Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Happy Christmas?

I have been thinking and reflecting a great deal these last few days; thinking a lot about what makes us happy.

You may have already noted from some of my previous postings that I am no great advocate of some of the more superficial or straightforward definitions of happiness, nor of the means by which people seek to pursue such ultimately elusive and transient emotional highs.

But if that all seems too high minded or esoteric then I will quote that great philosopher Sheryl Crowe ‘ If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad; if it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?’

... 'if it makes you happy why the hell are you so sad?’...


I have to honestly confess that Sheryl’s words (sung or spoken) are occasionally quoted to me by my family. Whatever are they trying to tell me? (Please do not attempt to answer!!)

But over these last few days the whole question of happiness has arisen again. In some part I suppose this is because of that oft-repeated greeting ‘ Happy Christmas’.  What do people mean when they say that to me? What do I mean when I say it to others? What do I/they mean by ‘happy’?

Today I had the undoubted privilege of being involved in the annual ‘Spifox’ Christmas Carol Service and Lunch. 

‘Spifox’ stands for the ‘Scottish Property Industry Festival of Christmas’ and the Carol Service is hosted at St Cuthbert’s (and has been for many years). Thereafter the lunch (for around 1400 people!) is held in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre.

In the 21 years since this event began Spifox have (of today) raised over £3 million for charities caring for children and young people in Scotland. Remarkable!

Today as we listened to the representatives of this year’s recipient charities describing their work I was aware of the emotion and the tears. Yet these did not seem to jar with the jollity and laughter. Both seemed to me to reflect a very positive kind of happiness; the happiness of having fun in good company and the happiness of being able to do something for those who need our support and assistance. The tears did not contradict the happiness; they were part of it. The challenge and poignancy of some of the stories we heard did not seem to jar with the fun and celebration but somehow (strangely?) all of it became woven together into one.

That seems not so far removed from another experience of the last few days as I have been reflecting on the death of a gentleman in my congregation, meeting with his family and preparing for the funeral in a couple of days time. Sadness, tears, happy memories and appreciation were all combined in one.


And yet there has been another strand these past few days.

I have struggled with the pain and anxiety of a spouse and family dealing with a loved one who has a progressive degenerative illness. They truly have cause to feel unhappy. As a Minister I can do little more than stand with them, feel with them, pray with them and share and acknowledge the unhappiness.

But alongside all of that I have also had to deal with the all too frequent politics and personality clashes that are part of everyday congregational life.

Actually, were I to be more accurate, then I would say not only congregational life but life in every human organisation or group. Although I have been involved more in congregations than with other groups and have seen some of the pettiness of personality conflicts, politics and posturing in churches, I must honestly say that the worst I have ever encountered were not in church groups but in political parties (I was an active member of one such for some years) Parent Teacher Associations (don’t get me started!) and Community Councils.  

I guess the problem is people.

And here I get back to happiness.

I can understand why the pettiness etc of others can make us unhappy. But why do we (in response) choose to react by way of criticism and cynicism, resentment and ridicule, sarcasm and slight, bitterness and bile?

It makes nothing better, only exacerbates and multiplies the problem and (and this is significant) ends up making us more unhappy than we were to begin with!

Gosh, talk about cutting off our nose to spite our face!

The more aggrieved we become, the less we choose grace and generosity of spirit, the more we convince ourselves that we are the injured party and we are right, the less we show forgiveness and understanding, the worse our own unhappiness becomes!

My observation of recent days is that those who choose to look at the bigger picture with a grace-filled attitude (however much they have been wronged), those who are forgiving and accommodating, those who are understanding and gracious, those who genuinely see the plight of others who really have struggles and difficulties, those who do not regard their own agendas as the only important matter are much more likely to be ‘happy’ people.

While those who continually complain and carp, who are concerned that their rights and privileges have been thwarted, who only have grumps about this or that or the other, who are primarily concerned with pursuing their own agenda, are much more likely to be miserable!

And why on earth would anyone choose misery?

And one final thought regarding this in the church... and bear in mind (as I said above) it is not only the church! 

If our engagement with the church is mainly (or increasingly) in terms of its organisational machinations and we are divorcing ourselves from its worship, fellowship and mission, then we will get an increasingly jaundiced view (which will, of course, make us increasingly unhappy!).

Thank God my engagement with the church is not only ‘organisational’ or ‘political’. It is the worship, fellowship and mission of the church that put these secondary matters into perspective. Distance ourselves from these more important aspects of church life and we will have a warped view indeed.

Choose to focus on pettiness (whether as perceived in others or found in ourselves) and we choose unhappiness.

And why on earth would we choose to that?