Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Stupid Way to Live: Expectations

By no means do I feel like I am someone who should be giving advice on how to live your life, but I’ve seen enough people on TV and Twitter that give advice that shouldn’t be either so I figure I can’t be much worse than them. I can’t really offer any deep wisdom or profound thoughts, but I can just tell you some of the ways of how I am learning.

Sometimes I simply find myself just plain sad. Do you ever have those days where you feel like you did when you just watched Mufasa die for the first time? It comes out of nowhere and hits you in the heart and head. Sometimes you can shake it off relatively quickly, but other times it seems to stick around for a little longer. Maybe for some it is a daily occurrence right now. I know there have been times in my life where every morning I had to look myself in the mirror, turn on the Rocky soundtrack, and give myself a pep talk.

Recently, I was bummed out. Not watch-Mufasa-die bummed out, but just kind of low. If you have a non-stop brain like mine then you know that it can be pretty annoying. I’m not good at pushing out the negative thoughts and thinking about good things or random things, or even just zoning out. I analyze the heck out of it and try to solve the mystery and piece together the puzzles. It kind of sucks being that way. I wish I could just go turn on the TV and turn my mind off, but I can’t. I was in full detective mode.

I was trying to figure out what the issue was, and I concluded it was because I was disappointed with some of the current areas in my life. Things weren’t going the way I had planned for them to go. And to be frank, I didn’t think God was holding up his end of the deal. You know that deal that really isn’t a deal but we think it is a deal? The one that goes a little something like, “Hey, I’m a good person… so things should be working out a little better.”

So I was bummed. I was bumming myself out that I was bummed. I was talking to my friends and bumming them out. It’s not a fun state of mind. Nobody enjoys being around that, except maybe Goth kids. Are Goth kids still in existence? Are they all still congregating outside of my high school geometry classroom?

But the next morning I had some wisdom knocked into my head in the form of one of my favorite songs by John Reuben called “Hindsight”:

Patience tends to not agree with my psyche. That's more than likely just some pride in me fighting expectations of where I think my life should be. Selfishly I forget so quickly.

That line hit me pretty hard. As hard as when Simba hit that hyena in the face. (I need to get another DVD besides The Lion King.) It started to become clear to me that the frustrations I was wrestling with were my own, dumb fault.

I think a lot of the unrest in my life comes from expectations. It comes from the fact that I put expectations on myself, on others, and on God. When what I’ve expected to happen doesn't turn out like I think it should, I get upset. And that's really a stupid way to live.

It's not that we shouldn’t have goals or plans for our lives, but it's different when you have expectations on your life that you just make up in your mind. If I place expectations on other people and on God to do things I think they should do, that is unreasonable and unfair. What does anyone else owe me? What does God owe me? Nothing. Of course there are a few things that maybe certain people are required by law to give me, but most of the things that we have as expectations come from selfishness. Pride. A false sense of entitlement. (The spoiled little brat inside of us. My inner spoiled brat’s name is Nelson. He is horrible to have at dinner parties)

I believe we are all selfish people by nature. Perhaps you don’t agree with me, and that’s fine, but go try to take away a random 2-year-old’s toy and tell me what he does. We don’t ever get rid of that nature, it is just the things we desire grow with age. Our toys get more expensive, and our expectations get more unrealistic. It’s no wonder they are unrealistic, though, when in 21st Century America we call “reality” what Jersey Shore is getting paid millions to live in. Reality has become a bad TV show on the E! Channel. (Here is the one rule I adamantly live by: Know as little as possible about whatever is on the E! Channel.)

We want control. We want control of our realities. We want control of our false realities. We are selfish. It’s just a matter of how selfish we let ourselves be.

Being a valet for a few years gave me some insight into life. One of the lessons I learned was this, “Not everyone should drive a car.” Good grief, if you only knew about some of the people that we let get back on the road. It’s the same with our metaphorical roads of life. We’re trying to drive cars we were never meant to. We are steering wherever we want to go and not where the road takes us. God is the only one who should drive. And maybe some of us backseat drivers need a good old-fashioned reach into the backseat smack in the face. Oh you never got one of those?

I don’t have all of this figured out perfectly yet, and maybe a dude in his twenties doesn’t really have a place to be giving his opinions on life like this, but like I said, all I am offering is how I am learning. I’m making a point in my life to focus on shutting up and killing my stupid expectations.

Chase your dreams. Challenge yourself. Set goals. But know there is a difference between those good things and our selfish expectations. I’m willing to bet that the distinction of the two will give you a little more peace in your life and make you more enjoyable to be around. It could also be the difference in you getting an ulcer in your thirties or not.

Hey, I’m right in this with you. I’m finding the more words I say, the more words I have to eat. And I’m already totally stuffed.

Friday, November 23, 2012

How I Went to Prison

I wrote this for my good friend Robert Valdez's newsletter about his ministry to the prisons of Central Florida, Casting the Net Ministries.

Greetings! My name is Jonathan Tony. Not Tony Jonathan, that’s ridiculous. I’ve been working with Casting the Net Ministries and Robert Valdez for a few years now, so let me give you a little bit of my story of how I came to be involved with it all.

In 2009 I was working for a local Christian radio station in Ocala, FL, but living in Gainesville, FL. I would drive down on Monday nights and host a 3-4 hour show consisting of a lot of talking and music. I started getting calls from a man in a South Florida prison every week. He said that he and some of the men there would listen to our show, and we’d end up talking a little bit each week. I thought it was really cool, and then the Lord started working in my heart about it all. In that same time frame, I had started meeting with Robert every week or two for dinner. We had become friends at church during a prayer service, and I just liked hanging out with him. I didn’t know at first that he went into prisons and ministered.

So Robert started talking to me about the ministry he was doing, and I got really excited. Robert has a way of getting you excited about whatever he’s talking about. I’m not entirely sure how he does it, but I think much of it can be attributed to volume of his voice. If you’ve never seen Robert get excited, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t heard him get excited. If you’ve ever heard a random voice and been like, “What was that? Who’s talking?” That was probably Robert excitedly talking to someone a few miles away.

So after the phone calls from the man and talking with Robert, the Lord spoke to me the simple verse, “I was in prison and you visited me…” (Matthew 25:36) I don’t know if I totally understand what God’s will is for many different areas of life, but I figured visiting someone in prison was a pretty straight-forward, easy to understand place to start. So I told Robert I’d like to get involved and we decided I’d start going on Monday nights to the work camp services.

After a few weeks of having a surprisingly difficult time of just being able to get approval to go into the Gainesville prisons (including me falling asleep during the orientation with the Chaplin, Robert, and I) I was finally ready to go in. My only experience with anything like this was when I went to a youth corrections facility when I was 14, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had questions like, “How do I possibly relate to men in this situation?” I’d never had a run in with the law. I’d never sold drugs and didn’t even know what most of them look like; for the first 20 years of my life I thought marijuana was a city in Brazil. What would the men think of me? I don’t have anything in common with them. Why would they want to hear anything from me?

I started going in and for the most part remained quiet during the services. I was leading the worship and pounding out old-school hymns I hadn’t sung in decades on the raggedy, out-of-tune piano that was in the chapel. I thought it was going to be a little easier to lead worship and that most of these guys would be able to sing like in the Jailhouse Rock video. Turns out I was way off. If that praise and worship was beautiful incense to the Lord then we have entirely different noses. But I’m sure God loved it, and in all seriousness, there is nothing like hearing a room full of prisoners sing Amazing Grace and sing of what it truly means to be free in spite of the walls of razor wire and bricks around them.

 Anyways, it didn’t take long for me to realize that just because we didn’t share the same backgrounds, it didn’t mean we didn’t share the same struggles. You see, at the heart of every human being, we are made up of the same stuff. We are all insecure. We are all afraid. We are all helpless. It is our undeniable need for a great God that makes us all the same. Once you realize that everyone has a breaking point, you may find it’s not so hard to connect. I couldn’t stand up there and preach to them about how hard it is to be in prison, I didn’t know anything about that. I don’t know what it’s like to miss my wife and kids. But I do know what it feels like to think God has forsaken you. I do know what it feels like to know you need something but you’re not even sure what it is. I do know what it means to cry in desperation as you beg for the God you’ve put your faith in to forgive you of sins you wouldn’t forgive yourself of. I do know about those times.

We’ve all been given a voice that needs to speak. We’ve all been given a testimony that needs to be told. If you think your life only comes down to you, you’re quite mistaken. I personally think that so many people are just waiting to know that they’re not the only ones who are like them. It’s amazing what showing your own heart can do. It’s amazing how showing your own wounds can be the very thing that starts to heal someone else’s. And when you think about it, it’s actually how Jesus works. “By his wounds, we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

We’ve all been given grace, and true grace can only continue to spread. Whether you find yourself in a prison with 30 men, or in a Starbucks with a new friend, allow yourself to share the stories of the life God has given you. You may find the Kingdom is closer than you think.

Robert and I outside of a Gainesville, FL prison after our weekly Monday night service. Gotta love that guy.
If you would like to partner with Robert and Casting the Net, please contact them on their Facebook page here.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Sun Wouldn't Rise (Story and the song)

This is the story behind my song “The Sun Wouldn’t Rise”. 

I wrote this song a few months ago while I was still job hunting. If you’ve never had the fun of job-hunting, I assure you it is one of the most annoying things you could possibly go through. Worse than a marathon of Olsen Twins movies.

Each day I would wake up and apply for jobs, go to interviews, networking events, etc. and each day I would get notified about some new rejection. Every “Thanks for applying, but…” email would continually remind me how bad I was at everything and how everyone was moving way faster in life than I was.

Now, for the first few weeks or so, it’s doable. You just turn on a Rocky movie, get pumped up, and remind yourself that good things take time and hard work. But going into your third year post-college and still being in the same spot you were when you started can really wear on your emotions and self esteem. Needless to say, every word that came out of my mouth was not an “Amen.” In fact, many of the words would probably upset a lot of you parents. I'm sorry, but it’s just the truth.

I could talk for a long time about those years and all the struggle I went through because there are so many stories from that time. And I know a lot of you probably have shared a conversation or two with me during that time and you know what I mean. But for the sake of this message, let’s just say that I was pretty low and every day was a day I had to fight through, with more than just the lack of a job coming against me.

So let’s flash back a little while before that now.

While I was in college I was heavily involved in FCA at the University of Florida. One of the best decisions of my life was getting into that community of amazing people. Even after I graduated, I stayed in Gainesville for two years, and FCA is the type of community that you will just always be a part of.

Unfortunately for FCA, a casual, fun trip that some of the students had gone on in Georgia ended up being the exact opposite. While doing a little cave diving, my friend (and the current president of FCA) Grant Lockenbach was tragically killed along with another member of the group whom I never had the privilege of meeting.

That’s the kind of thing that no one plans for or could ever be ready for. How could you be ready for something like that? It’s so sudden and so painful that it just cuts through you like a knife. One of those things where you just look up to God and stare clueless and helpless.

I went to the memorial service they had for the two boys the following evening or so. It was one of those times where everyone is hurting and angry even, but yet you feel some strange sort of peace just by being around people you love and knowing you had loved the same person. That’s the redeeming part of funerals.

We sang some worship songs led by the FCA band and spent some time in prayer. Then to my surprise, my friend Keri got up to speak. The reason this was a surprise to me is because she was Grant’s girlfriend at the time of the accident. She had literally just been with him the day before. I thought, “How the heck can she get up and share anything and it make sense right now? What could she possibly say? I would be way too angry at God to encourage the people of God.” But there she was, standing before the crowd and holding the microphone.

Keri shared a story and even all this time later I haven’t forgotten it. She said that on the Georgia trip her and Grant had gotten up early to try and go watch the sunrise. There’s nothing like seeing the sun come up while you’re in the mountains, and being from Florida, it’s not something we have the chance to see often.

She said that they had gotten up quite early and headed off to find a good spot. They headed out and found a good spot that the view would be amazing from and they waited for that breathtaking sunrise. And they waited. And they waited a little longer. After waiting for so long, they decided that they should just head back to the campsite, and that apparently the sun wasn’t going to show up that day.

As they were heading back, they slowly began to see some light shining behind them. Turning around, they realized that it was of course the sun. She said they felt pretty ridiculous. “How could we have thought that the actual sun was not going to rise that morning?!”

Sure enough the sun rose. And she went on to say that even though this time that they were all in was dark, and it seems like it’s been darker longer than it should be, the sun would indeed rise on it all. The glory of God would show up. The comfort and restoration promised to us by God would come around. The sun would rise.

I couldn’t get these thoughts out of my head one November evening as I knelt by my bed. I wish I could say I was kneeling out of faith, but I was on my knees in desperation. I had just gotten done yelling at God in my closet so the neighbors wouldn’t hear me screaming and think someone was being murdered. I’m not sure that’s what Jesus meant by “prayer closet” but it works for me. It was hard to worship God. It was hard to believe for something good to happen because for so long just absolutely nothing had worked. I remember literally praying for the "crumbs of the bread off the table," I’d receive even just any little thing from God. I didn’t care. (Matthew 15:17)

But I felt the Lord keep reminding me of Keri’s testimony, and telling me that sun would rise on me. I couldn’t shake it and I felt a peace come over me that I can’t explain. You know how the Bible says that God will turn our mourning into dancing? Well, it’s true. I sat down on my bed and began to write this song.

This kind of Hope is what separates us from the rest of the world. The hope we have in darkness. We'd be delusional to try and act like things are always good when honestly they just suck. And I don't think God expects us to wake up some mornings and just say, "I'm happy!" when we're not. But what I'm finding more than ever is that the Word of God really is what it says it is. And in my weakness, he really is strong. I don't get it, and I don't like it, but there is a purpose for it. We may never find out until eternity, but there is a purpose. I don't think God wastes any of our tears. And we have to believe that the sun will rise. That God's promises are not just neat thoughts, but they are actually his unshakable, reliable word.

And so I started believing that. That God is going to come through, not because of any amount of works I could do, but simply because he loves me. And good things are in store, because he said they were.

And here I am ten months later and I can’t tell you how much has changed just in that amount of time. I don’t tell you this because I think it's because I’m so smart and persistent; I tell you this because I’ve simply seen the grace and goodness of God in ways I can’t deny. You can call it what you want if you don’t believe and it doesn’t bother me, but with everything in me I believe that God does it all. I’m not talented enough to pull any of this stuff off.

I don’t know where you’re at or how dark things might seem for you right now. And I guess I don’t even want to phrase it “might seem,” things could be just straight dark. But just as sure as day comes, I am confident that things will not always be dark. And in your heart you have to ask yourself, “Who is more faithful? The sun, or the Creator of the sun?”

You can make it. You don’t have to give up. You don’t have to believe the thoughts in your head or what others may be telling you. Believe that he “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” (Ephesians 3:20)

I know I'm only in my 20s and I can only tell you what I know and what I believe, but I still believe that the sun is going to rise. Keep the faith.

Link to the song

Never seen a night like this one, and maybe I’m not right where I should be.
I’ve been looking under tables for the crumbs, that are falling from the bread of kings and queens.

Maybe you’ve grown tired of my prayers, or maybe you’re expecting more of me,
They told me that you’d always be there, but I never thought it’d be so hard to believe.

Don’t let me go, don’t close your eyes, don’t go away even when I say you should.
I know you know, I’ve told you lies, but my lies are facing up to The Truth.

Staring into the darkest of nights, how could we believe that the sun wouldn’t rise?
And what I can’t see is still in your sights, how could we believe that the sun wouldn’t rise?

Tight fist, and no one knows the pain, of what it means to lose what you’ve believed.
And I think you’ve got a lot to explain, but right now you’ve chosen not to speak.

But I know your voice is more than words, it’s more than just what I could hear or read,
And I’ve made the choice to put you first; so this must mean I’m right where I should be
And I know you’re here taking this with me.

Staring into the darkest of nights, how could we believe that the sun wouldn’t rise?
And what I can’t see is still in your sights, how could we believe that the sun wouldn’t rise?

And we will see, the dawn will rise in majesty,
And we will know, what all the pain and loss was for,
And when he comes, our tears will blow away like dust,
And I believe, that this Kingdom never lost its King,
I still believe.

And though right now I can’t see your ways,
Soon we will see face to face.

Staring into the darkest of nights, how could we believe that the sun wouldn’t rise?
And what I can’t see is still in your sights, I still believe that this sun will rise.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Office Talk

Today's lesson:

Do your best to avoid office gossip. Even the people you like in the office are normally negative about things going on there. It's kind of how people like to unite I'm seeing. But keep a positive attitude about everyone. Don't get sucked in. Avoid it because you also don't want to know too much of what is going on, especially coming from one person. You never know what the truth is and you can form opinions around what they say.

Today's wrap up: --Stay chill, don't speak ill.--

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Fake It Til You Break It

Even with all the reality shows, the constant catch phrases, and advice to be real and 2-legit-2-quit, do you ever get the feeling that people are faking it? On Facebook, Twitter, and especially TV. So many seem to have these happy little lives, and they claim to be proud of so much. But I can't help but wonder—I think they might be faking it.

We live in a world of great actors. Illusionists even. People that might have even become so good at selling lies that they start to believe the false reality themselves. There are some people I know that I straight just do not trust. And for good reason. (No one reading this right now I'm sure.) And maybe you don't trust me. That's fine. Don't tell me though.

I know some people that I could be standing in the middle of a thunderstorm with, and they could tell me it is raining, and I trust them so little that my present logic would have to conclude that it was in fact not raining as my clothes get soaked wet.

On Facebook, we only post our best pictures and the coolest events we go to. It's basically a big pile of half truth. It is anything but reality.

Maybe you can call me cynical, and I wouldn’t be able to argue much. I could say, “Well, mama didn’t raise no fool.” And you could say, “That’s improper grammar.” You could also label me as someone who doesn’t have a lot of hope in people. I wish I could say that I’m willing to be in everyone’s corner and that universal supportiveness is something that I have down, but if I’m being honest with you, I don’t think I’m always the best cheerleader. Have you seen me in a skirt? Gross.

But if I could ask you to disregard your opinion of what some of my self-issues are for a bit, you’ve got to admit that most of us are pretty good at disguising things. It’s like we’re all in a game of hide-and-go-seek, and we’ve found the perfect spot to hide. (Which if you don’t know, that spot is under the sink in the cupboards.) Even though some of us can’t say two words of Shakespeare on a stage, it doesn’t mean we’re not good actors.

Why do we feel the need to wear masks and promote false reality? Why the constant pressure to add up to society’s standards? We all face it, and we all feel it. In an America that constantly preaches to “Be yourself,” we figure our best self is the self that looks like all the other selves.

The people that say “I don’t care what people think of me” most likely care what you think of them enough to tell you that they don’t care what you think. (You may have to read that last sentence twice, but trust me it makes sense.) We care. And we want to keep up.

But why do we want to?

Perhaps it is the thrill of a Facebook status change. The excitement of being included. The same way it felt in elementary school when you weren't picked last for dodgeball. There is a rush. There is a high. There is joy in similarity. There is comfort in commonality. It’s the feeling you get when you’re in a movie theater laughing at the same joke with 150 other people that you don’t know, but it feels good that you all have the same sense of humor, even if it’s just for a moment.

I'm not going to act like I haven't done it. Not too long ago when I was unemployed, I had people asking me all the time the dreaded question of “How are things going?” In many, many moments my honest answer would have been “Bad. Horrible. I hate life right now. I’m very jealous of other people. I think God is laughing at me.” But who wants to hear that? I didn’t want to hear myself say the truth. So I would pick at any inkling of hope I could pull out of the weeds and act like it was something better than it was.

I wasn’t lying, but I was trying my hardest to keep up with who I thought people wanted me to be, and worse, who I thought I should be. I was embarrassed. Ashamed that I couldn’t pull off the American Dream. I didn’t want people to know that you could suck at life so badly while trying so hard. Yeah, embarrassing.

I’m not the only one to do that, though. We present the world a false reality, and unfortunately many times we think it looks like a good place to be, and we subconsciously start living in that new world. (It’s taking everything in me right now to not allude to “Inception.”)

We wear the masks. We shine our shoes. We look the part. We practice our speeches about how everything is just as it should be. And by doing so, the places we should be most real become the places where we hide the most. The ones we need to be the most real with become the ones that we skew the truth to the most. But make no mistake, fake personalities and fake realities will produce fake relationships.

I’m not against positive thinking and relentless optimism; I’m actually 100% for it. What I am against is lying to ourselves. I am against being ashamed of the very trials that are defining moments in our lives. I am against the thought that if you face any sort of conflict or struggle then you are doing something wrong in life. I am against hiding the wounds we were never meant to hide. I am against keeping in the pain that someone else going through the same situation needs to see so they know they are not alone.

If you’ve read this far, I thank you. If you haven’t then you are not reading this. But for those that are not Christians, I am telling you now I am about to start talking about Jesus. Deal with it. I have to read all of your statuses about politics and equality. If you shut out my views right now you are doing exactly what you say you are against. (Ahhhh yeaaahhhh. That’s a mother-in-law quality guilt trip right there.)

When did having it all together become the goal of life? When did weakness become embarrassing? In fact, the Apostle Paul even went so far as to boast in his weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:30) I used to hear that God doesn’t want you to be embarrassed, but I’ve since concluded that that is bad doctrine. In fact, if my life is any form of proof, I feel I can say that God will allow you to be embarrassed quite a bit, because nothing will kill your pride faster than a nice fall on your face.

If you think humility is for chumps then you are dead wrong. Constant success never changes a man for the good. How many arrogant people do we have to see fall and fail before we realize that chasing after the same image will bring about the same results?

Broken people need broken people.
How do I know?

Isaiah 53:2-3
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

It’s amazing that we have a God who exchanged majesty for suffering, a King who was rejected by the ones he loved, and a Savior who knows the deepest of sorrows. He not only rescues us, he relates with us.

It actually takes a lot of strength to show your weakness.

2 Corinthians 12:9
But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”