From the 40
by Patrick Lafferty
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Of the many memorable moments in When Harry met Sally, one struck me as poignant as it was funny. Harry finds Sally in a cathartic cry over a recent breakup. She wails, “I drove him away and I’m going to be FORTY!” “When?” Harry asks. She replies tragically, “Someday.” Concealing a half-smirk, Harry seeks to offer perspective, “That’s in eight years.” Sally, not to be easily consoled, paints the bleakest of pictures. “But it’s out there waiting for me,” she laments, “it’s sitting there like some big dead end.” And we all laugh at her fresh but tame confrontation with her own mortality.
Though on the cusp of my twenties then, what seemed like such a distant milestone becomes for me this week a reality. I’m turning forty. What was once “out there” is now staring me in the face. I know that because now the fatigue sets in a little sooner—the aches hang on a little longer. But contrary to popular convention, I’m more stoked by a solid minivan than a Maserati—whether to my credit or my shame I’ll let you decide.
That we make special note of turning forty is mostly arbitrary. What we are at that age may not be appreciably different from what we were at 38 ½, or what we might be at 41 ¾. Still, listening to our pastor introduce Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount this week, I was led to wonder what, if any, special significance might there be about His first couple beatitudes for someone about to reach proverbial middle age? (And for those of you for whom forty still lies far away or now sits as a distant memory, I think these reflections still apply.)
Even at forty, the designation of being spiritually impoverished still applies to me. Preoccupation with self emerges too often. Words and choices steeped in sheer pride or abject fear are more prevalent than I figured would be the case, now decades into my pilgrimage following Jesus. The examples of lovelessness and joylessness are too many to count and too fresh to simply forget.
Lest I take some sort of refuge in melancholy like Eeyore, it is necessary to note the progress of soul. Strides have been made, at least in awareness of the contours of my heart and of the pervasiveness of my folly. Such realizations I take no credit for. But whatever maturing has come my way, just alongside remains a disparity between professed and lived belief I cannot deny. No matter how clearly or cleverly I might articulate that, it remains a mournful thing.
I mourn forsaken chances and wasted efforts. Errant words and foolish actions aggrieve. There are choices whose consequences I cannot overturn; opportunities I cannot recover; sins for which I cannot (and could never) atone. Even as one who runs—more like slouches—to the Cross for perspective, for me to simply ignore what is genuinely mournful is to deny what C. S. Lewis calls the prodigious gift of causality God has conferred to us. Amid the encompassing sovereignty of God our movements still matter.
So as the years pass and the bell of our mortality continues to toll—each year a little louder—what, if any, encouraging thought can we glean from Jesus’ words about poverty of spirit and the consequent mourning? Or are we only left with the nervous laughter Sally’s somber reflection elicits from us—a little jocularity belying a growing and unstated gloom?
Jesus promises true blessing for those in that recognition of mournful impoverishment. How can He make such a promise?
If the spiritually impoverished may be blessed it’s because of knowing how they are seen. Jesus juxtaposes blessing and poverty of spirit because the former cannot proceed without a recognition of the latter. Until we see how deep is our corruption and how profound our estrangement can we finally stop looking to our own designs and power to close the chasm between what we are and what we long to be. Once we swallow that bitter pill, and then see God’s willingness nevertheless to make us His own in Christ, then we at last see how we are seen. Righteous, beautiful, accepted—and by the only One whose opinion really matters. Whether you’re nearing nineteen or ninety knowing how you are seen by Him is nothing short of blessed.
And if the mournful may still encounter His joy, it must be because of knowing what they have gained. To be a Christian is not to deny our losses or our sorrows. Mourning is both natural and necessary since it stems from a loss of what we loved. If loss ends love, then not to mourn is not to have loved. Yet whatever our losses, inflicted on us or instigated by us, they must be seen against the backdrop of what God has given us through Christ. A newness of life now (Romans 6:4). A life, largely indescribable except for the word full, later (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12). Though our dreams may fade, our projects gather dust—though our bodies crumble before our very eyes—what we have gained through Christ can neither be shaken nor taken. In that recognition is blessing found.
But as our pastor reminded us, grasping how we are seen and what we have gained doesn’t come through introspection—though reflection upon ourselves has its place. Rather it comes through meditation upon Him. For what is most true about us and most bound to us is grounded ultimately in Him.
Milestones naturally invite us to reflect on matters other ordinary days might obscure. But you don’t have to wait for the birthday candles to consider His kindness.