If you were to meet a never married, childless man in his mid-thirties, who still lives with and is close to his mother, hangs around cheaters, petty thieves, prostitutes, the mentally ill, unemployed, and adulterers, who himself has no job and no possessions, likes to drink and party and is a member of a fringe religious cult, what would you say about him? Given that description, I would probably think to myself that he is a bit strange and not someone I would befriend. And if I heard that at a young age he was arrested, charged with a capital crime and executed, I would be even more inclined to think he led a sad and tragic life that did not amount to much. As someone who, in my own grandiose vision of myself, likes to think I am part of society’s mainstream, this man is someone who I would not emulate. He would not be my role model for success or normalcy.
And yet, as most of you have already discerned, this man that I just described fits the life history, as we know it, of Jesus. However much the Bible contains supernatural tales and allegorical myths that were intended more to instruct than be literal history, Jesus was likely a real human who lived and died two-thousand years ago. Descriptions of his life, his teachings and the impact he had on society after his execution indicate that he was a flesh and blood man. The supernatural figure called the Christ, who performed numerous miracles and rose from the dead to now be God, is another matter. Jesus the Christ was an invention to mitigate the seemingly loser aspects of Jesus the man’s real life. Why would people want to remember or honor a man conceived out of wedlock, who never built or acquired anything of value, who enjoyed the company of other outcasts and who was executed in a manner reserved only for the worst kinds of criminals? As his followers believed, no history book would remember this person and certainly no religion could be created around him. Instead, he needed to be re-made into a god-man. And so he was.
But that being the case does not mean the real-life Jesus was a loser. Indeed, the very loser qualities that seemed to make his life an embarrassment to his followers, are instead the traits of a genuine hero. He succeeded in life in ways that few have matched. Absent his Christ status and power, Jesus remains a remarkable and truly amazing person. His teachings about peace, forgiveness, love of enemy, compassion for the outcast, service to the poor and sick and hatred of hypocrisy still resonate around the world as profound and breathtaking. While he may not have been a god, his ethics and the way he led his life point to the Divine. Jesus is history’s most famous loser who rose above and, indeed, embraced his “loser” label to truly succeed. In that way, he remains a role model for us all.
As we saw in the opening video clip, our song for today is from the currently popular television show Glee. Like any good show, it has achieved a loyal following and its devotees often call themselves “Gleeks”. Many say it is the show’s unabashed feel-good themes that make it popular – especially in our economically depressed and worrisome world. Most importantly, the show highlights the generally happy and positive lives of students in a Lima, Ohio High School Glee club – kids from a small, mid-western town who could be described as outcasts and losers. There is the adopted Jewish girl who dreams of being a star, the wheelchair bound kid, the flamboyant gay kid, the African-American overweight girl, the dumb blonde, the pregnant girl, the tough, rebel guy, etc, etc. All join the Glee club, which is seen in most high schools as nerdy and one no athlete, cheerleader or popular kid would want to join. And the Glee kids are ruthlessly teased, bullied and splashed in the face with “slushees” – colored, shaved ice concoctions people that are used as weapons against those perceived as a loser.
But these kids thrive and succeed. They find in themselves the creative and joyful energy to sing, dance and perform. They perform in numerous competitions and often win – bringing to their school and to themselves the kind of positive recognition the sports teams or cheerleading squads are unable to provide. And, as we just saw, they fully embrace their loser status. They face the same hurts and pains of any marginalized person or group but they transform their lives and their thinking into something positive, celebratory and genuine.
If you heard or read my last two messages – the first on optimism and last week’s on authenticity – this week’s song and theme focuses on how any of us can transcend life’s setbacks, depressions and loser qualities into something good and happy. Indeed, using Jesus’ life as an example, what did he – and other successful, so-called nerds or losers – do in life that enabled contentment? Even further, what can any of us do to find that elusive life of true happiness, peace and joy? Instead of dwelling on what make us unhappy, what helps us thrive and exult in the pure thrill of living? To put it in a youthful vernacular, what rocks our world or knocks our socks off?
Working in the 1950’s, a well-known psychologist named Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania pioneered research into positive psychology. Instead of focusing on the causes of mental and emotional dysfunction, he encouraged the study of what helps people find and nurture innate talents so that they happily thrive. What thoughts and actions make even a normal life extraordinary? How might so-called losers become winners?
As we examined two weeks ago with the Dolly Parton song “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”, there is power in optimism. This is not blind and irrational positive thinking that is naive and patronizing. Useful in positive psychology, this philosophy is called “hedonics” and involves the ability to be upbeat, dream big and focus on the good in life, in oneself and in others. Jesus saw lepers as people to be hugged and touched, prostitutes as loving and decent, criminals as inherently good, sinners as worthy of forgiveness, the sick as otherwise healthy – all people, especially the outcast – as beautiful and holy. Jesus embraced life and enjoyed dinner parties, wine and the company of all kinds of fun-loving people. He dreamed of a better world and he set out to make it so – through his abilities to love, teach and care for others.
Many of the so-called loser kids in the Glee show practice the same ethic. They dream of being stars, they are confident in their abilities, they see each other in a positive light, they enjoy life through song, dance and the usual highlights of teenage living – love, good times and romance. Indeed, the show itself embodies “hedonics” – its characters celebrate life which in turn allows viewers to experience fun and inspiration. One is rarely sad at the end of a Glee show.
Besides practicing a form of hedonics, Dr. Martin Seligman also proposed practicing the psychological theory called gratification. This involves finding satisfaction in creativity, beauty, excellence and perseverance. When we are creative – in music, art, cooking, writing, gardening, dance or speech, we discover something unique inside ourselves. We have the power to birth something entirely new – a piece of our souls to behold and admire. From the first cave paintings by early humans, we as a species thrill at the creation of types of art that often has no utilitarian purpose. Such forms of self-expression are made to simply be experienced.
As an example, Jesus told many memorable and quite eloquent parables designed to teach and be remembered. Such stories are believed to be authentically from the man Jesus. They were creative expressions of his life that made him loved and admired. Each of us identifies with the poignant story of the prodigal son, the good samaritan, or the wedding feast. In them, Jesus painted timeless word pictures of great beauty and universal wisdom.
The Glee kids may be labeled losers but they have legitimate talent as singers and dancers. Through such gifts they are able to evoke feelings of joy, longing, grief, love and compassion. As one gay character sings “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, he beautifully interpreted it to the love he has for his father who openly and proudly accepts him. The cast brought new, contemporary power to John Lennon’s song “Imagine” as a plea for social justice and they exuberantly sang Maddona’s tune “Like a Virgin”, representing their own teen angst and sexual awakening.
This personal creativity found in positive psychology can be realized in any one of us. From insightful words in personal diaries, to moving piano pieces played here each week, to photographs we take, to the meals we prepare, to the gardens we tend – there is in each and every person great art waiting to be unleashed. Happiness is found in its creation – both for ourselves and for those who experience it. Who among us is a loser when we are capable of bringing beauty into our world? To take liberty with President Kennedy’s famous saying, let us not ask what the world has or has not given us, let us instead find happiness in the talents we have and the creatively we give the world.
Besides using hedonics and personal creativity to build positive psychology, Dr. Seligman also encouraged finding personal meaning. This involves building community, spirituality, knowledge, justice or compassion in others. We live to serve not just ourselves. We were encouraged by Jesus to love other people as much as we love ourselves. As he said, to do this we must teach the child, soothe the sick, visit the prisoner, comfort the bereaved, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and speak out for the marginalized. At any age, in any state of mind or health, rich or poor, we can each find personal satisfaction and happiness by doing good for others. Indeed, helping other people is one way we are both selfish and selfless. We help ourselves as much as we help another. I know I repeat this far too often, but it is a core value of which I must constantly remind myself and which I believe must be central to who we are as individuals and as a congregation. We exist, we live, we find purpose, meaning and real joy in giving to others – both financially and with our time. This is not an option in life – it is a necessity and a duty.
Too often, religious descriptions of Jesus paint him as a man of sorrows. Seen in a religious light as angry and condemning of a hypocritical and sinful world, this view of Jesus saw him as resigned to his sacrificial death on a cross. Paintings depict him as somber, serious, stoic and even sad. Such depictions offer a false view of the man – one who I contend saw the opportunity and possibility in life and in this world. While he was not content with the way things were, he set out to change them – to bring solace, comfort and happiness to others and to teach people how to do the same. His vision was one of optimism – the Kingdom of Heaven is here and now! Lets embrace goodness, mercy, love, peace and happiness. Lets have fun. Lets party. Lets stop obsessing over the petty details of how to look good and instead focus on actually doing good and being good. Life is not a pain filled waiting room for that big, puffy cloud called heaven. Life is a playground for us to help build and then enjoy. Jesus may have hung on a cross but he was not resurrected to leave us and rule from above. That is the stuff of myth written by men with a religious agenda. Jesus was instead resurrected in the hearts of his followers, in other prophets of history and in us. He was not some sad-sack loser who found greatness only by becoming God. Jesus was a great and successful human being who worked to transform himself and the world into a happier place.
An old anonymous saying states that nobody is born a winner and nobody is born a loser. We are what we make ourselves to be. Winners in life are not those who die with the most things or the most money. They have not amassed the most power or achieved the most fame. They have, instead, built for themselves a reservoir of contentment. Such people are at peace with themselves and with the world. They find beauty in each person and each living thing. They know who they are; they have embarked on journeys of fulfillment – doing the work they were made to perform; they have loved deeply and loved well; they have given of themselves and their resources in service to others; they have celebrated and laughed; they have created beauty and art. We can each wondrously make ourselves into persons of charm and grace – never an outcast, never a misfit, never a loser. In you, in me, in people across the earth – there are only winners waiting to emerge…