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Archive for November, 2018

Purpose

“Purpose” 

© 2012, Vernon K. Rempel, (Based on a sermon from 4-22-12; edited 10-26-2018)

Bible reading: Romans 5:1-5

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Alienation

Alienation: That’s what existentialist philosophers call it. Parker Palmer calls it not showing up for your own life (Hidden Wholeness p. 243 is one example; also, other notes on the soul “showing up”), or “just phoning it in.” (Hidden Wholeness p. 6)

Alienation: In the movie Groundhog Day, Phil – who has discovered that he’s repeating the same day over and over, asks a couple of sad guys: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place… and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” The one sad guy utters the heartbreak words: “That about sums it up for me.”

Alienation: The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus offers a devastating statement about how alienation feels: ”I am too far away from what I love, and my distance is without remedy.” (I am unable to give the source for this quotation.)

Alienation: Samuel Beckett called it Waiting for Godot. He says in effect, that we are waiting for the thing that never comes. It is as if we are saying: “One of these days I will start living my life.”

Alienation: Passing through life disconnected, disaffected, going from one day to the next as if they are gray stepping stones in a gray world.

Romans in contrast

What a contrast then is Romans 5: “Hope does not disappoint us, because love has been poured.” That lovely passive present perfect verb tense, those perfect verb tenses that mean completed action.

Love has been poured into our hearts. No waiting for Godot. No day upon day of emptiness and despair, but rather love has been poured into our hearts.

I have experienced this over and over in my life. It is always an experience of solitude. This thing called love becomes noticeable in my heart profoundly when I am alone.

It is also always an experience of community. I find as I think about the wellspring of love that there are lovely ones around me who have helped me walk to the well, and who have even pointed at the well, effectually saying “there it is” with their own lives and loving hearts.

Paul’s rhetoric

What results from an experience of Spirit-poured love is a powerful new expression in life. Paul is at his best in Romans 5. The preceding verses show what is wrapped up within this love that has been poured into our hearts: Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because love has been poured

It’s easy to get the flow confused, as if Paul is saying that suffering leads to love. Suffering can lead to love. So many things can. But that’s not at all Paul’s point.

Paul’s rhetorical twist is to save the beginning for last. He turns love into the punchline. All the suffering, endurance, character and hope happen because love has been poured. Everything flows from this poured-out love. It is instructive to reverse his good rhetoric. 

If we put love first in the rhetorical flow, we may say that what results from love is the kind of suffering we experience when we love greatly. The commitment and connection of great love mean we set aside comfort and get involved in the human drama, which will always bring loss, conflict, and uncertainty – suffering.

Living through this suffering born of great love, gives us exercise in the practice of endurance. Those who love greatly don’t quit at the first sign of difficulty or resistance. Rather they wade in and keep on going. 

This endurance, then evokes character in the one who loves greatly. There is a growing sense of integrity and strength to do good work and to be well-connected to others, a strong sense of a divine internal structure to one’s heart, mind, and soul through which we show up more reliably and constructively in the world.

And acting out of a strengthened sense of character produces hope, because we are engaged well in things that matter. We have found a way to walk well, a way to hold to a good path. That is hope. Václav Havel writes in Disturbing the Peace, that “The kind of hope I often think about…I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.”

And finally, this hope does not disappoint us because it is born of love, not simply of calculation or strategy or plans for success but rather love. And love cannot fail, because in every moment, love accomplishes everything that it needs to accomplish. This does not mean that love does not plan ahead. But love does not wed itself to a particular outcome or goal, but rather walks forward for the sake of the warm connection and vitality that is inherent in every act of love. 

Purpose

This, I think gives us a sense of the structure of that which is the opposite of the alienation – purpose. Purpose is the sense that life matters, in some way makes sense, and that I am a vital part of this project called “life.”

I read an article recently (Unable to provide documentation.) that argued that college students do not have a good sense about why they’re in school.

I think this sense is easily extendable into all demographics. Senior citizens may find their lives extended, but to what end? Middle aged strivers strive, but for what do they strive? They ask their waiter or bartender at the end of a long day – what’s it all about? Young adults may think, if only I could marry, find a life partner, if only I had a better job or more education. Do college students, that seemingly most purposeful four years in a lot of young lives, have a strong sense of purpose? It’s not just about not knowing what their major is or what they want their career to be. 

In all the seasons of our lives, we may be plagued by a lack of a sense that life is going anywhere. We may too often feel stuck in a infinitely-repeating day, like in the movie Groundhog Day. Each day follows the last, and what does it mean? “All is vanity” as the book of Ecclesiastes opines.

What’s missing in all of these life stages is a sense of life’s purpose: what’s the great thing we’re here for? What’s the great thing I’m here for?

I think having a sense of purpose is another way of saying “hope does not disappoint us….” What Paul was exclaiming about, and what was happening in some of those early communities was the profound and lovely emergence or blossoming of purpose.

Purpose may be a sense of what we want to do next, or what we want to be next. Even more profoundly, purpose can be a strong and palpable sense of how we want to be, how we want to show up in the world. And how we want to be may most deeply described as living in flow of great love, which, as Paul says, is poured out among us.

Purpose as love

First, this love quickly deepens as it flows, like Ezekiel’s famous river in the wilderness. When Holy Spirit love encounters us, we now may find that we also have love to offer, and that this love is evocative, meaning it is love that has the capacity to evoke love from the other without waiting for conditions to improve. This is love that is infectious and multiplies as it flows, growing greater as it is discovered and offered.

Second, this evocative love doesn’t wait for the other or for conditions to change. It flows out of us, even as it has flowed among us. Therefore, we may find that we have an increased capacity for unilateral kindness. We may discover that love is for us right now, not off in some future. We may discover that “this is the day that the Lord has made.” As Rick Warren puts it in The Purpose Driven Life: “Because God is with you all the time, no place is any closer to God than the place where you are right now.” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth am I Here for?) This love is for now.

Third, we may discover that this love generates capacity, rather than obligation or guilt, as the mode of taking action. So, for example, rather than feeling like we’re supposed to do service, there are acts of restoration and healing that simply call our name. These are situations that may strum a cord that runs between our hearts, and an opportunity for service, and that the connection is completely intuitive and natural. In great Holy Spirit love, we simply may discover that which we can do and are ready to do. Parker Palmer calls this discovering “something I can’t not do.” (Let your life speak, p. 25)

Courage

Finally, this great Holy Spirit love will, I think, move us to discover that our purpose is made real because we now find that we are living with courage. With courage, purpose does not remain an idea, but rather is something with which we step out into the world and to act and create.

Church of the Savior, in Washington D.C., founded by Mary and Gorden Cosby, was a relatively small church that featured a strong small-group community process.  Through this life together in worship and in small groups, Holy Spirit love was poured out among them. The church, which is now a network of ecumenical faith communities, became an amazing engine for generating expressions of restoration and healing in the city:

—a church for people living rough, perhaps even on the streets – Potter’s house – that combined the loving ministries of food, liturgy, and relationship.

—an AIDS hospice in the midst of the bad days of AIDS, called Joseph’s House.

—a ministry that found foster families for children, called FLOC – For the Love of Children.

And each one of these roughly started this way: Folks would come to church, they would join, and make commitments. Membership meant tithing and attending, including joining others in a weekly small-group process almost monastic in it’s regularity and commitment. This is the gift and practice of love that generates all of Paul’s rhetorical flow, from suffering through hope.

Out of this practice, on a given Sunday morning during sharing time someone might stand up and would say, for example, “I am going to start an AIDS ministry. If you would like to join me in this mission I’d love to chat with you.”

Notice that declaration was not any of these more common statements that are weaker in loving purpose: “I might start an AIDS ministry, if I can get enough funding or if someone will help me.” Or, “We could start an AIDS ministry if we all worked together.” And especially not deferring it to someone else: “I call upon this church to start an AIDS ministry.” But rather that “I” – that lovely; purposeful, courageous “I.”

It rings with the tone of Jesus at Nazareth, in one of the most stunning utterances in the gospels. After he reads from Isaiah about healing, the poor hearing good news, etc., he says “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This is what Ed Friedman called “differentiation,” the capacity to say “I” in the middle of a process or system. (Generation to Generation, pp. 27ff.)

This is an example of Parker Palmer’s “that which I can’t not do.” And then the person might continue to offer an invitation, “And I would love to have some folks join me if this is also on your hearts.” No guilt trips; no being disappointed in everybody else, no suggestions for others, no exhortations, but rather the clear and courageous voice of a person who has found their path and is already beginning to walk it. This is an expression of what is called, in “Courage and Renewal” work “everything by invitation, nothing by demand.” (See the Courage & Renewal “Touchstones” at http://www.couragerenewal.org/touchstones/.)

That’s what love may do. That’s what I would argue is what the transformative love of Jesus Christ is all about. And there’s also a clue in there about where you find that love – in a community of authentic commitment to the way of Christ.

The Church of the Savior and it’s network of communities is a place where people daily walk in their commitments to each other and were inspired and surprised by the power of love.

What a distance this is from alienation. Love has been poured out into our hearts and in that, there is purpose and courage, so that the world may be made whole.

Reflection questions:

—Are you feeling places of alienation (loneliness, separation, ineffectiveness) at this time?

—When have you experienced the power of love most strongly?

—What inklings or seeds of purpose might you be noticing right now?

—Is there something you would like to declare, because of love, to the world?

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