What really matters?

There are a lot of things that come with age. The stereotypical ones are usually about physical decline: reading glasses and hearing aids, and more visits to the doctor for a wider variety of reasons. And there’s the frustration of not being able to do things we once took for granted, such as easily coming up with the names of people and places we’re supposed to know (the information’s not gone, just harder to get to). We call them “senior moments” and wryly laugh them off.

But with age also comes experience — and hopefully, the perspective that experience should bring. Some of the hopes and dreams of our younger years may have come to fruition, but many have not. To the extent that we cling to our earlier ideas of what we were “supposed” to have accomplished, we may feel the sting of disappointment or failure. Alternatively, though, our expectations may also mature. We have a better sense of what’s realistic, how life works, and what truly matters.

We’ve seen how the apostle James chides his readers with their failure to live in accordance with what they say they believe: Imagine someone looking in a mirror before they leave the house, and seeing they’ve got a bit of spinach stuck between their teeth — but they just turn away from their reflection and leave it there. Who does that? Similarly, when we read our Bibles or hear a sermon, we may have that nagging sense of conviction that we need to change our habits or behaviors. But does it stop there? Does conviction become an end in itself?

That’s like leaving the house with spinach in our teeth.

What do we see when we look into the mirror of Scripture? What changes about our perspective and priorities?

Speaking personally: my perspective on vocation has shifted over the years. When I was younger, it was hard not to obsess over the things I needed to do in order to “succeed” as a professor. I sought opportunities to publish, for example, not because I had some burning sense that my words would change the world, but because I needed to publish to achieve tenure and promotion. That’s not to say, of course, that my writing was devoid of a sense of mission. But truth be told, there were pieces whose primary purpose was to add a line to my publication list.

It’s what I had to do in order to belong, to feel like I had a place.

It’s still a “publish or perish” environment, but I no longer worry about perishing. I wish I could say that this is due to my greater wisdom and maturity. Perhaps. But the reality is that I’m a tenured faculty member who’s been teaching here for over three decades — something drastic would have to happen for me to be let go (though haven’t the last two years been “drastic” enough?).

Still: I do think differently now, whether it’s from wisdom or the privilege of having some freedom from my earlier anxieties. I still think about the future, but it’s no longer about striving toward professional success, toward some future vision that’s about me. And unless I’m deluding myself, I have few illusions about being “remembered” after I’ve left this life for the arms of Jesus.

No: the future is not about my future, but God’s future and that of his people. It’s about my students and what they will do to further the kingdom of heaven — not merely because I’ve imparted information to them, but because I’ve had the privilege to speak into their lives.

And my writing? I spend hundreds and hundreds of hours each year sitting at my computer, churning out words. What makes it all worth it? I’ve long since given up the idea of measuring “impact” by the prestige of the publisher, the number of copies sold, or the number of likes and follows. I am now content with this: if anything I write, from a blog to a book, helps one person be a better follower of Christ, to be more faithful in bringing moments of shalom to a world that so desperately needs it, then it was worth the time to get the words right.

Of course, sometimes only God would know.

But I expect that one day he’ll tell me.