Friends, unfortunately, due to technical difficulties we will not have this sermon recording online. We apologize, but please enjoy the written version!
By Daniel Lee
Do you have a favorite love story? If so, is it a story of enduring love? Is the story true or make believe? Is it happy, or heartbreaking?
When it comes to movies, my favorite love story is the 1953 blockbuster “Roman Holiday” starring Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann and Gregory Peck as Joe Bradley. The movie is 64 years old, so I think it’s OK to give away the plot to make a wider point here today!
Princess Ann was a bored, frustrated, over protected dignitary visiting Rome. Joe Bradley was an ambitious American newsman assigned to cover her visit. Seeking adventure away from her many handlers, Audrey Hepburn’s character escapes by herself into the Roman night. She meets Gregory Peck, who doesn’t let on he knows she’s actually the princess. The two have a whimsical romantic day wandering Rome, but all along Joe Bradley the newsman and his photographer are gathering material for a tabloid tell-all on Princess Ann’s escapades. In the end, though, Joe and Princess Ann start to fall in love and he can’t betray her in the name of a news scoop. In the final scene of the movie, Joe sees the princess one last time at an official news conference in a grand hallway.
In the crowded room, Princess Ann and Joe the newsman stare at each other with big eyes. After the news conference ends, the princess exits the stage. Then Joe, all alone, slowly walks away.
When he gets to the exit, Joe stops and gives a final gaze back. At this point in the move, I’m screaming inside:
“Say it ain’t so, Joe!” ‘Go back! Pound on the door! Yell for Princess Ann! Tell her you’re falling in love! Joe, if you leave now it will haunt you forever!’
But Joe doesn’t go back. He walks out the door, ending the movie.
Joe Bradley’s decision to turn away from Princess Ann seems logical – they were from totally different classes and worlds. Their relationship wasn’t practical. Their love would have been forbidden! Yet Joe was so attracted to her that he sacrificed the news story of his career not to hurt her.
On this Palm Sunday I want to ask, what does this love story teach us about our own faith journeys? What can it teach us about our very reasons for faith in God?
It seems to me that many people are attracted by an almost cosmic force to the teachings, tenderness, and sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, to the sense of community we feel when we worship, and to the notion of God as giving life a wider purpose to the universe.
Yet in the end, so many turn away in excessive in doubt, hurt, or heartbreak.
There are many reasons for this. Some people have been wounded by past religious experiences or interactions. Maybe you’ve been repelled by the words or actions of religious people.
Maybe you have lingering doubts…. We live in an increasingly secular age where faith is often portrayed as obsolete.
On this Palm Sunday, it’s appropriate to consider the words of the famous Hoosier satirist Kurt Vonnegut in his book entitled “Palm Sunday.”
“I’m enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far.” These words were part of a sermon delivered Palm Sunday 1980 about concern for the poor and how he’s seen Christians misinterpret Christ’s words about the poor always being with us to ignore helping them).
Vonnegut calls himself a Christ-worshipping agnostic. This is what he had to say about faith:
“What is so comical about religious people in modern times? They believe so many things which science has proved to be unknowable or absolutely wrong.”
“How on earth can religious people believe in so much arbitrary, clearly invented balderdash? For one thing, I guess, the balderdash is usually beautiful – and therefore echoes excitingly in the more primitive lobes of our brains, where knowledge counts for nothing.”
Vonnegut’s words hurt. He’s enchanted by Christ’s message of mercy, yet he sees even the beautiful aspects of religion as balderdash.
Vonnegut speaks of religious ideas echoing in more primitive lobes of our brains. But is that really true? Are matters of faith and human experience – and of the human brain– really like two bumping fists? To the contrary, I believe, they are instead more like interlocked hands.
If we are open to receiving it, we find that cosmic spiritual force pulling us toward the divine. In 1931, Quaker Rufus Jones published a book entitled “Pathways to the Reality of God” in which he wrote:
“We see stars billions of miles away, only because something from the star is actually operating on the retina and in the visual center of the brain; and so, too, we find God, only because Something that is God – God as Spirit – is actually in contact with the spiritual center within us that is kindred to Him.”
Jones said we have a natural pull toward God just as God has a natural pull toward us. He called this “The Double Search.”
Several years ago I began a two-pronged personal study that convinced me that Rufus Jones is indeed correct.
On one hand, I studied the history, faith, and practice of Quakers. On the other hand, I studied the science on what brings humans lasting happiness, contentment, and fulfillment.
Throughout this two-pronged study, I kept seeing overlaps between the findings of modern science on human compassion and happiness and the practice and testimonies of Quakers as well as other Christian and faith traditions dating back centuries before the Quakers.
My favorite writer in this emerging field of study on the science of happiness and fulfillment is Dr. Emma Seppälä. She is science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.
Dr. Seppälä’s specialty is researching what makes humans truly happy. She talks of two types of human happiness – hedonic happiness… This is the happiness of our pleasure centers – she calls this the sex, drugs and rock n roll types of happiness. For example, you get a short-term boost of happiness from buying something new or eating a big hunk or dark chocolate.
The second type of happiness is her primary focus – this is called eudemonic happiness. This is what gives people a sense of meaning and purpose in life and a connection to others. In a religious context, I would equate eudemonic happiness with the word “joy.”
Dr. Seppälä takes a secular scientific approach but she readily recognizes the importance of spiritual and religious practices leading to a host of benefits, including making people more resilient in stressful times, more faithful in their relationships, and more satisfied with family life.
On the “Spirit Matters” podcast, Dr. Seppälä was asked to define spirituality and this is what she said:
“What the science is showing is that altruism, compassion, and service, these are all things that have been relegated to perhaps a more spiritual or ethical realm of study. But now we’re finding that these are all incredibly powerful predictors of health, happiness, and well being.”
“Veterans who go off to war and have the same traumatic experiences as someone else are less likely to suffer post traumatic stress disorder if they have a strong religious connection. If religion is very important to them, for example, it has a protective effect as well.”
“What we’re seeing is that a lot of the ethics, a lot of the principles that have been touted for millennia by religious traditions are now being shown to be extremely helpful and extremely powerful in terms of their impact on our happiness.”
Could it be that science is in some ways catching up to some of the valuable lessons of faith?
In my opinion, the early Quakers were pretty ahead of their time when it came to brain science. Consider the value of Quaker testimony of peace as we learn about the physical and emotional trauma of violence in our world.
Think also of Quaker testimony of simplicity as we’re learning about all of the stress and anxiety produced by our modern multitasking materialistic lives.
But here today I specifically want to look more deeply at two fundamental Quaker values – silent worship and our testimony of community.
Quaker William Penn famously said: “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”
The heart of Quaker worship is this idea of direct communion with God; that God can speak within any person. Silence allows us to “center down” from outside distractions and listen for the still small voice of God. Many people coming to a Quaker meeting at first find the silence awkward or difficult but later come to realize that it is the silence that gives the spoken ministry its beauty and power.
Now, let’s look at what the science says:
In her book “The Happiness Track,” Dr. Seppälä wrote:
“Research on silence provides insight into what makes silence so powerful… In 2006, Luciana Bernardi was studying the impact of music on physiology. To his surprise, he found that not only did the music affect participants’ physiology (slower music reduced heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing), but so did the moments of silence – which he had only included as a comparison measure.
“In fact, Bernardi found that periods of silence inserted between tracks of music were much more relaxing than the soundtracks designed to induce relaxation… Physiologically, taking a ‘silence break’ had the most profound relaxing and calming effect. Other studies have found that silence – despite being devoid of content – can help develop new brain cells.”
All I have to say is William Penn was way ahead of his time!
What about community? When I think of the Quaker testimony of community, I think about what may be my favorite passage in the Bible, John 15:12-17.
This passage is why we call ourselves Friends:
Jesus said, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.”
This is the heart of the Quaker community. Close relationships bonded by love and intimacy. Think about the rich network of living in community here at First Friends – we worship in silence together. We celebrate and mourn together. We make decisions together in monthly meeting. We pray for one another and visit one another when we’re in need. We share pitch-in meals. We were, in every sense of the word, a community of Friends.
As it turns out, science is confirming that this exact sort of compassionate community also is good for our emotional and physical wellbeing.
One last time, I want to quote Stanford scientist Dr. Emma Seppälä:
“We all think we know how to take good care of ourselves: eat your veggies, work out and try to get enough sleep. But how many of us know that social connection is just as critical?”
“One landmark study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure…. People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. In other words, social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.”
Recently, an article published by the Boston Globe went viral across the Internet. Its headline read: “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” The reporter who wrote the article, Billy Baker, even wrote a follow up article about the flood of messages he’s received from men – and women – across the world telling him they too feel lonely.
To look at this in the context of faith, Christ commanded us to “love one another” as friends. Not just friendship… but intimate, sacrificial friendship with a shared greater purpose. Living in community is not just a recommendation. It’s a commandment!
Faith is internal, but not individualistic. We find meaning by turning inward to experience what we call the ‘indwelling Light of Christ.’ But we thrive as part of a wider, caring community where we see that of God in others.
Quakers maintain that this direct experience of God is freely available to all people everywhere, if only they turn to it. Ultimately, then, all of humanity is our community.
Consider this statement from William Penn’s book “The Fruits of Solitude”:
“The humble, meek, just, pious, and devout souls, are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the diverse liveries they wear here make them strangers.”
In the end, it seems the things that help us feel close to God and to one another – love, silence, community, compassion, and service among them – are many of the same things science is now finding that light up our brain for lasting happiness.
Could these be reasons for trusting our faith as being authentic? Quaker theologian Dr. D. Elton Trueblood said this in his lecture “The Trustworthiness of Religious Experience”:
“Millions of men and women, throughout several thousand years, representing various races and nations, and including all levels of education or cultural opportunity, have reported an experience of God as the spiritual companion of their souls.”
Given all this, I want to read aloud our queries for today’s silent worship. You can find these printed in your bulletins:
What first drew you to Quaker meeting, or what keeps you coming back? Does Quaker silent worship and the Quaker testimony of community help cultivate love, compassion, and fulfillment in your life? Can this be trusted as evidence of Christ’s ‘presence in the midst’ of your life?
Though we all have times of doubt and struggle, we don’t have to turn away like the broken-hearted newsman Joe Bradley.
We can believe in True Love.