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Papering cracks or opening windows?

I was just sitting here struggling with a sermon on the fragile idea of a “happy family Christmas”, when a missive from the Twittersphere interrupted my thoughts.  Spanish company Etsy will apparently sell you a ‘Life calendar’ so  that you can track your relative happiness throughout the year. Each day is to be marked with a hand drawn emoticon, depicting happiness, sadness or something in between.  Are you tempted?


Centuries ago Abd-ar-Rahman III (pictured below) reigned as Emir and Caliph of Cordoba from 912-961, and had clearly engaged in a similar exercise. Towards the end of that time he wrote the following:

I have now reigned about 50 years, in victory or in peace.

Beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies and respected by my allies

Riches and honours, power and pleasure have waited on my call.

Nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity.

In this situation I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot.

They amount to…



Happiness is an elusive thing, it would seem.  As preachers and purveyors of good news who are aware of unhappiness around us we can do one of two things. We can  paper over the cracks in the perfect life and pretend that all is well. Alternatively – we can punch a hole through the wall which restricts people’s lives and at least provide a window onto a better vista. I’m hesitant to describe the preacher as a kind of sledgehammer wielding workman, but if the cap fits…

Maybe I should take a sledgehammer to this sermon instead of a pen!

Is the question I was asked…

…at the end of a telephone survey. Presumably the person on the phone either forgot they had rung me at the church, or simply had a box which had to be ticked. What should I answer?

  • I could have said something really corny like “I mend souls”. However, that would not have been strictly true and might have led to the man on the phone asking if I could take a look at his beaten up trainers.
  • I could have said that I was a coach – seeking to bring the best out of my team. That might have been true, but would surely have conjured up a falsely sporty image of me sitting there in my tracksuit with a whistle round my neck.
  • I could have said I was a teacher, but as any pastor knows – that is less than half the job.

So in the end I resorted to the bland description of officialdom, and described myself as a “minister of religion”.  How boring, though, in comparison to the person who introduces herself on her Twitter profile as a “happiness expert”. Now that is a job description I would love to read. What do you suppose she does on a daily basis?

As a new Christian I was taught to frown upon happiness as such and to see it as a poor and rather insipid relation of its spiritual cousin, joy.  The passage of the years, and time spent with people in poverty and wealth, penury and luxury has taught me to think differently, though.

This week a report commissioned by CAFOD, Tearfund and the  Theos think tank will make some interesting revelations about what makes people happy. Even in a time of economic hardship more than half of the Britons surveyed believed that helping others at home and abroad is the key to happiness. (I wonder if this will come out in the answer to Jeeves’ unanswerable question #8?) An enormous 91% also ranked living in a world of equal opportunities for everyone as important. The report makes fascinating reading, and gives a warm glow about the fundamental goodness of human nature. We are not a selfish as we might have thought.

Whenever a report like this comes out, preachers need to read it. There are many reasons why they should do this, but one is so that they don’t end up directing their homiletical ire at a straw man who no longer exists. In other words, if preachers talk about the fundamental selfishness of human nature and how it really needs to be changed, they might be missing the very point this report makes. Tell good people that they should be compassionate when they already are – and you will isolate them. Show them how they can direct their goodness – and you might just start a revolution.

Richard Littledale

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