It’s a long busy day, after a long busy weekend, and by the middle of the afternoon my blood sugar is lagging. I know when that happens and the brain fog sets in, I’m prone to bouts of self-pity, whereby my ambitions to do nothing rise up and mock my calendar of obligations, my to-do lists, my roles and goals, and my possessions demanding my care. At my worst I’m prone to over-react when I feel this way and romanticize about selling everything and moving to the Italian Alps. I close my eyes and envision a life of hiking, skiing, and spending time with my imaginary Italian friends who own vineyards, climb in the Dolomites, and play bocce ball in the afternoons before retiring to an evening of enchanting conversation, whether about mountains, faith, or who’ll win the upcoming election ‘back home’. I close my eyes and can see the whole thing, nearly taste the wine and fresh pasta.
But on this particular day I open the rarely opened “second down on the left” drawer of my desk for some random reason (perhaps to see if there are any m&m’s for the brain fog) and I find a good thing. It’s a small Bible my late aunt gave my late dad in 1933. I open the Bible and read the inscription on the inside cover, seen here. I think, just for a few minutes, about how my aunt had no idea what she was writing when she told her brother to remember Philippians 4:6,7, about how he’d catch pneumonia numerous times during the war, damaging his lungs irreversibly. This would make walking uphill difficult in his early forties. By the time he was fifty, he needed extra oxygen to walk from the bedroom to the living room. “Don’t worry about anything” says Paul in his letter, referenced by my aunt, to my dad.
And it seemed to me that he didn’t worry. It seems, retrospectively, that I learned tons about faith, and joy, and servanthood from this man I only knew in my childhood and early youth. I didn’t learn because he preached. I learned because he could still crack jokes and ask about my day even though his lungs were filled with fluid. He would, while he was still strong enough to work as a school superintendent, dig deep shoot hoops for a few minutes before going inside and taking the oxygen. I thought he loved basketball – child that I was. Ha. It was me he loved.
I see that Bible every time I reach for chocolate (though don’t bother looking staff members – I’m abstaining just now), but for some reason this particular day, when I felt like running from everything meaningful and responsible, I opened it and read the inscription. Not the words of the inscription, but the inscription itself, and the bible, remind me of an important truth I must live into if I’m going to stay in the game ’til the end:
Your faith is never yours alone – My aunt invested in my dad. My dad invested in me. I invest in my children. And so it goes. Of course, the circle’s of influence are actually much more complex than that, as my dad’s faith was formed by hundreds of people and a long family tree with roots clear back in Sweden, among the Lutherans. So too for me; I’m shaped by pastors, parents, my sister, a very good friend or two, the house church family in the mountains, the Bethany family in Seattle, peers in ministry around the world, and more.
This, I believe, is what Paul is talking about when Paul tells Timothy to “kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you” because Paul’s rationale for such kindling is the faith which dwelt in his mom and grandma. Paul’s telling Timothy, in other words, to be mindful of the inheritance he has in the faith and not to squander it. The book of Hebrews talks about the “cloud of witnesses” which is basically the same thing.
When I’m tempted to toss my calling in the ditch and enjoy the indulgence of total irresponsibility, an entire host of faces pass before me, including my dad, but o so many more, including seminary professors, people who invite me to speak here and there, friends in the Torchbearer community, and the whole Bethany family. It’s tough to ponder trashing the investment these people made in me. Sure, if I were convinced that the faith was a lie, but mostly, my temptations aren’t intellectual. Being mindful of the clan, knowing that they don’t expect perfection of me, but are cheering me on, helps me choose obedience more often.
I’m pausing to note this here, because when I talk about this, people sometimes say, “cultures that have high conformity demands also have high suicide rates” as if they think I’m advocating a North Korean model of discipleship. All the while, the people building this straw man seem utterly blind to the hyper individualism of our culture and the “it’s my life and I’ll do what I want” mentality that’s so destructive for everyone. Our real mentors, and those who love us and have invested in us don’t expect perfection from us; they just want us to keep on the journey, including getting up after we fall.
The other complaint I sometimes here is this: “You’re fortunate! Nobody invested in me.” Really? If you’re reading this, I’m investing in you. Maybe other authors have too, or a pastor or two along the way, or a young life leader, or coach. Were there bad eggs in there? Perhaps. Were they all bad eggs? I doubt it. Look for those who represented Christ in some measure, give thanks for them, and live in the light of their investment in you. Your faith is just another example of what you didn’t build alone.
Of course, by the time you’re twenty, you should probably start thinking about WHO you’re investing in. I put that in all caps because we’re tempted think about WHAT we’re investing in. But clean water is not a person. Neither is ending malaria or human trafficking. All of us are invited to be a blessing to other people, and this requires investments, large and small, over and over again.
My dad’s Bible is sitting here next to me as I write this, and I pause to express gratitude to God for a man who, having received gifts from others, passed them on so freely to me. Now it’s your turn: Stay in the game – give thanks for those who’ve gone before you, for those who’ve invested in you, and invest in blessing others.