Wisdom from the Road

Ben Johnson Part 12 of 14

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Editor’s Note:

Ben Johnson is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary and founder of their Center for Christian Spirituality—the first of its kind at a mainline Protestant seminary. Earlier in his career Ben founded the Lay Witness Mission, which included participation from more than ten thousand congregations across ten denominations. After his retirement Ben arranged for a gathering of a group of individuals to whom he had played some type of mentoring role. During this gathering he shared his top ten life lessons—the most important things he had learned on his journey with God. We asked him to share these with you.

For a number of years, I had thought about hosting a retreat for a group of men and women whom I had met in travels back and forth across the country. Some were students of past years, friends, lay ministers, and pastors of high-steeple churches, but they had one thing in common: at some point in their lives, they had permitted me to enter in and offer an insight, suggestion, or merely a listening ear. All of were bright, energetic, and committed followers of Jesus Christ. All but three were ordained ministers.

We would meet for a week at The Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. I assembled the list and sent out the invitations. There were twenty of us who gathered for a time of prayer, sharing, and silence, all mixed into a refreshing, liberating week.

I had some resistance to labeling myself a mentor to this seasoned group. As a consequence, I assumed a rather laid-back posture toward the group, and though the meeting times were announced, the content of those times together flowed with the spirit of the gathering.

During the late afternoon of the last night that we were together, I had an inspiration to speak to the group. Heretofore, I had guided in reflections, aided with lectio divina, and talked privately to almost everyone present. But this afternoon I felt a strong urge to share with the group some of the things that I have learned about living during my seven decades.

I took a sheet of scrap paper, folded it into halves, and began to jot down a few notes from which I intended to speak. The statements I made that evening were in the form of admonitions—what a professor might say to his students or a parent to a child taking her first job or, perhaps, an old man to persons he had mentored for a number of years. Most of these insights were followed with testimony of how I had come to that insight or why I thought it to be important for life. Here are those ten words of counsel I offered them for their journeys.

These shared discoveries encompassed the most important things I have discovered on my journey to God. I have no idea how universal these insights are, and I have made no effort to arrange them in a specific order. However, it seems to me that as we move closer to God, we are given an opportunity to learn these lessons of life. And the learning does not seem to be complete after the first opportunity, but repeatedly throughout life, we confront circumstances that teach and reteach these lessons. Perhaps making us aware that we all pass the same signposts on the way to God is one of the greater values of this list of learnings.1

Accept the Self That God Created

In the end there is no other choice. You are who you are with the gifts and possibilities that have been given to you. You may wish that you were more beautiful or handsome, that you had greater gifts or greater opportunities. But your life is what it is. You are where you are! In the future it may change, or you may change, but for the moment you are in this particular situation.

In know this through much grappling. The acceptance of my own selfhood has been a lifelong battle. I have wanted to be other than the “I” that God made me. I looked at others and yearned to be like them. They could do ministry in ways I could not. They had gifts that dwarfed my own. In ways I envied, they received acclaim.

Something must be wrong with me. My “self” was not good enough or talented enough.

This war with self-acceptance was perhaps a battle with insecurity and inferiority. As I have battled with this handicap, I have uncovered a habit that contributed to my unhappiness. I discovered that in nearly every instance of envy or jealousy of a fellow minister, I compared his strongest points with my weakest ones. Seldom did I identify my strength to compare with his or hers. This habit of false comparison set the stage for me to keep alive my feelings of inadequacy.

One day I decided, “I am Ben Johnson,” and there is not another. I have gifts and potentiality that no one else possesses in the same manner and to the same degree as I. I am what I am, and that is good enough for God, and it is good enough for me.

So I hope you can accept the person you are. Discover this person and become fully the individual that you were created to be.

Live in the Rhythm of Your Life

Life is like a stream of water. Sometimes it flows fast, at other times slow, and sometimes it eddies. If the steam is fast and you are unprepared, it’s dangerous; if it is slow and you are pushing the stream, you get worn out; if it eddies and you are impatient, you get discouraged. Live in the flow of your life.

My issue has been seeking to live beyond myself—to paddle ahead of the current. When I became a follower of Christ at age seventeen, my mentors were all forty or fifty years old. They gave me cues for my life of faith. The books I read as a young Christian revealed the commitment and perseverance of the saints. I had an ideal picture of what it meant to follow Jesus, and I was determined, with a fair degree of ego expansion, to be the best disciple he ever had.

As a consequence of this ideal and commitment, I looked for the same maturity at twenty that came when I was fifty and further developed in the next two decades. I seemed always in every stage of life to be striving to live in the next stage and beyond it. By taking this approach to life, I was never content to be where I was. I was never happy with my progress because my goal was just out of reach beyond me.

The pace of life changes. Like rivers, our lives rush at times, and at other times slow to a trickle. I seem to have lived much of my life with only two speeds: full throttle or dead stopped. I have wasted too much energy trying to push the river rather than to relax into its flow. How many times have I sought to expand my work, preach more powerfully, or write like Beuchner or Peterson while refusing to own and celebrate my own way of working or preaching or writing. I never succeeded in pushing the river in this fashion. I was always at my best when I let life come to me.

Stages of life are for learning and experiencing the fullness present at each level of maturity of our lives. When we fail to stay in the flow, we begin to wish we were someone else, doing something else in some other place.

 

Be where you are.

Live in the stage you are in.

Don’t try to be seventy when you are twenty!

Dare to Take Risks

Each has his or her own capacity for risk. You can’t risk more than you can risk, so no need to be heroic. And you don’t risk just to be risking. Risk when you are called. Risk when new doors open.

For too many of us, failure in an effort reveals a deep flaw in our character or others’ estimate of us. I have taken many risks, but I took one that paid rich dividends. When I left Phenix City, Alabama, to study for the PhD at Emory, I had no house to move into, no money to pay tuition, and no salary to support a family. I had nothing to lose, so if I lost everything, I would be even.

I prayed earnestly before making this move. That night, around the altar of the church, Abraham became my patron saint. He was called. He obeyed. And he went out “not knowing.” I discovered that night that risk is taking the way of “unknowing.”

This risk changed my whole life. In wonderful ways, all our needs for food, shelter, and income were met. I had a strange kind of happiness simply depending upon God for my livelihood.

In Atlanta my ship’s sails were hoisted, and the winds blew in new directions. Doors opened that I never dreamed of. My efforts in ministry were rewarded, and the course of my life change. This move from Phoenix City to Atlanta changed my life forever.

4. Embrace Your Failures

Your failures denied become the accusers of your soul; your failures accepted can become your greatest strength. If you give failures too much power, they will paralyze your actions. You will do nothing for fear of failure. This fear is fueled by the notion that others will mock your efforts, or that your own superego will become a ruthless accuser.

No act is a failure if you learn from it. Do you think we come into this world with sufficient knowledge of life? Can we live mistake-free lives? How do we learn if we do not risk failure?

I have numerous experiences in my life that could be dubbed “failure.” I have created several programs for congregations that soured on the shelf for lack of interest or effectiveness. But on the other hand, I have created a dozen programs that touched the lives of thousands of persons over the space of fifteen years.

I have failed in relationships. Having to terminate a friend’s employment usually ruptures the relationship. Unconscious acts and misunderstood motives have cooled other relations. Divorce is public for all to see. When I was in the midst of my divorce, I thought everyone I met already knew about it, as if it had been on ABC News. Furthermore, since I was a Christian and minister with a public persona, I felt I owed everyone an explanation of why the marriage failed.

In this hypersensitivity I discovered an astounding fact. Most people did not care about me and my self-pity. They were stuck with themselves and gave little thought to my pain, embarrassment, and guilt.

You care far more about your failures than do others!

Yet in this failure I learned that I was capable of any sin committed by anyone else. The awareness of my vulnerability knocked off the pious, self-righteous dressing of my soul. As never before, I had a compassionate sensitivity to persons who have failed in their high intentions.

I hope you will not let your failure, any failure, paralyze you. Own it, admit it, and move on with your life.

5. Attend to the Voice of the Spirit

The Spirit speaks to us in both small and large things. Listen to that inner voice deep within you. Of course, we must always discern whether it is God’s voice or our own, but the discernment is not as difficult as many imagine. After years of listening, following the Spirit becomes a practiced way of life.

The major decisions in my life have come in response to the voice of God. Before I went to Columbia Theological Seminary as a professor, the voice spoke to me on New Year’s Day of 1978. I was asking what I should do with my life that year when a flood of images and ideas came into my mind.

Among these words were, “Finish your PhD dissertation because one day you may wish to teach.” To understand how complicated obedience would be, you should know that I began work on the degree in 1963, and now I was being directed to apply for an extension fifteen years later. Any academic dean or member of a graduate school committee would tell you it was impossible. But there were extenuating circumstances.

I telephoned my major professor, whom I had worked with for four years before throwing in the towel. When he answered the phone, I queried, “Is there a possibility that I could resurrect my PhD program?” He responded, “I don’t see why not; a few days ago, Dean Lester noted that we are in the business of giving degrees and not withholding them.”

After fifteen years, my program received resurrection, and the dissertation that I could not write in four years, I wrote in six months. I believe in the accuracy of the inner voice. Had I not listened to this guidance the next twenty years of my life would have been very, very different. So permit me to encourage you to give credence to that inner voice that speaks to you. Let God do for you what only God can do! It is never too late to attend to the voice of God and walk the path he has made for you.

6. Cultivate Hope

In the darkest hour look for the glimmer of light. The Light does shine in the darkness if we can perceive it. Hope gives joy and meaning to the present. Hope provides energy and drive.

I think of hope as a positive or acceptable image of the future.

This acceptable future can be anything from a happy marriage to the education of a child to the amassing of a fortune. Whatever that image of the future may be, it gives a reason for living in the present. When we cannot imagine a positive future, we are in trouble. Having no future means that no purpose exists in our lives, and the anxiety of having no future overly burdens the present.

Those of us who have experienced deep grief or remorse know how either of these wipes out the future. For example, I have visited women whose husbands had recently died. Many of these women have said, “I cannot imagine my life without him.” And that is true: they cannot imagine their lives as being different from what they had expected.

When the future is dark, gloomy, or fearful, wait. Wait for the clouds to clear and the darkness to break up. You cannot deceive your soul by pretending with positive thinking and mind manipulation that you have an alluring future. The birth of hope comes from within as we continue seeking to hear God through the mist or the pain. Generally, it comes in little pieces, and the future begins to take form. You cannot rush this process.

One period of lost hope for me came soon after Nan and I were married. I had been in a long, dry, stale period. I knew that what I was doing vocationally was not what God intended, but I had no idea what God’s intention was.

Sometimes we know what we will not being doing long before we learn what we will. During this time I went on a three-day silent retreat to listen for God. I thought that surely God would reveal to me the future direction of my life.

During the three days, I prayed, read Scripture, and listened. No words. On the last day as I knelt to pray, nine skinny little words flowed through my mind: “You are a servant of the Lord in waiting.” I waited. I had no choice, and the way opened before me.

Psalm 16:11 seems apropos: “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

7. Live in the Present

This prayer from the opening of Living Before God sets the stage for this admonition:

 

LIVING BEFORE GOD

 

Gracious God,

We are before you,

We are always before you.

 

You see us as we are and

Love us for ourselves.

You hear the words

 

We cannot say,

You know the longing

We cannot express.

 

Grant that it be enough for us

To be seen,

To be known, and

To be loved by you this moment

AMEN2

 

Live in the present moment because in this moment the infinity of the mystery of God is being manifest. This moment bears the presence of God and the joy that overflows from it. The present moment is a sacrament, according to Jean Pierre De Caussade.3

As a sacrament, time is the natural aspect, and the infusion of the divine presence is the holy aspect, and the moment mediates both; it is our task to ingest what the moment brings. The present moment opens the door to the Transcendent as it manifests the infinity of the mystery of God. It invites contemplation.

The temptation for us all resides in the attraction of the past with its known ways or the lure of the future with its possibilities, but to shift either to the past or to the future takes us away from the present moment. If the present moment is the meaning of holiness, as a professor friend of mine likes to say, what is there to gain by leaving it? If the present is the place of God, learn ways to abide there and listen for the guidance of the One who is always coming to you.

Throughout the day you can repeatedly admonish yourself, “Come to the present.” These words can become a habit or a mantra that remind you of some very important things. Though I have not mastered a life continuously centered in the present, it is my deep desire and my enduring goal. Hear this admonition:

 

Come to the present: it is

. . . the time that you have

. . . the place of your life.

. . . the place of God’s grace.

Come to the present: it is

. . . all that you have

. . . where all obedience begins.

Come to the present:

The Place of God.4

8. Keep Your Imbalance!

The conventional wisdom about life seems to be one of balance. People admonish us to keep our balance, make space for the important things and don’t go head over heels into one venture in life. Perhaps this life of proportion works for many, but I have never been able to live in balance.

I have read how I should divide my life into different parts—family, friends, work, travel, free time or pleasure—and give proportional time to each aspect of life deemed important. I have tried to so organize my life and live accordingly, but I cannot do it.

By contrast, consider for a moment the issue of balance in Jesus’ life! Do you think Christ was balanced? So many hours for work? So many hours for play? So many hours for fun and recreation?

What about Paul? Was he balanced? He seems to have been a man consumed by his passion for Jesus Christ. He spends three years in Arabia for his discipleship training. He meets the saints in Jerusalem and immediately leaves on a mission. He is run out of town for preaching Christ. The Spirit sends him and Barnabas on a mission to the Gentiles. He defends himself and his calling before the first Council of the Church, the Jerusalem Council. Balanced?

Was St. Francis truly balanced? Francis hears the voice speak through the crucifix: “Go rebuild my church.” This commission captivated and controlled his whole life. This simple man, who is venerated as a saint, today we would call crazy. No, he was not balanced; a holy passion consumed him.

Would you say that Teresa of Avila, with her visions, intuitions, and daring risks was balanced? Was Martin Luther King balanced? Was Brother Carlo Carretto balanced when he went to the desert of North Africa for ten years to learn to pray?

I doubt that men and women with vision and passion will ever be what the world calls balanced. Instead, these are radical people consumed with a vision for new creation or change. They spend their waking hours dreaming of ways to achieve God’s intention; they sacrifice their own comfort for the sake of those in need; they take risks that make them look dumb in the value structure of the world. These are not balanced people who neatly order their days and refuse to break their structure—they are living in a new era they believe is given by God. All the prophets, mystics, and saints seemed to be like this. The world needs more imbalanced people, those tilted toward God by the pull of his love for them and the world, consumed by desire to live in his upside-down kingdom.

9. Keep Editing Your Story

You have been constructing your story since before you remember. You have told it to yourself a thousand times, and you keep telling it. If you keep listening to the story you are telling yourself, you will likely have new insights and persuasions that will change it. New perspectives give us better vision or, at least, different points of sighting. One of the tasks of life is to get your story straight. If “the fruit of the future is in the roots of the past,” you may get some interesting and helpful clues by digging around the roots.

Editing your story will benefit you in a number of ways. When you review things long past that originally seemed detrimental to your life, you may discover that your responses to the pain or failure have actually made you a better person.

When you edit your story, you will also discover themes that have run through your whole life. These themes not only give your life cohesion, but they suggest your gifts and what your life has been about and likely the directions it will tend in the future.

During most of my early life I felt inferior. When I revisit those experiences that gave me feelings of inferiority, I discover that I misinterpreted them. For example, I was reared in the rural South, and some spoke disparagingly about my origin. I recall visits to my cousins in the county seat town nearby and being introduced as the country cousin. The secondhand clothes I wore did not lift my self-esteem either.

Yet, in my adult years when I revisit these memories, I can edit my responses to these statements, which probably had no discounting quality in them. I can tell myself that being a country boy does not make me inferior and wearing hand-me-down clothes does not affect my personal worth. When I accept my origin as a poor kid, I can be grateful for the kindness shown me and get on with my life.

Keep editing your story because it ain’t over until it’s over, as Yogi Berra would say.

10. Do Not Be Afraid of Death

Nearly all my life I feared death. Sometimes it kept me awake at night, and at other times it invaded my day with its disturbing face.

When I was a child, I put off thinking about it because only old people died; in my adolescence, I was tormented with the brevity of life; even when I reached middle age, I still was pressed by the reality of death.

At age fifty for the first time, it occurred to me that it would not be so tragic to die. I could rest from my anxiety. Then an amazing thing happened, and I do not know how it occurred.

Somewhere between the ages of sixty-three and sixty-eight, I awakened one day to an amazing gift: the fear of death had disappeared from my consciousness. I am not longer afraid of death.

Wrapped up in this fear was also the incomprehensibility of eternity—forever and ever and ever. On occasion I am still shattered by this reality. One day I wondered if God ever felt what eternity was like. And I wondered if God created the world and all that is within it because his being eternal meant he needed something to do and someone to love.

Today I often find myself looking with expectancy to the next stage of the journey. What will it be like? How will all our earthly schooling in life affect us when the path moves on? I want to be awake and alert when I make this transition. On two occasions I have discussed with my doctor that I do not want to be filled with dope on the eve of my death. I have struggled with the issue too long not to be aware of it. I pray for a good death.

A Concluding Word

As you reflect on this counsel— the top ten things I learned while on the journey—I hope you will get a few sightings that will aid you on your journey. We all wear different lenses shaped in part by our past experience, theological orientation, and mentors, but I think that in some fashion we all deal with the issues I have identified. If you happen to find my way of “seeing” helpful in finding your way, I will be grateful. If you don’t, I won’t feel insulted. Perhaps one day we will meet along the road and talk about it face to face, if not on the path on this side, perhaps on the other road.

Footnotes
  1. Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2003), 6–7.
  2. Ben C. Johnson, Living Before God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), i.
  3. Jean-Pierre De Caussade. Abandonment to Divine Providence (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1975), 41.
  4. Living Before God, 94–95
Ben Campbell Johnson is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the author of seventeen books including, Listening to God and Beyond the Ordinary.
Listen to all parts in this Conversation 2.2: The Spiritual Journey series