Which question are you asking yourself?
“Be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.”
Ephesians 4:23-24, New American Bible, revised edition
It’s still early enough in the New Year that we might not yet have abandoned all of our New Year’s Resolutions -- and perhaps we are still trying to chart our way through 2019.
It’s a good time of the year to turn ourselves over to a little introspection. What does life mean? What does my life mean? What is my purpose in life? More immediately, what is my purpose in 2019?
In his 2016 book The Road to Character, David Brooks, New York Times columnist, says that when we ask questions about our life’s purpose, we have the choice of asking either of two questions.
- What do I want from life?
- How can I match my intrinsic talents with one of the world’s deep needs?
The first is probably the more common question today for people in our western culture.
Over recent centuries we’ve learned that the earth is not the center of the solar system. But all too often we seem to assume that, individually, we are its center. It’s common for us to assume that life is pretty much all about “Me” -- and living a happy, fulfilling life begins by attending to our own needs, wants and whims. Thus the inclination to ask: What do I want from life?
We should know better. While science confirms more and more each day that we are all part of an interactive, interdependent web of life, our tendency all too often is to forget John Donne’s sage observation that “no man (or woman) is an island.”
As we are rediscovering daily, the human individual is a social phenomenon. That is to say, humans as we know them -- with more precision each day -- need other people to fully develop as individuals. When people are deprived of healthy doses of human interaction from birth for sufficiently long periods of time, we find that they are unable to ever speak, much less to read, to bond or to become housebroken.
God made things that way. So if we want to find our place in this life, we have to acknowledge that network – that debt – as we ask about our purpose in life. As you might expect, Jesus said it best: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it“ (Matthew 10:39).
As Christians we believe that everything we are and everything we have, beginning with life itself, is a gift from God. We are not given these gifts to increase our hat size. We are given all our gifts to contribute to the common good so as to build up the Kingdom of God.
That’s why the question we should be asking is: How can I match my intrinsic talents with one of the world’s deep needs?
When we ask that question, we are asking how we can contribute to God’s plan for the world – how we can be an instrument of His infinite wisdom and gracious love.
I’m reminded of a friend I’ve known since my earliest days of boyhood. We would see each other every summer when his extended family vacationed at my maternal grandfather’s modest resort cottages. He was nine years older than me, so we didn’t interact a lot. Mostly I marveled at him from the distance – his size, his strength, his worldly knowledge and, yes, his kindness to me and the many other kids at the place.
After high school he joined the Air Force and was stationed close to where we lived, so we had him over often for Sunday dinners. When I heard he was in the Air Force, I asked if he flew the fighter jets which were often flying overhead. “No,” he said. When he entered the Air Force they gave him an aptitude test, he qualified for only a few things. The job he picked was to look after the furnaces in the buildings on the base.
I was a little disillusioned. There is not much glory to be found in furnace maintenance. But now that I look back on his choice of assignments, I can see he was performing a vital service to other airmen and women on the base. This time of the year in the place where I live, I start each morning thanking God for the people who invented central heat and indoor plumbing. In the lingering darkness of a new dawn, all the rest seems like so much window dressing.
After a year or two, my friend got transferred to Iceland – where his skill was even more vital than it had been on the prairies of Illinois. As life unfolds, we lost track of one another for many decades. But when we finally reconnected, thanks to the internet, he was retired and living happily a couple of states south.
He couldn’t wait to share his joy with me over his new assignment in life. He said, “After I retired, I stayed retired for three weeks.” Then he saw a need and stepped up to be a bus driver for the children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “Best job I ever had,” he said.
Despite more than his share of struggles over the years, he was happy to tell me how grateful he is for his life. He wasn’t given the intrinsic talents to be one of the doctors contributing to the common good at the children’s research hospital. But he has plenty of talent to serve the children there – and by doing so, to serve the incredible mission of that place.
My friend has matched his gifts to one of the world’s greatest needs. And to hear him tell it, there’s not a happier or more blessed person in the whole world.
As you look ahead to 2019, I hope you learn from him. I certainly have.
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