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. 

 

Confidence lacking

Confidence is something I’ve lacked my whole life. People have told me I need to gain confidence; everyone from my mom to my pastor. I would love to feel comfortable in my own skin, in my beliefs, in my doubts, in my struggle with depression and mental illness. But I’m not – not really anyway and on top of that, I’m not sure how to work on it.

Maybe if there was a special pill I could take in the morning (along with the litany of other pills I already take … what’s one more?). That sounds nice and easy.

There are not many areas where I can hold on to confidence and feel secure in myself. I am an average musician, with an average voice. I am a poet who has never been published. I am an author with a book collecting dust. I have never experienced success in the workplace. I have a disorder that makes all manner of those things difficult. I care about my friends more deeply than they care about me. I suck at romantic relationships, to use a word that doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of this piece. You get the idea.

But I am kind. And I am honest. The world does not need more confidence in my opinion before it needs more kindness. I’m not saying confidence is not important, it clearly is. However, it comes down to: what I want to practice in my life. I want to practice kindness before everything else.

I want to practice honesty too; telling it how it is with no white-washing or bullshitting. And maybe, I’m realizing, confidence can come from those places instead of some vacuum that I don’t understand or some elixir that doesn’t exist. It can be born out of those top-tier things, like love for your fellow man.

I might have to be ok with a confidence meter that is perpetually half-full. I don’t know how to work on increasing it. I do know how to be more kind. There are always ideas in my head for that. I am naturally very honest and it could be that my apparent lack of confidence is really just a proclivity for telling the truth. The average man or woman probably feels the slights and nervousness that I feel, but doesn’t voice them. Along with their doubts and failings and unsuccesses.

Maybe it is not I who should be more confident, maybe it is you who needs to be more honest.

I am fascinated by confronting myself and telling the truth about every situation. ‘Know thy self’ seems like an idea worth pursuing and who knows, confidence could come with it some day.

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.

The truest sentence

I feel alone more than a lot.
My friends love me and I’m lucky for that.
They don’t know how alone I am though, they can’t even comprehend it.
They walk around with all these connections and loved ones and spouses.
They wouldn’t know how to define the word.
Some people say ‘depression’ cause they want to be part of the club.
Some people can’t stop ruminating about killing themself.

Like, I have a bad day and I make plans to end my life.
But what surprises me, is that I make plans on the good days now too.
Like dying sounds kinda peaceful and nice and I sigh a contented sigh when I think about it.
I never asked for this life.
I didn’t go around begging for it.
But here it is.
This big, crazy mess of sad and tired and confused and alone.

There’s some good in there too.
And despite my most concentrated efforts and furrowed brows and clenched fists, I keep right on living.
Sometimes I wonder if the ones who really want to live, like have big gusto and whatnot, die young and their time gets added on to the end of my life.
Is that how God works?
Whatever you want real bad, he gives you the opposite to test you?
Kinda seems like it.

When I was 6 years old, I thought life was just about Jesus.
That was it.
No other things.
Just me and Jesus talking about how much we loved each other in our sunday school shoes.
I didn’t know there were any other things you could believe (my little kindergarten self shrugs his shoulders).
I told people I would die for Jesus.
I was very sure of myself back then.

Sometimes I think God really loves me.
Sometimes I think I’m growing from my suffering.
I like to look at the world through that lense, but sometimes I’m bad at it, ya know?

Randomly, I’ll think of God as one of us.
Ya know, a fallible human that’s just real big and powerful who’s trying all these different experiments and he keeps messing them up and he feels really bad that he’s messing up so he just gets stressed out and cries a lot.
This makes me have compassion on this human-God I’ve imagined.
But, if I’m honest, I don’t think God is really like that.

God is this real complex idea/being/creator/force/power/grace that we have boiled down to something really simple so faith doesn’t scare us so bad.
“I can’t believe in a God who would do that!,” we all say at one point.
But I bet he’s so much more than a figure head in the sky or an old man that our mom told us about when we got scared in elementary school.
I bet he’s the connecting tissue to every living thing.
I bet he whispers to us when we look at a big tree and say, “That is so beautiful.”

My friend said she knows God is real because “there are small bugs that light up hot summer nights with magic, and they’re slow enough to be held in our hands.”
She said that she knows God is real because, “The trees turn a soft pink and deep red twice a year with no other colorful purpose than to be enjoyed.”
She said that, “there are one million types of laughs and my friends bring out my heartiest.” And lastly she said because, “My friend went into the darkest depth of a mental hospital and knew in his core that his job was to love people there.”

That last line was about me.
The funny thing is, my friend who wrote those lines four years ago, doesn’t believe in God anymore.
I think she sometimes believes that there could be a God, but she definitely doesn’t believe that he is good.
And haven’t we all been where my friend is right now?
Haven’t we all said, “There’s no way that goodness is at the center of all of this chaos.”
I’ve been there, in her position, earlier today even and I bet I will be there again tomorrow any some point.

Maybe if you think of God as a metaphor for goodness, it’s like taking a step.
And hugging a stranger who’s crying is like taking another.
And sweeping a child up into your arms is like jogging a bit.
And talking a friend out of suicide is like quickening your pace.
And telling a friend your painful story is like running.
And then you’re hugging and sweeping and talking and telling and loving and kissing and helping and singing and hoping and praying
and then you start thinking.

I want to be about goodness.
I want it in my life.
I want to help and I want to grow and get better.
I want to be about goodness.
I don’t really care what you call it.

Hold it in

 

Peace, for me, is this fleeting thing. Most of the time, it seems just out of my grasp, like a favorite something dangling right above where I can reach. There are times when I even hate the thought of it because it seems to mock me. I can see it on passerbys’ faces when they hold their significant others close and laugh about these universe secrets that I’ll never know about. ‘Why not me?’ I ask God or whoever is holding down the fort. He is usually pretty quiet and unassuming.

It’s funny though, because I seem to have caught a bit of it right now; peace that is. It feels so nice to wear peace like a christmas sweater – with all the dangling fuzzies rubbing up against my neck. It kind of tickles even. My whole body is missing this swirling, frantic feeling that I have normally – like I’m late to a very important appointment that will determine next year’s salary or something.

I don’t know how peace strikes you. My guess is that it is quite different for everybody. The way I experience it happens first in my chest. Normally, there is this big pretzel knot that squeezes and constricts my heart and other surrounding organs, but then peace comes like this massive set of hands and kneads the dough back to its original state – into a fine pasty, putty that could be molded into whatever I suppose.

That’s always the first step and right after, I can breathe better and more fully. Then peace does something to my eyes. There’s a cloudiness that covers my sight most of the time and after a while it grows thick and hazy – until I can hardly see anything at all. But peace comes and spritzes something like windex into them – only its organic, I think, because it only stings a little – and I can see farther and clearer. I can almost see the future and when you can see that far, you start to realize that, mostly, everything will be alright, and if it’s not going to be alright, then there’s something else in control that’s pulling the strings. Maybe that’s when I realize, whoever this stringpuller is, He or She or both, is more subtle than I thought and I kind of like the delicate nature of it all.

Lastly, Peace grabs a hold of my mind and massages it like when Bugs Bunny opened up Elmer Fudd’s head and played with his brain. Peace kind of rubs the creases and all this tension gets released.

Basically, once Peace has done what it wants, I realize the “big” worries in my life aren’t so big and there are only a few things that are important and I know their first names and get dinner with them a bunch. Oh, and my shoulders relax too, which is nice.

Mental Illness Happy Hour: Volume 2

 

There were a lot of heavy conversations today. I spent the afternoon with my mom discussing things that would be helpful to her given that she is confined to her house. We talked about setting up a cleaning service. We talked about getting help mowing the lawn. We talked about getting groceries delivered. All of these things being a part of the new normal.

I have felt ashamed many times that I cannot due more for my mom as her son. I want to do the cleaning that needs done. I want to mulch and mow the lawn and weed the grass. I want to get the groceries.

I can’t do all those things and help my mom get to her appointments and be her confidant through all of this and keep my sanity. When my family is not in town, it’s just me. I am the first and last line of defense. There’s a part of me that really wants to help, but there’s a bigger part of me that wants to be seen by my community as “the great helper.”

This part is a matter of pride.

I don’t necessarily want to do what it takes to be a good person, I just want the glory that comes with being seen that way. I want people to think so, so highly of me. It is a toxic situation that I know a lot of people can relate with. I’m working on it, that’s what I’ll say for now.

My mom has been devastated by the neglect that my father has shown her since they got divorced. He doesn’t return her calls, or emails, or texts and that crushes her. She has struggled to understand why the man that married her has abandoned her. She feels that he doesn’t care whether she lives or dies.

She has said that line many times in the last 6 years, but now the “or dies” part seems more real as she stares down death with her chemo treatments and radiation as a result of her diagnosis of stage 4 cancer.

I understand that my mom is hurting. She is hurting more than I’ve ever seen a person hurt, but sometimes I can’t handle the conversations about my dad. I am my parent’s son. I have their blood coursing through my veins and hearing about my dad’s shortcomings drudges up a lot of pain for me.

Those were hard conversations today between my mother and I.

When I came home, I went to dinner with my best friends, Stephen and Michaelah. We talked and we laughed and watched SNL clips after we got back home. But then the conversation got heavy when we started talking about my mom. Sometimes I don’t want to make conversations heavy, but there always seems to be heavy things happening to me so, I guess it just kinda comes out. I talked about how I didn’t want to have to go through the things I was dealing with. I talked about how, if I could choose, I would wish for just about any other situation.

I am selfish.

I want the easy way, the way that affords me the most comfort and relaxation and joy. I think most people, given the choice, would choose the easy way too most of the time. I don’t want these things to be happening to my mom. I don’t want to live in a world filled with cancer and brokenness and pain and suffering.

But here I am. And here we all are.

Stephen told me to stop viewing myself as a victim in this whole situation, which was a hard pill to swallow. I am a victim, but I understand what he is getting at. I have to choose hard things to help my mom because I love her even when I want to just relax. I have to fight for her even when we argue about my dad because we are both tremendously hurt by the divorce.

I have to. There is no other choice in my mind.

Even though I want the easy way so bad, that’s not what I have in front of me. Instead I have a road that twists and turns and might be dangerous just around the bend.

Every single day so far, in my entire life, I have gotten out of bed. I am going to continue this trend even when I want to curl up and die. I say all this because we are all going through a lot and sometimes we need to know someone else has been there. Keep Pressing On!