Happiness and Happenstance

New Year’s Sunday / January 1, 2012 /Norman B. Bendroth

Have you ever thought how much can happen in a second? When you say, “Happy New Year!” you’re saying a remarkable thing. It only takes a second for your life to be totally changed or totally ended. In a year full of seconds, anything can happen at any second. If we’re going to talk about having a hap­py New Year, there are some things to bear in mind.

We’re not always sure what happiness is. For a lot of peo­ple, happiness depends on their happenings. If their happenings don’t happen to happen the way they happen to want their hap­pen­ings to happen, they’re unhappy!

Stuart Briscoe, pastor emeritus of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, WI, points out that some people spend their time organizing their happenings to make sure everything happens the way they want it to hap­pen. The assumption is this: if they can make everything happen the way they want their happenings to happen, they’ll be happy.  There are two problems with that: you can’t do it, and even if you could, you’d probably be bored. Alexander the great got ev­ery­thing happening his way. He conquered everything and then sat down to cry, because he was so young and there was noth­ing else to conquer.

The Greeks had a word for happiness: makarios. This word de­scribes what they perceived as the experience of the gods. The Greeks had a pantheon of gods, and the gods were sort of hu­man beings writ large. They had all the failings of human be­ings and all the strengths. The way the Greeks figured it, the gods had it made. The word makarios eventually found its way in­to the New Testament, and is translated “blessed” or “happy.”

Jesus picked up on this word, and said some stuff that was ab­solutely preposterous. Listen to this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Bles­sed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Bles­sed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Bles­sed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are per­se­cu­ted because of righteousness.”

Jesus is saying that happiness, or fulfillment, or makarios–hav­ing everything coming up roses–can come from not having ev­erything go right. It can come through being poor, through mourning, through hungering, through thirsting. It can come through being persecuted for doing the right thing. That’s exactly the opposite of what we think is the road to happiness. You can be happy in spite of your circumstances.  It’s a choice.

So, happy New Year! But remember two things. Define hap­pi­ness correctly. Happiness is not just getting all your hap­pen­ings to happen the way you happen to want your happenings to hap­pen.  Secondly, make certain that as you’re thinking through all the possibilities of this New Year, you realize that you may not always be able to control them. With that in mind, let’s turn to our passage from Ecclesiastes:

There’s a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die…a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them…

In the Hebrew, this is poetry. Translators picked up on this rep­etition of the word time. There’s a rhythm to it that’s not ac­ci­d­ental. It gives the reader a feeling of time going on relent­less­ly. The poet says there is a year full of seconds stretching ahead of us. When we being to think of being happy in this com­ing New Year, we’ve got to deal with two things: this year will be full of inevitable and irresistible events.

One of the great myths about humanity is that we are in charge, at least in an absolute sense. I can prove it to you very simp­ly. The second verse of this passage says, “There’s a time to be born and a time to die.” Those are the two biggest events of your experience, and both of them, at least the former, are to­tal­ly outside of our control. We have some relative control ov­er our death by the way we take care of ourselves and the risks we take. Ultimately, we are not masters of our own des­tiny; rather we are stewards of it. You were initiated by birth, and you had nothing to do with it. You’ll be terminated by death, and probably you’ll have little to do with it. In between in­i­ti­a­tion and termination is perpetuation, and there’s little you can do about that either–again in an absolute sense.

Every single moment I am perpetuated because God con­tin­ues to graciously give me life.  There’s a wonderful line in scrip­ture that describes our life in God, “In whose hand is your breath.” All life’s experiences are inevitable and irresistible, coming one sec­ond at a time. You are caught in the middle. Let’s look at one or two of these ideas in scripture.

Scripture says there’s a time to be born, a time to die. In v. 3 there’s mentioned a time to kill and a time to heal. You have this monotonous regularity of life, but you’ve also got these an­om­alies in life. Birth and death couldn’t be further apart, yet they’re part and parcel of life. Killing and healing couldn’t be fur­ther apart, yet they’re part and parcel of life. That’s life.  It is full of extremes. As Frank Sinatra put it, “Ridin’ high in April; shot down in May.”

Then there’s a time to weep and a time to laugh. The scripture tells us that God has given us all things richly to enjoy. God wants us to be a celebrating people. “Rejoice in the Lord al­ways,” we’re told. People who’ve got the idea that God is a spoil­sport have done a nasty disservice to God. Yet, there are things so wrong about us and the world that the honorable and noble thing to do is to weep.  The video of a woman abused, assaulted and beaten by Egyptian military officers in Tahrir Square on the second day of Ramadan should make us weep. The slaughter of demonstrators in Syria should make us weep. The conscription of child soldiers in Myanmar, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Chad, Somalia and around the world should make us weep. We need to know when to cel­e­brate and when to weep. Sometimes the things that make you laugh or cry are outside of you. They will come re­lent­lessly, and you’ll never know to which extreme they’ll carry you.  Hap­py New Year!

It only takes a second for irresistible, inevitable cir­cum­stan­ces to occur. When I was 12 years old, one second I was stand­ing on a scaffolding helping my uncle and father put al­um­inum edging on the roof. The next second, we were all on the ground, my father, then 42, paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. You can’t resist gravity. Wood will in­evit­ab­ly crack if there’s too much weight on it. If we’re always trying to manipulate and outwit these irresistible, inevitable cir­cum­stan­­ces, if our happiness depends on our happenings happening the way we happen to want them to happen, we have our work cut out for us.  How on earth are we going to make sure that we never mourn and always dance? How can we make sure we al­ways laugh but never weep?

In vs. 9 and 10 of Ecclesiastes 3, we read, “What does the work­er gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on humanity.” Now the writer has a very keen eye for what’s go­ing on, and he has a very deep faith. He’s a fascinating fellow, be­cause he keeps this sort of jaundiced, skeptical view of life and marries it to a deep faith in God. That’s a healthy com­bin­a­tion. As he does this, he says, “I have looked at the way people are living, and I’ve looked at the way I’ve lived my life.  There’s a whole lot of inevitable, irresistible things happening there, and this is really burdensome to humanity.”

What’s the nature of the burden? There are things we can­not regulate, and things from which we cannot escape. You say, “Why would God put that burden upon us?” it is my conviction that struggle is part of the very nature of God. God wrestles with us and the powers that be, because there is a real story, a real history going on. Our choices, actions, hopes and dreams mat­ter. That is the joy and the cost of freedom. We move and God makes countermoves.

One of my favorite theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr, de­scribes us as “standing at the juncture of nature and spirit.” be­cause we are earthbound creatures, we experience finitude and pain. Things break. We get hungry. We get sick. Rivers over­run their banks. But we are also made in the image of God. We are “self-transcendent,” as Niebuhr puts it. Of all creatures on God’s green earth, human beings are the only ones who can stand above their situation and analyze it. God allows the cir­cum­stances of life to help us recognize there is something great­er and grander and richer about life. That burden is upon us to make us aware of the transcendent.

In this passage we’re told what that is.  V. 14 says, “I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be add­ed to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so people will re­vere him.” When people recognize the frailty of their hu­man­i­ty and the limitations of their own ingenuity, when men and wom­en recognize they cannot regulate or escape the irresis­ti­ble, inevitable factors of life, God is waiting. God says, “Hey, look this way for a minute. How about me? How about rec­og­niz­ing that if there’s any sense, if there’s any rhyme, if there’s any rea­son to life, it’s because there is a transcendent God who is work­ing in these circumstances so that the greater good might be realized.”

If nothing transcends the circumstances of life, if this life is all we’ve got, and if we can only find happiness in manip­u­lat­ing and escaping the irresistible, inevitable events that only take a second to come into our lives, we’ll wear ourselves out. The reason for the burden is that we might learn to look be­yond ourselves and revere God.

God has done two other things. V.11 says, “He has made ev­er­ything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of mortals; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from the beginning to end.” When I begin to recognize that God can work in and through and despite all the irresistible, in­ev­it­a­ble things of life, there’s a possibility of a deeply rooted sense of well-being, far removed from a superficial happiness that comes from getting your happenings to happen the way you want your happenings to happen. That’s futile. But if I can learn to revere God and begin to recognize that God can bring a beauty into all the circumstances of life, there’s hope for a hap­py New Year.

We’re told that God has set eternity in people’s hearts. This is a remarkable statement. C.S. Lewis wrote that humankind, in every part of the world, has a sense of the numinous. The num­inous is that something indefinable that gives people a sense of awe. Whatever tribal group you find, that people will have a sense of something bigger and greater than themselves. Some people may live fifty or sixty years and never sense it. But soon­er or later something happens, and in a second they’re awe­struck.  That is eternity set in our hearts. It makes us rest­less for the transcendent God. It makes us look at the world and ask why aren’t things different than they are?

When I wish you a happy New Year, this is what I mean: I trust the New Year will give you the opportunity to recognize the transcendent One who has given you a sense of awe and mor­ality. God has given you a sense of something bigger and gran­d­er and greater than yourself. God won’t allow you to es­cape them or regulate them. You can begin to recognize your own finitude compared with God’s eternity. You will recognize your own limitations and see God as limitless. As you learn to re­vere God, you take what comes because, first, you don’t have much choice in the matter, and, second, you can know that your times are in God’s good and strong hands.

If this sounds a little cold and callous, let me remind you of one thing: God laid aside the divine glory, stepped down from heav­en’s throne and assumed our humanity. God lived with our pain and circumstances and learned to laugh and mourn, weep and dance. God shared our life. God is not remote and un­touched. Our God is a God who loves us so much that this God comes alongside and says, “I understand, I care, and I know. Trust me. Revere me and discover in me real joy.” Those are a few of the in­gredients of a Happy New year as I understand them from scrip­ture.  Happy New Year!

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