2022 was the year of my midlife crisis. And it was a really wonderful experience. I wish that I could have done it like 10 years earlier, but I don't think that I could have—all things have to come in their own time. And it was a wonderful experience: I didn't buy a sports car. Not that I would mind having one. I didn't have an affair. No tummy tuck or other kind of plastic surgery or any kind of improvements like that. I made it through intact, which is a good thing. I think midlife crises get poked fun at a lot for being, you know, men trying to hold onto their masculinity and virility and deny the fact that they're going bald, and you know, dealing with the fact that they don't feel as cool and relevant as they used to.
But I don't think that's what a midlife crisis is about at all. One of my companions through this crisis was the poet Rilke who once wrote, you must not understand life. “You must not understand life, and then it will become a celebration.” Now, midlife crisis, I think, is about a shift in perspective: letting go of everything that you think you were supposed to know about life and letting life be just what it's supposed to be. There were a lot of lessons that I learned over the course of this experience, but the one I want to share with you this morning is that my midlife crisis helped me realize that I will no longer put all of my effort and energy into being a successful person. Instead, I'm just going to do my very best to be myself in whatever circumstances I happen to find myself in. Charles de Foucault (who was canonized as a saint last year in the midst of my midlife crisis) once said, “I want to preach the gospel with my life.” At the end of my midlife crisis, I hope that I can do something similar.
And we can't preach the gospel with our lives if we're expending all our resources on trying to be some sort of a big success. Because the experience of midlife, I am finding through work and through family commitments and through aging and through the disillusionment of our youth, it shows us definitively that life is not success. That's not what life is. Life is limitation. And that's okay. We cannot do it all. We cannot have it all. We must make choices. And success itself can be sort of like a drug or like an evil charm, right? It makes us feel really good temporarily, but it never really deeply satisfies us. It makes us seem cool and enviable to others. But beneath all that fame and esteem, there is often a spiritually ravaged soul, desperate for something more real. But whatever road you take to get there to that something more real, you are going to have to pass through the reality of failure.
And so, I guess I'm hoping that a little bit of my acceptance of myself as I am, the reality of failure, is going to rub off on other people, the people I pastor to, and the people I love. You do not need to be a success to be a part of this church. You do not need to be a success to be loved. You do not need to be a success to be called and loved by God. In fact, sometimes success just gets in the way with all of its competition and all of its pretensions. Far better than success, for the deep fulfillment of your soul, are things like honesty, right? Openness, vulnerability, availability to other people, and compassion. And these are traits and virtues that are best forged when we stumble, when we fall down, when we fail. That is when we deepen as human beings. When we succeed, we build walls around ourselves, narrow walls. But when we fail, we go deep. Why are we so afraid of failure? Why are we so turned off by limitation?
I think it's the fear of failure that causes us to define success so narrowly and so claustrophobically that success, even when we experience it, doesn't satisfy us. We're all convinced that we'll be happy once we're truly successful, instead of simply realizing just this basic and intuitive truth: Being happy in and of itself is a success! We've got it all backwards. And so we hold ourselves back from ourselves. We hold ourselves back from the world, and instead we try to project success. We want to look good. And we're not just trying to fool others. We're not just trying to fool ourselves. We're trying to fool life itself. And it never works. So, eventually, there's a crisis.
And with that, I turn to our text this morning. This is the second servant song from the prophet Isaiah. Traditionally, we Christians interpret this as being a prophecy of Christ. And as you read it, I think it's obvious why our Jewish friends and neighbors and loved ones continue to interpret the suffering servant to be Israel itself. And that's clear in the text. “And he said to me, you are my servant, Israel.” And the biblical scholars go even further back than that. And they say even “Israel” is added to the text later. And that this prophecy goes way back and was probably originally about some historical king or other personage that's sort of lost to us. And there's all these theories about who it is. None of that really matters, who specifically it is about, because it illustrates a theme within scripture—something that I think God is trying to highlight for us: This idea of somebody being called from the very beginning of their life. It's throughout the prophets. It's in the Psalms. “The Lord called me before I was born while I was in my mother's womb. He named me.” Right? This sense of destiny that we sometimes feel when we are young and energetic, that we have been called for great things. And we go out there and we try to seize it, make it all happen, make it all work. But then comes the crisis. “But I said, I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Spinning wheels. It's not working out. The great dreams that I had aren't all coming together in exactly the way that I thought they would.
But the servant allows himself to have the crisis and to turn to God and to say, “Hey, what is going on here? Why am I suffering? Why isn't this working?” And in that moment, that moment of crisis, God chooses to reframe the whole calling. And now listen to what God says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel. I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” The original calling was too small, it was too focused on myself, on yourself, on what we wanted. And in the crisis, God shifts the perspective. Stop trying to understand life. Let life be a celebration. It's not just for you, it's for everyone. This is how God comes into the text to expand its boundaries in that moment of crisis.
So in my midlife crisis, I don't want, anymore, to succeed for myself. I don't want to succeed for my dreams, for my family, for my profession, or for my church. I do not want to succeed with or for anybody or anything. I do not want to succeed. I want to be myself and give of myself to everybody. I want to preach the gospel with my life to everyone I meet and interact with. I don't want to be a success. I just want to be somebody in your life. That's a bigger dream than I ever had before—to just be somebody who makes a difference in your life.
In the early fourth century, the Roman Empire transitioned from being a pagan empire to being a Christian empire. And it did that mostly through the leadership of Emperor Constantine. He became the emperor of Rome very early on in the fourth century. I think it was like 304 CE, and then he converted to Christianity in 312 CE. And this is one of the biggest milestones in all of Christian religion. Our history after this point is completely different than it would've been if Constantine hadn't converted and if he hadn't transitioned the Roman Empire into being a Christian empire.
Even though he converted in 312 CE, Constantine was not baptized until 337 CE while he was lying on his deathbed. Isn't, that's strange? Why would he do that? Well, it seems that Emperor Constantine was under the impression that if baptism was for the washing away of sins, and you could only do it once, he had better save it for the very last possible moment in order that nothing might be missed. His fear was that if he did it too early, and then he committed some sins along the way (as we're all bound to do) that he might not properly repent for them. And after all his efforts of transitioning the whole empire to Christianity, he still may find himself in hell.
That's a pretty interesting perspective. Why then did I baptize my son, Felix, this morning at the opposite end of life, right there at the very beginning? If Constantine was right, why would we baptize babies? I remember very distinctly as a child, one of my best friend's fathers, my best friend asked him, “Dad, why did we go to church and why was I baptized and why do we do all this stuff?” And my friend's father said to him, “Well, I don't know if I really believe it all, but, you know, just in case, just in case!” And that is sometimes the answer we get when we ask, well, why do we baptize children as babies? Well, just in case, in case anything happens, we don't want them to be unbaptized and then be stuck in some sort of limbo or purgatory, or not be able to go onto heaven. So, just in case we'll do it nice and early.
I think that Constantine was wrong, and I think my friend's dad was wrong. I don't think that baptism is about how you die, the state you're in when you die. I think baptism is all about the way you live your life. And that's why I baptized my son right here at the very beginning of his life. Baptism, I don't think, is a ticket to heaven. I don't think everybody who's ever been baptized is going to make it all the way. And I don't think that those who haven't been baptized are hopelessly doomed. I believe that baptism is one specific form of God's amazing grace to imperfect people living imperfect lives in an imperfect world. And thank God for that.
I believe that being spiritually healthy means living a life where you are able to reflect on your own foibles and shortcomings and imperfections and mistakes, and to own them and to move forward and to try and do better. Yeah? At the same time, I believe that being spiritually healthy means not getting stuck or mired in guilt and shame that strangles your heart, that doesn't let you go and doesn't let you progress in this life. How do we do that? How do we raise children who will be compassionate, and reflective, and kind, and own their mistakes, and do better, and yet, who will not be overwhelmed with shame and guilt?
I believe that one of the answers to that is baptism. It's interesting. When we look at Jesus' baptism from our scripture reading this morning, why was Jesus baptized? This is a question that has plagued theologians for a long time because Jesus was fully human, but he was fully God. And traditionally the answer is that Jesus was perfect. He was sinless. He never sinned. He never did anything wrong. So then why was he baptized? And the answer has kind of been, well, he did it just to be a good example for all of us, all of us sinners. And I'm not going to, I'm not going to challenge whether or not Jesus was completely sinless if he never did anything wrong in his entire life. Let's just accept that. Let's grant it that the Orthodox view is a hundred percent correct and Jesus never did a thing wrong because he was fully God.
But Jesus was also fully human. And I know, I know. And you know, too, that being fully human means living a life where sometimes you just feel rotten about stuff. You don't feel like you're good enough. You make little mistakes, you stub your toe. People get mad at you, even though it's not your fault, right? You feel bad about yourself, you feel inadequate, you have regrets. You become a perfectionist and you say, “Ah! I didn't do it perfectly! I didn't do it exactly the right way.” And I think that Jesus, even though he was without sin, because he was fully human, experienced that same range of emotions that all of us feel around mistakes and regrets and worries about our adequacy and how good we are. And I believe that's why he chose baptism for himself. Not because baptism washes away the sin. It does. But because baptism is also meant to wash away the guilt and to readjust us spiritually to live in relationship to our frailty, to our humanity, in a positive and healthy way.
Maybe we've got it all wrong. You know, often we believe that our humanity is what separates us from God. All this human stuff, all this frailty, all this imperfection. Well, that's one perspective. But the other perspective, the perspective of Christmas and Epiphany is that God meets us here in our humanity. God meets us in our brokenness. You know, as a minister, I've of often asked people, you know, when did you feel God most strongly in your life? It's one of those questions I like to ask people to elicit a response. Oh, and how many answers I have heard to that question! And I can tell you that none of them sounded like this: “Well, everything was going great. I was on top of the world, man. I was successful and I was healthy. And boy, what a life I was leading. And while I was there just swimming at the top of the world, having a ball, I just suddenly felt like, yeah, God. And that's how I found God.” That's just never the story. When you ask people, “When did you feel God most strongly in your life? When did you first connect with God?” it's usually a story somewhere down near rock bottom. It's about a loss. It's about an addiction. It's about human pain and suffering and frailty and brokenness. And in that moment, that's when God showed up to show us the power of the Spirit. And maybe if we don't have that experience, it's hard to really know who God is or how God intersects with our lives.
I'll tell you a short story. Back in 2011, I was working as a labor organizer in New York City. And I was wanting to move, transition out of labor organizing and the work I was doing as a faith organizer and get a job as a minister. The first sort of real job as a minister, I'd worked as a part-time as a minister, but a full-time job as a minister in a church. And I wanted to transition my career. And so I was applying to a lot of churches and trying to figure out where I was going to go.
And I kept getting rejections and not a lot of interest. And man, I was feeling really bad about myself. But there was this one church that I was really excited about, and a friend of mine had said to me, “Hey, you know what? I think that church up in Boston is gonna be the one for you. I think they're really gonna be interested in you.” And I was feeling really depressed that night, and I said, “I don't know.” I was working late. It was something like 11 o'clock at night. And just as I was walking out of the office, I checked my Blackberry—it was 2011—and I had an email from the search committee of this church, and it was this amazing email. We're so interested in you. Thank you so much for applying. We really want to interview you. If you're about to take a job anywhere else, let us know because we want to speed up the process so that we can talk to you.
I mean, it was the most amazing, glowing, interested email you could ever get. And I remembered just that very night my friend had said, that's gonna be the church. And so I forwarded her the email message, and I was very excited. So you'll have to forgive my language. I just sent it with three words. The first word was “Holy,” and the other two words were anything but holy. And I will let you use your imagination. Holy Macaroni, let's say. And I sent that off to her to show her how excited I was. And I remember the little hourglass spinning on my blackberry. And as I watched it spin, I realized I was so excited that I hadn't hit forward and put in her email address. I had hit respond. And so I sent Holy Macaroni to the search committee of the one place I was most excited about.
And so I immediately sent a follow up response. I'm so sorry. Tried to explain what I did, but man, what a mistake. What an idiot, right? And I will tell you that night was the dark night of my soul. I said, and I did things to myself that night that I would never, ever do to any other person. I was cruel, I was hateful, and I hurt myself. Why? I made a mistake. I probably blew it, but life would go on. I just felt like I was no good to anyone.
Well, the search committee was awfully surprised by my response, and it was a bit of a kerfuffle, but by a slim margin they voted to continue to interview with me, and they did interview with me. And when I finally walked in for my in-person interview, I sat down in a room with the search committee and the chair of the search committee turned to me and said, “So, Holy Macaroni!” And it broke the ice. And it turned out that that mistake that I made helped me to stand out to everyone on that search committee. They saw that I was a human being. They saw that I was not your traditional, no-fun minister. They saw that I was really excited about working with them. And all of a sudden, I was a standout candidate in their mind because of that stupid moronic mistake that I was beating myself up over. And I got the job because of that mistake. I am convinced of it.
And it was like God was saying to me, “Yeah, you're not perfect. You make mistakes. That's the way you are. That doesn't mean that you don't deserve good things. That doesn't mean I'm not going to put you to work. Forgive yourself. Let's go. I show up in the broken places.” So beloved, to all of you, when you're feeling guilty or shameful, remember the promise of your baptism: Your mistakes do not define you. The God who enters your life through the cracks, that God, that loving God is the one who defines you.
I was technically on vacation this past week, so I haven't prepared anything to say, but that doesn't mean I don't have a few things on my heart that I would like to share with you on New Year's Day. And I especially want to just start by saying thank you to Tom so much for putting together this service and giving me a little break. This is a wonderful way to ring in the new year. Thank you, Tom. The new year has always been about ringing in joy and celebration, right? It is an opportunity to look forward to things that are coming, to celebrate things that have passed, to get together, to drink and eat and be merry, and just to dream about the possibilities. And yet more and more in the last few years, I have been sensing this growing feeling of pessimism in our culture that I feel like has even invaded the way we think culturally about what the new year is.
The new year has become more about saying, oh, thank God that last year is over, and fingers crossed that this next year won't be worse. But who knows what it might have in store for us, right? I think this pessimism has been reflected in some polling that's been done about how Americans and people around the world are feeling about the future of our country. This is on both sides of the political aisle. People are feeling pessimistic about what's in store for us for the future, economically, politically and all kinds of other ways. And, and it's true around the globe. We’re at a time where people are feeling this pessimism, and I think it's reflected even more in our young people than anybody else. And that's really concerning because the youngest generation, the kids coming up, they're supposed to be the ones who are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed who believe that they can tackle the problems of the world and make a true difference.
And yet they are feeling like they might not want to jump in with both feet. For instance, in polling 25% of people under 35 years of age—25%—say that they have changed their plans for having children. They're either not having children at all, or they're reducing the number of children that they're having because of concerns about climate change, right? And this real sense that there is a disaster looming for our country and the whole world so that they don't know that they want to commit to the project of humanity continuing to move forward. They want to step out because they're so afraid of what that unknown is going to be like and how bad it might be for people. 25%, that's really significant.
85% of GenZs who have been polled feel that climate change is the biggest issue for the world. And 85% feel like if we don't do more right now to address climate change, that large swaths of the planet could be rendered uninhabitable in their lifetimes, right? That's huge to carry that burden as a young person, as a teenager looking to try and figure out what you're going to do in the world and in life. Now, the good news is that there are a number of people who feel like it's a big issue, climate change, and many of the other issues we face, but who are feeling optimistic about it. But in polling even more, people are feeling pessimistic about it. Now, I am saying this, I'm not a futurist. I'm not a political commentator. I'm not an oracle. I do not know what the future is going to bring. And I certainly don't mean to suggest that the political and environmental and economic problems that we are facing as a nation and as a world are not significant and that they shouldn’t be things that we're not worried about.
I do not mean to belittle anybody's perception of how bad things are, but as a pastor, I have to be concerned with the soul of the nation, and the people, and the esprit de corps. No matter how big the tragedy, no matter how big the unknown, the Christian response and the response that we should be trying to elicit from the world, though the energy we should be putting into the world is that no problem is too big for us to align to it hopefully, positively, and actively. That is what we have to do. And that's a contribution that we can bring to the world as Christians, we bring it with our Christian faith. We also just bring it with our faith perspective. That perspective is this: that Christians are not defined by the size of the problem or the magnitude of the tragedy. We are defined by God's ability to respond to the problem and to the tragedy. It is not for us to be pessimistic, to say, woe is me. It is for us to step up to a problem and say, yeah, that's a big problem. God is bigger. Our faith is bigger, our hope is bigger. We can do this together. Now, it's not pie in the sky, and the stereotype of Christians is of course, that we're just gonna try and pray it away, right. And that, oh, if you just believe in God, then you don't have to believe in problems, and that's not it. As Christians, we need to acknowledge the depth of the pain that our young people are feeling about their future. And if we do not do that, then they will never believe that this faith or this church or this spiritual alignment that we have has anything to say to them because they will believe, I think maybe rightfully, that we have our heads buried in the sand.
We need to acknowledge their pain, the magnitude and the depths of the problems that we face, and then we need to step up next to them and say, I believe that we, and that you can do this. I believe that God is with us. And no matter what may come in the year or the decade or the century ahead, our alignment to the future must be one of hope and action.
And even if there was a way to look into the future and to see, oh, no, everything is tragedy and awful in the future—as so much of our culture is obsessed with doing in movies right now, these apocalyptic fantasies about just how bad it's going to be. Let's say that every one of them is totally true and correct. That doesn't change how we feel about the future in this room as Christians. As Christians, we still approach that future with the same hope and determination that we approach some Utopia, maybe even more so because we are going to be God's response.
Tragedy is always going to be with us. It always has been with us. Pessimism is always going to be with us. It always has been with us. I would encourage you, if you don't have any resolutions yet to make this your resolution, that you are going to align yourself to the problems of the future with hope and determination, and that you will tell the young people in your lives that you understand why they are afraid and that you will stand by them and act with them to make a difference.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations