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Farther Along

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:

48895821.cachedNo 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. 

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    Regarding ruminations of the past, let each of us examine our conscience? Are there confessions to be acknowledged? Forgiveness to be sought? Forgiveness to be offered? Penance/Restitution to be made? What does the Lord our God tell you?

    As for the rest, keep what is sweet. What brings you to the Lord. What brings you to love. Everything else is for letting go….”let the dead bury the dead”….

    Your initial accounting of metrics of success, the material metrics are more dangerous then you consider here. It isn’t a question of them being useless to us should we remain, “small and selfish” but rather that these approaches to life are small and selfish…..”give away all that you have and come follow me”…

    I believe I see your final premise differently then you do here, Ryan. It isn’t so much that we should measure against the standard of, “who we are” for after all who but God can answer such a question about us but rather that we understand that what we pursue ultimately defines us.

    If you are willing, I would like to suggest we examine Mark 12 29-31 ( For me NRSV Catholic Edition)

    Surely this is what we must pursue.

    I believe with all my strength that a better understanding of this specific reading and more importantly, how it can be implemented, is the framework around which the New Zion will be born…..

    Ha, ha, how ya like them apples?!!

    Go big or go home. 🙂

    May 17, 2017
    • What we pursue ultimately defines us.

      Absolutely, Paul. Couldn’t agree more. Descartes said that we think therefore we are. He was wrong. We love, we desire, therefore we are. And the object of our love and desire is everything.

      May 17, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        Yes! This is the ultimate truth about us. How do we inspire one another to love God above all things. To desire God before all things.

        May 17, 2017
  2. Kevin K #

    Thanks for this reflection Ryan. I’m headed whence I came this weekend, it’s a slightly less cool place to take stock (and no concerts are on my itinerary), but I find myself sitting with those same “farther along…” type questions. I appreciated your insight into how we measure ourselves as humans over the years. It’s nice to know one is not alone in those sorts of ponderings.

    I do wonder though, based on what you advocated above, do you feel “farther along” in the right ways? Any further wisdom into how to get there for those of us less years under the belt?

    May 17, 2017
    • That’s a tough question, Kevin, and a very personal one, of course. I guess I would (unsurprisingly and uninspiringly) say, “yes and no.” But probably more “no” than my younger self would have hoped, to be honest. Too many of the things I write about here on this blog remain more aspiration than consistent reality. And so, in that sense I think I have less wisdom to offer than I ought to by this point.

      May 17, 2017
      • Kevin K #

        Maybe it’s a comfort that the all knowing and all loving God is the final judge of these things anyhow. We can sort of rest in his grace that way–his assessment of our lives is ultimately the one that matters most, and on account of Christ, we can have confidence in the sort of assessments that give life.

        I do wonder, as well, how much of our lives are spent living up to misplaced expectations. Who’s to say that the expectations of our younger selves are the ones we should be most concerned about as well? I can admit that in some categories I’ve exceeded those expectations, and in others I’ve fallen dismally short. My efforts each day have contributed in some measure to success, but I’m far enough along to realize that both my greatest achievements and my deepest defeats point to an unrelenting dependance upon the provision of a gracious God. I have both everything and nothing to do with how far along I am.

        That’s not an easy tension to live in, for sure, but it’s the sort of tension within which Christ is most comfortable, I think, and most able to do His daily work.

        Thanks, as always, for your aspirational musings. I must admit I’ve found respite in them every now and again. I don’t know if they’ve gotten me any farther along, but they’ve been a welcome companion in the sometimes coldly consistent realities of everyday living.

        May 18, 2017
      • Thanks, Kevin. I appreciate these words.

        May 22, 2017
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Hi Kevin, thanks for your comments here. They are of a generosity that I often suspect I could do with more of….and then I think be bold, proclaim, challenge. The Holy Spirit, as I experience it, does not negotiate, nor defend the truth through any form of reasonable discourse….” I am that am”….”I don’t defend truth, I am truth”…still the Holy Spirit indwelling as direct as it is, always leaves me with a sense of comfort, confidence and well being. I feel, simultaneously, both corrected ( as is often necessary with me 🙂 ) and affirmed.

    My words, though they are honest efforts to interpret and share what I am given, are often woefully inadequate in these regards….we are all living with uneasy tensions. 🙂

    At my age now, 60 years old, I have come to believe without equivocation that, “dying to self” is the only context wherein the question “Have I come any further along?” matters. The only context where this question is a true one. Helpful to the discovery of and living in, truth.

    May 18, 2017
    • Kevin K #

      I’ll invoke Ryan’s approach and simply say thanks to you as well, Paul, for your words! Greatly appreciated 🙂

      May 23, 2017
  4. Paul Johnston #

    So just thought I might engage with some of the other perspectives offered in this post, Ryan. 🙂

    Spectacular drunkeness has it’s place in folklore and culture and from a distance is a source of great amusement, providing the drunks remain temperate and humorous. There is a kind of approval that admires the sheer audacity of the behavior.

    Life as a spectacular drunk is an entirely different matter. Not so funny or worthy of any approval at all….

    U2 oh U2 why does’t though pain me so!

    I should be a fan but I’m not….not really….then again the song ” All I want is you” would have to be on my, “High Fidelity” ultimate mixed tape play list…

    I think it is the personal angst and self centeredness that they usher in with along with a mostly NGO kind of Jesusy social activism that always confused me.

    Kind of like dividing your time between kissing your own arse and planting flowers says the spirit of a former spectacularly drunk scottish/irish/canadian lad I once knew…

    Every song since, that pins it’s hat on the mantra,”I’m just a poor, wildly privileged, western white kid who gets no respect and whose shortcomings are always the fault of others” finds it’s roots in bands like U2….and some other kids who may have been inspired into mission and have served their Lord and His people with integrity and honour….

    Spectacular drunkeness is a world of wildly divergent extremes. Who knows, maybe some good can come out of it.

    As for the Evetts I love the sound but I’m not sure about the spiritual sources of the lyrics. At times I hear the Gospels, at other times I hear a kind of smugness that says we know more and could out “Jesus” Jesus if we had a mind too.

    As the 80’s band, I preferred over U2, Crowded House, once sang,…”your (my) possessions are causing me suspicion but there’s no proof”…

    And so it goes.

    His peace be with you. 🙂

    May 19, 2017
    • Nomad #

      May 20, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        Alvin Lee! If rock had a BB King it was him. His guitar just sings. Thanks, Nomad. 😄

        May 22, 2017

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