All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
-- Ecclesiastes 1:7
In early 2001 while working in the Pentagon, a man I supervised won a high-level award. As he was giving his impromptu acceptance remarks, he made sure to give me a shout-out: "I'd like to thank my very ambitious supervisor ..."
While his intent was complimentary (after all, I had spent a great deal of time writing him up for the award), his words bothered me. They still bother me. Am I an ambitious man?
If I must be honest, the answer must unequivocally be "yes", for I have always held lofty aspirations for myself. In this I have been abetted by the military economy, in which awards and promotions are ever held out for us--a constant motivation to excel, but also a temptation to forget why excellence is important in God's economy.
Now, ambition itself is not inherently evil. In one sense it is what gives us purpose and energy. The Apostle Paul's "ambition to preach the gospel where Christ has not already been named" drove him to evangelize the known world. Rather, it is the inward focus of that ambition that leads to vanity. As Paul himself warned: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
This is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. After all, vanity comes naturally.
A 1994 quote from Rich Mullins has stuck with me over the years. It came from an interview in the middle of his video, A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band. It may come across as a little rambling, but that was the nature of the interview. He was being himself ... which was very much in character:
I hope I would leave a legacy of joy, a legacy of real compassion, because i think there is great joy in real compassion. I don't think you can know joy apart from caring deeply about people, caring deeply enough about people that you actually do something. But I have a feeling--if my life is motivated by my ambition to leave a legacy, what I'll probably leave as a legacy is ambition. But if my life is motivated by the power of the spirit in me; if i live in the awareness of the indwelling Christ; if i allow His presence to guide my actions, to guide my motives, those sorts of things--that's the only time I think that we really leave a great legacy. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. My ambition to be a 'good guy' is a fleshly ambition. When Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow him a lot of us think that what that means is we are supposed to lay down our vices and we are supposed to cling to virtues. But I think that unless Christ is Lord of our virtues, our virtues become dangerous to us and dangerous to the people around us. I think that when Christ calls us to take up our cross, what He means is you must die not only to whatever vices are in your life--which he will eventually kill off--you must also die to whatever virtues are in your life. Your life is not valuable because you are an articulate speaker; your life is not valuable because you are a generous person; your life is not valuable because of any of that. If we empty ourselves of everything and allow God to be present, then it's no longer us--it's Him. Then it becomes a spiritual thing, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. That's when I think Christianity really begins to make sense.Rich Mullins lived "wide-open", as they say ... which is not to say he lived perfectly, or even above reproach. One could almost say he seemed almost to exist right on the edges of sanity, yet was furiously devoted to Christ. He could be shockingly honest, and I think it's fair to say he would have been a disaster in the bureaucratic environments customary to most of us. But I have become convinced that it was this abandon that was necessary to his genius, and which led to gems like this: