I had an Ecclesiastes moment yesterday afternoon as I was walking home from work – a sudden sense of the absurdity and futility of human life in general and all my efforts in particular.
The feeling was brought on by the part-hope, part-prayer that I might be able just to make it through the day without messing up; to at least be able to leave the world no worse off than it was before.
We’re all aware these days of the concept of carbon footprints, of the damaging mark we all leave on the earth each day simply by living, travelling and consuming. But it occurred to me that in addition to that I also leave a kind of spiritual carbon footprint, a ‘sin’ footprint if you like; again, simply by living and acting and speaking naturally I pollute the world with my selfish anger and greed, my far-from-perfect responses, my ill-thought words, my often destructive desires and actions. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, just to be ‘sin neutral’; to at least have contributed nothing negative to the world?
Better off buried?
Which is when the awful futility struck me; the Ecclesiastes moment. Is this really what I’m aiming for, the best I can hope for – just not to leave the world a worse place than it already was? It so, I might as well give up – surely I’d be better off buried.
I’ve joked in the past that the best way for humans to help the environment is to die – that way we stop consuming and actually put something back into the system, sharing our minerals and molecules with creation. The same applies here; the only way I’m going to stop damaging things is to remove myself from the game. Cheery motivational thought for the day. 😉
But it occurred to me at the same moment that this is – literally – what the ‘bad servant’ did in Jesus’ parable of the talents. Faced with the risk (or reality) of messing things up and getting in trouble, he took the easy way out and buried his talent in the earth – which is exactly what I was thinking with my ‘better off buried’. Hmmm… seems like that may not be the best solution after all.
Glimpses of meaning
Earlier the same day, interestingly, I’d felt an overwhelming and exhilarating excitement about the possibilities of the Christian life. I’d just finished writing that blog post about the alternatives to extremism and I found myself getting all excited again about the ‘towering figure of Jesus’ and the full-blooded, full-colour life he’s calling us into. As I walked round the beautiful flower garden in Greenwich Park at lunchtime the natural loveliness all around seemed suddenly sacramental – I sensed the delight of God, a deeper purpose and presence surrounding and underlying all the world around me. It was wonderful; a moment of grace.
So later as I walked somewhat dispiritedly home musing on futility, the memory of this sense of excitement and purpose came back to me; a glimpse of how things could be, even if not a full vision of how I could contribute to them; a conviction that there is ‘more to life than this’. I recalled the words of a great Doug Horley kids’ song which made me smile: ‘I’m not just here to use up air, one more butt sat on a chair…’.
Vocation – being God’s gift
Returning to the idea of the talents or treasures we are, in a sense, God’s gifts to the world; God’s gifts to each other. That’s what we’re meant to be anyway and what we can be. We can contribute something positive; we all have something to bring, even if it’s just ourselves, our friendship, our shared experience, our story. I felt a sense of excitement when I’d written that ‘Water and wine’ blog post, and I realised again that I love writing – and maybe God’s pleased when I do too. It doesn’t feel like much of a contribution to the Kingdom just to write about it, but perhaps it’s a start.
Then on the bus home after my Ecclesiastes walk I was reading Alan Jamieson’s excellent Chrysalis (write-up to follow), and this was the first thing I read:
“The second step [of emerging from the chrysalis] is the step towards generativity, towards giving of ourselves to others. This is where our fragile sense of our own vocation begins to take shape. Frederick Buechner defines vocation as ‘the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.’ “
I think also of Eric Liddell’s famous words in the film Chariots of Fire: ‘God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure’. Of course, Liddell went on to be a missionary and by all accounts a very good one; but sometimes I wonder if he really needed to be a missionary to serve God, or if the running would have been enough. I suppose it depends on whether the missionary work also came out of a sense of ‘God’s pleasure’, or indeed of his own ‘deep gladness’.
Of course, all this isn’t to say that there won’t be slog, pain, frustration, disappointment and heartache when you follow your calling; that’s a given. But there will also, underlying it all, be a gladness, a sense of rightness; a freedom rather than a compulsion.
So what is it all about – what’s our purpose for being here on this earth if it’s not just to avoid making things any worse than they are?
Going back to Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright suggests that our purpose is to participate with God in bringing the Kingdom, in restoring the Earth through works of justice, love, creative beauty and truth. I think this is a large part of what we’re here for, but perhaps not the complete picture. I believe we all have two levels of purpose – the general, overall, ‘everyone’ purpose like worship and mission, and then within and alongside that the specific vocation or calling unique to us – the thing that we feel God’s pleasure when we do; the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.
So we’re all called to worship, but we each have individual ways of doing that; and perhaps our deepest act of worship is simply to live out of our God-breathed vocation and gladness. We’re all called to mission, to serve some part of the world in Christ or some part of Christ in the world – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, visiting the prisoners. But your mission may be to the street children of Brazil or it may equally be to members of your family or even the birds of the air. It might be writing songs or sharing meals or digging fields – whatever it is that comes out of your deep sense of vocation, your gladness, all that you feel called to be. We’re all called to fellowship, but your place of deep and redemptive relationship might be a homeless shelter, or a cathedral, or your workplace, or a pub.
And finally, tying all the others together, we’re all called to the eternal journey of becoming fully Christlike, of letting God form in us the lovely image of his Son – which happens as we ongoingly partake in worship and mission and fellowship out of our sense of calling.
As Paul says, we are one body with many parts – builders and teachers, artists and cleaners, writers and cooks, fighters and healers and helpers. We all need each other, and we all have a part to play. I’m not too sure what mine is yet, but I do hope blogging might be a small part of it.
- Water and wine: alternatives to extremism
- Books: Surprised by Hope by Tom Wright
- Books: Whistling in the Dark by Frederick Buechner