Monday, September 14, 2015

A Happy Soul

Jesus asked, “What will it profit you to gain the whole world if you forfeit your life?”

Last Tuesday, 157 passengers and 13 crew members where ready to take off on a British Airways plane headed from Las Vegas to London when one of the engines burst into flames.  Chris Henkey, the jet’s pilot, brought the aircraft to a stop, deployed the inflatable slides, and ordered all on board to evacuate immediately.  In 1985 57 people died from smoke inhalation in a similar incident.  Lessons learned from that tragedy have been incorporated into training and this time the crew helped everyone make it to safety. 

The evacuation was not without its challenges.  More than a few passengers, ignoring preflight instructions, insisted on carrying their bags as they left the plane.  Sid Langley, one of the passengers, posted on Facebook that he “did the right thing, grabbed wife and ran,” but noted that “other silly buggers fiddled around” grabbing their luggage from overhead bins.  The pilot was furious, citing not only the obvious time these actions required, but also the possibility luggage could have damaged the emergency slides.

It raises an obvious question: If you were in a similar situation, what would you do?  Would you risk your life (and possibly the lives of others) to save some possessions important to you or would you grab the people important to you and head directly for safety?  It is a choice I hope none of us ever has to make in an instant of panic, but it is one we engage indirectly on a daily basis: What is it we value most and how do we demonstrate it? 

This morning we hear these words of Jesus:

Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

The word life appears four times in these 54 words and is referenced indirectly two more times through the word it.  In the context of Jesus predicting he will have to suffer and be crucified, it is natural to assume he is talking about one’s literal life.  You may find it interesting to know the Greek word translated here as life is psyche, typically rendered “soul”.  Scott Hoezee notes this translation demonstrates “Jesus is concerned… about that mysterious but undeniable spiritual center to who we are as marvelously complex creatures made in the image of God.”  “What does it profit you to gain the whole world if you forfeit your soul in the process?”  This, I think, is perhaps the preeminent question of our age.

For over twenty years Bill Provenzano was a commodity trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.  Here is his account of what motivated him for this demanding work:

I used to love going to the underground parking garage [at] the Merc…  Four floors of underground parking held some of the most expensive and sexy automobiles I had ever seen.  Mercedes, Porsche, Ferrari, they were all there in abundance.  Those visits to the… parking garage were my inspiration for success.  It was one thing to see those cars on car lots dotted throughout the suburbs.  But to know that I traded next to and with the owners of those fine automobiles made it more tangible, more attainable.

I used to dream of the day when I would drive my… Mercedes [convertible] from the suburbs into the city, stealthily dodging the early morning traffic.  And when the market closed at 2pm, I could just see myself taking the elevator down to “P3” where my freshly washed red chariot awaited the comfortable drive home in the summer air, top down of course.

Are you familiar with the Yuppie Prayer?

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray my Cuisinart to keep
I pray my stocks are on the rise
And that my analyst is wise
That all the wine I sip is white
And that my hot tub is watertight
That racquetball won’t get too tough
That all my sushi’s fresh enough
I pray my cordless phone still works
That my career won’t lose its perks
My microwave won’t radiate
My condo won’t depreciate
I pray my health club doesn’t close
And that my money market grows
If I go broke before I wake
I pray my Volvo they won’t take.

The absolute, unconditional surrender to the promises of material happiness is one way to lose your soul in our day.  A blogger raises a question that highlights another:

Recently, my computer broke and I had to buy a new one.  I ended up getting a 20” Apple iMac.  There’s a part of me that feels guilty: Did I really need the 20”?  No.  Couldn’t I have been happy with the 17”?  I suppose.  After traveling overseas and seeing people living in abject poverty, I feel guilty.  I feel horrible, actually - for the poor, for the starving, even for the workers in the Chinese factories earning pennies an hour to make me a stupid iMac.  But how much can I do to help them?  Don’t I need some things to enjoy life a little?

This person is trying to battle the very human urge to acquire, but feels tempted by every longing, defeated by every purchase, and guilty about every perceived extravagance.

We all live somewhere on a continuum of unabashed pursuit of worldly pleasures at one end and guilt over what we have at the other.  No matter where you are on the continuum, the thing we all have in common is a soul – a soul that craves, that longs, that aches to be alive.  That the soul seeks happiness is not in question.  What is required for the soul to be happy is.  What each of us is learning, if we are paying attention, is neither the belief “I’ll be happy if I have more” nor the thought “I will be happy if I have less” is true.

Did you notice the setting for today’s reading from the gospel?  It says Jesus is taking his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.  Caesarea Philippi, located on the southwest base of Mt. Hermon, is an interesting region.  In Jesus’ day it was dominated by the culture and values of the Romans, who made it the home of a shrine to their god Pan, said to guide shepherds and flocks.  In Old Testament times this region was the cultic center for worship of Ba’al, the Canaanite god of fertility.  Israel’s many kings and its citizens struggled constantly to reject the promises of this false worship and to remain true to the Living God.  Ba’al ruins littered the area.  Caesarea Philippi was a place where cultural values foreign to God’s people openly challenged their fidelity.  These alternative notions of happiness preyed on what the faithful believed gave real life to the soul. 

Jesus asks his disciples two questions: “Who do other people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?”  Given the setting, Jesus is not so much inquiring about doctrine as he is inviting his followers to think through the influence the culture around them has on their soul.  And while Peter comes up with the correct technical answer – you are the Messiah – he fails the quiz because his understanding of what this means has been corrupted by the predominant thinking of his time.  It held the Messiah was going to come with great power to right all wrongs; that he would be a Donald Trump-like figure who would designate some as losers, fire others on a whim, and pay his “killer” negotiators to make all other problems go away. 

The notion of Messiah is so corrupted in Jesus’ day he is forced to forsake it all together.  In its place he talks about the “Son on Man.”  This person does not take life to himself, but rather gives it away.  This posture, Jesus says, leads the soul to happiness, even if it results in suffering, rejection, and death.  Peter, caught up in the false notion, says it will never happen to Jesus, who strongly rebukes him: “You have set your mind on human things, not divine things.” “Your understanding of happiness has been corrupted by the world.”  This is so serious, it has put Peter’s soul, and hence ours as well, in peril, in jeopardy, and (in the worst case scenario) in mortal danger.

In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz states people living in a consumer culture can be divided into two types: “maximizers” and “satisficers.”  Maximizers, he says, always try to make the best possible choice and are often terrorized they may have overlooked better options.  Satisficers are happy to have material possessions that are “good enough” to satisfy their needs, even if there are better options available.

Jesus’ teaching about the soul’s path to happiness is clear:

· Enjoy what you have.

· Learn to be satisfied with what you have.

· Live life here and now.

· Give yourself to others and you will have something precious you can never achieve through acquiring.  

The story of Bill the commodity trader did not end with his longing for a fancy car.  He writes:

I wanted to be not just successful, but wildly successful.   That was certain.  But my focus on material wealth continued to cause me inner static that I could not ignore.  
My visits to the underground parking garage… became less frequent.  Instead, my eyes became ever more opened to the needs of the poor and hungry around the world.  Over time, I came to understand the joy of giving material blessings, (yes, money), and God was faithful.  My prayers, my “asking whatever I wished”, focused less and less on what I could spend on me.  In fact, it was around this time… TAGGs were born.  [They] revolve around giving away increasingly larger portions of my income while challenging me to maximize my trading results.
I never did buy that Mercedes, even though I could have.  Rather, I continued to drive a rusty 1991 Honda Accord with over 150,000 miles on it.  I used to joke that I was afraid to wash it because the dirt was all that held it together.  The guys at work used to have a field day when they saw me in that car.  

Jesus invites us to take up his cross and follow him.  Coming just a few days after we reflected on the heroic acts of so many people on 9/11, he invites us to consider what makes for a happy soul.  If life is something like being on that London-bound plane, what do you need to grab hold of and carry with you as you negotiate your way through the cares and occupations of this life; through its changes and chances?