Chapter OneMy Search for a Single Passion to Live By
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My father was an evangelist. In fact he still is, even though he
doesn't travel now. When I was a boy, there were rare occasions
when my mother and sister and I traveled with him and heard
him preach. I trembled to hear my father preach. In spite of the
predictable opening humor, the whole thing struck me as absolutely
blood-earnest. There was a certain squint to his eye and a
tightening of his lips when the avalanche of biblical texts came
to a climax in application.
"I've Wasted It, I've Wasted It"
Oh, how he would plead! Children, teenagers, young singles,
young married people, the middle-aged, old people-he would
press the warnings and the wooings of Christ into the heart of
each person. He had stories, so many stories, for each age
group-stories of glorious conversions, and stories of horrific
refusals to believe followed by tragic deaths. Seldom could those
stories come without tears.
For me as a boy, one of the most gripping illustrations my
fiery father used was the story of a man converted in old age. The
church had prayed for this man for decades. He was hard and
resistant. But this time, for some reason, he showed up when my
father was preaching. At the end of the service, during a hymn,
to everyone's amazement he came and took my father's hand.
They sat down together on the front pew of the church as the
people were dismissed. God opened his heart to the Gospel of
Christ, and he was saved from his sins and given eternal life. But
that did not stop him from sobbing and saying, as the tears ran
down his wrinkled face-and what an impact it made on me to
hear my father say this through his own tears-"I've wasted it!
I've wasted it!"
This was the story that gripped me more than all the stories
of young people who died in car wrecks before they were converted-the
story of an old man weeping that he had wasted his
life. In those early years God awakened in me a fear and a passion
not to waste my life. The thought of coming to my old age
and saying through tears, "I've wasted it! I've wasted it!" was a
fearful and horrible thought to me.
"Only One Life, 'Twill Soon Be Past"
Another riveting force in my young life-small at first, but oh so
powerful over time-was a plaque that hung in our kitchen over
the sink. We moved into that house when I was six. So I suppose
I looked at the words on that plaque almost every day for twelve
years, till I went away to college at age eighteen. It was a simple
piece of glass painted black on the back with a gray link chain
snug around it for a border and for hanging. On the front, in old
English script, painted in white, were the words:
Only one life,
'Twill soon be past;
Only what's done
for Christ will last.
To the left, beside these words, was a painted green hill with two
trees and a brown path that disappeared over the hill. How many
times, as a little boy, and then as a teenager with pimples and
longings and anxieties, I looked at that brown path (my life) and
wondered what would be over that hill. The message was clear.
You get one pass at life. That's all. Only one. And the lasting measure
of that life is Jesus Christ. I am fifty-seven as I write, and that
very plaque hangs today on the wall by our front door. I see it
every time I leave home.
What would it mean to waste my life? That was a burning
question. Or, more positively, what would it mean to live well-not
to waste life, but to .? How to finish that sentence was the
question. I was not even sure how to put the question into words,
let alone what the answer might be. What was the opposite of not
wasting my life? "To be successful in a career"? Or "to be maximally
happy"? Or "to accomplish something great?" Or "to find
the deepest meaning and significance"? Or "to help as many people
as possible"? Or "to serve Christ to the full"? Or "to glorify
God in all I do"? Or was there a point, a purpose, a focus, an
essence to life that would fulfill every one of those dreams?
"The Lost Years"
I had forgotten how weighty this question was for me until I
looked through my files from those early years. Just when I was
about to leave my South Carolina home in 1964, never to return
as a resident, Wade Hampton High School published a simple literary
magazine of poems and stories. Near the back, with the
byline Johnny Piper, was a poem. I will spare you. It was not a
good poem. Jane, the editor, was merciful. What matters to me
now was the title and first four lines. It was called "The Lost
Years." Beside it was a sketch of an old man in a rocking chair.
The poem began:
Long I sought for the earth's hidden meaning;
Long as a youth was my search in vain.
Now as I approach my last years waning,
My search I must begin again.
Across the forty years that separate me from that poem I can
hear the fearful refrain, "I've wasted it! I've wasted it!" Somehow
there had been wakened in me a passion for the essence and the
main point of life. The ethical question "whether something is
permissible" faded in relation to the question, "what is the main
thing, the essential thing?" The thought of building a life around
minimal morality or minimal significance-a life defined by the
question, "What is permissible?"-felt almost disgusting to me.
I didn't want a minimal life. I didn't want to live on the outskirts
of reality. I wanted to understand the main thing about life and
Existentialism Was the Air We Breathed
The passion not to miss the essence of life, not to waste it, intensified
in college-the tumultuous late sixties. There were strong
reasons for this, reasons that go well beyond the inner turmoil of
one boy coming of age. "Essence" was under assault almost
everywhere. Existentialism was the air we breathed. And the
meaning of existentialism was that "existence precedes essence."
That is, first you exist and then, by existing, you create your
essence. You make your essence by freely choosing to be what you
will be. There is no essence outside you to pursue or conform to.
Call it "God" or "Meaning" or "Purpose"-it is not there until
you create it by your own courageous existence. (If you furrow
your brow and think, "This sounds strangely like our own day
and what we call postmodernism," don't be surprised. There is
nothing new under the sun. There are only endless repackagings.)
I recall sitting in a darkened theater watching the theatrical
offspring of existentialism, the "theater of the absurd." The play
was Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Vladimir and Estragon
meet under a tree and converse as they wait for Godot. He never
comes. Near the end of the play a boy tells them Godot will not
be coming. They decide to leave but never move. They go
nowhere. The curtain falls, and God[ot] never comes.
That was Beckett's view of people like me-waiting, seeking,
hoping to find the Essence of things, instead of creating my own
essence with my free and unbridled existence. Nowhere-that's
where you're going, he implied, if you pursue some transcendent
Point or Purpose or Focus or Essence.
"The Nowhere Man"
The Beatles released their album Rubber Soul in December 1965
and sang out their existentialism with compelling power for my
generation. Perhaps it was clearest in John Lennon's "Nowhere
He's a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere kind
Making all his nowhere plans
Doesn't have a point of view
Knows not where he's going to
Isn't he a bit like you and me?
These were heady days, especially for college students. And,
thankfully, God was not silent. Not everybody gave way to the
lure of the absurd and the enticement of heroic emptiness. Not
everyone caved in to the summons of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul
Sartre. Even voices without root in the Truth knew that
there must be something more-something outside ourselves,
something bigger and greater and more worth living for than
what we saw in the mirror.
The Answer, the Answer Was Blowin'
in the Wind
Bob Dylan was scratching out songs with oblique messages of
hope that exploded on the scene precisely because they hinted at
a Reality that would not keep us waiting forever. Things would
change. Sooner or later the slow would be fast and the first
would be last. And it would not be because we were existential
masters of our absurd fate. It would come to us. That is what we
all felt in the song, "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
The line it is drawn,
The curse it is cast,
The slow one now
Will later be fast.
As the present now
Will later be past,
The order is
And the first one now
Will later be last,
For the times they are a-changin'.
It must have riled the existentialists to hear Dylan, perhaps
without even knowing it, sweep away their everything-goes relativism
with the audacious double "The answer . The answer"
in the smash hit, "Blowin' in the Wind."
How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, 'n' how many cars must
one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take
till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend,
is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
How many times can a man look up and not see the sky?
There is a sky up there to be seen. You may look up ten thousand
times and say you don't see it. But that has absolutely no effect
on its objective existence. It is there. And one day you will see it.
How many times must you look up before you see it? There is
an answer. The answer, The answer, my friend, is not yours to
invent or create. It will be decided for you. It is outside you. It is
real and objective and firm. One day you will hear it. You don't
create it. You don't define it. It comes to you, and sooner or later
you conform to it-or bow to it.
That is what I heard in Dylan's song, and everything in me
said, Yes! There is an Answer with a capital A. To miss it would
mean a wasted life. To find it would mean having a unifying
Answer to all my questions.
The little brown path over the green hill on our kitchen
plaque was winding its way-all through the sixties-among the
sweet snares of intellectual folly. Oh, how courageous my generation
seemed when they stepped off the path and put their foot
in the trap! Some could even muster the moxie to boast, "I have
chosen the way of freedom. I have created my own existence. I
have shaken loose the old laws. Look how my leg is severed!"
The Man with Long Hair and Knickers
But God was graciously posting compelling warnings along the
way. In the fall of 1965 Francis Schaeffer delivered a week of lectures
at Wheaton College that in 1968 became the book, The
God Who Is There. The title shows the stunning simplicity of
the thesis. God is there. Not in here, defined and shaped by my
own desires. God is out there. Objective. Absolute Reality (which
Schaeffer pronounced something like "Reawity"). All that looks
like reality to us is dependent on God. There is creation and
Creator, nothing more. And creation gets all its meaning and purpose
Here was an absolutely compelling road sign. Stay on the
road of objective truth. This will be the way to avoid wasting
your life. Stay on the road that your fiery evangelist father was
on. Don't forsake the plaque on your kitchen wall. Here was
weighty intellectual confirmation that life would be wasted in the
grasslands of existentialism. Stay on the road. There is Truth.
There is a Point and Purpose and Essence to it all. Keep searching.
You will find it.
I suppose there is no point lamenting that one must spend his
college years learning the obvious-that there is Truth, that there
is objective being and objective value. Like a fish going to school
to learn that there is water, or a bird that there is air, or a worm
that there is dirt. But it seems that, for the last two hundred years
or so, this has been the main point of good education. And its
opposite is the essence of bad education. So I don't lament the
years I spent learning the obvious.
The Man Who Taught Me to See
Indeed, I thank God for professors and writers who devoted
tremendous creative energies to render credible the existence of
trees and water and souls and love and God. C. S. Lewis, who
died the same day as John F. Kennedy in 1963 and who taught
English at Oxford, walked up over the horizon of my little
brown path in 1964 with such blazing brightness that it is hard
to overstate the impact he had on my life.
Someone introduced me to Lewis my freshman year with the
book, Mere Christianity. For the next five or six years I was
almost never without a Lewis book near at hand. I think that
without his influence I would not have lived my life with as much
joy or usefulness as I have. There are reasons for this.
He has made me wary of chronological snobbery. That is, he
showed me that newness is no virtue and oldness is no vice. Truth
and beauty and goodness are not determined by when they exist.
Nothing is inferior for being old, and nothing is valuable for
being modern. This has freed me from the tyranny of novelty and
opened for me the wisdom of the ages. To this day I get most of
my soul-food from centuries ago. I thank God for Lewis's compelling
demonstration of the obvious.
He demonstrated for me and convinced me that rigorous, precise,
penetrating logic is not opposed to deep, soul-stirring feeling
and vivid, lively-even playful-imagination. He was a
"romantic rationalist." He combined things that almost everybody
today assumes are mutually exclusive: rationalism and
poetry, cool logic and warm feeling, disciplined prose and free
imagination. In shattering these old stereotypes, he freed me to
think hard and to write poetry, to argue for the resurrection and
compose hymns to Christ, to smash an argument and hug a
friend, to demand a definition and use a metaphor.
Lewis gave me an intense sense of the "realness" of things.
The preciousness of this is hard to communicate. To wake up in
the morning and be aware of the firmness of the mattress, the
warmth of the sun's rays, the sound of the clock ticking, the sheer
being of things ("quiddity" as he calls its). He helped me become
alive to life. He helped me see what is there in the world-things
that, if we didn't have, we would pay a million dollars to have,
but having them, ignore. He made me more alive to beauty. He
put my soul on notice that there are daily wonders that will
waken worship if I open my eyes. He shook my dozing soul and
threw the cold water of reality in my face, so that life and God
and heaven and hell broke into my world with glory and horror.
He exposed the sophisticated intellectual opposition to
objective being and objective value for the naked folly that it
was. The philosophical king of my generation had no clothes on,
and the writer of children's books from Oxford had the courage
to say so.
You can't go on "seeing through" things forever. The whole
point of seeing through something is to see something through
it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because
the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw
through the garden too? It is no use trying to "see through"
first principles. If you see through everything, then everything
is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible
world. To "see through" all things is the same as not to see.
Oh, how much more could be said about the world as C. S.
Lewis saw it and the way he spoke. He has his flaws, some of
them serious. But I will never cease to thank God for this remarkable
man who came onto my path at the perfect moment.