The Miracle of a Happy Church

Okay, I know. I realize that times are stressful for many people, and that as a result, many are “snapping.”

Even still, the headline captured my attention: “If you are looking for the ‘happiest’ country on earth, don’t look to the USA.” According to the Happy Planet Index, the U.S. rated as the 105th happiest nation.

Come on, wait a minute! Maybe 25th or 18th? Fine. But 105th out of the 151 countries rated?

Especially since the HPI rated muy simpatica Costa Rica #1, followed by Vietnam as the 2nd happiest nation (?), then Columbia (must be the drug profits), and Belize (great for scuba diving).

Granted, I may have a nationalistic bias, but hey: China came in as the 60th happiest country!

The website claims to measure what matters: the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives for the people that live in them. “The Index uses global data on life expectancy, experienced well-being, and the Ecological Footprint to calculate this.”

Ah, that answers it. The blatant bias and inaccuracy of the article and organization results from their interpretation of the “ecological footprint” and resource consumption. So, it was a report with an ecological, climate-based partiality that slammed the U.S.A.

It did provoke me, however, to read other reports on the “world happiness scale.” It is human nature to look for greener pastures, to wish for better circumstances with more affluence, and an overall greater sense of well-being. I just didn’t know how this was being measured and quantified by a number of groups and surveys.

We think, If only I had a better job, a nicer house, a newer car… I would be happy.

Given those desires, people in the U.S. should be among the happiest people on God’s earth. We enjoy greater wealth per capita than most countries; not to mention opportunities for education, medical care, home ownership, food availability, and freedoms. Even so, the best ranking I could find for the U.S. on the worldwide happiness scale was 33rd.

You can argue from these statistics that having more does not automatically translate into greater happiness – but to be fair, neither does having less.

The truest measure seemed to be the one that ranked Iraq as the most unhappy place to live, with Iran right behind. That makes sense, given that the article stated that six Iranian citizens have been locked up by Iranian authorities for the crime of dancing.

The individuals, who made a video of themselves dancing to Pharrell Williams’s hit song “Happy,” were charged with violating Iran’s code of moral conduct. The Iranian government reported that all six Iranians have now “confessed to their criminal acts.”

I’m sure a very fair trial elicited the response that, yes, they were too happy!

In the end, it doesn’t matter where you live. Happiness must have deeper roots. Joseph Bayly, himself no stranger to heartache, was on a flight to Los Angeles and asked the woman seated next to him where she was from. “Palm Springs,” she said, and Bayly, knowing the city’s reputation, replied, “What’s Palm Springs like?” “Palm Springs is a beautiful place filled with unhappy people,” the woman said, and went on to identify herself with those in that unhappy category.

General Truths About Happiness

Before we can sink our teeth into the heart of this post, we must consider some basic truths about happiness. The first is that happiness has become a big business today. It has been studied, written about, and promoted as a current commodity: happy-nomics.

This month the Britains Office for National Statistics will begin asking subjects the following questions: How happy did you feel yesterday? How anxious did you feel yesterday? How satisfied are you with your life nowadays? To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

“Now that most people have enough – or far more than enough by the standards of human history,” said Roger Cohen of The New York Times, “it’s time to start measuring what’s going on inside their heads.”

Regardless of the proposed government policies behind this survey, they have touched on something real. Life is indeed more than the sum total of the economic data we look at every month. But surveys that attempt to measure happiness as a set of subjective feelings or as a mood are missing the point. Feelings and moods are unreliable at best, and at their worst they become idols that can only lead to more unhappiness.

The second principle is that human beings hang their fate and happiness on such very slender threads.  Happiness for many is such an elusive thing, especially for those who operate from a wrong definition.

There must be some kind of message in the fact that Americans represent 6% of the world’s population and consume 90% of the world’s tranquilizers. Because for many Americans, happiness depends on happenings: if things don’t happen, or don’t happen in the way we want or expect, they contribute to our unhappiness.

For the most part, this is because we want to experience happiness, but at the same time neglect our souls.

The Bible is all about human souls: saving, growing, and keeping them.  Our world has tried to replace the word soul with the word self.

Somehow it doesn’t have the same ring: Then sings my self, my Savior, God, to Thee, how great Thou art!

Self is a very thin wire on which to hang a heavy weight.

This lost-ness of many human souls is described in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, where Paul wrote: “If our Message is obscure to anyone, it's not because we're holding back in any way. No, it's because these other people are looking or going the wrong way, and refuse to give it serious attention. All they have eyes for is the fashionable god of darkness. They think he can give them what they want, and that they won't have to bother believing a Truth they can't see. They're stone-blind to the dayspring brightness of the Message that shines with Christ, who gives us the best picture of God we'll ever get. Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we're proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you.”

The third truism is that true happiness is serious business. The book of Psalms begins with the words “Blessed (how happy) is the man…” (Ps.1:1). It sets the tone for the entire book: finding God and happiness in the panoply of the human experience.

We make a mistake when we dismiss this as unimportant or simply a selfish or frivolous pursuit.  The truth about happiness is that it is a deeply spiritual and worthy subject.

Dennis Prager, a radio talk show host who has written and spoken extensively on this subject said, “Happiness isn’t a light subject... in fact, happiness is a serious problem.”

Happiness is one of the great motivators of human behavior. Blaise Pascal, the great French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and Christian philosopher commented: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end.”

Even if we’re misguided, human beings will make life decisions based on this idea: I’m sure this will make me happy.

One other strong argument is that for the Christian especially, happiness is a moral obligation.

We owe it not only to ourselves, but to our husband, wife, children, fellow-workers, and friends, to be as happy as we can! Happy people make the world a much better and more decent place to live. After all, who do we enjoy being around? The happiest people are generally the ones.

Whenever I talk to my friend in Alaska, Bob Overson, and ask him how he’s doing, he will invariably say, “Enjoying life!” That might not sound spiritual or deep enough for you, but the Bible concurs with this posture when it tells us, “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, rejoice!”

The word rejoice means to be cheerful or calmly happy. It’s not telling us to be fake, but that we owe it to ourselves and others to work on our happiness.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “Unhappy Christians are, to say the least, a poor recommendation for the Christian faith… In a sense, a depressed Christian is a contradiction in terms.”

This doesn’t mean that we are always “up,” but that even in times of sorrow, the joy of the Lord is still our strength. Unhappy religious people reflect poorly on their religion and on their Creator.

The Miracle I Have In Mind

Our theme for 2015 is “The Church: God’s Crown Jewel,” so it should come as no surprise that I’ve recently been deeply immersed in the Bible’s awesome truth about Christ’s body, the Church.

Gods-Crown-Jewel.jpg

Over the period of forty-plus years that I’ve been a pastor, I’ve been convinced of this reality: a happy church is a great miracle!

I remember the night this first came to me, many years back. It was at a New Year’s Eve celebration. Midnight had come, people had worshiped God, and greeted one another and me.

Suddenly, there was a kind of break in the activity, and since no one was coming to talk to me, I was able to just sit there and observe everyone. And then it struck me so forcefully: “A happy church is such a great miracle!”

Happiness was one of the validating testimonies of the early church. Acts 2:46-47 tells us “They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.”

It was into this kind of setting and atmosphere that the Lord added to the Church, and I’ve found this to be an observable quality in a healthy church.

One of our former missionaries, Steve Anderson, came to me following last Sunday’s Easter services. The service was over, many people were hanging out together in no hurry to leave, and the “buzz” of fellowship was tangible. He looked all around and said to me, “Isn’t this wonderful?!”

I couldn’t agree more.

Fact-Finding Mission

Here’s where I’d like to take you. 1 Kings 10:1-10 recounts the story of a unique journey and State visit by the Queen of Sheba with Israel’s king, Solomon.

“When the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions,” it tells us.

This was not a social call, or a luxury vacation to an exotic getaway. For her, it was a search for meaning.

She “heard of the fame of Solomon” and began to make plans to travel a great distance to see if it was real!

Verse 2 tells us she arrived with a large retinue and abundant gifts, but the significant event was that “she talked with him of all that was in her heart.”

This is not your standard political photo-op and pre-arranged talking points. There’s nothing superficial here.  She asked him about the hard and deep questions of life – the ones most people seek to avoid. Solomon was able to answer these queries with God-inspired brilliance. She saw and took everything in and was totally amazed.

“And when the queen of Sheba had seen all Solomon’s wisdom, and the house that he had built, and the food of his table, and his servants and ministers, and their apparel, and his cupbearers, and his ascent by which he went up unto the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her.”

In their final post-visit press conference, listen to her words: “It was a true report that I heard in my own country of your acts and your wisdom. However, I believed not the words until I came, and my eyes had seen it; and behold, the half was not told me!”

She exclaimed, “It’s wonderfully real!” And here’s what put things over the top for her: “Happy are your men, happy are your servants, who stand continually before you and hear your wisdom.”

There is the miracle and impact of a happy church! That’s why I say a happy church is a great miracle. 

The Winsome Witness

A happy church is keyed to service. How we live and serve is one of the greatest markers of the life of God.  We are saved to serve! My experience has been that this is memorable in any setting: those who serve with dignity and delight.

I’ll never forget Daniel de Cal, the manager of the restaurant at the Thistle Hotel in Luton, England. He truly enjoyed and loved what he was doing, and excelled at it, and this was memorable during a time when “customer service” and “England” were not synonymous terms.

Daniel related some of his background to me. He was Portugese and his wife was English. Due to her medical condition (she had MS) they had moved back to the U.K. Even amid such trying circumstances, the quality of his service visibly stood out.

Similarly, a happy church is not some sort of superficial entertainment service, but rather a family that makes serving with a Christ-like spirit its priority.

Do you want to tap into the fount of true passion? Passion comes from doing what you love and loving what you’re doing!

I’ve always loved the line from the film Chariots of Fire in which Eric Liddell confesses, “When I run, I feel His pleasure! Lord, let that be my life and testimony!

The fishmonger where I buy my seafood is a Russian man named Yuri. He is what I call a “fish evangelist.” When he knows that you appreciate the quality of his product, he lights up. He’ll bring you out a filet of fish on butcher paper and say, “Go ahead, smell this,” and when you find no fishy smell to it, you know it is fresh.

I’ve often thought if we were as excited about the Gospel as he is about fresh fish, we’d win the world.

As the Queen of Sheba points out, the attitude of the servant determines the atmosphere of the palace: “Happy are your men.” We determine the atmosphere of God’s house by the way we serve God and others. Philippians 2:14-15 spells this out for us: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.”

The Message paraphrase reads: “Do everything readily and cheerfully — no bickering, no second-guessing allowed! Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God.”

I have discovered that not only is this happiness a moral obligation, but it is a powerful witness and confirmation. I listen to Leonard Gastelum’s testimony, as he tells about having gone to various outreaches and fellowships before he was saved.

The thing that impressed him is that people were not high, drunk, or hitting on each other’s wives or husbands. No, people were genuinely happy and gladly serving. He couldn’t help but think, Something’s up here!

It was this reality and dimension that drew the prodigal back to the father’s house: “How many of my father’s hired servants are better off than I am?”

I remember, when we were just a start-up church, the word on the street was that if you went to that church, and shook the pastor’s hand, he was giving people drugs. That was the best answer they could come up with for people’s happiness, zeal, and dedication.

The height of this importance is seen so clearly in Jesus’s intercessory prayer in John 17.  The culmination of this prayer was offered up in verse 21: “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that You sent me,” and in verse 23, “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent Me, and loved them even as you loved me.”

He tells us how the world will recognize God’s great gift for them: “That they may be one, just as we are one.”  The observable love and service among those called to be His followers would arrest the world’s attention, confirming He had been sent from the Father.

This was to be the final apologetic, the ultimate proof and confirming mark of a Christian.

The word one here doesn’t mean uniformity or unanimity, but it rather refers to oneness of heart, a relational unity, similar to the one that exists within the Trinity. 

I was reading about the Ponte Fabricio, which is the oldest bridge in Rome, built before the days of Christ.

It’s sometimes called the “Bridge of Four Heads” because Pope Sixtus V commissioned four renowned architects to restore the bridge in the 16th century.

The project was marred, however, by arguments and fistfights between the four. Finally, Sixtus had them all beheaded on the bridge, and there he erected a monument to them – four heads carved into one block of stone.

“Now,” he said, “for eternity they are committed to a peaceful and quiet unity.”

Our homes and churches should be bridges to happiness. No executions necessary!

Enduring Roots Of Happiness

I must warn you: there is a bit of paradox at work here. Happiness is not found by making it your chief goal; but it is a by-product of something else.

What the Queen of Sheba left with were the transcendent foundations that happiness must be built upon.

The source: (10:9) “Blessed be the Lord your God who delighted in you.”

Happiness is not haphazard. It does not come by way of accident, or by virtue of some just being more fortunate than others. It is given by the hand of God! The Queen of Sheba acknowledges that there is no true and lasting happiness apart from faith in Christ, and a life yielded to Him.

Gratitude: (10:9) “Blessed be the Lord your God” is an expression of gratitude. If anyone were to ask me about one of the big secrets or ingredients to happiness, I would answer: gratitude. It is very difficult for an ungrateful person to be truly happy or contented.

The pursuit of virtue. The Queen recognized this when she said (10:9): “to set you on the throne of Israel... to execute justice and righteousness.” The framers of our Constitution wrote of our inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

They did not say it was a guarantee, but rather the freedom to pursue happiness. They didn’t mean going out to the local club to shake your booty, but they were relying on the Greek teaching that happiness comes from a life of virtue.

The most appropriate questions that measure happiness have nothing to do with our fleeting moods. They are concrete questions, such as: Did you act honorably yesterday? Are you living a life of integrity? Do you help your neighbors? Are you faithful to your spouse?”

This is where you’ll find your happiness.

 Happiness is a choice. This sage piece of advice was attributed to President Abraham Lincoln: “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” We must do a “reset” on our emotions and expectations, delivering us from the culture of victimhood, and the “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome.

When my attitudes change, I can discover new energy to live life in the fullness of God’s grace.

In Closing... 

(All right – you that know me, don’t laugh!)

On that memorable night when Jesus met with His disciples at the Last Supper, He gave them these instructions: “For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.... IF YOU KNOW THESE THINGS, HAPPY ARE YOU IF YOU DO THEM.”