"It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believe at fifteen,
then you have not lived-or have denied the reality of your life"
"My Bright Abyss"
It was about a year ago, that I stumbled unto an interview with Christian Wiman, poet, professor, faith sojourner. I was immediately intrigued. There was a raw honesty about his Jesus journey, not flowered by "evangelical speak" but by the truth of a doubting sinner.
His poetry was enlightening in its rhythms, rhymes and ritual. I found my aching soul reaching for the beauty of his quest wrapped in endless imagination. So I bought this book. Isn't that what we do? We buy the book! Oh dear. That was dangerous. Read...
"I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself. But now, if a poet's ambition were truly for the work and nothing else, he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve the pure space of making, but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world. No, ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self...So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost" Christian Wiman "My Bright Abyss
To my deep embarrassment, when I captained the 1983 church plant, I said to Carl that my goal was to "lead the largest church in Durban". Oh my! I look back on it now I could not be more embarrassed by that great declaration. Although my memory does not have this in the conversation, I have to add something like "for his glory, to proclaim the gospel and advance the kingdom". At least these words would have made me feel better, even though they hid a shallow heart really more invested in my success than true Jesus proclamation.
Then I journeyed with Dudley in the growth of NCMI. Again, I would love to say that I did it for Jesus...making so much of him. But dear reader I can't. Of course there were great moments of purity of ambition that leaked through, but honestly the drive in my inner sanctum was ambition for me, for Dudley, for NCMI. That is no-one's fault but my own.
Yes I am older now. Yes I have walked through the "valley of the shadow of death". Yes I have had to take a deep long hard look at my life, my story, my driving ambition. To be truthful this has not been an easy or desired reflection.
If what Wiman suggests is true, then we have to find a quiet Getsemane to resubmit to "not my will but yours be done". The deep pain of "why" readying us for the great audience of one. That moment, when the spotlight of heaven will search my naked soul and reveal that brokenness that drove me forward, will reveal all.
These conversations are no easy. From the time we are little tikes running in the woods, climbing up trees and onto horseback, we want to be superheroes. I don't even think that is bad...is it? What did you want to be? I can't really remember mine - it was some military guy who would save the world - nothing less of course.
We want to make our mark, we want to write our story, we want to put Jesus front and center of our narrative. Our families foster the strategic conversations that are conducted to stir up this great adventurous ambition that we are suppose to be catapulted by. Our culture fuels that fire. Social media drives that notion that "I am " is measured by our "likes" and the followers we have.
And yet our master kept telling his disciples "tell no-one of this". He stumbled in the dark around the fringes of Jerusalem when they tried to make him king. I wonder. Do you think his mannishness was vulnerable to the very breach of our humanity, redemption through ambition, not death on the cross? I don't know. But I do wonder.
There is power in ambition. It sneaky, subtle tentacles gently wraps itself around our unprotected heart. With persistence, it disarms our resilience to stand firm, nudging us to propose, promote, piously present our story, our church, our movement. Somewhere and we rarely know when, the message shifts, the agenda adjusts and the applause is redirected. Jesus is the soft front, but the men and message of the movement becomes the true rallying cry.
Ambition is a deadly bedfellow. As a lover he is very demanding and presents his needs as legitimate. He is persistent and masquerades around the essential and the urgent. Is it possible to live in pure ambition? You know, I am not sure. It is not an incurable condition, but it does carry the stain that is brutish to remove. But, to quote Wiman again "So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost". Please listen to an old voice, one corrupted by this foe, it is Jesus and him only that needs be our ambition, for all else will be burned away.