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?

Image may contain: one or more people, outdoor and indoor
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.

“Thanks, God. I mean it now.”

I remember the elation I was feeling during the days leading up to my appointment at the U.S. embassy in El Salvador. I was on vacation from my teaching job during the Holy Week, Semana Santa, and I had just returned from a short trip to Antigua, Guatemala with my then-girlfriend, Elena, and her family. For a couple days I walked those cobble-stoned streets, ate in its cafes and restaurants, took pictures in front of its Baroque-style churches and architecture, and enjoyed the presence of Elena and her family.

Though Elena and I were not yet engaged, we knew we wanted to get married, so we made an appointment at the embassy for the day after we returned from our trip to Antigua. I was very confident that I had done all my research and knew exactly what needed to be completed for us to get married in El Salvador (at a breath-taking cafe on the volcano overlooking the city), continue living there for a year or two, and then return to the United States. The embassy was merely a precaution to make sure we were following all the steps properly.

Image result for us embassy in el salvador

Eventually we met with an embassy agent, but our world came crashing down around us; she explained to us that it would be necessary for us to separate.

There were basically two types of visas we could apply for: a fiance(e) visa or a spouse visa. With the former, we separate before the wedding and then get married in the U.S. With the latter, we get married in El Salvador and then separate at some early point in our marriage. Basically, it was essential that I leave Elena at some point to return to the U.S. and establish myself there with a permanent residence and job.

We left that meeting so deflated. We would have to be separated.

I remember the initial shock, trying not to cry, trying to be strong for Elena, to be positive and act like it was only a small obstacle. We left the embassy and walked down the road a little ways to a coffee shop. We discussed our options but pretty easily decided that it would be better to separate before getting married rather than after. Literally, in the course of one conversation with an embassy agent that lasted minutes, all of our plans had changed. I had planned on teaching in El Salvador longer. We were going to get married on a tropical volcano in Central America!

Nope.

That happened on Wednesday, April 12th, 2017. I literally went back to my home that night and immediately began applying to teaching jobs [side note: I actually applied that night to the school that would end up hiring me, Summit Christian Academy in Lee’s Summit, MO just outside of Kansas City, and I’m so incredibly grateful–so many applications, yet it was the very first where I now work!]. A few days later I notified my supervisor that I would not be returning to teach the next school year. Additionally, I had to say goodbye to some of the coolest 10th, 11th, and 12th graders I knew. Those kids treated me so well, and they gave me one of the most precious goodbye cards I’ve ever received. However, the end had come, and that summer I moved back to the U.S. Elena visited for three weeks, but then, suddenly, we were no longer together.

Even now I begin tearing up thinking through the emotions of last summer, watching her walk through security at the airport after saying goodbye, refusing to leave my spot until I absolutely could see her no longer.

Some of those first weeks of separation were incredibly difficult for both of us. We had to acclimate ourselves to a new reality in our relationship, a reality that easily fed into underlying fears (Will they leave me? Will they find someone else? Will our application be denied?).

Part of me wants to say that I blamed God a lot, but that probably doesn’t capture it. I was just kind of cold to God. The situation had numbed me, and I had difficulty even mustering any sort of emotional response to Him. It’s not that I lost faith. For example, I knew that church was important, and I searched diligently for one when I moved for my new job. However, my personal devotional life was suffering. I found prayer tedious and cynicism easy.

With time, however, Elena and I began finding our routine. I had moved to Lee’s Summit and was staying with a family (angels in disguise really–the Whites were a miracle) while I adapted and got settled into the new area, and I began working as a sixth grade teacher, being energized by the relentless youthfulness of the kiddos. Elena began her second year at the American school where she is an assistant teacher for pre-K, and it has proved to be such a positive environment and blessing for her. Thus, we began finding routine in our daily schedules and in our long-distance relationship (lots of texting and video calls).

In all this, though, the best thing happened. Even when we first learned that we would be separated, I made comments that perhaps this is a forced blessing, a path we would never choose for ourselves but one that would lead to greater individual growth before we join together forever in marriage. It was always hard to internalize that, but I communicated it nonetheless. However, it became true; that’s exactly what has happened.

In this season Elena and I have grown so much closer to each other, and more importantly, we have both galvanized an even deeper and richer foundation in Jesus Christ. He is our Rock. When we can zoom out and look at the big picture, we realize that one year is a small sacrifice if it results in a lifetime anchored in the power of Jesus. If this is what He needed to do to prepare us for our life ahead, then this season is worth it.

God tests those he loves.

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.      -1 Peter 1:6-7

This process has been slow and incremental, but recently I prayed something simply, and, more or less, it went like this:

“Thanks, God. I mean it now.”

I didn’t want to see it at first. I couldn’t. I said it, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t see how Elena and I separating could lead to anything good. It has, though, and we are both so grateful that God has been faithful. He has been preparing us, making us better versions of ourselves so that we can be better for each other and, ultimately, for God.

Elena’s embassy appointment is soon. She has been approved in every step of the process so far, and there’s absolutely no reason to believe she won’t be approved for this final formality. We’re still praying, though, because this journey is always anxiety-inducing. Nevertheless, we have a Power that is beyond all powers; He is the Mystery that is deeper than any mystery, and without Him we’d be nothing.

I love you, Elena Montoya, and I can’t wait to marry you soon.

 

 

Till We Have Faces: My Blog’s New Look

image by Nicole Mason

 

About a year and a half ago I began this blog primarily as a literary resource for students when I was teaching in El Salvador. I posted on the blog, but it was usually in a literary or educational capacity: a creative attempt to engage with my students. When I moved back to the U.S. because of visa application requirements (read here), I took a job as a sixth grade teacher in the Kansas City area (I teach three sections of language and one section each of Bible, history, and reading). However, I struggled with the purpose of my blog. That, coupled with busyness, allowed the blog to atrophy. Nevertheless, I grew to miss the writing and posting, and therefore, I’ve decided to re-tool/re-brand the look and purpose.

I guess if I had to define it, this would be a life blog of sorts. I want to write about things that matter, things that affect and move me, things to think about, and, hopefully, things that challenge and encourage others. Topics will be relevant to my own life:

  • Education
  • Literature and writing
  • Travel
  • Culture
  • Faith

FAITH

The Christian perspective has come under a lot of fire these days. The reasons are, of course, myriad, and I don’t want to dive into all of them here. What saddens me, though, is when people treat faith and religion of any type flippantly. Religion essentially answers the big worldview questions:

  • How did the world come to be?
  • What’s wrong with the world (if anything)?
  • What’s the fix?
  • Who am I?
  • Is there life beyond the grave? What kind of life?

Christianity, of course, centers around Jesus. The teachings of Jesus and the doctrines of the Church are both simple and complex, easily grasped and infinitely profound. It’s filled with paradoxes (e.g. Incarnation), and I love that.

At the core of what attracts me about Christianity, though, is its message of hope. We call this Good News or Gospel (the word in Greek is eu-angelion which literally means “good news”). The Good News from the Christian perspective is that, through Jesus, wrong is made rightThe Bible teaches that both humans and creation are messed up. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you and I and all people were made to be more than we are. God is trying to make us all fully human again. Additionally, creation itself is to be perfected someday. So this reality that we live in now is not the final answer. There’s more. And through Jesus, we have access to that more. He is the fulfillment of all of our deepest longings.

The title for this blog, “a great, real place,” comes from a quote from Till We Have Faces, one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors, CS Lewis. Let me share a few quotes that tie in to what I’ve been saying and that really lay the foundation for this blog.

“Death opens a door out of a little, dark room (that’s all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.”

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

The milky way galaxy and a person's silhouette at nighttime in Kôprovský štít
image by Štefan Štefančík