You and the Gift of Your Future Self
Aug 19, 2018
Think about the future of your life. Now I’m going to give you three pairs of words or phrases. For each, which seems more true of your future? There’s no right answer. Just pick what seems most true. This isn’t for anyone to judge.
- “Anxious” or “enthusiastic”
- “not enough” or “more than enough”
- “fate” or “choice”
The Picture of Your Future
A couple weeks ago, I mentioned something that my therapist had said earlier this year: that we can picture our present moment in life as this space between a sprawling past with our younger self’s experiences and memories, and the sweeping unknown of the future that lies before us. At that time, I talked about giving thanks as one of the ways God gives us to interact with the past and live well in the present. And now today, we have the opportunity to talk about our futures.
I hope you enjoyed that opening exercise. Those forced binaries hopefully got you thinking about how your brain or your body or your heart reacts to thoughts about your future self.
When I was very young, I was pumped about the future. I would have answered “enthusiastic”, probably “choice”, and definitely “more than enough”. Real early, like most kids, I had a fantastical attitude about my future – I liked football and thought I’d be an NFL player. That was about as realistic as the time when one of my children said they’d be a frog when they grew up. But by my late elementary, maybe even early preteen years when I had a vivid picture of my future I’d constructed. I was going to live in the tiny town of Pittsfield, New Hampshire, in my dream home I’d designed again and again on graph paper during math class. I’d also own a big motor boat I’d drive around the lakes of New Hampshire and I’d pay for all this with my career as a stock broker in the bustling metropolis of Manchester, New Hampshire.
Fast-forward past my teenage years, when I didn’t really think about my future at all, and I found that in my twenties my attitude toward the future was the opposite of that of my childhood. I’d tried some things out in my life that hadn’t gone very well, and I was anxious that I’d continue to struggle and not find my path. I’d seen my family in conflict when they didn’t have much money, and my prospects looked bleak, so there didn’t seem to be enough for me. And I’d realized that my dad struggled with a profound sense of failure, and wondered if I’d be doomed to more of the same.
How do you consider your future today? Do thoughts of the years to come make you anxious or enthusiastic? Do you think you won’t have enough – whether it be money or friends or love or success or anything else – or do you think there will be more than enough? And do you tend toward feelings of fate – be it destiny or doom – or think that you get to choose your own future?
I think today’s passages invite us to consider our futures today, and I hope that today’s talk about us and God will help us greet the gift of our futures with more confidence and hope.
For two more weeks, we’re drawing our Sunday sermons from the day’s texts in our Read the Bible Together program, which runs year-round for you on our website. In two weeks, I’ll tell you more of what you can expect in the fall at Reservoir before we return to these weekly passages for the Christmas season.
Today’s main reading will take us into a very early moment in the life of Israel’s third king. Before I read it, I’ll remind us that when we read these stories from the lives of David and Solomon, we’re reading material that is set very far into the world’s past, back in the Iron Age of the Ancient Near East. This period is as far behind us in history as the year 5000 is in front of us. That’s a long time ago. It’s actually just a couple generations in Israel’s story before we can match the text up with any verifiable history. And I think today’s text is probably some mix of history and propaganda. It takes a king with a spotty legacy at best, and shines him up to be a hero.
But the way we see God engaging Solomon as he prays about his future matches my own experience of God and that of so many other people as well. So I want to hone in on that. Here you go, from I Kings, chapter 3.
1 Kings 3:3-14 (NRSV)
3 Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. 4 The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. 5 At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” 6 And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7 And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8 And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”
10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. 13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. 14 If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”
God’s Plan for Our Future?
So there are two things I want to talk about here. The first is how interesting it is that Solomon gets in this conversation with God about his future. But the one calling the shots isn’t God, but Solomon. I mean, I’d always assumed that God has a plan for our future, and it’s our job to listen and pay attention and discover that plan. But that’s not exactly how it works here.
God says to Solomon: Ask me for what I should give you. And Solomon thinks, well, I’m starting this important, big job as head of state for life, so I would like wisdom and discernment that will lead to good governance. Solomon is charting the best future for himself that he can imagine. And God says yes to his choice.
Now God in the text has an opinion that this was a good thing to want, but Solomon said it in the conversation, not God, and God works with Solomon’s idea.
This reminds me of the episode late in Solomon’s father’s life, when David wants to build God a house. David’s lounging around in his deluxe new palace and he feels guilty that he’s got a palace and God doesn’t. So he thinks, I’ll build a temple, a house for God. And God is like, sure, your son can do that, fine, but what I really want is to build you a house.
God isn’t the colonizer of our lives – trying to extract anything from us for God’s benefit. No, God is interested in our flourishing, now and in the future, and is interested in what we want for that future as well.
Our future may be bounded by who we are today. Solomon, for instance, recognizes his unique circumstances, as heir to enormous privilege and responsibility. He’s not avoiding or denying who he is or isn’t. But he’s able to seize his future as a gift, not a curse, and a gift that is shaped by our desires.
Our future, thought, doesn’t feel like a gift a lot of the time, though, does it? Our futures can often be marked by drivenness, dread, or distraction.
For me in my late 20s, so afraid of failure, I had to become more free of that to face my future as a gift. I had to deal with the dread in my core, and I’ll come back to that inner work in me later. But once that started to happen with God’s help, my conversations with God about my future were less about waiting for God to tell me what to do, and more about God asking me what I wanted to do.
This has actually been true at each major junction of my work life, sensing that God was confronting me with the question: what do you want for your future, Steve? It was true a little under ten years ago, when I made the shift from being a teacher in Boston to a principal in Watertown. And then it was true again when over five years ago, I became your pastor.
I have this really good friend named John who’s known me well for over twenty years and often been surprisingly insightful in my life, and when I told him that this church was asking me to consider stepping in as its pastor, John’s encouragement to me to take the risk to really listen was part of what got me past the shock of that possibility to actually consider it.
But then this funny thing happened. As we all got closer to seeing this happen, John gave me another question to think about. He said: your church is going to find a pastor, but if you leave your school, they won’t have one anymore. And he was right. I had made all kinds of mistakes as a principal. I was young and inexperienced. But I took that job to learn to be a secular pastor, to love people with the love of Jesus without necessarily talking about it. And if I left, that school would find a principal – they did – but they might not find someone that loved like I was called to love.
So the upshot of this was that I was confused, and kind of wracked with guilt. I wasn’t sure I was good at my last job or that I’d be good at this one, but I wondered if either way I went, I’d let people down. I wondered if I’d let God down too. So I went to God about this. And I prayed: God, just show me which path to take? Which of these jobs should I do for the next decade of my life?
And the words that sprung to my mind, with great clarity, were: Steve, what do you want? You tell me, Steve, what you want to do. That surprised me, but I was pretty sure that was God’s voice, not mine.
More and more I’m confident that God isn’t waiting around for us to figure out the dream job or find the dream spouse or choose the dream city or dream house that God has assigned to us in heaven. God wants his children to grow up and discern. And as with Solomon, a flourishing spirituality empowers us that we have agency to welcome the gift of our future as we wish it to be, colored by who we know we are.
An author I like says about the Bible, that God lets God’s children tell the story. Similarly in our live paths, God trusts God’s children to make choices about the future.
That’s the first thing I wanted us to see – God as question-asker, not just commander. God as interested in cultivating our vision. God giving us agency and power to join God in constructing the future.
But how can we be free to make those choices well? With less drivenness, reactivity, and distraction? This is the second half of our talk and will take us to a second scripture in today’s readings.
Who We Are, Not What We Do
We saw that with Solomon, God was particularly happy with his desires for his future. Because he’s less focused on externals – what will he do? Where will he be? What will he have? Who will he be with? – and more on internals – who will he be? Back when I was a principal, I used to meet with parents of high school juniors every year to talk about college, post-secondary education and training and plans. And every year, I’d look at this nervous group of parents – I know because I’m becoming one of these parents this year – and I’d tell them, I know it doesn’t seem true, but who your child is, is so much more important than what they’re about to do. Who your child is becoming in this stage of life, is far more important than where they are going. And I’d speak to that in specific terms, and I know that many of them didn’t believe me.
The level of prestige of the college they could access, or the kid’s future earning power seemed urgent. But I knew that character, creativity, capacity for independence, compassion, resilience – these things were far more important than the name brand of a college or the first job on the resume.
Solomon knew that too, at least in this moment of life, that who we are is more important than what we do, or what we achieve, or what we have. So Solomon asks for help to be a good person, a wise person. And God – at least the account this text gives us – is so happy with Solomon’s choice, he wants to give him that and everything else he could have asked for too.
And when it comes to our future, this is part of a flourishing spirituality as well, to be more free from externals and more focused on a healthy, sound internal life. Another way of putting this would be to consider the importance of the bread of life, more than just bread.
Grace and I went to an event on religion and economics not that long ago, and it was not going well for me. Not because economics is horrible. I think economics is really interesting. I can’t say I understand it all that well, but I’m a loyal Freakanomics podcast listener, and I welcome what we can learn from this discipline. It’s more that religion can be horrible sometimes. And the brand of religion that was informing some of the conversation at this event was tiring.
There was a lot of hand-wringing about the Bible and state of Western capitalism, as if consumer capitalism was Jesus’ great gift to the world. And there was an undercurrent – as you get a lot in religion – of us vs. them push and pull, about taking back some corner of society for God. The mood around the future was anxious and to my mind, wasn’t touching the state of our souls.
But then a theologian gave a talk that blew me away. He was a prominent theologian, an academic named Miroslav Volf who works at Yale. I’d read some of his work, but I’d never met him or heard him speak. But he gave this talk on a subject economics is interested in – on human flourishing – and it, as I said, blew me away.
Volf asked about what a vision of true flourishing would look like for all humans and all creation. And he said we that vision and practice in the person of Jesus Christ. In valuing the universal (we and ours) and not just the particular of me and mine. In putting aside anxious striving, and welcoming the gift of life that is at the center of the ministry and person of Jesus. And in living by the word of God, the bread of heaven, and not just trying to live by bread.
In this last piece, which we’ll be ending on today, Volf is quoting the gospels, the stories of the life and teaching of Jesus. Take this passage early in Matthew, for instance.
Matthew 4:1-4 (NRSV)
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Jesus says that food isn’t enough to sustain the human life, the human imagination and soul and spirit. Volf talked at length in his message about the great poverty that both the poor and the rich experience when we live by bread alone. When we measure the flourishing of our lives by food and wealth, status and rank, we cultivate a life of resentment and anxiety, fear and greed that colors our past with regret and focuses our future on the external things we wish to have or worry we’ll lose.
Bread here might stand for all our externals – our jobs or lack thereof, our husband or wife or lack of one, our home or lack of one, all of our physical needs, met or unmet. These things are important to us, as they should be. Bread matters. Going big picture, whole society, bread could stand in for everything the globalized economy is focused on – capital, production, trade, income, wealth. And again, these things are important to us. They are likely important to God. Bread matters, bread’s good. Who – as long as it’s made from a flour you can digest – who doesn’t like bread?
But Jesus knows that these things alone are not the way to life. You can have a full belly and an empty heart. You can die with a fat bank account and a skinny legacy of good. You can make bread for yourself or others, even while you deprive others of life and starve for it yourself.
So here at the start of his ministry, Jesus quotes Torah, the law, his Hebrew scripture, that knows the word of God gives a kind of life that food doesn’t. Bread here is at least the words that flow from God’s mouth. Words that speak truth and life and beauty, that call us to mercy and justice and renewal. Jesus refuses to eat or make bread for a season, so he can be full and nourished by these words.
And as Jesus continues in his ministry, he develops this thought further. The passage in today’s readings that draws us to bread of life is from John. Here’s part of it.
John 6:50-51 (NRSV)
50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
In the law that Jesus quotes, the book known as Deuteronomy, the bread of heaven, the word of God, is represented by manna – this mysterious food God provides each day in the desert, sustenance that comes along with the morning dew.
But here, closer to the climax of his life and ministry, Jesus starts to knew and say that Jesus is the manna. Jesus is word of God that speaks to us. The life, the flesh of Jesus, is the bread of heaven that nourishes and sustains us. This is a radical shift Jesus makes, and one that a great deal of religion, including Christian religion, has missed.
That the word of God isn’t just words. Useful as the Bible is in teaching, the message of God isn’t primarily the Bible or even the teaching of Jesus. The word of God, the bread of heaven is the whole person of Jesus, is God with us in the flesh.
Jesus offers himself – then and now – as a gift to nourish our inner life, so we can be the person we want to be in the future.
Who is Jesus Making You?
Completing my story I’m sharing today before we close, I experienced Jesus starting to shape my identity in this way at that time when I was most fearful of the future. Or more accurately, Jesus showed me how he was already doing that.
One week when my anxiety about the future was particularly thick, I went to the beach before sunrise with my Bible and my journal and a guidebook to the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah I’d been studying. So I was a Bible geek then and now. But more to the point, my anxiety, my not enough, my sense of doom around the future was especially focused on externals, on bread. How would we feed and clothe and educate our child? How would I get out of unemployment? Was I destined to feel like a failure?
And as I sat on that beach and meditated on several sections of the grim book of Jeremiah, the presence and the voice of God came to me with a depth and clarity I’d rarely experienced before that moment. I felt God speak to me – you don’t know what you will do, but that doesn’t matter, because I’ve shown you who you are. And that insight, that voice if you want to call it that, opened up my mind with clarity, showed me that the decade I’d had of following Jesus to that point had nourished really specific and deep hopes and values and longing in me. As I talked with God about those things, I sensed a more specific promise from God that I would have different jobs in my life, but who Jesus was making me, the good that Jesus was nourishing in me was going to find expression again and again in my work, in my parenting, in all the other things. And that would be life. That would be what non-failure would mean: Jesus shaping a full heart and a deep soul that flowed out into love and purpose in this life in this world. And I went home more ready for my future than I’d ever been.
A flourishing spirituality frees us to relate a bit less to externals – what will we do? Where will be be? What will we have? Who will we be with? – and more to internals – who will we be? We’re freed from over-obsession about bread, good and important as it is, and drawing our attention to the bread of life.
I’m finding myself in recent months again and again thinking more about the future – both in my ministry at this church, and in my parenting. God is stirring things in me as I realize I’ve only got a few years left with children at home. And even as the pastor of this church, life is short. I’ve got maybe 5, 10, 15 years max left in this job. But rather than stressing about that or wondering what the perfect micromanaged destiny of God looks like, I hear God again asking me: Steve, what do you want? Lean in to bread of life. Listen to Jesus and flourish.
If you want to hear more about this on the church front, I’ll be sharing some more at that members and leaders potluck meeting next Sunday at 5:00 and a bit more as well, I think, in my get-ready-for fall at Reservoir sermon here in two weeks on Labor Day weekend. And we’ll send notes from the meeting to our members, and the sermon text and audio will be online as always too.
But let’s close thinking about our own lives for a moment.
My hope is that all of us can experience more freedom in our futures, less drivenness, dread, and distraction. More sense of the gift of our futures, the freedom to engage our desires, the freedom to focus more on internals, nourished by Jesus, the bread of life.
Here are a couple things you might try to engage with God in this way.
1) Listen to the future your life holds, paying attention to who you are today, including your desires. Life is short, be specific!
2) Your future is more gift than prize – hold it lightly and hopefully.
Spiritual Practice of the Week: Welcome Jesus as your bread of life. Invite the person of Jesus to teach you, to satisfy you, and to shape you.
(Due to technical difficulties, we were not able to capture audio of the above sermon. The text here is not a transcript, but prepared text.)