Each year at this time our church council holds a planning retreat to set goals for the year ahead. This year we decided we wanted to take a longer view of what our ministry might look like over the next five years. So yesterday, when we gathered for our retreat, we started our day by talking about how the world around us has changed since the last time we made a five year ministry plan. It was a bit of a depressing conversation.
In addition to talking about all the ways Covid 19 has impacted us from inflation to an increase in mental health challenges and a sense of isolation in general, we also talked about how divided our world has become. There is a war in Ukraine and now in Israel and Palestine among other places. There’s an increase in hate crime and racially targeted violence. We seem to be losing traction in areas like women’s rights and LGBTQ+ inclusion. Even on issues that one would think might unite us, there’s been backlash and dissension. Our overall conclusion about the world was that people seem to have become more self-centered.
So it’s interesting to come to worship this morning and to gather around a scripture reading that seems to suggest that the heart of what brings deep joy in the world is being other-centered. And not just any kind of other-centeredness, but the kind of other-focussed living Christ modelled for us, life marked by humility and self-offering.
It’s a way of living that appears to be in short supply in the world right now, at least in the dominant culture which is exactly how it was when the Apostle Paul was writing his letter to the people of the church at Philippi. Roman aristocracy in Paul’s day was all about honour seeking and prestige. You can imagine how counter cultural it was for the early church to hear a message that was basically about downward mobility, thinking of others before you think of yourself, acting like you are no better than the next person. It was about as counter cultural then as it is now. But Paul said it was this kind of behavior that brought individuals and communities unity and joy.
During the season of Lent this year, many of us read Brene Brown’s book Atlas of the Heart* in which she gives language to 87 different human emotions. It was the first time many of us learned about the concept of Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is a compound of the German words schaden which means harm and freude meaning joy. It’s is the feeling of deriving joy from someone else’s suffering or misfortune. It’s what we feel when our neighbour who always has the perfect garden experiences an aphid infestation and we tell them we are sorry for their loss but secretly we are celebrating that ours is no longer the worst looking garden on the block. It’s what audiences feel when the villain of the movie gets his or her comeuppance. Worse than that, it happens in real life when we see someone we don’t like or disagree with fall or fail and we celebrate that suffering with others.
When we learned about this concept, many in our book study group confessed that we had experienced feelings of Schadenfreude in our lives. We weren’t very proud of those feelings because somewhere in our being we know it’s a feeling that causes division and separation even if it’s just between us and the individual whose failure we are celebrating.
We also learned about the concept of freudenfreude which is the opposite of schadenfreude. Freudenfreude is feeling joy at someone else’s success. It happens when someone tells us they are going to become a grandparent for the first time and we are genuinely happy for them even if we have been wondering if we would ever become a grandparent ourselves. It happens when someone else’s child is selected as the valedictorian, or someone else wins the race or gets the job we wanted and we join them in their happiness. But it isn’t just about taking joy in someone else’s success over your lack of it, it’s just genuinely feeling happy when something good happens to someone else.
Research shows freudenfreude is a strong predictor of good relationships and deep connection. You can actually practise it by intentionally sharing the joy of someone relating a success story and showing interest and asking them questions about it. It’s like glue when it comes to creating relationships and community.
I think this is at least part of what Paul was saying to the church at Philippi when he said to them that they should put themselves aside and help others get ahead, in other words, celebrate the good fortune of others. It’s part of what it means to be in community with one another.
But of course he meant more than that when he compelled the early church and when he compels us to think of ourselves the way Jesus thought of himself as selfless and obedient to love’s way in the world. Because for Jesus this kind of selflessness cost him his very life. This is the kind of self-emptying that recognizes that even when we think we have nothing left to give the other, we still have the very essence of who we are and what we value to offer.
Let me try to explain what I mean by that. Sometimes when we have scripture passages before us like today’s reading and we’re talking about self-giving and putting others first, there’s a sense that we a being called to give of ourselves to the point of burnout. Burn out happens a lot in the church because of the misuse of scripture passages like this one. It is never the case that we are called to run ourselves ragged for the sake of the Gospel. It’s also never the case that we are called to empty ourselves or become selfless to the point of becoming a doormat for other people to walk all over us. In order to truly empty ourselves or give of ourselves for the sake of others, we have to first be in full possession of our deepest selves. In other words, we have to know who we are and whose we are. When we know that we are created in the image of God and deeply loved by God there is actually an endless supply of energy to give to others because what we are giving doesn’t actually originate in us, it is something that flows through us. And I think the reason we get joy from giving it is because we realize that we are participating in something bigger than us. Even if it costs us our very lives because other people can’t see or accept it which is what happened to Jesus.
The other day while I was driving in my car I was listening to an episode of Tapestry on the radio. Tapestry is a CBC program about spirituality, religion and meaning. I only heard a small part of the program but it caught my attention because it talked about two strangers giving of themselves to one another and one of these strangers didn’t actually have much, to give at least not by the world’s standards. Carl was dying and didn’t want any hospice care but eventually he agreed to have a hospice nurse come into his home. As nurse Hadley tried to make connection with Carl he kept talking to her about the news which she didn’t know anything about because she was a single mom so she didn’t have time to pay attention to the news. So Carl started writing out news notes for her and each time she came to see him he would hand her these notes. She was grateful for the notes but when right before he died Carl thanked her for giving him something to look forward to each day other than only having his death to look forward to, she was caught off guard. It had never occurred to her that the thing that Carl needed more than anything when he was dying, was the capacity to somehow give of himself to another.
We may live in a world that is deeply divided but we are hard wired for connection. Our deepest joy comes when we are making those connections by giving ourselves for the sake of others.
Every time we gather at the communion table we are reminded of Christ’s act of self-offering, his giving of himself for the sake of love, grace, peace and joy in the world. When we participate in this ritual, we remember who we are and what we have to give to the world, we connect ourselves to a long line of people who know what we are for and where our greatest energy comes from.
*Brene Brown, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, Random House, 2021.