Of Death & Life

After attending the funeral of an extended family member this week, I was once again reminded of the short span of my own life. The funeral was more than a recognition of the reality of death, though, and more than a celebration of a life well lived: it was also a celebration of a sure hope beyond the grave. As the apostle Paul said: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I found a little graveyard

The grass grown up so high

On beds of now-forgotten folk

Whose names are scrubbed by Time

A few more days

A few more breaths

And I will join them here

And grass will grow

And time erase –

My name will disappear

But if your grandkids find me there

There’s no need for dismay

My Saviour broke the power of death

And I’ll be Home to stay

I Can’t Be Anything I Want To Be (And That’s Okay)

If you believe, you can achieve.

Evidently, if you believe hard enough and long enough, you can even fly – that’s what I heard on the radio. Metaphorically, this is encouraging. Practically, it’s still annoyingly impossible, no matter how strongly I imagine myself butterflying above the ground. The kind of advice that tells us we can be anything we want to be is meant to be inspiring, to encourage us to try difficult things, and help us push through to reach our goals even when it’s hard. The slogans sound so great and fit so well in songs and movies and books and memes and posters that it’s easy to overlook that one pesky little drawback of how none of them are true.

It’s really no secret: I can’t be anything I want to be. I will never be five again or win a beauty pageant. Never know what it feels like to be a dolphin. Never swing from webbing in New York like Spider-Man. There’s actually an astonishing number of things I can never be, when it comes right down to brass tacks (and including brass tacks). But that’s not the point, is it? These sayings were never meant to encourage us to become dolphins – they were meant to inspire achievement, to spur us on to greatness. And yet, I am fully aware that no matter how hard and long and deeply I believe, I will never have the voice of Frank Sinatra or handle a soccer ball like Messi. At the risk of being a cultural heretic, I say clearly: I have limitations. I know we’re not supposed to speak of such things. If we do, we’re meant to speak only of breaking them. But as humans, we have limitations that aren’t going away. Even Usain Bolt can’t run as fast as a common warthog. As for me, my eyes aren’t fit for a career as an astronaut, but I don’t feel the loss very often. My grasp of physics rules me out of making any discoveries like Einstein’s, but I’m not losing sleep over it. We’ll get along alright without another Messi or Sinatra, too, which is good news for people like me who are not on track for achieving the massive greatness we’re told to set our sights on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing at all against massive greatness. There are a few people who really do great things that really deserve that level of recognition. There are times when a determination to break barriers has had wonderful results and changed the course of history for the better. But I reject the idea that aiming for impossible goals and achieving them anyway is the only path to a successful and fulfilling life. Some limitations can and should be broken, but as humans we will always have a long list under “can’t”. Is that really so bad? Even if our limitations keep us from recognised greatness, none of them can keep us from what is more important: loving God and others. I don’t have to be an astronaut to know the God who made the stars. I don’t have to be Einstein to love my neighbour as myself. I don’t have to be Messi to kick the soccer ball with my son, or Sinatra to sing show tunes with my daughter. I don’t have to be as fast as a warthog to visit someone in pain. My limitations might frame my life in a way that makes it seem quite small and ordinary, but remember: The greatest masterpiece in the world is a normal looking woman named Mona Lisa, half-smiling out of a surprisingly small frame. I’m not worried about how big or small the frame around my own life is: I’m much more interested in making sure I will live well inside it.

The Freedom In Forgetting

The elephants at Belfast Zoo were rocking. As soon as we turned the corner and saw them, we had to laugh. They looked like they were grooving to their favourite tunes on invisible headphones, and we started trying to figure out what song could make elephants dance like that. The game stopped, though, when we read the sign: these elephants had been rescued from captivity and hard labour. They had spent years working in logging camps and circuses, and had gotten used to being chained up whenever they were not working. The rocking had nothing to do with dance music: It was a coping mechanism, because for much of their lives, they couldn’t do anything else.

The backstory explained a lot, except this: The chains are gone now. The elephants live in a generous enclosure at Belfast Zoo, with plenty of room to move around and do whatever it is that pachyderms like to do best. And yet they rock in place, just as stationary as if the chains still held them. Over time, the chains had achieved more than their purpose of holding the elephant’s legs. They had somehow reached much deeper, locking their minds in captivity as well. And we all know that elephants never forget. Even after many years of relative freedom, the massive animals still live in self-imposed bondage, restricted only by their own habits. Their prison came with them in their heads, even though the actual chains on their legs were broken long ago.

I shouldn’t be too hard on the elephants, though. How many times have I, like them, been stuck in the grip of events long past? How often does my own mind rock in the ruts of past tragedies, broken relationships, personal mistakes and failures? Sometimes, rocking in my invisible chains is more comfortable than exploring unknown freedoms. But it won’t get me anywhere. I can catch myself thinking that a change in the weather is all I need to fix whatever is wrong in my life – a better environment, a different location, the removal of difficult people, the removal of the chains I’m tired of wearing. But the elephants teach me that I actually need much more than just the external freedom of happy circumstances. Even if I somehow get everything I want, I won’t be able to enjoy the freedom of it if I’m living under the constant weight of guilt, regret, sorrow, and broken habits from the past. The fact is, people living in the very best of circumstances can still shuffle through life in invisible chains that are heavy enough to crush them. Yet hope remains: even though we invented the chains when we ran away from him, our Creator has crafted the key. At the cost of his own life, he has shattered the powerful chains of the broken past and won for us the incredible freedom of being able to forget the past knowing that all that is wrong can be forgiven and all that is broken can be restored. The question for me, and for us, is simple: will I step into the wild, unpredictable freedom of trusting and following my Liberator, or stay in the stationary, steadily rocking comfort of my own memory?

The apostle Paul had the right idea:

“…one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)

I Lost My Independence. And I’m Happy About It.

I lost my freedom and independence on the 9th of May, 2004. It was a sunny day in Virginia, and we were celebrating: Jessica wore a beautiful white dress and we hired tuxedos, a horse drawn carriage, and a chocolate fountain for the occasion. The pastor who gave the message told us that in one sense, the day marked a death. Not a physical death, but a death of our two independent lives which were now being joined together to create something new. He was right. In the fourteen years since that day, neither of us have had the freedom and independence we enjoyed before. In fact, over the years we’ve found three highly effective ways to limit our independence even further: their names are Daniel, David and Rebekah.

These days, people talk as if any situation that limits our options is a prison to be avoided at all costs. Absolute freedom to do as we jolly well please whenever we jolly well please to do it is the happiest situation any human can find themselves in, according to the chattering heads on the telly. Now, I’ve got nothing against freedom or options or any of that, but I’m here to say that the deepest and happiest experiences of my life have come as a direct result of choices to willingly give up my freedoms and limit my options. For example, the choice to commit myself for the rest of my life to one women was certainly limiting. There are billions of women in the world who are now off limits for me, billions of possible options which I now have no freedom to choose. Yet it is precisely this limitation which has given me a new kind of freedom that I never could have had as long as I kept my billions of options open: I now have the freedom to love one person with my whole heart – no reservations, no conditions, no hesitation. And unlike the billion options, which remain static and shallow, my freedom to love this one woman actually deepens and expands with time as we learn and grow together.

Similarly, our three independence-limiting offspring make many choices difficult or impossible. It’s hard to go to the cinema as a couple these days, and school schedules now shape our life in ways we thought we had left behind with childhood. We can’t travel to Paris on a whim or even go to the park without needing booster seats. But these lost opportunities are the walls surrounding a fruitful garden growing with a bounty of happiness. The walls may limit the size of my world, but I don’t mind. Many of the most delicious fruits need time and security to grow. These fruits don’t do well in the wild country where a million options rove freely, trampling anything that begins to take root. The wild country is a desert of rolling tumbleweed-people, too afraid to settle down to anything because there might possibly be something better over the next hill. No thank you. I’m happy to shut those noisy options outside and stay in my place where I can watch our sacrifices of time, effort, money, and lost opportunities grow into healthy, laughing people who constantly steal my heart and then fill it up until it bursts with pride and delight.

And it’s not just the family. I chose a job, and gave up the option of many other careers. We bought a house, and tied ourselves down to one little piece of land sprouting weeds and flowers. Yet with all these limitations, I’m not afflicted by the fear of missing out. After all, what’s the point of having thousands of choices unless we actually use them to choose something? I say with Chesterton; “leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself.” The freedom of having open options was never meant to be a goal in itself. Trying to keep this sort of freedom is like trying to keep your plate empty at a feast because you don’t have room to try everything. Life is a feast, and our time is limited even if our options are many.

As for me, I’d give up every choice in the world to see the smiles I saw at breakfast this morning.