The Beginning of Happiness

Service on February 17, 2019
by Stacey Simpson Duke

Listen to our service and sermon below:

“The Beginning of Happiness”

By Stacey Simpson Duke

Or, download the sermon as an .mp3 file

Entire February 17th Service

By Paul Simpson Duke

Or, download the service as an .mp3 file

One of our sons came to me the other night at bedtime and asked me a surprising and profound question. I don’t know about the kids you know, but the kids I know have always seemed to have a knack for saving their biggest and most compelling conversational moves for the moment when they know they’re supposed to be in bed. And because it was bedtime, I figured that the “right” parenting thing to do was to tell him to go to bed and we would discuss it in the morning. But his question was too compelling and too relevant for me to shut him down.


He said, “Mom, are you happy?”


I mean, come on! When a 14 year-old boy acts interested in his mom’s wellbeing, how on earth is she just supposed to say “go to bed, we’ll discuss it in the morning”?


Are you happy?It’s a question that goes right to the core. It’s the way many of us evaluate whether we’re in the right relationship, the right course of study, the right job. It’s a question that some of us don’t feel we can answer “yes” to, no matter how much we’d like to. It’s a question some of us don’t feel we have the rightto answer “yes” to – because many of us have been taught that happiness is not a worthy goal, or that weare not worthy of being happy.


I wonder this morning, how would you answer my son’s question: are you happy?

The concept of “happiness” is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I’m not alone. The “science of wellbeing” is a relatively new field of study dedicated to understanding the human pursuit of happiness – what it is, why it matters, how we get it. Researchers are learning that happiness can be more than just a fleeting state, more than just moments. It accumulates (and so does unhappiness). It’s made up of more than just what happens in moments, more than just our everyday experiences and how we evaluate those experiences.


Researcher Matt Bloom talks about wellbeing as having a “flourishing life.”[i]It’s more than just having more happy moments than unhappy moments – though that’s important. A flourishing life depends on developing resilience – the capacity to adapt, change, and respond to life’s challenges, as well as to keep growing and learning. A flourishing life also comes from living authentically, from having a sense of meaning and purpose, from developing positive connections with other people. To flourish, then, a person needs to be not just happy; a person needs to learn how to thrive.[ii]


It actually sounds kind of like a lot of work! I mean, we tend to think it would be easy to be happy if the right conditions were just in place – the right amount of money, the right kind of job, the right kind of relationship, good solid health. If we could just happen to have those conditions, then we could be happy. The words are even related – happen, happy. And we would like to think it would last.


But sooner or later, most of us discover this isn’t really how life works. For one thing, life is not static. We don’t get to that happy place and just stay there. Health, wealth, relationship, any happy circumstance can change in a flash. What’s more, it turns out that a lot of the things we thought would make us happy don’t. For instance, there’s actually very little correlation between being rich and being happy.


Even if we know this, we tend to let ourselves get fooled. We are inundated with images of the happy life, and we sometimes believe them, despite ourselves. These images hit us so deeply. They sell us a particular notion of what happiness really is. Happiness is productivity. Happiness is power. Happiness is control. Happiness is organization (which is control!). Happiness is acquisition. Happiness is attractiveness, or youth. And the message always seems to be that we just need this one more thing, and then we’ll be happy.

Scripture is full of its own images of happiness, and this morning both the psalmist and the prophet deal us a particularly rich one. Their image is essentially the same. The prophet Jeremiah points our eyes towards a tree, transplanted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes; its leaves will stay green. When the drought comes, it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit, no matter the conditions. Jeremiah’s word for people who live like this tree is: blessed.

Likewise the psalmist shows us trees planted by streams of water, yielding their fruit in season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The psalmist’s word for people who live like this tree is: happy. Notice that neither the prophet nor the psalmist question whether or not humans should be happy. In fact, it’s the very first word of the entire book of Psalms: happy! It’sGod’s dream for all people. Holistic blessing, lasting happiness, real flourishing, true wellbeing, shalom. It is not wrong to want that for ourselves – it’s what God wants, too.


Both the prophet and the psalmist show us a picture of “not happy” also. The life that doesn’t thrive. The psalmist says such people are like chaff – that’s hay or straw that has been cut. It has no roots, so it can be blown anywhere. The prophet’s picture is of a shrub in the desert. Just a scrubby little thing trying to survive in the parched places of the wilderness, an uninhabited salt land.


The question isn’t whether or not it’s wrong to be happy, or to want to be happy, or whether we are worthy of being happy. The question is: how do we it?


And the psalmist and the prophet are both very clear. Happiness is not about the conditions that surround us. Happiness is about the condition within us. Happiness comes from where we put our trust, from where we place our hope. We can put our trust in human ways (either our own or someone else’s), or we can put our trust in God. Only two ways to live. Only one of them is happy.


Here is the chaff, the shrub, the tumbleweed, blown about, unrooted, cut off. A picture of what happens when we orient our lives around our own desires and our own struggles to get those desires met. A picture of what happens when we put our hope in our ability to either find ourselves happily in the right circumstances or to wrestle our circumstances into what we think would make us happy. A picture of what happens when we put our trust in human strength, human ability, human wisdom. Here is what that life looks like, the psalmist and the prophet say: stunted, barren, rootless, disconnected, blown-about.


And here is the tree. Or, as the psalmist would have us see, a whole forest full of them. Not just atree; trees. They are not autonomous. They are not self-serving. Trees are certainly not blown about like tumbleweeds. Trees don’t go it alone. They live in the lively interconnectedness of the natural world, all of it working together: soil, water, sunshine, carbon dioxide, animals, other trees. Trees cannot pick up and move themselves to a better spot, seeking different circumstances. Trees grow where they’re planted. They find every bit of life right where they are. So a tree puts down its roots, lets itself grow deeper and deeper. And a tree reaches up its branches, lets itself grow higher and bigger.


At the same time as it makes it home exactly where it has been planted, not picking up and going after what it thinks it needs or wants elsewhere, it also gives back right where it is, as an integral part of the whole system of life. It lives an utterly interdependent life. In a primal relationship with earth, sun, sky, water, plants, and animals, it both receives what it needs and gives what the rest of creation needs from it. It does not rely only on itself, and it does not keep its resources only to itself. It accepts life; it gives life.


And the life of a tree is actually more interconnected than we once knew, and certainly more so than the psalmist and the prophet could have known. In his book, The Hidden Life of Trees, forester and author Peter Wohlleben writes that most trees of the same species growing in the same stand are deeply connected to each other underground, through their root systems.[iii]He says they actually communicate to each other, with each other. He says there’s evidence they have feelings. He says they look out for each other and deep underground, they’re involved and invested in a complex exchange of nutrients. He says that, for trees, “helping neighbors in times of need is the rule.” He calls forests “superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.” The trees don’t want to take away from each other, so they grow their sturdiest branches away from their “friends” so they don’t block out the sun for them. The trees form a kind of community, an ecosystem, that helps protect them all from extremes of heat and cold, and stores a large amount of water that they can all draw from, and generates the right amount of humidity for them to flourish; in this way, the trees can, together, live to be very old. This flourishing can only happen if the whole community remains intact. If each tree only looked out for itself, then only a few of them would reach old age, and there would be large gaps in the canopy, which would then allow more weather destruction. All the trees would suffer.


But instead, they share food and water with each other. They communicate with each other. Together they create a microclimate suitable for their shared growth and sustenance. They know they need each other as much as they need water, air, and sunshine. So they can’t and don’t focus only on their own flourishing. For millennia, trees have known what wellbeing researchers are now telling us about true wellbeing: connectedness is key. Connectedness to the source of life and connectedness to each other.


Be like this, the psalmist says. Be like this, the prophet says. Let yourself be transplanted by the stream of God’s life-giving water. Be rooted in the soil of God’s nourishing goodness; sink yourself in. Stretch yourself towards the light of God’s love; let your life reach and learn and grow. Let yourself be interconnected with every other rooted, growing, resilient life. Understand that your own flourishing is intertwined with the flourishing of others, with the flourishing of your whole community, with the flourishing of the world. Be tenacious in always seeking the source of your life, which is God. And see how well-nourished, quenched, resilient, connected, and fruitful you will become. More than a way of doing,this is a way of being. And it is happy, no matter the conditions.


The prophet tell us how, so simply: Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust isthe Lord. They won’t be afraid or anxious. They’ll be sustained by the source of their wellbeing.


It is simple but not easy to live in that kind of trust. The kind of trust that offers us durability and resilience even when the disaster or the divorce or the diagnosis or the death threaten to blow our whole world into pieces. Can you imagine having roots deep enough that you could weather any storm? Can you imagine having branches sturdy enough that you could just keep on reaching and growing no matter the conditions? Can you imagine being so connected with others who are also flourishing, letting your own thriving depend on them, letting them depend on you, living in a protective, sustaining, mutually life-giving way so that when circumstances are difficult, you’re in it together? And can you imagine bearing the juiciest, most delicious fruit, giving to the world the gifts only you can give, and being able to do so because you have such deep root and you are so well-nourished and you are so well-tended and you know it?


You are worthy of wellbeing. Wellbeing is God’s dream for you and for all. Can you imagine it?


The beginning of happiness is a choice. A choice as small as a seed, just a little kernel of trust. The first, tiny “yes!” “Yes!” to connected to God and to each other. “Yes!” to being planted and rooted and connected. “Yes!” today. “Yes!” again tomorrow. “Yes!” again and again the next new day.


So. Are you happy? Do you want to be? Will you choose to be?


[i]Matt Bloom, “Flourishing in Ministry: Clergy, Ministry Life and Wellbeing,” July 2017.


[iii]Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, Greystone Books, 2016.