In the debris and clutter

How can you live the best life possible, a life full and satisfying beyond anything you can imagine? The quest for that life is as old as human history. We see it in the search for the holy grail, for the fountain of youth, for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We see it in a lawyer asking Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 10:25)?

Some of you who responded to my questions a few months ago expressed hope for that life in different ways. One of you wrote of your hope for world peace and that the church will become important to everyone. Another hoped your children and grandchildren will live healthy, fulfilling lives. Others hoped your families will be healthy, successful, and happy, and that they will have a good future living in peace and harmony. Many of you want to live a healthy and peaceful life with God’s blessing.

Jesus said he came so we’d have such life and have it abundantly (John 10:10) – “more and better life than [we] ever dreamed of,” as one paraphrase puts it (The Message). He said the time of waiting is over, and what you’ve been waiting for is at hand (Mark 1:15). He also said the kind of life you’re looking for is spread upon the earth and we don’t see it (Gospel of Thomas 113). He pictured it as a great banquet to which we’re all invited. He also said the banquet has begun. “Come,” he said; “for everything is ready now” (Luke 14:15-24).

If our waiting is over and what we’re hoping and yearning for is right in front of us, why is it so hard to see? Why are we not living that life right now? Maybe you are; if so, give thanks to God. Maybe you taste it occasionally and want more of it. Maybe you hear rumors of such a life and wonder what on earth people are talking about. You’ve hitched your wagon to Jesus but don’t seem to be going anywhere. What’s standing in your way?

Of course, I don’t know what’s standing in your way. I’m still discovering and naming and dealing with what’s standing in my way, and for me, at least, it’s proving to be a long and challenging process. Thomas Merton wrote, “If you want to identify me,” – if you really want to know who I am at my most deeply human level, as a child of God – “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, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.”

The place to start, I believe, is to state what you’re living for – in detail, as Merton wrote. Describe in as much detail as possible what your best life looks like. When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I thought in terms of the house and neighborhood where I wanted to live, of cars and clothes, of travel and vacation destinations, of early retirement. Almost everything was somewhere else, a different location or a different time in my life, somewhere in the future. I was living today for what I would have tomorrow.

And a funny thing has happened through the years. Almost none of the life I dreamed of in my twenties and thirties has come to be. Instead, my life has been filled with the long routine of ordinary days, with plenty of unexpected detours along the way, and here I am now, in a life I never imagined, discovering riches I never dreamed of. Then, I was living today for what I would have tomorrow; today, I’m living for the treasures today holds. Now, when I answer Merton’s question about what I’m living for, I don’t point to images clipped for a vision board or for the front of the refrigerator; I look around at the debris and clutter of a life in process, and there I see the groaning board of the feast of heaven.

What’s on the table God sets for me is different from what’s on the table God sets for you, except for this: God sets the table for both of us. God spreads before us the life we’ve been dreaming of, in details so plain and ordinary we’re inclined to overlook them because they are so plain and ordinary. Which leads me to the second of Merton’s questions: what do I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for?

For the people in the parable of the great banquet (Luke 14:15-24), the people who wanted to come to the banquet later, it seems to have been the ordinary tasks of daily life that stood in their way: a real estate transaction, a business investment, a marriage. For others who wanted to follow him, their obstacles seem to have been family responsibilities and commitments: a funeral or some other final farewells (Luke 9:57-62). But if the best life possible, the life we dream about, is to be found in what I called the debris and clutter of a life in process, how can the debris and clutter of life stand in the way of the life we yearn for?

The reason why we don’t live today the life Jesus said he came to offer, the “more and better life than [we] ever dreamed of,” is because we’ve been conditioned to think of that life as something in the future: when circumstances are just right; when we do the right things; when enough people are converted to the right way of thinking and living; when God intervenes to establish a new reign on earth; or after we die, as an old hymn says, “when we all get to heaven.”

What has kept me from living fully for the thing I want to live for, more than anything, is wanting to follow Jesus somewhere else, into a different life, while I’m bogged down in this life. Jesus, on the other hand, keeps trying to redirect my attention to this life, not where I’m bogged down but where I’m planted and rooted. Where the life I imagine is growing like a mustard seed into a tree big enough to have birds nesting in its branches (Matt. 13:31-32). Where it’s like yeast hidden in a loaf of bread leavening the whole loaf (Matt. 13:33). Where it’s like treasure hidden in a field, waiting to be unearthed (Matt. 13:44).

Here are some lines from Kalidasa, an Indian Sanskrit playwright, poet, and philosopher who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries. “Look to this day, for it is Life – the very Life of life. In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence: the bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty. For yesterday is already a dream and tomorrow is only a vision; but today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day. Such is the salutation of the dawn.”

To find the life you’re seeking, the thing you’re truly living for, don’t seek to follow Jesus somewhere else. Seek to follow him where he wants to lead, into the heart of the debris and clutter of the life you’re living now. For there is where the kingdom of God grows and bears fruit for the harvest.

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