This past weekend our church had a brief men's retreat (just a Saturday morning thing) on the theme of living within limits. It was quite timely, given the nature of the economy, and indeed several folks in attendance were dealing with employment issues. But all of us bump up against limitations in various ways, whether physical health, relational challenges, adult children outside of one's control or personal vocational/career ceilings. Now that I'm closer to 40 than 30 (ack!), I've been feeling the limitations of life a lot more. When we're in our twenties, everything is ahead of us and we think of life in terms of open-ended possibilities. As we approach middle age (ack!), we realize that there's only so many opportunities available to us, and that perhaps we will not be able to accomplish everything that we might have hoped for.
So our retreat looked at the theme of contentment in Philippians 4. Our retreat leader, Kevin Miller of Church of the Resurrection and Christianity Today, pointed out that the apostle Paul's life divided into two parts. The first half of Paul's life was one of status, opportunity and privilege as a Roman citizen, a top-notch education under Rabbi Gamaliel, an up-and-coming leader with power and influence. But the second half of his life, after conversion to Christianity, was one of persecution and suffering, beatings and imprisonment. And yet Paul was able to say in Philippians 4 that he had learned the secret of being content, in want or in plenty.
It occurs to me that it might be harder for us to be content when we are surrounded by plenty. We look around us, and our affluent suburban consumer culture shows us what we don't have, or how much other people have. On the other hand, facing realities of limitations like economic trouble or declining health might push us to be more grateful for what we do have.
We also looked at the temptations of Jesus in Matthew 4. Kevin mentioned the story of Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales, and how he wrote in his book that he was gradually seduced by the desire to be the next Walt Disney. Vischer had been hiring corporate executives to work at Big Idea Productions, and along with that came a desire to live an executive lifestyle with executive-level income, housing, cars, etc. And then everything came crashing down and Big Idea went bankrupt. It's a cautionary tale about discerning one's vocation and giftedness (Vischer freely admits that he was not cut out to be a corporate mogul and was best as a simple storyteller), and also of the temptations of power. Matthew 4 is not only about resisting the temptations of grasping for that which we shouldn't have - it's also about being wise stewards of what we do have and not misusing our power.
I was processing some of these thoughts, and I'm not sure what to do with it all. There are any number of things that are outside my control, and only so much that I can do about them. I'm inclined to let a few things go and just not worry about them for now. In some ways, living with limitations and realizing our human finitude connects well with the serenity prayer - serenity to accept what we cannot change, courage to change what we can, and wisdom to know the difference.