Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Way to Happiness (a sermon): or, The Genesis of a Mature Believer Artist

(This is the sermon I gave at Hope Chapel on New Year's, December 31, 2006. While not addressing artists explicitly, the sermon reflects a constant concern of mine as an arts pastor: the cultivation of a mature heart.

In the year and a half that remains of my time in Austin I feel that one of the best things I can be doing is to help artists to become strong in their inner life--healthy in mind, healthy in heart, healthy in spirit, healthy in life. I yearn for us to grow to become mature believer artists, or as I've put it elsewhere, theologically grounded, biblically literate, missionally alert, relationally healthy, and spiritually alive.

St. Augustine once said, "Love God and do whatever you want." I think what he was getting at here is that if our hearts are well--holy related and wholly receptive to Divine love--everything else will work itself out. Conversely, if our hearts are not well, then everything we put our hands to runs the risk of the anti-midas touch: instead of turning into gold (which, in the event, wasn't all that great a deal for King Midas) our life and work turn into a distracted and possibly self-destructive thing.

So I begin here what will become a project that will last the duration of my remaining time. The project is the construction of a wholistic image of a mature believer artist. By no means will the image be exhaustive. Hopefully, though, it will get us going in the right direction.

Today I begin at the beginning with the chief of virtues: humility. I'm copying here the text of the sermon in which I encouraged the congregation to practice the daily discipline of surrendering ourselves wholly to God. To surrender oneself in this way takes a great deal of courage and not a little humility, and we honestly can't make any decent progress without each other's help.

So may God give us grace to love well and to live well our life together. The sermon is a chunk of real estate but hopefully worth the trek.)

“THE WAY TO HAPPINESS”

“Please remember, we are dealing with the crucifixion of the will, not the obliteration of the will. Crucifixion always has resurrection tied to it. . . .In the crucifixion of the will we are enabled to let go of our tightfisted hold on life and follow our best prayers.” ~ Richard Foster, Prayer

The New Year’s holiday is, for many of us, a love-hate holiday. We love it because of the merry festivity, the colorful drinks, the cheesy hats, the boisterous laughter, the wild sense that an entire year has officially come to a close, and that magical, deliciously terrible anticipation of looking at our watches and seeing the numbers zero, double zero, double zero appear on the screen once again—and the number 2006 forever slip into the past, and along with it our own personal history, un-revisable, un-recoverable.

This is also the source of our great dis-ease with New Year’s. For we find ourselves in a time in between times where we stand on a very narrow pinnacle separating past and future, looking backwards, looking forwards, and barely able to hang on to the present moment.

Looking backwards we see a lot of things we regret: things we wished we’d done differently, mistakes we wish we could erase, sins rued and preferably forgotten. Looking forwards we see all the things that might be done and that we cannot control and this makes us afraid.

As Henri Nouwen puts it, the past and the future harass us: “the past with guilt, the future with worries.” So many things this past year “have happened in our lives about which we feel uneasy, regretful, angry, confused, or, at least, ambivalent.” We are plagued by a lot of oughts: I ought to have done this, I ought to have said or not said that, I wish, I wish, I wish.

And then so many things in our future in 2007 present us with what-ifs: what if I fall into a financial crisis, what if my father or mother dies, what if something terrible happens to my child, what if my work situation doesn’t improve, what if I lose a friend or am not rescued from this spiritual desert I find myself in?

Do you have regrets? Do you have your own fears? I know I do. We of course feel these things keenly because as human beings we, by nature, want to make the most of our lives; we want them to count for something. We want, as Willa Cather puts it, to be dissolved into something completely great—that blesses the world.

Do you know what the desire for these things is called? It is called the desire for happiness. Plato says that at the end of the day that is what all human beings want: to be happy, in body and soul, personally and communally. As his younger colleague Aristotle remarked in the 4th century BC, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

People all around you are searching for it. In the past week I’ve read a lot of end-of-the year magazines and found that they’re all offering the same thing: evidence of and proposals for a happy life. There’s AUSTIN’s “10 Cool Creatives” cover story. There’s the ATLANTIC MONTHLY’s “The 100 Most Influential Americans of all Time” cover. There’s the ROLLING STONE “Yearbook ‘06” review of all the best and worst and sordid in the music world of the blasted year gone by.

There’s TIME magazine’s Person of the Year, which excitingly and frightfully turns out to be YOU, as in you, me and all of us who use the internet. In one of their articles (many of which come with titles like “You Make It,” You Find it,” “Your Way”) they report on a Vietnamese-American gal by nick-name Tila Tequila who has 1.5 million MySpace friends. It’s a mind-boggling number, and I’m presuming that that is making her rather happy. Finally, there’s NEWSWEEK’s cover: “50 Ways to Improve Your Life in 2007,” improvements to make us immensely happier.

Jesus gave happiness another name. He called it the abundant life. “I’ve come to give you life and life abundant,” he says, or as Eugene Peterson renders it, “real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (John 10:10).

What would make you happiest in your life?

What would really make you the happiest? Think about it: a happy family life, the chance to do meaningful work, freedom from a personal demon, serving God wholeheartedly, good and lasting friends? As you look into this new year, what things would make you happy? What would you need to do to attain it?

I want to suggest to you this morning that in fact there is really only one thing, most fundamentally, most essentially, that you can do in order to attain the greatest happiness in your life and that is this: to totally surrender everything to God, all the time, every day, in all ways.

That is the surest way to happiness beyond your wildest dreams: the total surrender of everything in your life to God, no matter what, at all times, every day.

Jesus said as much:

“Unless a grain of wheat dies, it cannot bear fruit. . . . Unless you lose your life for me you cannot find it. . . . The SOM came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. . . . Unless the SOM dies, he cannot send the Spirit. . . . My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

St. Paul echoes this thought in Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

You can only find your best life by relinquishing it to God.

If you want to live, you need to die. This is a truth that ironically is universally recognized by Christians all throughout our 2000-year history while also forgotten more quickly and more easily than any other. Why? For one simple reason: we are afraid.

What am I afraid of? What are you afraid of? Perhaps you’re afraid that if you surrender yourself completely that you’ll lose something you really don’t want to lose: a person, a way of life, the work you do.

Perhaps you’re afraid because you simply don’t know what lies on the other side of total surrender. Or maybe you’re out of the habit of the discipline or maybe like Nouwen points out, a lot of us don’t want to give up total control because being in control “gives us a sense of power, it allows us to move quickly” and efficiently, and it offers us the satisfaction of getting credit for our successes. There are many reasons why we don’t practice complete surrender every day.

But be that as it may, I believe that one of the best things we could do at the threshold of a new year is to rehearse—to re-hear—what we know to be true and what we need to be true in the practical outworking of our faith.

I invite you now to listen to the following witnesses who stand here today to remind our minds, to encourage our hearts, and to strengthen our wills on our way towards that life that is truly life.

C. S. Lewis’ in Mere Christianity

“As long as we are thinking [as a natural man], one or the other of two results is likely to follow. Either we give up trying to be good, or else we become very unhappy indeed. For, make no mistake: if you are really going to try to meet all the demands made on the natural self, it will not have enough left over to live on. The more you obey your conscience, the more your conscience will demand of you. And your natural self, which is thus being starved and hampered and worried at every turn, will get angrier and angrier.

In the end, you will either give up trying to be good, or else become one of those people who, as they say, ‘live for others’ but always in a discontented, grumbling way—always wondering why the others do not notice it more and always making a martyr of yourself. And once you have become that, you will be a far greater pest to anyone who has to live with you than you would have been if you had remained frankly selfish.

The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says, ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”


And now hear it again in the words of Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510):

“Our self-will is so subtle and so deeply rooted within our own selves and defends itself with so many reasons, that when we try to fight against it, we manage to lose in the end. We end up doing our own will under many covers—of charity, of necessity, or of justice. . . . [But] You cannot defend yourself and I cannot defend myself. The thing we must do is renounce the care of ourselves unto God who can defend our true self. Only then can God do for us what we cannot do ourselves.”

And hear this truth again in Dallas Willard in The Spirit of the Disciplines:

“The cross-shaped yoke of Christ is after all an instrument of liberation and power to those who live in it with Him and learn the meekness and lowliness of heart that brings rest to the soul. . . . The correct perspective is to see following Christ not only as the necessity it is, but as the fulfillment of the highest human possibilities and as life on the highest plane.”

And again in Francois Fenelon (1651-1715):

“What folly to fear to be too entirely God’s! It is to fear to be too happy. It is to fear to love God’s will in all things. It is to fear to have too much courage in the crosses which are inevitable, too much comfort in God’s love, and too much detachment from the passions which make us miserable.”

And hear it again and finally in Richard Foster in his book, Prayer:

“Do you know what a great freedom this crucifixion of the will is? . . . . It means freedom from the self-sins: self-sufficiency, self-pity, self-absorption, self-abuse, self-aggrandizement, self-castigation, self-deception, self-exaltation, self-depreciation, self-indulgence, self-hatred, and a host of others just like them. It means freedom from the everlasting burden of always having to get our own way. It means freedom to care for others, to genuinely put their needs first, to give joyfully and freely.

Little by little we are changed by this daily crucifixion of the will. . . . New graces emerge: new ability to cast all our care upon God, new joy at the success of others, new hope in a God who is good.

Please remember, we are dealing with the crucifixion of the will, not the obliteration of the will. Crucifixion always has resurrection tied to it. . . . in the crucifixion of the will we are enabled to let go of our tightfisted hold on life and follow our best prayers.”


These are the voices of our friends cheering us on. These are our mothers and fathers craning their necks, leaning in their voices into the din of competing voices that drown our senses—the internet, our phones, our radios, TVs, movie screens, billboards, magazines, all of it messing with our heads, warping our hearing, pushing us into a state of amnesia where we forget the simple truth that it only those who surrender themselves fully to God who are happy.

So what do we do? How do we go about living this Christ-abundant life practically?

As each of you looks into the New Year there are three things I want to commend to you today and earnestly urge you to embrace. These three things are the way to happiness:

1) to surrender yourself fully to the Word of God, 2) to surrender yourself fully to the Spirit of God, and 3) to surrender yourself fully to the people of God.

First, I encourage you to surrender yourself fully to the Word of God. Psalm 19:7 says, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” Come then, brothers and sisters, under the protective authority of the Word. Let it be your light in the dark circumstances of your life. Let it be food for your hungry soul.

I think of reading the Word as something no different and no less important than brushing my teeth and washing my face and body and eating food and drinking liquids. These things I do every day. These things nourish me, keep me clean, keep me strong--for each day. So when Jesus says, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never become thirsty,” he means that in as literal a sense as we literally take our breakfast, lunch and dinner and trust them to sustain our daily health.

Additionally, the Word of God protects us from manifold evil. Psalm 119:11 says, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against thee.” Daily reading cleans out my mind of junk that accumulates unnoticed. It reinforces my heart when my emotions threaten to derail me. It nourishes my will with vigor for all the decisions I’ll be making.

I plead with you: make a commitment to read the Word of God daily. Please don’t allow your feelings or circumstances to rule you; let what you know to be good and true compel you to stick with the habit. Read it, eat it, meditate on it, memorize it, walk with it, let it keep you close to the wellspring of life.

Second, I encourage you to surrender yourself fully to the Spirit of God. Jesus has given you his Spirit in order to empower you to fulfill the Father’s call upon your life. As J. I. Packer reminds us, the Spirit reveals Jesus’ true identity to you, He unites you to Christ in regenerative co-resurrection, He assures you of your sonship or daughtership, He mediates fellowship with the Father and Son as a foretaste of heaven, He transforms you from glory to glory and energizes in you dependent, faith-full, self-sacrificing activity of love and good works in which Christian discipleship consists.

The 19th century poet Samuel Longfellow once wrote:

Holy Spirit, Power divine,
Fill and nerve this will of mine;
By thee may I strongly live,
Bravely bear and nobly strive.

In keeping in step with the Spirit, we keep in step with the Source of our very life.

What do we do practically? Practically I encourage you to take at least one moment every day, at least 10 minutes, to stop and listen to the Holy Spirit. Stop. Stop whatever you’re doing and pray:

“Holy Spirit, here I am. Here I am as I am. Help me to hear your voice. Speak, for I am wanting to listen, I really am. Shed abroad the love of God again in my heart. Let all that happens to me today become ‘bread to nourish me, soap to cleanse me, fire to purify me, [and] a chisel to carve heavenly features on me’ [Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Joy of Full Surrender]. Give me the grace today to say yes to the things I need to say yes to and no to the things I need to say no to and the wisdom to know which is which. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for hearing my prayers.”

Third, I encourage you to surrender yourself fully to the people of God. Proverbs 27:6 says something very strange and upsetting: “Wounds from a friend can be trusted but an enemy multiplies kisses.” Wounds from a friend can be trusted but an enemy multiplies kisses. It’s not the easiest thing to hear. The truth is, we desperately need such friends. The truth is, too few of us have this kind of friend.

This morning I want to invite you to something that would radically upgrade your experience of the Christian life. I want to invite you to find two people—two people to ask you the hard questions: about your character, your habits, the life you’re wanting to live out. I want you to give them permission—because that permission invests them with power—to hunt you down with the severe love of a true friend. Why?

Let me here speak for myself. Even when I’ve read my Scriptures for the day, even when I’ve paused to open myself up to the Holy Spirit, there are still hidden powers creeping around in the back alleys of my heart that pull and push me away from the will of God.

Asking a friend to love me in this way allows what is hidden to be exposed. It allows the subtle evil in my heart to be consumed in the light of God. It allows the quirks in my personality and behavior—and there are many—to become amended so that they don’t become an irritation but a blessing to the community.

I do have such a true friend. His name is Mike Akel. Mike calls me up once a week, unannounced, at times when I least want him to, and asks me a simple question: “David, how’s your heart.” He knows and I know and we both know what that means. It means, “David, how are you doing in the deepest places in your heart--where there is both great light and great darkness?”

It means, “David, you can be honest with me no matter what. You’re safe with me. You can tell me the good and the bad. I really will get excited if something good has happened to you. I really will feel sympathy if something bad has happened. If you are walking away from God in a secret place of your heart, please tell me. I’m you’re friend, David. I’m here for you. I want what is best for you and I’ll hunt you down to the ends of the earth if I have to. I love you. I really do.”

This is the kind of friend I want. This is the kind of friend I desperately need.

You yourself might choose your spouse, or a friend, or a pastor. And in asking for such a favor you’re not assuming they’ll say yes, you’re asking them to consider it prayerfully. But what you’re asking for is very practical—a phone call or an email—and it’ll happen best, I think, if it happens at least once a week.

The point is, in doing this you’re no longer leaving your life's transformation to convenience or chance or to fluctuating moods, but to the intentional, fiercely committed love of true friendship.

IN THE END
In the end, as we look back at the year gone by and look forward at the year that awaits us, with all our regrets and worries, our best way forward into a life that is deeply blessed and indeed deeply happy is by way of a total surrender to God. Surrender yourself, my dear friends, fully and daily to the Word of God, surrender yourself fully and daily to the Spirit of God, surrender yourself fully and daily to the people of God.

And remember, the goal here is greater freedom—greater freedom!—to live in the life of God and to walk in the ways of God. A life of total and daily surrender to the will of God is joy and rest, it is sweet freedom and the holy, honest-to-God power to accomplish all the things God has created and called you for, to his glory, and to the glory of his Church.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

IN RESPONSE
Is there anything you sense that you need to surrender, again perhaps, or anew: a person, stuff that you own/possess, a habit, a pattern of thinking, something in your life that acts as a distraction, a right you feel you need to have, a weakness you’re afraid to admit openly? I invite you to surrender yourself to God and to trust that He will meet you with grace to give yourself wholly to Him and to walk out your faithful obedience.

3 comments:

s. e. wedelich said...

i always love that foster quote, it's one of those that's infinitely applicable and always seems to get me right where it hurts.

i also thought of this wilco song "war on war"... pretty interesting lyrics and good tie to what you wrote about, plus wilco are just awesome.

karbogerl said...

Hi David,

as a desert dweller for the past two years I wanted to thank you for your recent words on this blog and what you shared with Holy Trinity. Starting 2007 with a lot of hope and desire to love God is due in major part to what you had to say. God bless you brother!

Kathy in NYC

Patrick said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You
Patrick