University Congregational Church
March 6, 2016
“Faith After Certainty: Death to the Monarchy and Trinity”
What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life? If you were going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and your energy? There was a recent survey of millennials asking them what their most important life goals were, and over 80 percent said that a major life goal for them was to get rich. Another 50 percent of those same young adults said that another major life goal was to become famous.
Mert & Connie Buckley shared a TED talk with me highlighting an incredible study -The Harvard Study of Adult Development. It may be the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done. For 75 years, they tracked the lives of 724 men, year after year, asking about their work, their home lives, their health, and of course asking all along the way without knowing how their life stories were going to turn out.
Studies like this are exceedingly rare. But through a combination of luck and the persistence of several generations of researchers, this study survived. About 60 of the original 724 men are still alive, still participating in the study, most of them in their 90s. They are now beginning to study the more than 2,000 children of these men.
Since 1938, they tracked the lives of two groups of men. The first group started in the study when they were sophomores at Harvard College. They all finished college during World War II, and then most went off to serve in the war. And the second group that they followed was a group of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, boys who were chosen for the study specifically because they were from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged families in the Boston of the 1930s. Most lived in tenements, many without hot and cold running water.
When they entered the study, all of these teenagers were interviewed. They were given medical exams. Then these teenagers grew up into adults who entered all walks of life. They became factory workers and lawyers and bricklayers and doctors, and even one became the President of the United States.
What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that they’ve generated on these lives? The lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.
The study shows three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. The experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. The sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely.
We know that you can be lonely in a crowd and you can be lonely in a marriage, so the second big lesson that they learned is that it’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.
Once they had followed the men all the way into their 80s, they wanted to look back at them at midlife and to see if they could predict who was going to grow into a happy, healthy octogenarian and who wasn’t. When we gathered together everything known about them at age 50, it wasn’t their middle age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. Good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old. The most happily partnered men and women reported, in their 80s, that on the days when they had more physical pain, their mood stayed just as happy. But the people who were in unhappy relationships, on the days when they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by more emotional pain.
The third big lesson that they learned about relationships and health is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer. The people in relationships where they feel they really can’t count on the other one, those are the people who experience earlier memory decline. Those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of the octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.
Last week, I spoke about substituting the name God with the word relationship. What if we referenced God as a relationship? Instead of a heavenly being off in the great beyond, what if God is defined by relationships? And then I received this study. It’s funny how synchronistic life is!
I had scheduled this week to talk about the Trinity (you know, the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”). And it just seemed all too obvious to talk about the Trinity in terms of relationship too. After all, the traditional trinity is identified by relational words – father, son, spirit. Jurgen Moltmann, a German theologian, asserts that the doctrine of the Trinity stems from the crucifixion, which he describes as “the love of the Son and the grief of the Father while the Spirit opens up the future and creates life from death”. Instead of focusing on the person of God, we need to focus on the relationship. This means that the cross becomes a place of the living, active, circulating love in God.
Too often in the modern world, we sing songs and speak words about God in the language of a monarch (and I don’t mean butterfly)! We use words like “king” “reign” “crown” “hail”. This language of royalty and monarchy and trinity tend to put immeasurable space between God and us. These words and beliefs actually do harm to our spiritual concept of God. They reinforce the idea that God is above us – physically and relationally. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a personal relationship with an actual king. The closest I can get is that our daughter once had a crush on Prince William! Let’s do away with this haughty, royal language and actually connect with God. To use a well-known axiom, “Death to the monarchy!”
Faith is not an ascent to or agreement with an absolute subject – God. Faith is not simply about morality, or about trying to be good. Faith isn’t even about our experience of the sacred, or God. Instead, faith becomes a living, moving, experience that we are taken into. This is what it means to be in relationship with God.
That is what Jesus was describing in our traditional word for today:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. Mark 12:28-34
So what about you? Let’s say you’re 25, or you’re 50, or you’re 80. What might leaning in to relationships with God and with people even look like? Well, the possibilities are practically endless. It might be something as simple as replacing screen time with people time or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, long walks or date nights, or reaching out to that family member who you haven’t spoken to in years, because those all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges. It might mean taking a moment of silence before a meal or incorporating time to meditate. Be creative to find ways to love God and others with your whole body, mind, and soul.
Notetoselfphilosophy.com had these powerful words on it recently: “What is my purpose in life?” I asked the void. “What if I told you that you fulfilled it when you took an extra hour to talk to that kid about his life?” said the voice. “Or when you paid for that young couple in the restaurant? Or when you saved that dog in traffic? Or when you tied your father’s shoes for him? Your problem is that you equate purpose with goal-based achievement. God or the universe or morality isn’t interested in your achievements … just your heart. When you choose to act out of kindness, compassion, and love, you are already aligned with your true purpose. No need to look any further.”
More than a century ago, Mark Twain was looking back on his life, and he wrote this: “There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, and callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”
The good life is built with good relationships with God and with others.