Amidst our desires for neatly completed task lists and happy endings, how can we come to terms with the unfinished nature of life?
Over the past months, a few friends have been reading Jon Acuff’s book Finish: Giving Yourself the Gift of Done – it’s a book you will find on the “motivational” or “self-help” shelf. Acuff has written Finish with the goal of helping readers get beyond their perfectionism and busyness so they can actually finish something – a book, an exercise regime or a personal project.
Acuff is the kind of writer who makes you think anything is possible. Reading the book is like listening to a hilarious and wise friend tell stories over a beer. There’s the time his young daughter said she was going to live off his dead fund once he was gone (his life insurance!). He wonders aloud about sending his kids foraging and dumpster diving, rather than prioritizing meal preparation. He admits that his lawn is 1-part grass to 10-parts weeds, and that he’s OK with it. His writing is smooth and funny, and a profoundly inviting vision for getting things done!
Among other advice, Acuff suggests that we bomb some things – to intentionally stop doing some things in order to get other things done. Expressed in less war-like terms, it’s about deciding what we won’t care about, so that we can give time and energy to something we want to finish. As one simple example, he suggests burying the email app deep in our smart phone (in a file on the third page) so that it doesn’t incessantly demand attention. It’s about caring less about email so that we can, for example, get a column written!
Finish is a joy to read, and seductive in its vision of a world where we can be more satisfied and productive. But maybe it’s a bit too seductive. On the one hand the goal of finishing things seems a laudable one, but this sits in tension with the fact that our responsibilities and relationships are always, necessarily, unfinished. As living, temporal creatures, our relationships are always developing and changing, and the tasks we perform always have effects beyond what we can know. Like the proverbial stone dropped in a pond, the effects of our work and relationships ripple out beyond what we can see or fully understand.
Pastors are particularly attuned to the unfinished nature of life. A pastoral vocation means being set down mid-script in the lives of individuals and institutions and then, sometime later, being lifted out of them. Pastors often find themselves wondering: Will the newly expressed faith of a young woman flourish into maturity? Will the care we offered to a struggling family bear fruit for their healing? Will our preaching help the congregation resist its cultural captivity and remain faithful to the gospel? The answer to these and similar questions is simply: We cannot know. There is something perennially unfinished about our work.
Some will chafe at the realization that our tasks and relationships in life are by definition unfinished. We humans have a built-in desire for resolution and completion – in western music, we tend toward a closing chord that brings us home (musical resolution), and in our literature we prefer narrative arcs that leaves us settled and at peace. It is difficult to live with the unfinished.
Rather than resisting the unfinished, however, the theologian Karl Barth invites us to see the “unique opportunity” of our finite and constrained lives. He points out that to be a limited human person is to be precisely the creature that God has loved and blessed into being. To receive life in this form means trusting that God sees the final tapestry, with each loose thread finally woven into place. Perhaps our calling, then, is not to finish things. Rather, it is to live faithfully and freely in our moment, trusting the one who has promised to bring his work in us (and the work he is doing through us, we can add) to completion on the day of Christ Jesus.