Contentment is hard to come by in a culture that pursues only momentary happiness. On the other hand, religion often guilts us into thinking that we’ve screwed up our lives too much for God to use us for anything. Neither sorrowful humility nor the pursuit of happiness will bring us contentment. Contentment comes when we follow God wherever he leads. Listen to my entire message below as I flesh these ideas out.
We’re going through THE STORY at Everyday Church, and recently I preached about Jesus’ amazing but ultimately disappointing ministry. Jesus has been disappointing people for more than 2000 years, though it’s usually not because of who he is, but because of our own expectations of him. Watch/listen for more http://everydaycc.com/2014/11/the-story-season-5-episode-24-no-ordinary-man/
I daydream about taking a break from my life and living for a summer in Bar Harbor, Maine.
This summer I went on vacation to Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. It was one of the best decisions for a vacation that I’ve ever made, and I can’t wait to go back. I traveled by myself and camped out in the park’s campground. Several people gave me confused or shocked looks after they asked, “who are you going with?” But it was amazing to go my myself. I went to Acadia seeking the beauty and peace that only national parks can bring.
My first day there, I rode my bike along the carriage roads built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. many years ago. There was beauty around every corner, Rockefeller made sure of that. The road wound back and froth between trees and opening up onto the best vantage points for each vista, lake or mountain.
Though it was raining, I set out the next morning on a hike through part of the island with a national park ranger. From watching the National Parks documentary*, I had heard about rangers who were deeply devoted to the parks, with almost endless, secret knowledge of each place. It was true. At each point, the ranger pointed out not only an interesting fact about a rock or plant, but also the history of the place. She told us of the families that once owned the area and answered any question we threw at her with great passion. As a few of us stuck around to ask her more questions, it was clear that this was not just a job. She loved this place with all her heart.
A special place in the park is a secluded beach, only a few hundred feet wide. Sand Beach’s sand is different from most, as it is made up of mostly crushed sea shells. The water is much to cold to swim in, though plenty of children did their best (I’m told the temperature is usually around 51 degrees). One night, I joined a couple dozen others on the beach to gaze at the stars. If you’ve ever been able to see the Milky Way galaxy with the naked e
ye, you know how wondrous and mesmerizing the stars can be. A park ranger pointed out several constellations, and we saw a couple shooting stars. Usually in New York City, I can see 3-4 stars if I really try hard. In fact, the ranger described the experience as something that the parks are striving to preserve along with the landscape and wildlife. In our modern cities with all of their artificial lights, there are few places where we are able to truly gaze at the stars like humans have for thousands of years. No wonder the ancients were completely captivated by the stars. They make you feel quite small.
One of my favorite memories came the last afternoon in Acadia. The island is encircled in walls of granite that jut out into the ocean. At one bend of the island, I climbed out up to where the rocks drop off a few hundred feet to the ocean below. Sitting on the edge, you can hear the ocean waves, the occasional seagull, and the bell of a green buoy. Just off the coast are a small number of large rocks clustered together that can be mistaken for a group of fish or other sea creature (hence the buoy). It was late afternoon when I was there. I sat down near the edge, closed my eyes and listened to the buoy chime out it’s steady warning. It was one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. After a few minutes, a large family with 6 kids arrived and disturbed my place of peace. But thankfully I had received what I needed from the spot.
My experience at Acadia was markedly different from my first National Park, Smokey Mountain National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina. The Smokey mountains are absolutely fully of peaceful, beautiful places, but the surrounding area is most different. Entering and exiting the park is a shocking experience. Driving along the North Carolina highway dotted with houses, street signs, light traffic and power lines, you’re met with the entrance to the park. Once you enter, you are surrounded by nothing but trees. No signs, houses, power lines or cell service. As you exit the park into Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the change is even more dramatic. The wildness road of nothing but trees in the park is juxtaposed with blatant tourist attractions from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not to mini golf to whatever chain restaurant you desire just outside the park. It breaks my heart how often we choose the fickle things of life while transcendent peace is literally next door (there’s a sermon in there somewhere).
Anyone who has traveled to a National Park in the United States has certainly had a similar experience of finding peace in the parks. But Acadia is a unique national park, as it was mostly donated by wealthy landowners in the early to mid-twentieth century. So, there isn’t a point like in other parks where you enter “the park” and are cut off from civilization. Most of the interior of Mount Desert Island is national park, but the coast it is surrounded by a small harbor towns where people have lived for hundreds of years. My favorite, Bar harbor, is on the east side of the harbor. It has a number of small restaurants and shops focused on outdoor activities. There are no chain restaurants or obnoxious tourist attractions. It’s a small town that is vitally connected to the park but hasn’t been corrupted by tourism. When Rockefeller Jr. built the carriage roads I biked, the locals feared that Acadia would become like Coney Island (Gatlinburg, Tennessee). Thankfully it did not. Back in New York City, I often find myself daydreaming about spending a few months by myself at mount desert island, living in Bar Harbor. There are so few places to find peace in New York City. It’s the peace, the transcendent beauty of Acadia that calls my heart back. I can’t wait to go back.
**Usually my posts are about church stuff. But John Muir often talked of the national parks as the most beautiful of cathedrals, so I think it fits. There’s also something to be said about the role of God in creating these transcendent places.
“Jesus found zero self-worth in what he did on earth, but he gave 100% of himself in all he did.”
My friend Mike and I get together often to pray for one another, and it seems like every time, he says a phrase that is gold. Recently I was sharing about my struggle with finding self worth in my work. Then he laid down this insight that drives him insane about Jesus.
How in the world did Jesus do that? How do you give yourself whole-heartedly to something without finding some sense of worth in it? Is it possible to give your heart to something or to someone, but to not find your self worth in it or them? I suppose that is the mystery of Christian marriage – we give ourselves wholly to someone else, but still find our self worth in Christ. Spouses die. Spouses sin. Either way, it’s hard to wrap my mind around.
Thinking of this concept helps me understand (a little) how Jesus was able to gather crowds of thousands of followers, and then send them away. When he fed the 5000 who wanted to crown him king at the moment, he sent them away so that he could spend the evening in prayer. When the crowd came back the next day, Jesus used the most profuse language (eat my flesh and drink my blood) to make sure the crowd would never return. Granted they were primarily following Jesus because he fed them, but sheesh! What would make a person do that?
There’s something about Jesus’ relationship with the father that trumped everything.
I sometimes struggle with finding my self worth in my job. I don’t find a whole lot of worth in necessarily being pastor. But I have a deep desire to be seen as a leader, as a team-builder, as an entrepreneur. I honestly have the faces of a few people that I look up to in my head. I often contemplate what they think of me, what they see in me, what value they place on me as a pastor. For the past few months I’ve been doing some counseling, and I’ve come to realize the power of how I think others view my success in my job. It has become an idol in my life. It’s not bad to want success or recognition. It’s not a sin to want others to have a positive view of me. It’s when I elevate those opinions (or even my perception of those opinions) above those of my heavenly father.
Jesus found his self worth in his father. I believe this understanding gave him extraordinary boldness in his teaching and his actions. In the gospels, you never see Jesus becoming frustrated with what he’s doing. He is often frustrated with the crowds, the religious leaders and his disciples, but never in himself. He did the father’s will. He knew who he was. He knew what he was saying was true. That could come off as arrogant I suppose. But for Jesus it was certainty. He didn’t need to worry about what other people thought of him. He didn’t need to even worry about whether other people would follow him or not! He was completely secure in his identity.
I would think that such security, boldness, self-assurance would make Jesus the most successful person ever. Instead he was crucified!
Jesus really doesn’t make sense sometimes. No really. Jesus does not compute. He was completely and utterly secure, so he let himself be murdered?!?
Alright, let’s look at the other side of the quote. Jesus gave all of himself in everything he did. I want this. Whatever I do, I want to pour myself into it. I don’t think most people like to half-do anything. We want to find something so worthwhile that we’d almost die for it. Sometimes we say that we would. Jesus did! I just can’t understand how you avoid finding your self-worth in something that you pour your soul into. Is there a switch that I haven’t pulled yet, because that really comes naturally to me.
I think Jesus was able to give himself completely to whatever he did without finding his self worth in it, because he found his self worth completely in his Father. There’s no new revelation there, and you’ve probably heard the importance of Jesus’ relationship with the Father before. But what I want to highlight is that he received his self worth completely from his Father. If I’m honest, I often find mine in family, hobbies, my job, my friends…as well as in God. Jesus didn’t find part of his self worth in more than one place.
One point of reference gave Jesus the ability to give himself completely in what he did.
What is dead in your life?
That was the question that the speaker asked us to answer during our time of prayer. The point was to realize that God could bring the dead things in our lives back to life. He told us that whatever came to our minds first was the right answer.
So Nathan, what is dead in my life? Art.
Art? I really didn’t expect that. As I thought about it though, it made sense. I realize more and more all the time how much of a creative person I am – I’ve done theater, singing, improv, music, photography, writing, I even have a chalkboard wall in my apartment! Being creative has always been a part of my life, but since I’ve been in New York, it has been a side-note. I started improv because I wanted to act. I write this blog, because I need an outlet for my ideas. I’m an amateur in what I do (as opposed to a professional who can live off of his/her art). And I’ve got a little voice asking whether I should quit everything and pursue acting professionally. So, why does art feel “dead” in my life? I think it is because I’m not free to just be creative.
Here’s what I mean. There are three ways to look at our personal creativity:
1) I must be successful with my art, because success equates value. This is false. It is a self-centered view of creativity, because we obsess over the opinions of others. Unless we are recognized for our creativity, it is not worth doing. It is an impossible standard to live up to since we cannot please everyone.
2) I must do my art, because it defines me as a person. This is also false. It’s a self-centered view of creativity, because we create in order to either express our own self-worth or get something from others (money, recognition, power, etc). When we are not able to exercise our creativity in freedom, we find less value in ourselves. This is ultimately an impossible standard to live up to since life circumstances get in the way of our creativity.
3) I am free to create. As Christ-followers, we have ultimate value regardless of our creative capacities, because God found us worth the price of sending Jesus to die for us. We are therefore free to exercise our creativity whatever circumstances we face. As Christ-followers, we find motivation to be creative in the fact that we have been created in the image of God, the ultimate creator. And while there are standards of good and bad art, we are free to create without be shackled by the opinions of others.
I go back and forth between options 1 & 2. Sometimes I daydream about working as a pastor part time and being an actor the rest of the time. I’ve told people for years that I would like to model or audition for tv commercials. I haven’t done it. I’m scared to death. Death – there’s that word.
Here’s what I know: God wants us to live in option 3. He wants us to be free to be creative. I don’t know how to work it all out in my head, but I do know that the gospel is the only answer for the creative. Make sense? I’d love to hear your comments.
Also, last week I wrote more explicitly on what the gospel means for creatives. Check it out here.
“What is the good news for the group of people you are reaching?”
In April of this year our staff went to the Exponential Conference for church planting in Orlando, FL, and one of the speakers brought up this question. She talked about the need to learn the language of people and communicate the good news [gospel] of Jesus to them in a way that they will understand in their hearts. Of course, my mind immediately went to what the good news is for those we’re reaching through the Creativity Group at Everyday Church.
The “good” news is a value judgment, so how do we value creativity as a society?
We value creativity as personal expression. Talking to other improvisors, I often ask people why they do it, and the answer I hear often is: “I need a creative outlet.” In other words, they are not able to express fully who they are as a person in their work and daily life. I think that the creative process indeed has a vital role in helping us unearth who we truly are. The person who says, “I have to act. I have to organize. I have to write code.” There is something inside of them that must be expressed for them to be a whole person. The only problem with this is the finiteness of humanity. We are able to express ourselves, but only to the extent of our own lives. And even if by some chance our creative endeavors endure well beyond our lives, life itself will ultimately end with no eternal meaning. The creative process is therefore limited.
The good news of Jesus magnifies this idea to eternal proportions! It says that creativity is something that God himself put into us when he created us. It is part of the image of God. Look at Genesis 1:27:
So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Let me highlight that verse in a different way:
So God created human beings in his image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Jesus himself was a creative person. His ministry was filled with illustrations, stories, teachings, and miracles exploding with creativity. We are not just a fleeting people with fleeting creative desires. God has given us each creative potential that he wants us to discover and express. The creative process is part of discovering who God created us to be. And in the end we don’t care so much about what creativity says about us as much as what it says about the eternal creator. This is what we call giving glory to God, the ultimate creator.
We also value creativity as a means to an end. We are able to make money through creativity. It improves our systems, our thinking, and our society. We become more efficient. We’re able to more fully understand abstract ideas as well as one another. We’re able to find new ways of living together (hopefully for the good of all). Finding one’s value in creativity can backfire when it is contingent upon producing something that is judged by others. Now it is not just about expression, but about what we get out of it based on what others think, whether it is money, love, recognition, significance, etc. In doing so, creativity looses its beauty, and becomes limited as only a means to an end.
Again, the good news of Jesus magnifies this to eternal proportions. Creating is something that God has commanded us to do. Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. – Genesis 1:28. This requires great creativity. The good news says that creativity is not only a means to an end, but that it will continue throughout eternity. Not only that, but the Jesus says that we are valued far beyond our creative potential. Jesus himself lived the perfect life we could never live, died the death we should have died, and gives us a new life that we don’t deserve. We are therefore free to create, knowing where our true value lies. It is not a means to our being recognized, happy, validated, or fulfilled. We have eternal worth outside of our creative potential. Therefore we are free to be creative to even greater potential!
In the end, the good news of Jesus frees us from the judgment of ourselves and others. He gives us an eternal perspective, and blesses us to create in his image, the ultimate creator.