Today I turn 28. I am waist-deep in my late-twenties. I am growing increasingly aware of the generation gap present when I’m around the college students I work with and minister to. I find myself in more and more conversations that subtly (and not-so-subtly) inquire why I’m not yet married. I’ve had a brooding sense of stagnation, a feeling that only in recent months has begun to lift. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I went back and read the birthday essay I wrote last year and was struck by just how optimistic my outlook on the year ahead seemed to be. It was the epitome of looking at the glass half full despite my typical proclivity to the contrary. I chose to focus on what was good in my life. It was an especially difficult choice because at that time I was in the middle of some painful and uncertain circumstances. But even in the midst of those events I can remember thinking to myself, “Well, at least things can’t get any worse.” Of that I was wrong.
I will remember the year between my twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth birthdays as the most difficult and most formative year of my life up to that point. It was a year when I came face to face with my demons, my idols, and my savior, none of whom seemed to want to leave me alone. Throughout 2011 I found myself becoming increasingly distraught with disillusionment, losing any sense of direction and understanding of my life that I’d had prior. I experienced God’s discipline and his faithfulness; I found him to be true to his word in ways I’d previously only read about. He fought for me even when all I could do was wait and hope he would come through.
I wish I could say this all caught me by surprise, but the irony is I knew it was coming in one form or another. I’ve written numerous times about wanting to live a life that would make a great story, recognizing that great stories always have a character motivated to attain some sort of goal and willing to overcome any and all conflict in order to achieve it. I have desires both big and small that I’ve been moving toward for the last several years. I knew that as my goals became greater the obstacles in the way would likewise intensify. But I often thought of myself as bulletproof and the resources at my disposal as both abundant and strong. I thought I could outwit, outplan, or overpower anything in the way. I knew my weaknesses, or so I thought, and could find ways to compensate for them.
What I’ve been shown the past fifteen months is that I’m actually quite fragile. I’ve watched as my body seemed to betray me in inexplicable and ever more creative ways. Between two chronic infirmaties, one old and one new, I spent more days in doctor’s offices in 2011 than any year before it. It wasn’t only physical pain that afflicted me. I allowed my heart to be devestated over an unrealized relationship by failing to guard it at all. Even worse, I refused to take the blame for that dereliction. In the months that followed I compounded the problem when, out of a sense of humiliation and bitterness, I became very ugly toward this woman and others as well. Murphy’s Law seemed to haunt me as my home was twice burgled. My job as a property manager led to several 20-hour days over the summer. To top it all off I lost ministry donors, bringing my funding lower than it had ever been.
A straw could have broken this camel’s back, but God chose instead to use a two-by-four.
I know now what it is to have to choose to believe the Word of God is true even when it doesn’t feel like it is, when circumstances don’t seem to indicate that he’s still there. He used passages like Psalm 119:65-72 to assure me that this season had a purpose. After so many years of living out of my own strength at a breakneck pace with no margin for error I finally experienced burnout, to the extent that I needed to run away from the world for a week to try to reattain equilibrium. This year God dropped the hammer on me. He wanted my full and undivided attention, and he got it.
Last year I wrote about how excited I was to live my story in community. I wanted to share in the adventure of my life with other people. I could not have conceived of just how vital the closest people in my life would soon become. I experienced what Proverbs 17:17 and Proverbs 18:24 espouse. “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. [...] A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
It was the people willing to extend friendship to me even when I had little to offer in return who kept me sane, who helped nudge me toward hope and perspective. I had incredible roommates—Zack, Tyler, and Peter (plus Bryan, who for better or worse often seemed like a roommate). I had the men of Old Man Breakfast, particularly the two regulars Austin and Shaun. I had my friends from the Wildwood Young Professionals who week-in week-out prayed for me. And perhaps most unexpectedly I had Kathy who, at the risk of her own heart, put up with my whining for months, long before we started dating. I know my parents were in my corner the whole way too, even though it was from afar and often behind the scenes. I am truly blessed to have such great friends and family in my life.
I may be wrong, but it has seemed like God brought that challenging season to a close with the arrival of 2012. My health has improved, though not everything has quite returned to normal. My heart has healed, so much so that I’ve been willing to risk it again. Regarding the pace of my life and how I use my time God has given me very specific direction from Luke 13:6-9. I admit I’ve applied it outside of its original context, but the idea remains consistent.
And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
You see, in the midst of all this turmoil I’ve flirted with the idea of throwing in the towel, of uprooting (no pun intended) from my present life and completely starting over somewhere else, doing something else, finding new people to live life with. But Jesus the vinedresser has presuaded me not to. But he hasn’t said to stay the course and hope for the best; changes need to be made. In the parable we see the owner exhorted to allow the vinedresser to dig around the tree and lay down fertilizer. Special attention to the cause is required. We’ll make an effort to yield the growth you’re hoping for.
So, to that end I’m making changes. My ministry with college students will soon look very different than it has the last five years. I’ll soon leave my property management job (though in fairness I had planned to do that anyway). In the near future I’ll be pulling away from leadership roles in my church for a season. I’m focusing more attention to my health, both physical and spiritual. I’ve begun to pursue goals I’ve had for my writing that out of ambivalence I’ve allowed to be shelved (one of which is a new tech blog). And as you might imagine, the change I’m most expectant of is having more time to give to the woman I’m dating.
The parable of the fig tree doesn’t conclude with how these fresh efforts turn out. That’s a little scary. It could be that the fig tree still produced nothing, or it could be that it exploded with fruit. Maybe uprooting the tree is the right idea, but maybe not. Knowing ahead of time the outcome of the undertaking isn’t the point. The original meaning was to offer the Jews another chance to enter into what God was doing through the ministry of Jesus. I’m giving my present course another chance as well while making specifc changes to aid in laying hold of the desires of my heart. I’m not sure what will come of that decision. It’s another faith adventure, another chance to trust God. That’s life the only way I want to live it. I still want to live a great story, now more than ever. It would be a shame to have gone through so much only to give up now.