In praise of a small life

Our unhappiness arises from one thing alone, according to seventeenth-century philosopher and theologian Blaise Pascal. We’re unhappy, he believed, because we’re unable to stay quietly in one room. We can’t remain present and content where we are. We crave different things or more of the same things, and we strive after them. And in our striving for what we want and don’t have, we become unhappy.

At first, the idea sounds too simple, but in this season of my life I’m discovering the truth of it. Early in my life, while working as a book designer and production director for a couple of scholarly publishers, I felt the urge to do something more with my life than fill a warehouse with books that mainly didn’t sell. Even though I was climbing the ladder of success in my career, and though some of the books I helped create were important in the academic world, I wanted to do something more satisfying and fulfilling. That led me to seminary and a new career as a parish pastor.

But still I wasn’t satisfied. I felt there would always be another parish with a better fit for my gifts. Maybe it would be a larger parish that would help me climb a ladder of success in ministry. Maybe one day I’d even be a bishop. (You see, the old notion of success was still working on me. I had simply carried it with me into my new career in ministry.) I’ll come back to this in a bit.

First, there’s a story about Jesus’ encounter with a man who “had demons.” We don’t know what was wrong with him, only that he was homeless and without clothing, like some folks you meet around Buffalo or any other city. He might have been subject to seizures, or he might have suffered a personality disorder. Maybe he had a value system that caused him to live outside society’s mainstream. Whatever his problem, his neighbors kept him guarded and bound in chains and shackles. They tried to control him and make him conform to the place they had assigned for him in society. But he wasn’t fitting into his assigned place. He kept breaking the chains that confined him and going his own way.

When Jesus met this man, he healed him. He freed him of whatever his problem was, so that the man was able to resume a normal life. Have you ever tried to live a normal life among people who have learned to treat you as abnormal? It would have been quite a challenge for anyone, but the man met the challenge. He was healed, set free from whatever burdened him, restored to a whole and healthy life. Or maybe he was given a fullness of life he had never had before. And his one request was to be a companion of the one who healed him. He wanted to travel with Jesus.

I don’t often think of Jesus turning away people who wanted to follow him in his ministry, but that’s what he did in the story. “Jesus sent him away,” the story says, “saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’” Your calling, Jesus told the man, is not to follow me but to stay where you are – where you have a past, for good or ill – and tell the story of your life and the blessings you have received. And that’s the part of the story that interests me just now.

When I was making the decision to go to seminary, there was one question I wrestled with more than any other. Where would I be more effective in living out my calling? Where could I have the greatest influence? As someone ordained to serve as a parish pastor who was expected to be faithful because it was his role? Or as a committed and involved layperson in my home congregation, witnessing to my faith in my community and workplace not because it was my role but because it was my choice? I chose the path of seminary and ordination, of course, but there are times when I still wonder about the other path. And reading the story of this man’s healing makes me wonder even more.

What would have happened if I had been content to stay quietly in one room, as Pascal put it? If I had stayed where I was and lived a quiet life of faith in a small Southern Illinois town? Serving as a pastor for more than four decades has taught me the importance – indeed, the necessity – of a small life, a life lived out faithfully and locally, with people who know me and who know my history for good or ill. Sometimes following Jesus doesn’t mean actually following him. It may mean, having been touched by his life, letting him go on his way and perhaps never meeting him again. It may mean living a changed life, a life that grows into wholeness, right where one has always been.

I don’t know what would have become of that thirty-something-year-old man I once was if he had stayed in that small Southern Illinois town and lived the rest of his days there and lived them faithfully. I don’t know that any more than I or any of us know what became of the man Jesus healed and set free of his chains. But in that man’s staying behind and not following Jesus, there was something of God’s grace at work, something of God’s intention, even though the rest of the story never was passed down to us.

“A quiet secluded life in the country,” Leo Tolstoy wrote, “with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor – such is my idea of happiness.” A small life, lived quietly in one room, may be better for most of us, and better for the kingdom of God, than all the dreams of success and aspirations to glory we can imagine.

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