This morning's sermon really hit home. The text was Philippians 4:10-13, Paul's remarks that he had learned to be content in all circumstances. The guest preacher, the Korean pastor of a local church plant (turns out he went to the seminary associated with Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, which is where Daddy really heard the gospel for the first time--he was doing an internship at the Children's Hospital there, and he, Mums, S Dawg and I were sharing a tiny apartment outside the city and hearing James Montgomery Boice on Sundays. That was also where I remember my worst OCD symptoms, which were to haunt me into my late twenties, beginning), talked about how the last verse in that section is frequently taken out of context--"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." It's not that we are magically equipped to achieve all our dreams, but that looking to Jesus is the key to contentment in every life situation.
Seeing our dreams dashed, and seeing them fulfilled, each can illuminate the almost divine value we place on those particular desires--the tenth commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Covet" really does bookend the group, complementing "Thou Shalt Not Have Other Gods Before Me". Coveting is perceiving in that relationship, object, information or situation the satisfaction that only God can provide. In contrast, contentment allows us to appreciate the value of what we have in its proper context--liking the hamburger for being a hamburger, to use his culinary example, not being dissatisfied with it because it isn't a sirloin steak.
The preacher concluded with the point that the realization of how often we fall short from contentment shows ever more starkly the good news of how much God loves us, that despite our determination to find happiness in other things, he still sent Jesus to die for us.
Although I know on an intellectual level that no relationship, object, information or situation is going to make me really, permanently happy, I was again gob-smacked by the truth that I've been living as if they will. But the "if only" thoughts cut both ways, and the "what is", both in a temporal and eternal sense, is to be chosen. I don't want to be like my old art teacher, an exceptionally lovely-featured woman (she's always reminded me of Katherine Hepburn), whom I encountered at my home church last Sunday who is still audibly regretting her singleness. Even if I should be stuck in a miserable marriage, I wouldn't want to be focusing on that, rather than on the happiness of knowing the Lord. I don't want to be a slave to the inbox-refresh button, wondering why I haven't gotten any messages, constantly needy for some outside affirmation that someone cares. I want to be content.
I have a sneaking suspicion that like most things, contentment doesn't spring into being full-fledged. It's one of those irritating "discipline" things, that you have to keep pointing your nose towards, when all other sorts of seemingly-attractive smells assail you from the right and left. Especially for a mentally-compulsive person like me, it's hard to distract myself from whiny habits.
I want to re-discipline myself into regular scripture reading. Or rather, I am praying that God will give me the gumption to do so. It's especially hard when you start off with Proverbs after a long dry spell and feel like you are getting bitch-slapped (well, there it is, folks!) by every other verse, having proved your self a fool in financial management, in commerce, in interpersonal relationships, and so forth. Whap! Whap!
Rachel, who makes some really shrewd observations during our tea-meets on Wednesdays, pointed out that we don't need to have it all together for God to bless us, a lesson I easily tend to forget, being the recovering Pharisee I am. Back in college, before I'd been reduced to spiritual powder, I remember actually saying what I then truly believed--that God would not bless me with a spouse until I had achieved some level of spiritual maturity. This is a dangerous default setting belief for several reasons: as it presupposes that a romantic relationship (or a degree, a job, or whatever) is somehow in itself a satisfactory performance reward, it places that reward in a divine position. It also posits an if-then connection between a person's behavior and getting what she or he wants, as if God were a sort of celestial gumball machine rather than the Lord of the Universe. It may be God's will for me to stay single, insolvent, even end up (hopefully only so to speak) on a parkbench somewhere (the destiny my father left me to worry over, paranoid, as one of his last comments about his fears for my future). And I should certainly continue to make what steps I can to avoid this. But God is still God, and he does love me. And these plans he has for me, no matter how difficult and trouble-full they may seem in the short term, are ultimately to prosper me.
I think that for self-absorbed pessimists like me (it is easy for me to be optimistic about others' prospects, but I am always somehow convinced that the falling piano that missed their head will hit mine--they are the Roadrunner and I am the not-so-Wiley Coyote), it is really easy to be convinced that contentment is "settling", when it isn't. Happiness with what is, and how my life is in God's hand, is not the "there it is" resignation that I frequently adopt, nor a tacit agreement to just slog along without hope for better things. To counter my inborn negativity, it is often useful to go back and count past blessings, to clearly identify gratitude for things that didn't happen, as well as for things that did. In my life, these tend to follow a repeated pattern: God spared me from this desire's fulfillment, and as a result of that temporal disappointment I was actually allowed to do something really cool that I would have missed out on otherwise, or I was able to cope with a challenge that was in the offing that I didn't know would arise, which I wouldn't have been able to withstand had that particular "want" been met when I initially had it.
As my stepdad (whose wisdom I really started to appreciate on a deeper level during this last visit) pointed out, God's timing is perfect. His plans are perfect. And learning the secret of being content--that in Christ I can get through and rejoice while in anything--is a sermon I need to preach to myself not just daily, but many, many times a day.