The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 3, 2019
The task of the preacher on any occasion is to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus Christ. This morning is the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany in the church’s calendar and lectionary. It is typically a time when the more normal church functions, activities, and events, such as baptism and confirmation, can occur; as well as bishop’s visitations if they can be scheduled. Epiphany is furthermore a liturgical shift; an occasion to make a transition from the twelve days of the Christmas season to the more extended period of divine manifestations and spiritual appearances that mark the mysterious quality of our religious life. And thankfully, all of this takes place before we hit the penitential rigors of Lent, which will be here before we know it.
In general, this is a time for all of us to start thinking seriously about the direction our lives are heading, and what the purpose of our earthly existence is all about. Those are always good questions to raise, yet with everything else going on in today’s world, those queries seem more germane than ever. Where are we heading, and what does it all mean? Significant ultimate questions! In today’s Epistle the Apostle Paul phrased it this way.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
In light of that declaration, here’s something for us to consider.
For nearly 80 years, Harvard University has sponsored a long-term study on human happiness. The research, known as the Grant and Glueck studies, have tracked the physical and emotional well-being of two very different populations: 456 poor men growing up in the Boston area from 1939 to 2018 (the Grant Study), and 268 male graduates from Harvard University’s classes of 1939-1944 (the Glueck study).
Due to the length of the research period, this has required three generations of researchers. Since before WWII, they’ve diligently analyzed blood samples, conducted brain scans (once they became more readily available in the 1960s & 70s), and poured over self-reported surveys filled out by the men. The researchers, furthermore, actually interacted with these men in order to compile the findings. It should be noted right up front that no women were included in the study; allowing to the fact that the researchers were simply accepting of cultural norms in effect at an earlier time. While the absence of women participating can rightfully be seen as a flaw in the design, women nonetheless were connected to the study in peripheral and relatedly important ways.
And what was the conclusion of all this research? According to Robert Waldinger, director of the study, one thing surpasses all the rest in terms of importance. The clearest message that we get from this 80-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period. It’s…’Not how much is in your 401(k)…It’s Not how many conferences you spoke at–or keynoted…It’s Not how many blog posts you wrote, or how many followers you had, or how many tech companies you worked for, or how much power you wielded there, or how much you vested at each.
NO, the biggest predictor of your happiness and fulfillment overall in life is simply this; basically, it’s all about love’ …which begs the question:
WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?
Specifically, the study demonstrates that having someone to rely on helps your nervous system relax, helps your brain stay healthier for longer, and reduces both emotional as well as physical pain.
The data is also very clear that those who feel lonely are more likely to see their physical health decline earlier and die younger.
“It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether you’re in a committed relationship,” states Waldinger the study’s current director, instead - “It’s the quality of your close relationships that count the most.”
And what that means is this: quantity or numbers are beside the point. It doesn’t matter that you have a huge group of friends, or go out every weekend, or that you’re in a “perfect” romantic relationship (as if those existed). Quite the contrary. It’s the quality of the relationships you’re in that counts the most – how much vulnerability and depth exists within them; how safe you feel sharing with one another; the extent to which you can relax and be seen for who you truly are, and how open you are to one another.
According to George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who was an earlier director of the study from 1972 to 2004, there are two foundational elements to this proposition of what constitutes “quality” in a healthy relationship: “One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”
Thus, if you’ve been fortunate to have found love, let’s say, in the form of a caring relationship, but you undergo a trauma like losing a job, losing a parent, or losing a child, and you don’t deal with that trauma, you could end up “coping” in a way that pushes love away.
This becomes a cautionary reminder, therefore, to prioritize not only the connections we have with other people, but also assess what capacities we have; and how we will process our own emotions and stress. For example, if you’re struggling, says Vaillant; “Do Something.” Get a good therapist. Join a support group. Invest in a workshop. Get a grief counselor. Take personal growth seriously so you are available for positive connections.
And consider this, because the data is clear and uncontested: in the end, you could have all the money you’ve ever wanted, completed a successful career, and be in good physical health, but without loving relationships, you won’t be happy. Let me repeat that: “without loving relationships, you won’t be happy.”
So the next time you’re on your computer, scrolling through Facebook instead of being present at the table with your partner or significant-other, or you’re considering staying late at the office instead of getting together with your close friend, or you catch yourself working on a Saturday instead of going to the farmer’s market with your sister, consider that it may be the right time to make a different choice.
All the researchers who worked on the study over the years acknowledge and state emphatically that “Relationships are messy and they’re complicated.” But all the researchers are equally adamant in their informed, and they would contend, ‘verified,’ ‘research-backed,’ concluding assessment:
“The good life is built with good relationships.”
Listen again to today’s Epistle:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends (1 Corinthians 13)
That sounds a lot like Jesus when he said, quite simply. “I call you friends.” Loving relationships are essential to that promised abundant life well-lived. And to that end we have occasion today, and every Sunday throughout the year for that matter, to follow the rubrics in our Prayerbook, and affirm our faith by using our ancient Creeds and Prayers to express our enduring compassion for our friends in Christ. That is our special privilege when we gather together as trustworthy people-of-God, sharing the quality of our relationships with one another. We do that in a spirit of respect and dignity for all people; and we ask it….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
CREDITS, NOTES, & REFERENCES: available on request.