Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Most Important Question of Your Life

I put my head close to the window to catch some of the breeze as the bus roared through the tree lined neighbourhood. It'd been a good field trip today, but I still felt disconnected, somehow alone despite the presence of my class. I glanced over at my students.

“Are you guys okay?”

“Yup. yup. Are we almost home, Steve?” Josh asked, rubbing his head.

“Almost home, buddy. Another ten minutes.”

Despite the breeze from the open window, I could feel the sweat sliding down my stomach under my shirt. The bus rolled along the Ottawa River, and for a minute I imagined myself out on the choppy blue water that glistened in the afternoon sunlight. There was something about water that always made my stomach catch, especially on days like today, when the mercury pushed near to 35 degrees, the humidity so thick you felt as though you were bathing in a swamp.

The bus ground to a halt and we pulled over to the curb. Two seniors slowly climbed aboard. Behind them, I noticed an expensive looking nursing home. Built in Victorian style, albeit new, the red brick and white porticoes seemed strangely out of place with the lawn furniture randomly scattered along the wide grassy lawn that stretched to the edge of the river.
As the bus trembled and pulled away, I watched the seniors milling about the lawn until the place was out of sight. I turned back into the bus. It was filled mostly with high school and college students, the wires from their Ipods and MP3 players drooping from the ears, their faces plugged into the impassive walls of late adolescence.

“Hey, Steve, are we almost home?” Josh said.

“Almost home, Josh.”

He started rubbing his head again, and I gently moved his hands back to his lap. Almost home, I thought. But what’s home? I let the question simmer as I checked my students again. A few minutes later we pulled up to the school, and I let my thoughts be carried away by the smiles and buzz of the last week of school. When they’d left, I could feel the emotions creaking below the surface, and I struggled to keep them there as I packed up my things and said my good byes for the day.

I headed out of the school lot, forcing my gaze to the road ahead, unable to stop thinking about the questions Josh had inadvertently raised. I was thinking about home, about what that entailed, about the span of life between student and senior. Enmeshed in all of that was another, more powerful question, and in the wake of my own transitions, a far more important one. It was a question I’d been asking myself for many years, in various forms, although I hadn’t identified it as such. In the last six months however, it’d become clear that it was a question I needed to answer. A question that we all needed to answer.

I just wasn’t sure how.

I was a college student when I first started learning about people in the sixties, about the hippies going off to “find themselves”, and I remember thinking it was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. I remember my dad and others of his generation mocking their ‘wealth driven’ insouciance as ungrateful nonsense. They would say things like:

“Their parents paid for their college education through hard work, and the only thing they learned is that they don’t know who they are?!”

Back then, I agreed with them. I was a hardworking, straight laced Christian zealot with little time for puff pastry philosophy. I would shake my head at the mere mention of such notions. My thinking was simple: Get a job, get a family and most important, get yourself right with God. At the time I was a full time student and a full time pastor, with hard driving and simplistic notions about the linear nature of life. The golden bowl at the end of the rainbow – retirement, family, success, godliness – did not require a treasure map or a motorcycle.

As the years passed however, I began to notice holes in my theory of simplicity. For one thing, there was nothing simple about human nature, about the flaws in even the best of people. I failed people, and people failed me, on a regular basis. And the structure of my faith was not an airtight compartment either. Anyone with any intellectual curiosity at all found questions, seemingly unanswerable questions that didn’t fit into my neat little package of the ‘dream life.’ And when my well laid plans started to break and boil and fizz into nothing, I was left clinging to an empty container of cliches and shallow propaganda. There’s no program or rehab for broken dreams, and for the next few years I wandered in a wasteland of recovery. I was attempting, without realizing it, to ‘find myself.’ To redefine who I was. Not only in regards to my faith, but my ideals and values, my goals and dreams, the internal makeup that made each of us unique. Beyond all of that however, was an even deeper question than learning who I was.

There’s a breeze tonight, blowing along the trees outside my apartment, the light from my balcony casting shadows along the branches that sway and dip in the wind. From my chair I can imagine myself, as I sometimes do, sitting high in the treetops somewhere in the jungle, listening to the night calls of the wildlife, the hum of insects, the croaking amphibians along the placidly moving water down below. Despite the rough neighbourhood, despite the unaesthetic nature of it all, I will be sad to leave this apartment. Especially this balcony, where I’ve spent so many nights talking to God and asking Him questions and dwelling upon the mystery, the wonderful, sad, joyous mystery of it all.

And tonight, the question raises its head until I can no longer ignore it.

Why am I?

Why do I exist? Why am I here? A thousand questions bleed from the first. Some I can answer, most I can not. It is both the joy and frustration of following after God the paradox of simplicity and complexity. Of understanding and mystery. But understanding why we exist is the most important question we will ever ask. I am thinking back over my own life, and it comes that there has been joy and pain and difficulty and success, for stretches more pain than anything. Above all there is a sense of wandering, as if I can see myself struggling to find the 'correct' road to walk along, the narrow path we read about in Scripture. In so many ways it is a question filled with heartache, and yet I feel a strange sense of relief tonight, as if just asking the question is enough. I know that isn’t true, of course, but still…

I roll my shoulders and take a long pull from my coffee. The lawn chair creaks as I lean back. The building is quiet tonight, but for the occasional yell from the street I am bathed in silence. I wonder if my wandering days are over now that I have pinpointed the one question that frames my life. That as long as I work to define why I exist, I will finally enjoy the contentment and security of unambivalent longing. But even as I frame the question I know the answer.

Nothing will ever be sure. My life will never be safe. The road I walk will never be even… And that is how it should be.

There is great hope and belief in our fast paced culture that work and money and security will answer the call of our deepest longing. And great evidence that it will never happen. Yet still we persist in our unending pursuit of the gold at the end of the rainbow, without ever answering the question that pierces every human heart. We are afraid, as we should be, that we will not like the answer. That we will not get an answer. That God will be a greater mystery than we can perceive. That today will matter more than tomorrow. Yet it is in the midst of our questions we find the narrow path we so desperately seek.

But it isn't enough to search for 'who' we are or to 'find ourself'. To do that without defining the context of why we exist creates a life destined to be shaped by others. It is how a generation of hippies can twenty years later be competing to buy a bigger house or a bigger SUV. Knowledge of self, guided only by self, can lead only to selfishness.

Maybe that's why God asks us not 'who' but 'why'. Why are we here? Why do we exist? There are so many layers and distractions in our world that keep us from asking the raw questions of our life that truly matter. The ones that define us.

Especially this one...

Why am I?

I move to the edge of the balcony, enjoying the breeze against my face as I watch the trees dance in front of me. The question carries both clarity and anxiety, and I whisper a short prayer even as I'm reassured by the One I seek.

These days, I am better at looking at the gifts I have been given, better at seeing the flaws in both my character and personality. And within them, better at determining why I am here. The reason I am leaving my job, my apartment, and my life as I know it, is to work towards the things I believe God has created me to become. The reason why I am.

It is tempting to look at our lives with regret, to see the pain and failure and feel somehow that we have missed our chance, that we have missed out on what we were supposed to do, that the reason we exist… is no longer valid. But maybe that isn’t true. Maybe our reason for life is as fluid and dynamic as life itself. So much of our culture pushes us towards the end, when so much in Scripture pushes us to the present. To now. Maybe we need to stop defining our life by our past, and look at where we are upon the road. The story of the Bible is a narrative between God and his people. It is the story of our relationship with Him. Sometimes it is beautiful, often times it is ugly, but throughout it God always meets His people where ever they happen to be. He does not ask them to walk further, but merely to look up. Maybe it is within the simple choice to walk and to seek, to look up, where we will find our answer.

I remember the things that have caused change in my life, significant events that made me think or rethink my situation and pushed me in a new direction. I have staggered down uneven hills and drifted into deserts, away from the good things He had for me. I have chosen mountain steppes and the barren winter roads, because in the end it was my choice. But when held together, I can see the gentle hand of a loving God who has guided me through even the roughest of times. And I can hear His voice asking me the one probing, gentle question that defines us all.

The journey through this crazy world is not always sure. But so long as we seek the One who made us, so long as we try to answer the one question that asks more than any other, I am confident we will find our way, and that our feet will walk upon the path we were meant to take, wherever that is.

May God grant us the courage to ask the toughest of all questions, to remember that our lives begin today, and to wholly pursue that which we were given to do.