Inspire A Generation
There are moments when I wish I could relive my life up until the evening I boarded Icelandair Flight 644 at Washington Dulles, headed to Reykjavik and ultimately to the London 2012 Olympic Games.
The thing about the Olympics that I love is that they are so incredibly inspiring. They can give us a glimpse of what it means to be fully alive, especially if you see the athletes compete in person.
Fittingly, the theme of London's games was "inspire a generation." And there's little doubt they achieved it, after hosting an opening ceremony with James Bond alongside Queen Elizabeth II, Mr. Bean, David Beckham, and Paul McCartney, among many other real and fictional characters—a who's who of British culture. The party was stalled only by a momentary few days of stress as Team GB struggled to capture its first gold at its own games. Relief came by the name of Glover and Stanning, who won first place on the fifth day of competition. And of course there were the likes of Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, the Brownlees, Bradley Wiggins, and many others.
As a die-hard fan of Team USA, it might be odd for me to note Britain's athletes. But after visiting the games, and seeing how well organized they were, realizing how much we love British music and culture, and noting how their stars lifted the excitement level in their country, I came home with new perspective. While I will always only cheer for the United States at the Olympics, I will also always love the games for the pursuit of excellence we see in all of the world’s athletes that compete.
My sister and I traveled to the games together. After catching the USA Women's soccer team's victory over North Korea at Old Trafford, we caught a train headed back to London. After exploring the city for a day and a half, Thursday evening finally arrived and with it an entertaining night of sport watching beach volleyball at the Horse Guards Parade. And then, after a very short night, on Friday morning we stepped off the Tube, minded the gap, kept calm and carried on, and walked into Olympic Park for the first time.
Our destination was Olympic Stadium, and the opening session of track and field. It didn't disappoint, and if taking a trip to the games to watch Athletics isn't on your bucket list, then your bucket list is incomplete. The stage is exciting: athletes from all over the world, and fans from all over the world, meet in one stadium for a unified purpose: to see the world's best compete at the peak of their physical training.
And that's what changes you. There's no question that it was exhilarating seeing USA's medalists (Reese Hoffa, Sonya Richards-Ross, etc) compete in their preliminary heats. But in the moment, you also become a fan of all of the other countries competing there too.
One moment that morning in Olympic Stadium, there was a pause in the sprints, shot put, long-jumping, and other events happening all at once. The announcer informed us that a high jumper from Sweden was about to attempt breaking her personal record. The entire stadium was suddenly focused on one athlete, and whether or not she would achieve something she had never done before. And in moments like that, you see the world differently. You see the potential for unity, for restoration, for common purpose. You see athletes from other countries not just as people to be defeated to maintain U.S. dominance in sport, but as fellow human beings achieving something extraordinary.
When I say I wish I could rewind life, or relive parts of life before I went to the games, it's because when you pursue something passionately and enjoy life on the scale it was meant to be lived, you realize that every day could be like that, if you wanted it to be.
DISCLAIMER: Now, a disclaimer before we move forward. The topics and ideas we are covering this week and next are heavy; we’re diving deep to try to get to the bottom of what it even means to inspire a generation, and to live your passion. They are two Olympic themes that I think are inextricably linked, and while today and next week mark an attempt to trail blaze through a pile of ideas and books, admittedly I know I need to offer these thoughts with open hands, and an open mind. I know I’m dealing with so many ideas that I can’t claim to know the ultimate conclusions of all them! Nevertheless, there are ideas here we need to journey through to see freedom at a deeper level, to stumble upon great wide open space, to learn how Truth and Beauty can be reflected in our work. We talk about “creatively pursuing Truth and Beauty,” as opposed to achieving, establishing, owning, using, standardizing, scoring, or upholding Truth and Beauty because they can eternally be pursued, but we will continually fall short of doing anything else! It helps to read one of Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations, in which he notes that “eventually we must move from exclusively trying to solve our problems to knowing that we can never fully resolve them, but only learn from them. Sometimes, we can only forgive our imperfections and neuroses, embrace them, and even ‘weep’ over them (which is not to hate them!) This is very humbling for the contemporary Promethean individual.”
This summer, I re-watched the opening ceremony of London’s games. In light of the work of Liberatus to bring healing to American politics, I was struck by the words of Sebastian Coe, the chairman of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games:
The Olympics brings together the people of the world in harmony and friendship and peace to celebrate what is best about mankind.
All my life I have loved sport. You have to love sport to compete at it. There is a truth to sport, a purity, a drama, an intensity: a spirit that makes it irresistible to take part in, and irresistible to watch. London 2012 seeks to capture all of this. London 2012 will inspire a generation.
In every Olympic sport, there is all that matters in life. Humans stretched to the limits of their abilities, inspired by what they can achieve, driven by their talent to work harder than they can believe possible—living for the moment, but making an indelible mark upon history.
Because there is Truth and Beauty in sport, there is much we can learn from it that would benefit work in American politics. This week and next, we will be examining this idea through the themes of the 2012 and 2016 games. To be honest, I think the way to inspire a generation is to live your passion.
When I first heard the theme of the Rio games is "live your passion,” I thought it seemed silly—we've somehow turned the idea of living your passion into an ambiguous, flighty pursuit where responsibility and character are chucked for a fleeting and unfulfilling feeling of bliss.
But I’ve realized that if that’s as far as the debate goes over whether we do what we love, then we've missed what it means to live passionately by a hundred light years. And if we don’t believe in living passionately, we’ve also missed what it means to inspire a generation—not to fill our ego’s need to be remembered, but rather to fulfill a calling to do good in this world.
Because here's what we have to consider: would the high jumper in London have had a chance at even making the games, much less going for a personal best if she weren't in some way passionate about high jumping? Can you perform at a high level—and have a life-giving presence to the people around you—if you've never figured out what your passions are? I think the conversation around this idea—even, or perhaps especially, among followers of Jesus—is too unfocused, too ambiguous, and too settled on the false choices of either living your passion or not living your passion. Too often, I hear people say that you shouldn’t do what you love for one reason or another, and so the whole concept becomes confusing. My hope is that this week and next, we can think about living your passion, or pursuing your passion in your work, at a much deeper level, seeing the hard work and grit and determination and risk and adventure it requires.
This week we will cover two aspects of living your passion, and next week we will dive into another three.
1. Greatness is achieved by people who pursued their passions.
We've already written about Steve Jobs, the Wright Brothers, and William Wilberforce. Would they have gifted the world some of our greatest cultural and technological breakthroughs without being passionate about their work? I think the results speak for themselves.
2. You can't pursue your passion if you aren't coming alive.
I think followers of Jesus should be the first to recognize this point, even though at times it seems we totally miss it. We talk about the gospel and how it sets you free but we don't always connect the resurrection to actual restoration of our minds, spirits, or bodies. And there are many people—we should probably say all people—who need restoration in their minds, spirits, and bodies.
2.1. Coming alive is a holistic process—relational wounds, abuse, and human brokenness affect us all deeply.
Think about the face of an athlete who just won Olympic Gold, and compare it to the face of one who isn’t living life to the fullest, and you’ll see that the contrast is severe. Consider these brief quotations from The Tank Man’s Son by Mark Bouman:
What did it mean to be the Tank Man's son? It was as if Mark Bouman didn't exist—as if I were simply another object for my father to crush.
When I was a boy, I dreamed about freedom. I imagined fleeing my home in Michigan and escaping to the wide-open spaces of Montana, hunting and fishing to my heart's content. Montana was wild and unspoiled. In my dreams I always lived alone.
Yet I could not run away. My entire life was controlled and dominated by my father. I scarcely knew what to do when I had a few hours to myself. Being outdoors was my only joy—sometimes with my brother, more often alone with my dog—and a thin joy it was. It was less like joy and more like the temporary absence of fear and pain. There were fleeting moments in which fear didn't cling to my back, whispering to me in my father's voice. There were minutes and occasional hours I forgot to remain alert for an openhanded slap. But always, real life returned full force.
The indelible image of my childhood is the brutal silhouette of my father's tank. His tank was a machine for a single purpose: power. So it was with Dad. Whatever the end on which he happened to fix his attention, his family became nothing more than a means. (p. 1).
When I read the first page of the prologue, I was hooked, and I read the book in a few days. Later in the book, he recounts a specific memory of a time he had just lit their gas stove at home, blew out the match, and flicked it into the trash. His father, enraged that he had dropped a hot match into the waste basket, used the opportunity to teach Mark a lesson—by lighting another match, and after blowing it out, forcing it while smoldering into Marks' hand:
"How does that feel?"
"Ow! Ow!" I tried to jerk away, but Dad held on tightly.
"Did that burn you?" he asked, almost amused.
"Yes, yes," I whimpered.
"Then why the f--- did you drop it in the trash? So you could burn down the house? What an idiot. When are you going to be more careful? At least you learned never to do that again."
He released my wrist, and I snatched my burned hand back.... That was the kind of lesson Dad liked to teach. Practical, he said, and something we wouldn't soon forget.
I was learning something different, though: that I could never trust my father. I took that lesson to heart and avoided him every chance I got. He was the source of our pain at home, so less Dad meant less pain. (pp. 255-256).
Without understanding what the promise of abundant life means for us, what is the result of this kind of abuse? Just a few pages later, he recounts the time his father delivered the news that his mother was filing for divorce. Note the physical description he describes in that moment, in contrast to an athlete competing for gold:
"Your mother and I," he said, pacing in front of us, "are getting a divorce." He stopped suddenly and studied our faces, starting with Sheri and ending with me. He was hoping to get a reaction out of one of us that would embarrass Mom into changing her mind. But he'd taught us all too well to never show our emotions. If Dad knew we were happy about something, he'd take it from us. If Dad knew we were afraid of something, he'd use it against us.
And so we were stoic, save for the one emotion it was allowable to express. It began on the outside of the eye, which tightened ever so slightly. It continued in the lower lip, which pushed out and downward. It flowed through a neck too weak to support the head, which then tipped forward. And it finished in shoulders that curled like they were cringing. The emotion was defeat, and all of us spoke it fluently.
Jerry, with the gangly six-foot-four body of a man, spoke it, from his size 14 feet all the way up to his shock of black hair.
Sheri, looking more like Mom all the time, spoke it.
And I'd known how to speak it for what felt like forever.
We were defeated, so defeat was the only thing Dad found as he examined us. When Dad was studying Sheri, I stole a glance at my brother, and he looked exactly as I did. Crushed by our father. (pp. 267-268).
I recommend you read his story in full, because you will either relate to it, or it will help you relate to others better and understand the human experience more, and because the conclusion of his book will leave you stunned by the simple power of redemption and restoration in his life.
But the sad truth we have to confront is that for too long too many of us stay in a place of abuse, or abandonment, or live internally in a culture of fear and performance. And when we do, we can't trust others, we can't develop genuine relationships, we constantly live in the superficial, and don't even know ourselves or what makes us tick. We live out of a fake identity that both refuses to find healing for the wounds we carry, and becomes jaded toward the idea that we even need healing because the path to restoration takes us back directly through the old wounds. But that is where freedom is found.
2.2. The holistic process of coming alive includes healing of our “inner child”.
I've just been reading about inner healing in John Eldredge's Moving Mountains: Praying with Passion, Confidence, and Authority. There's more to be gained from the book than can be quoted here, but notice what he says about restoration from painful memories that seem to trap us in childhood:
The “undivided heart” is what we are after. As with healing prayer for woundedness, we begin by inviting Jesus in. We ask him to shine his light into the broken places he is trying to reach. Sometimes he will take us back to a memory, a time and place when a shattering blow was given. Sometimes he will simply make us aware of a "young" place in our hearts, a younger "us" that needs his love and comfort. Pay attention. Keep inviting Christ in. (p. 199).
What bothers me, when we talk about living your passions among followers of Jesus, is that if we jump immediately to sacrifice as a higher virtue, we skip completely over the process of restoration of woundedness and how the gospel can touch emotional places where our inner child is trapped and actually set us free. And if the gospel doesn't lift our heads, bringing our posture out of the place of defeat, then we have nothing left to live for but whatever pleasures we can find to numb the pain we haven't yet found a way to heal.
Truly pursuing your passion will force all of these issues, all of these wounds to the forefront of your mind, and require you to deal with them on some level to move forward, even if that is a day-to-day process.
2.3. If we don’t have a vision for holistic healing, then the gospel becomes religious moralism—and not good news!
And if we don't begin to find healing, we will, in the words of C.S. Lewis, continue "fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us." (The Weight of Glory, p. 26).
But, for whatever reason, we've dumbed the gospel (the good news!) down to rules, and rule following makes us think we can save ourselves by living in the "good" and distancing ourselves from the "bad," and saving ourselves means we can disconnect our inner beings from the reality of our own brokenness, and we become more dead than alive. And this too often happens in the church, among people who follow Jesus. (In a broken world, this shouldn't be a surprise though.)
I think too often the church is fooling about with rules regarding drink and sex and people's ambitions without ever getting to the part about infinite joy. We never see that there is a God who is “whispering a better story into our consciousness,” as Donald Miller writes. While I know there are plenty of opinions to be had about him (and every author I'm quoting, for that matter), notice how he describes the view of God he had as a child growing up in church:
As a kid, the only sense I got from God was guilt, something I dismissed as a hypersensitive conscience I got from being raised in a church with a controlling pastor. But that isn't the voice I'm talking about. That voice really was the leftover hypersensitive conscience I got from being raised in a church with a controlling pastor.
The real Voice is stiller and smaller and seems to know, without confusion, the difference between right and wrong and the subtle delineation between the beautiful and profane. It's not an agitated Voice, but ever patient as though it approves a million false starts. The Voice I am talking about is a deep water of calming wisdom that says, Hold your tongue; don't talk about that person that way; forgive the friend you haven't talked to; don't look at that woman as a possession; I want to show you the sunset; look and see how short life is and how your troubles are not worth worrying about; buy that bottle of wine and call your friend and see if he can get together, because, remember, he was supposed to have that conversation with his daughter, and you should ask him about it. (A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, pp. 86-87).
On the page before the quote just mentioned from The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis unveils the problem, at least in part. We've replaced Love with Unselfishness as the greatest virtue, looking not ultimately at the joy that is to come but at the sacrifice of unselfishness as an end in itself. We miss that a sacrifice would not be a sacrifice if there were nothing to be gained for it.
When the gospel becomes something other than good news, it becomes something other than the gospel!
2.4. Because the church sometimes misses the reality that the gospel is holistic good news, at times authors outside the church do a better job of presenting a picture of humanity fully alive.
Often we can understand the human condition and the relevance of the gospel more deeply by listening to people who claim not to follow Jesus. Ayn Rand is a perfect example, and while I haven't read all of her writings, consider how she completely redefined the idea of selfishness. (Hang with me and don't freak out. One of our core values is that we can gain perspective on how to communicate the truth beautifully by learning from the perspectives of all people, whom followers of Jesus believe are created in God's image). We commonly understand the concept of selfishness as something that inherently harms other people. But Rand defined it differently: she turned it upside down, defining it as a virtue that inherently makes the lives of everyone else better—admittedly not for that purpose, but because of the impact that self-respect would naturally have on others. A typical act of selfishness, like stealing from a neighbor or cheating in the stock market, she interestingly doesn't include in her definition of selfishness.
The reason for this new take on a familiar concept is that she places man and human achievement at the height of all things. Atlas Shrugged is essentially about the possibility of perfected humanity, as illustrated in her character John Galt, the perfect man.
In her work, she argues for the potential of mankind fully alive. Even though she tries to present a world where people pursuing their passions is good for its own sake, what we see in her work is that pursuing good passions can benefit everyone, regardless of whether or not that was her motive.
But had she desired even deeper, as C.S. Lewis wrote, she would have discovered the source of human life, the source of human potential and it would have radically shifted the makeup and conclusion to her work.
I just pulled my copy of Atlas Shrugged off the shelf, and I'll admit that when I read it, I see a vicious brutality aimed at those who don't produce. And yet, in worshipping man, and his ability to create, she's describing the image of God in mankind. Despite her disbelief in God, her work is a compelling depiction of man shaking off the shackles of defeatism that Mark Bouman and many others have experienced, and living alive, living free. In the the copy that I own, there's an introduction that includes notes on the work from Rand's own journal; it's stunning to read how her characters will relate to John Galt there. Without realizing it, without desiring deeply enough, she's describing desires and the fulfillment of desires that are all offered us in Christ.
At the end of the book, the heroes of her story converge in a secret valley in Colorado to rebuild the country. One of them was a composer, the greatest composer alive, and he sat at his keyboard playing his Fifth Concerto.
It was a symphony of triumph. The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising itself, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive. It was a sunburst of sound, breaking out of hiding and spreading open. It had the freedom of release and the tension of purpose. It swept space clean and left nothing but the joy of an unobstructed effort. Only a faint echo within the sounds spoke of that from which the music had escaped, but spoke in laughing astonishment at the discovery that there was no ugliness or pain, and there never had had to be. It was the song of an immense deliverance. (p. 1068).
In Ayn Rand's writings, what we ultimately see is a deep desire for the Kingdom of Heaven, even though she rejected the Kingdom throughout her life. And ironically, her conclusion actually invalidates her premise that mankind can achieve perfection on its own.
Suppose the brightest minds, the greatest innovators, the ones who pursued their passions the most rigorously got together to rebuild the country after its collapse? If you’re an advocate for her ideals, suppose—as she suggests we should as part of rebuilding the country—that the Congress were to add an amendment to the Constitution restricting any law from being passed that would interfere with production and trade? Without getting into the nuances of capitalism, it's hard to object that it hasn't created the possibility for immense wealth creation. But the relief that followers of Jesus have at the conclusion of her work is not that we need to isolate the wisest among us and let them rebuild our economy, or that we need to shun those who don't produce enough; rather, it's that none of our economic systems will raise us from the dead!
The gospel frees us, immeasurably, to live in political life and articulate policy ideas clearly without a single fear that our ideas will be rejected or what will become of the country if they are.
A freedom of this nature, this deep and this robust, should free us to work with people on the other side. It should free us to work to achieve as beautifully as Ayn Rand described the notes of her fictional concerto. It should free us to see our political enemies as neighbors. It should give us a nearly unbearable amount of grace and the ability to stop questioning the motives of the other side. We could finally stop viewing the other side as fully sinister, even if some of their ideas are bad. We know how the story ends, and we can advocate for our policies without playing political games, worrying that if we actually state our vision for the country, that we will lose elections and power. (And that's regardless of the fact that if we win elections but don't have visions for the country that compel us to take decisive action, we will never actually have power of any consequence in the first place).
2.5. A secular take on humanity fully alive can help us see the good news more clearly.
Ayn Rand gives us a humanist perspective on what it means to be fully alive, and her conclusion logically points to the incapability of man to save himself and therefore to our need for a perfect savior. So how do we take a step deeper in the quest of coming alive? Another author, John Piper, outlines a philosophy of Christian Hedonism in his book Desiring God: (p. 23).
1. The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful.
2. We should never try to deny or resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.
3. The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God. Not from God, but in God.
4. The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love.
5. To the extent we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people.
2.6. Truly seeing the good news includes a life of passionate desire.
As my pastor often says, "The only requirement is that you are desperate." But desperate for what? Being desperate assumes feeling, and feeling assumes you're growing beyond defeatism, and growing means desiring, and desiring means living your passion. The question we are considering today is, how do we do that well?
And doing it well—living your passion truthfully—is critical, because it's only in living passionately that you can live holistically and therefore truthfully, and only by living truthfully can you live beautifully.
The alternative, as John Eldredge describes in Desire: The Journey We Must Take to Find the Life God Offers, would be devastating for ourselves and others.
The danger of disowning desire is that it sets us up for a fall. We are unable to distinguish real life from a tempting imitation. We are fooled by the imposters. Eventually, we find some means of procuring a taste of the life we were meant to for. (p. 66).
A heart fully alive—desiring deeply, living passionately—is central to the gospel. The possibility of it (as shown to us through Jesus) is how we even have a category to understand God as a loving Father, which shakes our world upside down—or right side up.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. (I John 4: 7-10; 17-19).
We love, because he first loved us. We come alive, because he first came alive. Next week we will continue looking at what it truly means to inspire a generation by living your passion. While it may never be easy, I am convinced that if people in American politics learn to do this well, the entire country will see the beauty of LIBERATUS—we are set free.
Weekly Action Item:
Are you working from a place of abundant life in politics, or are you letting your false self control your decisions? As you get ready to watch the Olympic Games, spend time journaling on what abundant life in your workplace would look like. If you'd like to share your ideas, send us a note; we'd love to hear from you!
LIBERATUS is a weekly journal creatively pursuing Truth and Beauty by empowering writers in American politics to tell the story of healing through freedom. You can join the pursuit by applying to write, subscribing to the journal, or by funding the movement through monthly giving or by making a purchase in our store.