Friday, March 23, 2012

A Reasonable Happiness

What does it mean to be reasonably happy?

A friend of mine was recently eating lunch with coworkers at a religious retreat center. It wasn't surprising then when their table was approached by a man who posed a direct question about the spiritual life of the group. He said to the diners, "Are you born again?" After an awkward silence, my friend smiled and answered, "Well, no." Let us just say, the conversation continued for some time! The eager evangelist went to the New Testament and explained the words of Jesus, adding other scriptures and anecdotes where convenient. My friend responded by saying that he, too, had long been a friend of Jesus and took his faith seriously. He said it was his understanding that the follower of Christ should first receive the Word, then apply it, and finally take it to a needy world. If that meant being born again, then he was all for it.

At the same retreat, I heard another man at a nearby table say that the only thing that mattered was heaven. He said that the life to come is really what this life is all about. I was puzzled, because the Hebrew Scriptures, especially, and Jesus in particular, talk so much about doing good in this world, about being just and loving mercy here on earth. In fact, most biblical scholars agree that the ancient Jews didn't even believe in a life after death anyway. But, I got his point. Life is tough and if this is all there is, well, that's a hard sell to anyone who's spent most their existence on earth in pain.

A few years ago, I was getting ready to lead a group for women who were in a court mandated treatment program for multiple addictions. Most were young, averaging in their mid 20's, and they were a mess. They were also hungry for hope. Being the chaplain, I didn't really know how to relate to such a crowd but usually got out of the way long enough to serve up whatever spiritual crumbs I'd managed to bring along. On this occasion, one of the women was off in the corner speaking with her father, and both were crying. Time was short. Families weren't allowed to stay once the group began so the many-years-stuffed-into-a-minute kind of tender embrace they shared had to come to a close. His daughter was very beautiful, but sadly, also consumed with shame. It struck me as an invasion of privacy to interrupt her apologies and to witness her father's forgiving, grief-stricken, wet eyes so I waited as long as I could. Finally, I had to begin the group (such are the machinations of important people) so intruded and calmly assured the dad that his daughter was in good hands. Gratefully, his humble face received my sentence as if I had handed him the cure for every disease.

As our group began, I glanced up at the famous Serenity Prayer hanging on the wall and realized that, until that moment, I had never noticed that it contained a second verse! I was transfixed. I knew all about eternity but "reasonably happy in this life"? Could it be?

Of course, the recovery movement has long taught that to be reasonably happy means choosing a life of discipline, acceptance, courage and wisdom. But if I had a chance to say a few more words to each of the people in our story, I would add that we need to keep being born again, continue living the word and leaning toward heaven. I would also say that we should persist in energetically digging both hands deep into this sacred earth, confident that there is grace enough to assist in the mending of the brokenness that is life, in fact, the only one we know, rooted as it must be in the here and now. That's good news. That's a hopeful vision. That's a reasonable happiness. That's what I would have said.

Serenity Prayer
--Reinhold Niebuhr

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

Digging in to Life

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