Publication Information: McMillion, C. P. (2013, Jan / Feb). What Is Saving Your Life? Christian Woman Magazine, 29(1), 44-45.
In the introduction to her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor relates how she was once invited to be the guest speaker at a small southern church. “What shall I speak on?” she asked, prepared to select a topic closely aligned with the theme of the congregation’s study. “Tell what is saving your life now,” was the reply. The answer both surprised her and profoundly impacted her thinking for years to come. It became the basis for penning An Altar in the World.
I too am shaken by that clear and simple invitation and find myself returning to it again and again.
Whatever I think will save my life is what I will worship. That’s what it all comes down to, isn’t it?
Depending on my stage of life, I have at one time or another looked to appearance, possessions, accomplishment, intellectual achievement, and relationships to make my life whole and complete. And why wouldn’t I? Isn’t that the message I hear day after day from the moment I enter the world?
It’s important to look after myself, I am told. Good nutrition and regular exercise, matters. Looking good is essential too. Advertisers do not shy from declaring that a certain shampoo will make my hair shinier and silkier, that my legs will feel smoother if I use a particular lotion, that this toothpaste will make my teeth their whitest, that I can have longer, thicker lashes with that mascara, that I can fit into size 2 jeans if only I eat this brand of yogurt. Part of me yearns for those promises to be true. But one look at my fifty-four-year-old neck should tell me this body isn’t going to be getting much better.
According to several sources I’ve read, the average person sees hundreds of advertisements in a single day for the smartest wardrobes, accessories, hairstyles, homes, cars, and family vacation spots. Who can withstand such a barrage?
If not appearance and possessions, then maybe accomplishment will give me the security and sense of belonging I crave. It’s important to work hard and achieve, I have learned. Important to do well in one’s career. Surely it is. There are days when I get great pleasure from accomplishments at work. I am conscientious about what I do, and I enjoy it. I put a lot of stock in how my projects turn out. The down side, of course, is that on those days when I make a bad call, I end up feeling worse than terrible. Maybe I’m a little more neurotic than most, but I don’t think my response is so unusual. Is being good at what I do, maybe even the best, saving my life?
Maybe it’s intellectual achievement. I was a good student all through school, and I still enjoy learning, but what if I don’t understand something, no matter how hard I try? What if I fail? And my child: what if my child doesn’t clear the bar? I want him to do well too. Of course I do. If my child achieves, then he will be accepted at a decent university. He will carve out a productive career and have a good life. I love him and want to see him excel. But what happens when my child is in Special Education classes rather than the Gifted program I had envisioned? What if he doesn’t make the team? What if he doesn’t pass the test? What if he lags behind and cannot find his way?
What about family? Surely a family of my own is essential to happiness. Didn’t Cinderella’s prince change her life magically for the better? I spent many years as a single adult, putting far too much stock in the ideal of marriage and worshiping the concept of a husband and family. Friends were dear, but I thought the right person could make me happy ever after. I thought the right person could save my life and validate my existence. I equated singleness with rejection, and marriage with fulfillment, satisfaction, and society’s ultimate stamp of approval.
Funny how it took me so long to recognize my idols. Appearance, accomplishment, possessions, family. None of those were the answer. Not only was it impossible to acquire all of the right accouterments, but I discovered that the ones I could lay hold of could not save my life. No sooner did I grasp them than I discovered they were only hollowed-out shells of promises, empty and void. What am I reaching for with all the energy and longing I possess? What am I greedy for? What do I covet, in the hope that it will make me whole?
That’s the central question, isn’t it? Don’t I worship whatever I believe is saving my life? Isn’t this how I measure my worth? Isn’t this how I measure the worth of another?
I am past the stage when I think I have answers for anyone but myself, but this I will say. This I know: I will never find my worth or anyone else’s in those places. God has told me that none of these empty shells will ever hold truth. He is the only one who can offer me life, and I refuse to worship at the altar of anyone or anything else. He has put his image inside me and inside every other human being on earth, and his creative life force is apparent in every stone on the rugged mountainside, in the soft dimpled skin of every baby’s hand, and in the magnificence of every trumpeter swan.
Is his truth so easy to remember? No. Unequivocally, no. It is hard to ignore the thousand voices crying out to me like hawkers at a carnival, offering their cheap substitutes for meaning, assuring me that I have no obligation to anyone but myself. It is not easy to keep my eyes trained on the One who holds out his hand and calls me to follow him. Flashes of color here, a fluttering motion there, a strain of music, and I look away. Time after time I fail to get it right. Time after time I forget who holds the brimming cup and begin again to worship the idols that compete for my devotion.
Sometimes my misguided meanderings are short, sometimes long. But there comes a point when I realize once more that God is the only source of life and that only he really knows how I am made. At that moment I remember a brief interchange between Jesus and his followers in the Gospel of John, chapter 6. It is as though I am there with them at the end of what has been a most difficult day, a day many have turned back from following him:
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
And what does this Jesus hold out for Simon Peter and for me? His welcoming words at the close of the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 11, quiet my striving heart in a way nothing else can:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
I will go to him. There is no one else.
I will look to his steadfast love to define my worth, whether my steps are faltering or bold, whether the way is rugged or smooth. He tells me I am dear to him, the apple of his eye.
That is what I have come to believe, and it saves my life every day.