I was recently talking to a guy about what he does for a living. He was an MBA and he explained to me that he had a model program that recruited interns from Yale University to teach in the inner city of Louisville, Kentucky during the summers when they were in college and for a couple years after they graduate.
I was a little incredulous and I asked him how he fell into that calling. He told me that for the first fifteen years of adulthood “I was making a pile but I wasn’t making a difference.”
I can almost guarantee you that at some point in your adult life, you will find yourself restless. It turns out economic security won’t shield you from that restlessness. It turns out, terrific success won’t shield you from that restlessness.
One of my fraternity brothers called me at dawn. He’d been out walking the beach because he couldn’t sleep. He had a couple three different bigger issues that had long bothered him. And all night he’d been dreaming about them. Finally, he just got out of bed and started walking under the great canopy of the stars.
I asked him what he saw?
“Visions of the future, I guess. Snapshots of me actually fixing some things. Different images of things that I’ve thought about many times over the years.
“What do you think they mean?” he asked me.
“I think they mean that God is not done with you yet.” I replied.
The story of the life of Jesus is told in retrospect so it reads like it was foreordained. These are literary techniques that focus our attention. So you would be forgiven for thinking that Jesus had a qualitatively clearer direction to his life than you do in yours.
I doubt it.
The gospels were written by and for Roman audiences and Romans were always looking for their “destiny”, their fate. They believed that their lives were all pre-ordained by the gods and that we could theoretically grasp what that fate is if only we could interpret the stars above us. And they tended to tell the story of the life of Jesus as though he was a guy whose life unresolved the riddle of his own destiny.
Today, we no longer think like that. Today, we would say something like “Jesus lived in an intrinsically more meaningful spiritual life”.
But Jesus remains a compelling spiritual figure. He follows the divine whisper in his life in a way that is inspiring.
So in the bible, when Jesus is 30 years old, he goes to be baptized by John the Baptist, like hundreds and hundreds of other people that were looking for a religious renewal to throw off the hated Roman occupation of the land and their lives.
He goes into the water, comes up. And the skies open up, a dove descends from the heavens and a voice comes from God saying, “This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” This is true for all of us, but it is told here to single Jesus out as ‘anointed’.
A little later on, Jesus is driven into the wilderness by a desire to understand what God wants for him to do with his life. So he decides to fast and pray. And this fast is heroic. We are told that he fasts for 40 days, a symbolic number. He fasts one day for every year that the Israelites were wandering in the desert, trying to figure out where the Promised Land was. Jesus needs to figure out where the Promised Land is in his life.
And Jesus is tempted. Jesus sees the Devil. I once stayed at the Trappist monastery near Jerusalem and I asked the Abbot how long you had to fast to see God. He had a wry smile and assured me that if you fast for 3-5 days you “will see God. You will see a lot of things.”
He wasn’t recommending it as a technique. But people have fasted from time immemorial to open themselves to God and make a pledge, a vow. The Gospel of Mark tells us that the Angels ministered to Jesus during his fast. The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus rebuked the temptations of Satan and Jesus returned to his home “in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14)
Jesus returns to his hometown. In the synagogue, he opens the book of Isaiah in his hometown of Nazareth and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those that are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). “Today”, Jesus said, “These words are fulfilled in your midst”.
Then we get eighteen chapters of all the things that Jesus taught his disciples about God.
At the end of that teaching, we have this ominous declaration. “Then Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem”. This is where he is headed. This is where his destiny lies.
He has a confrontation with the authorities. Makes a big scene in the temple. It got the attention of the Roman centurion. Everybody knew that the Roman soldiers had the single job of keeping the peace. Everybody knew Everybody He has a pretty good idea where this is headed.
Like all of us, he is conflicted. He goes to the Garden of Gethsemane, a beautiful spot right outside the city walls of Jerusalem. There he withdraws to pray. He asks the disciples to pray with him. And they would. But like most of us, they fall asleep instead.
Jesus prays, “Let this cup pass from me”. If this is my destiny, so to speak, I don’t want it.
But then, as with so many times in his life, he prays another prayer. “Not my will, but Yours O God”.
He is arrested. He is flogged. Mocked. He is crucified. And then he is dying on the cross. His last words are these. “Into Your hands O God, I commend my Spirit.”
The Gospel of Mark says that a Roman soldier was watching all of this happen and he watched Jesus actually die. After it was over the Roman soldier said out loud, “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).
That may be the point, in retrospect. It is what you say after you know the end of the story. But I doubt it was all that obvious at the time. It sure isn’t in our lives. We have to inch forward, in ambiguous circumstances, led by faith and hope far more than assurance. I doubt it was any less confusing for the man from Galilee.
Jesus followed the voice to live fully in the spiritual dimension. Quite in spite of the consequences, on his one trip through this brief life, he found something worth dying for. And reading the story, we are pretty sure that he stumbled on a more abundant way of living.
That is my hope for you too.
And where is the voice calling you? The voices of security, responsibility, conformity to a model of success you were taught… These voices are loud enough all around you.
The voices of your deeper family values and how your people have always done things. Those voices are sometimes almost deafeningly loud.
But the imaginative part of you when you are doing what is most deeply fulfilling about your life. The part of you that has felt the most profoundly alive. The part that beckons you to an adventure like recess has just begun.
Where is that voice calling you right now? I hope you follow that voice towards what is really real for you. As Cormack McCarthy put it. “May you be led forward by the lingering scent of the divine.”