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The Life You've Always Wanted
Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People
By John Ortberg
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2002 John Ortberg
All rights reserved.
"WE SHALL MORPH INDEED"
The Hope of Transformation
Now, with God's help, I shall become myself. Søren Kierkegaard
I could not quiet that pearly ache in my heart that I diagnosed as the cry of home. Pat Conroy
I am disappointed with myself. I am disappointed not so much with particular things I have done as with aspects of who I have become. I have a nagging sense that all is not as it should be.
Some of this disappointment is trivial. I wouldn't have minded getting a more muscular physique. I can't do basic home repairs. So far I haven't shown much financial wizardry.
Some of this disappointment is neurotic. Sometimes I am too concerned about what others think of me, even people I don't know.
Some of this disappointment, I know, is worse than trivial; it is simply the sour fruit of self-absorption. I attend a high school reunion and can't choke back the desire to stand out by looking more attractive or having achieved more impressive accomplishments than my classmates. I speak to someone with whom I want to be charming, and my words come out awkward and pedestrian. I am disappointed in my ordinariness. I want to be, in the words of Garrison Keillor, named "Sun-God, King of America, Idol of Millions, Bringer of Fire, The Great Haji, Thun-Dar the Boy Giant."
But some of this disappointment in myself runs deeper. When I look in on my children as they sleep at night, I think of the kind of father I want to be. I want to create moments of magic, I want them to remember laughing until the tears flow, I want to read to them and make the books come alive so they love to read, I want to have slow, sweet talks with them as they're getting ready to close their eyes, I want to sing them awake in the morning. I want to chase fireflies with them, teach them to play tennis, have food fights, and hold them and pray for them in a way that makes them feel cherished.
I look in on them as they sleep at night, and I remember how the day really went: I remember how they were trapped in a fight over checkers and I walked out of the room because I didn't want to spend the energy needed to teach them how to resolve conflict. I remember how my daughter spilled cherry punch at dinner and I yelled at her about being careful as if she'd revealed some deep character flaw; I yelled at her even though I spill things all the time and no one yells at me; I yelled at her — to tell the truth — simply because I'm big and she's little and I can get away with it. And then I saw that look of hurt and confusion in her eyes, and I knew there was a tiny wound on her heart that I had put there, and I wished I could have taken those sixty seconds back. I remember how at night I didn't have slow, sweet talks, but merely rushed the children to bed so I could have more time to myself. I'm disappointed.
And it's not just my life as a father. I am disappointed also for my life as a husband, friend, neighbor, and human being in general. I think of the day I was born, when I carried the gift of promise, the gift given to all babies. I think of that little baby and what might have been: the ways I might have developed mind and body and spirit, the thoughts I might have had, the joy I might have created.
I am disappointed that I still love God so little and sin so much. I always had the idea as a child that adults were pretty much the people they wanted to be. Yet the truth is, I am embarrassingly sinful. I am capable of dismaying amounts of jealousy if someone succeeds more visibly than I do. I am disappointed at my capacity to be small and petty. I cannot pray for very long without my mind drifting into a fantasy of angry revenge over some past slight I thought I had long since forgiven or some grandiose fantasy of achievement. I can convince people I'm busy and productive and yet waste large amounts of time watching television.
These are just some of the disappointments. I have other ones, darker ones, that I'm not ready to commit to paper. The truth is, even to write these words is a little misleading, because it makes me sound more sensitive to my fallenness than I really am. Sometimes, although I am aware of how far I fall short, it doesn't even bother me very much. And I am disappointed at my lack of disappointment.
Where does this disappointment come from? A common answer in our day is that it is a lack of self-esteem, a failure to accept oneself. That may be part of the answer, but it is not the whole of it, not by a long shot. The older and wiser answer is that the feeling of disappointment is not the problem, but a reflection of a deeper problem — my failure to be the person God had in mind when he created me. It is the "pearly ache" in my heart to be at home with the Father.
One of the most profound statements I have heard about the human condition was one I first encountered when I was only five years old. It was spoken by my hero, Popeye the Sailor Man. When he was frustrated or wasn't sure what to do or felt inadequate, Popeye would simply say, "I yam what I yam."
Popeye was not a sophisticated guy. He had never been in therapy and was woefully out of touch with his shadow self and his inner child. He did not have much education as far as we know. He knew who he was: a simple, sea-faring, pipe-smoking, Olive Oyl-loving sailor man, and he wouldn't pretend to be anything else. He "owned his story," as Lewis Smedes puts it. "I yam what I yam."
But I always thought there was a note of sadness in Popeye's expression. It was generally offered as an explanation of his shortcomings. It does not anticipate much growth or change. It doesn't leave him much of a shot at getting to be what he yam not. "Don't get your hopes up," he seemed to say. "Don't expect too much. I yam what I yam — and [he would add in his bleakest moments] that's all that I yam."
That is the sad cry of the human race. You have said those words, in your own way, and so have I. This is the struggle between disappointment and hope.
The word itself is apt: I am in a state of dis-appointment. I am missing the life that I was appointed by God to live — missing my calling. And I have dis-appointed God. I have removed him from the central role he longs to play in my life; I have refused to "let God be God" and have appointed myself in his place. I yam what I yam.
But that's not all that I am. I am called to become the person God had in mind when he originally designed me. This is what is behind Kierkegaard's wonderful prayer, "And now Lord, with your help I shall become myself." This book is about spiritual growth. It is about that holy and mysterious process described by the apostle Paul when he said he was "in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you." The goal of such growth is to live as if Jesus held unhindered sway over our bodies. Of course, it is still we doing the living. We are called by God to live as our uniquely created selves — our temperament, our gene pool, our history. But to grow spiritually means to live increasingly as Jesus would in our unique place — to perceive what Jesus would perceive if he looked through our eyes, to think what he would think, to feel what he would feel, and therefore to do what he would do.
The goal of this book is to help us to grow spiritually. But it is hard to write about spiritual formation in a way that captures the urgency of the subject. Too often people think about their "spiritual lives" as just one more aspect of their existence, alongside and largely separate from their "financial lives" or their "vocational lives." Periodically they may try to "get their spiritual lives together" by praying more regularly or trying to master another spiritual discipline. It is the religious equivalent of going on a diet or trying to stick to a budget.
The truth is that the term spiritual life is simply a way of referring to one's life — every moment and facet of it — from God's perspective. Another way of saying it is this: God is not interested in your "spiritual life." God is just interested in your life. He intends to redeem it.
God's Work of Art
One of the great works of art in the Western world is Michelangelo's Pietà, a marble statue of an anguished Mary holding the crucified Christ. Some years ago a fanatic nationalist rushed upon the masterpiece and began smashing it with a sledgehammer. Although the damage was significant, Vatican artists were able to restore the statue to near-perfect condition.
You were created to be a masterpiece of God. Paul writes, "For we are God's poiema" — a word that can mean God's "workmanship," or even God's "work of art." God made you to know oneness with him and with other human beings. God made you to be co-regent with him — to "fill the earth and subdue it," to "have dominion" over creation under his reign and with his help. It is the goodness of God's work in creating us that makes our fallenness so tragic. This is why my disappointment in myself runs so deep.
But God is determined to overcome the defacing of his image in us. His plan is not simply to repair most of our brokenness. He wants to make us new creatures. So the story of the human race is not just one of universal disappointment, but one of inextinguishable hope.
Inextinguishable Hope and the Gospel
Frederick Buechner once wrote that every age has produced fairy tales. Something inside us believes, or wants to believe, that the world as we know it is not the whole story. We long for the reenchantment of reality. We hope that death is not the end, that the universe is something more than an enclosed terrarium. So we keep spinning and repeating stories that hold the promise of another world.
But these stories don't simply demand that another world exists. A common feature of fairy tales is that the enchanted world is not far away. You step into a wardrobe and you're in Narnia. You walk through a forest and stumble on a cottage with seven dwarfs. This other world turns out to be far closer than you thought.
In fact, the stories that endure are the ones that most deeply touch this longing inside us. Buechner quotes J. R. R. Tolkien:
It is the mark of the good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to the child or man that hears it, when the "turn" comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art.
Furthermore, fairy tales are not just stories about the transformation of the world around us. They are usually about the transformation of the central characters: frogs becoming princes, ugly ducklings becoming swans, wooden marionettes becoming real boys. George MacDonald gives to his hero, Curdie, the magical gift of being able to tell by the touch of someone's hand what he or she is turning into.
These are all features, Buechner says, that the gospel has in common with fairy tales, with this one great difference: The gospel is true.
Jesus' announcement of the gospel is simply the announcement of the existence and availability of another dimension of existence, another world. "The kingdom of God has come near," he said. "Repent, and believe in the good news." The Good News — the word we translate "gospel" — is that this fallen world as we know it is not the whole story. There is another realm. It is as real as the chair I sit in and the book you read.
These words of Jesus announce the great "turn" in the history of the world. The lid is off the terrarium. Anytime someone heard Jesus say them — really heard them — these words would bring a catch of the breath, a beating and uplifting of the heart, and sometimes tears. They still do.
The good news is especially that this world — the kingdom of God — is closer than you think. It is available to ordinary men and women. It is available to people who have never thought of themselves as religious or spiritual. It is available to you. You can live in it — now.
This means in part that your story is the story of transformation. You will not always be as you are now; the day is coming when you will be something incomparably better — or worse.
C. S. Lewis expressed that hope this way:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.... There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
This is why Jesus came. This is what spiritual life is about. This is your calling — to become what Lewis calls an "everlasting splendor."
The Need to "Turn Aside"
God holds out the possibility of transformation. One day when the human race had not heard a word of hope for a long time, a man named Moses walked past a shrub. He had seen it before, perhaps a hundred times. Only this time it was different. This time the "turn" comes; this time the wardrobe opens into Narnia; this time the bush is on fire with the presence of God.
And Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up." Everything turned on Moses' being willing to "turn aside" — to interrupt his daily routine to pay attention to the presence of God. He didn't have to. He could have looked the other way, as many of us would. He would have just missed the Exodus, the people of Israel, his calling, the reason for his existence. He would have missed knowing God.
But he didn't miss it. He stopped. He "turned aside."
God said he wanted to begin a new community of human existence, and he wanted Moses to lead it. He wanted Moses to go to Pharaoh, the commander-in-chief of a superpower, and tell him that his vast Israelite labor force is no longer available.
But God's sense of timing seemed strange to Moses. Forty years ago maybe — forty years ago he was young and strong and the product of the greatest education the advanced civilization of Egypt could produce. Forty years ago he had powerful connections and high hopes. But now he was a nobody, an anonymous shepherd in a forgotten desert, rejected by his own people and a fugitive from the Egyptians.
"Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?" Moses asked. "Nobody knows me. I am slow of speech and slow of tongue. I am disappointed in myself. I yam what I yam."
God said to Moses what he has said to you and me and millions of other Moseses: "I know all about that. It doesn't really matter much. For I will be with you. Your guilt and your inadequacies are no longer the ultimate truth about you. You are what you are — but that's not all that you are. You are what you are, but you are not yet what you will be. I will be with you."
To which Moses responded, logically enough: "Who are you? What if I go to the people and tell them the God of our fathers has sent me, and they ask me his name — what should I tell them?"
And God answered: "I am what I am." God wanted to be known intimately, by name. This same God had already been active in human history, ready to transform anyone then or now who is willing to turn aside before a burning bush: "I am the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah; I am the God who cares for my people. I have seen the misery of my children when they thought I was not looking. I have heard their groans when they thought I was not listening. I am the God who saw you in the reeds when you were hidden, in the desert when you fled as a fugitive." For this is the God who hides in burning bushes and speaks in a still small voice.
"Get your hopes up!" God says. "You know me. I yam what I yam."
Transformation the Goal
A few years ago, the dominant interest of six-year-olds in the United States was a group of teenage superheroes called the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The shows were an unlikely hit — originally produced on a very low budget in Japan, then badly dubbed into English.
The key to the show's appeal was the characters' ability to "morph." Ordinarily they were normal adolescents, but as needed they could access a power beyond themselves to become martial arts heroes for justice. Their rallying cry in moments of crisis was "It's morphing time!" and they would be transformed with the ability to do extraordinary things.
The show became such a huge hit that the term morph has begun creeping into magazine articles and everyday conversations and may become part of our permanent vocabulary. It became a standard phrase around our house if someone was in need of serious attitude adjustment: "It's morphing time."
Excerpted from The Life You've Always Wanted by John Ortberg. Copyright © 2002 John Ortberg. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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