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Humility, Striving and Satisfaction

NYOJoe Episode 001: A little Hamilton, a bit of a book, a podcast and a Bible story have me thinking about humility, striving and satisfaction.

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Cartoonification by Kristi Iovino

Not Your Ordinary Joe theme music by Joseph Iovino, artwork by Kristi Iovino.

Transcript

A little Hamilton, a bit of a book, and a Bible story have me thinking about humility, striving and satisfaction.

My name is Joe Iovino and I am NOT your ordinary Joe.

Like probably many of you, I saw Hamilton on its debut weekend on Disney+. I had been listening to the music off-and-on for several years and was anxious to finally get to SEE it! It didn’t disappoint. I was in awe for the entire 2 ½ hours.

But one of the highlights for me, the song I keep going back to time and again, is Renee Elise Goldsberry’s stunning performance of “Satisfied.”

If you haven’t yet seen Hamilton, the song is part of Alexander & Eliza Hamilton’s wedding reception. In one of the many blends of contemporary and historic, Eliza’s sister, Angelica offers a toast to the bride and groom as the maid of honor.

All is going well. She toasts to her sister, the bride. She toasts the groom. And then she sings, “May you always be satisfied.” And on that word satisfied, she flashes back to the night she and her sisters first met Alexander Hamilton.

Eliza was shy, so it was her sister Angelica who first spoke with Hamilton, and when they met, Hamilton gave her what sounds like a pretty bad pickup line: “You strike me as a woman who has never been satisfied.” A few moments later, in a moment of honesty, he confesses to her, “I have never been satisfied.”

Never satisfied

This theme in Hamilton of never being satisfied, seems nearly universal. Many of us find ourselves in a similar place at times in our lives—striving for the job, the raise, the promotion; the relationship, the spouse, the children; the car, the house, the office—that milestone, that symbol, in life we know will change things for us, that will finally get us the respect and recognition we deserve. That will change the way we think about ourselves.

Then we get there, and… well… we hardly notice. Instead, we’re soon looking forward to the next job, next raise, next promotion, next milestone. Like Hamilton, we are never satisfied.

Soon after watching Hamilton, I read The Way Up is Down: Becoming yourself by forgetting yourself by Marlena Graves. The book is primarily about how God calls us to follow the example of Jesus, who as we read in Philippians 2, “Though he was in the form of God… emptied himself.” Graves reminds us that the Bible shares this as an example, a mindset all of us should have—to empty ourselves. But all too often, we do the opposite. Like Hamilton, we try to fill ourselves with power, money, comfort, whatever it is for you, and find ourselves dissatisfied.

In the book, Graves offers a prescription of sorts, to keeping our longings in their proper place…

Our best stuff

“What if we had an AA confession in our churches?” she writes. “‘Hi, I’m _____ and I love money.’ Then we could follow up with, ‘This is how it led to all sorts of evil.’”

I think she is onto something.

As a seminary student, I clearly remember Dr. Bryant Kirkland, one of my preaching professors, making an off-hand remark while commenting on another student’s sermon. “When the church wasn’t looking,” he said, “AA took our best stuff.”

I’m not sure I fully grasped what he was talking about at the time, but then I served a congregation in small-town New Jersey that was known in the neighborhood more for hosting the local AA meetings than any other ministry of the church.

The AA Halloween party consistently had higher attendance than our Christmas Eve and Easter worship services, and their weekly attendance probably doubled our worship attendance.

As the pastor, I made myself available by finding excuses to be in the hallways of the church before and after AA meetings, and I started to see what Dr. Kirkland meant. There is something about confessing our brokenness, and meeting together with other people doing the same that has the power to heal us.

A little Methodism

Of course, John Wesley—the Anglican priest who started the Methodist movement—stumbled onto this nearly 300 years ago. Wesley gathered people into “classes,” what we would call small groups today. His original intent was to help the Methodists pay off a mortgage with a “penny offering,” but he soon discovered that having a place for people to meet in their brokenness, to confess their sin and “watch over one another in love” was key to their spiritual growth.

Eventually, Methodists were required to be part of a class meeting group, where they worked together on their discipleship, in order to get to attend the larger society meetings. But somewhere along the way, we Methodists lost that.

Maybe because the idea of standing before my church and saying, “Hi, I’m Joe and I love money,” is an anxiety-inducing notion. In our world of social media trolling and anonymous commenting, I’m actually kind of nervous about the kind of the pushback I might receive from this podcast as I share my doubts, fears, anxieties, unpopular opinions and minor struggles I plan to talk about in future episodes.

So every Sunday morning, back when we could actually go to church, I would put on my Sunday best and head out the door.

Now, for me, ‘Sunday best’ was rarely about my wardrobe. Unlike my dad, the head usher at our church who had a closet full of Sunday suits.

No, I have gotten used to putting on something else. A uniform of sorts, that hides the ugly parts of my life. The struggles I’m having with my kids. The spat with my spouse last night. My fears about the health of my parents. Worries about job security, the economy, coronavirus and racial injustice. Put aside the nasty way I talked to or about my coworker to get ahead. The unraveling of the things I used to be most sure about. Hide my doubts, my struggles, my insecurities, my fears.

What was the old Secret deodorant commercial, “Never let ‘em see you sweat.”

With that uniform on, I could then stand before the congregation and with all the false sincerity I can muster, say or at least project, “Hi, I’m Joe, and I’m a good Christian.” Even at times when I feel anything but.

I think about how many of us during the ‘joys and concerns’ part of our worship services are quick to ask for prayers for someone else, and rarely say, “Can you guys just pray for me? I’m really struggling.”

How many of us in Sunday School want to give the ‘right’ answer, rather than ask the question that we’re really thinking about.

Or maybe… it’s just me who feels this.

Too close?

As some of you know, in my day job I host another podcast where I get to interview lots of amazing people. It’s one of the real pleasures and surprises of my work.

Not too long ago, I got to talk to a United Methodist missionary named Eric Soard whose original plan was to go to Tanzania for four months. He stayed for 10 years, and founded a school there. When I asked him about the remarkable things he’d accomplished, he said he just followed God to the next small right step. (I’ll include a link to that episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape in the show notes for this episode at joeiovino.com).

In the midst of our conversation, I asked him to share something he learned in Tanzania that Americans should know. He said this:

I feel like one of the things we struggle with in major ways here in the US is isolation, loneliness, lack of genuine, accountable relationships. We struggle here with letting people get too close, and yet we also struggle with not having people close enough…

Pause there for a second:

  • We struggle with letting people get too close… that’s uncomfortable.
  • And we struggle with not having people close enough… generating loneliness.

That’s profound.

A few minutes later, he followed up with a reason why we choose loneliness over closeness:

We want to make sure we have everything figured out—with our kids, or anything going on in our lives—so that we don’t have to rely on other people. Because that brings us too close to them, and we don’t know what they’re going to do and how that’s going to affect us. That’s not community… (he continued) To have community you have to have trust.

I think he’s right. It’s WAY more comfortable to keep people at arm’s length—to only let them see what we want them to see, and from the right angle, looking up I understand, to make your face look best in a selfie.

We want to pretend we don’t love money, rather than confess we do, as Marlena Graves reminds her readers. We want to pretend we have it all figured out—even when we don’t—as Eric Soard told me.

So we say crazy stuff like, “I don’t see color”—to prove we’re not racist. We tell others how much fun we’re having baking bread and tending our gardens, instead of confessing our daily struggle with sadness while we’re stuck at home during a global pandemic. We do not dare to share our fears, doubts and struggles about sending our kids back to school. Or our decision not to send them back to in-person learning and wonder what that will do to their socialization.

And the problem isn’t just that this is what we project these things about ourselves. It’s that it can become how we believe we’re supposed to think, feel, behave.

Two prayers

Now for the Bible story…

In Luke 18, Jesus tells a short parable about two people who go to the Temple to pray. Here’s what it says:

9 Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: 10 “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

Luke 18:9-14 CEB

I love how the Common English Bible translates Luke’s description of the audience Jesus was talking to, “certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.” Good thing there isn’t anyone around like that around anymore. Right?

Not about prayer

So Jesus tells this religiously smug folks a parable that for years, I thought was about the prayers. That the Pharisee is somehow praying incorrectly. That God is offended by his prayer.

But in his book Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, author and scholar Kline Snodgrass points out that the Pharisee’s prayer parallels the prayer of sacrifice prescribed in Deuteronomy 26. In other words, the prayer isn’t that far from what Jesus’ first listeners would have expected to hear from a Pharisee in the Temple.

The difference isn’t the prayers so much as it is the way the pray-ers see themselves.

The Pharisee’s self-identity is seen in the way Jesus describes his prayer, “The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else” (Luke 18:11 bold added). Then he goes on to list all of his accomplishments that he believes elevate him in the eyes of God. There’s this self-dependence in it. He’s the one who is actually responsible for his standing in the eyes of God.

The tax collector’s prayer, on the other hand, contains an AA-like confession, “God, show mercy to me, a sinner.” He might as well have said, “Hi, I’m Steve, and I’m a sinner.” That’s a different kind of self-identity. He is recognizing not his deserved-ness, but his brokenness. He knows that healing and spiritual growth will only come through confession of where he has fallen short.

Jesus says the tax collector—the sinner—is the one who goes home justified. A conclusion the people gathered around Jesus would have found unbelievably shocking. And I’m guessing lots of our contemporaries would find shocking today.

When I reflect on this, I think how exhausting it must have been to be the Pharisee—to do all of that work to feel like you are earning a place with God, to keep up the facade of holiness to impress others, to impress yourself. And somehow, when you live in that place, it’s never enough. In the words of Hamilton, you will never be satisfied.

Look around

How exhausting it must have been to be Hamilton. As Aaron Burr sings at one point, “The man is non-stop.”

Hamilton was always trying to shake that image of himself as the poor, immigrant orphan—no matter how much success and money he might have had.

So he kept striving and striving—never satisfied—which led him to all sorts of trouble. He was dismissed by George Washington for defending his honor. Jealousy consumed him with every officer assigned to command troops, and in his eyes surpassing him. He chose work over family, which eventually led to adultery. His need to prove himself right, worthy and respectable, led to a bizarre confession of the affair. Then his need to be a “man of honor,” was the cause of his infamous duel with Aaron Burr and—spoiler alert—his death.

In the musical, it’s his wife Eliza who tries desperately to get Alexander to find satisfaction. Time and again, she urges him, “Look around. Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.” She sings to him, “We don’t need a legacy. We don’t need money. If I could grant you peace of mind… Where you decide to stay, and I could be enough. And we could be enough. That would be enough.”

Enough. When is it enough? Maybe when we are able to stand before God and confess our brokenness and find healing.

Like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, may you and I find satisfaction in God—that we no longer need to strive, no longer need to work so hard to keep up appearances, to prove to someone else and ourselves that we are worthy of the love we have already received. May we instead, learn to face our brokenness, confess our worries, our fears, our sins to others, to ourselves and to God.

And in it all, may we be reminded that we are in the presence of God who loves us, who longs to grant us peace of mind, when we stop relying on ourselves to earn what we already have when we dwell in the presence of the Almighty. And may we come to recognize that that’s enough—more than enough—to be satisfied.

Thank you so much for listening. You can learn more about me and ‘Not Your Ordinary Joe,’ but visiting joeiovino.com.

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