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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The New Mumford album

The definition of “Art” has been problematic in a Postmodern age.  This is particularly true in light of earlier definitions which are Modern in their roots.  I had a professor once who told me that “Good art challenges people.  Otherwise it isn’t art.”  While I’m not sure I agree with the latter part of his statement the former seems solid.

I have a friend who is an organist and he takes great exception to the idea that the organ is a boring instrument.  His argument is that the organists (not all but the majority) who are boring.  He says that the organ is an instrument of almost infinite complexity; it is built to challenge and create.  The problem is that somewhere along the way organists became “curators” instead of “innovators.”  “They were so concerned with losing precious traditions that they stopped trying to move people” (there is a metaphor here for mainline Christianity).
I have had many conversations recently about a band called Mumford and Sons.  There are quite popular with the demographic that I do ministry with, and I like their music.  Mumford has a tendency to use biblical themes in their music and it baffles people.  From Rolling Stone to a mediocre Christian blogger people have been speculating on whether or not the band is a “Christian” one.  This is the wrong question, largely because it obscures the content of the album.  The question should be: “Is this good art?”  If the definition of “Good art” is that it is both 1) aesthetically pleasing and 2) that it challenges people then I would argue that it is.  The album “Babel” makes almost constant use images and themes from Genesis 1-11.  Several people I have talked to have claimed that I am imagining this, others believe that it is an accident and that the lyrics are bewildering rather than deep (this may be true as well).  Folks outside my faith group have asked many questions about my opinions of the album.  Mumford for their part has said “the only thing we feel evangelical about is music” and I am sure they mean that- many Christian labels produce a remarkably low amount of good art.

Yet, despite their objections, it is obvious that growing up in the Vineyard UK has had a profound impact on these musicians.  As a result they are producing some very good art.  People are trying to put a box around the music (something which tends to happen to challenging art) because for the several years now Christians make Christian music and the rest of the community makes music.  Yet like U2 before them they are wrestling with Christian themes in a far deeper way than non-Christian musicians are capable of.  The pastor in me loves listening and wondering what exactly they are trying to say with lyrics like

…We will run and scream You will dance with me They’ll fulfill our dreams And we’ll be free
And we will be who we are And they’ll heal our scars Sadness will be far away  So as we walked Of fields of green As the fairest sun I’d ever seen And I was broke I was on my knees But you said yes as I said please… (Below my Feet see Revelation 21:22 and following)

 

…Touch my mouth and hold my tongue I’ll never be your chosen one I’ll be home, safe and tucked away You can’t tempt me if I don’t see the day … And oh, my heart was flawed I knew my weakness  So hold my hand, consign me not to darkness. Crawl on my belly ‘til the sun goes down I’ll never wear your broken crown I took the road and I (expletive) it all away. Now in this twilight how dare you speak of grace…. (Broken Crown see Genesis 3:1-14)

There is definitely a challenge here, and the fact that we as listeners are allowed to view this wrestling match is intentional.  The artist has effectively baited my curiosity and I have, as yet, to find an answer to my questions.  However I have found many people who are interested in talking about the album and I am thoroughly enjoying the conversations.