Reflections on lifetime priorities
περιπατεω (peripateo) — Walk
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works…that we περιπατησωμεν (should walk) in them…Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, And περιπατειτε (walk) in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”—Ephesians 2:10; 5:1-2
My mother and I used to play a little game. I wouldn’t consider her old until admitting I was middle-aged. And likewise, she wouldn’t call me middle-aged until she was ready to consider herself old.
We both went along with it. And actually neither of us ever fully owned up to the facts. But time does pass. Several years ago my mother said, “I look in the mirror and I can hardly believe it. I remind myself of my mother when she got old.”
I have to admit a similar sensation when I see pictures of myself from twenty years ago, or even ten, and realize, “Hey—what’s happening to me? I don’t look like that anymore!”
My mother is now gone, and I am well past sixty. No doubt many young people would say I had bypassed middle age altogether, and would call me positively ancient.
I was aware over a decade ago that a transition occurred when I stepped beyond the threshold of the half-century mark. I could not help becoming pensive about the years spent and the pathways trod in reaching such a symbolic point. I knew I was standing at a crossroads. I looked back as well as forward, wondering if I had lived my first fifty years well, and wondering, too, what the future might hold.
When I passed that milestone, that thing we call old age seemed neither so old nor so remote. Nor did it seem quite so odious. I found myself, in fact, more and more anticipatory of what age truly signified—not the approach of death, but the preparation for birth into eternal life.
Most young men and women in their teens and twenties, when vision is unbounded, energy high, and no goal seems impossible, dream of great accomplishments and worldwide impact. As the years pass, reality causes such dreams to grow quieter and more inward. And hopefully more eternal. In my own life, a sense of my failings has played an intrinsic role in that process. Perhaps failure is a necessary component in the equation of growth. How else can Christlikeness come to outweigh worldly objectives in one’s value structure?
I once wanted to change the world. Like Winston Churchill, I wanted to change the world before I was thirty. But I didn’t. Reality always comes calling. Maturity helps you gradually view your life and the person you are with increasing perspective. The years make you slowly less blind to your own faults. As a result, the main world I now want to turn upside down lies within myself—the world of my own inner being…my choices and attitudes and character.
Though my old man still exerts itself with annoying vigor, my ambition now is well summarized by my mentor George MacDonald: “It is enough that the man who refuses to assert himself, seeking no recognition by men, leaving the care of his life to the Father, and occupying himself with the will of the Father, shall find himself, by and by, at home in his Father’s house, with all the Father’s property his.”
Saying that, however, does not change the fact that passing sixty was an even more sobering experience than passing fifty. One can cross life’s other milestone birthdays, from eighteen and twenty-one, to thirty, and even forty, still maintaining the bravado, and declare, “My best years are still in front of me.”
But when you round the corner of fifty, then sixty—and how quickly I will be inserting the words seventy into this sentence—those words don’t fall quite so easily from the lips. When you realize how quickly forty gave way to sixty, and realize that seventy is bearing down like a freight train, suddenly you recognize what for some is a very chilling fact: You’re looking in the distance toward the end of life’s road.
What should life mean?
Sure, there’s plenty of time. Perhaps your best years are ahead. But you can no longer pretend that old age will never come as we all did during the hubristic days of youth.
It will come. And it is coming at a more rapid pace than any of us feel completely comfortable with. The sun may still be high in the sky, but there’s no pretending it is still on the rise. The apex has been reached and it’s heading down toward the horizon.
If you’re a fatalist, then the response is typically along the lines of, “Everybody ages, so what. You’re going to get old and eventually die. You and me and everybody else. Nothing you can do about it. So deal with it.” An adequate response, I suppose, if it satisfies you to think that way.
But I want to know what it’s all about, what it means. I want to make sure, when I get to the end of that road and the inexorably sinking sun finally sets on my earthly days, that my life has counted for some of the right things.
I have always been of an introspective bent. I suppose when one tends toward the shy and melancholy, that goes with the territory. It’s probably also an occupational hazard for writers who spend their days trying to discover what life is all about. So the threshold of fifty plunged me into a season of evaluation—looking at where I’d been, where I was going. It sent me on a new search, as it were, for the meaning, the essence, of life.
And now, looking back over sixty years—that’s enough to give a sense of perspective that is not possible when you’re younger. The years still ahead, of course, will add to that perspective geometrically with every passing year. I am keenly aware, therefore, that my reflections now represent a focusing that will continue the older I get.
Yet though the process may never be complete, there are times when it is beneficial to pause for a thoughtful glance around, to take stock of the journey thus far, and perhaps, if needed, make adjustments on the roadmap leading toward the future.
What does life really mean? Or perhaps the question ought to be: What is life supposed to mean? And: Are we or are we not falling in with that purpose?
I have thought about such things before. I am a writer. I work with ideas, thoughts, life-themes. If I happen to tell stories in the process, it is only because the story of life itself intrigues me. This involves growth, the operation of spiritual processes upon heart and brain, decisions and choices and their impact upon the paths an individual’s feet take. Above all it involves the attempt to understand and chronicle that most delicate and hidden mystery within the human story—the quiet, personal, invisible response of the heart and soul to its Maker, its Savior, its Lord.
Therefore, as a writer I have long asked the kinds of questions that have filled me recently. But when you turn the questions upon yourself, the nature of the inquiry suddenly changes. I now find my own life caught up in the very themes and cross currents till now reserved for my characters. It is my existence whose purposes and meanings I hunger to understand. I have become a character in my own drama. What else can I do with this life’s story but try to get to the bottom of it?
Three incomplete priorities
There’s nothing new in wondering about the meaning of life. Every high school and university commencement speaker addresses what we call “priorities in life.” But I think most of our efforts and reflections tend to be short-sighted. What do I want to get done, achieve, work toward now, next week, next year? Where do I want to be five years from now, ten…even twenty?
Not only are we short-sighted, we are accomplishment, experience, and pleasure driven. Affluent western modernism has infected us with a false sense of what is good and worthwhile. These three elements bring that faulty imbalance into stark clarity.
What can I get done? What do I want to experience? How can I carve out more time for personal leisure and pleasure? These are the three pillars of twentieth and now twenty-first century mankind’s frame of reference toward life—doing, experiencing, enjoying.
These also undergird our spiritual perspectives when we talk about goals and priorities. The religion of present-day western Christendom is a do, experience, and fun religion—be it conservative or liberal, evangelical or Catholic, Pentecostal or Anglican, Mormon or Orthodox, Baptist or Presbyterian—to varying degrees across the spectrum. It isn’t too often these days that we hear evangelists say, “Come…join the cause—become a Christian and die with me.” More often it’s along the lines of, “Come join the party!”
During my season of introspection, I have looked at my own values, especially with the first two of these three factors in mind that have led to our culture’s imbalance. To what degree, I have asked myself, has my own life been infected with a false sense of the lasting significance of my doings, my experiences, and, to a lesser degree, the enjoyment I have had in life. And if these three incomplete priorities do not represent the summum bonum—the supreme good—what then instead should represent one’s life-priority on a higher and more permanent plane?
As a Christian, there might have been many ways I would have answered the question of ultimate “priority” at various stages throughout my life. To serve the Lord is a favorite expression that describes how many would sum up their goal in life. But immediately one observes the do-focus. I therefore wonder if it falls short of giving us an adequate grip on a truly summital perspective.
To experience God…to minister to others…to enjoy relationship with the Lord…to know God more intimately…to love and be kind to those around me…to be Christ’s disciple…to live in fellowship with God’s people…to study the Word…to do the Lord’s will…these and many such phrases express aspects of what we call our faith. I have used many of them myself, and still would. Doing the Lord’s will…being Christ’s disciple—of course these remain pivotal in my thinking. To an extent they certainly represent high scriptural objectives.
But I find myself asking if even these rise to the apex. Can we not see the emphasis, again—hidden between the words—on the personal experience, the blessings received, the enjoyment of corporate fellowship with others on journeys similar to our own, the active life of western modernism’s particular brand of this thing we call Christianity.
The ultimate good
I find myself hungering for a deeper foundation of meaning than any of these three passions of modernism quite fulfill. Many of them may be worthy objectives for the immediate and even intermediate future. But will they matter when I am lying on my deathbed?
What I learned, what I read, the marginal notes I added to the underlinings in my Bible, the knowledge I gained, the scriptures I memorized, the material I gave away, the church activities I was involved in, the hours I spent in ministry, the meetings I attended, the possessions I owned, the insights the Lord gave me, the lives I influenced, the Bible studies I was part of, the prayers I prayed, the places I visited, the sermons I heard, the quiet times I enjoyed, the music I listened to, the leisure I enjoyed, the time and money I gave to the Lord’s work, and in my own case the books I wrote…will any of it matter then?
Some of these may matter. I suspect many of them, however, will not. How can we discover the difference? How can we make sure that we are investing our time and energy now in those things that contain lasting import?
A worthy tombstone ambition
What is the scriptural bedrock that will matter during those last days of life? What perhaps will turn out to have been the only thing that ever mattered at all? In other words…what of lifetime priorities?
Not the interim goals with which I was consumed when I was 25 or 33 or at present in my 60s. Not where I want to be in five years or ten. But where do I want to be when all life’s five-year plans are gone—when those that were accomplished have become dust along with those that were not…when successes have vanished along with failures, when all life’s experiences and knowledge and blessings have faded into memory?
Perhaps the question in its starkest form reduces to this: What is the single thing I could most hope to appear on my tombstone?
When Judy and I are in Scotland, because most cemeteries have traditionally surrounded churches, we literally walk through a conglomeration of graves and tombstones, crooked and slanted, some half falling over, every Sunday as we make our way through the churchyard to the church door. Some of them are two and three hundred years old, their inscriptions completely gone. But the stones that can still be read always cause me a moment or two of pensive reflection about the lives represented. Some of the inscriptions are so touching and speak of lives of devoted service and dedication as Christians. Actually the whole mystical aura of a church rising high in the middle of two hundred or more grave markers is rather wonderful—the great cloud of silent witnesses is a visible truth every moment. You get a sense of history, spiritual history, the history of individual lives, that is not possible anywhere else.
It is a nostalgic and sobering experience to ponder: What will my grave marker say? How will those left after me sum up my life? There will be no room to tell the story of my life. All that will be gone. What legacy is left? What is the one thing that sums up a worthwhile existence?
The Bible gives just such an epitaph. May we be worthy to have it said of us. “Noah was a righteous man…and he walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9)
He walked with God.
The words themselves echo with the strength and dignity of a life well-lived on this earth. All the little things that we made our concerns through the years are suddenly dwarfed into insignificance alongside those mighty words of lifetime stature.
Say those four words slowly aloud. Do they not positively convey the strength of a rock ten times the size of Gibraltar, a lasting rock of purpose anchored in the foundation stone of eternity itself. Of all the things that life eventually strips away, for one to whom they apply, those words remain untouchable. Will that be able to be said of you…of me? Will they think to put it on our tombstones?
We often say that there is nothing you take with you. But that’s not completely true. Having walked with God is a treasure that goes with you beyond the grave.
Surely such was the purpose in God’s heart when he created us—that he would have beings to walk in fellowship with him in the full magnificent maturity of their created manhood and womanhood. This is exactly the injunction Paul reaffirms when writing to the Ephesians. He tells us to “imitate” God by walking in love and good works. It is a walk identified by the sacrifice of Christlikeness, which is a “fragrant offering” to God. Can you imagine anything more precious at the end of your sojourn on earth than for it to be said of your life that it was a fragrant offering to God!
Sadly, it will not be said of most of the race of created human beings that it walked with God while on the earth, and offered him the fragrant perfume of sacrificial Christlikeness. We are a race that has decided to live on its own terms rather than walk in obedience to our Maker. Many will not learn to know and walk with God until they cross through the doorway of death. It may be said of them ten thousand years from now. But it will not be said that the process began now, in this life, where God purposes it to begin.
However…it will be said of a few of our number—they of that rare and singular breed who chose a different path—when the days of their earthly lives draw to a close: “There is a man, there is a woman…who walked with God.”
It is a lofty goal to think about. I am not sure it will be said of me. At present I am aware of far too much of my self to think such a thing possible. But the hunger after such a high calling fills me with a hopeful energy to focus the eyes of my spirit on lifetime objectives rather than passing ones, and upon the foundational priority of walking with God most of all.
The first step
The imagery of walking as descriptive of a spiritual life lived in daily harmony with one’s Creator is significant on so many levels.
To be able to walk at all requires being able to take the vital first step. The initial step in any endeavor is always the most important, the most frightening, the step that requires the most decisiveness and courage. That first step in the spiritual life is the step of setting oneself to know God aright—to understand who he is, who we are in relation to him, and why we are here and how he expects us to live.
It is a step that requires bold thinking. No one learns to peripateo with God by accident. No one discovers who God truly is and where they stand in relation to him by accident. The men and women of history who indeed learned to walk with God took their first forays into such a life by learning to think correctly about him and about themselves.
Every revered man and women in the spiritual annals of humankind—from Noah and Job to Moses and Elijah to Peter and John, even Jesus himself, as well as all those intrepid Catholic saints and Protestant thinkers and Orthodox Fathers—learned to walk with God by thinking boldly about his nature and his ways.
They did not simply absorb the doctrinal tenets of a learned faith by rote. They were well-practiced in what Peter calls “girding up the loins of their minds.”
They were bold thinkers. God calls us to follow in their footsteps, and thus take our first steps in learning to walk with him.