I am a fervent reader of the National Geographic Magazine. This month’s issue has the headline, “The Search for Happiness”. And who wouldn’t strive for happiness? It seems the pursuit of happiness is as old as humanity itself.
So in this issue of the National Geographic, some of the happiest countries on earth are analyzed. Now I have a question for you: do you think the U.S. made it to the top 10 of the happiest countries? (No.) What about Germany? (No.)
There are definitely different criteria that can be applied to determine if a country is happy or not, but according to the criteria used by National Geographic, both the U.S. and Germany are not among the happiest. Funny that you could figure that out.
Any guess which countries are considered the happiest on earth?
Denmark is one of them. That fits the stereotype of the proverbial ‘happy Dane’. But why are Danes happy? Among other things, they have a great social system, an infrastructure that invites people to walk and bike and be active and thus healthy, they work less than 40 hours per week on average, have at least 4 weeks of vacation, and all that with fair pay. In addition, most Danes belong to some sort of social club or organization. And because of the free times, Danes have, they can balance work and play, work and rest.
Another country that is among the happiest on earth, and this may be more surprising: Costa Rica. Again, here we have a good social system. People in Costa Rica tend to be much poorer than in other countries, and the work longer hours, but here we have strong family and social ties. Faith and church life also plays an important role in the happiness of Costa Ricans. In additions, Costa Ricans love to celebrate and dance; they work hard and they celebrate with abundance. So again, we have this balance of work and play. People are defined by their relationships, and not by their work. And that makes them happy.
Can you guess now why Germany and the U.S. don’t make the top ten?
Especially in the U.S., people seem to be defined most by their accomplishments – or the lack thereof. It already starts with children in elementary school, and it doesn’t get any better as they get older. Teenagers applying to college (and, by the way, this is the season foe college applications) are under enormous pressure to stand out in order to get into the college of their dreams, and in order to stand out, you need to accomplish extraordinary things even at a young age.
And we all experience to a certain degree that our value in society is determined by our accomplishments. For us still in the work force, our value for our company, our institution, our clients, is determined by what we know, our expertise, and how well we perform. And sometimes it is very hard for people who lose their jobs, or for those who retire, to see their value if they can’t perform and achieve anymore.
Years ago, as I went through clinical pastoral education, I worked for six months in a retirement home. One of the residents I related most to was a lady confined to her bed with Parkinson’s and suffering from depression. All her life, she had been busy, working as a teacher, raising a family. Her story was especially sad because, to my knowledge, she hardly ever received any visitors. Her husband lived in the same facility, albeit in the independent living section, and seemed annoyed by her condition. He visited her once a week, briefly.
And I recall a particular visit with her, when she would lift up her shaking hands and exclaim, very bitterly, ‘Useless! They are useless! I am useless!’ And I was stricken how this poor woman had been appreciated and valued as long as she could perform and fulfill her duties, and that she lost that value, even with her own family, her own husband, once she couldn’t fulfill those duties anymore. It made me wonder: what are we, in the eyes of society? Human beings – or human doings?
Today is All Saints Day, the day we remember all those children of God called to be saints. And we tend to especially remember all the saints who have gone before us, all those people dear to us who died. One of the questions we may have today is: what makes us a saint? What do we have to do, how do we have to be in order to be considered a saint? For those coming out of, or being familiar with the Roman Catholic or the Orthodox tradition, a saint may be someone who has lived a very special and holy life, holier than the other 99%, and we may think of saints of old like St. Francis, St. Christopher, Saint Claire, or St. Joan. And even for us Protestants, there still may be the nagging feeling deep inside us that we ought to do and consequently be someone special in order to be considered a saint.
But what Martin Luther pointed out is that it’s all about God’s grace. That’s what kicked off the Reformation 500 years ago after all, Luther’s criticism that salvation is not for sale.
Luther pointed out that, strangely and thankfully, to God it doesn’t matter how good we are at things, how ambitious, how intelligent, how visionary, how creative. All those traits don’t hurt, but they don’t automatically grant us participation in the kingdom, the household of God. The one adjective we heard in today’s gospel over and over is the important one: blessed. Blessed are you.
And, just as an aside, the Greek word that is used here is ‘makarios’, which can also be translated as ‘happy’. Blessed are you. Happy are you.
Imagine the scene in today’s gospel. The beatitudes, as we know them, are the beginning of that big sermon Jesus gives on a mountain. Jesus is followed by the crowds, who have seen him perform miracles and heal the sick and talk about the hope and deliverance from all that ails them. Jesus is surrounded by people, hungry, poor, desperate, oppressed. Jesus is surrounded by his disciples, just recently called, and who still try to figure out who this Jesus is, and who they are. And Jesus starts his speech, to the disciples, to the crowds, with – a blessing. Blessed are you. Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. In short, blessed are those who often don’t measure up to the standards of the world and society; those who may even be seen as worthless and without any value.
God’s kingdom is open to them. God blesses them. To God, all God’s children are valuable, or should I say invaluable, because they are beloved. And it is this relationship which makes them, which makes us saints. We are defined by that relationship. We heard it said beautifully today in the second lesson from 1. John, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”
We see this in the most beautiful way today, as we baptize little L. What has she accomplished in her life so far? Well, I am sure you as parents would be able to list many things: how she makes you feel when she smiles at you, what an enrichment she has been for your life as a couple. But as of now, she’s not what we would call a productive member of society. And yet, and yet, God embraces L. today and calls her a beloved child as she is baptized. God says to Line today, ‘Blessed are you! Yours is the kingdom of God!’ And, by the way, this is also reflected in L.’s baptismal verse which you chose for her, where Jesus says, ‘Let the little children come to me and don’t turn them away, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ To such as these: the helpless, the vulnerable, those who mainly ARE instead of DO.
On the other hand, the love and pride you, A. and M., have for L. is an example of what God feels for all of God’s children – all of us. God rejoices in all children, and it doesn’t depend on the level of their productivity or accomplishments. Blessed are we. Blessed are we, saints and sinners, with our burdens and our sorrow and worries and grief. Blessed are we as we share the love of Christ in our very particular ways, when we succeed – and when we fail. Blessed are we as we face the manifold challenges of this world today. God is with us, just as God was and is and will be with all of those who have gone before us. Theirs – and ours – is the kingdom of God. The search for happiness starts and ends here.
This post is also available in: German