Q: What do you do when you're entering the last quarter of your life and feel you've accomplished nothing and haven't met God's expectations of you? No one seems to have a good answer to this.
— J.D., Williston Park, N.Y.
via a handwritten letter on notepaper with a skating snowman in one corner and mailed in an envelope with a stamp
A: Thank you for one of the best questions I've ever received! Let me begin by suggesting that your question already contains the seeds of the answer you seek:
You understand that God created you. This is the most important spiritual truth you could possibly believe and you already believe it. The best definition I've ever heard of the ubiquitous word "spirituality" is "life lived in the presence of God." You're already a spiritual person because you believe you're living in the presence of God. This means you already believe you're not merely a material piece of meat and goo, but rather a being with a soul.
Since you know you are created, you should know that you're not alone. An ancient rabbi taught: "It is a blessing to be made in the image of God, but it is a greater blessing to know that we are made in the image of God." That is a great achievement in your life.
You understand that God has expectations for you in life. A creator God is not enough to sustain a life of faith. If that God is utterly transcendent and removed from your life, then being created is slim comfort in the face of life's wounds and despair. This deus absconditus was the unmoved mover god of Aristotle. His god was a creator who had no care or concern for his/its creation.
You want a relationship with a personal God who cares for you, loves you and wants you to find and fulfill your unique blessings. Because you love God, you want to please God but are in despair as to whether you've done so by becoming the person God blessed you to be.
So let me ask: What do you think a life pleasing to God would look like? For the prophet Micah (6:8), all God wants of us is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. For Jesus, it was serving the least among God's creatures (Matthew 25:35-41). I take the essence of both these teachings to be the value of humility in serving God, and you've shown great humility in your humble question.
You don't trumpet all the good things you've done in your life. You're a humble petitioner of God's grace — a grace you've already achieved by your honest humility.
Be patient. My final loving tribute to your greatness — yes, I'm comfortable calling you a great person (the skating snowman clinched the deal for me) — is the need for spiritual perseverance. You feel that time is running out on you. That may or may not be true, but what is true is that your spiritual journey and moments of spiritual despair will continue until God kisses you on the lips and takes your breath away.
Be patient with the journey and with your questions. I've often quoted the poet Rainer Maria Rilke on this: "I would like to beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves..." Your life is not a movie or novel where all the plot twists are worked out and resolved in the last frame or chapter. Your life's journey is your life's destination.
The rabbinic commentary on the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra Rabba 7:2) makes a similar consoling point that I hope gives you comfort in your self-doubt: "If a person uses broken vessels, it is considered an embarrassment. But God seeks out broken vessels for his use, as it says, 'God is the healer of shattered hearts.'"
I also love the words of the poet Barbara Crooker, who wrote: "For we are here not merely to bloom in the light, but rather, like trees, to be weathered: burned by heat, frozen by snow, and though our hearts have been broken, still, we put out new leaves in spring, begin again."
You may think you are in the winter of your discontent, but the truth of your humble and holy life is that every day you live, you enter a new springtime and a new way to serve God and all of God's creation.
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