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  • Aarik Danielsen

Finish What You Started

The liturgist stands in the sanctuary; the reverse image of a 20th-century musician, he completes another quarter-turn in his revolution from soulful pop back to gospel. And he sets me up. 


Ushering Sunday-morning liturgy, he reads the opening of Philippians, warm words of thanksgiving and joy, words forming what they praise: togetherness. We reach verse 6, and the promise God will finish whatever God starts in you, in me. 


 
Too many false springs inside me shake my hearing of Philippians 1:6. 
 

And I wonder if anyone looks away from the screen long enough to see me wince. 


Missourians know the strange duplicity of a false spring (or two or three), a promised arrival in broken promises. As someone who anticipates winter year-round, I take no issue with forecasts shifting around Valentine’s Day or a guileful snow carving March. 


But my neighbors share what’s beneath their breath, cursing 30-degree swings with four-letter words. Rhythms of melt and thaw wear the ground into Midwestern muck; early blooms and small, shrinking deaths muddy the soul. 


Too many false springs inside me shake my hearing of Philippians 1:6. 


Once the verse made music—quite literally. Paul’s words sounded through the CCM record my parents played in the ‘80s, a famous tenor smoothing the verse into song; and they resounded in the signature anthem of a beloved college choir director. 


Effortlessly now, I picture him cuing the last cadence, one hand open to receive, the other a determined fist; the pilot lights behind his eyes still make me want to thank his God for all my friends, thank his God in advance for finishing everything ever started. 


Songs and yesterday’s spiritual ambitions pronounced Philippians 1:6 for me. The verse arrived as a crescendo, a whole life flashing before my eyes in coming attractions. Started small to finish strong—the kind of life that makes somebody’s history book, a life eternally tucked inside library stacks. 


Tonight I cannot see the two steps forward meant for every step back. Too many false springs, never really one season or another. 


Projects shelved. Dreams deferred until they perish. Relationships broken clean through like bones; the patients scatter before any doctor arrives to reset the limb. Tell me, go ahead and tell me, all this will be finished—and satisfied—and maybe I’ll defy Midwest manners, call you a liar.


At least once a week, a story trends for all the wrong reasons, then the right ones. What’s first billed as inspiring proves damning. A parent or best friend bears up a loved one—not unlike the chosen brothers who lowered one of their own to Jesus—and carries them across the symbol of a broken system, somewhere their wheelchair or walker can’t go. 


With no burden in this love, someone outside the story praises their everyday heroism before someone else comes along and says, “It shouldn’t be this way. We’re not supposed to live like this.” 


I used to envision myself like a marathon runner. Reading my hero Eugene Peterson’s The Message, I embraced the way God would “bring (my life) to a flourishing finish.” Now this once, and just this once, I take issue with Brother Peterson. 


 

Life besets even as life carries on. But let me stop, catch my breath, and count something like my blessings, moments when the fevers break

 

If Philippians 1:6 rings true at all, my experience reads more like a trending story. Staircases wait like impossibilities, and the God I know shoulders me ahead. One step nearly buckles, but follows another. Starting strong to finish small. 


Check the tendency to cheer. Everything around God and everything inside God spills over and says “You’re not meant to live like this.” Everything around God grieves neglect while everything inside God wells up to forgive my own lack of neighbor-love. 


Life besets even as life carries on. But let me stop, catch my breath, and count something like my blessings, moments when the fevers break: 


Reading “A Book of Noises,” author Caspar Henderson sifts music the northern lights might make. I care little about what’s true and what’s legend—it all sounds dreamy to me.


I walk into my neighborhood past dark, Henderson’s pages waiting for me on the corner; together, we strain to hear what songs night clouds may hum. 


My hands hold the new, first novel from a favorite poet, Kaveh Akbar. The early pages of “Martyr!” turn perfect, some strange rhapsody about drugs and divine visitation and God’s broken silences. 


My dog grows into his old-soul personality before my eyes every day. 


My favorite writing table comes open at the library, the one beside the window, where my reflection mingles with Columbia’s streetlights and sidewalk scenes. 


I learn of a century-old Western hotel somewhere in Montana—18 1/2 hours away, give or take—and the mere dream of eating a cheeseburger and sipping a paloma in the bar buoys me. 


A treasured band, Frontier Ruckus, returns after seven years off. Their leader, Matthew Milia, picks up his role as poet laureate for disaffected Midwest kids—while somehow sounding older, writing lines like this:


Nothing will ever scare me 

Like the chance of something good 

When it seems like it’ll happen 

There’s no reason that it should


Maybe this tally seems insignificant to you, less than holy even, but it’s everything to me. Because I’m wondering if this is how God finishes what God starts: through small graces, atom-ic moments attaching to one another, keeping us alive and from leaking hope, able to bear the weight of being carried across someone else’s shoulders. 


 

But some of us read and sing in pleas, not promises.

 

Often my brain flips records like some dented coin jukebox. An old Wallflowers song, an album cut, shuffles to the front. Jakob Dylan soon broods, “Man you oughta finish what you started / You can’t leave me here alive.” And damn if that isn’t it? Everything I’m feeling in one B3-soaked psalm. 


Whether the liturgist in the sanctuary or the conductor at the podium, no one else is to blame. They sing—and do—the right things, and I need their strength made perfect through weakness. What’s started still churns toward completeness in them; I see this. 


But some of us read and sing in pleas, not promises. As we inch together toward whatever glorious end, I doubt God minds if my feet slip and my spurs dig, if I croon a little something in his ear, something from the ‘90s. Encouraging God the way God encourages me. Man, you oughta finish what you started. 



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