In Hot Pursuit of Happiness

I have a bone to pick with the Founding Fathers.  Check out this well-known line from the Declaration of Independence :

Image courtesy of justsweetandsimple.blogspot.com
Image courtesy of justsweetandsimple.blogspot.com

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I can accept “life” and “liberty” (although neither is a God-given right according to the Bible), but why did they say we have a right to “the pursuit of happiness”?  And what does it mean to chase something like happiness? They didn’t say we have a right to be happy in the same way we have a right to live and be free.  They just said we have a right to try to be happy.  First of all, I think we forget the “pursuit of” phrase when we think about our rights as Americans.  Secondly, I think we misunderstand happiness.

My modern definition of happiness:
a sense of contentment or well-being
derived from one’s external circumstances.

Maybe happiness had a different meaning back in 1776.  After all, meanings do change over time.  If you think you know what the Founding Fathers meant by happiness, feel free to post it in the comments.  These days, happiness seems to mean comfort, convenience, even entertainment.

Look where this logic takes you:  If I “need” my TV shows to make me laugh, which indicates that I’m happy, then I have a right to those TV shows.  Or—*warning: I’m about to get political here*—if my lifestyle makes me feel good (i.e. makes me happy), regardless of its morality, then I have the right to live that way.  Most Americans are in hot pursuit of happiness.

This idea—that we have the right to happiness­—leads us to believe that we are entitled to entertainment.  Why is the cost of cable/satellite television listed under ‘necessities’ in our budgets? Why do people take out loans to go on vacation? Why do many families subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime on top of their existing television bills?  Why do our children play video games at the dinner table and have game systems in their rooms?  Why do those same children complain when the DVD player in the minivan doesn’t work?

Entertainment has become
the preeminent priority
of the American populous.

Before I go on, let me clarify.  There’s nothing wrong with being happy. I like it when everyone in my home is happy, and everyone else likes it when I’m happy: “When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!” Also, I watch TV, go the movies, attend concerts, and all that sort of stuff.  There’s nothing inherently sinful in these activities (although, of course, we all need to guard what we see and hear). The issue on my mind for the last few months is this:  the relentless pursuit of happiness through entertainment, as if it were the goal of life, the preeminent priority of the American populous.

A recent television commercial suggests that we should have access to our television, movies, and/or music even while we rock climb or horseback ride.  I know they are using exaggeration to make a point, but it still makes me uneasy.  Is constant access to entertainment really going to improve our lives? It feels like we’re entertaining ourselves into idiocy and social ostracism.  Tony Reinke, posting at Desiring God, observes, “This is sloth at its deadly best: trying to preserve personal comforts through the candy of endless amusements.”  And like the sugar in candy, entertainment is addictive.  We have the freedom to eat as much candy as we want (Watch out, Halloween, here I come!), but we aren’t entitled to candy (at Halloween or any other time), and it certainly isn’t good for us to eat candy until our stomachs ache.  The same is true of entertainment, which is why no one has to explain the new term, “binge-watching.”  It reminds me of this.

Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. -Philippians 3:18b-19

Consider these six things we may lose when our minds are set on the earthly “pursuit of happiness.”

Loss of Rest

Entertainment is not rest or leisure.  Our minds need rest just as much as our bodies.  If we sit down to rest for a minute but we feel compelled to flick on the TV or scroll through Facebook, we’re not really resting.  It’s a false high, like a caffeine buzz.  Sitting on the porch, just watching the sunset, is restful.  Watching TV is not restful for our minds.  A long, face-to-face conversation with a friend, a brother or sister in Christ, is restful. Trolling Facebook, where you have 500 “friends” is not restful.  Paul Maxwell  said it well: “Don’t stop and collapse into mindless inactivity. That’s a cycle of laziness — fake, shallow rest — not rest.”

Loss of Logic

When we fill all of our ‘down time’—even the thirty seconds we wait at a traffic light—with diversions, we lose the ability to carry thoughts to their logical conclusions.  It takes time to work through a problem, and our minds don’t always operate on an 8-to-5 timetable.  I don’t know about you, but I get some of my best ideas in the bathroom.  I may be wasting water in the shower, but I’m solving the world’s problems (or so I tell my husband)! Even right now, I’m tempted to “take a break” from this difficult writing and go check Twitter.  Sometimes our problems feel like mental weightlifting, but if we drop the weights in the middle of the set, we’ll never get any stronger.

Loss of Empathy

In a recent interview  on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Professor Sherry Turkle (author of Reclaiming Conversation: The power of Talk in a Digital Age) bemoans the loss of casual social interaction. She says, “Face to face conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do; it’s where we learn to put ourselves in the place of the other.”  Authentic conversation is the incubator for empathy; it’s how we learn to express it and to seek it.

Authentic conversation is
the incubator for empathy.

As Turkle points out, if everyone is privately occupied, we will not converse, which means we will not learn to communicate our pain or share another’s pain.  I wonder, is this why I cry over books and movies so much more than my children? Are they lacking empathy? (Not to mention how frequent portrayals of violence and death cause our children–and us–to become jaded to the real thing!)

Loss of Creativity

By constantly indulging in entertainment, we also lose creativity. Mind-wandering, and even a little boredom at times, fosters creativity and innovative thinking.  Back in 2012, Irish TV writer/director Graham Linehan said, “The creative process requires a period of boredom, of being stuck. That’s actually a very uncomfortable period that a lot of people mistake for writer’s block, but it’s actually just part one of a long process. The internet has made it very difficult to experience that.” (Here’s an article  about the link between boredom and creativity, if you’re interested. I found the Linehan quote there.)

Loss of Spiritual Intimacy

“If you’re constantly stimulated by being called away to the buzzing and the excitement of what’s on your phone, solitude seems kind of scary,” according to Professor Turkle in that same interview on Weekend Edition. I think we’re afraid that, if we have time to actually look inside ourselves, we won’t like what we see. We’ll be forced to pay attention to whatever difficult thing we don’t want to acknowledge or the change God has been asking us to make, so we pursue inauthentic happiness through the diversion of entertainment.

Consider this situation from my Bible study, Dwell: Mary, Martha & Lazarus (yet to be published).  It comes from Luke 10:38-42, where Martha prepares a meal while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. I was writing about how we let ourselves be distracted.

Just for a minute, put yourself in Mary’s place: completely absorbed in Jesus’ words and thoughts, even in His facial expressions. Maybe you (not Mary—you, yourself) have been making excuses for a long time. Maybe you’re just scared to honestly look into the face of Jesus. Maybe the distractions are your distancing technique so that you don’t have to be real with God. If there were no distractions…nothing else to do…would you be comfortable sitting at the feet of Jesus?

Loss of Engagement

Have you ever had a fascinating conversation with a complete stranger on a bus or while waiting at the doctor’s office?  Although I’m an introvert, I still remember several really interesting conversations with people I never saw before or since.  But not since I got a smart phone. Professor Turkle says that we’re actually losing the ability to carry on a conversation.

Not only do we no longer have those pleasant, serendipitous conversations, but we’ve also forfeited God-orchestrated opportunities to share Truth. When our son started practicing sports, I thought it would be a great chance to get to know some parents and share Truth as the Holy Spirit provided openings.  Instead, every parent sits on the bleachers absorbed in his or her phone or tablet.  No one talks.  1 Peter 3:15 says, Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. They aren’t going to ask me anything–they aren’t even going to know about my Hope–if I look busy on my phone or if they prefer the ease of social media over the potential awkwardness of new social interaction. Sure, you might show a Christian YouTube video to your neighbor, and God might use it in your neighbor’s life, but can it replace an authentic relationship with that neighbor? I don’t think so.

So, Founding Fathers, what did you mean by “the pursuit of happiness”?

Somehow, I don’t think it was the mindless entertainment and deluge of distractions that we’ve established as the path to personal satisfaction in the 21st century.  Entertainment is like mental junk food.  It fills us up, but it doesn’t satisfy.  When our mindset (back to Phil 3:19 again) revolves around self-indulgence through constant distractions or entertainment, we lose so much of what connects us to each other and to God.  This vain pursuit of ill-defined happiness may just set the course for our destruction.

I’ve got a bone to pick with the founding fathers. 6 things we lose when we over-prioritize happiness. Because my #happiness is #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Have you given this any thought? What do you think we sacrifice when happiness or comfort become our highest priorities? I’d be happy to start a conversation about this in the comments below.

Why I Write

A businessman approaches an architect because he needs a larger space for his business. The architect agrees to design a new building.  The architect could design a big box that looks like Wal-mart, Best Buy, or a dozen other large retailers.

aerial box store
credit: flickr.com
Walmart
credit: en.wikipedia.org

Or he might design something more akin to a Guggenheim Museum.

credit:  bc.edu
credit: bc.edu
credit:  pinterest
credit: pinterest

Why?  Why even bother to reach for the heights of your profession, the epitome of beauty, the full release of expression?  One functions just as well as the other . . . and costs significantly less.

I once went to the symphony in Poland. The Krakow Chamber Orchestra played Bolero, by Maurice Ravel.  By no means is this the most profound piece of music ever written.  Ravel himself called it “simplistic.”  At the culmination of the piece during this performance, however, the audience sat in stunned silence for much longer than was appropriate before they began to applaud.  But once that applause began, it did not stop.  The orchestra returned and performed the last bit again as an encore.  Again, the audience refused to stop clapping.  The entire orchestra returned for a second time and played the entire, fifteen-minute piece again.  (What exhaustion for the percussionist on the snare!)  When the applause resumed, the conductor turned around and said, “Please!  We cannot.”

There are times (I’ve written about this before) when I have to just stop reading and let an exquisite sentence settle into my mind. Sometimes, I reread a paragraph several times because it is so well-conceived.  My friend, Hannah, is really good at writing like this.  She recently penned, “The invisible fibers of my spiritual muscles had broken down through the relentless repetition of stress and spiritual warfare.” (Here is the context, if you’re interested.  You have to scroll down some to get to Hannah’s part.)  That’s poetry in paragraph form.

So all those examples mean . . . what?

There’s a message that I want to convey when I write, but any number of people could tell you the same thing. I am not so presumptuous as to think that God reveals Himself to me with any sort of exclusivity.  Once you get the grammar right, like the structure inside a building, the function of writing is settled.  But then, the message takes on the personality of the writer and attempts to link his or her subject (for me, a continually increasing understanding of God) with the lives of his or her readers.

There is something significant in a beautiful building, a superb symphony, a perfectly proportioned paragraph. (And it’s not just the alliteration.  Ha-ha!)  Such things affect us more deeply and connect us more securely not only to the creators and performers but to everyone around us.  The audience in Krakow that night stood up “in one accord.”

credit:  vacationlovers.net
credit: vacationlovers.net

Visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. just know to be quiet—even the children.  No one has to tell us to do that.  The place evokes a reaction.

The best writers (fiction, nonfiction, prose, poetry—it doesn’t matter) do the same thing:  ignite a reaction in the reader’s mind . . . and sometimes in his heart.  I think most artists/designers are trying to do this.  But the writer has a further advantage; he can also be the voice of that shared human experience.

I write because I want to understand—and help the reader understand—how profound God truly is. If, through my unique presentation, I can reach into another’s soul like God has reached into mine and pluck the strings of comprehension so precisely that Truth reverberates into your toes and permanently reconditions your heart . . . well . . . then, facts and observations become authentic Christ-likeness and the earthly expression of His glory.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

Afterward

Just after I finished the rough draft of this post, I read *this* blog entry by John Piper.  So now that I made you plow through my convoluted thought processes, go read how he phrases it so eloquently:  that each of us is the “secretary of the praise of God.”

Who Am I?

A block of precious marble

but still cut from the earth like any other rock

specially selected

hand chosen

to be carved into the likeness of the Son

Like Michelangelo carving David: “It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.”

Just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like Christ

Many shards–large and small–fall away

But the sculptor hits a vein in the marble

Progress halts

until the stone releases that weak, discolored thread it grasps so frantically

Why, Lord, did you choose THIS block of marble

knowing that an ugly, feeble vein was hidden inside?

He chose it for the veins

not despite them

not ignorant of them

Those veins make this image of the Son different from all His others

Those veins are the stone’s beauty

merged into Christ

“Sometimes I consider myself there, as a stone before a carver, whereof he is to make a statue:  presenting myself thus before GOD, I desire Him to make His perfect image in my soul, and render me entirely like Himself.”  –Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  –Romans 8:29

On occasion, the rebel in me rises up and questions the idea of being ‘conformed to’ an image alongside thousands of others.  I don’t want to look like/act like/think like everybody else.  Conformity is the antithesis of creativity.  As I was pondering this Brother Lawrence quote alongside everything God has revealed to me about beauty recently, this image of the veins in the marble arose.  The veins, though they have to be…tamed…differentiate one statue from another without actually changing the form.  Such is the uniqueness we have in Christ even as we are conformed to His image.

“Who Am I?” A poem of identity that’s, ironically, not about me. (click to tweet)

Do you have an image that helps you understand our identity in Christ? Please share it in the comments!

The Pursuit of Beauty

beauty collageI’ve never met a follower of Christ who didn’t enjoy a beautiful sunset, a mountain vista (especially in autumn!), or a fresh flower glossed with dew. God is, without doubt, an artist. I am astounded by the fact that it wasn’t necessary to make sunsets beautiful or leaves colorful in autumn. He masterminded beauty because He is intrinsically beautiful, because He loves us, and because He wants us to enjoy what He has created. He wants us to enjoy Him. Each beautiful vista, each moss-covered rock, each rough and gnarled tree, is a gift we can only enjoy because He also created within us the capacity (meaning this open space where we see, understand, and/or create) for beauty.

Thus, I think it’s fair to say…

Much like God is love, He is beauty.

Beauty nourishes the soul.

There is also something in our spirits that delights in humanly created beauty:  a well-written sentence, a well-chiseled sculpture, a well-crafted jar with perfect proportions and elegant lines.  Reflecting on Oswald Chambers’ life, David McCasland writes, “Art was God’s gift to make life on earth bearable. Poetry and music were not luxuries, but necessities.” I have occasionally, while reading a book, come upon a sentence so beautiful that I had to pause, reading it over and over until I felt that I had drunk in everything it had to offer. But I’m a self-confessed word-nerd. For you, maybe it’s paintings, pottery, or poetry. Okay, so I enjoy all those, too. My point is that beauty nourishes the soul.

Back in 2013, I didn’t realize my soul was starving until we went on vacation. In an archaeological museum, I saw a marble statue of a man. It had been on a ship that sunk in the Mediterranean Sea where it remained partially buried in the ocean floor for something close to a thousand years. The right side of the statue, which had been covered by sand for all those years, was pristine: smooth, clear, almost alive. You could sense the now-unknown artist’s exquisite understanding of the human form and his mastery of his craft. The left side, which had been exposed to salt water and animal life for those same years, would have been unrecognizable on its own. It was mottled gray, craggy—like a decomposing corpse. The contrast between the two sides highlighted the beauty of the right. (It also reminded me of Ted Dekker’s Circle Trilogy, but that’s not the direction I want to go right now.)

beauty D - Carole Sparks
sculpture in the pediment of the Parthenon (c) Carole Sparks

The reason we find certain things beautiful and others ugly is because God made us to perceive the world that way, but what we find “beautiful” is a result of culture.  I think the Greeks defined beauty for us Westerners. It happened about 3000 years ago (don’t quote me on that), and our understanding of beauty—especially when it comes to the human form—hasn’t changed since: young, slender, strong, well-proportioned. Other major cultural groups define it differently, but you can certainly see, in Western societies, that we pursue beauty. We lust after it. We fight for it…and sometimes fight over it. The beautiful princesses have knights fighting on their behalf in fairy tales.  And the beautiful co-eds have college guys fighting over them in modern movies.

My soul-founded urge to create
something beautiful belies another
expression of my pursuit of God.

As I stood looking at that half-disintegrated sculpture in the museum, I questioned why we are drawn to beauty and why we ourselves long to be beautiful. Both the desire to be beautiful and the desire to create beauty are, in fact, the desire to be like God. God is beauty and the author of beauty. If I pick up a pencil and a sketchbook or start carving away at a piece of wood, if I focus my camera lens just so or place my fingers on the keyboard in front of a blank word-processing document, if I take a deep breath and begin to sing or hold the last diminishing note of an instrumental jazz solo, my soul-founded urge to create something beautiful belies another expression of my pursuit of God.

Is all creativity essentially
an imitation of God?

I wonder about the atheist. Why does he create beauty? Is it something within himself that even he does not understand…perhaps some innate desire to be God-like? Certainly for those of us who follow Jesus, the connection is easy to see: We want to be like Jesus, to be close to the Creator, Who made all things good. Thus, the pursuit of beauty, even in its most profane form (as some “art” is these days), may be essentially the pursuit of God.

There have been those throughout Christian history who indiscriminately rejected all art. They feared people might pervert beauty into idolatry (a justifiable fear, by the way) much like love can be perverted into lust. Were they not, out of a fear of sinning, rejecting the intrinsic beauty of God? If we first grasp God’s love by our experience of love in relation to other people, then our experience of His beauty may also come first from our experience of it in the world. Beauty is not something to be feared and restricted but something to be understood, received, and enjoyed.

There is something in me that compels me toward creativity. I need to be creative…to fashion something with my mind and hands, then hold the completed project in these same hands. Without such an outlet, I feel stifled, sometimes straight-jacketed. In the past, I ‘chalked it up’ to my personality, and even as I discuss these thoughts with others, I see that my experience is not ubiquitous. As the Father has led me to ponder these things, however, I now understand that my artistic/creative ‘bent’ is often the fuel for my pursuit of God. As I create, I understand more of the Creator. As I produce something beautiful that begins within my mind, I gain insight into God, who not only creates beautiful things but is Himself beautiful. There is glory to be had through this creative process, and that glory is His.

Creativity, the pursuit of beauty, and the nature of God. Because He is beauty. (click to tweet)

Check the comments for quotes I’ve added to the discussion since I first wrote this essay.

What about you? Do you have that artistic ‘bent’? Do you think it leads you to God? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!