Sunday, June 24, 2012

If It Feels Good Do It (In Moderation of Course) (6/24/12)

If It Feels Good Do It (in moderation of course)
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
June 24, 2012

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.
Epicurus, Principle Doctrines 5

During the season of summer we honor the spiritual path of awe and wonder, the via positiva.   My sermons for this summer are about happiness.  What is happiness and how can we be happier?  It isn’t quite correct to tie particular emotions or feelings to a particular path, but if we had to do so, we might call this the happy path. Feel good. Celebrate. Enjoy life. Appreciate what is. Drink it up.

I want to suggest that happiness is found and is a result of traveling all four paths. If the via negativa, via creativa, and via transformativa don’t promise happiness why take them? But the via positiva seems like a natural place to start a discussion, maybe even a quest, about what happiness is and what we might do to be happier.

One of the sages we will encounter on this path is University of Virginia psychology professor, Jonathan Haidt (“Height”). In preparing for this sermon, I read his book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. I will be coming back to him quite a bit in these series of sermons. Dr. Haidt takes ten ideas from ancient philosophy and religion in regards to happiness and evaluates these ideas in regards to what we are learning from modern psychology.

It is a great read. I learned a lot and after reading it, I actually feel happier. For the most part, I am a happy person. I can get down. I have gone through periods of depression. I battle addictions, struggle with anxiety, and tend to give in to habits that make me less happy than more happy, but overall, I am a happy person. I am happier now than at any other time in my life.

After reading The Happiness Hypothesis, I realized that happiness is combination of many things and there are some things that we can do to increase our happiness. I learned that happiness is given to us by our genes, not so much a set point but a set range. There are, however, some things that we can do that can expand that range and that can help us stay in the top end of that happiness range. I will be talking more about that. I liked learning that in the book. There are some things I can do and that I can help others do to increase happiness, including preaching a series of sermons on happiness. That made me happy.

I also realized that happiness is a worthwhile goal. I have a couple of messages in my head. They want to downplay happiness. One probably comes from my religious background although I am not sure. I think I had a happy church life as a child, but somewhere along the line I got the message that if you are happy you are being selfish. What about suffering, climate change, human rights abuses and all of that? Amidst all the suffering in the world what gives you the right to be happy? Jesus wasn’t happy. The Lord wants you to suffer so take up the cross and be miserable like he was.

The other message is that happiness is for simple people. Serious intellectuals dress in black, are filled with existential angst, read the French deconstructionists, and write dark poetry. Happiness is for yokels and stand up comics. I should say, that many stand up comics, the really funny ones, are well-acquainted with adversity. That is why they are funny. They have reframed adversity through humor and come out on the other side.

I am not exactly sure what to make of those messages that haunt my psyche. I think that they might need some unraveling in therapy. : )  My initial thought to that is that happiness is connected in a major way to purposefulness. We are going to talk about that in this series of sermons as well. We may not think of it as happiness or call it happiness, but if your strength is to consciously engage the dark side of life as vocation or avocation, that might amount to the same thing.  My hunch is that Mother Theresa and maybe even Kurt Vonnegut were for the most part, happy. 

I want to talk today about pleasure, particularly, the happiness that comes from pleasure. Before I go there, I want to talk about the happiness equation. Math makes me happy. I am happy that Jonathan Haidt put happiness in equation form. This is the equation:

H = S + C + V

H = Happiness we experience

S = Biological set point

C = Conditions of life

V = Voluntary activities

Happiness comes from our genes. We know this by people who we think should be happy. They can even win the lottery, yet after the initial euphoria, they generally go back to the happiness point before the windfall. Similarly, a person may suffer a financial set back or accident and after adjustment, even though the set back or accident changed that part of her life completely, she will go back to her initial happiness set point before the set back or accident.

Psychologists now think it is more of a set range than a point. We are destined by our genes for a certain level of happiness. It is possible to change the internal setting. Haidt mentions three things that can do that, meditation, Prozac, and cognitive therapy. I will talk more about that as well later in this series. 

We can also bump up that set point or put ourselves in the high end of the range by C and V, the conditions of life and by certain voluntary activities. Haidt writes:
The level of happiness (H) that you actually experience is determined by your biological set point (S) plus the conditions of your life (C) plus the voluntary activities (V) you do. p. 91

The Buddha was all about voluntary activities, for example the eightfold path that included meditation and mindfulness. He didn’t seem to think conditions of life mattered at all. He could get in the zone. Not everyone is the Buddha and there are some things that we can change about our external circumstances that can help regarding happiness.

These include
  1. decreasing the level of noise, especially noise that is variable and intermittent. 
  2. Also, reducing your commuting time. 
  3. Increasing the amount of control over your life and your choices will increase your happiness. 
  4. Increasing your approval of your body image.  This doesn’t have to do with attractiveness but it has to do with shame. Decreasing the level of shame about your body will lead to more happiness. Haidt says that “improvements in a person’s appearance do lead to lasting increases in happiness.” P. 93 
  5. The big one is the strength and the number of good relationships.  

In other words, externals do matter. That is the C in the equation.

H = S + C + V.

What is the V?

Voluntary activities. Not all activities make a person happy. Haidt writes that
“Chasing after wealth and prestige usually backfire. People who report the greatest interest in attaining money, fame, or beauty are consistently found to be less happy, and even less healthy, than those who pursue less materialistic goals.” P. 95

Many of us will just have to take that on faith. Or we can read the sordid tales of the unhappy lives of celebrities in the grocery aisle. We think they have everything. Why can’t they get their lives together? But ancient wisdom and modern science seem to tell us that fame, wealth, achievement, and beauty lasts for a little while, then it’s back to set point.

This is the ancient wisdom from Ecclesiastes. In that marvelous chapter two, the speaker who has everything, achieves everything, enjoys all the pleasures of life, and says,
“Then I considered all that my hands and done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind…”

He is back to set point.

But, there are activities, voluntary activities, the V in the equation, that can increase our level of happiness on an ongoing basis. One is physical or bodily pleasure. This is why when humans gather together they eat. Heidt writes:
“At meal times, people report the highest levels of happiness on average. People really enjoy eating, especially in the company of others…” p. 95

In addition to pleasure that consists of food, sex, backrubs, and cool breezes, there are also gratifications. Haidt writes:
“Gratifications are activities that engage you fully, draw on your strengths, and allow you to lose self-consciousness.” P. 96

The idea is to arrange your day and your environment to increase both pleasures and gratifications. Appreciate the sunset and lose yourself in a meaningful activity that uses your strengths. That is the V.

Now there is a tendency to overdue on the pleasure. If eating a Whopper makes me happy supersizing it will make me super happy.   Right?  That is actually not true. Pleasures must be spaced and as your grandmother told you, in moderation, to retain their potency to increase happiness.

Pleasures are not in themselves lasting. That is why they can tend to be disparaged.  Pleasures can be addictive and insistent, calling us back and away from activities that might help us in the long run.

Addiction in part comes from “if it feels good do it” again and again and again. Haidt writes:
Because the elephant has a tendency to over indulge, the rider needs to encourage it to get up and move on to another activity. P. 96

What is the elephant? A metaphor he uses for the mind is a rider on an elephant. The rider is our consciousness and reason. The elephant is the unconscious, the feelings, desires, instincts that are our evolutionary heritage. They are the forces that move and motivate us. The trick is to find ways to train the elephant. More on that to come as well.

The simple point I want to make today in addition to whetting your appetite for this series of sermons on happiness is to suggest that
  1. happiness comes from both within and without. 
  2. Happiness is a result primarily from biology. 
  3. But we can tinker with that if necessary through meditation, Prozac, and cognitive therapy,
  4. and we can add to happiness by adjusting some of our external conditions and 
  5. by consciously engaging in voluntary activities that both increase gratifications through using our strengths and 
  6. by enjoying the pleasures of life in a way that honors them, by neither indulging or detaching.

Those voluntary activities also include experiencing the pleasures of life. You won’t get lasting happiness as Solomon told us, but when we are mindful about them, they make life tasty.

It is not bad to feel good.

Or if it feels good, do it, in moderation of course.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Prayer and the Powers (6/17/12)

Prayer and the Powers
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 17, 2012

The apostles said to the Master, “Make our trust grow!”

And the Master said, “If you had trust no bigger than a mustard seed, you could tell this mulberry tree, ‘Uproot yourself and plant yourself in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Luke 17:5-6

Prayer is rattling God’s cage and waking God up and setting God free and giving this famished God water and this starved God food and cutting the ropes off God’s hands and the manacles off God’s feet and washing the caked sweat from God’s eyes and then watching God swell with life and vitality and energy and following God wherever God goes. . . .
Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, p. 303

Last night on CNN I watched a segment about belief in God. The host was interviewing people about a recent survey that said more and more young people are doubting the existence of God. The people being interviewed thought that was a pretty good thing seeing this survey as an indication that reason would eventually eclipse superstition. One of the guests implied that it is time to give up on outdated belief systems, magical thinking, and supernaturalism.

The reasons offered for this shift were many and varied. The culture wars, science, boring church services. In particular, the internet was acknowledged as having a role. The worldwide web makes available information at the touch of a finger as well as social networks of other doubters and skeptics. More and more people under 30 are calling themselves atheists or skeptics.

These surveys poke at our emotions. I can imagine different reactions from among you. People tend to think this is either good news or bad news. Others will dismiss it as youthful rebellion, reasoning that once these young people face existential angst, danger, or suffering, they will believe in God.

The announcer tried to extrapolate by saying that if these trends continue in 50 years belief in God will be a view held by a small minority. I thought about the 1960s and the theologians who announced the death of God and others who wrote that we were on the verge of creating a secular city. They seemed to predict God’s demise prematurely. Yet maybe this time God really is fading away.

What I wanted to explore further as I watched the show was what “belief in God” means. The announcer and the guests seemed to want to suggest that there are two types of people,
  1. those who are religious and 
  2. those who don’t believe in supernatural beings.

I kept wanting to suggest to the folks on my television screen that there might be a third type.  These are people who would agree intellectually with the atheists that there probably is not a supernatural being who exists outside of the natural world and comes to mess with it on occasion. Yet these people would also say that they have a heart for transcendent experiences such as awe, wonder, creativity, compassion and that church and God language is part of that. I think I want more definition regarding the phrase “belief in God” before I side with one camp or the other. I want some more options.

I find myself interested not so much in what God is but in what God does. What does God do exactly?

Bishop John Shelby Spong said that Copernicus and Galileo rendered God homeless. When they discovered that Earth was not the center of the universe but was like the other heavenly bodies, the planets, that moved around the sun, they messed up the medieval system of heaven “up there” where God lived.  Heaven became Earth and Earth heaven. In a few centuries along comes Darwin with his theory of natural selection. Humans are more like apes than the angels. Darwin and later the astronomers rendered God jobless. There was nothing in nature for God to do. The universe works without him.

I slightly object. I agree with Bishop Spong that this conception of God has lost out to reason and to science. Yet that isn’t the God who ignites my heart anyway. That God was an explanation for things for which we now have better explanations. Further we may not need the stories of the gods or of the god of our tradition to be literal or real. Our conception of God is changing. But that doesn’t mean that God is gone or has nothing to do.

In fact, I think, or perhaps I have faith, that the most interesting thing that God does and has always done is not to sit up in his home above the clouds and throw down balls of fire on sinners. The most interesting thing that God does is give us a sense of meaning, belonging, and vitality.

I do not insist. I have no need to defend God or my concept of God. As we know, some folks are quite evangelistic about their god. They need you to believe. I don’t intend to be one of those people. BYOG. Bring Your Own God…or none. It wouldn’t break my heart if someone explained my blather about God as a misunderstood psychological quirk or a biological brain burp.

I do think that humans have a capability to experience transcendence, that feeling of being more than who they are normally. That feeling can enable them to engage in acts of love, compassion, heroism, awe, creativity, and beauty. They can discover and offer forgiveness, find a sense of belonging and happiness, and feel at home in their own skin. That is religion for me and God is my shorthand way of expressing that action.

I said earlier that I don’t really care much about what God is, but I do care about what God does. That is what God does for me. God wakes me up. It is also true, that I wake God up. That is done in the religious setting in the experience of worship that is ultimately prayer. One of my favorite quotes is from Walter Wink, the theologian who died earlier this year and who inspired this series of sermons this Spring on the Powers. Wink writes:
Prayer is rattling God’s cage and waking God up and setting God free and giving this famished God water and this starved God food and cutting the ropes off God’s hands and the manacles off God’s feet and washing the caked sweat from God’s eyes and then watching God swell with life and vitality and energy and following God wherever God goes. . . .

That is a provocative paragraph. It messes with our aesthetic of theological correctness. There is something improper about waking God up, isn’t there? Yet this image is as old as the Bible. The Psalmist yells at God:
“Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?” Psalm 44

This isn’t a polite prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep….” This prayer is a call from the depths. It is a demand. It is a call to action. It is banging the pots and pans.

The rest of that particular psalm, Psalm 44, continues:
23 Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not cast us off for ever!
24 Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25 For we sink down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
26 Rise up, come to our help.
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

You can appreciate and use that prayer even if you don’t believe in a literal being out there who hears it. What you are awakening is your own vitality. You are rousing your own strength that is also transcendent. You are finding your voice, tapping into that well-spring of energy and creativity you didn’t know you had, calling to that courage that you thought had been lost. In the words of poet, Ntozake Shange,
I found God in myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.

Again, I don’t insist. If God is more other, more literal or more real than what I have suggested, I don’t object. I would say that prayer is real. The reality is the passion and the openness to possibility. It is the faith that uproots and plants mulberry trees into the sea. It washes the caked sweat from God’s eyes. It makes your logical and reasoned mind connect with what really motivates you, that is your largely unconscious emotional brain and body. When worship is done in community and prayer is done with others, it can lead to feelings of love and compassion.

Most of what we think we want and what we do is not based on logic or reason. We use logic and reason to rationalize what our emotions and sense of aesthetics want and do.  Meditation and worship--or prayer--gives language to our feelings. It helps us bring to consciousness what has been unconscious. It helps us be aware of what is going on. Or to put it another way, we are waking God up while God wakes us up.

This sermon series has been about the powers that be. These forces dehumanize. I am not going to go into that anymore today except to say when the powers that be get you down, and they will, what are you going to do? How are you going to keep your sanity, your humor, your happiness and your hopefulness? Where will you find your strength and your perspective?

Wink’s response is to rattle God’s cage and wake God up. How? Lots of ways, but one I’ll offer:
Go to church. 
It isn’t totally outdated, oppressive, and hypocritical. It isn’t all about being forced to believe in dogmas or other impossible things. It can be if you want it to be, but it can also be a place that is like a deep well where you can utilize the wisdom, ritual, and practice that goes back thousands of years and touches the heart and the unconscious. Couple all of that with modern ways of knowing and we can probably wake that God up and get some stuff done.

Or maybe we need a break from doing too much stuff and need to be still, draw from the well, and fill up our tank. In that case, we allow God to embrace us, smile upon us, call us his or her own. We may not even know what we need. The most important and interesting things often take us by surprise. Then we can follow God wherever God goes. That is especially important in a world where the powers that be are rough and ruthless.

I started this sermon with the survey that said that young people are doubting God’s existence in larger and larger numbers. I think we should pay attention to that and ask what that means. We don’t necessarily need to judge it, fight it, or celebrate it. I do think it is an opportunity to talk about what we mean when we use the word God. But more than that, we have is an opportunity what it means to be human and to find happiness and a sense of purpose and meaning within life.

That is the focus of my next series of sermons as we begin summer and spiral both backward and forward to the spiritual path of awe and wonder.