A life well-lived
On the 4th of July, for over 30 years, NPR broadcasts a reading of the Declaration of Independence. Arguably the most famous line in the document is the first line of the preamble: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
America is unabashed about the pursuit of happiness. It’s written right into the foundation of things, and we have not held back from that pursuit. It’s a high value in our culture. Ask a parent what they want for their kids and most will say we only want our kids to be happy – only, like that’s a basic prerequisite and everything else is harder, or bonus.
It hasn’t always been this way – for most of human history, happiness wasn’t something people went after – it would never occur to them that happiness was something you could pursue. You just lived your life, and if happiness came to you from time to time, you were glad, but it was not an expectation or a goal.
But we modern people spend our lives chasing happiness, and it seems to be always just out of our reach. Maybe we’re not pursuing it hard enough, or the right way, or perhaps it’s being hoarded by a few and we need to figure out how to pry it out of their hands and take it for ourselves.
We act like happiness a limited commodity, something that can be claimed, or given to those we care about, or taken away from us. We work really hard to prepare for future happiness, we save and plan and dream – always looking ahead, always anticipating how happy will be when…or if only… we do this so well that we often miss how happy we are until it’s passed, and then we look nostalgically back and pine for how happy we were when…
We’re jealous if others are happier than we are. We even sometimes rejoice in their suffering. Not the really terrible stuff, like death or sickness or anything, we’re not monsters after all. Just the little things, the petty jealousies and pedestrian comparisons that eat away at us one little bite at a time. If they’re happy and we aren’t, where did we go wrong? How did they get it right?
All this to say – the pursuit of happiness we’ve got down to a science.
That, we are pros at.
Happiness itself, though…
We have entered the 'Psummer of Psalms' around here. We’re spending the season immersed in this prayerbook of our faith. This Psalm begins the whole thing. It’s the start of this collection of prayers that have been prayed by everyone from Jesus Christ to St. Augustine to Martin Luther King Jr. to your own dear grandma.
And as prayers, they are not all the gentle ones we like to pin to our fridge. There are psalms for the whole range of human experience.
Angry? There’s a psalm for that!
Sad? There’s a psalm for that!
Feel like you’ve lost your faith completely? There’s a psalm for that!
Want to jump out of your skin with infectious joy and bottomless gratitude? There’s a psalm for that!
Being chased down by your enemies and your life is on the line? There’s a psalm for that!
Looking through a spiritual lens, Bruegemann describes three basic types of Psalms that come from and address the human experience. They are Psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of new orientation.
The first group – Psalms of Orientation, talk about the goodness of God’s law – which is God’s guidance and instruction, God’s direction for how life is to be lived, and God’s good creation. They celebrate the stability and trustworthiness of the highly functional world God has created. They are Psalms that remind us that God is good and has got it all in hand, and that we can trust God and live securely in this world God has ordered.
That’s lovely, but what about when everything falls apart and all you thought was trustworthy seems not to hold? There’s a psalm for that!
The Psalms of Disorientation rage and complain and grieve and vent and seek answers.
And then there’s the classic move of our death and resurrection God, who takes us from the ashes of the old and opens us to new life, freedom, and hope, with Psalms of new orientation. These are the prayers that accompany us when a new relationship to God, the world and ourselves begins to take shape.
We are spending a couple of weeks with each type of Psalm. And this week we begin with Psalms of orientation. It’s no mistake that the first Psalm in the whole book is one of these.
And it starts with the word Happy.
Not blessed – like some kind of favor of God, but happy. Contented. That warmth in your chest sense that you’re living a good life, that feeling of well-being that we’re always running after.
Here is what our Psalmist says, and I paraphrase:
Happy is the person who doesn't follow the advice of those who are out to harm others,
or take the path carved out by those only in it for themselves,
or get caught up in deriding, belittling and mocking others.
This person’s delight is in God’s guidance, and they ponder it all the time.
It makes them strong, and steady, and sure. It makes them thrive.
Evil intentions, selfish ambitions, insulting and despising others - it will all disappear like dust in the wind. That way of living can’t stand up to the light of truth.
There’s no place in the gathering of love for those who’ve chosen deception, egocentrism and contempt.
Those who’ve rejected their belonging to God and each other will not be there.
That whole way of life will perish.
But God is intimately connected to those who seek obedience to God’s way of love.
This way of Life lasts forever.
Happiness is not a goal to strive for. It is a description of a state of being. Like a tree by abundantly flowing streams, with all the sunlight and water it needs, not yanking up it’s roots and running off after treasures on a far off horizon, not trying out this spot, and this, or maybe over here will be better. Allowing yourself to be planted here. Tended to. Fed by unending nourishment that come up from the deep. Growing sturdy, deep roots, and wide, full branches. Flourishing.
The question isn’t What will make me happy?
But, What is a good life? What is my life for?
Jesus said it this way, "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete." (John 15:9-11)
We forget that about God. God’s commandments are to love God and each other. God’s instructions exist to give us the best and fullest life, the life we were made for, a life of joy. There is no better way to live than this. “O! The happiness,” the original Hebrew exclaims, “of the one who lives this way!”
I can feel it bubbling up, the skepticism, it feels too simple, maybe. But instead of criticizing it as a formula that fails people, or calling it something only secure and stable people can hang onto, I’d like to pause us here. And let this Psalm meet us. Let it draw us toward this trustworthy God. Let it open us toward each other. Let it make us curious about the way of God it speaks so highly of.
I promise we will get to the struggle psalms and the psalms for difficult times. And we will get to the ones that invite us into something deeper and rebuild our world after it’s fallen apart.
This first Psalm is giving us the foundation. The basics. The intro.
It says: There is a way of God, and we can live in it. When we do, we will be happy.
Last week we talked about times we’ve experienced God with or through this congregation.
We talked about recognizing God in the moments that shimmer, those experiences that, for a beat, remind us we are alive, or awake, connected. Sometimes it’s a heart wrenchingly sad moment, sometimes it’s exhilaratingly joyful. Maybe it’s a time we feel profound peace, or a quiet mind, or a painful realization of our own need for God, or an awakening to a deeper awareness. When we feel our connection to each other, when we feel our belonging to God, the universe, the greater story, those are experiences of God.
This Psalm invites us to cultivate in ourselves a readiness for that. Live like it’s possible. Meditate on God’s word. Listen to God’s instruction. Try to practice it. Pause before bed in gratitude; greet the day acknowledging God’s presence. Seek first the Kingdom of God. Abide in my love. Love one another. Know that if you keep turning your head and heart to this reality, you will get better and better at seeing it around you and feeling it within you.
My friends and I went for a long walk in the woods that ended on a steep hill. We huffed and puffed up the hill and one friend said, “I thought when I got in shape this wouldn’t happen anymore. Well, I’ve worked hard and gotten in shape, but here I am, still huffing and puffing.” The other friend replied, “Of course you lose your breath. It’s hard work. But you recover faster now.” And it was true. Within a minute of reaching the top she was breathing normally again. “Well look at that!” she said.
When we meditate on God’s ways, when we let God’s instructions to love God and one another shape us, and seek to practice it, it’s not that we wont mess up. It’s that we will recover faster. Like our bodies, our souls remember the true orientation. Like a compass swinging wildly and then settling back on true north, when we lose our way, we come back to it sooner.
Of course it’s hard. Of course we forget that we are connected to God and each other. Of course we act out of selfishness or meanness, jealousy or anxiety. We get caught in the delicious trap of skepticism and scorn that cuts us off from others. We hurt one another with our words and make self-centered choices. Of course we get distracted by the pursuit of personal happiness that makes our life slip through our fingers like tasteless dust.
Of course we do.
But we don’t sit there.
We don’t stay there.
We don’t walk in that way and make it our path.
We recognize it, and we recover. And our recovery gets faster the more we practice.
We reorient. We repent, we forgive, we show mercy, we receive grace.
We return to the good life we were made for. And deeper and deeper our roots grow, wider and wider our branches stretch, and O, the happiness!
The power in the Psalms of Orientation is that they can often become for us Psalms of New Orientation.
We may think at first glance that they’re basic. Maybe that they have nothing to say to us. But when we start to pray them they tug at our sleeve and say, Come back. Stop and listen. Let it in. Here’s where you begin again.
God is good. God is trustworthy. This is written into the foundation of things.
Regardless of our circumstances, we can always seek to live God’s way of love, or to reject it.
Regardless of our hand in life, we always have a choice to live cared for by our creator and caring for each other, or rejecting our creator and rejecting each other.
Happy are those who choose the way of God.
Their’s will be a life well-lived.