Thursday, August 31, 2006

Laboring to Be Happy

On this Labor Day weekend I am preaching on the biblical perspective of work, and that has caused me to ponder how many people actively dislike their work or, at the least, view it with weary resignation and/or exasperation. Some polls indicate that as many as seven out of ten Americans are dissatisfied with their job and dread going to work. And that’s just from a poll of preachers! Seriously, a 2006 survey of 1,733 executives asked the question, “If you could start your career over in a completely different field, would you?” 51% said yes, 24% said maybe, and only 25% said no. This is, in my opinion, a little sad. But I’m not buying it completely. You see, I’d say that most of these findings aren’t about peoples’ jobs, per se, but about their happiness in general.

The Jewish author and commentator Dennis Prager spent ten years pondering the subject of happiness, talking to thousands of people via his talk radio show and speaking engagements, and finally wrote a book about it called “Happiness is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual.” The first two chapter titles alone issue a serious challenge and prompt our reflection. First, “Happiness is a Moral Obligation” (Prager goes further with religious people and says it is a spiritual obligation). There is a sense in which part of “loving our neighbor,” most notably our immediate family, includes not foisting our perpetually miserable disposition on them. He asks religious people to consider what statement it makes about their God that they are characteristically unhappy. Clearly it contradicts many of the very faith claims upon which our religious beliefs rest.

Second, “Unhappiness is Easy, Happiness Takes Work.” Prager’s experience listening to callers (every Friday one hour of his show is called the “Happiness Hour”) is that peoples’ self-described level of happiness bears virtually no relation to their external circumstances. And thus the sentiment that “I’d be happier if things were different” just doesn’t hold up to real life in most instances (immediate tragedy and loss notwithstanding, of course). Let me state it very plainly: unhappiness in various shades is the default human disposition, especially in a country where despite having by far the highest living standard of any people in history we are constantly told how much more we should strive for so we can “have it all.”

So when I hear about how unhappy many people are with their work, I take it with a grain of salt. I think it’s easy to succumb to the “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome, particularly with jobs. “If you had to do it over again would you choose a different line of work?” “Yeah, why not? It’s fun to let my imagination run wild with all the different possibilities and assume they would all bring me more happiness than I’m experiencing now.”

Craig Brian Larson, a Christian minister and editor, puts it this way: “All my jobs have shaped me… I have come to the conclusion that work, along with family relationships and suffering (which are synonymous for some), is one of the fundamental chisels by which God shapes us into his image and prepares us for the age to come. Work addresses character, issues of faithfulness, responsibility, diligence, submission to authority, and obedience. It requires us to depend on God for wisdom to overcome problems and strength to overcome fatigue.”

If you can’t stand your work then you have two choices: change your work or change your perspective (the third option, being miserable, should be off the table). A good perspective to cultivate is to see our work as an opportunity for God to shape us and for us to serve God. The Bible calls that being “blessed.” Happy Labor Day. And may we labor in happiness.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Held Together

In my continuing quest to share cutting edge thinking with you primarily by ruminating on opinions expressed by people much smarter than me, I herewith reference an essay by David Brooks (“What parking tickets say about how the world turns,” Houston Chronicle, 8/19/06). You may be aware of the high rate of parking tickets accrued by United Nations diplomats in New York City over the years (they have diplomatic immunity and do not have to pay the fines, hence they often park illegally with impunity). Well, according to economists Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel, it seems that some countries’ diplomats do this far more often than others’ and this opens up a revealing glimpse into the influence of culture. Notably, the diplomats whose nations rank high on the “Transparency International corruption index” (Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Mozambique, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Syria) committed huge numbers of violations. Whereas diplomats from Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Israel, Norway and Canada committed none. Nada.

But wait! If you know you can park illegally and not have to pay the fine, why not do it? Well, this is where values and culture exert their influence. If you know you can steal a shirt from a clothing store and not get caught, what keeps you from stealing it? If you know you can run the toll booth and not get caught, why not do it? Because you believe you are a certain kind of person, the kind of person who doesn’t do those things. And, most probably, you believe you are part of a people who don’t do those kinds of things. You have an identity that has been shaped by the values you have been taught and by your cultural identity. You realize that even though your one transgression will not appreciably affect the status quo, if everyone chose to transgress in that way (e.g., littering, running red lights, paying attention to Paris Hilton, etc.) the world would change considerably for the worse.

Brooks refers in his essay to a speech 65 years ago by Walter Lippman, who noted, and listen closely, that people don’t become happy by satisfying their desires, they become happy by living within a belief system that restrains and gives coherence to their desires. Specifically, “Above all the other necessities of human nature, above the satisfaction of any other need, above hunger, love, pleasure, fame – even life itself – what a person most needs is the conviction that he is contained within the discipline of an ordered existence.”

The Christian faith calls Jesus’ followers to be “contained within the discipline of an ordered existence” which we identify and claim as God’s Kingdom breaking into the world. Paul uses a word in Colossians 1:17 (sunistemi) to proclaim that in Christ all things in the universe “hold together” or “cohere.” Christ and the life he calls his followers to “restrains and gives coherence to our desires.” Christians are, or ought to be, “held together” morally, ethically, and socially by the “belief system” we have adopted as Jesus’ followers. He is the One in whom we locate and live out our identity.

Put simply, there are certain things Christians ought to refrain from doing, and certain things we ought to do, even though we could get away with not doing or doing them, respectively. The good news is that this brings joy and satisfaction to our lives. If we will park there.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Simple does not mean easy. It is simple to run a marathon. You put one foot in front of the other in a running stride for 26.2 miles. There, you did it. But by no means is it easy. You have to train and focus to a great degree to be able to do it.

Simple does not mean unsophisticated either. Years ago a company named 3-M developed a break-through adhesive whose practical application remained stubbornly elusive. One new product development researcher had a “Eureka” moment while reflecting on how frustrated he used to get when his scrap paper bookmarks continually fell out of his church choir hymnal. And so came the Post-It note. Sophisticated technology, simple product.

I thought of the beauty and power of simplicity recently while reading an editorial in the latest Christian Chronicle (“Refocusing on Kingdom Business,” August 2006). The author notes what an anxious age we live in, with so much turmoil in the world and also within church circles as Christians blog and bray about the latest “controversial” issues (I use quotation marks, which denote “so-called,” because in the larger context of the church’s mission and the world’s condition they are remarkably trivial). Here is what the editorial suggests: that churches and church leaders refocus on kingdom business, which it summarizes as the following: loving our neighbors, telling the story of Jesus, building biblical literacy in our families and communities, caring for the poor and needy, and building congregations of spiritual depth and integrity. Friends, that is a Post-It note of a mandate: sophisticated theology, simple mission.

Every week I receive multiple items in the mail extolling the newest product, program or strategy to revive my church and transform my community (yes, the Christian ministry marketing industry is quite robust). Almost all of them look great, and most of them are quite thoughtful and well-conceived. Listen, I’m all for innovation and outside-the-box thinking. Yet… something in me wonders if much of this isn’t an attempt to avoid the simple expressions of ministry and missional living that are very, very difficult to sustain in our consumer driven, I’m always being marketed to so what’s in it for me world. There’s nothing complex about prayer and scripture reading. There’s nothing complex about giving food and clothing to the poor. There’s nothing complex about sitting in the hospital waiting room with someone during an operation. There’s nothing complex about giving a widow a helping hand. These are just simple, basic, genuine expressions of gospel living.

Eugene Peterson, retired pastor and prolific author of, among other books, The Message Bible paraphrase, noted once in an interview how exasperated he gets when Christians come up to him at a book-signing or something and breathlessly ask “Tell me how to be more spiritual.” He tells them to go home and love and serve their family and neighbor in the name of Jesus. Everything else is details!

Here’s an idea: Let’s all get a Post-It note and put it on our refrigerator or computer (depending on where you spend more time!) with a note that says “Simply Jesus.” I think that will keep us quite challenged.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Traffic Stops and Wake-Up Calls

Two weeks ago Mel Gibson was stopped for drunk driving and in the process of being arrested made several derogatory comments about Israel and Jews. Gibson’s mega-celebrity status, combined with his production of the blockbuster movie, “The Passion of the Christ” a few years ago, itself perceived by many Jews as anti-Semitic, made this a front-page news item. I’d like to look at it on several levels.

First, it is certainly disappointing that Gibson, by all accounts a devoted Catholic and dedicated family man, was driving drunk. He has since acknowledged a problem with alcohol and is seeking treatment. Sometimes incidents like this can be redemptive in forcing someone to confront a personal failing, and we can all wish him the best in this endeavor.

More disappointing are the comments he made, which raise an intriguing question: Does drunkenness cause someone to exaggerate his feelings or does it actually create new feelings? I recall a modern proverb I read once: “Words cannot come out of our mouth that have not had a home in our heart” (or something like that). Drunkenness doesn’t excuse things we say or do. Words and actions come from somewhere within us, even if some things (e.g., drunkenness, peer pressure) exaggerate their expression. Gibson was right to apologize profusely to Jews for his comments; he must take responsibility for them (Hey, here’s an idea for all of us: Don’t get drunk!).

But let’s look at still a different level of this episode, and that’s what happened on the very same day but which received comparatively little news attention. A 30-year old Muslim man named Naveed Afzal Haq brought a pistol to the Jewish Federation office in Seattle and shot six people, killing one woman and injuring five others. One writer described this incident as “one of the most gory anti-Jewish crimes in American history” (Zev Chafets, L.A. Times). And yet how many of you heard this story featured more than just in passing in the news or on the web?

Ready to go to the next level? Take a deep breath now. The reason we heard far more about Gibson’s arrest than about this attempted massacre of Jews by a Muslim man in Seattle is because Gibson is a Christian and the politically correct view in America holds that Christians (re: conservative Christians) are more of a threat to Jews (and to America in general) than are Muslim terrorists. But wait! This man wasn’t a member of Al Queda, Hezbollah, or another “official” terrorist group! He was just a Muslim angry at Jews.

Ready for the final level? Maybe Muslim anger at Jews isn’t limited to terrorist groups. Maybe Islamist leaders need to step up and publicly condemn this kind of incident. Maybe American media need to drop their double standard. Do you honestly believe that if a Christian or a Jew had walked into a “Muslim Federation Office” in a major city and attempted to massacre Muslims, we wouldn’t hear repeated news reports warning about a possible pernicious spread of Islamo-phobia in America? Of course we would.

Maybe it’s time for Americans to wake up. A Muslim American walks into an office building on American soil and guns down American Jews, and we’re preoccupied with what a drunken actor says during a traffic stop?