Monday, January 27, 2014

Happiness is.....

What does it take to make you happy?  Are you someone who needs a lot of things in order to feel fulfilled or satisfied?  Are you the type of person who is constantly looking for the next new thing or who is seeking something but you can never quite put your finger on what is missing?

Happiness is something that each person must define for himself or herself.  It is something different for each person because each one of us lives in a different way from others and our measure of happiness that we feel personally has something to do with the way we live.  Some cannot be happy unless they have possessions of a certain type or category.  Some cannot be happy unless they have a certain person in their life.  Some cannot be happy unless they achieve success at a certain level or have a distinction or notoriety about them that others can recognize.  Some think that they cannot be happy unless they live a certain lifestyle that cannot be achieved unless they reach a certain income level.  Some can be happy with little or nothing and need few material possessions.

My wife and I currently do not own a home.  We once owned one but we sold it when I became a minister thinking that we would be moving a lot because the denomination I served at the time moved their pastors often from one parish to another.  I have served my current parish for almost ten years now but we live in a home they provide for us (a parsonage) so we have no need for a house at the time.  One day in the future still to be determined, I will retire from the ministry and we will need a place to live.  We have no idea right now where that place will be and what kind of house we will live in.  We have dreams of homes we like--ranch style, hill country rock, country houses, log cabins---but they are simply dreams, things that we like.  It may be that at the time we need a house we will not find what we really would like and we settle for something different from what we imagined.  Wherever we are, and whatever we call home will be fine with me as long as we are together there and feel safe and comfortable.  The size and design of the house will not matter as much as having a place to live together to spend the years into the future together.

Happiness is internal and is a state of being that we can determine for ourselves.  Every day when we stand up after getting out of bed and begin a new day is a day we determine whether or not we will be happy.  There are factors that affect our feelings of happiness, for sure.  Economic, health related, even weather related factors will play a part in shaping our day, but ultimately it is up to us to be the final determiners of how we will perceive these factors.

St. Paul wrote to the church at Philippi and ended his letter with words that have to do with looking at life in a way that promotes internal happiness.  "...I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me."  (Philippians 4: 11b-13)  Paul recognized his strength was anchored in his faith in God through Jesus Christ.  His level of contentment in life had little to do with what he possessed or where he lived or even with how much food he had.  It was measured more by how his faith strengthened him in all of life's situations.

Happiness is a choice....I saw that on a poster or bumper sticker long ago.  Maybe the words are a bit trite but the meaning of them are not.  Happiness is something we determine each day as we live our lives and make choices that will lead us toward happiness or away from it.  Contentment is an internal journey that takes us into the future confident in the faith we hold in the one who knows what the future holds for us.  

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Regional Differences

How can people be so different from one another in different areas of the country or the world?  I am not talking about how the people from France are different than the people of Germany.  That is pretty clear.  They speak different languages and have different customs based upon many factors.  I am pondering why it is people who lives only one or two hundred miles from one another are so different in so many ways although they share many other commonalities.

Before I moved to my present place of living and work in southern Texas to a rural small town setting midway between Houston and San Antonio, I lived in northeast Texas for almost two decades.  When we moved to where we live now, it was like stepping into a new century when we left behind the attitudes and mores that shaped our previous location.  The attitudes of the inhabitants of what they call "East Texas" (although it is really Northeast Texas because those people who live just beyond Houston toward Orange also call their area "East Texas" but it is really Southeast Texas, but I digress...) are more similar to their neighbors across the state line in Louisiana or perhaps even more similar to those persons who live in what we call the Deep South rather than with their fellow Texans who live beyond I-45 going west.  The common ideas that are shared by most of the population in East Texas are very conservative, despite what ethnic, religious, or socioeconomic factors they may have that could separate them.  (I have heard it joked that I-45 is the dividing line and those who live east of it live "Behind the Pine Curtain".  There is more truth than humor in that remark.)

I reflected upon this many times when I lived in East Texas but have thought about it even more after moving 230 miles southwest of my previous location.  That 4 hour drive took me from 1900 to 2004 (the year I moved) in many ways that I had not considered when I decided to make the move.  The county where we lived for 10 years had been "dry" from an alcohol point of view for as long as anyone could remember.  In fact, Friday nights always had a continuous line of traffic heading east or south to the county line where persons could buy alcohol because not even beer could be sold in that county.  The county seat has always been and still is one of the most segregated larger towns in Texas and perhaps the United States.  There are definite economic and social factors that keep it segregated by race and ethnicity that are apparent if one drives around town much.  Go in any direction from the courthouse and you can see which ethnic group is dominant by observing the houses in that area.

The social values of that larger small city are apparent too by reading the local newspaper or watching the local television stations.  Stories that would be largely ignored in other places are big news in that area.  One of my Facebook friends recently posted a story about one of those calendars sold to assist a local charity in which businessmen and city officials stripped to their swimsuits and posed in public places in order to sell calendars.  Most people in the area laughed when the calendar appeared for sale in bookstores and businesses but one woman in the city became so upset that she resigned from the board of one of the other charities in town whose director posed in his swimsuit for the calendar.  She wrote a scathing letter of resignation which was read in part on the evening news, omitting her name but using her words to highlight how upset she was to see the chairman of this charity with his shirt off for all to see.  Some of the men who posed for the calendar were interviewed for the news and they all laughed at the reaction of this woman.  She obviously does not like to see the chest of men in their 70s and 80s being displayed for all to see and could not stand to think that a charity she supported would be so bold to allow its leader to parade around for all to see.  How rude!

In most cities where firemen or policemen or others show off their bodies on calendars, the physiques of the men being shown are far more attractive than those on this East Texas calendar in question.  Perhaps that was her real gripe....if she was going to pay for a calendar to display on the inside of her bedroom closet door, then she wanted to see some real beefcake, not just older men parading around in their swimsuits.  The name of the woman with the complaint was not given in the story, of course, but I imagine her to be like many women I encountered when I lived in that city, women with their hair styled the way it has been since 1940 with their pearl necklaces always embracing their necks, and their tasteful expensive dresses always pressed well so that they could have lunch at the country club daily without having to interact with the rest of society that they abhorred to have to live among.  Or perhaps it may be their daughters whom they have fully entrenched with their values who may dress differently than they do but still follow the same customs and ideas that their mothers have passed down to them.  They volunteer to serve on boards of charities because it makes them "nice, respectable people" but they look down upon anyone in society who may not fit into the cookie cutter mold of what they think society should look like.  

So, why are they the way they are and why do their values continue to be the ones that define what life is like in that particular region?  Blame it on religion, of course.  Blame it on religious groups that continue to teach archaic fundamentalist views of society drawn from very limited examination of what the Scripture really says.  Blame it on religious groups who have build huge edifices in which they gather each Sunday to hear their chosen leaders tell them how good and holy they are because they follow those limited views and teachings.  Blame it on a segment of society that finds it safe to believe that limited view and believes that such belief will grant them power and control even if their view differs from the mainstream view of the society around them.  Blame it on dogma that protects this limited view and thinks that it is what everyone else thinks even when it is apparent that they are far out of touch with reality.

After I moved from this town a decade ago, they did finally pass vote in a wet/dry election to let the population buy beer and wine in supermarkets so they no longer have to make the trek to the county line each weekend much to the displeasure of this same mentality in town.  So, they have moved into the 1960s perhaps.  Who knows what future date may bring them into the 21st century in other ways?  Perhaps there will always be a segment of society that prefers to live in the way of the past.  It may be much safer for them to live there than address the challenges of the present time with all the change it brings.  I am just glad that I now live in a place where diversity is welcomed in many ways.  It is not a perfect place to live but it is one where the welcome does not exclude those who are different in many ways.  Even older men who want to mow the lawn without wearing a shirt do not cause the faint of heart to need the services of the emergency room.  They just laugh as they drive a good hearted way.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Fish Out of Water

Mark Twain wrote a book called, "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court".  It has been made into a motion picture at least once.  It tells the story of a man who is transported back in time to medieval times in the land where King Arthur reigns.  This man decides that he can use the knowledge he has of the modern age from whence he came to perform "magic" for the people in the medieval age so he does things that are common to his era that the medieval people have never seen and they believe he is a magician.  All goes well until the tide of public opinion turns against him because someone accuses him of being a witch.  He does not seem to fit in because he is not "one of them" and is an outsider to the people of that age.  His speech and habits are strange to those who live in that era and they do not trust him because of his differences.

Many of us have been outsiders.  I have constantly been one throughout life because I have lived in several different places.  Each time I have moved I have started over getting to know people and have often found that I do not speak just the way others do or have habits, behaviors, or characteristics that are different than those who have always lived in the place to where I moved.

There are times that you feel as if you are an outsider even if you return to the place where you grew up.  I was visiting with my mother a few years ago just after my father had passed away.  She needed some items from the local grocery store and I volunteered to go buy them for her.  She told me to go to the grocery store where we had shopped when I was growing up because they had certain items at sale prices she wanted me to pick up so I drove to the store and walked through its aisles and gathered up all the items she wanted.  I took them to the clerk at the check out counter who began to ring them up.  She finished and began to bag the items when she looked at me and said, "You're not from around here, are you?"  I laughed and said, "Well, yes and no.  I grew up here but have lived away for over 30 years so I guess I am not from here."  She asked me my mother's name and said she thought she knew here and I said most likely she did and then left to return to my mother's house.

I did some thinking about that interaction with that store clerk.  I am not from that town anymore, that is for sure.  I left there emotionally years ago and have never returned except to say goodbye to my sister, father, and brother.  I have visited there bodily many times over the years but never really belonged.  The town I grew up in no longer exists.  It has changed as much as I have changed since I left there.  I can walk its streets and rarely see anyone I know because its population has multiplied five times over since I was a child there.  There are far more "new people" than the people I knew when I was growing up there.

I guess I am really not from anywhere in particular but from everywhere also.  I guess I belong to no place but I am a part of every place.  I live where I do now because I work there but I am also a part of the community by virtue of my position within the community.  Some of the community practices were new to me when I arrived but I have learned to accept them as normal because those who lived here before I arrived consider them to be normal.  Many words were new to me because they derive from European languages spoken by those who lived here in the past and have been passed down through the generations.

I was the new guy for the past ten years but now I belong even if I am an outsider.  I belong because some people have accepted me as part of their own inside group.  I belong because even a fish out of water can find renewal in any pond or puddle or stream if it discovered what is needed for life in that location.  Life in the here and now requires friendship, love, and respect and I have found them where I live.  I had those same things in other places too but find nourishment for the present in the present circumstances I have chosen as my own.

(...I have learned to be content with whatever I have...) Philippians 4:11


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

News from the Northwest- Sunbreaks!

There are so many wonderful parts of this country and each one is unique.  Our daughter and son in law live near Seattle, Washington in one of the high tech corridors that has just about everything a person may want or need in order to be comfortable.  One thing that they have a shortage of, however, especially in the winter, is sunshine.  The weather reporter on the newscast often says the weather will be "Cloudy with a chance of sunbreaks".  I love that word!  I had never heard the word "sunbreaks" used until we visited them about five years ago and heard the it being broadcast.

Sunbreaks happen when the sun breaks through the clouds for a moment or two.  It is often almost undetected because it happens so quickly.  The sky will be so cloudy that you cannot see any blue sky at all, just dark gray everywhere and then when you look up, there is a tiny bit of blue with the sun shining through it, then it is quickly gone.  It may also be that you can see the sun shining somehow through the clouds without being absolutely clear with almost an image that you would think is an eclipse of the sun.  I saw both of those while we were visiting in the Seattle area.  Just as quickly as the sun shone through, it was gone once again.

Sunbreaks are those aha events that make you pay attention.  Your day may be covered with the dark gray of the clouds and then a little light shines through it all as if to speak softly to your spirit.  A sunbreak may even stick around for more than a minute or two and suddenly you find yourself and others looking up into the sky, as if seeing some strange object for the first time.

Sunbreaks could be used as a metaphor for all the things in life that cause us to stop and pay attention in the midst of all the ordinary that happens in our lives.  We often get bogged down in the gray routine of life and do not notice the small things that break into our existence even as the sun shines through the clouds for just a moment or two.  A sunbreak could be that beautiful red cardinal that I saw today when I was at home for lunch and looked out into my backyard.  It was sitting on a gazing ball that we have in our garden area where few plants are living right now.  It perched there for a few minutes, not paying attention to our two dogs who were walking not too far from its perch.  The beauty of its red feathers brightened up our cold day until it finally flew up into a tree.

Perhaps a sunbreak is a person in your life who lifts your spirits or gives you something to think about that invigorates your life for a bit.  My wife and I stayed at a bed and breakfast for a few of the days we were visiting our daughter and son in law so as not to be such a burden on them (remember the words of Ben Franklin--"Fish and visitors begin to smell after 3 days.") and our host and hostess at the B&B were two delightful people to get to know.  They were both so caring and creative, ready to respond to any need we had in order to make our stay with them more comfortable.  Their home was immaculate and their friendliness brightened up each day as we visited with them over breakfast.  They were sunbreaks whose warmth went with us as we ventured out each day to walk in the misty air that often is present there.  We arrived as guests but departed as friends because of their warm care.

Sunbreaks are usually totally unexpected.  Even though the forecasters may have predicted that a sunbreak could happen, he or she never could predict when or where they would happen.  The sunbreaks in our lives are that way.  We never know the source of them until they happen.  Then, we are filled with light and warmth because of their unexpected presence.  We bask in the feeling that they bring and enjoy every moment.

We can be the recipients of sunbreaks from the world around us and from others in our world but we can also be the ones who cause others to enjoy sunbreaks in the dark and cloudy world in which we live.  Our lives can be producers of sunbreaks as we share the joy we have and lend a helping hand to those who may be needy.  We can allow the light we have received to shine through our lives so others will suddenly stop and pay attention and marvel at the light shining on them, as if they have seen it for the first time in their lives. And, for some, perhaps it is.

"You are the light of the world...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works  and give glory to your Father in heaven."  Matthew 5: 14a, 16)