• “Over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by. Strained by the very mad pace of our daily outer burdens, we are further strained by an inward uneasiness, because we have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power.”  Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion
  • I have come that they might have life, and might have it abundantly.   Jesus, John 10:10

LIFE. Capital L Life: Life that’s full to overflowing with meaning and love and joy; Life that feels connected, fully engaged; Life at its richest, highest, best.

Spend a few moments talking about Life with someone, and you can feel the energy level of the room begin to rise. You can sense hope heating up, something down at the center stirring around, bubbling over, knocking on your chest wall and wanting out.

A Good Hair Day

One day recently I went for a haircut, and because my regular hairstylist was gone, I agreed to let someone else cut my hair. It happened to be a woman who obviously didn’t want to be at work that day.

Our conversation started slowly. I would make a comment or ask a question, and she would provide a one-word answer. I mentioned that I had just gotten back from England, thinking this might spark a little interest, but all it seemed to do was darken her mood even further. I had been in England while she had had to carry on with her mundane existence. In a faint show of courtesy, she asked me why I had gone there.

“For a study leave,” I replied. “I went there with my wife for rest and renewal. And,” I added, “I’m writing a book.”

This seemed to arouse some genuine curiosity. “A book? What’s your book about?”

I told her the title of the book. “It’s based on my conviction that there’s a hunger in every human heart for a life that’s rich with joy and purpose, an actually good life in the real world. I’m convinced we can experience this kind of life if we really want it.”

Instantly, a light went on behind the woman’s eyes. It was as if someone had plugged her into an electrical socket. She became visibly and verbally animated. She wanted to know more. She shared some of her frustrations and stress. She expressed her desire for a life that felt fresh and balanced and headed somewhere worth heading.

Finally, she asked, “Do you really think that kind of life is possible?” She asked the question with a mixture of desperation and hope, and with absolute confidence I answered with a Yes!

Do you really think that kind of life is possible? Most of us have asked this question at one time or another—to our friends, to anyone who would listen, maybe just to ourselves. We want to feel what Joseph Campbell once described as “the rapture of being alive.” We want to measure the quality of our life not by its length but by its breadth and depth. We want to weave something beautiful with the threads life gives us. We want to become, as Melody Mackenzie puts it, “living tapestries of fulfillment.”

The very idea that this kind of life might be possible is enough to make our hearts skip a beat.

The Honest Truth about the Life We Say We Want

Let’s be honest about this Life beyond mere existence. Let’s be honest about our desire for it and our resistance to it. At one and the same time, all of the following statements are true:

  • We want it; we reach for it; it eludes our grasp.
  • It scares us; we run from it; it dogs us in the night.
  • We see it; we like it; but, we’re not sure it’s worth the cost.

We Want It; We Reach for It; It Eludes Our Grasp

Life is like water in cupped hands. It’s like sand through the fingers. It’s like those machines at the entrances to Wal-Mart with prizes inside and a mechanical claw that seldom delivers!

Life, as appealing as it is, often eludes our grasp. We catch glimpses of it that take our breath away. We experience moments of elation when it sweeps us up as in a strong-running current. We have occasions when we feel “plugged in” to the ultimate source of Life itself, empowered to the nth degree. At times in the dance of Life we “find our rhythm” and step with the freedom and grace of Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire.

We’d love to stretch these moments into a lifetime. All too often, “moments” are all we manage. The Life we glimpse out of the corner of our eye flits away when we try to fix our gaze on it. Our mountain-top highs lose their lightness under the weight and pressure of life in the trenches. Tugged on by the pulls of our daily existence, we too easily get unplugged and enervated. Our brief encounters with Life often seem like appetizers: they awaken our taste buds and leave us hungry for more.

Sadly, we sometimes try to satisfy ourselves with Life’s pale substitutes. Some of us turn life into a test of productivity. Unable to sit still for fear of what we’ll find in the stillness, we keep ourselves busy from dawn until bedtime with projects, big and small.

Others of us escape into daydreams of a better life and a better world. We imagine ourselves quitting our job, resigning from all relationships and responsibilities, and escaping into the mountains or to the beach or to some far-away country.

Some of us cram our pent up longings into every nook and cranny of free time we can find, turning “down time” into a furious effort at fun. Others of us gravitate toward the refrigerator and the recliner, fruitlessly feeding our faces to fulfill a hunger that food can’t satisfy.

Life—real Life—amounts to something far greater than these pale substitutes. There is a life that abounds with love and joy and an exhilarating sense of purpose, a life that enlarges us and others, a life that ripples out in wider and wider waves from the center of a tranquil soul. We know it’s out there. We simply wish we could lay hold of it for keeps. Life—a truly rich and rewarding life—proves as elusive as it does irresistible.

It Scares Us; We Run from It; It Dogs Us in the Night

We’d like to think that our tenuous hold on Life happens for one reason: Life is slippery. There’s more to the matter than that. In our hide-and-seek game with Life, sometimes we’re the ones hiding. After all, there are risks that come with living—truly living—and sometimes these risks scare us to death!

When I was a kid, I had an endless sense of adventure. I lived on the edge, full of joy but a bit impulsive in my pursuit of new experiences. I gave very little thought to the dangers my curiosity created for me. My parents often wondered how I was going to survive into adulthood!

I well remember one particular “high wire” experience. During the summer of ’62 my family—Dad, Mom, my three older brothers, and I—made a three-week, round-trip journey by car between Houston and California. We stopped at the Grand Canyon along the way.

I couldn’t believe my eyes! I had never seen anything like it in all my seven and one-half (!) years, anything so vast and deep. Absolutely enthralled, I jumped onto the railing and leaned over as far as possible to see down to the bottom of the canyon. Then I sat on the railing with my back to the yawning abyss and began swinging my feet in happy disregard for the sheer drop behind me.

My mom nearly had a heart attack. Seeing me perched in that precarious position, she rushed toward me, screaming as she approached. “Greg, get down from there! Do you want to get yourself killed?!”

I jumped down immediately, suddenly conscious of the risk I had taken. Mom’s alarm aroused alarm in me. A cold shiver ran up my spine as I thought about how far I could have fallen.

Chalk up one early lesson about exercising caution in life.

The voice of caution has preserved the lives of many an impetuous child. “Look before you leap!”; “Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread”—these ancient aphorisms and others like them have reminded generations of people to act deliberately and thoughtfully, to avoid unnecessary risk.

Unfortunately, the voice of caution goes into overdrive if we let it. It becomes a permanent red light at the crossroads of our experience, and we end up turning down healthy invitations toward Life. Instead of leaning into Life, we shrink back in fear.

When we sign up for Life we get Adventure in the bargain. Life puts us at the edge of our knowledge and our experience. It stretches us. It asks us to take calculated—and sometimes even uncalculated—risks. It pushes us past our comfort zone. Who’s surprised, then, that when Life comes calling, we sometimes opt for the life we already have?

In truth, we do avoid problems by living with caution; but, the problems we avoid (and the problems we only imagine) don’t come close to matching the possibilities we pass up. We may rationalize about the wisdom of our wariness; but, in the still of the night, when there’s no one around to relieve our regret, the ghosts of unfulfilled living come home to haunt us.

A friend of mine I’ll call Bob had an opportunity to partner with a co-worker in the start-up of a new grocery store. He had dreamed about the possibility for years. He longed to have more control over his life. He liked to think he had what it took to make a business work. On the other hand, he had great job security as a butcher at the grocery store where he worked, and the fear of failure proved too powerful to overcome. He turned down the chance.

His friend went on to enjoy enormous success. His grocery-store venture grew into a grocery-store chain. These days, Bob feels wistful every time he thinks about what could have been. He feels like Life came calling, and he kept the front door latched.

This fear becomes especially poignant when it cuts us off from those we love. Consider the father in Paul Simon’s song, “Slip Slidin’ Away”: “There was a father who had a son/ He longed to tell him all the reasons for the things he done./ He went a long way just to explain./ He kissed his boy while he lay sleeping,/ then he turned around and headed home again.

In how many ways has the fear of Life kept us from enjoying, embracing, and blessing our closest friends and family? How many times has it kept our arms glued to our sides when Life was urging us to reach out and hug? How many times has it made words of love die in our throats, never to be given voice? How many moments of sheer bliss have we missed because we held back our thoughts and feelings from those who longed to hear what our hearts had to say?

The fear of Life plays out in every area of our experience. It affects our relationships, our work, our education, our leisure, our spirituality, our physical well-being, and our inner state of mind. It leads us to live with one foot on the brakes. It also leaves us full of longing and regret.

Life offers us the world. Too often, we choose a small little corner of that world, opting for safety over true satisfaction.

We See It; We Like It; But We’re Not Sure It’s Worth It

Life is slippery. Life is scary. Furthermore, as Scott Peck reminds us in the first sentence of The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult.”

Consider what this means in terms of the kind of life we’re talking about here: not just any kind of life, but a transcendent life, a radiant life, life at its best. To say that Life is difficult is to acknowledge that it comes at a cost.

Life costs us the status quo. It demands that we rearrange the affairs of our lives.

Life isn’t just a fresh coat of paint to spruce up our time-worn exterior; it’s a creative restoration project that deals with everything from the foundation up. It asks us to examine our most basic beliefs, our actual priorities, our current habits, and our future hopes with the idea that we will allow our lives to be shaped toward the wholeness we want. It challenges some of the assumptions by which we’ve been living. It goads us to think and feel in ways that don’t come naturally at first. It pushes us to act in ways that initially go against the grain of our ingrained habits.

Life isn’t just some fuel additive we put in the gas tank of our lives. We can’t hang onto everything about our current life and simple add something more in the hope that it will add up to Life. We have to add and subtract. There are some things we have to let go, things that are working against us. We have to learn what these are, discard what doesn’t get us where we’re going, take risks in a new direction, and let Life slowly grow in us.

Taking the path toward Life challenges us psychologically, socially, intellectually, and spiritually. It cost us the world as we know it in exchange for the world as we know it can be.

Sometimes the cost is more than we’re willing to pay. This doesn’t mean we don’t want Life. We do! We just hoped it would come to us on a silver platter. We hoped it would come like a winning lottery ticket dropped in our laps. We want Life like my friend wants to play the guitar: he wishes he could wake up one day with the skills magically infused into his mind and fingers. He doesn’t want to play the guitar enough to develop a practice regimen or callouses on his finger tips; which means, of course, that he doesn’t really want it enough.

When the price tag comes in on Life, we sometimes feel like saying, “No thanks; just looking.” When it comes to Life, some of us spend our whole lives window shopping. This works fine when it comes to things; but, when it comes to Life, window shopping keeps us a window pane away from the joy for which we long.

Life Is Worth It

The cost of Life, like the car of our dreams, may induce sticker shock; but before we convince ourselves that we can get a few more miles out of the life we’re already leading, let’s remind ourselves of the surpassing value of the life we really want. Let’s remind ourselves why no price is too high.

Consider, for one thing, the price we pay every time we settle for lives that fall short of what’s possible. Upon close inspection, we see that the cost of non-Living far exceeds the cost of Life. Non-Living costs us the very things we want the most: vitality, love, growth, purpose, balance, and joy. In their stead, it delivers cotton-candy substitutes for these things along with stress, drudgery, boredom, anxiety, inner and interpersonal conflict, loneliness, worry, guilt, and frustration. It holds our dreams out of reach. It turns time into our enemy. It floods our lives with activity and relationships and things, but leaves us feeling shallow and disconnected and—even in the best of times—strangely unfulfilled (See Dallas Willard on the cost of non-discipleship, in The Spirit of the Disciplines, pp. 262f.).

When we look at the matter this way we really have to wonder why anyone would continue down the road of non-Living once they had directions toward Life. It’s a little like driving down the highway, discovering you’re going in the wrong direction, but not turning around because you’re making such good time!

Isn’t it interesting how often we fall into this very pattern of living? We head off at a frenetic pace to live what we think is Life, and we ignore physical, emotional, and spiritual signals that tell us we’re on the wrong path. We say we haven’t got time to stop, not considering that such a statement means, in the long run, that we don’t mind that we’re not going to get where we say we’re going.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s no need for all the stress, the joylessness, the relational frustration, the physical toll, and ultimately the failure that comes when we only have time to keep heading down dead-end roads. Life beckons, and we can aim ourselves in its direction if we really want what it has to offer.

This becomes poignantly clear when we actually come into contact with people of surpassing Life spirit. These people are in the crowd but not of it. They are ALIVE in ways we find compelling. What really incites us about these living testaments to fulfillment is that they have the same 24-hour days we do, the same family realities, the same kinds of responsibilities, the same range of IQ’s, the same variations of income; and yet, somehow they’re living with a zest that contrasts markedly with that of the frustrated, unfulfilled majority.

Every one of us has encountered people like this. Thomas Kelly, in Testament of Devotion describes them as “unhurried, cheery, fresh, positive. These are not people of dallying idleness nor of obviously mooning meditation; they are busy carrying their full load as well as we, but without any chafing of the shoulders with the burden, with quiet joy and springing step. Surrounding the trifles of their daily life is an aura of infinite peace and power and joy.”

Life: The Pearl of Great Price

Life is “the pearl of great price.” This timeless metaphor is immediately recognizable as a way to point to something of such rare beauty and great value that we will pay any price to have it. It actually originates in the storytelling of Jesus, who constantly sought new ways to talk about and extend the offer of Life. According to Jesus, Life—as both a personal experience and an entire realm of existence—

“is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again [it] is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great price, he sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44-46)

We know he’s right. We know that nothing can match the transcendent satisfaction of a well-lived life.

Is Life elusive? Yes; but though it’s elusive, it is possible.

Is it scary? In some ways; but when we say yes, our fear quickly gives way to joy.

Is it costly? Yes; but it’s worth the price and more. Once we see it for what it is, we will never be able to satisfy ourselves with anything less.

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