You’re running a race, the road clearly marked out. There are thousands of other runners, and on each side of the road are grandstands full of people, cheering, shouting, jeering. Your pulse quickens as the adrenaline courses through your veins. On your right and left, you dart past and around fellow runners, hitting your stride, feeling good, managing your energies well. You might not be the fastest runner, but you’re doing well, all things considered.
You round the final bend for the home stretch of the race. This particular race culminates in a stadium. Every expectation of yours is that you’ll head into the stadium, triumphantly crossing the finish line. So you drop it in gear, running faster and harder. Eyes ahead, focused, you push through the pain just to make it to the end. Lungs burning, rubber legged, you run.
And then a horrible thing happens. At exactly the moment when you thought you were going to cross the finish line, it all disappears. The fellow runners, the stadium full of people, the finish line. All gone in an instant. And to make it worse, the road doesn’t stop. Instead, it veers off into a dozen different directions, and there’s no sign telling you which way to go. You stand there for a minute, sweating profusely, baffled, in a space that’s so wide open it scares the living daylights out of you. No one told you it was like this. You obviously would have ran differently. What now?
I’ve been sharing this image with friends (and anyone who will listen) as a way of explaining exactly how I feel and where I am right now, at this moment. I turned 32 this year. Not old, and not exactly young either. And I find myself in a place I never expected to be – short of breath, unsure of what’s next.
I’ve lived the “first third” of my life with a really profound sense of clarity. A love for the church and a deep sense of call when I was a youth. College, followed by the decision to attend seminary. And seminary – my goodness, what heady times those were. The exposure to ancient texts and historical theology and good, critical thinking about church and culture and what should be done about it all… I left seminary armed with what I thought were a lifetime’s worth of crystal clear ideas on how to make a difference.
And “making a difference”… that’s what it was all about. My 20’s were a crusade. Me and my friends… we were going to change everything. And at the very least, we were going to be part of helping everything to change. And so, with missionary zeal, I put into motion my best thoughts, best ideas, best concepts… and did it with the best of my energy. I was certain I was moving inexorably towards some glorious consummation… a vindication of all the great ideas.
And then it happened. The ideas proved moderately successful, even if they were incomplete. And some things changed. Not everything. Not even most things. But some things. And some people cared about it. The stadium, the finish line, the runners, the clear-cut goals… it all evaporated.
This year has been SUCH a weird year for me. Lots of ups and downs, some neat moments of growth and breakthrough, but mostly lots of stripping and pruning… and questions… oh, the questions…
…and I think now I get what’s going on. I’m realizing now that the story is a lot longer than I ever imagined. And not just longer, but infinitely more complex. The dogmatic certitude of my 20’s has been pulverized, hammered away by raw experience. There are no silver bullets anymore, and my grandiose meta-synopses of “What’s going on with the church in North America” have been weighed in the scales and found wanting. Yes – they’ve worked. To a degree. But there’s more going on than I can see, and it’s more multifarious than I ever imagined. “What is twisted can’t be straightened; what is lacking can’t be counted” (Eccl 1). Yes. Yes.
What then? That’s the question I find myself asking right now. “What then?” What happens when the dogmatic certitude evaporates, when the crusade vanishes, when you find yourself standing in an unbelievably open space, quietly and without fanfare? What then?
Maybe this is just part of entering into the “second third” part of life – your 30’s and 40’s. The missionary zeal doesn’t go away per se, but it gives way to deeper and longer reflection on where best to place your energies. And in your humility (a hard-fought humility that comes only through experience) you begin to pronounce less, and listen and pray more.
Perhaps. But perhaps, I’m thinking these days, perhaps it’s a gift to be embraced exactly for what it is. The church is thriving, my family is healthy and growing, and I’m in possession of my “self” – my loves, talents, abilities, etc – in a way I’ve not been before. Perhaps life is not best lived in the metaphors of races, competitions, and crusades… but in planting, waiting, growing, rooting.
Perhaps the open space is detox for souls sickened with the poison draught of achievement.
If so, I’ll take it.