When I Grow Up
“I’m an integrated man.”
My friend said this to the crowd that gathered to hear his opening address at an art gallery. Thom exuded the confidence of the rarest of men. He stood with his chest puffed out from assurance rather than pride. His words didn’t feel like the onslaught of hot air exhaled by men who long to be somebody because he is already secure in himself.
The boldness in his opening statement gave way to a tender series of remarks. Thom explained how his life’s many pursuits—painting, sculpting, pastoring, teaching—flow from one reservoir within. He reminded me of another personal hero, the poet Scott Cairns, whose passions for words and cooking, for travel and theology, express themselves in a strikingly similar timbre.
Certain parts of who I am seem integrated too. I resonate with Eugene Peterson’s remarks on reading detective novels alongside the Bible:
Eventually the division lines disappeared. It all took place in God’s world and kingdom. The Holy Spirit used anything and anyone. And if the Holy Spirit could do it, so could I.
I revisit the merciless bop of Thelonious Monk for the same reasons I enjoy the giddy punchlines of John Mulaney. The caustic energy of Beastie Boys strikes a chord not unlike the mystic musings of Bon Iver. I glean wisdom like leftover wheat from white, male theologians and queer poets of color.
Because I search these sources for signs of life, not life itself, each holds potential to nourish my soul without occupying ultimate places. They sound out gospel overtones without necessarily possessing equal measures of gospel truth.
My callings manage internal consistency, though they broker an uneasy peace. Seemingly disparate positions and purposes—as a newspaper journalist and lay pastor, writing for the church and for a wider audience—resolve their differences when I consider the chief ends of my life. To know God and make him known in everything, to amplify trace elements of truth and beauty, to reclaim square inches of the kingdom in advance of its eventual overhaul. It’s all the same thing, I tell myself when the inevitable dissonance comes. Even that simple invocation keeps me moving forward.
But still, I want to be more like Thom and Scott when I grow up. The pieces of my character only hold hands in unity gradually.
When I look in the mirror, I see a man—but one still coming of age, fighting to feel comfortable in his skin. Someone whose growing pains now feel like becoming pains.
The seams show. My heart hides away the scriptures which say trusting Christ never puts us to shame. Yet I shame my son with loaded language and thoughtless questions.
In public conversations, I live by the biblical conviction never to praise God and curse man with the same mouth. In my self-talk, I meet missed opportunities and mistakes by damning myself under my breath.
Like Paul, I struggle to understand myself. The pure desires I express wilt in the harsh light of what I actually do. What I hate chokes out what I love—or want to love. The distance between the integrated man I want to be and daily reality seems impossible to make up.
Examining my life, I feel despair at the sight of just one temple of the living God divided against itself. The dysfunction and disintegration of the church cuts much deeper.
Some days sit like a weight on my chest, trying my patience, testing my resolve to choose love. Watching beloved ones bend their witness is as much a part of my daily routine as brushing my teeth and eating breakfast in my daily routine. People I am bound to, by blood and faith, sacrifice their morals on the altar of excuses. Double standards replace personal standards.
In one moment, friends make noble professions of faith to do anything for the sake of their families. In the next, they deny or explain away the same pulse quickening asylum-seekers. My personal cloud of witnesses contains so many who would gain the Supreme Court and lose their souls.
My flaws so deeply felt, and all the sinkholes opening around me, leave little hope of growing up to be a Thom or a Scott. And I worry that some of those around me won’t grow up to be them either. I feel miles away from a day when every word, each action and reaction, grows out of a right heart like spokes from a wheel.
I step out the door on my way to give up, but trip over Psalm 86. There, David acknowledges the only solution left to the puzzle of becoming a consistent, integrated person:
Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
unite my heart to fear your name.
Sometimes, as I read this verse, my eyes fall prey to phenomenon, rearranging the letters to create a similar spelling. I perceive David’s prayer as “untie my heart to fear your name.” Untie my heart. Undo all I needlessly tangle myself up in; finger the knots I tie in vain, the ones which unite parts of me you never meant to join. My work and my worth. My security and my worship. My need to be right and my capacity for love.
Then, unite my heart to fear your name. Connect the dots in me that lead to worship. Cause my eyes to see this integration I desire, within the space of my own heart and the wider world, waits for my life to integrate with the life of Christ.
I’ve never asked, but my intuition tells me the Thoms and Scotts and integrated men of the world would say there is no secret, no trick to becoming whole and holy.
When I finally grow up and look back at the miles between today and that day, I expect my eyes will spy a distance of many feet. Each slow, unsteady step pounds out a prayer. Untie me to unite me.