Turning Forty (Almost)

As they explore higher education, or a newfound career or perhaps the formational years of a marriage and family, they soon discover that the experiences of their youth are quickly replaced with newly formed adult beliefs, values and character…. It shames me when I discover that large portions of my character are still marked with the passions, thoughts and values formed in my teens and twenty-somethings — stuff that although excusable in my thirty’s, should have been replaced with deeper maturity.

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Our faith-community has begun a new discussion topic. For the next 14 weeks, we’re examining the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134). As a supplement to our discussion, we’re also reading Eugene Peterson’s, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Our first discussion was a great start and I’m looking forward to our conversations.

As we discussed the first Song of Ascent, Psalm 120, a particular phrase unlocked a door inside of me, “I am a man of peace.” This one line has churned eight months of restless thinking into a froth. Let me explain:

In four months, I’m turning forty years old. And that fact has occupied my thoughts quite a bit since my birthday last August. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not anxious about growing old. In fact, I’ve always looked forward to each new year. Turning forty isn’t a crisis of that sort. Nor is it the catalyst for some sort of a mid-life crisis. I’m very happy with my life, my family, and my friends. I like who I’m becoming in my journey with Christ and I’m blessed by the people that he has surrounded me with.

So what’s my problem? I don’t know if any of this will make sense, but I’m going to try and put words to stuff that I’m just discovering has been swirling around inside of me. And I apologize if any of this offends you in any way. That’s not my intent. I’m simply trying find expression and to pin down what has been rather elusive to this point. In finding expression, I may actually discover that I’m completely wrong and need to alter how I think and feel. But I can’t do that until I put words to what I’m thinking and feeling. So I appreciate your listening ear and any correction you feel led to bring.

I think I’ve viewed entering each decade of adulthood as significant milestones. As I approach the forty-year milestone, I’m discovering that personally, it’s probably more significant than the twenty-year and thirty-year ones. For me the twenty-somethings categorize young adulthood. A person moves from the youth of their teens into the larger life of adulthood. Yet, like packing clothes that they will quickly outgrow, the only thing one can bring on this new journey is the experience of their youth. As they explore higher education, or a newfound career or perhaps the formational years of a marriage and family, they soon discover that the experiences of their youth are quickly replaced with newly formed adult beliefs, values and character. Granted, this is an over-exaggeration, but I think this was my experience.

The thirty-somethings are a transitional decade. It’s a time when a person shifts from their from their youthful zeal and naivete into a more mature perspective on life. It’s a time when all a person has formed in their twenty-somethings is tested and re-calibrated in preparation for their established adult years. This is what I experienced in my thirty’s. The beliefs, values and character that I had formed in my younger twenty’s were being measured against something much larger than myself. And, too be quite frank, I came up sorely lacking. It was in my thirty’s that I experienced a significant course change to my life. I realized that if I continued on my present course, I was becoming a man, a husband, a father, a pastor, and a Christian that I didn’t like and that was completely out of sync with the biblical portrait of apprenticeship to Jesus.

So with God’s grace, I launched on an alternate journey in my mid-thirty’s. Following a severe episode of burnout and inward crisis, I began exploring the realm of Christian spiritual formation. This eventually led to the deconstruction and reconstruction of much of my theology and practice and ultimately to my leaving professional ministry.

Now, as I face the impending approach of my forty-something decade, I’ve begun to feel “weird” about turning forty. It wasn’t until our discussion on Thursday night when the line from Psalm 120 initially flushed my feelings and thoughts into my consciousness. I’ve become aware that when I think of forty-something, I associate it completely with established maturity. I equate forty-somethings as the beginning of truly impacting the world at large with character and wisdom. While I would have associated immaturity with the twenty-somethings and even excused it in the thirty-somethings, it becomes sad and intolerable when discovered in the forty-somethings and a tragedy in the fifty-somethings and beyond.

Until now, all of this has been agitating below the surface of my conscious thinking. It wasn’t until I read the line, “I am a man of peace,” that it really hit me. I’m entering what I’ve accepted as the decade of established maturity. And I don’t have it. I wish I could say, “I’m a man of shalom. I’m a man of mature harmony and wisdom ready to impact this distorted and disjointed world with God’s love, compassion, reconciliation, healing and justice.” But when I look inward, I find that I’m terribly lacking. I’m consumed by immaturity when I should be marked by the maturity of Christ’s character. It shames me when I discover that large portions of my character are still marked with the passions, thoughts and values formed in my teens and twenty-somethings — stuff that although excusable in my thirty’s, should have been replaced with deeper maturity.

I remember a saying John Wimber used to say, “I want to grow up before I grow old.” That sentiment is very poignant as the inward restlessness of the last eight months begin to find its voice.

Now having said all of that, I also want to say how grateful I am that God intervened in the latter half of my thirty-somethings. He allowed events to force me to a decision that I would not have been capable of making on my own — leaving professional ministry. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my identity and worth as a human being was completely tangled and knotted with my concept of pastoring. So a lot of my immaturity and distortion were being enabled by what I had allowed myself to become as a professional pastor. And with the value of hindsight, I now realize that much of the healing I’ve experience and that now enables me to follow Christ in a new and healthy way could not have taken place if I remained the kind of professional pastor that I was. I needed to step away from it so that Christ could successfully disentangle my being from my profession. The last three years have been filled with both incredible difficulty and grand healing. I liken it to the physical therapy that one must engage with in order to experience new health. And I’m so grateful for my wife and kids and friends who have been with me through the rehab I’ve experienced since “detoxing” from church. (Who knows. Maybe I’ll need follow-up my “detox” article with a sequel “rehab” article to discuss the journey toward health.)

Ready or not, in four months I will step over a symbolic threshold. I’m scared, not because I’m growing old, but because I haven’t matured enough. I know I do not possess the necessary maturity of Christ’s character and power to be what I envision my forty-somethings to be. Yet, I’m convinced I’m now on the right path. I also have greater confidence in Jesus ability to teach than in my inability to learn. I don’t know where this journey will take me. Part of me still feels that the calling I sensed in my early years to professional pastoring will come back into greater fruition. If so, it will be in a new way than what I’ve experienced. But if not, I’m okay with wherever Jesus leads me. Over the last several years, God has proven himself more faithful than I could have imagined. It’s one thing to read about God’s faithfulness and nod at it. It’s an entirely different thing to feel like you’ve gone as deep and as dark as you could go and find God enabling you to go further and then emerge from the other side, finding forgiveness and compassion where originally I only felt hurt and bitter.

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