Hebrews 13:5-6 Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’
Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 4:10-13 “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
A Jewish man in Hungary went to his rabbi and complained, “Rabbi, I don’t know what to do. My wife and I live in a small house with six kids and we’re overcrowded. Life is unbearable. We’ve begun to fight with each other. What can I do?” The rabbi thought more awhile and answered, “Do you have any animals?” “Yes, I have a goat.” “Do exactly as I say. Take your goat into the room with you.” The man was incredulous, but the rabbi insisted, “Do as I say and come back in a week.”
A week later the man returned looking more distraught than before. “We can’t stand it,” he told the rabbi. “The goat is filthy, he’s eating up all the furniture. This is a nightmare!” The rabbi said, “Go home and let the goat out, and come back in a week.” A week later the man returned, radi-ant, calm, exclaiming, “Life is beautiful. We enjoy every minute of it now that there’s no goat—only the eight of us!” (1)
How often have I thought that my life was already crammed full and then one of my children be-gins to vomit or the car breaks down or some unexpected thing happens to make life even more full, and when things go “back to normal,” if I’m paying attention, I remember how good I have it.
Just last week one of my children complained about having to share a room with her sister, and then when her sister was gone for the night, she told me that she can’t sleep without her! Her sister talks to herself before going to bed and she realized that she soothes her into sleep.
Or a few weeks ago I was agonizing over how dirty the bathroom floor was and I was trying to figure out when to clean it. Then my youngest stuffed huge wads of toilet paper in the toilet and made it overflow— and all of a sudden I was glad that I hadn’t wasted my time mopping the night before!
Some of you who have gone on vacation for extended periods of time have told me that when you return, you can’t believe you lived out of one suitcase for a month— and now you can’t fig-ure out why you have an entire house worth of stuff!
Or many of you have gone through the transition in the past year or two of selling your home and moving into an apartment, and you’ve told me how free you feel not to have to take care of all of it anymore.
Contentment is a state of mind, isn’t it?
Paul apparently knew this. In this letter to the Philippians, Paul says that he has learned to be content with whatever he has. He has learned to be content. Contentment is not something that we will just fall into. It’s not something that is personality driven. Contentment is a practice— a spiritual practice— of recognizing God’s goodness; of remembering what brings us true joy; and of living our lives as a response to God’s love.
Adam Hamilton, in his book, Enough, remarks that we have a choice of which tent we want to live in. We can choose to live in discontent, or we can choose to live in contentment. (2)
So I brought two tents today to show how I think of discontentment and contentment.
First, there’s discontentment. This one is really easy to put up. (Unfold small tent and let it bounce into shape!) All I have to do to live in this tent is turn on the news or go to the mall or read a magazine— any kind of magazine really— that has been created to make me want things I don’t have. Some of the things I’ll be discontented with are real— God did give us the ability to be discontent so that we won’t be satisfied with world hunger and homelessness and our earth being destroyed. But mostly, my discontent can be fulfilled rather easily. The philosopher, Immanuel Kant, saw this when he observed, “Give a man everything he wants, and at that moment, everything will not be everything” (3) I’m embarrassed to say that I live in my discontentment by simple things like wanting more smart wool socks now that it’s getting cold; or looking at the walls in my house that I’ve been wanting to paint for awhile and haven’t gotten to do it yet; or seeing on Facebook that my friends are celebrating their fifteenth anniversary by going to France. You can make your own list, can’t you? It doesn’t take long to fill up my discon-tent. It wouldn’t matter if this tent were the size of the Sanctuary, I could fill it. I wonder if you could too.
But then there’s con-tent-ment. This one takes awhile to put up. I had to come yesterday to put this one together (indicating tent set up in the Sanctuary)! Because in order to put it up, I have to get out of discontentment. In order to live in contentment, I, like Paul, have to learn how to be content.
First, of course, is the laying down of the rain tarp— I call this the gratitude tarp. I have to start with all of the things I’m grateful for, and recognize God’s goodness to me. I like the way Anne LaMotte says it in her book, Help, Thanks, Wow :
“Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and in the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back.” (4) When I start with my gratitude tarp underneath— at the foundation of it all— I begin to live in con-tent-ment. Making a list of things that you are truly grateful for is a wonderful place to start. If you want to start now, there is a place on the back of your bulletin. I bet you can fill it before you leave here today.
Second, there is the framing of the tent— the poles. These are the places where we can recog-nize what is truly inspiring us these days. The poles of inspiration give us a chance to take a step back and to see the good stuff all around us. We tend to focus on the negative anyway— and live in discontent. But by choosing to see what’s inspiring us, we shift our focus. Our District Superintendent, Susan Nienaber recently told me that what we focus on is what multiplies. She sees all the time that when churches choose to focus on their money problems or their disa-greements or the things that are going wrong, those things multiply. When we focus on what is inspiring us instead, it will multiply— whether it be kindness or love or generosity. When we focus on the things and the people that inspire us, those things multiply and we too become an inspiration to others. When we have our tent poles of inspiration to hold us up, they give us the big picture of where we want to live.
And then there are the sides of faith— the walls of our tent that keep us out of the rain. What am I putting my faith in these days? Jesus said that where our treasure is, that’s where our heart will be also. So it’s no wonder that when we look at our checkbook or our credit card statement or however it is you track your money, that you will quickly find out what you actually put your faith into. We can choose each day to build the sides of our tent of contentment with things that encourage our faith in God rather than diminishing it. Step by step we can put up the walls of faith that future generations can live in as well. You see, we can change around Jesus’ statement to give ourselves a way to be content. Where our heart is, that’s where we can put our treasure. Are there ways for you to live below your means so that you can put treasure in savings for the future, in community building, in resourcing the things you believe in? What steps can you take to pay off your debts? When we are about to buy something, we can ask ourselves, “Do I really need this?” and “How long will this give me happiness?” so that we can make sure that we’re putting our treasure where our heart is. What are you putting your faith in today? And where do you want to put your faith?
And last, but not least, are our guidelines of trust. The guide lines on our tent keep us dry. They keep us solid when winds come, they make sure that our whole tent of contentment doesn’t blow away. Who or what am I putting my trust in today? Who’s going to help me hold myself ac-countable to living in this tent of contentment? Who do I need to invite to encourage me when I find myself in the other tent?
You’ll notice the tent of discontent is small— that’s on purpose. When we live in discontent, we always feel cramped. We always feel small. We always feel powerless.
But when we live in the tent of contentment, the opposite is true. Our tent of contentment grows as we practice being content. As we lay down our tarp of gratitude, put together our framework of what inspires us, build up our walls of faith, and rely on those guide lines of trust, we will find ourselves in a tent that is more than enough, a tent that can accommodate all of our guests. In this tent we know that we are enough; we feel powerful because we are using our resources in ways that we want to see the world change; and we feel full of joy.
You may know which tent you live in today. Or, you may be like me, and you flip back and forth! Whatever the case, I invite you now to pray the prayer on the back of the keychain you were given when you came in. This keychain is a gift to you (GIFT= Gratitude, Inspiration, Faith and Trust! (6)) as a reminder to keep putting up your con-tent-ment. Let’s pray together:
Lord, help me to be grateful for what I have, to remember that I don’t need most of what I want, and that joy is found in simplicity and generosity. Amen. (2)
Sources Cited or Referenced:
(1) “How the Children Became Stars" by Aaron Zerah (2) “Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity” by Adam Hamilton (3) “Cultivating Contentment” article at bible.org by Steven J. Cole, 2005. cited by Richard Swenson, Margin [NavPress], p. 190 (4) Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne LaMott, page 57. (5) “The Soul of Money” by Lynn Twist (6) Brene Brown came up with the four aspects of contentment (that’s what I call them, not what she calls them.) She arranged them in TGIF. AnnElise Bergstrom rearranged them to spell GIFT.