If We Only Knew

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It takes a little while to discover that life is always full of surprises. When we are growing up, it can be so easy to see our days as boringly repetitious. It’s as if we are waiting on life to happen and often missing that we are already using up precious minutes longing for the next season ahead. We associate “surprises” as unexpected, delightful things that brighten the routine of our daily life.

In childhood we have such a great lot of time. The clock appears to tick slowly.

Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, introduces us to an insightful perspective on time that I doubt we can conceptualize when we are young. Listen to these words on the subject:

“Back there at the beginning, as I see now, my life was all time and almost no memory.”

We can be full of can’t wait till…” moments. We can’t wait till we get our first bicycle, get our own room, are able to walk or ride to a friend’s house in the neighborhood unaccompanied. We can’t wait till we are tall enough to ride that great coaster at the amusement park that measures how tall we are to give us a “thumbs up” to ride. The list goes on and on. We fail to recognize or value we have already started creating a scrapbook of memories.

It doesn’t stop in adolescence. We can’t wait till we get our driver’s license, get our first car, or go to our first dance. We dream of life on our own and want to be free to make all our own choices. We are so busy wishing for tomorrow that we sometimes are shocked when high school graduation comes along. We look ahead to what seems like a long journey of things to discover, experience, acquire, and accomplish. Of course, there may be some jitters, moments of uncertainty here and there, but we rarely admit it to anyone. Not even to ourselves. Isn’t this what we have been eager to enjoy?

Our feelings become contradictory. We want to be on our own, but perhaps for the first time we take a backward glance at home and the life we have known. It’s a momentary glance very often because the road ahead still beckons us onward. It still doesn’t occur to us the road will take many turns ahead. There will be more intersections than we can imagine. We may get a hint here or there that the road will have an end when some distant aunt or uncle dies. When a grandparent dies, it will occupy just a few more moments of thought. That thought will be short-lived because they are “old” after all. The idea that it will happen to us is not on our radar screen.

Early adulthood will bring with it the awareness that we need to sort out this new season we have so much desired. Choices are not as straightforward as we had thought. Our days fill up with advanced education, getting a job, and finding a person to share the journey with us. We return to that old habit of “can’t wait til…”

We can’t wait till we find the “dream job”, move to that place we always wanted to live, have enough money to buy our own place. And it doesn’t stop there, little by little almost without our awareness life keeps happening. We meet that “perfect someone” and can’t wait till we get married and start a family of our own. Getting older is not something we give much thought to after looking forward to it throughout our childhood. When a certain pivotal age comes along, we may pause and wonder how we arrived there so soon. After all, isn’t that the age my parents are?

In Jayber Crow, we hear the main character reflecting on the discovery we only find as we see the end of the road appearing in the distance,

“And now, nearing the end, I see that my life is almost entirely memory and very little time.”

Those memories are a patchwork of sorts with some of the pieces in bright, bold colors and others in duller shades. Perhaps they become more precious to us because we alone know the intricacies of our story.

After all, as Jayber reflects:

“Telling a story is like reaching within a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told…there is also more than needs to be told, and more than anybody wants to hear.”

It is unlikely we would have believed those farther ahead of us if they had articulated this to us. We were, after all, different than they. Our life was and would be different, wouldn’t it?

And yet as we approach the end, our vision is enhanced by a wider-angle lens. We know more, but now we see there is less time ahead and we would slow the ticking if we could. We start to take stock of what we did with all the time (now memories) and assess what sort of steward we were.

Jayber understood that as he looked back and ahead:

“And so there would always be more to remember that could no longer be seen. This is one of the things I can tell you that I have learned: our life here is in some way marginal in our own doings, and our doings are marginal to the greater forces that are always at work. Our history is always returning to a little patch of weeds and saplings with an old chimney sticking up by itself.”

If only we knew back then, but maybe we were not supposed to know. Maybe we are supposed to discover that all life has meaning, that time is precious, and the end is always closer than we think.

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Photo by Pam Ecrement in Stowe, Vermont

To Ask or Not to Ask

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As I sometimes spend time with my grandchildren when their parents are out of town, I am reminded of how much I appreciate the handy GPS on my phone. There are often times when a trip to a soccer game, a music lesson, or some other activity requires I navigate to a place I have never been over roads that are not well known to me. I know that GPS is not always 100% accurate, but over the years I think it has improved and is not often wrong.

How much more difficult it was to navigate around town when the phone in our purses did not give us that assistance. My husband is very visual so he always loves to look at or have someone draw a map. Those don’t seem to work for me. I am one of those who needs landmarks and such to guide me, but that is a bit imprecise sometimes.

There is also the challenge of stopping and asking someone for directions after your preferred method fails. Whether or not the person has a clue or acts as if they do is a toss up. More than once I have gotten bad advice.

Clearly, that was the experience of Jayber in Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow. Listen to this description:

“I got a lot of bad advice. People either didn’t know the way or were guessing, or they were mistaken about where the roads were blocked. I traveled by going wrong and then going right and then going wrong again, lost most of the time.”

Those words (spoken about an earthbound trip from point A to point B) can be just as true about our journey through life. Along the way, we can be given a lot of advice. Some of it is unasked for and offered from those who appear to be “in the know”. The challenge for us is whether we accept and trust the counsel or not.

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Those offering the advice may be very sincere and sound knowledgeable. It seems like a safe bet to follow their guidance, but we may still find ourselves somewhere along “the yellow brick road” far from our destination. There may be many reasons for that. These may include that we do not ask with enough definition for them to understand what advice we may need. Other times the problem may be that the adviser may be using a lens filter from his or her own experience that distorts the information.

The truth is that the Father creates each of us uniquely. Each of us will likely take a variety of different paths to arrive at the place He has called us to. It will not be unusual for it to take some time for us to determine just what that is. Even with the best of counsel, we may be unsure of where we are on the journey.

Jayber Crow describes it this way:

“For long stretches…I walked along it seemed that I was staying in place and the world was turning backward beneath me like a big wheel. When I looked up again I would see that I had come a considerable way since I had looked the last time, and that would be a pleasure.”

Do we ask or not?

Even the most independent of us discovers at some point we want or need to ask for the advice or counsel of others. The key to remember is to choose the right companion for our journey through life. Humankind choices that prove the best are those who offer wisdom and insight as well as information. They also speak the truth even if we prefer not to hear it.

There is only One who knows the way we are to take. There is only One who never sleeps and never tires of us. There is only One who cheers us on even when we stumble. He is the same One who will be waiting for us when we finish the race and cross the finish line into eternity.

When Jesus walked the earth He sometimes appeared to be alone, but was never truly alone except when He hung on the cross. He communed with His Father who ordered His steps.

Let us never forget that when Jesus departed this earth, He promised and gave the Holy Spirit to us to be the very best companion. His counsel always lines up with the Father and Son. His advice never fails. It is we who must learn to listen patiently and then follow where He leads us.

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Spurious or Authentic?

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One of the things most of us will do in the morning is to look in the mirror even though that might not be the best we will look for the day. Despite whether our hair is askew, or our face ridged with lines from the pillow, it is who we are as we are. Without the benefit of grooming our hair, getting a shower, or any other of the things in our routine, we are more authentically who we are in those first moments before we have had our coffee.

During the pandemic and lockdowns many of us didn’t take as much time for makeup or special hair styling. We were at home and wearing a mask a great deal of the time. It’s been said that pajamas and sweatpants were purchased more often during the height of the pandemic when many were working from home. But how much time do we really examine who we see in the mirror? Are we authentic in our person?

One of the evidences of character is authenticity. Most of us recognize that quality early in a relationship because the person is genuine and consistent. Those things are not something the person needs to work on because they aren’t trying to hide who they are and that is not something we find in everyone. Far too many are trying to appear in a certain way, or present themselves in a specific way so we meet a spurious (false, fake) self.

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If we were fortunate to grow up in a family where we were nourished and accepted, it is more likely we will discover the truth of who we are including our strengths and weaknesses. In that process, we will know we are still loved, and we will tend to flourish and learn to strengthen areas of weakness and grow our strengths along the way. We will be able to see ourselves more accurately and be less impacted by what others think about us.

If our families were not quite that way, we may grow up trying to be what others would like and to please them to feel more accepted. It will be harder to identify our real strengths and even more difficult to be sure of what our weaknesses are because we fear to see them or have anyone else discover them, we will not be accepted.

Whatever you begin to believe about yourself gets reinforced by the conversations you have with that person in the mirror. You don’t recognize that that mirror might not be reflecting the truth and you might spend a lot of time repeating the lies you think might be better than the truth of who you might be.

How you begin to experience life, your relationships, and experiences has a great deal to do with how you view yourself.

“Your capacity to experience anything in life depends on how well you know your self and how much you are flourishing.”

Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy

Getting to know ourselves takes time and can feel scary to some because it can be easy to fear the worst, but getting to truly know ourselves as we are is also the most freeing thing we can be and do. It will release us from all the energy we use up trying to remember who this or that person expects us to be and that makes us more available to just be with them.

The safest and most reliable way to take that journey of discovering our true selves happens when we choose our Creator as the guide in this process. After all, He made us and knows everything about us and what is especially important is that He knows what we do not see and loves us still.

“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)

And He will always tell us the truth because He is TRUTH, but that will not be with condemnation as we might expect. It will be with love and grace and a path to change what is not who He designed us to be and his gentle guidance to help us. As we get to know his voice and spend time listening to Him and the truth He tells us, it won’t create navel gazing and selfishness but rather authenticity and a genuine capacity to love others more as He has loved you.

Learning to listen to his voice is the very best choice we can make because He is always eager to spend time with us so we can get to know Him better and discover the truth about ourselves.

“How you speak to yourself is far more important than how anyone else speaks to you. One of the reasons is because we always believe the things we say to ourselves, even when they are wrong. Even when they are not true.”

Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy

Learn to listen to that voice that is quieter and gentler than you thought. He, Jesus, will tell you the truth even if it is not always easy to hear. Tune out the voice, the father of lies, that whispers only wonderful things to you or shouts at you with condemnation. Make room in your day to hear that voice who is Truth.

“There is no substitute for a vibrant spiritual life. A rich inner life is essential to human flourishing. If we want to live life to the fullest, we need to give priority to the spiritual aspect of who we are.”

Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy

Making that choice has never been more important than it is now when the world is shouting a cacophony of lies that we are tempted to believe that will either lead us to despair or denial and both will move us farther away from light, life, and truth.

From Pause App from John Eldredge

The Crux of Character

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Our tendency to pursue success and idealize those who achieve it can sometimes result in paying less attention to the character of the person. Sometimes that may come because the tangible evidence of success is more often material things like promotions, awards, and monetary gains. More and more evidence of that other less tangible issue of character have shown up in recent years as we see persons who have reached high levels of success in all areas experience public disgrace for issues related to lack of attention to development of good character. We see it in the lives of those who are in sports, performance related fields, politics, education, and ministry.

What happens along the way that brings a sudden downfall?

The answer may vary from person to person but if we are honest about it the seeds of the downfall were planted long before the problem is often exposed. Character is something that develops over time. Many small choices and decisions and our response to experiences we encounter daily are weaving character together. Without attending to those it can be easier than we realize to excuse or deny the little weeds growing in our character that can later result humiliating exposure of what has been growing underneath our outward self.

“Every good choice strengthens one’s inner resolve to make another good choice next time, while every bad choice leaves one inclined to further bad choices down the road.”

David C. Downing from Into the Wardrobe
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Not unlike a garden, weeds in our character need to be attended to regularly or they will develop such a tenacious and broad root system that it will be difficult to remove them and may well damage the good growth in the process of trying to remove all of them. The most avid gardener will tell you keeping the garden weed free means vigilance daily. A garden free of weeds by the end of a morning can show the beginning of new weeds here and there by the next morning. Left to itself a garden will be overrun by weeds and destroy tender new seeds and plants in a very short time. Weeds in a garden are visible if we are looking for them but weeds in our character can be harder for us to see at times and far easier to ignore or discount as something that just happened because we were tired or had a “bad day.”

Do we even have a clear understanding of what character is?

“So, what is character? It’s moral excellence. But we don’t talk about morality anymore.”

Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy

Too often we look at the word “moral” and associate it with only the areas of sexual transgressions of some sort, but morality extends to a much broader definition than that. In our digital fast-paced lives we lost track of some of those key words that were central to the lives of those we admire from past decades or centuries. Morality is just one of those words seldom used or attended to. Another is the word “virtue.”

“Virtues are the building blocks of character. Think about this short list of virtues: patience, kindness, humility, gentleness, perseverance, truthfulness, courage, temperance, justice, faithfulness, and goodwill. Would your life improve if you had more of these virtues, in both number and degree?”

Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy

The answer to that question should be obvious. We would be a better spouse, child, friend, employee, believer, neighbor – better in every area if it were true. It’s evident that Paul understood what could bring that about in his letter to the Romans:

“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Romans 5:3-5 (ESV)
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We don’t start climbing in the mountains without strengthening our bodies or learning how to handle higher elevations. There are skill sets we need to develop to climb mountains safely with endurance and enjoyment. Practicing those skill sets can produce a set of skills that give us a lifetime of adventure and pleasure.

And it isn’t going to work to simply read about these things or talk about them. They need to be put into action for them to become a part of us for the climbs we dream of taking.

If small choices and decisions are building blocks to develop virtue and character, what are some tips we can use to help us in our quest for character?

Reading Matthew Kelly’s newest book, Life is Messy, gives us some ideas on that as he describes a set of tools developed in the early 1900’s. They are called “The Four Absolutes” and Kelly describes their use and outlines them as follows:

“They have been described as: a way to keep in tune with God’s will for your life; moral standards; ideals to live by; yardsticks to measure actions against; a guide for anyone trying to live a good life; and a tool for anyone trying to live intentionally.

The Four Absolutes are:

1. Honesty. Is it true or false?

2. Unselfishness. How will this affect other people?

3. Purity. Is it right or wrong?

4. Love. Is it ugly or is it beautiful?”

Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy

I think most of us would agree that these questions and this list would help us keep more weeds out of our character and move toward greater morality and a higher degree of virtue.

It could be that beyond pursuing the latest and greatest inventions, technologies, methods, and ideas, we need to consider moral standards and a pursuit of higher virtues. Because you see the very things we enjoy about “now” were created and developed by men and women who came before us whose center was founded on character and the higher virtues what built that character. The future will be brighter for each of us and all of us if we do.

Are You Grappling?

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Life has been full of twists and turns as well as more than a few upheavals in recent months (even years). Most of us have tried to grapple with it as best we can but it has not been easy. Living in the “Information Age” gives us a deluge of data to help us and yet no certainty that the data is accurate or truth that can guide our decisions. Perhaps it is harder for us because we no longer believe or accept the principle of absolute truth, so doubts assail us on every point. Maybe it is more difficult because of our own tendency to avoid or deny hard realities.

Mankind has a long history of struggling with the truth since we yielded to temptation at the very beginning and considered a lie to possibly be true. The creature who tempted us then passed his image onto us and ever since then our quest for knowledge and discernible truth has been at odds. It so marks our DNA as mortals that even as believers in Christ it is hard to totally defeat it.

The battle can rage because the truth (when accurately discerned) is often not pretty or easy and we would much prefer the denial or the fantasy we or someone else creates for us. Our moral fiber stretches this way and that so that we can grow weary of the struggle and seek to ignore it and accept what is presented without even considering its veracity. Added to that is discovering the someone we believe has not been truthful.

This quote by Aldous Huxley should give us pause. Repeatedly mankind has tried that without good results. Is it because we lost a more perfect world when Eden was marred by mankind’s choice that we keep trying to get back some of what we lost? Do we demonstrate that when we flock to fantasy movies? Is it why most of us (no matter what our age) love visiting Disney World that allows us a few hours or days in a fun-filled place and then feel the letdown of returning to the life we really are living when we return home? Do our dreams of unlimited success have its origins in that as well? Is the struggle more significant because we find so few real-life heroes to look up to?

How much do we value truth as a foundation for decision-making and living?

“Genuine moral and mental health consists not only in telling the truth to others but also in telling the truth to oneself about one’s true interests and motives.”

David C. Downing from Into the Wardrobe

And there it is – the pithy reality we are reluctant to admit – do we tell the truth to ourselves with an uncompromising look at our motives and interests as we interact with others, decisions, and every moment of our daily life?

How good it would be if we could learn this truth spoken by Theodore Roosevelt early in our lives and then have it become a habit. Instead, we are more prone to avoid or deny an unpleasant truth with excuses and long explanations about why we made that choice.

What characters in the stories we read are we most attracted to? The ones who are better than we are or the ones that remind us of ourselves? (Be careful to consider that answer.)

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first of the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis, which characters are you cheering for, and which ones are less likable? Many of you would choose Lucy as a favorite and Edmund as less so. Lucy seems to get it right and lives life more honestly and openly than Edmund from the very outset. Lewis’s skill as a writer gives us much to chew on within his characters.

“Throughout the chronicles, characters cannot experience genuine moral growth until they learn to hear the still, small voice of truth within them, ignoring the inner clamor of evasions and rationalizations.”

David C. Downing from Into the Wardrobe

If we keep tuning out that still, small voice we risk losing the ability to hear it as it grows quieter and quieter. And perhaps that is what has brought us to the messes we face in life on every side now. We may point to others and see this deficit while failing to recognize our own and how our own choices have given power to perpetuating false narratives and advancing darkness and evil. And now we look at the mess and chaos and feel it is overwhelming to consider we can affect any light into it all.

George Washington was not a perfect man, but his words remind us that to gain truth will always require us to take the pains to bring it to light. Since he spoke such words, our task has become more challenging because there are so many layers of shadow and denial, lies and delusions. Our own resolve to make honest choices based on truth has been weakened by not always owning the truth about ourselves and excusing our diminishing values. Our laziness results in us gobbling up data from more sources than ever existed even 10 years ago while not being determined to mine out the truth from the fabrications trying to hide it.

“Every good choice strengthens one’s inner resolve to make another good choice next time, while every bad choice leaves one inclined to further bad choices down the road.”

David C. Downing from Into the Wardrobe

Our character is not shaped in a moment but painstakingly sculpted moment by moment through one choice at a time.

What choice will we make today? Will we be guided by the still small voice within or our own view or version of what is right?

Our answer is significant. We are living in unprecedented times and accountability for our choices will not be avoided indefinitely.