Somewhere Between Paul Miller and the Ticked-Off Businessman

This past weekend, my wife and I traveled to Minneapolis with another couple to attend the 2010 Desiring God National Conference. This was the fourth year in a row that Shelly and I have made the trip as we find the worship and teaching so incredibly deep and rich. For the Christian trying to grow in his or her knowledge and understanding of the Lord, attending the DG conference is more than a little like drinking out of a fire hose; it will take weeks, perhaps months, to process everything we were exposed to in such a short amount of time.

The conference theme this year was The Life of the Mind and the Love of God, and so all of the sermons/presentations centered around the idea of using our intellect as a means of loving God more deeply and living out our faith more fully. I’ll probably write more about our experiences at the conference in the coming weeks, and perhaps my wife will chime in on one of her future blogs as well, but for now I want to convey what I learned that had almost nothing to do with the speakers, the program, the bookstore, or the worship services, as amazing as all of those were. (If interested, you can find most of the program content itself here.) Instead, I hope it will benefit others for me to share a couple incidents from the weekend that immediately taught me something about the Christian life…and what it so frustratingly points out in my own.

Friday night, the four of us arrived in Minneapolis after a long road trip, checked into the Millennium hotel, and almost immediately after that walked a couple blocks over to the Minneapolis Convention Center, a rather-imposing edifice that I have come to know fairly well. After some initial confusion wherein we very nearly registered to attend a convention of Regis hair stylists, we found the DG registration tables, secured our name badges, and immediately headed for the conference exhibit hall. My mental state still somewhat unsettled by the temporary inability to distinguish between the DG conference and a clearly-marked venue for the latest advancements in salon hair products, we nevertheless began to stroll through the various booths for Christian colleges, authors, programs and services.

I caught up to my wife at a table that featured the works of an author that we both love, namely Paul Miller. I perceived at once that this booth was laden with copies of A Praying Life, glanced up at the banner to confirm that this was indeed a Paul Miller-centric display, and made some crack along the lines of “Oh, so is this Paul Miller’s shtick, then?” Hoping to elicit some laughter from my wife, she instead gestured to my left and said, “Well, you could ask him yourself.” I was (of course) standing right next to Paul Miller, in the flesh. Having no idea what this man looked like, I stepped right up next to him and proceeded to put my foot squarely in my mouth.

As Paul graciously shook my hand and asked both of us who we were and where we had traveled from, I couldn’t help but notice the deep, deep peace that radiated from his face. When he heard that we both serve the church as volunteers in separation and divorce recovery, he was obviously interested and engaged in what we had to say. He introduced me to one of his ministry partners, who travels regularly giving the prayer seminars that spawned Paul’s book on prayer. What struck me most about Paul was that he was very clearly one of those Christians who falls into a category that I routinely refer to with the shorthand expression, “The Real Deal.” His face, his speech and his manner all conveyed a deep, settled peace, the unmistakable marks of a man who has long ago sold himself out to Jesus Christ. Whenever I encounter someone like Paul Miller, I always walk away wishing that I had that level of inner peace. It’s a weird mix of frustrating and encouraging; frustrating because I’m not there yet…but encouraging at the same time in that achieving that deep, confident peace of Christ is so obviously attainable this side of Heaven (Philippians 4:6-7, John 14:27).

Flash-forward a day and a half and I am now waiting impatiently at the front desk of the Millenium hotel to ask for a luggage cart so that my friends and I can check out and easily convey our bags, books and assorted what-not down 12 flights and into the Millenium parking garage. I am third in line and I can “hear” the ticking of the clock in my head as the customers in front of me inconveniently take care of things that have nothing whatsoever to do with my personal agenda. (Don’t these people realize what a hurry I am in to go and meet with God?) As the guest being served pays his bill and walks to the right, the guy in front of me steps forwards and immediately launches into a tirade against the hotel staff, its cleaning crew, the service rep behind the desk and everyone else who has ever previously used the word “Millenium” in their speech. OK, so now I have to really pay attention to this individual, someone who prior to that moment represented not much more to me than the guy who was delaying the acquisition of my luggage cart.

The ticked-off businessman in front of me was filled with complaints, and he loudly voiced them for all to hear…the line was getting progressively longer behind me as he did so. He used words that were not quite profanity and yet very clearly not those that one normally hears in the course of polite conversation. The clerk behind the desk immediately slipped on his very best, well-practiced Unflappable Customer Service Face, and yet I could still perceive in his eyes that he was knocked back on his heels by this verbal assault, his pulse had clearly elevated, and perhaps that sickly feeling of imminent conflict had begun to grip his stomach as well. Although I felt a great deal of empathy for the clerk, as I listened to the businessman’s tirade it turned out that several of his complaints had also been true of my experience that weekend at the hotel. While I was more interested in obtaining a luggage cart at that moment, the truth is that with more time and a slightly-worse mood, it’s entirely conceivable that I could have stepped up to the counter to affirm much of what the businessman was saying (though I would hopefully have chosen different words).

As we drove home from Minneapolis, having been exposed to the teaching of such amazing Christian luminaries as Francis Chan, Rick Warren, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, Al Mohler and Thabiti Anyabwile, I should have been meditating more deeply on the strong, powerful messages they had for us, and indeed I suppose that as the days go by I will listen again to their presentations and be deeply, richly blessed by what they had to say. Yesterday, however, as we headed back to Missouri, the two figures that kept coming back to me were, instead, Paul Miller and The Ticked-Off Businessman. While some of us napped, fussed over the accuracy of the car’s internal GPS tracking system, looked for promising places to take our potty breaks, and ran over a farmer’s cat somewhere on Route 13, I couldn’t help but be convinced that what God had for me this year in Minneapolis did not take place on the main stage of the Convention Center.

Living the Christian life is routinely frustrating for me, just like that. (There, I said it.)

I desperately want the deep, inner peace that I see on the faces of people like Paul Miller. I see what appears to be a settled and 100% non-contingent peace in the lives of many other Christians I could name, but I have to admit that I do not yet have it, and that I am far more like my friend The Ticked-Off Businessman than I care to admit. By “settled peace,” I mean being all done debating within myself the excellencies of Christ, that the matter has been put to bed fully and finally for the rest of my life, whether that’s the next ten minutes or the next 40 years doesn’t really matter…Christ is and will be my all in all. After that, I have to think that joy, the non-contingent variety, will soon follow. I am talking about deep joy that is impervious to poorly-cleaned hotel rooms or wrong turns on country roads. The kind of joy that resists the urge to easily get bent out of shape because of external circumstances, because it is rooted and established in Christ (Philippians 4:10-12, Habakkuk 3:17-19, Job 13:15) and cannot be thwarted by irritants, whether large and small.

I find that I have short seasons of this kind of confidence, but that circumstances outside of me routinely show up and drag me back down a path of anxiety, irritation and self-focused frustration. It was happening all around me this weekend, these mostly minor irritations, and it was illuminating with maddening frequency the dark recesses of my heart where I am still not allowing the Holy Spirit to lead me.

For me, in Oct. of 2010, I find myself caught somewhere in the middle of a bridge, somewhere between Paul Miller and the indignant businessman. The most frustrating thing about all of it is that I have already tasted what it’s like to relax fully into Christ. I have a sense of what it’s like to abandon all hope of ever controlling my life, and to do so joyfully. But this confident peace I see others living out consistently continues to be an elusive state for me. I run back and forth, maddeningly so, on this bridge; I still struggle to steadfastly hang onto a faith in Christ that weathers weekends dotted with blazingly-hot hotel rooms, not-so-King-size beds, raucus 3:00 a.m. hotel hall parties and confusing road detours…let alone those trials in life that come filled with real pain.

As we all learned this past weekend in Minneapolis, the human mind is a busy thing, and very often a distracting thing. May all of us seek to cross that bridge fully and finally, and to live out hearts steadfastly full of gratitude as we thank God for providing us with the food we need, ignoring the dirty placemat and hard-water stains on the knife. For those of us “suffering” through the single-greatest standard of living the world has ever known, let us praise God for providing us with the shelter we need, ignoring the tiny mattresses and loud fellow travelers. May God decisively open our eyes and change our hearts, allowing that deep gratitude to give us the peace we long for. (Just remember that I am in line ahead of you, pal!)

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