my own personal experience, my Christian faith has been foundational for happiness and flourishing.   

We know that human persons are multi-dimensional, including intellectual, physical, social, psychological, and spiritual dimensions.  This Sunday, January 31st, we will be exploring the spiritual dimensions of authentic happiness.  There are currently a number of social scientists who have focused their empirical research on what makes persons truly happy.  Their research suggests that truly happy people have seven characteristics in common.  One of these core characteristics is spiritual well-being, or a sense of meaning and being part of something bigger than oneself.  While this sense of meaning and spirituality does not have to correlate with a traditional world religion, such as Christianity, it does suggest that strong Christian faith and discipleship can form the foundation for a happy and flourishing life in this world

So, this week we will focus on “spiritual happiness,” as part of the key to living a good and happy life.  Our foundational scripture will be 1 Kings 19: 11-13, which is from the story of the prophet Elijah.  In this story, Elijah has fled out into the wilderness and is living in a cave.  Depressed to the point of being suicidal and all alone, Elijah prays that God will come and speak to him.  Elijah looks for God’s Presence in a fierce wind, an earthquake, and a fire.  Yet, God is in none of these natural events.  Finally, God speaks to Elijah through a “still, small voice,” and Elijah is comforted and rejuvenated.

            Taking some lessons from the story of Elijah, my message will explore the spiritual dimensions of authentic happiness.  I will describe what it means to “be spiritual,” and look at different, individual forms of spirituality.  One of the most difficult challenges for many persons is finding time to nurture and develop our spiritual lives.  I will suggest some strategies for finding time for daily prayer and spiritual growth—and, I will suggest a few spiritual practices which may be helpful for spiritual growth and nurture.  My hope is that this message will help everyone strengthen their spiritual health—and become happier persons.

If you live in Lincoln and do not have a regular church home, I invite you to join us this Sunday, as we explore the keys to spiritual fulfillment and happiness.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

 Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Friday, January 22, 2016

"A Common Myth about Happiness"

            We live in a culture which glorifies consumption as the key to obtaining happiness.  In our daily lives, we are bombarded with messages encouraging us to consume in order to be happy.  These messages come in various forms, through print and media commercials that tell us that we will be happy if we just buy a particular product or service.  This message also reaches us through television shows, movies, and books that glamorize wealth and consumption as the key to a happy lifestyle. 

            Despite the prevalence of this message that consumption is the key to happiness, many empirical studies suggest that having more and more possessions actually does not lead to greater happiness—at least not after a basic threshold of life necessities has been met.  Rather than consumption, we know that it is personal growth, positive attitudes, strong relationships, a sense of gratitude, a strong sense of meaning, serving others, and working to make the world a better place, which lead to greater happiness.

            Still, this false myth that consumption is the key to obtaining happiness permeates our society.  Embedded within this false myth is an unholy trinity of doctrines: 

1.  “I consume, therefore I am.”
                        2.  “The more I consume, the happier I will be.”
                        3.  “What I consume is who I am.”

It is impossible to escape continual exposure to this myth about happiness within our popular culture.  Yet, there is an alternative path from a Christian perspective.  This alternative Christian perspective coheres much closer with the empirical findings of psychologists, neuro-scientists, geneticists, and others.

            On Sunday, January 24th, I will continue my current sermon series on happiness by examining this myth.  My message will be based upon Luke 18: 18-30, the story of the rich, young ruler.  In this story, the rich ruler asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  This, I suppose, is the core question concerning ultimate happiness.  In essence, the rich leader asks what is the key to happiness and bliss forever and ever to infinity—and beyond!?! 

            After establishing that the rich leader strives to lead an ethical life by following all of the Jewish laws, Jesus tells him, “There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 

Luke explains that after this statement by Jesus, the rich leader “became sad; for he was very rich.”  At this point, most likely, the leader got up and left the discussion.  Saddened by the leader’s decision to choose his earthly wealth over eternal happiness and bliss, Jesus observes, with hyperbole, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!  Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The crux of this story about the rich, young ruler is where we place our faith.  In the story, the ruler trusts that his material wealth will provide him with more happiness than anything else.  This is a similar to the false myth prevalent in our culture, which tells us that consumption of more and more things will bring us the greatest happiness.  This outcome deeply saddens Jesus because he knows that in actuality true and lasting happiness comes by placing our faith in God and striving to be a faithful disciple.

From Christ’s perspective, happiness in this present life is rooted in faithful discipleship which includes personal spiritual growth, strong relationships within the family and a community of faith, gratitude for the blessings that we receive from God, serving others and striving to make the world a better place.  In addition, the Christian life provides a spiritual meaning which is greater than simply we, ourselves.  In short, the lifestyle of a Christian provides those factors, which empirical studies are suggesting is the key to authentic happiness—in the here and now. Further, faithful discipleship holds the promise of everlasting happiness in the far future.

I invite you to join us at Christ United Methodist Church as we continue our exploration of becoming happier persons.  During the service, we will explore the alternative, counter-cultural Christian understanding of happiness as played out in the story of the rich, young leader.  We are located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings.

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

"The Key to True Happiness"

(Editorial Note:  Last Sunday, January 17th, I began a new sermon series, entitled "Would You Like to Be a Happier Person?"  This will be a seven-week series, running through February 28th.  Unfortunately, my blog for the first sermon in the happiness series did not get posted before the sermon last weekend.  I have posted it below.  This week in the series, I will be looking at a common myth about happiness.  I will post a second blog about the upcoming January 24th sermon later today. ~ Richard)

           During the next seven weeks, I will be preaching a sermon series focusing on the question, “Would You Like to Be a Happier Person?”  Personal happiness has been an important, trending topic over the past few years.  A quick query to reveals over 90,000 books in its inventory focusing on happiness and how to become a happy person.  Research into personal happiness has increased dramatically in psychology as well as the other social sciences.  Happiness is also a prominent focus of research by neuroscientists, who are studying those areas of the brain that become active when we experience joy and happiness.           
        In this sermon series, I will explore the keys to true and lasting happiness from the perspective of Christian faith.  In my own personal experience, Christian faith has been foundational for happiness and flourishing.   My faith gives me comfort in times of trouble, opportunities to serve and make the world a better place, and meaning when confronting life’s major questions.  All of these are crucial components of happiness, according to those scientists who are currently studying what makes people happy. 

            I will begin the series this Sunday, January 17th, by exploring what constitutes true happiness.  Some of the contemporary research differentiates two distinct types of happiness.  On the one hand, there is an emotional form of happiness that is temporary and fleeting.  We frequently describe this happiness as “joy” and frequently associate it with laughter.  This is the type of happiness that occurs when we get some really good news.  For example:  our favorite sports team qualifies for the play-offs or we get a raise at work or we discover that our best friend has gotten engaged.  Emotional happiness makes us feel really good, but that is not what we mean when we describe someone as really and truly happy. 
            On the other hand, there is a second form of happiness that refers more to the type of life that we live.  We frequently describe this type of happiness with words, such as “flourishing” or “well-being.”  This second type of happiness is long-standing, if not actually permanent.  Even when we get bad news or suffer a personal setback, this second type of happiness persists even though we may momentarily experience the emotions of sadness, grief, or depression.  So, when we think about becoming a happier person, then our focus is on this second, more permanent type of happiness.  Throughout this sermon series I will call this second type of happiness, “true happiness.”
 Contemporary research into this happiness suggests that there are several keys to "true happiness:"
1.      Ongoing personal growth
2.      Positive attitudes towards life and others
3.      Strong inter-personal relationships
4.      A bountiful gratitude for life’s gifts and blessings
5.      A strong sense of meaning and purpose in life
6.      An ability and commitment to serving others.
7.      An ability and opportunities for making the world a better place; that is, making a real difference in the world.
As the grounding for our exploration of true happiness this weekend, I have selected Matthew 16:  24-26 as the foundational text for the proclamation.  In this scripture, Jesus is meeting privately with his followers and describing what it means to be his disciple.  In our scripture, Jesus tells them:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?  Or what will they give in return for their life?”
At first blush, this scriptural passage may seem to be an odd choice for a sermon on true happiness.  Afterall, this scripture begins by talking about the need for self-denial and carrying a heavy cross if we are to follow Jesus.  This does not sound like a lot of fun-- or a sure and certain path to happiness.  Then, the passage continues with a clear appeal to the promise of an eternal life in happiness and bliss with Jesus.  Jesus appears to be talking about our willingness to lose our life in order to gain a better life in eternity.
A core Christian belief is that Jesus offers us redemption and salvation, so that through our faith we inherit eternal life and go to Heaven.  As he is preparing the disciples for his looming crucifixion and death, Jesus uses the metaphor of a house:  “In my Father’s house, there are many rooms.  …And I go to prepare a place for you … so that where I am, there you may be also.”  (John 14:  2-3)   For many Christians, their faith is essentially an investment in their future; a future of happiness and bliss with God.
I don’t intend to argue against this view.  I do believe that the life of faithful Christian discipleship leads to happiness and bliss in God’s presence.  But, I want to suggest that leading the life of faithful discipleship is also the key to happiness in this earthly life.  When we look at the seven keys to true happiness delineated above, what I find remarkable is how closely they correlate with the characteristics of authentic Christian discipleship.
So, I want to suggest that there is a second, complementary way of interpreting our scripture in Matthew 16.  (I believe that scripture is so rich that sometimes there may be two complementary ways of interpretations.)  In this second approach to the passage in Matthew, we may interpret Jesus as saying that when persons commit themselves fully, 100% to discipleship by making sacrifices and following him, then in that process of carrying their crosses, they will ironically find true happiness in this life. 
Come, join us this Sunday, January 17th.  During my proclamation, I will develop in more detail my claim that the seven keys to true happiness correlate perfectly with the characteristics of Christian discipleship.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Friday, January 8, 2016

A Clash of Two Completely Different Worlds

            This Sunday, January 10th, our community of faith will be celebrating the Christian holy day of Epiphany.  In their celebrations of Epiphany, Christians commemorate the coming of the Wise Men to worship and pay homage to the newborn baby, Jesus.  The story of the Wise Men appears in Matthew 2: 1-12. 

For some Christians, the story of the Wise Men following a star from either Iran or Iraq to Bethlehem is a bit hard to swallow.  Afterall, it seems hard to believe that a star, millions of miles away, perhaps on the other side of our galaxy, could actually move in such a way as to guide humans from the East all the way along a curving human road to Bethlehem.  How would an actual star move in that way?  For other Christians, the story of the Wise Men following a star is not difficult to affirm—so long as a person of faith accepts it as a miracle performed by God to identify Jesus of Nazareth as the long awaited Messiah.

During my message on Sunday, I will suggest that we set aside such questions, concerning the nuts-and-bolts of how the Wise Men literally followed a moving star.  Instead, I will suggest that we take a different interpretive approach to this story, focusing on what the story can teach us about our Christian faith.  In others words, what can we learn from this story about how to live as someone who is interested in following God and growing in their spirituality?

Viewed from this perspective, let us begin with a question concerning who Matthew was referring to, when he uses the term, "Wise Men"?  The Greek word that Matthew uses in his Gospel may also be translated as “astrologers,” “magicians,” or “sorcerers.”  Biblical scholars believe that the Wise Men were priests in the pagan religions of either Persia (present day Iran) or Babylonia (present day Iraq).  They would have been experts in astrology and dream interpretation.  The Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem, announcing that they had seen a new star in their study of the night skies.  They have interpreted this new star as the herald of a new king of the Jews.  They have travelled from their homes in the East to simply worship and pay homage to this new king.

In Jerusalem, the Wise Men seek out King Herod, who had been placed in charge of governing Israel by the Roman Emperor.  King Herod was religiously a Jew, but he had gained his power through a military conquest of the Jewish people and he had colluded with the Emperor in continuing the subjugation and occupation of Judea by the Roman Empire.  Clearly, King Herod felt vulnerable and insecure in his position of power because the arrival of astrologers from the East left him greatly “frightened,” along with all the other official Jewish leaders of Jerusalem. 

When the Wise Men inquired about the location of the newborn king, King Herod seeks the expertise of the “chief priests and scribes of the people.”  In other words, King Herod asks the Jewish religious leaders, along with scholars and lawyers.  Drawing from a prophecy in the Hebrew scripture of Micah, these experts inform Herod the prophets had claimed that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. 

The Wise Men then traveled to Bethlehem, where they found the baby Jesus and knelt down to “pay him homage.”  Then, they presented gifts to the baby Jesus:  gold, along with frankincense and myrrh—two very expensive aromatic resins—which are all gifts suitable for royalty.  Then, being warned by God in a dream, they returned to their home, using a different route, which allowed them to avoid King Herod.

In Matthew’s account of the Wise Men, we have the clash of two different worlds.  First, there is the world of the Wise Men.  The Wise Men were the scientists of their day.  They studied the stars and were very wealthy.  The Wise Men were also the priestly leaders in the pagan religions of their culture.  Yet, even though they were pagans, the Wise Men still discerned the birth of God’s Son many miles away in a distant country.   Not only did the Wise Men discern the birth of the Messiah, they responded immediately by starting on a journey that would ultimately take them to Bethlehem, where they would worship the baby Jesus and give him the best of what they owned.  The pagan Wise Men were looking forward to the ways that God would redeem the world through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

By contrast, King Herod, along with the chief priests, “scribes of the people,” and other Jewish leaders, inhabited a second world, which was dramatically different from the world of the Wise Men.  King Herod and the other Jewish leaders were rich.  And, they were powerful leaders within the Jewish faith.  Yet, they were not looking expectedly forward to the time when God would redeem the world through Jesus Christ.  Instead, King Herod and the other leaders were very comfortable with the status quo and they were afraid of change.  For Matthew, the writer of this Gospel, King Herod and the others were religious hypocrites, who proclaimed religious devotion but failed to live out their religious commitments.

The Wise Men were “seekers” and “doers.”  They were still seeking to learn more about the Divine and to deepen their spirituality.  When they found Jesus in Bethlehem, they were “overwhelmed with joy.”  By contrast, King Herod and his religious advisors were neither “seekers” nor “doers.”  Even though they knew exactly where in their sacred texts to find the prophesied location of the Messiah’s birth, they were not interested in seeking out the promised Messiah.  Note that they didn’t even bother to journey with the Wise Men to find and worship the new Messiah.  Rather than being “overwhelmed with joy” that the Messiah had finally been born, they were frightened that the Messiah might require changes in their lives. 

            In the proclamation this weekend, I will suggest that Christians can learn a great deal from the Wise Men, as we begin a New Year.  Just like the Wise Men, we must become “seekers,” continually striving to learn more about the Divine and to deepen our spirituality.  That is, we must strive to grow deeper spiritually.  Just as the Wise Men, we must also be “doers,” ready to follow wherever God leads us—even if God leads us in previously unimagined places.  In my message, I will give some examples of what I think it means for twenty-first century Christians to be “seekers” and “doers” in 2016.

The New Year is a great time to get back into church. If you already have a church home, we urge you to attend and support your church, regularly. However, if you don't already have a church home, we invite you to check out our community of faith.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

"ISIS and Christian Love?"

Happy New Year, everyone!

            This Sunday (January 3rd), as we begin a new year, I would like to look back at the emergence of a significant threat to our society.  I’m referring to the emergence of Islamic jihadist groups in the Middle East, Africa, and other areas.  The principal terrorist group is the “Islamic State” (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS or ISIL), an Islamic jihadist terrorist group, located in Iraq and Syria.  Although there are some differences between these various groups, they all share a common hatred for Christianity and the United States.  As a result of this hatred, many acts of terrorism have been perpetrated, resulting in the deaths of many Christians, simply because of their faith.
            To ground and guide our reflections on the threats by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, I have selected a portion from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew 5:  43-48:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteousness.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
            During my message this week, I would like to guide us through a reflection on how we balance and integrate the very real threats of the Islamic State with Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
            Before proceeding any further, a caveat is in order:  Contrary to the claims of many American bloggers and political columnists, ISIS and other Muslim extremists do not represent the majority of Muslims.  In addition, the teachings of the Q’ ran, the Muslim Holy Book, do not lead inevitably to ISIS theology.  We have to be careful here.  Just as other world religions, including Christianity, so also Islam is a very complicated faith with multiple expressions.  While ISIS is certainly an expression of Islam, it is not the only expression of Islam.  In fact, ISIS does not even represent the majority perspective of Muslims worldwide.  It is a minority view even within Islam.
In many respects, ISIS parallels the Ku Klux Klan or Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church[1] within Christianity.  Although the theology of Westboro and the KKK is drawn from their minority interpretation of the Bible and although they claim to be Christian, neither hate group represents all Christians.  In fact both groups promote a perspective that is at odds with the vast majority of other Christian perspectives and is, in many ways, extremely marginal to Christian thought and practice.
But, returning to our question, let us begin with an exegesis of our foundational scripture, the passage from Matthew cited above.  What did Jesus mean, when he preached that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? 
Writing in The New Interpreter’s Bible, the biblical scholar Eugene Boring observes that Jesus “makes the command to love enemies specific and concrete.  In its absoluteness and concreteness, it is without parallel in paganism or Judaism.  The command should not be understood abstractly, ‘love all people, including even enemies.’  In Jesus’ situation it referred particularly to the occupying Roman forces, and thus to national enemies as well as to competing religious groups and personal enemies.”[2]
Of course, some have already argued that we do not need to take Jesus’ command to love our enemies literally.  And, it is true that there are some portions of the Bible that Christians do not interpret literally.  For instance, earlier in Matthew 5, Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:  29a, 30).  Most Christians interpret this command as hyperbole and do not believe Jesus intended for us to literally disfigure ourselves.
Regardless, I believe that Jesus intends for us to interpret literally his command to love our enemies.  I hold this position because the command to love our enemies resonates so strongly with two key themes which run like red threads throughout the scriptures, from beginning to end:
1.      Each individual person is created in the image of God.  From the first chapter of the Bible, humans are described as being set apart from the rest of Creation because we have been created in the image of God (See Genesis 1:  27).  Throughout the scriptures, despite the failings of many persons, God never revokes this understanding that each person possesses the image of God as an integral component of who they are.

2.      In response to God’s love for us, Christians are to love all persons.  In the Hebrew scriptures this love is expressed as kindness and hospitality to the stranger.  Deuteronomy 10:19 says, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us to care for those who are hungry, thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.  Finally, in 1 John 4:20, we read:  “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
Taken together, these two recurring themes, which run throughout the Bible, from start to finish, offer a compelling and convincing argument for taking Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies literally.
Eugene Boring, the biblical scholar, continues by noting that Jesus’ command to love our enemies is based on three premises:  (1) Jesus’ authority as the Messiah; (2) the nature of God who loves all impartially; and (3) the promise of eschatological reward, when his disciples become “children of God” in the New Creation.  To be a true “child of God” means that we must re-orient our lives, especially our attitudes, and we must trust God completely.  Jesus continues by pointing out that if his disciples love only those who already love them, then they are no better than those outside the faith, especially evil-doers.
How, then, should we apply Jesus’ command to love our enemies to the frightening threats from the Islamic State?  It seems clear that the faithful Christian response should be to love the ISIS terrorists who threaten to exterminate us and to pray for them.  In doing this, we are living as the true “children of God,” who have radically re-oriented our lives, trusting fundamentally in God and not our own power.  In this radical re-orientation, we recognize that even the fiercest ISIS terrorist is created in the image of God and is loved by God.  Further, we remember that if we love only those who already love us, then we are no better than the hate-filled Islamic terrorist.
With that said, Jesus’ command to love our enemies does not irrevocably commit Christians to a stance of passivism, in which we stand passively by and refuse to engage in active defense of ourselves and other innocent people.  Over the centuries, Christians have struggled with Jesus' command to love our enemies and the need to engage in military defense of ourselves, our homes, and our country from violent attacks.  Out of this reflection and dialogue, the Christian “Just War” tradition has emerged as a guide for faithful discipleship.  Essentially, the Just War tradition provides guidelines that enable Christians to determine whether they can support their nation in a war.  An example of Christian Just War criteria is provided below:
Six Just War Criteria
  1. Does the prosecutor of the war have legitimate authority?
  2. Is the cause just? 
  3. Is military action the last resort?  Have all peaceful alternatives been tried?
  4. Proportionality.  Does the anticipated good exceed the evil?
  5. Are there reasonable chances of success?
  6. War must be conducted according to internationally accepted rules of warfare?
While I will develop these six Just War criteria in more detail in my proclamation on Sunday, a quick perusal suggests that Christians could legitimately support military force to repel terrorist attacks and destroy the Islamic State, if all criteria were met.  However, Christians would not be able to support the wholesale killing of Muslim noncombatants, as many Americans have called for, because that would violate criterion 6 and potentially criterion 4, as well.
Come, join us this Sunday, January 3rd, as we explore one of the most pressing ethical issues facing Christians today.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.



[1] For information on the Westboro Baptist congregation in Topeka, Kansas, see the Wikipedia article,; as well as one of their websites, .
[2] Eugene Boring in “Matthew,” vol. VIII in The New Interpreter’s Bible, access on CD-ROM.