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This is Not Vanity: Reflections on Turning Thirty

January 20th, 2012 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I have, that I can remember, never marked my birthdays here at Mere-O.  For most of my online history, I have kept such moments private, as making much of them invariably seems to satisfy no one.

But today I enter my 30s, which for the purposes of Mere-O has struck me as having some significance.  After all, I made something of a mark on the world by penning an essay on the new evangelical phenomenon, a phenomenon that I stand squarely in the middle of.  That phenomenon is slowly becoming parents and will, like me, quickly be confronted by the reality that we are no longer the new evangelicals, but have been (inevitably) superseded by the "new new evangelicals."  The charm and excuse of being a youngster can only get me so far, and has probably gone on too long.  Eventually, I shall have to figure out something real to say.  And so for the rest of us.

It is something of an opportunity to reflect on that brilliant question posed by Martin Bashir to Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs: “How does a hard-core, ganster rapper, hip-hop producer enter middle age?”  I'm not there yet, but it is coming quickly.  My hope is to enter it gracefully, to appreciate my youth as youth and nothing more, and to do all that I can to add to that long ladder of dwarves on giant shoulders.

And yet, gratitude:  oh the gratitude I feel.  I was planning on celebrating and saying thank you by giving away books.  I started with my book, and disliked the thought of another clumsy attempt at self-promotion.  I moved to Chesterton's Orthodoxy, on grounds that if there is one book you should read in 2012, it's probably that one (and the year after, and the next one too).  But frankly, the thought of giving away gifts doesn't quite do the whole thing justice.  It lacks elegance when done online, and is too easily reduced to another marketing gimmick.  We'll save such fun for other times.

My heart, though, genuinely overfloweth.  This blog has been a part of my life for nearly the past 8 years.  I could wax on nostalgically about our time, but nostalgia borders on being a sin.  Except about one's wife, and she's been a part of my life for nearly as long.  She has put up with long hours of writing, which when it comes down to it is a rather solitary task.  If there is a reason that I keep plodding along here at Mere-O, her fierce and faithful partisanship is it.  Once could not hope for a better interlocutor, or a more critical editor.

And the rest of it.  So many readers through the years, so many emails (probably too many emails, but that is another story), so many challenges and comments and kind words.  So many new friends, and still so many folks that I have yet to meet.  My twenties were a season of joy upon great joy, of blessing and goodness that is wholly undeserved.  The little community here at Mere-O made a remarkable reality possible:  the existence of a book, an imperfect offering that if I live long enough will be rewritten from the ground up, but a remarkable and stunning opportunity that many people do not get in their lifetime.

Existence is enough, and a miracle in itself:  I have, for whatever reason, been given the extraordinary privilege of finding a spot that fits me well.  Not the sort of thing you take for granted, given the rarity of its occurrence throughout the world.  And so I'll double down on the work, and churn out another few thousand words (though not for this post);  if this writing is a vocation I am about, as I believe my twenties showed it to be, then the gratitude must take a different form, a form that is expressed within my life and my work.

Which is only to say, I only have words this time, words that hopefully resonate as deeply as I feel them:  thank you.  (The "you" is underspecified, as it should be, for the set includes both the God in whom we all live and move and those who happen to be reading.)   If anything, I hope that my thirties manifest my gratitude through my work:  more beautiful prose, more careful thinking, more frequent discussions, and more charitable interactions with those I come near.

Last year, I wrote a piece for Relevant Magazine that was as good, I think, as any I have yet written.  It is, perhaps, pedantic to quote oneself in one's own post, but I'll claim it as my only birthday privilege:

The preciousness of our lives does not depend upon whether we live them for an hour or a hundred years, but upon the one who gives that life to us. All our work is as transient as our days, and only if the Lord establishes it will it remain until the end. But it is enough for us to say, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice, and be glad in it,” for all that the Lord makes is good. We should embrace G.K. Chesterton’s childlike wonder and take so much joy at the sun’s rising that we eagerly say, “Do it again!” But we will also work, not because we may die this day, but because our diligence is the grateful response to the recognition that our lives and time are not our own. And because as George MacDonald put it, “Those who are diligent will soon be cheerful.”

The meaning of our work is never certain, and will not be clear until the end of all things, and it all certainly feels empty and fruitless every now and then.  But the trudging looks like a wonder once on the other side, as the new day brings newer and brighter mercies.   The dawn is ever breaking, the darkness present but in retreat.  And so the work continues apace.  As Eliot puts the task before us:

A Church for all
and a job for each
Every man to his work.

The work shall be established, but not by our hands.   As one friend put it, this is not vanity.  Mere-O, marriage, my family and friends, the emails with readers and the writing of a book--it is not, nor will it be, in vain.  And for that, upon my thirtieth birthday, I am profoundly and genuinely grateful.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.