a sermon by Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak
preached on 7 January 2018
In the beginning, God created the earth, and [God] looked upon it in [God’s] cosmic loneliness. And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.”
And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was [human beings]. Mud as human alone could speak. God leaned close to mud as [human] sat up, looked around, and spoke.
… “What is the purpose of all this?” [the human] asked politely.
“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.
“Certainly,” said [the human].
“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.” And God went away.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle
The ministry theme for this month is “Intention” – which leads us to wonder how do our lives achieve meaning? how might we find and live out of our truest self, our deepest purpose?
The turning of the year, as we move into 2018, is a good time to reflect on how we will meet the challenges and changes of the days ahead. Or as my colleague Reverend Josh Pawelek once noted,
this is a good time to consider “how we move beyond our old selves in order to welcome new selves more suited to the conditions of our lives”.
I think each of us is born for something, some purpose. And some of us have spent a good deal of effort to find out what that is. You might have heard of the book The Purpose Driven Life- What on Earth Am I Here For? by Reverend Rick Warren, a Christian preacher and founder of a sprawling evangelical empire.His message is simple – perhaps that is his appeal. In a complex, chaotic world and universe, having someone think through your life’s meaning for you is attractive. I do not disagree with the idea of a “purpose-driven life”. But it’s the “how” and the “why” of the “purpose”he outlines that give me pause.
Drawing from Bible scripture, he tells us what we need to know to be successful in this life and more importantly, how to get to heaven. Here are some of his basic points:
o It isn’t about me – it’s about God!
o God made me for a purpose – was thinking about me before he created the world…
God made me so he could love me…
o Life is a test and we are always being tested by God
o Discontent and dissatisfaction on earth is God’s plan –
so you don’t get too happy here and are likely then to enjoy your reward more???
o Knowing your purpose gives meaning to your life – simplifies your life, and focuses your actions and energizes your life…
– now this one makes perfect sense to me, but then he went on to state that this
o and prepares you for eternity!
We had better get ready for judgment day… where we will be asked what we did to/for God’s son, and what we did with our lives.
As a counter to all this, Robert Price wrote The Reason-Driven Life: What Am I Here on Earth For?
Price, a former fundamentalist Christian, is a Professor of Theology and Spiritual Studies, and has appealed to disenchanted born-again Christians and fundamentalists. The reading this morning was taken from the introduction to his book, which I might add I found the most useful part of it all…
Most of the book is a polemic where Price takes on Warren almost page by page, poking holes in the fabric of Warren’s piety. For example, when Warren says “It isn’t about me – it’s about God!”,
Price counters by saying that “it is about you.” This isn’t an invitation to indulge in narcissism and self-centeredness, in an egomaniacal or egoistical way. What Prices is trying to say is that this life,
your life, right here and now, is where it all begins and ends…It is all about you and the decisions you make and the way you live your life. So figuring out what we ARE here for becomes of the utmost importance…it is essential to our own happiness, to being able to live a satisfying and fulfilling life. And it is important to the rest of the world.
So how do we live a reason-driven, purposeful life?
We begin with questions… (oh, of course, that’s right… we’re Unitarian Universalists!) I guess there are no easy answers. Perhaps there is no one-size-fits-all instruction manual for living a principled life. I suppose we should be wary when someone tells us that there is some definitive set of infallible instructions telling us what to do with our lives. The complex diversity of human lives on this planet, both now and historically, belies that assumption or desire. Our lives are filled with ambiguity and individuality and diversity. No one has “the” answer.
It may be disappointing to learn that the one sure path to truth or meaning does not exist. The one size fits all formula can seem alluring – certainly easier than figuring it out for yourself. I think human beings are prone to sliding into a so-called easy answer or simple path most especially when life is most complicated.
It is important that each of us, as individuals, take seriously finding our purpose in life.
And then linking that with the responsibility we have toward others. Our purpose in life is enlarged and nurtured – and challenged – by being in community.We can find meaning in life without those simple prescriptions, as alluring as they may be. Maybe we are frustrated encountering and questioning life’s mysteries. Maybe we are tempted by easy answers and quick bullet-point lists of how to live a good life. But ultimately we have to engage life in deep and powerful ways –
engage the tough questions, cherish our doubts and let go of a need for certainty; to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty and to not expecting to control all that happens.
It might be simpler, if not easier, to have the attainment of heavenly bliss in the afterlife as a guiding principle or purpose for one’s life – as opposed to searching for purpose and meaning amidst the complexities and contradictions and challenges of everyday life in community. However, finding meaning in this more difficult, less clear-cut route through the sorrows and joys of life is far more rewarding than a life lived in dread of eternal punishment or fear of a wrathful, exacting deity. So where do we find our purpose? Where do we start?
We start where we are – at the beginning – which is now. By naming our values and creating our intention for how we want to live – and die. Our purpose is grounded in our values,
in our life experiences and in our hopes and dreams. It’s like creating and re-crafting a “mission statement” for our lives – something against which we can check our choices, opinions, decisions and relationships.And perhaps the key to figuring out what we ARE here for lies not so much in “what” we do with our lives, but “how” do we want to live them… with what grace, intelligence, wisdom and wit.
It is about how we are with one another: our relationships both personal and intimate and communal. And this life-purpose is grounded in taking a risk and going beyond what we thought were our limits. It is about accepting the challenge to “do the thing you think you cannot do,” as Eleanor Roosevelt once said. Our purpose is more about the quality of our lives and our character
than the quantity of things accomplished.
There are so many times in our lives when we are asked to transcend the limits of what we believe we are capable of… Personal circumstances invite us to grow and expand in unforeseen ways. When we have a child, we grow into being parents; when we lose our parents, we realize that suddenly we are the eldest generation in the family. A new job is exciting and exhilarating and a point of pride, to be sure… But then those new responsibilities challenge us -how did I ever dare to imagine I could do this? your doubting self asks. And then, we do it… we go deep, we hone our skills, we step up to the challenge, we experiment and try new things… and succeed, perhaps beyond what we had thought possible. Or we simply do “okay”… or fail even.
We are amazing creatures and we are capable of much more than many of us imagine. In seeking out this meaning and purpose, in all those difficult aspects, we find beauty and creativity, love and connection. Our purpose in life is not inscribed in our brains at birth nor is it handed to us as we mature.
It is not dictated by some scripture or dogma. We create it out of our whole lives, as they are lived, from day to day, age to age. I think that if we are trying to figure out our purpose in life, we need to jump ahead to the end.
That’s sounds maybe a little morbid, to imagine our death. But I’m not suggesting we focus on the death itself – or the afterlife or whatever comes next. This is not abut having our purpose solely be facing a judging deity and getting into heaven. I’m thinking about what we’d want our lives to have been by that time – which comes we know not when. Not just about how we will be remembered, or lauded or eulogized. But thinking about what difference our lives might truly make. And how we would feel about that.
George Bernard Shaw wrote:
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die…
I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a splendid torch, which I’ve got a hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
Looking forward to a new year, challenged by life’s demands and by the world’s needs, we find our purpose by considering our legacy. Perhaps yours is something like Shaw’s “splendid torch”.
Or the one I often turn to from May Sarton:
I would like to believe when I die that I have given myself away like a tree that sows seed every spring and never counts the loss, because it is not loss, it is adding to future life. It is the tree’s way of being. Strongly rooted perhaps, but spilling out its treasure on the wind.
How would basing our actions and decisions – our intention – look if we were thinking about this idea of generativity? Generativity is an emotional capacity that shows a real concern for the future. In Erick Erikson’s model fo psycho-social development, the opposing pole is stagnation, with all the pitfalls the word implies. If generativity is part of our intention, then we are engaged in creative work that contributes to society in some way, contributing to the welfare of the next generation. To do this we need to find our reason for being, living with intention so that our lives will count for something – not necessarily fame or fortune, but making a contribution to the common good. If we follow Sarton and Shaw in determining the reason for our being here – here, alive in this moment; here, in this religious community – than we rational, passionate, questioning and loving human beings will make a life of meaning and value.
And we will join with others… to seed more trees, to shine more beacons.
I close with one of author Neil Gaiman’s “new years wishes” from 2013:
It’s a New Year and with it comes a fresh opportunity to shape our world. So this is my wish, a wish for me as much as it is a wish for you: in the world to come, let us be brave – let us walk into the dark without fear, and step into the unknown with smiles on our faces, even if we’re faking them.
And whatever happens to us, whatever we make, whatever we learn, let us take joy in it. We can find joy in the world if it’s joy we’re looking for, we can take joy in the act of creation. So that is my wish for you, and for me. Bravery and joy.