We are nearing the end of the graduation season—that time when we celebrate and honor those who have made a significant academic achievement. We honor graduates with accolades, celebrate them with parties and then send them off with a hope and a prayer out into the real world to find their way and discover who they will become.
For many, myself included, the discovery of who one will become often comes through broader life experiences. Either from work, places traveled, people met, or further education.
Colleges and universities, and even seminaries have all gotten in on this notion of discovery. That is after all part of the education process—not just the acquiring of knowledge but the furthering and advancing of intellect; to go deeper in thought and rational and understanding. It’s all in response to answer that age old question: “What’s the meaning of life?!”
Colleges and Universities know however that simply asking this question in a Philosophy 101 class is not going to get high school applicants banging down the doors. Which means now-a-days colleges and universities are hoping for such discovery via unorthodox college courses that are all about academic freedom and expanding curiosity but with hip, cool, and trendy hooks.
Last year TIME magazine published an article that spoke of some of these unorthodox classes, or “bizarre classes” as the article called them, such as a class offered through the Women & Gender Studies department at Rutgers University titled, “Politicizing Beyoncé.” The Environmental Studies Department Centre College in Danville, Kentucky offers, “The Art of Walking.” And Santa Clara University’s Department of Physics offered to students “The Physics of Star Trek.” And then there’s this class—one that I want to take—“Nip, Tuck, Perm, Pierce, Tattoo, Embalm: Adventures With Embodied Culture” offered at Alfred University in Western New York. The course description states, “This course aims to explore why and how people alter their bodies, while looking at everything from corsets to braces to ‘buns of steel’ all before finally being embalmed for burial—the final embodiment.”
Now, who knows if any of these classes will help a person discovery who they are to become? And I doubt any of them can answer the question, “What’s the meaning of life?” But frankly that’s ok, because truthfully I don’t like the question, “What’s the meaning of life?” The question itself insinuates that meaning is found in something that can be, and ought to be obtained. But as author and preacher Rob Bell says in his book, “Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering” “You can own something and not possess it. You can possess something and not own it.” Which to me means that we could possible hold the meaning of life, but never even realize it. Or, we could find it, but it may not be ours. So I think a better question worth asking is not “What’s the meaning of Life?” but rather, “Where’s the meaning of life?” After all that’s what we all want to know because we already come up with our own answers every day.
Life would be good… if I had that job over there.
Life would be good… if I had that house over there.
Life would have been good… if I had gone to that place over there.
Life would have been good…if I had been with that person over there.
The age old adage, “The grass is always greener on the other side” is always on our minds—so much so that it is an unconscious incompetence that keeps us from ever discovering who we truly are. But I believe, whether we are graduating from high school or college or from a career, or even just graduating to another new day, the Apostle Paul can help us discover where the meaning of life truly is.
In this passage, Paul tells his personal story as part of his argument that the Galatians should believe the gospel as he presented it, and not as others had presented it. Those other preachers, he says, “are confusing you.” Paul tells of his former zealous and violent persecution of Christians, saying, “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” He talks about his subsequent conversion and then adds some details of his post-conversion life up to the time of his public ministry. He then concludes the story of his early Christian years explaining that the Christian groups in Judea didn’t know him by sight, but that they heard from Christians elsewhere that “the one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” This is what one commentator calls a “biography of reversal.” Paul who was persecuting those who followed Christ was now proclaiming Christ!
All of this is to say that on that day Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul graduated. He had achieved a status so lofty that it earned him the chance to have Jesus show up and offer the commencement speech that would turn his life upside down and infuse it with a discovery—the discovery of the “where” the meaning of life is—in Christ Jesus.
Paul discovered where the meaning of life is when he discovered that life with Christ is infinitely better than without Christ. He discovered that even when he died, and had to endure the end of life as we know it, there would be new life in Christ Jesus, and he would be in a better place. Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Philippians: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” For Paul, living in Christ and even dying with Christ is the answer to “Where’s the meaning of life?”
What all of this becomes then, is Paul’s introduction to a life course he is teaching—the Galatians and us, one with a course description that says, “This course aims to explain that life after encountering Christ is a testimony to transformation of the Gospel as it has been presented in real life by one who once was lost but is now found, by one who once failed but overcame failure, by one who thought he had it all figured out, but didn’t.” And the title of this class is: “Life Is Hard, but it’s better with Jesus.” And we need to know this is no freshman introductory 100 level class. Rather this is a graduate level class because as we know, Paul’s life after meeting Christ got a lot harder—read II Corinthians to see just how hard. But the meaning he found in serving Christ enabled him to face those hard times. The meaning he found in serving Christ enabled him to see the “over there” not as a better place, but rather simply another place to share Christ.
And we need to understand this truth because whether we want to or not, all of us are taking this class. In the immortal words of Prince, God rest his soul, “Dearly beloved, We are gathered here today, To get through this thing called life.”
When we are in dark alleys or lonely valleys where we cannot see the meaning of our life, when the night around us is so thick that we cannot perceive a reason to keep struggling, we need to grab onto this: God has a meaning for our lives. When we are convinced we are of no use, and have no value… When we believe that failure is fatal… we need to remember Paul, and remind ourselves that, for God, no life is beyond redeeming through Christ Jesus who gives meaning to all life. We need to trust this Good News. Whether we can see the way ahead or not, it is there.
I wonder if many folks today ever consciously ask “What is the meaning of life?” Some of us are just not in tune with such philosophical questions and we are happy to simply take life as it comes. But there are some people for whom the matter of what gives life meaning is a reoccurring and nagging query. These people agree with Mark Twain when he said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.”
The “why” for Christians isn’t a “why” though—it’s a “where”. This is to say that meaning for the Christian, the two most important days of our lives are: the day we were born and the day we discovered where life has meaning and the “where” is always right where we are with Jesus. For when we are with him, surround by him and his ways, and live forth as those who are with Jesus, then each day overflows with life giving, life sustain meaning.
And no matter the day, good or bad, we are still right where we are meant to be. And that understanding will give life right where we are and make it that we never look somewhere else and think life would be better there. When we can hold onto that truth, even when we are in deep emotional pain, then we discover that every life—every life— has meaning, and it lies with God.
So instead of searching for meaning per se, let us seek our place in God’s kingdom. Let us go on loving God, following Jesus, and loving our neighbor, and, in so doing, we will discover that we are living a meaningful life wherever we are. It is as Jesus said, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things”—i.e. what we need for life—“will be given to you.”
So let us graduate to each new day, ready to discover, and become, the deep meaning each one of us has. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer, June 5, 2016
God of us all, there are times when our hearts ache and our souls wander and we are full of doubts. There are times when we are left so dismayed and disheartened, asking over and over again, “Why…” Even so–– or especially so— we turn to you in prayer, Holy One, because where else can we turn?
Where else can we turn when today’s news is the same as yesterday’s—terrible, awful, life robbing.
Where else can we turn when our minds and hearts only listen to our doubts, our critics, our fears.
Where else can we turn when we cry out, “What’s the point?!”
It’s in those moments—maybe even in this moment right now—when we need your Spirit to surround us and hold us tight so that we can feel and know that you are close, and that the point is that no matter what, you are at work to make all things good, and that one day, all will be good again.
So it is our prayer that you make us mindful of this assurance O God.
Make us mindful and then set our path to be those who share it, who embody this assurance, who carry it with us as a mantle for all to see so that maybe when one other cries out in anguish, brought on by yet another injustice; when yet another shouts out “Why?!”; when others come to believe there is nowhere else for them to turn, they will come to experience a presence of hope… a presence of peace… a presence of grace through us—us who in all that we say and do, first seek you, in each new day.
May our lives, like the life of your Apostle Paul, become evidence that the “where else can we turn?” questions always have as their answer: God our Creator, Christ our Savior.
We ask that you would hear now the prayers we need to share with you that come from deep within our spirits as we offer them in this time of holy silence.
All this we pray in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, who taught us to pray, saying, “Our…”