The Curse of Amibition

July 8, 2013

“So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.” I love this passage from the Old Testament. In it we see the theme of the strength of the least in Naaman, King Aram’s servant who delivered him a great military victory, we see the prophet Elisha, rather than the king of Israel, becoming the agent of health and restoration for Naaman, and we see this paradox of strength in weakness in Naaman’s actual healing, taking place in the muddy waters of the Jordan River, rather than the mighty waters of the Rivers of Demascus. But what strikes me the most in this passage is the choice of language in its last verse. “So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him and his flesh was restored and he became clean like that of a young boy, like that of a child”. The successful, General servant, was restored, was returned back into a child.

For some time I have been confounded with the emphasis on or affirmation of children found in scripture. We see it over and over again. In Matthew, Jesus famously says; “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” What do we think of when we think of children and what is so great about children? Is it that they’re beautiful innocent little cherubs? Incapable of wrong. Always bring a smile to your face and warm your heart. Full of kindness. Well of course if you’ve ever met a child and spent any extended period of time with a child, these are not likely to be the only descriptions that come to mind. Children can be messy, needy and exhausting. A friend of mine actually once told me that the best form of birth control is babysitting a couple of little kids. So what is it about children that Jesus is trying to say, and why might it be such a miracle that Namaan’s body, the king’s general, was transformed back into an innocent weak child?

Perhaps the very point Jesus is trying to make is that they’re helpless, that they’re weak, and that while children, at least very young children, don’t always recognize that they need help, they don’t subscribe to the illusion that they can work or will their way out of anxiety or pain, or that success will cure what ails them. This is the distinction between adults and children, and I think this is what Jesus is getting at.

Ambition and the do-it-yourself mindset have never been more prevalent. Or maybe they’ve always been prevalent, it’s just that I feel them now more than ever in my own life. And ambition can certainly be a good thing. I’m not about to stand in front of a room full of successful people, living in one of the nicest and most well educated communities in the country and tell you that ambition is a bad thing. Ambition can be a good thing. It can help us provide for our families, it can drive us towards a sense of purpose and accomplishment, but it can also be tragic and lead to a great deal of pain, anxiety and resentment. What I mean by this is that ambition and the prideful search for autonomy and control that so many of us struggle with, can be a form of escapism. We have been taught that our successes are building blocks to a bigger better brighter future. We’re always living one step ahead, escaping the present, thinking if we just study hard enough we’ll make the right grades and get into the right college, if we just apply ourselves properly we’ll get into the right grad school, if we just put in enough hours we’ll make partner by the time we’re thirty, if we just publish enough papers we’ll make tenure, if I could just become Rector of Christ Church then I’ll have it made and THEN I’ll be happy. And then before we know it we wake up one day and realize we’ve anxiously been living in the future our entire lives and we’ve never truly been happy. Or for those of us who realize that sometimes the timeless creed of try and you will succeed isn’t always the way life works out, we end up living in the past of our mistakes or once again in the future realm of what could-have-beens.

Since Dave Johnson is on sabbatical I think we are all desperately in need of a rock and roll reference, and I just happen to have one. John Fogerty, who many of you know as the front man of Credence Clearwater Revival, wrote a beautiful and insightful song called “Some Day Never Comes” in 1972. The song focuses on our struggle to understand the world around us, and our place within it, but it applies perfectly to this idea of living in the future, and telling ourselves that if we just pay our dues, someday we’ll have it all and we’ll FINALLY be happy. Fogerty sings:

 Well, time and tears went by and I collected dust, for there were many things I didn’t know

When daddy went away, he said, “Try to be a man and someday you’ll understand”

Well, I’m here to tell you now each and ev’ry mother’s son

You better learn it fast; you better learn it young, ’cause someday never comes

 Foggerty points out the cruel reality of the world, that some of us end up paying our dues until the day we die, that someday, never comes.

The innocent child that Christ is talking about, the young boy that Naaman is transformed into, and the childlike mindset affirmed throughout scripture don’t fall victim to this tragic escapism. The child doesn’t think in terms of successful building blocks or ambitions of self-sufficiency. They are happy in the present, operating in a world void of expectations or anxieties of success. It may or may not be that children actually recognize this weakness, what they are blessed with is that they don’t see they’re own strength and fortitude as the solution. They don’t see their happiness lying just beyond their success, just beyond a series of achievements, waiting to be grasped.

Of course living like a child may be ideal and lend itself to a simpler happier life, but it’s impossible. We don’t believe that we can will ourselves towards righteousness and purity; the world teaches us that too often we can’t will ourselves to succeed. And we certainly can’t will ourselves to live like a child. But there is something to be said about self-awareness. There is something to be said about how sin and anxiety and disappointment can act as a mirror and begin to show us the flaws in our thinking, the thoughts that we can do it all on our own, that all we need in this world is a strong will and determined work ethic. This isn’t all we need. In our world that seems so full of judgment and expectations, criticism and condemnation felt from the outside and from within, what we so desperately need is mercy.

It isn’t that we need to learn to live like a child or think like a child, but realize that we are children. We may strive for autonomy and self dependence, our pride may tell us that we are or could be Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, that we could be the renaissance man who can juggle a family and a executive job and run five miles a day and build canoes on the weekends, if we just work hard enough or manage our time right and make all the right decisions. But experience quickly shows us that this simply isn’t the case, or that it at least isn’t that easy.

So why are you here? Why are we all, or rather, what is uniquely Christian about this message of hope found in the realization that we need help, and that we need mercy from the world of expectations and the weight of our own anxiety? The Good News of the Gospel, which is completely counter-intuitive to the world we live in, is that we are loved by Christ just as we are and not as we should be or as we could be. Just as the needy, messy little four year old knows that they can’t survive without the love and support of their parents, we too are desperately in need of this same love that asks nothing of us, but gives us everything in return.

A few weeks ago I read Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein on my honeymoon. It’s not exactly the lightest or most cheery honeymoon read, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. In the book, one of Bellow’s extremely successful and existential characters begins to wonder about the meaning of all this, about his success, his path, and his current situation in life. Bellow writes one line in particular that has stuck with me these past few weeks. He asks the question “with what will you fulfill the demands of your soul?” “With what will you fulfill the demands of your soul?” The child has the simple demands of her soul fulfilled by the helping, guiding loving hands of her mother and or father. The child wants to be loved. Their soul demands to be loved, and nothing more.

At times it can feel so hard to please our parents, to please our friends, to please our teachers and spouses, but most of all it can be so hard to please ourselves. The Good News of the Gospel is that Christ has looked at each and every one of us and has said, “With you, I am pleased”.

Amen.

Bible References

  • 2 Kings 5:1 - 14