The God of Joy and Pleasure

Lesson:  Psalm 16

   The other day, a church member told me how he first became seriously interested in the woman who became his wife.  He’d been dating her for a while before he saw her Bible.  In that Bible was an inscription from her father, a Presbyterian pastor.  It said, “To live is to know the Lord, to love the Lord, and to serve the Lord.”  He was surprised to see this.  He was surprised, he said, because he’d dated a number of seriously Christian women, but none of them had been as much fun as this one.

It is a sad truth that being fun and funny, being joyful and enjoying life’s pleasures are NOT associated with being a Christian.  We’ve all heard of Christians who don’t drink or dance, some who won’t even drink coffee or go to movies or listen to popular music.  Another church member asked me just last week, “Did John Knox ever laugh?”  Knox, a student of John Calvin, was the Scottish reformer who founded the Presbyterian Church.  The word most often associated with John Knox is “dour.”  With Thanksgiving coming up this week, we’re mindful of the hard work and determination of the Puritans, but it was Puritanism that H. L. Mencken described as, “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.”

What’s going on here?  Would God prefer, even require that we be unhappy?  Does God want us to avoid having a good time, to deny ourselves experiences that are pleasurable, to seek dissatisfaction and discontent rather than enjoyment?  You know, it’s odd that our culture associates Christianity with grimness and a rejection of anything fun, given that the Bible is full of passages about joy.  Jesus told his disciples he wanted their joy to be complete.[1]  The apostle Paul said we are to rejoice always.[2]  Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.[3]  Theologian Lewis Smedes tells us, “To miss out on joy is to miss out on the reason for your existence.”

There is a difference between joy, and mere fun or pleasure, of course, and this morning’s psalm helps us sort that out.  Psalm 16 is a psalm of trust, but the first part is a prayer for safety.[4]  The best prayers, those that are most authentic and heartfelt, those without tired clichés and pious platitudes, are often the shortest prayers.  Anne Lamott says she has prayer down to one word: “Help!”  Psalm 16 begins with a short, tender and very powerful prayer.  It’s just four words, and you can pray it at any time, at any place, for any reason:[5] “Protect me, O Lord.”[6]  Keep me safe, God.  The psalmist knows what we know: Our world is not always a safe place.  For some people, it is rarely safe, but we are all vulnerable to tragedy and sorrow.

And yet, the psalmist is confident in God.  The psalm contains what biblical scholars think might be a couple of the most difficult to translate verses in the Psalms, if not the Old Testament.  Verses 3 and 4, about the holy ones, have been translated a number of ways but whatever version you choose, the psalmist is clearly opting to trust in God over other gods.[7]

The psalmist makes it clear that trust in God is not a right belief, a warm feeling, or something to turn to only in times of trouble.  He describes trust as a way of acting and living that makes God the most important reality in life.  This kind of trust is cultivated.  It is practiced.  It is intentional.  We don’t start out acting in the world in ways that are faithful because we necessarily feel trust.  Our actions are a way of cultivating or maintaining our trust in God.[8]  And this, this, says the psalmist, is what leads to joy.  To pleasure.  To enjoying life and even having fun in ways that far surpass any mere search for the next entertaining moment.  The psalmist expresses unbridled joy and even pleasure in the teaching, the guidance, the counsel of God that call forth his praise.  These expressions of gratitude come from his inner being, his whole being: from my heart, says the psalmist, and my soul, a word which sounds like “my liver” in Hebrew; and I will be glad, literally “my throat” will be glad and rejoice while my whole body will rest secure.[9]

What does this look like?  Last Sunday evening was our Together We Serve Dinner – also the kick-off to our stewardship campaign.  Dave Jones, a church (and choir) member who served as chair of the stewardship campaign for several years, told us a story about one way that being a part of this congregation had changed his life.  So some of you heard this Sunday night but others of you were not there.  I asked Dave if I could tell this story and he said sure, but he wondered if it would be as good if people hadn’t had a glass or two of wine before they heard it.  I think it is.  Our stewardship campaign a few years ago focused on the way that gratitude makes people more generous.  Dave Jones immersed himself in this notion, practicing gratitude; specifically, gratitude to God; paying attention to the reality that everything is a gift from God.  Dave rode his bike to the Larkspur ferry on his way to work.  When the ferry rounded Angel Island and he saw the vista opening up onto San Francisco and the Bay he would say, “Thank you, God, for the gift of this day.”  And he found that if you hold onto the conviction that everything belongs to God then it really, truly does make it easier to be generous.  One day he bought a couple of bunches of flowers for someone in his office, and before taking them up to his floor, he stopped for coffee at the café in his building.  The woman behind the cash register joked, “Oh, those are for me and the chef.”  Dave laughed along with her and then delivered the flowers to the people that he’d bought them for in the first place.  A couple of weeks later, he went to the café again, and again, he had two bouquets.  “Oh, those are for me,” said the cashier.  And Dave said, “Yes, they are.”  And he gave one bunch to the cashier, and one bunch to the chef.  They were, of course, floored.  A man on the elevator spoke to Dave on the way up.  “I saw that,” he said.  “Yeah,” said Dave, “that was fun.”  Fun.  That’s the word he used.  Dave said he thought the man was trying to come up with some way to rib him, some clever banter, but the best he could come up with was, “I bet you go to church.”  And Dave said, “Yes, I do.  I go to the First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo.”

What Dave’s story and the psalmist tell us is that real happiness, real fun, lasting joy come from trust in God, from a life lived in the presence of God, living with gratitude for God’s gifts.  The psalmist doesn’t use the word “grateful,” or even the word “thanksgiving,” but this psalm is chock full of his gratitude for what God has done, and what he trusts God will do in his life.

In a fascinating paradox, the more we try to find happiness and the more we devote our resources, time, talents, energy and money to making ourselves happy and to having fun, the less it seems to work.  As Dave discovered, though, something weird happens when we use our money to make someone else happy: we get happier.  This seems to be true of charitable giving in general, as well as for gifts to family and friends, and, as it is stewardship season … to the church.

And it turns out that there is research to support this idea.  In a paper published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers shared the results of a 2008 experiment.  They approached individuals on a university campus, handed them a $5 or $20 bill, and then randomly assigned them to spend the money on themselves or on others by the end of the day.  When participants were contacted that evening, individuals who had been assigned to spend their windfall on others were happier than those who had been assigned to spend the money on themselves.  So if pleasure is the goal, we get a two-for-one deal when we spend our money on other people.  We’re happier, and the people we spend it on are happier too.[10]

And of course, this isn’t just about money.  It’s about other ways of giving, as well.  Just talk to the folks who work at our winter shelter.  They practically glow.

It is gratitude and trust in God that make it possible and even likely that people will be generous when they aren’t part of a psychological experiment.  It is gratitude and trust in God that will give us joy and pleasure.  “Joy and gratitude go hand in hand.  We are not grateful because we’re happy, rather we’re happy because we’re grateful.”[11]

The trust that the psalmist celebrates creates a joy that goes beyond fun.  This joy is equipping.  It is mobilizing.  It is like fuel; it is like the reservoir we need to get us through the troubles and even tragedies we face in life.  It is the momentum we need to do the work to which Christ calls us.

One of our new church members said he’d never thought much about being part of a church until he witnessed the power of trust in God.  He’d taken part in protests against the Keystone XL Pipeline, a hotly contested project that would carry oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada to Texas oil refineries, but which raises many serious environmental concerns.  While he was protesting in Washington, D.C., he was arrested, and he spent 12 hours in jail.  He said it was hard, even just for 12 hours.  He wondered about the people who spend days in jail after being arrested for protests, and it occurred to him that some of them were able to keep going, to maintain a sense of themselves and their purpose and hope and even joy, and those were the people who had faith in God.

Verse 8 of the Psalm is, “because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.”  This verse inspired the old protest song, “We Shall Not Be Moved.”  The song has been adapted for labor strikes and civil rights protests from a hymn written by V. O. Fossett, who, in turn, borrowed from a spiritual sung by slaves early in our country’s history.  Fossett’s version is a prayer of trust in God.

Glory hallelujah, I shall not be moved;

Anchored in Jehovah, I shall not be moved;

Just like a tree that’s planted by the waters,

I shall not be moved.

(Sing it with me if you know it…)

I shall not be, I shall not be moved,

I shall not be, I shall not be moved;

Just like a tree that’s planted by the waters,

I shall not be moved.

Nowhere in the Bible are people condemned for wanting to be happy or even to have fun.  There is plenty of dancing, Jesus himself drank wine, and I have long thought it a tragedy that the Bible doesn’t tell us Jesus was laughing or smiling or rolling his eyes or smirking when he said some of the things he said.  Why is it that we so often picture Jesus with a John Knox-like scowl?

But beyond humor, beyond fun, Psalm 16 points us to the root of true joy, true pleasure.  A life that is centered in God, in trust in God and gratitude for God’s gifts, is a life more centered on the world and life, and finding more meaning in them.  It is a wider and fuller life.  It enables us to deal with more problems, and embrace more of life.  It isn’t that we’ll never feel sad, or frightened, or anxious.  It’s that the sadness or the fear or the anxiety won’t defeat us, and won’t define us.  We are set free from them.  Glory, hallelujah!  We shall not be moved.

It turns out, after all, that the young woman with the Bible wasn’t fun in spite of the inscription, “To live is to know the Lord, to love the Lord, and to serve the Lord.”  She was fun because of it.

May it be so for you, and for me.  Amen.  And happy Thanksgiving.

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