Life lessons aren’t something to be sought after. They simply happen to find us.
That’s what I found on a summer day moving junk wood in the backyard of a man who I had just met. It was initially just an odd job that a mutual friend of ours had connected me to, but as we tossed the carcass of an old shed into the back of his pickup, he took the opportunity to speak into my life while Johnny Cash’s crooning bass-baritone carried on in the background. He told me that he had terrible arthritis in his feet, and, being both a pastor and high school mathematics teacher, many assumed his were particularly hurtful occupations. Nevertheless, he persevered, and when those with furrowed brows would ask just why he would put himself through such an ordeal on a daily basis, his reply was that, at the end of the day, the only thing he is always responsible for is his mood. Circumstances come and go, but his response to them is what matters in the eyes of God.
As I’ve entered into my twenties, I’ve realized that the mood which has gripped me these past couple of years is one that demands my circumstances directly correlate to my ideals at all times. In this mood, fulfillment and self-actualization in my work and relationships must be instantaneous. Opportunities that came my way, however exhilarating and undeserved they might be, were ultimately judged according to what benefit they brought to my public image. Even those closest to me began to be measured on a scale of the degree to which they affirmed me in all my insecurities without truly holding me accountable for what were festering character flaws (not just personality quirks). Yet it took those same people’s finally revealing the concern they had been harboring for me for so long to get me to realize how my irrepressible need for approval had led to the suppression of divine wisdom. That wisdom is calling me back to the yoke of costly, committed discipleship and authenticity in my relationships with others.
How exactly had I gotten here? Surely an education from a prestigious evangelical seminary would plead my case on my behalf. But amidst all the fluttering of textbooks and rebuttals in class, I had forgotten who I was apart from it all. No amount of fame gained from a platform would be able to hide the brokenness beneath. I was still a ragged soul whose scars could not be covered by any amount of contributions to society. My reputation could never be the source of my justification.
At the heart of all of this, I bought the lie that success in life is to slay dragons. A dragon is an infernal beast, a creature that has committed terrible acts against others out of a spirit of either greed or pure malice. When they are confronted, we are never the problem; they most certainly are. We often never stop to consider what the state of our armor might be or whether we have the mettle to endure the battle ahead. But deeper than all of this, a terrible truth lurches forth behind us as we enter the keep of the castle and see the fire and the red scales glisten: this might just be a mirror.
I had sauntered through so many blessings without once thinking about how what I was doing in the moment would ultimately come to benefit those I had been appointed to serve. I assumed that I had simply earned it, and that the furtherance of my self-aggrandizement would bring my turbulent soul some serenity. But as the waves continued to crash, I realized that I had been outrunning my design. My gifts were meant to be stewarded, not squandered on megalomania. A good name and glowing compliments never save.
The only way in which we ever gain anything is if it is done in the service of the very same Creator who gave us those capabilities in the first place. They were meant for employment in the working out of his will. Exercised outside of it, they’re idols that only offer us a thousand-yard stare in return. I had forgotten about my humble place in the tapestry of God’s kingdom. I was a speck, but a beloved speck nonetheless.
Captain Ahab made the mistake of thinking it was about the dragons. As Herman Melville masterfully explores the problem of obsession in Moby Dick, we read how Ahab completely disregarded the safety of his entire crew as he doggedly pursued the great white whale. In the end, one fateful encounter with the object of Ahab’s rage spelled out the demise of the ship and its crew. As the narrator Ishmael floats along with the wreckage, he spots a ship called Rachel, and he is reminded of Jeremiah 31:15, “A voice was heard in Ramah, a lament with bitter weeping–Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children because they are no more.”
I’m glad that I’ve found dry land again.