Thirty-nine is a difficult age. This year I decided to buy a Dodge Challenger. Seriously. And I almost did (and I still might). My wife of course explained to me that I just was going through a mid-life crisis. I thought to myself, “mid-life crisis? I’m not even fifty yet.” But then I immedialty realized that fifty is only midlife for less than 1% of the US population. So I looked it up. If I stop eating pizza and donuts at an alarming rate, I might make the national average life expectancy for men of 78 years old. So at 39, I’m exactly at midlife. Well, then bring on the crisis! In all honesty, I started thinking mid-life thoughts around 33. I worked full-time for my dad’s company for my last three years of college, got married at 21, had four kids before 30, built the house we now live in at 29. At 39, I have been in my current job for 20 years. And I have really started to think about the middle, and yes, the end. The seemingly limitless state of enthusiasm, energy and optimism in which I operated as a young man in my twenties is all but gone. Career, mortgage, car payments, school tuition, orthodontics, college savings accounts, consistent parenting (Lord help us), retirement savings, and all that smack-you-in-the-face-real-life stuff is just about enough to kill a man (or woman). But in the few fleeting moments that I can actually reflect on life, I have started thinking about my legacy. What have I done that matters? If the answer is “not much,” then is there still time to do something important? Have I made my mark on society? My community? My family?
These questions haunt me daily, and I think the answer to all of them is yes, but less than I had hoped. If God grants me a long life, I’m half-way done. There is a nagging urgency to accomplish all I wanted to do in this life, and a more mature and realistic me is beginning to accept that I’m not going to make it. Around the time I graduated from college, a mentor of mine warned me against what he called “prayerless striving.” Twenty years ago when he told me about this pattern in his life, I don’t think I really understood what that looked like. But now as I reflect on my own life, prayerless striving for me has been the attempt to accomplish great things for God in my own strength. The truth is God doesn’t need me (or you) to do great things for him. He does the great things. Moses didn’t rescue the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, God did. Abraham and Sarah did not overcome Sarah’s barrenness when they were both in their 90s, God did. David did not kill Goliath because he was a great shot with a sling, rather the Bible says that God delivered him into David’s hand. And on and on. To be sure, there are men and women who have done what we would call “great things” in the name of God, but the Bible has something to say about the source of those things. In John 15, Jesus says this:
I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. – John 15:5
Those are freeing words. They do not get us off the hook for serving God, but they make it very clear that the source of what we are to accomplish for God in our own lives and in the lives of others is none other than Jesus himself. More than that, there is no age limit on this paradigm. At 39 I am just as dependent on Jesus to bear fruit in my life as I was at 20, and if I make it to the “ripe” old age of 78, he will still be bearing the fruit that he intends if I abide in him. See here’s the thing. Trying to do great things in your own strength is exhausting. And at the end of the process, if you have actually accomplished something others might deem “great,” you look at this accomplishment in all its glory and think to yourself “is that it?”
So as I start my 40th year, I have decided to stop trying to do great things. Instead I am now prepared to settle for simple, faithful things. I am trusting Jesus, the true vine, to bear fruit in my life as I abide in him. But what does abiding look like? I think Psalm 1 has at least part of the answer.
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on this law he mediatates day and night.He is like a tree, planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does he prospers. – Psalm 1:1-3
Just as we read in John 15, the psalmist points out that the tree bears fruit because it is planted by streams of water. There is unseen nourishment happening that fuels the tree’s growth and production. Take the tree to dry ground and it withers and dies. That water is the law of the Lord, or the Word of God on which this blessed man meditates day and night. To abide in Jesus is to mediate on God’s word. It is to seek him in worship, sacrament, and prayer. It is to spend time with the body of Christ, our brothers and sisters in the faith. It is to not only seek him actively, but it is to avoid the way of the wicked. We must see the sin in our own lives and put it to death through regular and open confession rather than hiding and nurturing it. It is to bind up the broken-hearted, and to offer a cup of cold water to the thirsty. To visit the prisoner, and to come to the aid of the orphan and the widow. These spiritual disciplines and deeds of service are the acts of abiding, but they are not the source of the fruit. Jesus is the source. The world needs fewer mega-churches and more disciples who walk as Jesus walked. So abide in him, and let him bear much fruit. That is, with the help of God, how I plan to live my remaining years.