This week I watched a video where a well-known young-adult novelist, John Green, made the case that most of us—most people—live our lives in a kind of functional nihilism. Now, I’ll admit, I had to go look up nihilism to be sure I understood what he was talking about—my philosopher husband wasn’t home to consult. So, I’ll share with you, what Wikipedia told me, which is that existential nihilism is the philosophy that life is essentially meaningless—we are left to find, or make our own meaning.
Now, John Green did not claim that we believe that our lives are meaningless—only that we tend to live as if our lives are meaningless—doing work that may or may not be satisfying or challenging, going about routines that we don’t examine, consuming food and fashion and gadgets and media because they are there, distracting ourselves with television and sports games and other entertainment. For almost all of us humans on this planet, the vast majority of our moments go by without a whole lot of purpose.
And yet, John Green also observed in this video, that almost all of us have a belief that our lives do have meaning, do have purpose. We might not always know what it is, and we might have trouble living every moment with purpose, but we believe the purpose is there.
And the role of religion, as John Green put it, is to help us connect that believe in a purpose with the decisions we make and the way we live our lives. Religion is one of the ways we have discovered to help us translate that belief into a lifestyle.
So, I went looking this week, to find some of the ways our religious tradition has described our purpose, and let me tell you—there is some good stuff.
The Heidelberg Catechism starts out with the question,
Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?
And the answer, taught to young Dutch-Reformed children for generations is this:
A. That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…
By his Holy Spirit, he assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
There are two things I like in this answer. First, is the recognition that we need comfort, or assurance before we can think about our purpose. If we have anxiety about our well-being, we won’t have much energy to look beyond our own immediate perceived needs. Second, we need help—we’re not wholeheartedly willing and ready to live for Jesus on our own. God helps cultivate that desire in us by the Holy Spirit. That gives me hope for myself, and hope as a parent—God is working on us all!
One of the other descriptions of our purpose, offered in our tradition is the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
And the answer, taught to Scottish Presbyterian children for generations:
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
That is quite a different way to look at life, isn’t it? What if we used that lens to look at the ways we spend our time? In what ways are we glorifying God? In what ways are we enjoying God?
My favorite description of our purpose comes from a Jesuit scholar—Pay Attention! Attend! Show up and notice! Everything else—knowledge and understanding and even love grow out of that basic first step—pay attention.
Now, at this point, you might be wondering why I’m getting all philosophical on Easter Sunday. Aren’t we supposed to be talking about empty tombs and angels? What are we doing talking about the meaning of life?
Well, here’s the thing. We know the story of the empty tomb. We know that Jesus rose from the dead. We even know some of what that is supposed to mean—that death is conquered—that Jesus has victory over sin—that we can share in his new life.
Easter is all about life. Life renewed, a second-chance at life, life out of death, life eternal. So, how can we grasp what is going on at Easter—what it means for our own lives—unless we talk about what it means to be alive?
If we believe that these events of Easter morning are about life—our lives, not just the life of one Jewish man 2000 years ago—but our access to full, meaningful lives here and now, in 2013, then how does it work? How does this story help us transform our belief that our lives have meaning and purpose into life-styles of meaning and purpose?
Well, the truth is that the answer to that question is one that will be a little bit different for each of us. But, here are some possible starting places.
One of the most common ways that the resurrection story transforms people’s lives is through the demonstration of God’s power to bring good out of evil—to bring life out of death. Those who have gone through recovery from addiction sometimes find this to be a vital piece—knowing that God can bring good out of whatever mess their lives have become—believing that their fast-track toward death doesn’t have to be a dead-end. The story of the empty tomb, and Jesus victory over death is one that offers us the hope we need to imagine better, more meaningful lives for ourselves.
We might also look at the women, who run out to tell the rest of the disciples about their experience with these angels—their experience of God—even though they don’t understand it at all. Maybe their example can help us realize that we don’t need to have all the answers to be able to make a difference. Whenever we experience God, even when we don’t understand what it means, even when we might not be entirely sure that what we’ve experienced is God at all, we can still share it—sharing our experiences with others might even be part of how we come to understand what God is doing in our lives—what new life is springing forth in unexpected places.
The example of the women might also free us from false assumptions about what our purpose is. Notice that the women share their experience, but the disciples practically ignore them—Peter is the only one who takes them seriously enough to go look at the tomb for himself. But, before the day is out, every one of those disciples will have had an experience that convinces them that Jesus is risen, after all. My point here, is that the women did not have to take responsibility for convincing the other disciples that their experience was real. It turns out that everyone’s faith is based on their own experience of God, not anyone else’s. We can share our experiences, and point people in directions where we have encountered God, but we can’t convince them to believe what we believe based on our experiences. We can’t take responsibility for their faith. What we can do is trust that God will meet them where they are.
And, maybe, all we need to carry from this story is that question posed by the angels: Why do you look for the living among the dead? Maybe that is a question that can guide our choices, our priorities. Why do we look for life in things that are dead? Why do we look for life in, or even try to build our lives on activities that sap our energy, that drain life?
When I was in seminary, one of the questions we would ask each other in a small group portion of class was “What in your life this week has been life-giving, and what has been death-dealing?” Why do you look for the living among the dead?
The session and I are trying to address some of these questions of purpose and meaning on the larger scale of our congregation. What is our purpose together? Why has God drawn these particular people to be a part of this community at this time? And one of the things we’re trying to address is this life-giving/death-dealing dynamic. You all know that sometimes meetings can feel like death. Obligations, in general, are not particularly life-giving activities. And yet, for centuries, churches have thrived on doling out obligations, making people feel guilty if they don’t contribute, and sucking the energy of the most faithful members by sticking them in long, meaningless meetings.
Needless to say, that is not the kind of church we want to be. So, we are going to be posing a number of questions over the next several weeks aimed at drawing out the life—what are the values and passions and vision that make us feel alive? What can we be doing as a community that will feed our sense of purpose—that will help each of us live more meaningful lives every day?
The first set of questions is on an insert in your bulletin, and I hope you will take some time to really think about it—whether you’ve been here every week, or whether coming it to this church on Easter is a special occasion—every one of you is connected to this community, and we want to hear from all of you.
I’ll be sending the questions out in an e-mail each week, along with our weekly announcements, and if you don’t get our weekly e-mails, but would like to, please put your e-mail address on this insert, and stick it in offering plate this morning.
But most of all, I hope that as we engage with this process, we will all have the opportunity to think about life together—how does this community help each of us to live life more fully, with more purpose? How can we share more of our stories? How can we translate our shared belief that our lives do have meaning, into a shared lifestyle—one marked by resurrection—one filled with hope—a lifestyle with eyes wide open, paying attention to God and enjoying God forever?