October 22, 2017: Values (Happiness and Wealth)
Scriptures Used: Matthew 6:25-34; Exodus 16:11-21
Can you imagine the happiest place on earth? No, not Disney.
My friend Michael Jordan (no, not that one) lived in the country Bhutan. Bhutan claims to be the happiest country in the world. They even have a gross national happiness they somehow measure.  A BBC News report recently stated Norway, Denmark, and Finland are in the top five happiest countries according to their surveys. What makes these countries so happy? Is it job satisfaction, safety, kittens per capita?
I would define happiness as the condition where one’s life enjoyment outweighs the emotional toll of stress. To enjoy life means to feel as though, at the very least, our needs are met so that we can focus on wants. Some of us put that energy towards getting the latest gadgetry or a nice home or traveling, and others put that energy into working less so that one can enjoy the great luxury of free time.
People whose needs are not met, I would think, are probably generally unhappy. But then, one could ask what makes something a need and something a want.
To get answers, we look to passages like the one we read in Matthew and realize that God’s plan is for us to not have to worry about our needs, even though we see our needs and wants the same. After being rescued from slavery in Egypt, the people complained about needing not just enough food for the journey but food they like. In chapter 16 of Exodus, God solves even that problem:
11 The Lord spoke to Moses, 12 “I’ve heard the complaints of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat. And in the morning you will have your fill of bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’”
13 In the evening a flock of quail flew down and covered the camp. And in the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the desert surface were thin flakes, as thin as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” They didn’t know what it was.
Moses said to them, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. 16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Collect as much of it as each of you can eat, one omer per person. You may collect for the number of people in your household.’” 17 The Israelites did as Moses said, some collecting more, some less. 18 But when they measured it out by the omer, the ones who had collected more had nothing left over, and the ones who had collected less had no shortage. Everyone collected just as much as they could eat. 19 Moses said to them, “Don’t keep any of it until morning.” 20 But they didn’t listen to Moses. Some kept part of it until morning, but it became infested with worms and stank. Moses got angry with them. 21 Every morning they gathered it, as much as each person could eat. But when the sun grew hot, it melted away.
Obviously, the people weren’t happy when God wouldn’t let them do what they wanted. We tend to think happiness means we should not only have enough for today but also have extra just in case. That goes back to last week’s lesson on security – do what is smart, but also be aware that God is in control.
If you follow the story, even though they had what they needed, they still complained, so happiness is about more than having what we need or what we want. Multiple studies on happiness among the rich have shown that wealth doesn’t open the doors to happiness. The question is, what does?
Early in the week, I spent two days in Memphis with other pastors looking at various ways the churches there are getting involved in their respective communities. The organization hosting us is housed in a closed church in the Binghampton neighborhood. We spent the next day at a community garden and a gathering space in South Memphis. On the final day, we learned about the rural city of Mason, which is a lot like Charlotte.
What struck me about all of these communities was their belief that God had provided for them, and they in turn wanted to use what they had to honor God. Obviously, if each of them took stock of what they had individually, it would seem like very little. Some even lived off the bare minimum of what they needed.
One such gentleman runs the soup kitchen out of a larger African-American church in South Memphis. He spends much of his time outside of that role doing odd jobs and asking for money to pay his rent, but he uses the time he has to serve in the soup kitchen.
I was very convicted on this trip in understanding the feeling of enough in my life. I have plenty of things to be grateful for: a good family, good friends, a home and a job, and I have many of the creature comforts I like to have, but I also often feel like I do not accomplish enough with my days. My feeling of happiness is usually tied to feeling that I accomplish something each day.
The feeling of needing more, whether it is more achievement, more status, more money, more time, more people that like you, can do a number on you. We are so used to getting the daily ration of blessings that we take them for granted. When was the last time you said thanks to God for the health to get out of bed? Or that you have enough in your kitchen that you can actually choose what to eat for lunch or dinner?
We tend to judge our happiness on our ability to have more. It’s natural. You are going to be what you value. The pursuit of happiness that we share as free people often gets interpreted through this lens of gaining happiness through our efforts to better our lives through our wealth.
We want to live and work where other people are at our level. We think that sameness makes a happy community, and then in turn, we will be happy too.
What I found interesting in these two neighborhoods of Memphis, which are typically cast as some of the most dangerous in the city, is they operate more like the friendly neighborhoods we idolize than many of the suburban neighborhoods where people are living the dream that was supposed to get them there. Cars drove slowly and drivers waved, lots of folks walked the sidewalks and crossed the street to talk to neighbors, folks greeted us strangers. The vestiges of a neighborhood where one would get shot disappearing. How did it happen?
Along the way, people began to recognize the wealth of their neighborhoods. Things we so often take for granted like sidewalks and open lots were developed for communal use rather than personal property or for a new condo; people made efforts to talk to their neighbors they didn’t know to ease distrust; they held meetings to solve neighborhood problems rather than individually solving things on their own. They all seemed, for the most part, happy. Some were even gleeful with what little they had, because what they had was enough for them to be able to make a better life for themselves and those around them.
When I began this series, I told you that Emily and I had been downsizing. As we started that process, we asked ourselves what to do with the things we didn’t want or need anymore. Some we sold, some we donated, and some I fixed up to make them useful again. That’s what happened in these communities: they realized that things they had been overlooking or thought were beyond use actually could be used with some work. Community spaces and spare rooms in churches became clothes closets and food pantries run by people who lived there. And other than their time, nothing had to be bought; no one had to give extra money unless they all agreed on something that would be for the common good.
When they talked about it, it was obvious they felt more connected to the area and to each other. They were happy with the simple pleasures of spending time on front porches and gathering for potluck dinners. The so-called dangerous neighborhood of South Memphis has a USDA certified organic farm and a federally-accredited afterschool program. God used the faith of a few to bless the many.
When we asked each person in these neighborhoods what made it all worth it, they all used the same word: love. They loved where they lived. They loved the people there. They loved the potential. Only a handful had what we would call a nice house. Many did not own cars. What they owned didn’t matter. It was the fact they had enough to live, a place they belonged, and a purpose with their time.
It may not be Bhutan or Norway or even Disney, but folks in Memphis taught me about wealth and happiness through the eyes of God. It isn’t about having our wants and needs met – it is about having a purpose with what we have so that love grows in us and we show the world that heaven on earth is not only possible, it is happening. In Memphis. It could happen here too.