I spent last week in Vancouver attending a conference at Regent College, the school that I was making my way through around a decade ago. It was a good opportunity to learn, to worship, to take a breath, to connect with some old friends and, as providence would have it, to drop in on the opening night of U2’s 30th Anniversary Joshua Tree tour (the concert was fantastic, if perhaps not as memorable as past shows… a highlight was being told by a couple of spectacularly drunk Irishmen in the concourse that I looked like The Edge 🙂 ). All in all, a nice few days away.
Being back in familiar surroundings, riding the buses, sitting in the classrooms that I sat in a decade ago, thinking about the trajectory my life has taken between then and now, provided a kind of natural opportunity to “take stock” of things, to reflect upon where I have come from and where I am going, to think about how I’m doing on the journey both personally and professionally. Did I expect to be “further ahead” or “farther along” by now? And what do these things even mean? What do they look like? What should they look like?
Maybe this kind of self-examination is a common enough exercise for people roughly my age, I don’t know. At any rate, I tried to do something like a quick inventory of how I might approach answering these questions while riding the bus on a familiarly rainy Vancouver morning. What does success look like? What would it feel like? What would I have to do to get there?
What if I wrote a book? I love to write, obviously, and writing has, over the last decade or so, become an important part of what I consider my vocation to be. But writing on a blog is, well, just blogging, not real writing, right? A book would surely move me from the former prosaic category to the latter more esteemed one. Could I ever feel like a decent or accomplished writer if I didn’t have a book on my CV?
Or what about the realm of pastoring? Here, the familiar metrics began to sward around my brain. Success equals full(ish) pews, prominence in the community, a track record of baptisms and conversions. Or, it means a laudable impact among the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized and victimized. It almost certainly means a demographically diverse community full of the young and the old and everyone in between. Could I claim to be a “successful pastor” if the church I am a part of doesn’t check off all these boxes at any given moment?
Speaking of familiar metrics, what about “financial security?” This is probably among the most common measuring sticks of all, inside and outside the church. Would I feel like I was progressing at an acceptable level in life if the mortgage was paid off, if the college fund for my kids was swelling, if I was able to travel to all the places in the world that I want to see, accumulating all the right sorts of experiences to broadcast to the world around me?
What if I was hitting it out of the park as a parent? What if I was obviously contributing to the formation of kids that were becoming or had become independent and strong and admirable in all kinds of ways? What if one day I could say that I ahd passed on a faith that was durable and strong that I could seem embodied in the lives of my kids? Or what about the realm of marriage? What if my marriage was a squeaky clean embodiment of selfless love and heroic virtue?
I could have gone on, but my bus stop had arrived (mercifully sparing you about five hundred more words). In each of these cases above, I found myself saying something like, “yeah, but…” None of them, in and of themselves, were enough.
I don’t actually think I would be appreciably more fulfilled as a writer if I could point to a book with my name on it. On my better days, I am content with the modest scope of my influence and know enough about the current state of the publishing world to know that writing a book is certainly no guarantee of an instant swell in readership. I don’t think that pastoring a big church would necessarily make me feel like a success. I know by now that churches can be filled (or emptied) for all kinds of reasons, some good and legitimate, many not at all.
And while I do l happen to have an embarassing taste for money and all the opportunities it makes possible, I know that having more of it doesn’t automatically make you happier. Not by a long shot. Parenting and marriage success seem closest to what I think I ought to be aspiring to, but even then it’s far too easy to long for the “right result” (pointing to well-mannered and successful kids as some kind of personal accomplishment) rather than the means by which this result might be achieved (including the humility to realize how little you had to do with it!).
In each case, I found myself looking beyond these common indices of a well-lived life. Increasingly, I am trying to think about the word “success”—about how a life is measured—not in terms of what I do but about who I am. Or who I am becoming. This is not exactly a revelatory insight, I know. It certainly shouldn’t be, for a Christian. But it’s remarkable how easy it is to forget important things. At least for me. And as I sat on the bus pondering these things, I was brought face to face again with the basic truth that not one of the accomplishments alluded to above will mean a thing if, at the end of it all, I have remained a small and selfish person in the process of securing them.
David Brooks, a columnist at the New York Times describes the preceding ruminations in terms of a distinction between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” He observes that we tend to spend a good deal of our time focused on padding our resumes—developing the skills that will sell, acquiring and accumulating and boosting—and comparatively few on becoming the kinds of people who will be eulogized well at our funerals.
Jesus described it in even simpler terms: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very soul?”
It would be nice, I suppose, if at my funeral people would say, “I appreciated what he wrote or what the things he said from the pulpit.” But it would be far better if those closest to me said, “He was kind. He was honest. He had integrity. He listened. He loved me well—or at least I know he tried to.” These latter things would mean far more than the former, in the grand scheme of things. Or even in the not-so-grand scheme of things, come to think of it. After all, what do any of us have, in the end, but the people we have become?
I was pondering these things yesterday while vacuuming the house, when this song by the Avett Brothers came through the headphones:
No Hard Feelings
When my body won’t hold me anymore
And it finally lets me free
Will I be ready?
When my feet won’t walk another mile
And my lips give their last kiss goodbye
Will my hands be steady?
When I lay down my fears
My hopes and my doubts
The rings on my fingers
And the keys to my house
With no hard feelings
When the sun hangs low in the west
And the light in my chest
Won’t be kept held at bay any longer
When the jealousy fades away
And it’s ash and dust for cash and lust
And it’s just hallelujah
And love in thoughts and love in the words
Love in the songs they sing in the church…
I took the picture above in the backseat of a van or a cab (I forget which) during a trip to Palestine last year. It speaks to me on a number of levels of reflecting on the road traveled and the road ahead.