MCDOWELL'S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MESSAGES

What Do You Get From Life?

  “Thou art what I get from life, O thou Eternal” -- Psalm 16:5 (Moffatt). 

Here are words which everyone uses somewhere along the trail of life. Somewhere a wayside altar is raised, knees are bent, and the deep affirmation of the heart is uttered. “This is what life means to me. Thou art what I get from life.” What is the image on the altar which calls forth this admission from us?

It is not always, probably not often, a clearly formulated prayer. But it is a real one nevertheless. Down in the mist, beneath the threshold of consciousness, this avowal of life’s supreme good is made, and it silently determines conduct. 

The altars of deepest desire are many and varied. On one of the main corners of New York City there is a broker’s office where a congregation of the faithful gathers every morning. The passer-by may look into the window and see them sitting in awe, worship, and hope before the sacred image on a raised platform, the stock ticker. This group of worshippers has continued during days of adversity, when faith in the ticker god has been sorely tried. The whole place has the aspect of a chapel. On a blackboard the sacred symbols of the cult, its solemn liturgy are inscribed, U.S. Steel, IBM, A.T.&T, Exxon. With the fervor of cupidity the declaration is made, “Thou art what I get from life, O Profit.” 

In Arthur D. Howden Smith’s life of John Jacob Astor, is recorded the last act of Astor’s life, signing the foreclosure of a mortgage. The name was affixed, and the pen dropped from the nerveless fingers. The ruling passion strong in death. “Thou art what I get from life, O New York Real Estate!” 

Often the god of deep desire is more subtle. It is in the symbol of position, of power, of exclusiveness, the plaudits of admiration, which are life’s elixir. It is a sobering thing to remember, that, so great is our capacity for self-deception, that the stark truth about a preacher, speaking in the name of God, would sometimes be that he says in his heart, not “Thou art what I get from life, O Thou Eternal,” but, rather, turning his eyes to waiting crowds and his ears to fluent compliments, says to them, “Thou art what I get.” 

Often the inner worship is down in a crypt, in a subcellar of human nature, where with head bowed not so much in the dust as in primordial mud, before animal appetites, a man says, “Thou art what I get from life, O thou ephemeral!” 

To this psalmist God was life’s supreme quest and reward. In him was life’s yield of meaning and zest. This entire hymn of Psalm 16 focuses on the goodness of the Lord. The personal pronoun “my” is used over a dozen times (my trust, my goodness, my cup, etc.). David’s joy (vv. 9, 11) is expressed in words like “delight” (vv. 3, 6), “pleasant” and “pleasure” (vv. 6, 11), and “glad” (v. 9). David finds his delight only in the Lord and confesses that everything good in his life has come from God. Can that be a permanent interpretation of experience? What does religion add to life, that a man can say of God, “Thou art what life means most richly to me?” 

A first thing which faith gives to life is a sense of security for the highest and dearest things of experience. The black pitch of darkness which a godless universe holds has never been more discriminatingly described than by William P. Montague, where he says in his Belief Unbound that with such lack of faith we are living in a universe where the things we care for most are at the mercy of the things we care for least. He says: 

"If God is not, then the existence of all that is beautiful and in any sense good, is but the accidental and ineffectual by-product of blindly swirling atoms, or of the equally unpurposeful, though more conceptually complicated, mechanisms of present-day physics. A man may believe that this dreadful thing is true. But only the fool will say in his heart that he is glad that it is true. For to wish there should   be no God is to wish that the things which we love and strive to realize and make permanent, should be only temporary and doomed to frustration and destruction. . . . Atheism leads not to badness but only to incurable sadness and loneliness." 

Faith in God gives to life an access of confidence, by which we can walk forward through the maze of life, in fellowship with One from whom we came. We get a new conception of ourselves, a new grounding of social hope, a new deepening of human relationship. As to this last, there is a profound theological implication to the familiar lines of Lovelace, 

          “I could not love thee, dear, so much,

               Loved I not honor more.” 

It runs through all human relationship. We could not love so deeply, so richly, where love did not move in a heightened conception of human personality, which in turn is grounded in a faith in the personality of God. 

To come back to where we started – to ourselves. What do we get from life? the second rate, or the fifth rate, or the highest and deepest it can give?