One of the most glorious parts of growing up in the 90’s was the original—and phenomenal—Oregon Trail video game. Designed to instruct us about the realities of 19th century pioneer life, it somehow made its way into gradeschool curriculum. We didn’t just learn about the probability of defeat in caulking and floating a wagon across a raging river, nor the party-pooping and meat-spoiling results of having too much fun hunting, nor that the mysterious and nearly unpronounceable thing called dysentery could wipe out a whole clan. We also learned to face mortality, particularly as we were given the convenient choice of what to write on our own epitaph.
Here lies Zach.
Hint: don’t caulk the wagon and float it.
Years later, I find myself face to face with mortality again; this time a bit more serious. To wrestle with the passing of a loved one is to dry-swallow the realities of our own life and death. As a minister remarked at my mom’s funeral, “For all of us life is one long hallway, and there is only one exit door at the end.” So comes the old question again, what would I have written on my epitaph? Rather, what does my life now suggest should be etched there? Some desires quickly come to mind:
superb Christian – exemplary husband – unrivaled father – biographied missionary – praiseworthy pastor – distinguished scholar – prolific author – saved by works
Yet if I’m honest, I feel like an old man in a 31 year-old’s body. I’m broken, tired, and failed. I thought this stage in life was about coming into your own, claiming your dreams, and showing your competency. And even though those idealistic and adrenaline-ripened buds of young manhood are indeed sprouting, I’m still yet more intimately acquainted with my limitations and desperations. Were internal realities to be reflected on my epitaph, I think they would read something a bit more like this:
normal Christian – rollercoaster husband – befuddled father – timid missionary – needy pastor – prideful scholar – forgettable author – saved by grace
And if I’m reading Elyse Fitzpatrick right, or the apostle Paul, I’m starting to think I wouldn’t want it written any other way:
Not unlike most other Bible characters, Paul’s story isn’t one of great worldly success. He would never have made the cover of People magazine. In his sufferings and failures, Paul was taught the value of weakness by the Lord himself…
When Paul lists his ministry credentials, they don’t include what we would call his “accomplishments”. No, instead he boasts about his weakness in things such as afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger (2 Cor. 6:4-5). Have you ever wondered if there was something lacking in Paul’s interpersonal communication skills? Maybe he wasn’t trying hard enough with people; maybe he needed a book on how to have his best life now. Why would he have so much trouble if he was really serving the Lord?
…Paul was weak and subject to trials, just like us. The obvious difference between Paul and us is that Paul bragged about his weakness, and we try to hide it. We militate against it.
…after receiving a surpassingly great revelation from God, Paul was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him from becoming conceited about what he had seen. Imagine this: here is the great apostle who had immense spiritual gifts, who prayed prayers that serve as a model for us today, yet, the Lord refused to remove the thorn. Think again: the Lord refused to remove that thorn even though Paul prayed for its removal three times. Although we don’t know what the thorn was, we do know that it was substantial. It’s obvious that Paul was familiar with real suffering, but this thorn was far worse. This thorn was ordained by God to keep Paul humble, dependent, and weak.
…”But [the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Paul understood that personal success and strength were barriers to his experience of God’s grace. God’s sustaining power is seen and developed in our weakness and failure. It is never developed anywhere else. The power of Christ flows through [those] who boast in and embrace their personal weakness, not on those who think they don’t need it…
Whether or not we like it, whether or not we understand it, it is kind of the Lord to demolish our confidence in our own strength, abilities, and cherished methods. True, it doesn’t feel kind at the time….Yet, it is a kindness when he strips us of self-reliance, because it is there, in our emptiness and brokenness, that we experience the privilege of his sustaining grace. It is only when we arrive at that dreaded place of weakness that we discover the surpassing power of Christ. It is only when we are finally freed from those oh-so-constricting straightjackets of self-righteousness that we are able to experience the true comfort and warmth of the robes of his righteousness (excerpt from Chapter Nine, “Weak Parents and Their Strong Savior”).
So maybe it’s not so bad to be a 31 year-old old man. Broken enough to cling. Tired enough to trust. Failed enough to cease striving and know that he is God. Or, in the richer words of Foy Vance,
Well the road is wide,
and waters run on either side,
and my shadow went with fading light,
stretching out towards the night.
‘Cause the Sun is low,
and I yet have still so far to go,
my lonely heart is beating so,
tired of the wonder.
But there’s a sign ahead,
though I think it’s the same one again,
and I’m thinking ’bout my only friend,
and so I find my way home.
When I need to get home,
you’re my guiding light.
Well the air is cold,
and yonder lies my sleeping soul,
by the branches broke like bones,
this weakened tree no longer holds.
But the night is still,
and I have not yet lost my will,
oh and I will keep on moving ’till,
’till I find my way home.
When I need to get home,
you’re my guiding light.