Friday, November 08, 2013

Where Am I Going?

This year has been disorienting: three deaths (one untimely) in the family, and two reunions of a sort.

My father's two surviving brothers died, just a few weeks apart; they were in their 90s. My brother-in-law, though, was under 64: too young to die, really, yet with multiple health challenges he beat the odds. I don't know who said that each of us should (daily?) consider their own death, but I'll grant the point. We westerners are great death-deniers, and considering with some regularity the question of my own death could be a healthy and actually life-affirming thing.

Without that I could sleepwalk through my days, arriving at my last one with astonishment and needless regret.

I mentioned reunions: I saw several people from my college class last month. One said, "I still tell that story, about how you finished the final project…" I really didn't remember that achievement, but it started to make me wonder if I've lived up to my potential. I don't mean becoming rich or famous; rather "How well have I used what I've received?" Similarly, does my life preach the doctrine of ignoble ease? Have I taken the easy path too often?

At my brother-in-law's memorial, someone from my high school class asked me if my job used all my mental capabilities, and that reminded me of a sermon I heard a few months back. The preacher, Jordan Seng, used to be an academic; he published numerous papers during his post-doc fellowships. His recent book is about miracles, and some past colleagues seem surprised at his change in focus and apparent level of intellectual activity.

At some point during his academic career, Jordan visited a developing country, where he taught children about God. It was on that trip, he said, that he found his teaching abilities stretched. "Teaching smart academics about political theory—that's easy. Teaching an illiterate child with uneducated parents about the Kingdom of God—that fully used all my teaching skills."

I think it was Rilke who said that if something is hard, that's what makes it worth doing. That's an oversimplification of course, but doing only easy things makes for a boring and probably useless life.

As Buechner (or should that be Büchner?) wrote, we are great avoiders. We have some spare minutes with nothing really going on, a time that would be perfect for considering where we have come from, where we are going, and what kind of person, for better or worse, we are becoming. But we don't think about that; we pick up the paper or turn on the television or start on some task that really needn't be done today or even this week.

So where am I going? What kind of person am I becoming? If I were to die tonight, what would be my regrets?

And what hard things am I doing, or should I be doing?

Coincidentally (hah!) I had two reassuring incidents this week, which showed me that although I sometimes take the easy path, I don't do it all the time. At the farewell dinner for our church board (I rotated off this week), kind words were said about the outgoing members. Someone described me as adventurous, citing the years we'd spent in Japan. And at lunch today (are you detecting a theme here?) where we were all supposed to speak each member's spiritual gifts, someone said I had the gift of apostleship! So if I am indeed guilty of preaching the doctrine of ignoble ease, I'm apparently not doing it very well.

But when I think about hard problems, I tend to think rather of some easier problem to work on—one I have a chance of succeeding at. What's a hard problem? There are lots of them of course, even if I restrict myself to ones where I think I have any chance at all of figuring them out. So, writing and selling a book would be hard. Explaining the gospel to a Silicon Valley denizen would be hard.

I mean, I think about what I used to say to students in 1980: "Because of sin, there's a chasm between us and God..." By this time, the Si-Valley guy would be checking his phone, if he hadn't already walked off.

Well, no answers, but I thought I'd share these thoughts with you anyway.

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