I don’t recall when I first encountered the two questions, only that it was many years ago and that they seized me like God seized Jacob that night at the Jabbok (Gen. 32:22-32). After all these years they still won’t let me go. “If you want to identify me,” Thomas Merton wrote, “ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.”1
How do you answer those questions? For a long time my answers were about achievement or acquisition. I was living to be one of those “golden pastors” who baptizes the children of infants he baptized a generation earlier. Or I’d be remembered for some enduring ministry. Or I was living to acquire sufficient property and resources for a secure retirement. Those answers and lots of others were the same anyone might give in early and middle adulthood, differing only in the details.
I’m in the time of life when goals are turning into losses, either because I’ll never achieve them or because I am achieving them and soon they will no longer be things I’m living for. (Successes are losses, also.) And I’ll have to come up with new responses to the old questions: What am I living for? And what’s keeping me from it?
It must be part of the wisdom that comes with knowing the shortness of life (Ps. 90:12) that with the shedding of those earlier answers, things grow simpler. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, wrote, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” In my journey toward perfection, a journey that Wesley thought all Christians are on, I’m learning that as aging takes things from me, it also adds the gift of grace, the grace of becoming: not becoming old but becoming an elder; not becoming less but becoming much more.
In his autobiography, playwright and novelist Somerset Maugham wrote: “I knew that I had no lyrical quality, a small vocabulary, little gift of metaphor. The original and striking simile never occurred to me. Poetic flights . . . were beyond my powers. On the other hand, I had an acute power of observation, and . . . I could put down in clear terms what I saw. . . . I knew that I should never write as well as I could wish, but I thought, with pains, that I could arrive at writing as well as my natural defects allowed.”2
Somerset Maugham became one of the most popular writers of the early twentieth century and was reputedly the highest paid writer of the 1930s. He knew that the secret of becoming was doing his best within his limits. Life doesn’t ask us to become what we are not; it asks us to become what we are essentially, after everything that is not us has been stripped away. Martin Buber told the story of Rabbi Zusya, who before his death said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
One of the most important tasks of this time in my life, perhaps the most important task, is to finally be Richard: not a golden pastor whom people remember; not the builder of an enduring ministry; not one whose witness will influence succeeding generations; but simply a child of God who played well his own small part in life’s unfolding mystery, one who fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith (2 Tim. 4:7).
Thinking about all the people of faith who lived before him, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1), or, “let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress” (nlt).
Take care that you don’t run someone else’s race. A lot of people, I’ve discovered, will try to get you to run their race, to fulfill their dreams and visions. If you’re not careful, they’ll define success for you and tempt you to live according to their definition. Don’t let them. And take care not to run the race you prefer to run instead of the one you’ve been given. Don’t trade a difficult race, if it’s your race, for what seems an easier race that belongs to someone else. Run the race God called you to run and has equipped you to finish, for that’s the race God needs you to run to fulfill God’s purpose in your life.
I’m learning not to grow impatient or hurried about that. There’s a story of a man who tried to hasten the emergence of a butterfly from its cocoon by warming it with his breath. He said, “I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled. It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of its wings should be a gradual process in the sun. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.”3
A mature faith cannot be hurried. I recall a man in a congregation I served years ago who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was in his eighties and was told to expect only a few months more to live. During most of his life he had been a member of the church but had ignored his spiritual growth, and now he felt he had no foundation on which to weather his remaining days. He wanted in a few months to make up for a lifetime of casual, cultural, social Christianity.
The process of becoming what God is creating us to be cannot be rushed. Becoming is never that easy. It’s not a fifty-yard dash; it’s a marathon, the race of a lifetime. And for that, I know I need the help of others. There’s an African proverb, “To run fast, run by yourself. But to run far, run with other people.” Someone asked me why I’m in the church, and I answered: I’m here because my quest to feed my deep hunger is enriched in the presence of others who are on a quest to feed their deep hunger.
John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, said there are three simple rules for anyone who wants to become rich: 1) go to work early; 2) stay at work late; 3) find oil. How do we become spiritually wealthy? How can we actively participate in becoming what God is creating us to be? The experience of the early church, confirmed in our Methodist tradition, is equally simple and much more possible: A disciplined routine of individual and small-group Bible study, fellowship, shared meals that include the Lord’s Supper, and prayer (Acts 2:41-43).
From the tradition of the Desert Fathers comes the story of Abba Lot, who went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “As far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
I want to become all flame. Like St. Paul, if I can say so without over reaching, “I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be” (Phil. 3:12 nlt). Paul’s disciples understood it as reaching maturity, the measure of the full stature of Christ (Eph. 5:13). John Wesley called it sanctification, the process of being made perfect in love. One of my seminary professors referred to it as “genuine, honest-to-God, graceful eccentricity.” Whatever it’s called, I grow hungrier for it every day, and I’m grateful for those who travel with me, “encouraging one another, and all the more as [we] see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:25).
notes — 1. From My Argument with the Gestapo. ▪ 2. W. Somerset Maugham, Summing Up. ▪ 3. Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek.