First Who Cares Talk: Finding hope when I feel blue
This talk was given at the Harvest Festival Service at St John’s Itchen Abbas at 10am on the 8th October 2017
Please do listen to the talk here – or a transcript follows:
Life can be really tough. Whether its our circumstances or how we feel about them, our lives can be blighted by unhappiness.
But it doesn’t have to be this way – it doesn’t have to be this way
As you know, during the Summer we carried out the Who Cares survey; knocking on doors asking people to answer a single question ‘what hurts the most?’. Amazingly over the half of the households in our parish took part! So we now have a very accurate view of what hurts the most in our communities.
This is the first of a series of talks to respond to our findings.
Today I am speaking about negative emotions: how we can find hope, when we feel blue.
And as many as 16% of us, do say that the thing that they find most difficult to handle in their lives is the unhappiness which can arise due to some perception about themselves or their situation; a perception which I would suspect is almost always false. An unhappiness which is unnecessary.
There are three particular themes which recurred over and over again in the responses to the survey:
Time – the unhappiness of the young parent – not enough time to do everything you know you should do.
Failure – the unhappiness of the middle aged – thinking that you are never going to succeed in doing what you had aimed to do.
Feebleness – the unhappiness of the old- the gloom of old age – falling to pieces unable to do what you could do before and feeling useless.
Happiness can seem elusive whatever age or stage we are at.
Part of the problem is that happiness is not something we can pursue directly. But it is the product of doing the right thing.
St Paul said in his letter to the Philippians: ’I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation..’
What is that secret? What can give us hope, when we feel blue?
In his short three year ministry, Jesus gave his most important talk on happiness. Its written in Chapter 5 of the gospel of St Matthew. It is known as the Sermon on the Mount. In this talk he gives pointers to those who will be ‘made happy by God’, that’s what the word ‘blessed’ means: ‘made happy by God’.
This sort of happiness is a fixed, lasting and permanent form of contentedness. Not the temporary, thin and vulnerable sort of happiness that we often settle for and we might get from a new car a new house a new job or a new anything…
Our lasting happiness; our lasting contentment; need not depend on our circumstances. It need not depend upon our circumstances now or upon what we have done or has happened in the past or upon what we fear may happen in the future.
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’ or ‘happy are the poor in spirit’ for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.
So who are the poor in spirit? Well, its people who feel inadequate, the broken. Jesus says ‘Blessed are the broken’. But why? Or How?
It seems like a paradox, like a riddle. Why are the broken, happy?
When we are feeling broken, when our feelings of unhappiness dominate, it is hard to see that this could possibly be a good thing. But Jesus implies that the broken, or the poor in spirit, are halfway to happiness.
It is this brokenness which qualifies us for the happiness, of being part of the Kingdom of heaven.
If we are on top, if everything is just fine, if we think we are marvellous then Jesus is not speaking to us. Instead, he is speaking to the broken, he is speaking to the unhappy whether young, middle aged or old. He is speaking to those of us who are just calling out for mercy in our lives.
Jesus is saying to the broken amongst us that God, the creator of the universe, the creator you and me. God loves YOU! You were born for a purpose and, if you will let him, he will work that purpose out in your lives whatever has happened in the past. And in doing so you will find that elusive happiness.
You see, the broken are at the front of the queue to the kingdom of heaven. The ushers have placed them at the threshold to the Kingdom of Heaven and the door is about to open…..
Then Jesus speaks again….but will the broken, will we, choose to cross the threshold into the kingdom of heaven into that place where we can find contentment despite our circumstances? Because if we want to cross that threshold we have to engage with God.
But what does Jesus say next?
He says: ‘Blessed are those who mourn. For they will be comforted’
‘Happy are the mourners..’
What on earth does this mean?
The greek word translated ‘mourn’ ‘pentheo’ actually means ‘grief or sorrow of heart expressed by tears’. So we can see that it is much broader in scope than just the terrible misery of bereavement. It encompasses all deep unhappiness.
But the paradox is still there: Jesus is effectively saying ‘happy are those who are unhappy’. But why would the unhappy, be happy?
One writer, RT Kendall, has an interesting take on this: that although God never sends us suffering, that suffering, that unhappiness can have two beneficial effects.
Kendall says to turn round our unhappiness we need to lean and we need to look.
Firstly, we need to lean.
If we see our unhappiness, as an opportunity to lean in on God we can dignify it and use it to draw closer to God, and to develop patience, perseverance, and steadfastness.
In this way, unhappiness can actually be a door, an opportunity, to an entirely different view of the world.
Last week, I went to a reception for Alumni of my old law firm, for the first time in two years. I met a colleague there, with whom I worked very closely, whom I have known, for some time, is a Christian. But there was a tangible difference about her. This time she was calmer, less stressed, even happier even though she was organising the reception that we were attending.
It was just obvious….
I asked her about this and she said: (which I have her permission to quote)
‘I have had the most terrible two years, with my close friend dying at only 42, plus the loss of another close person to me. I have wrestled with the question of why, and I have really had to lean on God during this time, more than any other and I have sought him more passionately. I could not have managed it without Him. His strength is made perfect in my weakness’
She had changed through her leaning on God, through her suffering, through her unhappiness. She was less stressed, less anxious, happier…
So, firstly, lean.
If we choose to cross the threshold into the Kingdom of Heaven, we can be blessed by leaning in on God during our unhappiness.
Secondly, unhappiness can be an opportunity to look at ourselves and to recognise our own sinfulness
You see sometimes. Not always…
Sometimes our suffering, our unhappiness, is actually caused by striving for things for ourselves ahead of, or instead of, God’s priorities for our lives, putting these other things that we want above everything else, making them little gods and worshipping them.
This is essentially what ‘sin’ means: it is really about giving priority to the wrong things: it’s about being rebellious to the way that God wants us to live our lives.
When Lucy and I were living in Tokyo, some of you know, we attended the Alpha Course at a church there. We were halfway through the course and took a holiday in the Philippines. The hotel was perfect (better than the brochure); the weather was perfect; the rooms were perfect; the food and staff were perfect and our children were happy and well behaved.
But Lucy and I were arguing, arguing….
If you had asked us in those days why we were unhappy we would have blamed something or someone else, not us.
But in that perfect place it dawned on both of us, separately, but at the same time, that the problem was actually us.
But on this amazing holiday we couldn’t blame our troubles on our circumstances, on my work, on the children, on our environment – we were effectively in paradise.
We had had an opportunity to look at ourselves in isolation from our circumstances but we found that we were imperfect in paradise.
It was then that we both realised that what we had been learning on the Alpha course about God’s perspective on so many of the troubles of the world: that they are caused by human sin caused by man putting what he thinks is important at the top of the tree – not what God thinks is important
It was only then, in this perfect place, where we realised that we were not perfect, that the penny dropped that the Christian assessment of the world was true and that our misery was effectively caused by our own faulty, our own sinful, priorities: it was essentially that we were not giving time to the most important things: to our marriage, to our family, to each other.
And so also we were staring potential failure in the face.
You see, feelings of failure can affect us in three ways:
firstly, either feeling that we have failed in achieving things which God doesn’t prioritise for our lives: the status symbols: the big house, the big car, the big bank balance…
or else, secondly, feeling that we have failed because we have succeeded in getting those things – the status symbols but realising that we have sacrificed other things to get there – our broken marriage, our estranged children, for example, realising in Robert Holden’s words in his book ‘Success Intelligence’ that we have ‘sacrificed what we most value’. I wrote about this in IVN this month.
or, thirdly, succeeding in getting all the status symbols and still finding that we feel empty….like Jim Carrie, the American movie star, who said ‘I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of, so that they can see that it is not the answer’
So how do we view our unhappiness?
Are we dignifying our unhappiness by leaning on God?
Are we looking at our sinfulness?
If so, then we who mourn, we who suffer, are blessed will be happy, even though we mourn.
Because if we lean on God in our suffering and if we look at and truly repent of our sinfulness, then our wants will change and we will want to become the person that God has always intended us to be….
Most of the rest of Jesus’ sayings, in the Sermon on the Mount, the pointers that God gives us to happiness, are about the character traits of the person that Jesus says that God blesses.
We cannot become that person that Jesus tells us God blesses just by our own efforts.
If left to ourselves, we would never achieve the changes we need to make but once we recognise our brokenness, once we accept our need to lean on God, once we look at our sinfulness and repent of it, the Holy Spirit himself comes to rest in us and helps us to change and gradually we do…we just do.
And in our old age we will have a sense, not of feebleness, not the gloom of old age but rather of striding towards the kingdom of heaven in which we will spend all eternity…with a sense of a race well run and in which we get a glimpse now of the rewards which lie ahead of us.
Perhaps becoming like Henry Venn, the founder of the Clapham Sect, responsible for the abolition of the slave trade, who on being told by a doctor that he had less than two weeks to live was so filled with joy about the prospect of going to be with Christ that he rallied and lived for a further three months!
In all this we will be blessed by the anointing of the Holy Spirit: which is the settled happiness the joy of knowing that, whatever we are doing, we are doing it together, in concert with, the one who made us; knowing that we are acting as he always intended us to do.