Ascent and Descent

A little while back, a video made the rounds on social media features James Corden, who does this thing called Carpool Karaoke, where he invites celebrities to drive around with him and sing songs. I highly recommend you waste 23 minutes of your life to watch this delightful video, where he takes the legendary Paul McCartney on a spin around Penny Lane and his old Liverpool hangouts.

The reason why I mention this video is because McCartney shares one particular song in this video, “When I’m 64.” In this innocuously bouncy ditty, he poses to us a quite deep philosophical question: Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?

Now I’ve thought about this quite a lot in the last year. And I have some ideas and opinions that I’d like to share with you all.

The Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr, proposes the idea that you can look at your spiritual life in two halves—a season of ascent and a season of descent. The season of ascent is the first half of life. It’s marked by goal-setting, striving, discovery, and achievement. This is that first season where we prove ourselves, and we set life goals, and we try to take on those goals. This is the season of life where we create the trajectory of our lives—our jobs, career, marriage, family, our art, and our ambitions. And this is also where we really hone in on our identity. In the process of striving, we begin to discover ourselves, and define who we are. It is the job of all young people to ascend.

This has implications for all of you who are younger. Life has never been easy for anyone, but it is uniquely difficult these days to be a young person. The economy, the cost of education, the lack of jobs, the lack of focus of our culture and the world. There’s a lack of vision and hope that many young people have now. And I know, it can be disheartening. How many of you young people feel that right now? Like there’s a general lack of purpose and hope for the future? How many of you are feeling these unique millennial pressures? Well, I want to encourage you—to keep moving forward, keep striving, keep ascending, and don’t give up. Even in the midst of uncertainty, it’s important to just keep ascending. Don’t be stagnant. Don’t sit still. It’s like climbing a mountain—you won’t gain perspective until you gain altitude.

The second season is descent. This is the period where you don’t feel the need to have to prove anything anymore. It’s a season of internal spiritual deepening, of maturity and wisdom, a season that is less about breadth and more about depth. Our worth is less tied to achievement and more about being. It’s a season when one hopefully comes to peace with one’s inadequacies. I’m never going to bench press 250 pounds. I’m never going to open for Steely Dan. I’m never going to be a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle. And I’m okay with that now. And most importantly, in this season of descent, we learn, through God’s grace, the very advanced art of surrender. Now, the latter season doesn’t mean you aren’t any less productive; it may indeed be the most productive season of your life. But life is less about striving and more about leaving a legacy, less about taking a hill and more about mentoring others up that hill.

This second season, the season of descent, is really is a critical time in our spiritual maturity. And I’m wondering, how many of you are feeling like you are in this stage in your life? How many of you are in a season of descent?

Here’s the thing. We all have a spiritual journey, one that hopefully draws us closer to God, teaches us greater humility and grace, and moves us in our God callings. Some of us are ascending, and some of us are descending. Some of us are 16, and some of us are 64. And while every one of us has a unique spiritual journey, every single one of us is called to work through our interior struggles and dysfunctions, work through the issues of purpose and calling, work through the issues of acceptance and community and belonging.

Some of us are still in the season of ascent, and that’s a wonderful time of life. Find your calling and pursue it with all your heart and passion. Achieve great things and follow God with all your heart and soul and strength and will.

And some of us are in the season of descent, and this is also a wonderful time of life. For those of you who are in this season, I encourage you, even implore you, don’t take yourself out of the game. You might be headed for retirement, but don’t retire from your spiritual formation, don’t retire from mission, and don’t retire from service. You have so much to offer the church, so much to offer the world. Now is when you should be pressing into the Kingdom in greater and greater ways. Don’t stop serving, and giving, and mentoring, and giving your life away.

Regardless of where you are in the journey, God has a plan for you, a future vision for your life. As the Apostle Paul says, a future prize for which we must press on.

“Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”     —Philippians 3:13-14 NIV

[NOTE: This piece is an excerpt from a message I presented at Oak Hills Church on July 15, 2018. If you’d like to hear it in its entirety, please hit the Listen Online link here.]

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