One of the hardest parts of this ongoing project is trying to decide who to ask to share their story. All of them are important. All of them should be told. I heavily rely on God to place people on my heart because He knows who needs to hear what and when. In the first moments of even thinking about potential storytellers, Tyler Cohen was one of the first on my mind. Therefore, I have no doubt that someone somewhere needs to read his story. Tyler and I have passed each other often over the last few years as we were both students at Ozark Christian College at the same time and Facebook friends occasionally commenting on each other’s statuses. He was also in a small group with my husband, but most often I saw him at our local Starbucks where he works as a barista. I scheduled to meet Tyler in a library to film and record and halfway through our meeting, I realized I couldn’t have picked a better place. When he arrived, he messaged me: “I’m on the second floor lobby.” Since I was set up two floors above him, I walked down to meet him so I could show him the way up. I went downstairs and walked straight there….Tyler was nowhere to be found. I paced a little bit around the lobby and then I heard behind me, “Oh, Taylor! Sorry.” I turned around and saw Tyler sandwiched between bookshelves, admitting he got distracted. Now that I know him better – I’m not one bit surprised. Tyler loves reading among many other things. I walked away from our meeting thinking, “Thank God for people like Tyler” – people who challenge ideas, love research, treasure deep, honest, and analytical thinking, revel in hobbies and crafts, and are natural teachers. Here is his story:
March 10, 2017
TYLER: I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and places around there. I lived in Liberty, Mounds, and Bixby. I went to school in Bixby most of my life. My mom moved around everywhere. My parents were divorced by the time I was two. She was moving around, but my dad always stayed in the Bixby area. My dad grew up Jewish and we practiced a lot of Jewish holidays, but not consistently. He was never religious until much later…until I went to Ozark [Christian College] and upped the ante, I guess. I always knew about God and assumed God. I just didn’t know what kind of God we were dealing with or his closeness or activity to us, which I assumed was not at all. I assumed it was like talking about Howard Schultz (past CEO of Starbucks, now executive chairman) as a Starbucks employee. I’ve never met the guy. I think I’ve seen pictures of him. I’ve read things he has possibly written or maybe had somebody else write it and said it was his. There’s no direct connection – ever. I think that’s how I viewed God growing up. Even my dad, being classified a Jew, was a very liberal Jew because of not keeping holidays every single year exactly how they are supposed to be kept, not always going to synagogue, not keeping the Sabbath…an intermittent Jew. My mom and her side of the family were very into New Age stuff. So when Christianity meets New Age spirituality – you kind of just throw out everything you don’t like rather than wrestling with it. So there was always some kind of religious, spiritual presence in my life in the sense of like…things…not in a good sense. It was kind of abstracted and I always thought, Why? Why does this matter? Why do I care about the Torah or reading Ezekiel? Or reading the Maccabees? None of this matters to me. There was a lot of brokenness in my life as there is with most families. I think that drove me to religion, to God, to Christ – but I didn’t see it at the time. For me, it was about the books I was reading first. As a middle schooler, I read books on leadership or books on finances. Because for me…I wanted the tangible and real results of change in the world and so I went to what made the most sense. Who were the people who were really achieving change in the world? I would then see what kind of books they suggested – ya know, Zig Ziglar and people like that. My parents’ finances were always up and down and it makes sense now to see that I was hungry for everything I was lacking and so that’s what I read. I think it morphed into this recognition that those things were not possible. It’s not a set of skills that you simply attain and you just change your situation. All of that was tied to relationships with Christians and for the Spirit’s presence in their lives and then, therefore, in mine. That really motivated change.
Anyways, my mom moved around the world a lot when she was younger because her dad worked for an electric company. America has been running on electricity for quite a while, but the rest of the world hasn’t. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, it was booming in all of these places around the world. She lived in Saudi Arabia for a while and just a lot of different places when she was a kid. They came back to Oklahoma. Her and her siblings grew up in the hippy era with the sexual and spiritual revolutions. My mom struggled with drug addiction my entire life and even before it. I remember one time she told me the first time she tried drugs…she was 12 or 13 years old. That didn’t really set her up well. Things that were fun then…later on, they became habits and coping mechanisms when things got tough. Her brother ended up dying from it. My siblings and I separated from our family emotionally and actually spatially – trying to keep space between us. Emotional distancing was the number one way to stay safe from our parents because they were always fighting. Sometimes, it got out of hand. One time when I was around 14, my mom brought a boyfriend over to my dad’s just to tick him off and the guy had a shotgun and my dad had this huge bowie knife and they were just running around chasing each other. It was just bad. They were so focused on attacking each other a lot and also sometimes helping each other that they didn’t really focus on us kids. I think I just learned to be extremely independent to the point of believing I can’t emotionally rely on my parents or anyone…so I won’t. I’ll learn to rely on myself only. If you saw any person in their own family, everything they do makes perfect sense why they do it. The question is: why they still do it after they leave? I think that’s part of the reason God says we are going to leave our mother and father and cleave to our wife (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5) because He knows there are many different ways of being in the world and that in itself becomes a way of being shaped and formed…by having to live with someone who doesn’t think or act like you at all.
Seeds were planted through having the idea of God in the first place and having a giant Torah on my living room table and occasionally skimming through it not knowing what to do with it. The event that really shifted everything was meeting a friend in 5th grade. I didn’t have friends for the first five years of school. I kind of just kept to myself and really did not like the way social dynamics worked at school. It was a popularity contest and I was more concerned with integrity. I met my friend named Nathan. His parents were missionaries from a Pentecostal background. They owned a boat and sailed around doing missions work. His dad was a seaman and worked in freight. When he became a Christian, he kept using boats…except for Jesus. Being around their household was interesting and it made me think about God, spirituality, and ethics.
Nathan was a daredevil. He was crazy, which was perfect for me because I was super reserved. His parents’ house is right on the Arkansas river and there’s a huge sandbar and people do crazy stuff out there all the time. We would get air soft guns and dune buggies and have wars racing around on the sandbar. The summer after 8th grade, his parents signed him up for a missions trip. His parents got onto him for not taking his faith seriously, but I mean…he was in 8th grade. He came back from his trip to Cuba and I didn’t get to see him for three weeks because his parents didn’t want him to hang out with me. I was confused, like…did they not like me all of a sudden? I’ve been around them for five years. It was strange. Finally, one day I got off the bus (the bus would always drop us off three blocks from our house) and as I was walking back, I saw him at the corner of where my house would be. I guess he had been waiting on me. His parents also pulled him out of school so I hadn’t seen him since freshman year had started. That was tough because if you’re distant from your family and you don’t rely on them and if you have a friend, you’re going to rely on them for more support. Starting high school without your best friend is pretty difficult. I saw him and his aesthetic was the same as it always was, but I remember not recognizing him. Still to this day, it always reminds me of Jesus and the two disciples on the road and they don’t recognize it’s Jesus because something has drastically changed. (John 21:4) He probably had the same face, but something was sanctified or perfected in him. I remember Nathan being so different. Everything in his nature was different. He was always edgy, but it was almost like a cover up for depression and guilt and stuff that came out at other times. He had joy now. He was smiling. It wasn’t faked. Nothing about it was faked and that’s what struck me because I knew what that looked like. He was always good at doing that around church people and so when he come back from that trip and I got to spend time with him because his parents were okay with me being around, he was just so different and all he wanted to talk about was God. He was just amazed at who God was and our relationship completely shifted. He would always invite me to youth group and I was trying to be rational about it…self-reflective. I remember one of my excuses for not going to youth group was me saying, “Well, I noticed my weeks were going better when I was going to youth group so I want to, as a control, not go and see how the effects are”… treated myself like a lab rat. [laughs] Our conversations revolved around God. None of it was him pretending or feeling like he had to win me over. He just legitimately saw that this God was so good that all he wanted was people to know and see Him. He worked at a coffee shop in a library in Tulsa. He would always pull as many shots of espresso as possible, put them in water bottles, take them home, and then we would drink them all night, listen to metal while talking about God until 4 or 5 A.M. in the morning. That spark made me really consider who God was and if He was really someone I wanted to give my life to.
At Nathan’s youth group, they spoke in tongues there. I didn’t. I never felt called to and I have a lot of thoughts about it. Overall, these people were different because they were gracious. They were loving. They were joyful. That was the most abiding quality of everyone there: joy. There was something about them that was untouchable. Considering my context, that was extremely attractive to me. I think it was around the beginning of my second year of high school, which would have been 2006. I decided it made sense and I wanted to give my life to God because he can do radical things. I think then it was still a really selfish thing. I wanted God for not just who He was, but what He could do for me. I think most everyone probably chooses God for selfish reasons at first. I don’t know if there’s another way to go about it. I ended up saying, “Yeah, I’m a Christian.” They didn’t baptize at all at that church. They did – I don’t even know if they used the terminology – “slain in the Spirit” kind of stuff. Even then, while disagreeing with them on that, I continued to go. I remember going to the adult service once (usually I never went) and feeling this incredible weight lifted off my shoulders and some kind of freedom I had never felt before. I remember falling to my knees and just praying. I don’t usually get caught up into a moment. That’s extremely hard for me to do. Someone might argue it was social things, but whatever – I’ll call it the Spirit. After that, Nathan started spending time with the wrong people. He was interested in this girl who I knew was bad news. By November of my second year of high school, we hadn’t been spending much time together and then the pastor of that church had moved. That church was where I was trying to get fed and grow in my faith. Once the pastor moved, the church closed it doors and just stopped being a church. I think I had committed my life to Christ two weeks before school started – maybe the first week of August. By November, I had no guidance as a Christian whatsoever. I do remember just pouring into Scripture. I really wanted to know the Bible. I read the entirety of the Old Testament at least once. I couldn’t have enough of it. It was also so foreign and I just wanted to understand it. That was just a time of pouring over Scripture. I was still distant and didn’t engage with people. I didn’t really feel like I belonged with other Christians, but I don’t know why. I just remember feeling different. I may have envied them a little bit.
From there, I was bouncing around to different churches and was often dissatisfied. I do remember a guiding that was very real – like more real than in other times in life. Maybe God was just like, “You really need to know that I’m guiding you, so I’m going to make it more apparent.” I remember feeling illuminated and being able to see and understand things I hadn’t been able to understand before. For instance, the social dynamics of my family finally made sense as soon as I became a Christian. I thought I could just explain those things to my parents and they could just understand…like, “Oh yeah, we’ll just stop those things.” Yeah…that always works. So, I think that was a period of getting frustrated with that. I know I wrestled a lot with Jesus saying, “hate your mother and father” and then also saying, “honor your mother and your father.” (Exodus 20:12; Luke 14:25-35) I just wrestled with that and wondered, How do I love them and how do I hate them? What does he mean? How do these things work together if they’re not complete contradictions?
I got into a church called Common Ground and got into a mentor group. It was good, but a lot of was about leadership and creativity. It didn’t turn out to be exactly what I was looking for. I remember some of the first books I read as a Christian – a lot of it was C.S. Lewis. The first was Mere Christianity. I also read Screwtape Letters early on. Somebody just handed Mere Christianity to me and was like, “You should read this.” And looking back now, I’m like, “Good timing, God.” Even though I had those resources, there was a 13 or 14-month period where I was just hopeless. I just felt like I was never going to grow as a Christian. I’m never going to be able to follow Jesus. I had watched so many people fall away from their faith. I think a lot of it stemmed from the fact that so many believed you had to be at 100% all the time. They believed that is what legitimate faith is. So they give up because they don’t think they can do that. They have doubts. They have difficulty. They have anger toward God and they don’t know how to handle it because their spirituality doesn’t allow for it. That’s a tragedy. I watched a lot of people fall away. For a while, I felt like I wasn’t going to have the energy to follow Jesus my entire life because up until then, I hadn’t had a lot of models. Up until I came to Ozark, I had seen more Christians fall away than I had seen stay faithful. I had a rebellious period in there somewhere where I would drink and hang out with the wrong people and try to hold onto my own sense of integrity while still being around other people. I had kind of a Messiah complex a little bit where I thought, Oh, I’ll bring them to Jesus, but yet at that time I didn’t even know how to spend time with Jesus myself.
After going to Common Ground and being in that mentorship, I went through another period where I just tore through Scripture. I got obsessed with heaven. I looked up every piece of Scripture about heaven. I was consumed with it and wanted to know more about it. I eventually met this girl that worked at a place near me and we ended up getting a bunch of our friends together for a huge camping trip. I merged with that community and they all went to a church called Highland Park Christian Church in Tulsa. So I spent two years digging in there and finished high school. After high school, I went to broadcast and sound engineering school. I thought I was going to open my own recording studio because I loved making music and recording. I went on a trip to Chicago with our church and after seeing a lot of the poverty there, I realized I had been trying to run to safety and security through a job that would be both creative and interesting to satisfy those desires, but also make me a ton of money so I would never be uncomfortable or deprived of the things I needed again – like money, shelter, food. Those were all intermittent things. At home, sometimes we’d be fine, sometimes we wouldn’t be fine, sometimes the electricity would be on, but sometimes it would be off. It was just my parents’ poor management. After thinking about that for a while, I decided to go to Ozark Christian College. Right before I left, I rolled my car. My pastor gave me his car for free. I moved here and at first, I thought I was going to do sound and music because that’s what I was just doing. Then I started to realize that even though I loved doing those things, I didn’t want to do them professionally. So then I thought, Well, I want to be like Jesus now and some of the most Christ-like people I know are missionaries, so that’s a big goal: the Great Commission. I realized through those experiences though, I’m not designed for a far-off mission field. My brain works in the way of, How do we dig deep? The more I read and studied, the deeper into the church I got. At first, I got into discipleship and Christian formation and then New Testament studies and the history of it. I remember I did a bible study on Missouri Southern State University’s campus and people were asking me questions and I now kind of regret some of the answers I gave. They were so historical and about the history of what was happening at the time John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus about fasting. (Matthew 9:14-17) This kid was like, “Well, why shouldn’t I fast?” And I was like, “What are you talking about? The text is saying that Jesus said ‘don’t fast’ to this guy.” In that moment, I freed him from the fact that Jesus isn’t telling you not to fast, but I also missed an opportunity to say that as much as this was a historical moment where Jesus actually was, every part of the text is also Jesus speaking to you here, now, today, at all times. It’s just a learning process. When I was in Italy for an internship, I was interacting with Catholics who were like, “Oh yeah, that’s the Vatican.” What do I do with that? Do I just write it off and not really think about it? What do I really do with it? Because the more I dig into history, the more I’m realizing faithful Christians throughout history were faithful Catholics up until the 1500s with the creation of Protestantism. Through those kind of experiences, I realized my passions and the way my mind works…it’s just leading me to read and study. Now I see the threads going through my life and I mean, I had a full ride set up, extremely cheap, for doctoral studies. I’m friends with Craig Evans who is an amazing New Testament scholar. I had a spot at that school where he was teaching at the time. He said he could get me in and into this program, but I told him I think God is calling me to change directions – still academic. I had everything before me, but I just wasn’t finding life in studying history of the New Testament anymore. I enjoy it. The thing I enjoyed about it was how it revealed more to me about Jesus and the early Church. The thing everyone is hungering for, at all times, is God. I mean, in studying theology, you’re reading how faithful Christians have thought about God, prayed to God, and lived to God throughout all this time and you’re seeing this entirety of what Christianity/humanity was made for. It’s something unlike anything else. From the beginning, I think this is the good works He prepared me for in advance – to study and to teach. I have no question about that. God’s always been providentially moving me deeper.
TAYLOR: How is your relationship with your parents now?
TYLER: They’re doing better. The physical distance has been good for all of us. I think a lot of times I triangulated and they relied on me – kind of like a child-parent. I mean, I paid mortgage twice as a 16-year-old. I think the distance helped them deal with their own crap a little more and stop expecting everyone else to save them. Overall, it’s better. The natural processes of family life have, in a sense, sanctified them a little bit and undid some of the brokenness. There was a period for about six years where they were living together and couldn’t stand each other. Now they’re not living together and that was the thing I identified…they need to not be living in the same household because they’re constantly wounding each other and can’t reflect on themselves and think, How can I be better? They’re always focused on the other person – like, “Meet my needs and be different.” Once you don’t have that going on and you’re not living in the same house, you have to look at yourself a little more. Things keep getting better for them. It’s a slow process. I was the first Christian in the family, so I felt like I had to “save” everybody. The thing that changed my perspective about all of it was (same guy that gave me the car before going to college) Lane Moss saying, “There’s an arrogance about assuming your actions will do more than the Holy Spirit,” which gives you more of a trust in leaving. He actually said that long before I was considering going to Ozark and it’s stuck with me all these years. I just had to trust God was working on them with their environment regardless of a Christian presence…because God is there.
So, I think, overall, I feel like I’ve become more and more alive. Growing up, I learned to be distant from people and to stay safe and secure. I used to experience youth group activities and think, Oh, God…this is so stupid. At the same time…I didn’t understand joy or humor. I didn’t understand why we did those things. For me, it was mechanical and I had reductionist thinking. What do you need to do? – not What can you do? God was just always taking me deeper even when I didn’t know I was moving at all. Looking back, I can see what He was actually doing – going back and assuming He was doing something. St. Ignatius of Loyola has this thing called the “Ignatius Examen.” He described it as “rummaging for God.” It’s essentially the practice of looking back at your day and finding what He was doing. It’s good to do that with your whole life, too. You don’t say, “Was He working?” You assume in faith He was because of who He is.