What I’m Missing Even When I Have It All

photo by Alexander Lam

…contentment.

I find contentment to be so elusive. It’s been that way nearly all my life. You know what? Since I flew to South America in 2014 for ten weeks in Ecuador and Peru, I have not lived in the same place for more than a year (until now).

my story

In 2014, despite my goal to teach ESL overseas (I was planning on moving to South Korea and had even begun the paperwork), I got cold feet and moved to Boston. I quickly got a job managing a cafe in Harvard Square. Even so, I could barely keep my head above water financially due to the astronomical cost of living in Boston. I had some really great memories in Boston, but I also struggled some. I was discontent, and I moved (that’s a little oversimplified; there were some other deeper reasons to my move too).

Back in St. Louis, wrestling with my purpose and the direction of my life, I thought that God was calling me back into pastoral ministry. I probably applied to thirty different church positions. To this day I believe I was well-qualified for the jobs I was applying to, but I got zero bites. I didn’t even get a call back. Again, I was discontent.

Thankfully, some doors were opened to me, and I spent the next year managing The Cup‘s Chesterfield location (that location has since closed), working with the youth at a church, and even preaching some as the interim pastor of another church for four months. In fact, when I was presented with the opportunity to take a teaching job in El Salvador, I can honestly look back and say that I accepted the position out of contentment rather than discontentment. I was happy back in St. Louis and not looking to move. However, the opportunity was too good to pass up.

In El Salvador I fell in love, and even though I had planned to teach there longer, I returned to the United States after one year because of the immigration process. I teach now in Kansas City, and I am getting married in a little over two weeks! However, try as I did, I had many moments of discontentment over the past year. I missed my fiancee, I missed El Salvador, I missed opportunities being immersed in another language. As much as I love my new home and teaching here, I still allowed discontentment to creep in.

Now, I’m sure you’re giving me grace for the discontent I may have experienced over the past year while being separated from my fiancee. Still, the Bible doesn’t give qualifiers, and the apostle Paul challenges us today just as he did in his letter to the church in Philippi.

it’s in the Bible

…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.           

-Philippians 4:11b-13 NIV (italics added)

The secret of being content. Contentment feels like a secret sometimes, doesn’t it? Like the top secret files of the government tucked away in some secret vault in Washington DC (think National Treasure), contentment seems like a top secret file buried deep in the throne room of heaven. The truth: contentment isn’t hidden.

the garden of contentment

You and I have access to the apostle Paul’s secret. It is through Jesus that we are opened up to the garden of contentment. Jesus said things like “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5) and goes on in the same passage to say, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (v. 11).

Why a garden?

The image of a garden goes all the way back to the beginning of the Bible. We were made to live forever with God in paradise. Thus, the goal of salvation and being united to Christ is so that we have renewed access to the garden (actually, it will be a new Jerusalem). Furthermore, Jesus brought in that kingdom when he came to earth. No, we’re not living in a literal kingdom with a stone-walled fortress and palaces. But through the Spirit (that lesser remembered part of the Trinity), we live as kingdom subjects now and have access to the hope and peace of Jesus and his garden of contentment.

how to live with contentment

If Paul could live contentedly despite persecution, surely we (this is a big finger pointed at me primarily) can learn to be content in our comparatively easier lives (I’m not saying our lives are easy, but most of us aren’t being tortured, and most of us know where our next meal is coming from).

I chose this topic to write on because lately I’ve been struggling to live in the moment. I’m an innovative guy (I always have a million ideas and little projects in my mind) who often fails to just settle down and enjoy what’s in front of him. Often these are for good reasons–I want to live a life of meaning and purpose, and I’m processing how to serve God best. However, many times I’m just being selfish and distracted. Or, in my present case, I’m anxiously awaiting the arrival of my bride-to-be. So, how do we fix this?

Caveat: on this side of eternity, we will never live perfectly content lives. I’m paraphrasing Steinbeck here, but once we stop worrying about being perfect, we can be good.

The solution to living with contentment is also found in the same passage of Philippians.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God….

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

-Philippians 4:4-6, 8

Be thankful.

Out loud or in writing, be intentionally grateful.

Be present.

In good times and bad, be present in life. It’s good to think about the future or difficult situations, but we can’t be consumed by them. Remember to take a breath, step back, and be present in your immediate situation with the people around you and your reality. Lean in to Jesus when things are hard.

Little by little you and I will learn the secret, and hopefully we can pass it on to others.

Worship: The Flame of Life

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photo: Hakan Erenler

[This post was featured on The Avenue Church’s blog and podcast, For the City.]

The word worship elicits all kinds of images. One person may think of pew on pew on pew leading up to a large Gospel choir in the front of the sanctuary. Another person may recall the used and careworn pages of an old hymnal–maybe even the smell of those pages. Or perhaps one imagines hands raised in the concert hall of a mood-lit mega conference, singing alongside hundreds if not thousands of other believers. One may also remember the emotions: joy, elation, penitence.

When we think of worship, we almost always envision a form of singing. Even for those who know that worship is more, we still, upon instinct, normally associate the word with singing. This is natural. Worship through song has a rich and beautiful tradition in the Church, and it is probably the easiest way to confess love and honor to God. However, just because it is the easiest, that doesn’t mean singing is the only or even the best form of worship. True worship, of course, encompasses the whole individual and the whole church assembly.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Romans 12:1

Paul writes this to the Romans, urging them to submit their lives to the rule of God, and he defines worship as a presentation of one’s body as a living sacrifice.

At my church, The Avenue, we’ve begun a series entitled Valley of Vision, drawing its name and inspiration from the well known Christian devotional compiled and published in 1975 by Arthur Bennett. The Valley of Vision is a collection of Puritan prayers meant to provide form and inspiration to each believer’s personal prayer life. It has also become a simple liturgy used in some churches like The Avenue.

One of the prayers in The Valley Vision is “Worship” (read the whole prayer here), and in the opening lines, the writer promulgates the importance of worship and its significance.

“Glorious God, It is the flame of my life to worship thee, the crown and glory of my soul to adore thee, heavenly pleasure to approach thee.”

It is the flame of my life… Yes, adoration can come in the form of singing. However, notice how much more poignant is the message of this Puritan prayer. Worship is not a flame for the singing time of the service. It is not the flame of Sundays. True worship is the flame of life. Therefore, if this Christian practice is bound to the whole life, it makes sense that worship must consume more than a thirty minute segment of one’s week!

Worship is the offering of all of one’s self to the object (or objects) of one’s allegiance, and by offering one’s self in all areas of life, that becomes the act of praise. As an aside, notice that I mentioned objects, plural, can receive worship. That was intentional. We are always worshipping something; if it’s not God, it’s whatever consumes our devotion, and sometimes that consists of lots of little distracting somethings that steal our attention from God.

Thus, if worship is an offering of all of life, you are worshipping as a parent, caring for your child and pointing her to Jesus. You are worshipping on your hands and knees (prayer-like!) in your garden, pruning God’s good earth for His glory. You are worshipping as you serve your city. And, I believe, you are even worshipping in your failures when that failure becomes an offering of confession and a recognition of your need for grace. God is other in His greatness and power.

This leads me to another aspect of this important prayer. One of the reasons we worship God is because He has given us a mediator, a go-between between man and the Almighty.

“Give me knowledge of thy goodness that I might not be over-awed by thy greatness; Give me Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God, that I might not be terrified, but be drawn near with filial love, with holy boldness; He is my Mediator, Brother, Interpreter, Branch, Daysman, Lamb…”

In the Old Testament, Moses asked to see God’s glory (what an audacious request!), and God acquiesced to his request with the caveat that Moses would not be allowed to see God’s face: “for man shall not see me and live.” In the Old Testament, God was personal but not exactly approachable. However, in Jesus Christ every believer has access to God through Jesus Christ.

Therefore, we also worship with the humbling knowledge that, without Jesus, we would be left to worship from afar, unable to comprehend or survive the absolute holiness of the Divine. In Jesus, however, we have a brother and mediator. He is the high priest who gives us access to the throne of God.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15

So let us fan the flame of our lives, let us worship without ceasing by bringing our adoration of God into every area of our lives, and let us praise Jesus all the more because we know that He makes a way for us to enter the eternal kingdom of the most high and eternal God.

What Is Your Sacred Pathway?

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La Iglesia de San Francisco in Lima, Peru 2014

 

The other day I was tasked with leading a faculty devotional at my school. I decided to put together a small presentation based on Gary Thomas’s book Sacred Pathways, a book I read several years ago.

Here’s the premise of the book, one of Thomas’s thoughts in the opening pages:

“Expecting all Christians to have a certain type of quiet time can wreak havoc in a church or small group. Excited about meaningful (to us) approaches to the Christian life, we sometimes assume that if others do not experience the same thing, something must be wrong with their faith. Please don’t be intimidated by others’ expectations. God wants to know the real you, not a caricature of what somebody else wants you to be. He created you with a certain personality and a certain spiritual temperament. God wants your worship, according to the way he made you. Your worship may differ somewhat from the worship of the person who brought you to Christ or the person who leads your Bible study or church.

Basically, if God created all of us uniquely, it makes sense that each of us best connect with Him in unique ways. Now, Thomas makes clear that these spiritual pathways that he suggests are not to be replaced with every Christian’s mandate: talk to God (prayer) and listen to Him (Scripture reading). And many of the pathways are commands for all true believers. Nevertheless, many of us are wired more strongly towards certain paths than others. So, which pathway is yours?

Naturalists: Loving God Outdoors

“Naturalists would prefer to leave any building, however beautiful or austere, to pray to God beside a river… just let them take a walk through the woods, mountains, or open meadows.”

Sensates: Loving God with the Senses

“Sensate Christians want to be lost in the awe, beauty, and splendor of God. They are drawn particularly to the liturgical, the majestic, the grand. When these Christians worship, they want to be filled with sights, sounds, and smells that overwhelm them. Incense, architecture, classical music, and formal language send their hearts soaring.”

Traditionalists: Loving God through Ritual and Symbol

“Traditionalists are fed by what are often termed the historic dimensions of faith: rituals, symbols, sacraments, and sacrifice. These Christians tend to have a disciplined life of faith.”

Ascetics: Loving God in Solitude and Simplicity

“Ascetics want nothing more than to be left alone in prayer. Take away the liturgy, the trappings of religion, the noise of the outside world. Let there be nothing to distract them–no pictures, no loud music–and leave them alone to pray in silence and simplicity…. Ascetics live a fundamentally internal existence.”

Activists: Loving God through Confrontation

“Activists serve a God of justice… They define worship as standing against evil and calling sinners to repentance. These Christians often view the church as a place to recharge their batteries so they can go back into the world to wage war against injustice.”

Caregivers: Loving God by Loving Others

“[Caregivers] often claim to see Christ in the poor and needy, and their faith is built up by interacting with other people…. Whereas caring for others might wear many of us down, this activity recharges a caregiver’s batteries.”

Enthusiasts: Loving God with Mystery and Celebration

“Excitement and mystery in worship is the spiritual lifeblood of enthusiasts…. enthusiasts are inspired by joyful celebration. These Christians are cheerleaders for God and the Christian life. Let them clap their hands, shout “Amen!” and dance in their excitement–that’s all they ask.”

Contemplatives: Loving God through Adoration

“Contemplatives refer to God as their lover, and the images of a loving Father and Bridegroom best capture their view of God. Their favorite Bible passages may come from the Song of Songs, as they enter the ‘divine romance’…. these Christians seek to love God with the purest, deepest, and brightest love imaginable.”

Intellectuals: Loving God with the Mind

“Intellectuals need their minds to be stirred before their hearts come truly alive…. These Christians live in the world of concepts…. ‘Faith’ is something to be understood as much as experienced. They may feel closest to God when they first understand something new about him.”

So which one are you? Take the survey here.

I scored highest as a Naturalist and Sensate (also pretty high as Intellectual and Contemplative). I love connecting to God outdoors, especially where there is less white noise–no buzz of cars and infrequent planes flying overhead (unfortunately, it’s difficult to find spaces like that). I also experience the greatest sublime when I’m utilizing my imagination and senses through art and literature. Thus, understanding myself better helps me to thrive in my own devotional life, and I hope it might help you too.

Finally, if you have a chance, I would encourage you to order the book (save the planet…buy a pre-owned copy). It gives sage wisdom to help avoid pitfalls for certain spiritual pathways. For example, my temperaments might cause me to remain isolated in nature or books, but I am still biblically commanded to serve others. We need to watch out for these natural tendencies to ignore the universal calling of the Christian.

I hope you are blessed and can better connect with God according to how he designed you.