Here’s an interesting fact: The English Romantic poet John Keats died when he was 25 years old, but not before he’d written some of the greatest odes in the English language. I sometimes share this fact with my students, with a mild joke to the effect that they’d better get busy over the next few years. Although I’m not trying to make my students feel like they’ve wasted their lives up to this point, I sometimes feel that way myself when I look at what I’ve accomplished and compare it with the accomplishments of luminaries in various fields. The disparity is particularly striking when I compare myself with people, like Keats, who died very young. Heath Ledger, for example, was only 28 when he passed away back in 2008, and he’d delivered a few stunning, even epoch-making performances in the few years prior. [Did his Dark Knight tour de force usher in the dominance of the mischief/chaos-making villain in present film? I think so, but that’s another blog post.] And then, if you went to Christian school like me, you also have some big-name servants of God (I hesitate to call them rock-star martyrs) with whom to compare yourself, like David Brainerd, who died at 29 after wearing out his health in service to the Native Americans back in the 18th century. It’s hard not to look at people like that and think, “Basically, I’ve accomplished nothing so far.”
I’m going to turn 30 next month. So I took notice this morning when I read Luke 3:23a: “Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age.” Until that point, Jesus had been living in obscurity, probably working alongside his adoptive father Joseph in the “secular” profession of carpentry. During that time, we can assume that his heavenly Father was quietly preparing him for those crucial–and short–three years of ministry that would follow. God the Father didn’t look down at Jesus on his 30th birthday and say, “You’ve been messing around building tables long enough; now it’s time to do some real Kingdom work.” In fact, because we know that Jesus was sinless and that his whole life was directed toward a mission, we can confidently say that the tables were not a waste of time. Backed by Colossians 3:23, we can go so far as to say that they were an act of worship to his Father. Building tables was part of what Jesus was born to do and part of how he readied himself for the history-shattering events to come later.
It may be helpful to ask from time to time, “Have I accomplished anything that’s made an impact?” It’s a tricky question, though, because our actions have effects that we don’t see and that we can’t control. I think it’s more useful to ask, “What kind of person am I becoming?” That, with God’s help, we can control. So as my birthday approaches, I’m trying to tell myself that it’s okay that I haven’t written a poem to rival “Ode to a Nightingale.” Here’s what I should really be asking myself: Am I loving? Am I joyful? Am I thankful? And am I ready for whatever big things may come later?