Making Room For Better Things
Hanging on my father’s office wall were six portraits of older men. Each represented a single character trait he wished to emulate in his own life and every morning standing before them he reported to himself how he was doing. A young friend this week told me how he used a photo altering app for showing what he will look like when he is 85 or older. He tacked his image on the wall of his office and asked himself the question, “What kind of man do I want to be when I look like that?” Benjamin Franklin had something similar but far more detailed. “I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the 13 virtues. I ruled each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I crossed these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.”
Like Franklin, the apostle Paul loved lists and among his many is one encouraging the Christians at Philippi to “think on whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” In other words, consider who you want to be. In his letter to Timothy, he tells him to pursue these as well but with one important addition. Pursue people who embody these qualities. It is one thing to have a list of characteristics and even pictures but quite another to intentionally pursue a relationship with those whose lives are examples. It’s not hero worship or becoming a groupie. To do this is more than pursuing a list of character qualities but the pursuit of being influenced and shaped by people who embody these traits. They are men and women who have had the experiences of temptation, ambition, disappointment, and success who still held fast to righteousness, faith, love and, peace. Some call them role models or mentors. They are wisdom figures or tribal leaders. Whatever, they are people who embody what Paul is describing as spiritual maturity.
Making Room For Better Things
While Paul also instructs Timothy to flee the evil desires and dangerous impulses of youth – and they are more than sexual – he often uses the word desire to describe something good as well. Yes, there are unhealthy desires of youth but there are also healthy desires of youth – as well as age. We outgrow the desires and impulses of immaturity for those valued by age. Impulsive in the best way in that they come so naturally we do not have to force them. We have put away childish things as intended but we have not stopped desiring to learn and grow. We have made room for better things. While no longer needing a book of lists that record for us each day our virtues and failures, we are becoming the people Paul encouraged Timothy to find and pursue.
The question for me today, and I suspect for others, is who do we pursue now that we are older? I had many as a young man but they have gradually died and replacing them is difficult. That may explain why so many of us as we get older and lose the living heroes turn to the books and writers that are timeless. We discover resources our English teachers would call “classics.” For me, Ecclesiastes is the book we should have read when young – but we didn’t have the life experience to understand it. We know it now because we are living it. Like reading Shakespeare, it is only later in life can we understand the depth of the ambition of Macbeth, the jealousy of Othello, the indulgence of Falstaff and the melancholy of Hamlet. I like what Soren Kierkegaard said: “This is the reason my soul always turns back to the Old Testament and to Shakespeare. I feel that those who speak there are at least human beings: they hate, they love, they murder their enemies, and curse their descendants throughout all generations, they sin.”
So, my young friend’s question is more immediate for me now. Not “what kind of person do I want to be when I look like that” but now that I do who will I pursue? What are the proper and healthy desires of age? After all, I still have so far to go to be the one pursued!