Be Happy. Clarify Purpose!

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I.
When I was growing up and at the age of you Silverside Kids, all television sets showed only black and white on the screens; there was no such thing as color t.v. And, there were only three possible television stations; there was no such thing as cable television. Shows for school-age kids came in the late afternoon–as in after school–or very early evening, ending by 8 or 8:30. Saturday morning and early afternoon were also great times for kids’ shows. My favorite shows were “The Lone Ranger,” “The Micky Mouse Club,” “Popeye,” “Roy Rogers,” “Sky King,” and “Superman.”

Every now and then, a very special movie for children would be shone on early evening television, but only once a year. The better ones in this category aired only on Sunday evenings, which was bad news for me because our church had Sunday evening services, and my parents took my sister, my brother, and me to church every Sunday morning as well as every Sunday evening. Anything that was scheduled at the same time church was scheduled got checked off our family calendar at once. Usually, I didn’t mind because going to church was fun, and most of my friends also came to the same church.
One winter, however, I had to stay at home on a Sunday evening because I was sick, and I happened to get to watch one of these amazing movies for kids that came on just once a year, “The Wizard of Oz.” I loved that film and, of course, wanted to see it again, but the next year when the movie was scheduled to be broadcast, still on a Sunday evening, I was in a fix. I couldn’t go to church AND watch “The Wizard of Oz,” so I asked my parents if I could have permission to stay at home, just that once, to see the wonderful movie I had enjoyed so much the year before. They said, “No. Church comes first.”

So, when the Sunday came on which that movie was to be shown on our little black and white television set, I told Mom and Dad that I was sick and, therefore, couldn’t go to church. It is never a good idea to tell your parents anything but the truth, but I hadn’t learned that lesson at that time in my life. My parents knew I was faking it, but they played along, and my Mom said, “Ohhhhhh, I am sooooo sorry your are not feeling well. Of course, you must stay home from church, and I will stay home with you. You can rest, and I will make you some tapioca pudding; that’s what my Mom always made for us when we were sick, and it tasted really good and usually made us feel better too. You must get as much rest as you can, and we will get you to the doctor tomorrow to make sure all is well.”

That was a terrible plan EXCEPT for the tapioca pudding! If Mom stayed home from church with me, I knew she wouldn’t let me watch the movie as she had the previous year when I really wasn’t feeling well. Furthermore, if I played sick, I knew she really would take me to the doctor the next morning, and I went to a doctor who gave shots for everything. He didn’t like to prescribe medicines to take at home. I hated shots.

So, I was in a mess, and I made the best choice I could given how many things were not going my way. I had a miraculous healing that afternoon in time to make it to church. Of course, since I wasn’t really sick, I didn’t have to get well; but since I’d played sick, without fooling my parents at all, the only way I could get out of going to the doctor and getting a shot was to get well, so I pretended to do that.  “Oh, how wonderful,” Mom said. “You are all well. You won’t have to miss church after all.”

So, I went to church and sulked the whole time because I knew that “The Wizard of Oz” was on television, and I wouldn’t get to see it. I figured that if they kept showing it only on Sunday evenings, I wouldn’t get to watch it again until I grew up and moved away from home to go to college. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what happened. I was 18 years old before I saw the movie again! You’ll have to get your parents to explain to you, if they even remember, what life was like before DVD’s and Netflix.

After that I watched it whenever it came on whenever that was, and when I had kids of my own I bought them a copy of the movie to watch at home whenever they liked. It has a couple of scary parts, but when your parents think that’s OK for you, I think it’s a very good movie for kids and adults to watch now and then.

In the story, the main character, “Dorothy,” is dreaming that she was blown away from her family by a huge wind storm, and–naturally–she wants to get back home. The whole movie is about how she does that, and getting home becomes the one thing she wants more than anything else in the world. Because getting home is the very most important thing to her, that is what she is concentrating on and focusing on all the time. For that time in her young life, this was her purpose in living, and until she got back home to her loved ones–remember, this was a dream–nothing else was as important to her.

She lucked into a pair of magic shoes, but the shoes couldn’t help her unless she said aloud what her purpose was. So, she closes her eyes and thinks of nothing but home while she clicks her heels together and says out loud three times, “There’s no place like home.” Suddenly, she was back at home in her dream, and before long she woke up from her dream to find herself surrounded by all the people she loved.

Your parents may help you decide, if you haven’t already, that during this school year, your purpose is to learn a lot and make the best grades you can make. If you don’t make that your purpose, neither of those can happen–you won’t learn much, and you probably won’t get such good grades. No matter how young you are, no one can learn for you. Good teachers can present lessons to you in such a way that you can remember what they taught, and they can encourage you to learn; but the learning has to be done by you. If you’re going to learn anything this school year, then that has to be your purpose.

You will have other purposes as you grow up, and maybe when you’re a grown up you’ll have one big purpose that you feel is more important than all the rest. It might be to have children and bring them up with the kind of love your parents have for you. Do you know that, though your parents may never had said so in words, taking care of you and loving you with the whole hearts is their main purpose in life?

Your doctor may have as her main purpose in life to help sick kids get well. If so, she puts all her energy into helping you get well as quickly as possible whenever you get sick. It’s great to have a doctor like that, isn’t it–especially if she doesn’t give you a shot every single time you go to her office? Shots are OK sometimes when necessary, but I’d prefer not to get one every time I go the doc.

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Jesus was a very important person whose teachings, though he lived long ago, still help us learn a lot about how to live. When he became an adult, he wrestled with the possibilities, and this is what he said his purpose in life would be: “to proclaim good news to the poor…to announce release to the prisoners of war and recovery of sight to the blind…to send away free those whom tyranny has crushed…” (Weymouth New Testament).

There are some big words in what I just read from Jesus’ teachings, but to say in a way that is easy for all of us to remember, Jesus’ purpose in life was helping anybody who had a personal challenge such as blindness as well as anyone who hadn’t been treated fairly in life. Today would be a good day for all of us to think about what our purpose is, for now or forever.

II.

The tenor aria, “If With All Your Hearts,” from Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” is utterly unforgettable; I mean that musically. I could also say the same theologically. The older notions of a god who was moody and capricious and bloodthirsty began to be challenged in this prophet’s, Jeremiah’s, consciousness. I say this with two specific applications. First, Jeremiah realized that words written on scrolls didn’t necessarily mean much even, let us say, when it came to covenants, which were vitally important in his world. Second, Jeremiah began to call into question the ruthlessness attributed to the god created by his forebears whose behavior fit perfectly with what we today call a terrorist.

Covenants with God were not exempt from Jeremiah’s constructive critique. It was one thing to have someone read words supposedly spoken in some kind of way by God Godself in which God made promises to do wonderful things for people who agreed to the terms of the covenant; it was entirely something else, pointed out the weeping prophet (Jeremiah’s nickname), to live by them. It’s tough, in other words, to internalize words written on a page or a scroll, as the case may be.

This is one of the reasons, I presume, that during weddings in our culture, the practice has increasingly moved away from the couple’s answering a bunch of questions tossed at them by the officiant with a couple of simple, “I do’s,” and more to the officiant’s giving the couple their vows, phrase by phrase, so that they may actually speak the words to each other face to face and in a company of witnesses. I typically tell every couple whose marriage ceremony I perform that their signatures and mine on a marriage license doesn’t make them married. Even the speaking of the vows as I’ve just described doesn’t make them married. Lasting love is from the heart. The most a marriage ceremony can do is to celebrate the love that is and the love that will grow if, with all their hearts, that is what both partners want and show it by properly nourishing the relationship day by day.

After much seeking and reflection, near the end of Jeremiah’s ministry, he finally heard God saying words that changed the whole divine-human relational paradigm: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, `Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

Earlier, Jeremiah had heard God saying, “If with all your hearts you truly seek me, you shall surely find me.” And later one’s heart is established as the only place one can find God, “I will write my law on their hearts. I will be their God. They shall be my people. No longer is there any need for people to be running around saying, `You need to find God,” because I am already nearer to them than the air they breathe.”

James Moser did a wonderful job, the last two Wednesday evenings, helping us remember many of the core contributions of the master mythologist, Joseph Campbell. With Bill Moyers tossing him meaty questions, Professor Campbell–very late in his life–answered with vigor, focus, and insight beyond compare. Any time the subjects either of the essence of God or the activity of God arose, Campbell would say, tapping over his heart, something like, “It’s all in here.”

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The incomprehensible nearness of God–which the Swiss Christian scripture scholar Eduard Schweizer described as “inescapable nearness”–doesn’t guarantee or require connection or acknowledgement. Thus, even after Jeremiah’s late-in-life realization that there was only one covenant between God and any individual (appropriately tossing the erroneous notion that God connects with small groups or nations), the fact remains that unless we seek God with our whole hearts can we ever find God to whatever degree finding God is possible. At most, we may discover love and realize that God IS love, but we will never find God all wrapped up in a neat little package waiting to be unwrapped by eager us. Just that much, though, will not happen unless we seek it with all our hearts.

If we want to find as much of God as it is possible to find, then that must become our purpose in life, or one of them. God will not overtake us; whatever God is, God is not coercive. And, even though finding God as fully as possible may well be our purpose, there will not be any assurances or controls. Jesus tried to explain that to a bone fide seeker in his day, Nicodemus, who wanted a written document, more or less, guaranteeing that he had been included in God’s family and would be with God, therefore, for eternity. “Yeah,” Jesus said, “been there. Hoped for the same thing you did. But I finally realized that God is like the wind. It comes and goes where it will; we cannot make it blow in our direction. All we can do, if that is our purpose, is to notice its effects and to be grateful when the refreshing breeze that is God blows across our faces, sweating life’s turmoil.”

III.
William Jennings Bryan, that articulate statesperson who dared to defend the biblicists in the Bible Belt–said, “Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.”

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The musical prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” film, about which I told the children at the beginning of the Gathering, is called “Wicked” and has become the highest grossing musical production in history. In “Wicked” Elphaba sings a tremendous song about clarifying purpose; its title is “Defying Gravity.” Here are the first catchy and inspiring words:

Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by the rules
Of someone else’s game

Too late for second-guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes and leap!

It’s time to try defying gravity
I think I’ll try defying gravity
Kiss me goodbye I’m defying gravity
And you wont bring me down!

I’m through accepting limits
cause someone says they’re so
Some things I cannot change
But ’til I try, I’ll never know!

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Irene Kassorla believes that the “pen that writes your life story must be held in your own hand.”

So, there’s plenty of inspiration for clarifying our life’s purpose overall or during significant episodes along the way, but how do we do it? How can we bite the bullet and do it–the first time or once and for all? There is no way, though, to remove risk from the process. It is definitely possible to devote our lives to something that doesn’t do us or anyone else any good.
Unless you’re one of those rare people born, as it were, knowing what her or his life is to be about and committed to that purpose from the get go, you will need some practice, which you get by committing to short-term purposes. Huge numbers of undergraduate students have no clue what they want to do with their lives, what might be their life’s purpose. They change majors several times searching for clues, but by enrolling in a college or university and being open to the search, they have established a purpose for now and laid the groundwork for finding their life’s purpose.

Not everyone needs to commit to some sweeping purchase that could change the world in big, noticeable ways. Thankfully, some high quality people do that. Jonas Salk, and his forebears, set out to find a cure for polio. Because of his findings, a vaccination was developed that immediately diminished incidents of polio in this country. By now, polio has just about been erased from the face of the globe. In 1988, there were some 350,000 cases of polio worldwide; last year, there were 223 cases in all the world.

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I’ve never known anyone who became a teacher without have some sense of purpose connected to improving the lives of children and teens–which means improved lives when adulthood rolls around. I’m sure there must be some teachers who have no sense of purpose, but I personally haven’t met any of those. My sister last year took early retirement after a quarter of a century in the elementary classroom not because she had lost her love for teaching, which had been her purpose since her preteen years but, because of all the nonsense that had been added to a teacher’s list of responsibilities. Impossible demands. She wasn’t thrilled in many respects when her daughter decided to follow in my sister’s career footsteps, but Kim–my sister–understood why my niece made her career choice against the odds. It had been her purpose for as long as anyone knew she was pondering career choices.

Not all life purpose goals are career related. I mentioned earlier the goal of being a superior parent when someone decides to birth or adopt a child. We all know disappointing and tragic stories of parents who shame the name, but finding the best of the best among parents isn’t particularly unusual. Many individuals or couples who decide to become parents make being the best possible parent a life goal that supersedes anything career-related. One of my undergraduate students who is getting a certificate in child advocacy believes that having to get a marriage license is a joke and that requiring prospective parents to get a license is much more worthwhile.

No seeming purpose is a real purpose unless we can commit to it with our whole hearts–to intend to be the best at some task or at least to make a significant contribution whether anyone might ever know of our contribution. A worthwhile purpose once claimed may in fact make the world a better place, but there’s also nothing wrong with a purpose that has to do with our own level of achievement in some arena. (I say “worthwhile purpose” because, sadly, there are those who make it their mission in life to hurt others, and some of those are wildly successful.)

Happier people have a laudable purpose or purposes; maybe never an overall purpose, but at least a succession of reasons-to-be for an episode in life. The alternative is the abyss of confusion about what we can do with the gift of life bestowed upon us. It is impossible, under those circumstances, ever to feel accomplished because no purpose has been claimed. A way to minimize worry, for sure, is to clarify one’s purpose–for now and maybe for the whole of life’s journey. The road may not be easy, but when we get up and get at it every day knowing toward what end our efforts for that day may be applied, happiness may be within our reach.

Amen.

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