Carpe Deum

by Margaret Sholaas


Dinah, honored guests, Gutenberg faculty and staff:

A couple of months ago my dad was rummaging around in the dining room hutch, which in our “plugger” family serves as the repository for important papers, and he ran into my college diploma. In a heart-wrenching e-mail he grieved, “I didn’t even go to your graduation!” I hastened to reassure him that he hadn’t let me down: “I didn’t go either. And you could hardly go if I didn’t tell you about it.” Later it occurred to me that it was I who had let him down. Both he and my mom deserved to share in my success, and I hadn’t given them the opportunity.

But why not? I remember very distinctly not wanting even to think about it. In fact, if I’d had anything to say about it, I would have skipped high school graduation also. After some pondering I decided that it was because I didn’t want to hear what I was almost certainly going to hear from the commencement speaker.

Carpe diem?

They’re usually not like Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich. In her message, often mistakenly attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, she exhorted the graduates of 1997 to wear sunscreen, a theme I rejected after reflecting that Gutenberg College is, after all, located in Eugene, Oregon. More often graduates hear about how, as the leaders of tomorrow, they are the hope of the world. Carpe diem, they are told, Latin for “Seize the day.” And in so seizing, as statesmen they would bring lasting peace; as captains of industry they would build enduring prosperity; as artists they would create deathless beauty; as scientists they would triumph over mortality. But as a graduate I didn’t feel up to it.

In such a vision there didn’t seem to be any room for someone who is ordinary. Worse, however, was its expectation of success. I was downwind of the future and knew enough of life to recognize the scent of failure in the air, and with failure came the specter of a life not worth living. I didn’t want to hear about it.

Life’s broken promise

Commencement means “beginning,” graduates are reminded, but the beginning of what? Graduation seemed to me like the parades of young men going off to war. Only a moment, and they’ve traded cheers for cries, trumpets for whistling bullets, and drums for the percussion of exploding shells. Bruce Springsteen sees the same gap between promise and reality when he sings, “Glory days, they’ll pass you by, glory days, in the wink of a young girl’s eye.” Likewise John Cougar Mellencamp: “Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.” Tightly woven dreams quickly become threadbare under life’s constant chafing.

Ironically, the more opportunity, the more quickly this happens, because opportunity raises the bar defining success. Microsoft has unwittingly provided an illustration of this in their trademark graphic showing a man leaping out into a blue, cloud-studded sky. Along with their company motto, Where do you want to go today?®, it is intended to suggest that, with Microsoft software, everything is now possible because, like the man in the air, someone surfing the Internet has no boundaries to constrain him. Unfortunately for the image, they forgot about gravity. When I first saw this picture in a Microsoft presentation, I and several colleagues disgraced our organization by giggling uncontrollably. We were supposed to see this man flying, but to us he looked like he was falling, possibly even committing suicide! Having worked with Microsoft products, we could relate!

In 1975 when I graduated, the Internet was not yet even a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye, but I was in no danger of thinking my main problem was lack of information. I was not a Christian at the time, having abandoned that worldview as a fairytale in my mid-teens, and the implications of that decision were becoming increasingly clear to me. With the poet Matthew Arnold I could say, “…the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new, hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; and we are here as on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night.” But I was not willing to believe merely for the comfort of doing so, and by the time I was 26 I could no longer look into the clear night sky for the weight of its emptiness pressing down upon my soul.

Jesus didn’t make it better

The universe had become very small, in its way as confining and death-infested as the Nazi concentration camp which held Viktor Frankl captive. But then, as the author of Man’s Search for Meaning says of his release, “I cried to the Lord from my narrow prison, and he answered me from the freedom of space.” And into that space, formerly so terrifying, I eagerly leapt. Suddenly everything was different! At least for a while, until I noticed that I wasn’t flying, I was falling. Gravity.

Jesus had said [Matt. 11:28], “Come to me, all you who weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest,” and that sounded good to me; I really needed a rest. But life was still the same old struggle, with failure still the most probable outcome. Even successes, when they came, seemed hollow, their satisfaction short-lived. Then there was the question of how to reconcile Jesus’s offer of rest with the really scary parts of the Bible, such as his parable of the talents where the angry master casts out a slave who is apparently so rattled by the awareness of his own incompetence that he fails to perform his assigned task. I could see myself there. Maybe the rest Jesus spoke of only happened after I’d met certain requirements. Uh oh. I hoped that all these difficulties would sort themselves out with time, that the problem was just my being “young in the Lord,” until a disturbing experience suggested otherwise.

I was in a study group with a bunch of people who’d been Christians much longer than I, and we took turns preparing topics for discussion. When it was my turn, I used an exercise I’d come across in one of those encounter groups so popular in the late ’60s. Imagine yourself on your deathbed, I told the group, and talk about your life. Was it a success? Was it worth living? All the older, wiser Christians who I’d imagined had, unlike me, gotten this Christianity thing going properly, looked stricken. A horrifying possibility occurred to me: perhaps it doesn’t get better. And as I began to look at the lives of Christians around me I realized, it doesn’t.

More than 20 years have passed since then. I look back at that young Christian and want to tell her, “You were right, but you were also wrong.” My life today looks pretty much as it did at that time, so in that sense it hasn’t gotten better. But my understanding of success has radically changed.

What is success?

How we measure success depends entirely on what we want. If I find myself in Rome, is that success? Rome is a lovely city, but if I was trying to go to Jerusalem and arrive in Rome instead, I’ve failed. So before we can ascertain success, we must define it, and that’s what life forces us to do. It may now be a Microsoft registered trademark, but since God formed Adam out of clay He’s been asking man, “Where do you want to go today?”

Which reminds me, did you hear the one where the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and Bill Gates all die and find themselves together at the judgment seat of God? God says, “Gentlemen, before I can decide whether to let you into Heaven, you must first tell Me what you believe.” The Pope says, “I believe that man is evil, but Christ died to make him good.” The Dalai Lama says, “I believe that man is good, but he must be taught to find the goodness within him.” Bill Gates says, “I believe you are sitting in my seat.”

Anyway, despite the fact that that He is now violating the Microsoft trademark and will no doubt be hearing from their lawyers any day now, God continues to ask us, “Where do you want to go today?” It seems to me there are three main ways to answer that question: 1) Success is about having, 2) Success is about doing, and 3) Success is about being.

Is success about having?

Jesus warns us against making having our highest priority. He points out [Matt. 6:24-33] that there’s more to life than stuff, and if we’re preoccupied with stuff, important things are necessarily going to fall through the cracks because “no man can serve two masters.” This image used to puzzle me because the two masters he talks about are God and “mammon” (that is, stuff), and I would have said God’s main competition for my allegiance was me. I saw the question as, Who am I going to obey? Am I going to do what I want to do (pursue stuff), or am I going to do what God wants me to do (pursue righteousness)? Then I realized Jesus’s conception of a “master” was different from mine.

To me, the master was the one who calls the shots, but to Jesus, the master was the one responsible for the well-being of those in his household. My perspective, Jesus says elsewhere [Matt. 20:17-28], was that of the gentiles, whose masters “lord it over them,” but in the kingdom of Heaven, those who are great, serve. Therefore the question is not, Who am I going to obey? but Who am I going to trust?

Stuff is not worthy of our trust. First of all, it’s weak; we need much more than it can provide. Having a crown doesn’t make you a king. But it’s also faithless, allowing itself to be seduced away from us by moth and rust and thief, especially that chief of thieves, death. Stuff is an unworthy master; only a fool thinks success is about having.

Is success about doing?

But stuff is only a minor god in the modern pantheon. Much more common is the belief that success is about doing, the rationale being, “Great men do great things.” In this view, our master is our résumé. Just as the ambitious man crafts his career so that his resume sparkles with achievement, so we craft our lives so that an accounting at the end shows them to have been worth living. Then, as Don Quixote says in the theme from Man of La Mancha which we sang at my high school graduation, having dreamed the impossible dream, fought the unbeatable foe, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, having been true to this glorious quest, our hearts will lie peaceful and calm when we’re laid to our rest. And if we haven’t, what anguish when we realize that our life has been worthless! The main problem with the idea that success is about doing is that it fails to recognize that there are two aspects to every deed, 1) what is done, and 2) why it is done, and the what doesn’t count if the why isn’t right.

The what doesn’t count if the why isn’t right

Ever since Cain offered his unacceptable sacrifice, people have wondered why God didn’t like it. The book of Hebrews tells us [Heb. 11] that “by faith Abel offered a better sacrifice,” but it doesn’t say why. The most common explanation I’ve heard is that Cain offered vegetables, whereas Abel offered meat, which is superior to vegetables as a sacrifice because it prefigures Christ’s death. However this explanation has problems. For one thing, it wasn’t until long after Cain and Abel’s time that God began training the Jews to associate blood sacrifice with atonement to prepare them to understand Jesus’s death. For another, there’s no particular reason to think the brothers’ sacrifices were about atonement. More likely they were thank offerings to God for His provision. Since Cain was a farmer, naturally his offerings would be produce; since Abel was a shepherd, his offerings were meat.

So what was wrong with Cain’s sacrifice? Observe his reaction when he finds God is not pleased: he becomes angry. Have you ever seen this happen? Someone gives a gift that, for some reason, the recipient cannot accept, and the giver gets angry. What does this tell you about the gift? Normally we’d assume it represented the giver’s care for the recipient, but if so, wouldn’t he have tried to discover the problem and fix it? The anger tells us that the gift that purports to be for the benefit of the recipient is really for the benefit of the giver; the gift is not a gift at all! In the same way, Cain’s sacrifice was not a sacrifice, but there it was on his résumé. God, who sees into men’s hearts, was not fooled. The what doesn’t count if the why isn’t right.

Like stuff, our résumé is an unworthy master. It, too, is faithless, abandoning us when times get tough and opportunity dries up. But worse, it is a fraud, a quack, a seller of snake oil. It says, “Do great things, that you might be great,” when in fact it is not the deed which makes the man, but the man who makes the deed. Sitting on a throne doesn’t make you a king. Only a fool thinks success is about doing.

Success is about being

Ever since Adam and Eve invented plant couture, we’ve been trying to solve internal problems with external solutions. We clothe ourselves with our stuff and our deeds and pretend we’re ok, only to be embarrassed when, like the emperor and his new clothes, we are discovered to be naked. We try to hide from the problem, but, as Buckaroo Banzai says, “No matter where you go, there you are.” Success is about being, and we’re in trouble. “We have met the enemy,” Pogo says, “and he is us.” We must become new men, and for that we must go to the One who created us in the first place.

Are our actions irrelevant?

At this point some Christians will object, “But you are saying that it doesn’t matter what we do! Jesus makes it clear in the parable of the talents that God expects results from his servants. Those who don’t produce are cast out.” I suspect that no biblical passage has caused more nightmares among Christians than this parable [Matt. 25:14-30]. The master gives his three slaves differing amounts of money, the first one five pieces of silver, the second, two, and the third, one. When he calls them to account, two of them have doubled their money. However the slave who’d received the single piece of silver merely returns it, telling the master that he’d buried it, fearing the master’s response if he lost it in a bad investment since he knew the master to be “a hard man, reaping where he didn’t sow.” You’re not afraid, the master counters angrily, you’re wicked and lazy, and he throws him out. But the other two slaves the master rewards with greater responsibilities.

This parable used to scare me to death. I could well imagine myself as that third slave, so paralyzed by my fear of failure that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. And success, it seemed, only postponed the inevitable. If by some fluke I managed to acquit myself acceptably with a small assignment, I was given a bigger one with which to fail! This was a reward? It seemed that the kingdom of Heaven operated on the Peter Principle, not the doctrine of papal succession but a theory developed by Laurence J. Peter that in an bureaucratic hierarchy people tend to be promoted until they reach a level where they’re incompetent! No doubt this would happen to me, probably sooner than later, and when it did, this parable told me what I could expect: to be cast into the outer darkness. I got exhausted just thinking about it. Where was the rest Jesus promised?

But the slave was not afraid, the master had said. If fear were really driving him, the master argued, he would have tried to do something with the money. There’s no way he could have thought that merely returning it would satisfy the master; by his own words, he knew the master expected to reap! I finally realized that the master was angry not because the slave failed but because he wasn’t interested in succeeding. The slave deeply resented having to serve the master at all. As he saw it, the situation was grossly unfair: he did the hard work of sowing, and the master showed up at the end and carried away the harvest. This slave didn’t merely not care, he was trying to thwart the master’s purposes, but in such a way that it would appear to be the master’s fault: the master was an unmerciful tyrant who terrified his slaves with his unreasonable demands. However the master recognized his covertly hostile behavior, what modern psychology would call “passive aggression,” for what it was, and reacted accordingly. Why should a slave continue to enjoy membership in the household of a master he won’t recognize?

Now I understood that it was the slave’s attitude, not his failure to perform, which had provoked the master’s wrath. Still, I wondered how the master would have responded to a slave who wanted to serve, yet failed, but this story contained no such character. And why not? Surely the parable invited such a question. The fourth slave was conspicuous by his absence.

Then one day in Romans [Rom. 14] I found an extraordinary statement. Paul is talking about believers whose theology could use some work, and he urges those with better understanding not to hold them in contempt. “Who are you to judge the servant of another?” he says, “To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” I realized that there was no fourth slave in the parable because in the heavenly economy there is no such thing as a slave who sets out to serve his master and fails. That the slave is close to clueless makes no difference, because his success doesn’t depend upon him. His actions aren’t irrelevant; they reveal the identity of his master, the one he wants to serve. But they don’t determine his success, his master does. And with the heavenly Master, success is assured.

Now this sounded like rest. Not that there wasn’t still work to do, but I could rest from the consuming fear that my work would be for nothing, that my life would be worthless. And I could literally rest when I was tired, because, as psalmist says [Ps. 127:2], “He gives to his beloved even in his sleep.” But my life didn’t look like a success, and there weren’t any indications that was going to change. Did I misunderstand?

There were plenty of Christians around to tell me I had. True, God had made his grace available to me, but I had to appropriate that grace to see success. EWEB sends 120 volts of electricity to my wall socket but unless I plug my computer into it, no Internet. Jack Crabtree calls this “Star Wars Theology.” Like Yoda, these Christians were standing at my side whispering, “Use the force, Margaret!” And if I did, voilà!, everything would go swimmingly.

There were several problems with this. The first was, how the heck did I do this? Second, when I got up close, the lives of all these Yodas didn’t look any different from mine. Third, Jesus’ life didn’t look like mine, it looked worse: thirty years of obscurity in a Palestinian backwater, followed by three years of harassment and rejection, even by his immediate family who thought he’d lost his mind, culminating in abandonment by most of his friends and dying in excruciating pain after having virtually the entire population of a major metropolitan area, people over whom he was supposed to be king, yelling for his death. If anyone should have known how to use the force, it should have been Jesus. This was success?

Perhaps the problem was my definition of success. I hoped not. Did I really want to be in a heaven where everyone’s idea of a really good time was getting crucified? No, the problem was not that I didn’t understand success, but that I didn’t understand what it took to achieve it.

Excellence costs

Once I was having a discussion with someone who maintained that God has no role in our choices, that free will means we are autonomous beings whose decisions God either cannot or will not control. I asked him why, then, will there be no sin in Heaven, when it will be populated by people who were confirmed sinners before they got there. He replied that in Heaven God will have removed all temptation and therefore all opportunity for sin. I was aghast. You mean, I asked him, your fondest hope is not to be able to resist temptation but to avoid it? How is that different from being dead? What kind of a truncated existence would be required completely to eliminate temptation? That sounded more like Hell to me. Let Heaven not be constrained! Let it be wider than the sky and deeper than the sea, with movement possible in all directions and dimensions, but let me be the kind of person who freely chooses to travel only upon the rich and varied lines of goodness. Let me be excellent!

Excellence is a delight. Eric Liddell, the British Olympian whose story was told in the movie Chariots of Fire, said of God, “I feel His pleasure when I run.” But how good would Liddell have become if he had confined his competitions to the immediate neighborhood in which he grew up? We call such a person “a big fish in a little pond.” Certainly we would have known he loved applause, but could we really have said that Liddell loved running? I don’t think so. The one who really loves something welcomes challenge because he knows it’s the only way to get better, and he’s willing to sacrifice acclaim and comfort for the chance to learn and to excel. Coaches manage the experiences of their athletes such that they are exposed to trials of increasing difficulty, so that their skills and endurance might increase. In the midst of this training they will lose contests, get bored, look awkward, get tired, injure themselves, feel like they are making no progress, and get discouraged. Does this mean they have failed? Only if they give up, because all these things are landmarks on the road to excellence.

The universe is God’s University

The most delightful excellence is wisdom, the knowledge of what is valuable and how to lay hold of it. Like the athlete’s coach, our Master knows how best to cultivate this in us, and the universe is His University. At the same time, however, our Master is allowing us to participate in the creation of the new universe which will be a fitting habitation for the new men we are becoming.

This is an important point to realize. Our unfortunate habit of using the words “punishment” and “discipline” as synonyms encourages a common misconception, that our pain in life is always correlated with our stupidity or stubbornness in not learning whatever God is trying to teach us. When we see our trials as God slapping us upside the head, we start feeling like a child who hears nothing from his father but criticism. After a while, like that child, we begin to wonder whether we’ll ever be good enough to love. But if trials are the existential equivalent of a dunce cap, Jesus must have been a real dummy! Discipline as the Bible uses it is better understood as “training,” and it is evidence of God’s love for us, not His displeasure. God knows excellence feels good. That’s why the additional responsibility given the faithful slaves in the parable was a reward: it was the opportunity for even greater excellence. Sometimes our Master has a difficult job to be done, and He gives that job, along with the training necessary to do it, to us. It is then our privilege to say, “Amen, Lord; so be it.”

Jesus studied at this University, too

This is a lesson in itself, one Jesus had to learn just like us. When he was twelve and his family had come to Jerusalem for Passover [Luke 2:41-52], his parents left for Nazareth thinking that their eldest was with others in the caravan. After a day’s travel, they realized he was missing and headed back to Jerusalem. After searching another three days, they found him astounding the teachers in the temple with his understanding. He’d been separated from them for five days, and they were frantic. “Child, why did you do this to us?” they asked. Jesus was puzzled: “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business?” He was twelve, the age in the Jewish culture when a boy made the transition to manhood, becoming a bar mitzvah, a “son of the commandment,” with a man’s responsibility to do what God had commanded. Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God promised in Scripture, and he set about preparing to assume his responsibilities by moving from the house of his earthly parents to house of his heavenly Father. But when his parents showed up, Jesus returned to Nazareth and “continued in subjection to them,” as the Bible says, and we don’t hear anything more about him until he’s thirty, eighteen years later. What happened?

Perhaps the answer can be found at the wedding at Cana [John 2:1-11]. Their hosts had run out of wine, and Mary, possibly knowing what was about to happen, tells Jesus about it. Jesus replies, “What is this to you and to me? My time has not yet come.” I think this is what he had learned eighteen years before. Contrary to what he’d been thinking, his time had not yet come. Somehow his Father let him know this, and so back to Nazareth he went; after eighteen years he had not forgotten it. Only now the Father tells him, “It’s time,” and he performs his first miracle, changing water into wine. As a result, John tells us, Jesus’s glory was made manifest and his disciples believed in him.

For Jesus to stay in Jerusalem when his parents left for Nazareth was a very young thing to do. It’s not hard to imagine what must have been going on in his mind; as John Fogerty sings, “Put me in, coach, I’m ready to play!” With the confident passion which is simultaneously so endearing and so exasperating in children, Jesus set out to seize the day and realize the glorious destiny he’s been promised, only to be told by his Father, “Not yet.” The author of Hebrews says that Jesus “learned obedience” [Heb. 4:15-5:10] and I think we’re seeing that here. Surely he must have been tempted, as we are in such situations, to grumble and to think of this as movement away from where he really wanted to go, even to ignore the detour signs and decide for himself the best way to get there. But knowing his Father, he concluded that he was still on the right road; the terrain had merely changed unexpectedly. As a result of his obedience, the author of Hebrews tells us, he become a high priest we can go to with confidence, knowing that he understands what life is like for us because it was the same way for him.

The shortest distance between two points

Jesus was a man ahead of his time. Two millennia before Einstein, he discovered one of the mysteries of modern physics: sometimes the shortest path between two points is not a straight line. That’s what’s wrong with Carpe diem: the day is there, but it’s out of sight, around the bend and beyond the horizon. And if we can’t see it, we can’t seize it. What we need is a master with a good map.

Of course Stuff and Résumé make that claim, but their maps are hopelessly Newtonian. Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised to find that in any journey undertaken with their guidance, gravity is a prominent feature. But where we want to go isn’t on their maps anyway. As Jesus said [Mark 8:36], “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his soul?” And As Lily Tomlin said, “The problem with the rat-race is, even if you win, you’re still a rat.”

Carpe Deum!

God is the only master with an accurate map. He will lead us along roads both tortuous and torturous, but we will unfailingly arrive at the end that is the beginning, and a commencement worth the name. Let us therefore emulate Jacob, who wrestled God for His blessing, refusing to let go even when God dislocated his hip because he knew God’s blessing was worth whatever it cost. Be like Jacob, Dinah, and Carpe Deum, seize God. Carpe Deum, and hang on for your life.

Copyright June 2000 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Margaret Sholaas