Thursday, February 25, 2016

"Healthy, Happy, and Wise"

            This Sunday, February 28th, I will conclude my seven-week sermon series on, “Would You Like to Be a Happier Person?”  The final proclamation in the series explores the relationship between physical health and authentic happiness. 

            This relationship between health and happiness has been one of the foci in the recent avalanche of research, investigating the core components for a happy and flourishing life.  This research suggests that physical exercise has a huge, positive effect on mood and well-being.  And, after reviewing 23 of the most rigorous studies on the relationship between exercise and depression, the Cochrane Review concluded that exercise has a “large clinical impact” on fighting depression.  While there is a strong consensus on the relationship between physical exercise and mental well-being, researchers are less certain about how to explain the reasons for this relationship.[i]  Still, the “take home message” seems clear enough:  Physical exercise and self-care contributes significantly to a happy and flourishing life.

            Although researchers have shown that living a healthy lifestyle contributes to our happiness, they have also discovered that persons who suffer from diseases, such as cancer, or other “life-altering disabilities,” often live lives that are “just as happy as those in good health.”  The only exceptions were individuals whose daily lives were disrupted by their conditions, such as patients suffering from severe chronic pain.[ii] 

            So, current research indicates that taking care of ourselves physically can significantly help us to enjoy lives characterized by authentic happiness and flourishing.  Yet for the most part, those who suffer from disease or life-altering disabilities are not precluded by those physical conditions from also achieving authentic happiness and flourishing.

            The parallels between this empirical research and Christian discipleship are very intriguing.  My message this Sunday will be grounded in two verses from the Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Christians in Corinth.  Paul writes:  “Or do you not know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?  For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”  (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20.)

            These two verses form the third in a series of three rhetorical questions, which Paul asks the Corinthians.  In these two verses, Paul affirms the goodness of our physical bodies, but he goes much further.  Through our faith, the physical bodies of Christians become a temple, or sanctuary, for the Holy Spirit.  As one Biblical interpreter writes, “The Holy Spirit resides in the believers in such a way that their bodies, their very selves, have been transformed into a shrine dedicated to God, who gave them the Holy Spirit and thereby constituted them a temple.”[iii] 

This transformation is possible because we do not own ourselves.  Instead, all that we are, and all that we have, belongs to God.  In verse 20, Paul uses a metaphor which would have been familiar to the Corinthians, living under the Roman Empire.  Alluding to the slave market in the Roman agora or forum, Paul tells the Corinthians that God has purchased them with great price.  Yet, in purchasing us, God also sets us free from our failures and sins, as well as setting us free from our dread and anxiety over the prospect of death.

Among contemporary, twenty-first century Christians, the concept of stewardship is readily appreciated and used in three important contexts.  First, there is stewardship of the environment.  As Christians, we are familiar with the importance of serving as stewards of God’s good Creation, tasked with the important responsibility of caring for the natural environment. 

Secondly, the term stewardship can refer to the special gifts, talents, and experiences that make us unique, one-of-a-kind persons.  God calls each of us to be good stewards of our unique skills and abilities, to do the work of the church and to help build God’s Kingdom, here on Earth.  For example, persons who are gifted with musical ability may use their abilities to sing in the Choir.

Thirdly, the term stewardship can be used to refer to our financial resources.  To be a good steward of our finances and other possessions means to use these resources wisely, including the financial support of our church’s ministries and operating expenses.

In this passage from his Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul suggests a fourth understanding of stewardship.  If our physical bodies are not really our own, but God’s—and, if God intends for our physical bodies to be, literally, a Sanctuary for God’s Presence—then we must be good stewards of our physical bodies, by taking good care of our physical bodies through:

Ø  Appropriate exercise and conditioning
Ø  Proper nutrition
Ø  Preventive healthcare
Ø  Appropriate sleep and rest
Ø  Avoiding addictive and compulsive behaviors

In short, everything required to maintain good physical health is not optional for Christians.  Instead, we are required to be good stewards of our physical bodies, which God has entrusted to us.

            In this series of sermons on happiness, we have seen again and again that the core components for authentic happiness are also core components for faithful Christian discipleship.  For instance, earlier in the series we explored how serving others is a critical component for happiness, just as it is for faithful discipleship.  Again this week, the pattern continues:  Just as physical self-care—or, stewardship of our physical bodies—is an important contributor to a happy and flourishing life, so also it is key for faithful discipleship. 

            To summarize this series, God calls Christians to faithful discipleship, and that in turn leads to happy and flourishing lives.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a regular church home, I invite you to join us this Sunday, as we conclude our reflections on happiness by examining what it means to be good stewards of our physical selves.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] The Pursuit of Happiness web-page, “Health and Wellness,”, accessed 14 October 2013.
[ii] Salynn Boyles, “Health and Happiness Are Not Always Linked,” WebMD,, accessed 5 August 2013.
[iii] The New Interpreter’s Bible.

Friday, February 19, 2016

"Is There a 'Green' Component to Happiness?"

            I should probably begin my blog this week with a confession. 
This Sunday, February 21st, I am focusing on “green” or environmental happiness, as part of my proclamation series on becoming happier persons.  Now, as I’ve previously noted, a great deal of empirical research has been done by psychologists and other social scientists over the past 12-15 years.  The results of this research has converged around seven common factors that seem to be essential for lasting and authentic happiness in human life.  These seven factors are:
1.      Personal Growth
2.      Positive attitudes; optimism; positivity
3.      Strong inter-personal relationships with family and friends

4.      Deep sense of Gratitude

5.      Investing in something larger than oneself

6.      Spiritual Health; strong sense of meaning
          7.      Serving others and making a difference in the world
For the most part, I have focused this series of proclamations around these seven, empirically-verified components of happiness.  Please note that “green happiness” are not part of the consensus list of core components. 
            So, why did “green happiness” not make the list of essential components?  Could it be that enjoying nature and working to care for the environment is not important for happiness? 
I don’t think so; I believe that having a healthy relationship with nature all around us is an essential ingredient for a life of flourishing and happiness.  Instead, I think this omission is primarily because psychologists and other researchers have not yet really studied the role that the environment plays in our happiness.  A significant exception might be Catherine O’Brien, an Associate Professor of Education at Cape Breton University in Canada.  Dr. O’Brien has developed a very interesting concept of “sustainable happiness.”  (See her website at: )  As psychologists, sociologists, and others continue their research into what give us happiness, I believe that more and more will begin adding a “green” component.
So, here’s my confession:  Even though it is not yet recognized as one of the essential components of a happy and flourishing life, I decided to include a sermon on “enjoying nature and working to care for it” as part of this sermon series on becoming happier persons. 
I decided to add it for a couple of reasons:
First, I believe God intended for there to be a “green” component to human happiness.  The scriptural text for this weekend is Genesis 2:4b-10, 15.  The Bible contains two distinct creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis.  Even though Biblical scholars tell us that this creation story in Genesis 2 is chronologically older, it is less familiar that the other creation story in which God creates the world in six days (see Genesis 1).  Instead, in this story, God “formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” (verse 7).  The name of this first person was Adam; his wife, Eve, was created a few verses later.
When God created Adam, God appears to have been so excited about this first human person that God immediately loved Adam.  God wanted to give Adam a gift, to show God’s love and excitement.  Think of it as God’s “baby shower” for Adam.  So God next created a gift for Adam.  Here’s how Genesis describes that gift in verse 8, “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.”  In the Genesis story, the Garden of Eden represents all of God’s good Creation.  In other words, God gave us all of Creation, but not to dominate and abuse as we like.  No. Instead, God created all of Creation in order for us to enjoy and to flourish.  God intended for the enjoyment of Creation to be one of the essential components of happiness.
A second reason for this particular sermon is my own practical experience.  Ever since I was a little boy, playing in my Grandfather’s woodland, I have found that time with nature is an essential component for my happiness.  For me, nature is a core ingredient for happiness.  This engagement with nature does not always have to be some rugged, “mountain-man” immersion into the wild—even though I enjoy those experiences, also.  By engagement with nature, I also mean spending time with pets, or caring for a house plant, or simply sitting by the window and drinking in the beauty of a winter’s snow storm.  All of these possibilities are avenues for including the enjoyment of Creation as an essential component of happiness.
So, this weekend, I am going to invite all of us to reflect on how “enjoying nature and working to care for it” contributes something important and unique to our genuine happiness and flourishing.  If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a regular church home, I invite you to join us this Sunday.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street.  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, February 12, 2016

"Happiness and Healthy Relationships"

            This Sunday, February 14th, we will continue our sermon series on happiness by exploring healthy relationships.  We know from the empirical studies conducted by psychologists and other researches that healthy relationships are a key component for true and lasting happiness.

            The scriptural foundation for our exploration of healthy relationships is 1 Corinthians 13, which Christians have nicknamed “the great love chapter.”  Among the many important insights on relationships is this observation in verse 4:  “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful of arrogant or rude.”  Many people are already familiar with this scripture because it is frequently read at weddings and it does offer very wise advice for newlyweds. 

Yet, when Paul wrote this chapter, he was not thinking specifically of marriage.  Instead, he was thinking of relationships between individuals in general.  So, the advice in 1 Corinthians 13 is pertinent for all sorts of different relationships, including our relationships with friends, parents, children, other family members, neighbors, significant others, etc.  This week, we will use the “great love chapter” as our guide toward understanding how to build healthy relationships that contribute to happiness.  Part of our exploration will include looking at the importance of maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships and being able to affirm ourselves as individuals who are profoundly loved by God.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a regular church home, I invite you to join us this Sunday, as we examine ways to nourish healthy relationships that lead to true and lasting happiness.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street.  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, February 5, 2016

"Helping Makes Us Happy"

            Remember the last time that you helped someone else?  Was it caring for a sick friend or helping a neighbor with yard work or volunteering for an organization or helping a stranger who was lost.  Almost all of us have helped someone or some deserving organization at some point in our lives.             

   Why do we do that?  Why do we help others?

            There are many reasons why we help others: 
Ø  We may feel obligated to help others out of a sense of debt or duty. 
Ø  We hope to gain recognition and impress our family, friends, peers, or boss. 
Ø  It looks good on our resume for admission to school or to get a new job.  
Ø  We volunteer because all of our friends are volunteering and the event looks like it would be fun to do together.
Many times, Christians help others for religious reasons: 

Ø  We want to show others how strong our faith is and how committed we are.
Ø  We feel a need to make up for sins and previous mistakes.
Ø  We want to earn “brownie points with God” in order to receive mercy and grace from God in the future.  (In other words, we want to bribe God by helping others and doing good works.)
Ø  We hope that helping others will convince God to prevent bad things from happening to us in the future.  (This is sort of like trying to buy an insurance policy with God.) 

This weekend at Christ United Methodist Church, I am continuing my sermon series on the question, “Would You Like to Be a Happier Person?”  And, I will be preaching on how helping others can lead to an authentic happiness.  My sermon will be based on the Book of James 2: 14-24, 26.  
In this passage, the biblical writer James claims that all of the reasons listed above for helping others are wrong.  For James, we do not help others because of what we hope to gain.  Rather, we help and serve others out of our faith in Jesus Christ.  That is, helping and serving others are the fruits of our Christian faith.  In essence, we can’t help but help because helping is who we are—and, what we do—as disciples of Christ.  Or, as James expresses it:  “For just as a human body without breathing is dead, so faith without words is also dead.” (v. 26~my paraphrase)   

Our help and service grows out of our Christian faith.  They are in response to God’s love already given to us.  Regardless of who we have been or what we have done, we know that God restores us to our true identity through our faith in Christ.  It is easy to forget the order of how God works.  Sometimes we think that we must help others in order for God to love us.  But, this approach puts the proverbial “cart before the horse.”  Instead, as followers of Christ, we help others because God has already loved us.

In this passage, James reminds us that despite our fractured brokenness, God is always ready to love and heal us.  When we are reconciled and restored, we help others in response to God’s love already bestowed upon us.  But, a parishioner once reminded me that it is very tempting to keep trying to put that cart in front of the horse, and try to earn God’s love.  Or, as she put it, “There is such a huge difference between intellectually hearing the Gospel and internalizing it in your heart and actions.” 

So, Christians help and serve others because it is in our faith-DNA—not in order to influence God or others.  Interestingly, researchers studying what creates authentic happiness have discovered something similar.  While we have known for some time that one of the keys to living a happy life is to help and serve others, newer studies have shown that if you only help and serve others in order to guarantee your happiness, then you probably won’t be happy.   

This is actually true of all the components that lead to happiness.  The more you try to be happy, the more elusive happiness becomes.  As the psychologist Todd B. Kashdan observes in an article, “In sum, the more you value happiness, try to be happy, organize your life around trying to become happy, the less happy you end up.”[i]  So, helping and serving others only makes us happy when we focus on giving to others, rather than focusing on whether we are happy.  Our happiness emerges as a by-product from serving others because—just as in Christian discipleship—serving others is in the DNA of the truly happy and flourishing person. 

If you live in Lincoln and do not have a regular church home, I invite you to join us this weekend, as we continue our exploration of becoming happier persons.  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.

[i] Todd B. Kashdan, “The Problem with Happiness,” the Huffington Post, posted online on 30 September 2010,, accessed 3 October 2013.