Jesus says a lot of things that are counter-cultural, but especially in today’s climate, the message “Do not worry” seems downright ridiculous. ISIS is taking over the world, midterm elections are flooding the airwaves with terrifying smear campaigns, and Ebola is going to kill us all.
Legitimate concerns are blown out of proportion, leading a writer for The New Yorker to publish a piece called “Man Infected with Ebola Misinformation through Casual Contact with Cable News.” Alarmist reports about events near and far are whipping us all into a frenzy of anxiety, and in the midst of all this Jesus comes with his version of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Of course, the best way to make someone worry is to tell them not to worry. As Biblical commentator Greg Carey said in reference to this passage, “Telling people not to be anxious is like telling them not to think of an elephant.” Have you done that before? Try it. Don’t think of an elephant.
What are you thinking of?
An elephant, of course.
So, don’t worry. Really, don’t worry!
Of course, we need to think about what it means not to worry, what it means to be happy. Bobby McFerrin’s song has been used in contexts that reveal the cracks in its simplicity. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” has shown up as background music in movies like Dawn of the Dead and Jarhead to express denial or irony. We can avoid worry by covering our ears and saying “Lalalala!” until we drown out all the bad news around us. We can be happy by slapping a smile on our faces and replying, “Fine,” every time someone asks how we are doing, whether it’s true or not.
Of course, denial only works for so long. Anyone who has struggled with clinical anxiety and depression knows that you can’t keep up a façade forever. Attempts at covering up our worry and unhappiness can be more destructive than the realities we try to escape—we may build a life of lies, descend into private despair, or look to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain we cannot face.
But Jesus’ message of “Do not worry” is not one of denial. It is one of hope. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” has been used in that manner as well. It became the unofficial anthem of Jamaica after Hurricane Gilbert caused extensive damage and killed 49 people. The Jamaicans could not deny their circumstances, but they could find hope in it.
Our second focus song tonight is Pharell Williams’ “Happy,” this past summer’s smash hit. The feel-good song unexpectedly inspired hope around the globe. “Happy” was released with a long-form music video, and cover videos started popping up on YouTube from all over the world of people dancing and singing along.
Most of these tribute videos are fun and light-hearted, but some of them had a deeper meaning. In Iran, a group of people who made one of these cover videos was arrested for violating the state’s code of behavior. They were later released, but the Iranians were one of many groups living under repressive regimes around the world who danced and sang about being happy even under potentially dangerous conditions.
As I browsed through a handful of the hundreds of “Happy” tribute videos, I came across several from the country of Haiti. I just returned from a mission trip there with a group from Centenary, so these videos in particular caught my attention.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and we were working in the poorest part of Haiti, in impoverished sections of Port-au-Prince. One day, I helped re-roof a home in Cité Soleil, the worst slum in this part of the world and the largest in the Western Hemisphere.
Cité Soleil started as a shanty town and is now comprised half of long rows of cement buildings covered by corrugated metal roofs with small stalls serving as multi-family homes, and half shelters made of scavenged materials. Small children walk barefoot and half-naked through alleys full of puddles, mud, trash, and excrement, carrying large jugs of water on their heads. Women wash clothes in large tubs of soapy water. People of all ages bathe and brush their teeth outdoors, dumping dirty water into the gutters because there is no sewage system, no toilets, no safe water.
Jesus’ words from Matthew 6 sound very different in Cité Soleil than they do in Winston-Salem. Before I went to Haiti, I was worrying about what I would wear and what I would drink and what I would eat—I was trying to figure out what to do with the surplus vegetables from my garden, whether to stock my kitchen with beer or wine, what new clothes I needed to buy for my fall wardrobe. And then I found myself in Cité Soleil, surrounded by people who had nothing to eat, who had no potable water, who were naked. Do not worry about what you will eat or drink or wear? Really?
And yet, in the midst of abject poverty that shocked me in its rawness, there was laughter. Two women watching us work good-naturedly made fun of Richard Cassidy’s boisterous laugh. Children ran through the alleys giggling and pointing at the blans—Creole slang for white people.
You will often hear people who have been on mission trips say that although the people they met were poor, they were also happy. I have said this myself, and several members of our Haiti team echoed that observation. It is indeed profound for middle class Americans to see people in poverty who have deep faith and courage, who can laugh despite the circumstances.
But this idea of “They’re poor, but they’re happy” has been bothering me lately. Not that it’s a bad thing to say in and of itself, but it can be a little naïve if we stop there. It runs the risk of romanticizing poverty. If we really thought being poor was the secret to happiness, wouldn’t we all move to Cité Soleil? Come on—sell that second home at the mountains, rent out your house in Buena Vista, and move to the biggest slum in the Northern Hemisphere. You’ll be poor, but you’ll be happy.
I doubt any of us would actually do that. We all know that being happy despite bad circumstances doesn’t make those circumstances disappear. And though we have much to learn from the Haitian people’s necessary trust in and dependence on God, we do not envy their poverty. And we shouldn’t. Poverty kills.
But for those of us who have plenty, there is a different kind of danger. For those of us who do not have to worry about what we will eat or drink or wear, the danger is that we have the illusion of control. We become the masters of our own fate. We do not need God. And worrying is just one more way of exerting control over our lives and over the world.
Studies show that rates of depression are higher in wealthy countries. There are a million reasons for this, but it is a tension that is hard to tease out. Anxiety and depression are real, and the church needs to speak up for mental health issues that often go ignored.
Our passage from Matthew 6 is a part of the Sermon on the Mount. The most famous section of this sermon is called the Beatitudes—the long list of “Blessed are they.” Some translations of the Bible, interestingly enough, say, “Happy are they” instead.
But the part I want to point out is that the Beatitudes show us who the audience of the Sermon on the Mount is. The Beatitudes are for the vulnerable and the persecuted. Jesus blesses the poor, those who mourn, and the meek. And it is precisely to these people that Jesus says, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
A little research revealed that Bobby McFerrin’s smash hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is based on a quote from Indian mystic Meher Baba. But the full quote makes it clear that this is neither denial nor irony. Baba said, “Do your best. Then, don’t worry; be happy in My love. I will help you.”
That quote sounds very much like something Jesus might say. Not simply “Don’t worry, be happy,” but “be happy in my love.”
John Wesley said that this passage challenges us to see the difference between trusting the world for our happiness and trusting God for our happiness. The world, our material things, our money, and our accomplishments cannot give us lasting happiness. God invites us to be happy in God’s love, which encompasses so much more than a passing mood.
Because when we talk about being happy in God’s love, what we’re talking about is something deeper than the mere feeling of happiness. What we’re talking about is joy. Joy goes far beyond a mood. Joy sustains us through worry and sorrow. And joy can hold the tension of a naked child laughing as she plays in the dirty streets that are her home.
Henri Nouwen said this about joy:
“Joy is hidden in compassion. The word compassion literally means, ‘to suffer with.’ It seems quite unlikely that suffering with another person would bring joy. Yet being with a person in pain, offering simple presence to someone in despair, sharing with a friend times of confusion and uncertainty…such experiences can bring us deep joy. Not happiness, not excitement, not great satisfaction, but the quiet joy of being there for someone else and living in deep solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this human family. Often this is a solidarity in weakness, in brokenness, in woundedness, but it leads us to the center of joy, which is sharing our humanity with others.”
When I read that quote, I could finally accept what was true about the happiness we saw in the faces of the Haitian children we met, that happiness that rubbed off on us even as we mourned the injustice and oppression that leads to their poverty. I saw that the joy and the sorrow of their world could be held together, however painfully. I saw that I, like they, could find happiness even as I grieved for their suffering, for when we suffer with one another, when we share our humanity with one another, then we enter into the deepest joy.
Wendell Berry wrote a poem that has one of my favorite quotes in it: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” When Jesus says, “Don’t worry, be happy,” he does not mean that we should ignore the hard realities of our world. Rather, we can face them head-on, knowing that even when we are stared down by disease and violence and suffering and death and anxiety and fear, even when we consider all the facts, there is still joy to be found.
We are of much greater value than the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Even when we consider all the facts, we can be happy in God’s love. We can be free from anxiety, not through the surface-level means of denial, substances, or apathy, but in the deep consolation that, as Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Until that day, we can find joy hidden in compassion, in sharing our humanity with others. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell