Back in 1978 a team of psychologists set out to study happiness. They gathered a group of people who had won between $50,000 to $1 million in the lottery, a group who were victims of devastating accidents that left them paralyzed, and a group chosen at random from the phone book to be a control group. As you might expect, the lottery winners said that winning was a highly positive experience and the victims of paralysis saw their accidents as highly negative. But to the surprise of the researchers, the lottery winners didn’t score any higher on scales of happiness than the control group and they actually took less pleasure in daily activities than the accident victims. Other research has shown that Americans’ feeling of well-being is no greater today than it was back in the 1950s when real per capita income was less than half of what it is today. And international researchers have found that people in Nigeria rate themselves happier than the Japanese whose income is 25 times greater.
Now, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter whether or not people are poor. There are lots of things associated with having more money that improve the quality of life, like health, nutrition, and education. But the point is that once basic needs are met there’s not a correlation between the things so many people invest their lives in, like money or success, and a sense of happiness and well-being.
That’s not news. Philosophers have been telling us that since the time of the ancient Greeks. True happiness, or that deeper more pervasive sense of joy, comes when we’re in touch with what we’re made to be. It’s something that comes from inside, but it’s not something we can create. It’s not something we achieve. It’s something we receive.
Proverbs tells us what delight there was when God created the world. I can imagine God shouting with joy at the grandeur of the Big Bang. God basked in sheer gladness watching the earth take shape and the dinosaurs evolve. And God’s crowning joy was sharing all that was made with the beloved human beings. God made us so there would be someone to share all the wonder of creation. The universe resounded with joy and delight when God made us.
So many people think of God as a stern taskmaster whose main goal is to make sure that human beings don’t enjoy themselves. If they were offered a chance to spend a vacation with God, they’d respectfully decline, imagining that it would be a horrible time hearing about how much you disappoint God and how much more you should be doing. That’s not how it would be at all. If you went on vacation with God, it would be the most delightful time you could imagine. God would be interested in you and show you all kinds of things you couldn’t see on your own.
I think of God as being like the Eastminster Preschool teachers. I look at some of those teachers who have been teaching here at the school for many years. I doubt there’s anything they haven’t seen from the hundreds of children that have come through their classes. Yet you can see that every child is special to them. They’re genuinely interested in each new discovery. They grimace with each skinned knee. The school runs so well because they’ve developed procedures and plans and know what works and what doesn’t, yet nothing is routine, no child is taken for granted. Sure, they put limits on what the children can do. They don’t let them jump out windows or treat other children unkindly. But that’s because they care about those children and take delight in them. They want to give them the best the school has to offer. That’s the point of the rules.
God created us to take that kind of delight in the world. We’ve been given the capacity to see life and find joy and delight, and yet we keep trying to find it in all the wrong places – like in ourselves.
Several years ago as part of a sabbatical grant my wife and I went to Britain. It happened to be our 25th wedding anniversary, so we used some of the grant to came home on the Queen Mary 2. Crossing the Atlantic by ship was one of the things on my bucket list, and it turned out to be even more fun and enriching than I had imagined. There were lectures on naval history, dance lessons, and best of all the feel of the ocean’s vastness you can only get when you cross it on the surface. Carol and I were assigned to a table where we took our evening meal, and the other guests seemed to be having as delightful a time as we were. Except one couple. They had retired early and were spending their retirement cruising. They lived on ships. When the Queen Mary 2 got to New York, they were going to get on a cruise ship to the Caribbean. From there they would get on another ship for some other destination. They did this all year, year in and year out. And they put a damper on our dinners. Each evening they’d tell us some new deficiency they’d discovered about the ship, some new way that their needs weren’t being met. The Grand Concourse was too small. The food wasn’t as good as it was on the Queen Elizabeth 2. Room service was slow. They had chosen to live their lives in this hermetically sealed environment, where they didn’t have to deal with any concerns of the world, with a crew of hundreds paid to meet their every need, and they were some of the most miserable people I’ve ever met.
I compare them with a young woman I know who graduated from nursing school. She spent her last summer in nursing school working at a mission hospital in Cameroon, West Africa. The conditions were awful. It was hot, no indoor plumbing, the medical supplies were rudimentary, the people she worked with were mostly AIDS patients whose life span was short. But when she came home in September, she was radiant. She couldn’t say enough about what a wonderful experience she’d had, the people she’d met, how gratifying it was for her to use her newly developed nursing skills to help those people dying from AIDS. She was given the grace of seeing the power of hope in the midst of all that suffering. With so much of the comfort and security she was used to stripped away, she could see what it was that really sustained her.
There’s nothing good about suffering or poverty or illness. Jesus spent his earthly ministry relieving people of their suffering. Pain and deprivation can embitter us and narrow our focus. But sometimes it’s in suffering that we see where our hope lies. When we have nothing else to rely on, often that’s when we know who it is that sustains us and we’re polished and refined to become more like the person God created us to be. That’s why Paul could boast in his suffering because suffering produces endurance and endurance character and character hope and hope does not disappoint us.
That’s why the best mentors in faith are so often those who have been around a while. Age inevitably brings some degree of suffering. The longer you’re around the more hits you take, the more disappointments you experience, the more pain your body endures. Several years ago I preached at the little country church where my father grew up. It was a miserably hot North Carolina day with the temperature and the humidity well into the 90s by the time church started. Fortunately, the cotton farmers had a good crop a few years earlier and the sanctuary was air-conditioned. Sitting in the front pew was Miss Carrie Mae Smith, my grandmother’s best friend. She was 105. She used a walker to get around, and she depended on church members to get her groceries and take her to her doctors. Miss Carrie Mae was with my grandmother when my father was born in the front room of the farm house in 1924. After the service I spoke to her. She said, “I can hardly see, and I couldn’t hear a word of your sermon, but the Lord knows I’m here.” Here was a wise woman. Who knows how many preachers she’d lived through, how many arguments over the color of the carpet in the sanctuary and the order of worship. For more than a century she had been through a lot that could have made her cynical. She was with my grandparents when their six year old son, the uncle I never knew, died of a ruptured appendix. She had seen scandal and betrayal. She became more and more familiar with pain as her body grew older. But she was there most Sundays at Midway Presbyterian Church to find hope.
By his grace, Jesus changes us so that we find delight in what God has created. We practice seeing the world through God’s eyes here in church. We practice so we’re ready when God fills us with the Holy Spirit that sends us out into the world where we see the power of God at work redeeming the creation. This church thrives because God has sent you out to confront suffering without being intimidated by it. It’s because God delights in us and wants us to know God’s power that God sends us out into the world.
goes on a mission trip or serves a meal to the homeless at the soup kitchen.
Some use their gifts to support and build up the community of faith by leading
worship or helping with Sunday School or organizing a fellowship dinner. But
God’s gift to us is that when Jesus joins us to his church, he’s not sheltering
us from the world’s suffering or pain. He’s equipping us to do his work of
engaging life head-on. And when we engage the world’s pain and suffering,
whether it’s in York or in Honduras or in the person sitting just down the pew,
the Holy Spirit pours God’s love into us, that same love that was there when
the world was formed, that was there on Calvary when Jesus took the brunt of
death for us, that was poured out on the apostles at Pentecost. That’s where
our delight is; that’s where our hope is, and hope doesn’t disappoint us.
 Elizabeth Kolbert, “Everybody Have Fun,” The New Yorker, March 22, 2010, pp. 72-74.
 Howard Gray, S.J., lecture at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, April 16, 2010.