Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 25 September 2016
So, what on earth are we here for? I’m going to guess that this is a question that isn’t easily answered by most of us. Certainly not on the spot, not without a lot of time to really reflect on it. The other day someone said to me, “When I think of my own purpose, I think: ‘I don’t know!’”, as they let the words drift upwards into a question, and drew their shoulders into a giant shrug.
Maybe you’ve been asking yourself this question a lot lately. Maybe it’s a question you left behind long ago. Or maybe you are just busy living life and simply don’t have the time or inclination to ask yourself why you are here on this earth. Why? For what discernible purpose?
We’re not alone. Apparently, several years ago a philosophy professor asked 250 of the world’s philosophers, writers, intellectuals and scientists, “What’s the meaning of life?” A lot of them said they really didn’t have a clue. They had guesses or answers they had to admit they had made up. Some wrote back to the professor: “If you find an answer to the purpose of life, let us know!”
Back in 2002, Pastor Rick Warren wrote a book called The Purpose Driven Life. At that time, Publishers Weekly claimed that it was “the bestselling nonfiction hardback book in history.” I don’t know if that is still true, but that should tell you a lot about how many people are searching for meaning and purpose. Rick Warren’s answer is pretty straightforward. He says, “It’s not about you… You were made by God for God—and until you understand that, life will never make sense.”
Rick Warren’s theology is very clear. He’s an evangelical Christian who believes that God has created humanity to follow in the way of Jesus Christ. He has built what is now the 7th or 8th largest church in the US, with an average weekly church attendance of 20,000 people. That’s at least four times the number of Unitarians attending church in all of Canada each week. Wow! If only we could dream that big!
There are things you can admire about Rick Warren. He’s made millions on his books, and he gives away 90% of what he earns. He is not on Donald Trump’s list of Christian advisors, and he has not come out in support of the US Republican presidential candidate, while many big name evangelicals have. I’m waiting for him to weigh in, because so much of what he writes in his books is in opposition to the way Trump lives his life and conducts his campaign. Warren says that hate is not an option for a Christian who follows a tradition of love, and his church members have reached out and built friendships with the local Muslim community.
Even so, there’s a lot that Rick Warren and I do not agree upon. He is a creationist who rejects evolution. He opposes equal marriage, a woman’s right to choose and embryonic stem-cell research. He supports abstinence-only sex education and rejects the use of condoms for HIV/AIDS prevention. So it is with very mixed feelings that I offer some thoughts about his perspective on a purpose-driven life.
His book is really a workbook with 40 chapters to be read over 40 days. (Don’t buy his book, unless you feel truly drawn to evangelical Christianity.) At the end, the reader is promised that they will understand why God has created them — to be like Jesus — and how they can prepare for eternity. His theology is far from my personal theology, but there are questions Warren raises in his book that I find worth translating into my own Unitarian Universalist perspective.
He quotes British philosopher and self-proclaimed atheist, Bertrand Russell: “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.” Which is to say, either you believe in a God who designs the purpose of your life (the puppet master view of divinity that the book espouses), or there’s no actual purpose to our existence. I don’t agree. I think you can live questioning whether or not God exists, or you can outright reject the existence of God, and still meaningfully ask yourself about life’s purpose. Some of the most purpose-driven people I know are atheists. My mother was one. As an educator, she knew, without a doubt, that she was on this earth to make it a better place for young children.
So many of us are seeking meaning, searching for purpose, looking for a mission in life. All you need to do is go to the bookstore or search the online offerings for self-help advice and it’s clear that there’s a huge industry profiting from a multitude of people in search of answers for this most elemental, theological question. “Why on earth am I here?” Warren writes that so often self-help books offer very “predictable steps to finding your life’s purpose: Consider your dreams. Clarify your values. Set some goals. Figure out what you are good at. Aim high. Go for it!” But, he cautions, “being successful and fulfilling your life’s purpose” are not the same thing.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because success, or really lack of it, has been a continuing thread in my family’s story. My father’s great grandfather fled the draft in Russia during the 1840s, struck gold in the California gold rush in 1849, and opened a candy store in New York City. The store failed miserably and led his family into poverty. My mother, who came from a poor Jewish family, used to exclaim, in moments of financial frustration with my father, “Your family is the only Jewish family I know that has been in this country for so long and has no money!” They’d often end by laughing about it together.
My father was a musician and a composer who never realized his life’s ambitions and never made much money. He wrote beautiful music that few people ever heard. During the last years of his life, my father could barely sit up or walk. Yet something drove him to stay alive each day. Each time I saw him, I would ask myself what was the purpose that kept him going? My brother scoffs at me when I suggest that maybe there was some purpose that moved my father close to my brother’s family in California, after my father was forced by Canadian Immigration to leave Montreal.
When my dad moved to California, my two nephews, both in their twenties, were living at home with my brother and his wife. Their house was just a block and a half away from my father’s senior residence, on the same street. My nephews had kept up a steady relationship with my father over the last years of his life, choosing films for him to watch each week. It had seemed like a minor thing at the time, a daily chore that they barely made note of.
My father was a man that my nephews had hardly known when they were younger. Growing up, they had felt no connection to him. But now that they were young men, they forged a relationship with their grandfather. They had come to love this stranger. When he died, they deeply grieved his loss. I like to believe that this new relationship gave my father a sense of purpose at the end of his life, a life that he had often believed lacked success or meaning.
My father was a devout atheist and I’m sure he would have agreed with Bertrand Russell that there was neither a God nor a real purpose to life. Yet the music he wrote was sometimes mystical and sacred as it naturally flowed from his mind into his fingers. What remains is a legacy that will continue to speak to his family, a reason for his being. What remains is the love of man who could be gruff and cranky, but in his own way came to embody love.
Rick Warren asks what it is that drives us in our lives. Is it guilt? Is it resentment and anger? Is it fear? Is it a desire for material success? Is it the need for approval? Something on that list probably drives each one of us, and most likely not with much joy. My father was often driven by anger and resentment. At different points in my life, I have been driven by guilt, by fear and by the need for approval.
What if we felt a greater sense of purpose in our lives that was driven by something other than guilt, anger, fear, material desires, or the need for approval? What would that look like? Does it have to be some plan that God has devised for us? Can it be something that is greater than us, but not something we call God?
This summer, I was at a large party north of Quebec City. We were standing around the kitchen counter, waiting for the food to be served, when someone asked me about being a minister and about Unitarian Universalism.
Vous êtes pasteure? De quelle église? C’est quoi? C’est L’Église Lutherienne?
These are the kinds of question I get all the time.
Non, nous ne sommes pas l’Église Lutherienne. We are not the Lutheran Church! C’est l’Église Unitarienne. On est vraiment different, très overt, sans dogme. Nous croyons que chaque personne a leur cheminement spirituelle personnelle.
I went on to explain that we are a community that welcomes people who are on many different spiritual paths. We have people in our communities who are atheist, agnostic and theist, as well as people who would call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” My role, I said, is not to tell people what to believe about God. Je les aide à…
“Vous les aidez à trouver leur propre lumière,” one woman listening finished my sentence for me, as if this were the most natural answer in the world. “You help them find their own light.”
“Oui. C’est ça,” I smiled as I had this moment of epiphany. Yes, that’s exactly it, I thought. Why haven’t I ever really expressed it that way before? This is what I feel called to do, but like anyone else, I can get distracted by all the other things that drive us. I can sometimes feel as if the whole weight of our movement is on my shoulders — I should be so powerful (that’s fear speaking). At other times I worry about keeping everyone happy (that’s my desire for approval speaking). But if I’m really here to help us each find our own light, well, that changes the picture. I can keep opening doors and windows to offer a source of light, but the rest is up to you.
Figuring out our purpose can ultimately bring focus into our lives. It can simplify things, helping us get back on track when we find ourselves overwhelmed by choices and possibilities. I like how Frederick Buechner puts it (and I’ve quoted this a million times), may you be called “to the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need.” But getting there is not so easy.
As Parker Palmer writes in his book, Let Your Life Speak, that the life that we are living is often not the same thing as the life that wants to live in us. Today Palmer is a Quaker and an educator who leads groups of teachers, clergy and others to find their own hidden wholeness. He tells a story of his failures, his misguided ego and his struggles with depression that ultimately enabled him to hear his own life speak.
There was a time when he thought he was living up to the loftiest ideals. He was an activist inspired by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., but he was living his life from the outside in. He “had simply found a ‘noble’ way to live a life that was not [his] own, a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to [his] heart.”
He writes,”Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.” That means letting go of our protective masks, and the way our egos want to identify us. It also means letting our lives speak not only the things we want to hear, but also what we don’t want to hear.
He admits, “My life is not only about my strengths and virtues; it is also about my liabilities and my limits, my trespasses and my shadow.” Purpose doesn’t come from a voice “out there” calling to us to be something we are not. It comes from a voice “in here”, calling us to be the person we were born to be. Palmer calls it the gift we were put on earth to offer to others, the selfhood given to us at birth.
All too quickly, we grow up losing touch with the purpose we were meant to live. It can take a lifetime to rediscover what was always ours. It’s a spiritual journey that requires us to go “inward and downward, toward the hardest realities of our lives, rather than outward and upward toward abstraction [and] idealization… The spiritual journey runs counter to the power of positive thinking.”
I think that is critical. Finding purpose is more than feeling good. It’s reclaiming our lives in a way that has deeper meaning. The Hindus also warn that purpose has its dark side. If you pursue purpose without an awareness of oneness and interconnection, you are led into destruction. Consider the corporate executive who decides it’s OK to open fake bank accounts in the name of millions of customers for the sake of the company, or the tyrant who believes that their purpose justifies their actions.
This past week, I heard Elder John Cree of the Mohawk Nation speak at a program about Reconciliation at McGill. In response to a question about something he had said, he answered, “In our tradition, we don’t have a God. We have the Spirit of Life. It is there. It is everything.” I liked how he named what can’t be fully named, or understood, as something that can call us to a fuller place of being.
So here’s my understanding of a purpose-driven life UU style. We are here to encourage each other to let our inner light shine, to spread light — the honest, bright light of who we each were born to be. À trouver notre propre lumière. To find the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.
Amen. Blessed Be. Namasté.
Download The Purpose-Driven Life, UU Style