Tomorrow is my birthday. I will be sixty-three years old. Ever since I turned fifty, it has been increasingly difficult for me to believe that I am as old as my birth certificate says I am. When I was a kid (and this is probably true for everybody), a person in his or her sixties seemed positively ancient. A few years ago, the name of former President Lyndon Johnson came up in a conversation (don’t ask me how that happened), and I remember the shock I felt when it was noted that LBJ was only sixty years old when he left office. In my recollection, he was always an old man. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I do even now, how many people think of me as an old man.
For much of my life, or so it seems in retrospect, I was the youngest person in the room. My late November birthday meant that, from first grade through high school, almost all of my classmates were older than me, some by nearly a year. I was also a short, scrawny kid with limited athletic ability and crooked teeth. (In those days, dental insurance was unheard of, and there was no money for “luxuries” such as orthodontics.) But I was smart and could think fast on my feet. Perhaps that explains, at least in part, why some people say I was always on the defensive and ready to engage in an argument at the drop of a hat.
Life would have been far different for me if I had not been blessed (and I mean that sincerely) with a sharp mind and a gift for public speaking. Despite my obvious physical limitations and the fact that my family had little in the way of material wealth, I have never felt intimidated in the presence of people with money or power (and I have known some). I attribute that to my awareness, from an early age, that I had a good mind and could express myself effectively.
Intelligence is a blessing, for sure, but often a mixed one. I can’t count all the times somebody said to me, “You’re too smart for your own good.” I’m not sure what that meant. (You’d think somebody as smart as I believed I was would have taken the trouble to ask.) I do know that, on occasion, life was more complicated than it needed to be, for me and those close to me, since my intellectual capabilities frequently outpaced my emotional development, which was pretty much average. And, if my siblings are to be believed, there is nothing worse than a really smart adolescent.
I wasn’t planning to write a blog post on the occasion of my birthday. Here’s how it came about. I vaguely remembered reading an essay by a well-known Christian author in which he alluded to the fact that he seldom went to church anymore, since he left most worship services more frustrated and annoyed than when he arrived, and he determined that his presence was not beneficial for himself or for his fellow parishioners. I wanted to find that essay, to see if I was recalling its content accurately, but I couldn’t remember who wrote it.
It seemed to me that the author I had in mind was one of those whom Philip Yancey included among the people who influenced his life most profoundly over the years. He wrote about them in his 2001 book called Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church.
I found the name I was looking for, but I’m not going to reveal it here, since I have not yet been able to document that quote about church attendance, and I don’t want to ascribe it to the wrong source. Moreover, that is not the most valuable element I took away from my most recent encounter with the Yancey text.
As far as I’m concerned, that book is one of Philip Yancey’s best. It has spoken to me on a variety of levels. Someday I may write a more thorough review of the book in one of these blog posts. I have read it several times, and each time I underline or highlight something I didn’t see in a previous reading. But until this morning, I had never read the author’s preface. I don’t know why.
In the preface, Yancey describes how the book was to have been published on September 20, 2001, but the events of nine days earlier disrupted those plans, which had included media appearances in major American markets to coincide with the publication date. His reflections on September 11, made even more poignant by the fact that he was able to visit Ground Zero shortly after air travel into New York City resumed, are moving and memorable—as I said, it’s Yancey at his best.
One line from that preface fairly leapt off the page as I read it and plunged itself into my heart like a literary dagger. His musing about September 11 had led to a broader consideration of the idea of patriotism which, in turn, prompted him to verbalize some of the qualities of America which he found most admirable and for which he was most appreciative. Here are two pertinent paragraphs from the preface. I have highlighted the line which touched me so deeply.
I felt a sudden surge of loyalty and unity with my country that was new to me. Scott Simon put words to it in a National Public Radio editorial after the WTC attacks. Patriotism is not based on a blind belief that the United States has no need to change, he said. God knows we need to change in many ways. Our love for America rests on the belief that the changes needed are more likely to occur here than anywhere else in the world.
I think of my own life. I grew up in a cloistered, fundamentalist environment in a South of legislated racism. Now I live two thousand miles away, in a place of exquisite beauty, [Yancey lives in the Colorado Rockies] with the ability to make a living reflecting in words on what matters most to me, rewarded and not punished for honesty and growth. Few countries in the world would allow for that kind of progression and mobility. The United States remains the land of promise and potential.
True enough, except that on this the eve of my sixty-third birthday, I am unable to shake the perception that I have been punished, more than rewarded, for the kind of “honesty and growth” to which Philip Yancey refers in the quote above.
Spoiler alert! The remainder of this post is unvarnished lament. I publish it here because reading that line was such an eye-opening experience for me. My religious and cultural history is similar to Philip Yancey’s. We were born in the same year, have been exposed to similar influences over the course of our lives, and have made similar choices in response to those influences. The consequences, however, have been far different.
Each time I followed my developing convictions down a new and unexpected trail, many of my fellow-pilgrims wrote me off as misguided, idealistic, or delusional. This happened when I left fundamentalism for a more mainstream, more inclusive evangelicalism. It happened again when I determined that contemporary evangelicalism was in danger of succumbing to the narcissism and materialism of modern American culture and embraced a more radical discipleship ethic which I found in historical Anabaptism. It happened again when I came to believe that a commitment to radical discipleship could be enriched through exposure to the beauty and mystery of liturgy which had energized much of the church’s worship from its beginning.
Each transition resulted in the loss of a previous constituency along with its accompanying prospects for earning a living. Each change required me to build a new network of contacts. Each time, I had to re-establish myself as a potential contributor to my new faith-family, not merely an interloper. And the time required to re-build seemed to increase with every new turn that emerged along the route of my Spirit-led pilgrimage.
Perhaps, if I had possessed Philip Yancey’s superior gifts of insight and communication, I could have explained myself and my choices more effectively. At the very least, I might have been able to cultivate a broader community of folks who, because of the course of their own pilgrimages, were better able to understand why I had to make the decisions I made and why I followed the course I had to pursue.
And so, I am a bit melancholy on the eve of my sixty-third birthday, but then, that’s not news. Like most of my bouts of melancholia, this one will pass… probably. I do want to leave you with two serious thoughts, however, as I bring this post to a close.
First, the line from the preface to Philip Yancey’s book was a genuinely helpful insight, even if it prompted a melancholy reflection. I now understand why my sadness over the past few years has been accompanied by what was, up to now, unexplainable resentment verging on anger. Whether I recognized it or not, and whether it was reasonable or not, I have been laboring under the barely-perceptible burden of a sense that my “honesty and growth” had not only not been rewarded but had actually been punished. Now that I know the source of the irritation, I can begin to address the irritant.
Second, I know that many of the people who read this blog are former students and others who carefully watch my life to see how I react and respond to the life-situation which I chronicle here. Some days I fear, and in this I am completely serious, that they will conclude, from what they observe in my inadequate and all-too-human response to my circumstances, that following your convictions, being faithful to what you believe God is calling you to do, standing up for what you genuinely believe is holy and right, is not worth it. Sometimes I fear that those people who mean the most to me in all the world will look at the course my own pilgrimage has taken and deduce that it is better to float with the current than to swim against it.
Some who read this will conclude that most of my wounds are self-inflicted, owing to my innate irascibility and my inability to remain complacent when I believe that change is called for. I would respond that intolerance for complacency is essential if I am going to be a faithful and consistent disciple. They might likely remind me that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
One of my closest friends has told me frequently that I am a complicated person. And a church leader recently observed that I am “difficult to interpret.” (He went on to say that the effort is worth it.) I can only respond that I’m not trying to cause problems, make trouble, or be difficult. I’m only trying to be faithful.