Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

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We really must understand that the lust for affluence in contemporary society is psychotic. It is psychotic because it has completely lost touch with reality. We crave things we neither need nor enjoy. ‘We buy things we do not want to impress people we do not like.’ …It is time to awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick.-

Richard Foster

Much has been made of the theft of the Americas from the native peoples (theft is a gross understatement, and nothing that follows is an attempt to debunk the wrong the Native Americans have suffered.) I had a history teacher who once pointed out that the Island of Manhattan was sold to Dutch colonists. The value of the sale was low (60 Gilders or so, of beads, fish hooks and other “trinkets”). Yet the tribe believed that they were getting an excellent deal. Why? They knew what these white men were apparently ignorant of: No one can own land. Land is not a possession to be bought or sold, it is on loan from the Great Spirit. So this native people was happy to accept free trinkets in an impossible exchange. Likely they believed the Dutch would learn the valuable lesson that “a fool and his money are soon parted.”

The vast majority of Americans have repented of the violence, economic and otherwise, done to “Indians” yet not of the folly of ownership. Significantly, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence originally told us we are endowed with “the inalienable right(s)… Life Liberty and the pursuit of Property.” The lattermost was changed in order to reflect the discomfort of the author with the institution of slavery; yet ever since then, we have equated happiness with property. For every time you heard your grandmother say, “money can’t buy happiness, it can’t buy love” you heard a thousandfold “acquire this, it will make you happy.”

Some don’t see any problem with this and would happily say that “he who dies with the most toys wins.” Yet I do believe that this is psychotic. This sort of materialism represents such a severe mental emotional disorder that contact has indeed been lost with reality. Life is not evaluated the same way Wall Street is, the outcome is not determined like the X Games. He who has the most money, toys or adventures is not the winner. Life is not winnable. If it were, most of us should stop playing the game. Further, and perhaps most revealing of the Western-ness of this idea, those in the two-thirds world have a meaningless existence almost by definition.

My church has a tradition of beginning the year with prayer and fasting. These disciplines are growing less common in the world. I am sure there are many reasons for the decline i.e. they are difficult, they are strange, they are generally immaterial, rarely yielding tangible results etc. Yet they carry an old idea: silence and experience of poverty can often be the means through which the Divine reveals Itself.

“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is a sentiment both synonymous with and antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are equivalent, in that, the one who finds Jesus, finds all these things. Even those who die in Christ are better off than those alive without him. So, Life, in a sense, is not altogether important for the Christian. Liberty- indeed the only real liberty- is something that people who know Jesus will know. Yet Christians will find themselves commanded to do or avoid things that many are free to do. Finally, “happiness” tends to be synonymous with “stuff” and our culture certainly believes in the pursuit of happiness. In our time it may be strange to be a praying woman or worse yet a man of faith, but fasting is beyond comprehension. Fasting is a spiritual discipline; it is something we enter into that has no practical value. It will not make God answer your prayers any quicker. It will not make you a stronger or better Christian. In fact, if you enter into fasting in order to be more impressive, you have already failed, and should go no further (Lk 18:10-14). Perhaps worst of all, fasting will cost you something. Yet, when we temporarily abandon our pursuit of happiness, we are able to finally pursue Jesus. It may be impractical, it may leave you hungry, but chasing after the heart of the Lord is infinitely satisfying. May you pursue Jesus this year; He is already pursuing you!

**it should be noted that I was asked to write the final paragraph of this post for Living Streams Church

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1/1/13

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The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul- G.K. Chesterton

I was reading the preface of a book the other day which was unremarkable save t=for the post-script “Christopher Wright, Easter 2007.” It struck me that, unless he was lying, this theologian must have written his monograph on that day with great intention. As a Christian, I understand his choice of day and certainly the importance of it, yet his words would have been significant regardless of the day they were written. The concept of the “significant” days of the “year,” are an arbitrary convention in many ways; but they are useful, and help humans make sense of our world and allows us a sense of progress through time. In such a scientific, realistic, age what is it about holidays (Holy-days) that still grips us? Why do Western human beings get so excited with setting aside some moments as significant?

Today, for instance, is important. Perhaps because this is a year that some thought would never come. Indeed, for the more superstitious, the thirteenth year may carry ominous portents. Yet, in America, there were many New Year’s parties last night; with wine, laughter and good cheer. Folk chanted along with T.V. announcers as the great orb descended in New York. Yet were it not for the heathen astronomers’ desperate search for meaning in the heavens, we might have no sense of the change; no line in the sand of time.  We would be left only with the cycle of seasons, sensed easily in the changes of crops, daylight and weather.

Personally, the idea of New Years Day is delightful. I imagine that oak trees feel a sense of relief in winter – shaking off the old growth and having an arboreal sense of hope. Many of those I know have the same feeling. The doors have shut on the past for good or ill.  the troubles and failures of the previous year litter the earth of our lives and we look expectantly forward to buds of new growth. Yet despite all this, we are aware that the future likely holds the same difficulties as the past. What relief can the exchange of calendars really bring?

A friend of mine recently summed the attraction of New Years nicely “you may not be able to start over but you can have a new beginning.” This holiday carries the scent of fresh starts; our lives become a blank canvas, ready for new artistic choices. Resolutions are made with abandon, which the cynical are quick to mock. Yet wouldn’t it be wonderful to be given a new lease on life? Wouldn’t it be grand if it wasn’t just an arbitrary move by human beings but some jubilous divine act in which debts are canceled and the world is made new? Surely even the greatest cynic would admit to such hopes, if not perhaps to such a reality. It is my great hope and prayer that the world would, in fact, be in a better place this year; that you might experience a year of Jubliee and that the new year would be the beginning of Good News of great joy for all!

Luke Parker

New Years Day 2013