Giving Ourselves to Something Meaningful


 Do you remember your childhood vision of what you wanted to be when you grew up? When I was a boy, I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. I watched launches and splashdowns, memorized information from books, and made drawings of rocket boosters and lunar modules. My fifth-grade project “Space Flight in Three Parts: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo” was a featured presentation at a local school board meeting.  What a little nerd I was, and how patient were my teachers. Between then and now, I’ve wanted to be many things: architect, accountant, physician, scholar, writer, pastor. At the recital this past Sunday afternoon, I was talking to a father whose son has known since seventh grade that he wanted to be a professional musician, but that kind of certainty never was part of my experience. Some days, I still wonder what I will be when I finally grow up.

Many influences contributed to my call to ministry, and some of them can be summed up in a poster I found during college, and tacked on my wall for a long time. The poster presented a photo of the earth – the kind I would have taken had I actually been an astronaut – and it advertised a student Christian conference.  Emblazoned on the poster in large letters was the invitation, “Come help change the world.” That invitation spoke to me.

My journey and my feelings are far from unique. One of my favorite preachers Barbara Brown Taylor ponders the way that many in our society are dissatisfied with their work, how they can sense when their gifts are being wasted. “Call me a romantic,” she says, “but I think most people want to be good for something. I think they want to do something that matters, to be part of something bigger than themselves, to give themselves to something that is meaningful instead of meaningless.”[1] Some of us can remember what it was like to work through choices to give ourselves to something meaningful, and some of you are at an age when you are approaching that dilemma for the first time.

Practically speaking, we are blessed to live in a time when there’s an abundance of resources to help us make vocational decisions and take vocational actions. Richard Bolles’ book, “What Color is Your Parachute?” now in something like its 40th printing, is one of the best practical guides.[2] Career counselors help in the process of discernment, like former Presbyterian pastor Doug Brouwer who asks three questions I find especially helpful in evaluating opportunities:

  • Will this opportunity allow me to be more authentically who I was created to be?
  • Will this opportunity lead me to finding more peace in my life?
  • Will this opportunity lead me to greater opportunity to serve others?[3]

Yes, there are many resources to guide our vocational decisions, and we should never hesitate to ask for help in making connections to them, whether we are young people entering the workforce, middle-aged people considering a career transition, or retirees who would like to give their remaining years to something meaningful.

When we turn to scripture, we discover that recognizing and embracing one’s vocation isn’t always a smooth and easy process. Moses meets God in a burning bush, but resists the call to be God’s spokesman in Egypt. Jonah hears God’s call to Nineveh, but runs away. Saul (portrayed so beautifully in our “Paul’s Call” window) is struck blind by Christ on the road to Damascus, before making one of the Bible’s most radical course corrections, and embracing his vocation as apostle to the Gentiles. Today’s scripture reading reacquaints us with the story of the Prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah doesn’t have much self-confidence; he seems seized by terror. What? Don’t send me! I don’t know what to say! I am only a boy!

Jeremiah’s call narrative seems stylized enough that some scholars suggest it was part of a liturgy used in ordination, with certain predictable features: divine initiative, followed by human resistance, followed by rebuke and reassurance, and final commissioning to new service.[4]  If these scholars are right, then the words record not only the experience of Jeremiah, but also the liturgical history of the Jews, who recognized in Jeremiah’s call a general pattern among people of faith.

The general pattern is this: at first hearing, the call of God can be a terrifying thing. And it’s not just a call to speak on behalf of God that is terrifying, but anything new and challenging. Imagine the terror of

  • A call to college or graduate school: What? I’m supposed to study for years and earn good grades?
  • A call to be a doctor: What? I’m supposed to heal people?
  • A call to be a mechanic: What? I’m supposed to keep machines in safe repair for the people whose lives depend on them?
  • A call to be a builder: What? I’m supposed to create homes that will keep their owners secure for decades?
  • A call to be a teacher, a volunteer in our N.E.T. program, or a volunteer mentor at Columbus School: What? I’m supposed to shape the minds of children?

One of the most common misconceptions about vocation is that following God’s call always will be fun and financially rewarding. If we take the Bible as our guide, then we see that the focus is different.  As Craig Barnes puts it, “When a life is changed by the grace of God, it is for a purpose – to participate in God’s ongoing blessing in the world. Abraham was blessed to be a blessing. Moses was taken out of the waters as a baby to grow up and lead the people through the waters of the Red Sea. David was converted from a shepherd to a king with a heart for the flock of God …. The Apostle Paul’s actual job description was to be a tentmaker, but his calling was to bring the name of the Lord before everyone he met …. I have a strong hunch that God is not nearly as worried about how we earn an income as what we do with the name of the Lord along the way. In other words, the real issue is this: Are we being the blessing of God to those around us?”[5]

I’m no longer surprised when we feel anxiety growing and resistance rising upon discovering God’s call. From personal experience, I know it can be difficult to trust God’s guidance and goodness, and take a new step of faith. In the end, either we trust God’s guidance and goodness to catch us when we fall, and give ourselves to something meaningful, or we don’t. If you asked me why I do it, then I just might tell you another astronaut story.  I can’t help it – the nerdy boy still lives somewhere under the graying hair.

In the seventh Star Trek film “Generations,” Captain Jean Luc Picard meets his predecessor Captain James T. Kirk in a nexus in which time stands still. In this strange alternative reality, Kirk has the opportunity to right the wrongs in his personal life that resulted from his focus on service: he plays with a family dog long dead, proposes to the girlfriend he lost when he accepted a new assignment, rides the horse he loved. But he has the haunting feeling that something is missing. Picard convinces Kirk that help is needed outside the nexus to defeat an enemy named Sorin. In a climactic battle, Sorin is defeated, and Kirk is mortally wounded.  As he lies dying, Kirk asks Picard a final question, “Did we make a difference?” “Oh, yes,” Picard replies. “We made a difference.”

It’s a neat little parable, really. It’s about a call and resistance to a call. It’s about a slow and growing realization that life is missing something essential without a compelling purpose, and that giving ourselves to something meaningful is to be fully human in the way God intended. It reminds me that the end of life will come for me, and that when it does I hope I’ve lived it as well as possible, that I’ve done something to help change the world. Maybe I won’t be conscious or able to think straight, but if I am I won’t be worrying about how much money I earned, or what status I achieved. I’ll think about the people I love, and pray for God to bless them, and look forward in hope to the future in which we’ll be together. As I think about them and the life we lived, I’ll wonder – as I often do – “Did we make a difference?” When that moment comes, may God say to me, to you, to all of us: “Oh, yes. We made a difference.”

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Practice of Living with Purpose,” in An Altar in the World, New York: Harper Collins, 2009, p. 113.

[2] Richard N. Bolles, What Color Is Your Parachute? New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2013.

[3] Douglas Brouwer, What Am I Supposed to Do With My Life? as quoted by Rick Synko, in “Mondays Work: What should I do with my life?”, 28 February 2011.

[4] See Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1998, p. 24.

[5] M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet, Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans Co., 2009, pp. 101-102.


~ by JohnH1962 on February 3, 2013.

8 Responses to “Giving Ourselves to Something Meaningful”

  1. I see that you dedicated this to your daughter, Emily. I was surprised when my husband told you that the sermon really spoke to him. I thought it was a case of divine intervention as it seemed directly related to what I have been feeling the past few days. It seems that many of us are sharing the same concerns. In any case, this message was a blessing today. Thank you.

  2. I’m glad Rick appreciated the message. It’s always good to see you both in church!

  3. Sorry I smashed your F-16 model. Now I know why you were so upset. Billy Hembruch.

  4. HAH! Forgot about that. No problem, just a plastic thing. And it was an F-15. Imagine flying something like that.

  5. I see you posted the Reader’s Digest version of your sermon.

    Suffice it to say that I enjoyed the sermon enough to notice differences. Particularly I noticed the missing passage from Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations”.

    This passage, a message to Jeremiah makes me wonder many different unanswerable things. In this case, it begs the question — do we exist before our conception? Or is Jeremiah and other important person’s of his ilk entities God creates and “knows” before conception to serve as a special person(s) to rise the occasion to do His calling? Or is it that God is beyond time and knows how Jeremiah (and we) will respond to his calling?

    You mention the Star Trek show to illustrate that each of us has worth and potential for a meaningful life… (a show I remember and really liked). But for me a particular book that said essentially the same and resonated with me – ” A Prayer for Owen Meany”. For those who haven’t read the book (which was hilarious as well as profound — at least to me) the main character had certain ‘short comings’ but had a life long compulsion that prepared him for his important moment or should I say CALLING.

    To hear that we are called in love to do good things to the best of our ability – each according to our individual talent is an affirmation that is both uplifting and important to hear, particularly when the outcome is uncertain.

  6. Bob, thank you for your careful reading, and good comments.

  7. Please change or read the second sentence as meaning …

    “Suffice it to say I enjoyed your sermon. I do however notice differences.”

    The way it was written sounds like I tolerated the sermon and somehow remained sufficiently alert to notice differences 🙂 Which obviously is not what I intended.

    In other words — Good stuff John, I really enjoyed the sermon. Much food for thought.

  8. Bob, Thanks for the clarification, but I did understand your comments to be friendly ones. I can’t edit the content of your comment — wordpress doesn’t all me to do that — but I can delete it, if you like! Not really necessary from my perspective, but will honor your wishes.

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