Monday, June 11, 2012

The Secret of Happiness, According to the Apostle Paul

I shared this "secret" with guests at the hotmeal program at Walteria United Methodist Church this past Saturday. Every second Saturday around 60-80 people--mostly homeless, or very low income folk--show up for food and fellowship at this small, but big-hearted church. I have been part of this fellowship for many years and have come to see this motley, good-hearted group as my spiritual family. When Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a party in which everyone is invited, but the rich are too busy to attend, I always think of Walteria's hotmeal feast--where the homeless gather along with middle class volunteers of all ages and religious backgrounds, and there is an outpouring of love and friendship along with good homemade cooking. This past Saturday I shared this reflection just prior to the "Day of Remembrance" service for Kathleen, my wife of blessed memory. Many of those present knew and loved Kathleen, who was the pastor of Walteria UMC for six years and ardently supported the hotmeal program. After I spoke, several people came up to me and said how moved they were. One man, who was drunk and something of a comic, told my wife Jill: "I was almost moved." That was quite a compliment, coming from this sardonic gentleman!

Today I’d like to share with you the secret of happiness, according to the Apostle Paul.  Paul considered himself a happy man, even though he decided to give up his privileged status as a Roman citizen and a Jewish religious leader to live like Jesus and like the poor and homeless. Paul willingly and even gladly suffered many hardships as he traveled about the Roman empire sharing the Gospel of Christ. He was beaten up, jailed, and even tortured. But he was always content. He told himself, and us, to rejoice in the Lord at all times and in all situations. He knew that God gives us what we need, and so this is what he said in his letter to the Philippians (not to be confused with the Filipinos: as a preacher did at the World Conference of Friends, where people of different nations gathered).

"Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. 7 Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus."

Paul goes on to say:

"I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. 13 For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength."

I love the idea of being content with whatever we are given—whether it’s a full stomach or an empty one.  But I know it isn’t easy. I often found myself tempted to complain about this or that—my computer isn’t working, or my electrical bill is too high. But then I think: At least, I have a computer and I have electricity.

I’m glad that all of you here full stomachs today, but we never know about tomorrow, do we? I had a rabbi friend who was always happy and I wondered about why, so I asked him. He paused and thought for  a moment and then said, “I guess I’m always content because I never know what I want until God gives us to me.”

My teacher and friend Gene Hoffman used to say: “Treat everything that happened to you as if it’s something you prayed for.”

Wow, treat everything that happens as if it’s something you prayed for. That’s pretty easy to do when you are sitting with friends having a nice meal. But what about when you’re hungry, when you’re sick?
Many of you know that my wife Kathleen died of cancer three years ago. Soon after she got the diagnosis of cancer, she had a dream in which she heard the phrase: “Treat everything that happens to you as if it’s something you prayed for.”

That was a hard saying when you have cancer! Who in their right mind would pray for cancer!

Yet we would pray to be closer to God, closer to our loved ones and to our friends. We would pray to know what love is really all about. And sometimes that’s what happens to you when you or your loved one has a life-threatening illness. You learn how precious life is, and what a miracle life and friendship are, and you feel God’s presence as you have never felt it before. This doesn’t happen to everyone. You have to be open to what God has given you, and to see the blessing in the hard times as well as the good times.

Kathleen and I went on a cancer journey that wasn’t easy, or painless, but it taught us many important lessons. Among other things, we learned the meaning of true love. When Kathleen had beautiful long hair, I loved her. When she had chemo and her hair fell out, I loved her even more. I have always appreciated friendship, but when I went on a cancer journey with Kathleen, I came to realize how incredibly important friendship is. To paraphrase the Beatles, I couldn’t have gotten by without the help of my friends. And I couldn’t have gotten by without my faith in God. It was God who showed me the blessing that comes with having one’s heart broken. After all, Jesus told us:

“Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek, the merciful, those who hunger and thirst after justice.”

The have-nots are blessed? It sounds crazy. Yet turn those beatitudes around and you’ll see Jesus had it right. Blessed are those who never mourn. If you never mourn, that means you’ve never really loved. Is that how you want to live your life? Blessed are the rich, the arrogant, the merciless and those who hunger for injustice.  I don’t think so. Anyone who lives a life of riches without mercy or justice cannot be truly happy.
Paul had it right. He had been privileged and he had been poor, and it was all good, as long as he was following in the footsteps of Jesus, as long as he was true to the Lord. I don’t just believe Paul’s words, I know them to be true from experience. And that’s why I can rejoice today as I remember my dear wife Kathleen of blessed memory and the song we used to sing every day during our cancer journey.

“This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Let’s sing this song together. [And sing it we did, with great gusto.]

Thank you, and remember that you are all invited to a special service honoring Kathleen at 1:00 PM. This service commemorates the third year since she passed away.  In the Greek orthodox traditions, widows and widowers make bread and have communion and then share their bread with the world. My new wife Jill and I made bread for this special occasion. We also have established a Kathleen Ross Fund to help the homeless and to support the Children’s Center here at Walteria UMC. I hope you’ll join us on this special occasion.


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