Recalling a Sermon on Contentment

I haven’t listened to many sermons in the last few years, but I did tonight. It was a simple message, but it helped me see some blind spots.

The preacher shared a quote from Voltaire. It basically said ‘God created man in his image and man has attempted to return the favor.’ What this means, is that we try to create a version of God in our mind that fits our life. If we value financial stability and providing for our family above everything, we twist God into this being that understands when we hoard our money and don’t give with open hands to the poor. If we value romantic relationships above everything, we twist God into this being that understands and welcomes our sexual sin.

The preacher said we should twist ourselves to align with God instead.

“There are things about Jesus that I don’t like,” the preacher said. “There are commands that Jesus makes that are hard for me. But we cannot twist Jesus into something we like. We must twist ourselves instead. Die to ourselves and learn to cling to Jesus more.”

He went on to say that Jesus was radical. Jesus didn’t know where he would eat the next day. Jesus didn’t know where he would sleep the next night. But he still relied on God. Because Jesus was radical, we should live radical lives too; giving our security away so our brothers and sisters can eat, abstaining from sexual immorality when the world promotes lust.

The preacher said the reason we are not content is because we don’t really believe that Jesus is enough to sustain us.

These are things I have been hearing in church circles for a long time, but they struck me tonight. Dying to myself is hard. Believing ‘Jesus is enough’ all the time is hard. But twisting God into my own image does not work.

Megaphone

It is not until I’m seated in a reclined position that I realize how heavy the mental burdens of the day have been. Then I can see how unwieldy they really are. 

I’m wondering out loud a lot to my fifth grade definition of God. “Why all this pain? Why all this broken and bent and tragic? What are we doing? What are You doing? Do you love us, still? Did you ever at all? 

Basically, it boils down to : this life is really hard. A real slog at times. 

God doesn’t like to be asked direct questions, it seems. He likes to whisper in the wind and speak in a mourning dove’s song. I’mma be honest, I get pretty tired of discerning meaning from the breeze on a blade of grass (that’s a joke). 

How about some megaphone responses? Maybe he does that too in the face of tragedy, but I’m talking some straightforward, not cryptic, unmistakable commentary. I mean all of this light-heartedly (for now), but it would be nice to see some road signs marked, “Tyler, go here.” 

I’m in a life-lull for the moment and a big, clear push is welcome. 

 

If Jesus is for the poor…

As I was about to take communion in a church in Findlay, Ohio earlier this year, I was struck when the pastor quoted Paul saying, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.” Paul goes on to say we should “examine ourselves” before we partake.

I took a hard look at myself and wondered about my standing with God. I thought of all my doubt. I thought of my trials and when I shook my fists at the heavens in anger; beating my chest was not even a metaphor. Times when I’ve said ‘Fuck You’ to God and really, deeply meant it.

I wasn’t sure exactly where I stood.

There was an uneasiness during this part of the ritual that I had not experienced before. Was I unworthy? Was I going to ‘drink judgement’ on myself? I felt unsteady on shaky ground.

Then I thought about the person of Jesus, looking for things I knew for certain. There is no one else that has been presented to me as perfect. Not even fictional characters, that I can think of. Maybe more than that, there was no one who even came close. No one who is thought of as spotless and wholly righteous. Other religious figures claimed to be prophets. Claimed to be enlightened. But Jesus claimed to be God – and also claimed perfection with that lofty statement.

My mind seemed to ‘settled in,’ remembering all the teaching and studying that I have done; my footing seemed to manifest under my feet again. “If I am going to hitch my wagon to anything,” I thought, “It might as well be perfection.”

Then I also traveled down another road in my mind.

If Jesus is for the poor, then I am for Jesus.

That thought seemed to anchor me down to earth, because I do believe that Jesus is for the poor. There are these counter-cultural aspects to Jesus that I love – the idea of an ‘upside down Kingdom’ where the lowly and oppressed from this life are exalted on high in God’s Kingdom and placed on the same plane as the Almighty Throne.

If Jesus is for the weak, then I am for Jesus. If Jesus is for cancer patients and widowed mothers and suicidal addicts and paralyzed children and abuse survivors and the mentally ill and the hopelessly hungry and the war-torn refugees and teenaged girls contemplating abortion…

then I am for Jesus.

I’ll be honest, sometimes I have to think of God as a symbol because I can’t wrap my brain around the mystery of ‘existence.’ I get caught in my own head a lot; questioning everything at every turn.

My disorder is difficult; a very fickle thing. I run the gamut of emotions – all in a given day. I struggle with thoughts of suicide as I have mentioned before. I struggle – wrestle and writhe and twist and grapple – with knowing my worth; wondering if I am a contributing member to society.

Sometimes I need to simplify my spinning, swirling ideas and this thought seems to help: If Jesus is for the poor, then I am for Jesus.

After that I took communion and was glad it wasn’t a mindless act as it had been at times in the past.

Secret Sound

There is a deep intimacy
to the music made with you in mind.
There’s a secret sound
buried beneath all the chords.

I’ll be honest, if I didn’t have that,
I wouldn’t believe at all.
But when I close my eyes and sing to you,
I believe.

There was a time tonight,
when I sang to a group of friends,
the words they say you spoke and speak,
and I cried while I sang them.

I tired to hold it back – like always
and I wondered if that gentle push
was you saying:
“Let go, Ty. Please, just let go.” 

The quest for a rich life

I talked to my friend today. He said that while he was in Africa a few weeks ago, he and his family went to a game reserve. He said that it was breathtaking. As he looked out the SUV’s window, while the convoy weaved down a dirt path, he had this desire to throw the door open and run out and be IN the reserve; grabbing clumps of grass with his bare hands.

But he couldn’t do that because lions roamed the reserve. He felt like there was all this beauty in front of him and he could only experience it from a distance.

We started talking. Man, isn’t that just life?

We all know that it could be so much better. We can see something great on the horizon, but no matter how far we run, it still seems farther away. All the ingredients are there for an amazing experience. An exciting color-filled-richness is just out of reach, a place where all our senses are overwhelmed by vibrance and wonder.

We get something else, don’t we? Something tame. Something, boring even. Something frustrating and exhausting instead.

Vibrant is replaced with bland.
Wonder is replaced with mundane.
Excitement is replaced with commitments and time constraints and bills and meetings and progress reports and paperwork.

It’s all available:

Vast oceans – check
Deep forests – check
Fragrant flowers – check
Mysterious wildlife – check
Whistling wind – check
Tall mountains – check
A body to climb – check
Lungs to breathe – check
Eyes that see beauty – check
Ears that hear – check
A nose that smells – check

It’s all there, yet we are stuck in little drywalled boxes – staring at computer screens.

It’s not just beauty were missing, we miss purpose and meaning and depth in our relationships.

Quality time is such a big deal for me. I want to spend every waking moment (almost) with the people I love. Heck, I want to spend moments with people I don’t know too, as long as they are interesting and challenging.

But I don’t get half the quality time that I would like. I sit in my room a lot and rifle through my contact list and call almost everybody. Mostly, people are spending time with their kids or going on double dates or having a night in or are working late. I get it. We are all busy. But that doesn’t change the fact that my heart wants to experience community so badly.

Meeting new people is challenging.

I play guitar at open mic nights and I meet other musicians. After I’ve waited the “appropriate” amount of time, I ask for their number and say we should hang out. I feel like I really connect with some folks, but I set up a date to hang out a week later and get completely blown off.

It’s like people are unwilling to expand their little circles. Circles that make them feel safe and like they’re in control. I heard a joke one time that said, “People talk about Jesus and his miracles. Walking on water. Turning water into wine. But they never talk about his most impressive miracle, having twelve close friends in his early 30s.” That joke got even more real as everyone in my ENTIRE life got married.

I have a desire to always be in community. This is not being fulfilled.
I have a desire to experience the beauty of nature everyday. This has not been fulfilled.
I have a desire to make music with cool people. Stuff gets in the way.
I have a desire to make a living off my writing. I’ve made about $50 so far.

It sounds like a lot of complaining and it may well be, but it’s also true. And it’s true for every single person that I meet. I have said this so many times. I walk around and I see no one who is content. I don’t see a single person who experiences the kind of peace that reverberates throughout a whole life.

I do see people who experience glimpses. I even see people who experience way more glimpses than the average.

I have to wonder, is contentment something that can truly be felt in this life? Or is life just a struggle to try and find tiny moments of clarity and peace.

How do we move forward?

I wish I had the most profound answer to this, but I might have to turn to a well known “Eastern” philosopher: Alan Watts.

He says that man only suffers when he takes seriously what is meant for fun.

He says that we don’t experience the present.

He says the meaning of life is to be alive, but what we do instead is try and achieve something beyond ourselves.

He says if you live for money, you waste your time.

He says faith is letting go.

He says Jesus Christ knew he was God so, wake up and know who you are.

He says If you are writing, then you are a writer.

He says take a deep breath and tell us something that will save us from ourselves.

He says tell us your deepest darkest secret.

He says plunge into change.

He says never pretend to love something you don’t feel.

*                *                 *

He says a whole lot of things on a whole lot of subjects and I’m glad for people like him. Reading those quotes actually really helped me. My take away from all of them is:

You are enough.

Just you. That’s it.

The quest is to find the richness in life:

  • Don’t take yourself or anyone else too seriously
  • The present is more powerful than your dark past or anxious future
  • You are enough; do what comes naturally
  • Waste money, not time
  • There is force bigger than you (call it what you like – God, reality, momentum, force, energy) understand the scale of that larger entity
  • Be the thing that you already know you are
  • Titles don’t just belong to the masters
  • What will the world lose without your voice?
  • Set someone free because of your vulnerability, we all seem to believe we are completely alone and you can look straight into someone’s eyes and say, “I am right here with you”
  • Change is inevitable, jump in with both feet
  • Do not follow false loves

I hope for a day when everything that is wrong will be made right. I hope for a day when all the sad things will come untrue. I hope we can experience the fullness we all know is out there but cannot seem to reach. I hope for complete contentment and peace. The kind of peace that surpasses all understanding.

I hope for a day when my friend and I can go to that reserve in Africa, jump out of the land rover and dig our hands into the beauty of that countryside and laugh about when all of it was out of our reach.

 

(This post is dedicated to Bevan Binder – a man filled with hope and wonder) 

My mother and I went down to the river

It was the warmest day in early fall. Faint, wispy clouds above, water running slowly over fragments of glacial rock beneath.

There I am standing, ankle high in the water, and I’m thinking about just how perfect this feels. Some folks gather at the rocky banks. My mother joins me in the water along with my friend, Stephen.

We wade out into the center of the Little Miami River and I trudge through the water trying to find a deep pocket to stand. Stephen and I hold my mother’s hands. I ask her if she is ready to be washed clean of her sins.

I say that as she is submerged beneath the water, it is a symbol of being buried in the grave with Christ, and that as she comes to the surface, she will be a new creation, a symbol of the resurrection of Jesus. She says she is ready to be made new. She never learned to swim and is glad the water is not too deep.

We lower her body down into the water and the slow current courses over her. We raise her up and she exhales and smiles. Then, my friend and my mother grab my hands. They tell me that what I am about to do is a response to how much God loves me. My mother tells a story of me proclaiming my love for God when I was a boy. They dip me into the water and raise me up. There is cheering for my mother and I from the banks.

Make us new, Lord. We are thankful for this baptism day and hold it as a reminder that while our clothes will become soiled again, you can wash us clean and that you delight in redeeming us. Your desire to bring us back to you never fades. Your resolve is unending. I pray Lord, that not one would be lost, for even if one is lost, then our sum in none. I pray that we would be a complete body when we are returned to our former glory. I pray that we would forgive one and other like you forgive us. Lord, this season has been difficult for my mother and I. I pray that we would not give up loving each other well. I confess that I think I know what’s best, even now. There are things in this life that seem so unnecessarily painful. I want them to go away. Make them go away, Lord. Please. From a man full of doubt. A man whose faith is as strong as a dead leaf in autumn. Tossed and turned by a slight wind. One day I hope to be like that river, Lord. That made up its mind when it will bend. Amen.