Dear Dr. Jensen,

 

Several months ago my husband died unexpectedly at the age of 58, and I am having an incredibly difficult time dealing with the loss.  He was my everything!  My children have all gone back to their lives in other cities and I find that I putter around the house with virtually nothing to do, and then I just sit down and cry.  I miss him so much!  I don’t know where to turn or what to do.  Is there anything out there that can help to quell my sense of grief and sorrow?

 

Sleepless in Seattle,

 

Barbara J.

 

 

Dear Sleepless,

 

I extend my sincere sympathies to you and your family.  It has been said that the death of a parent is the death of the past, the death of a spouse is the death of the present, and the death of a child is the death of the future.  Research indicates that the loss of a spouse can actually be the most difficult thing with which to deal because, in many cases, one has lost their soul mate. 

 

Words cannot resolve the pain people sometimes have to face.  In my experience, only faith and time can help us to work through those kinds of problems.  Regarding the faith aspect, I want to present a funeral sermon I recently preached.  The man who died passed away at the tender age of 60, also quite unexpectedly.  Such that the funeral sermon make more sense to you, I will add that he was an avid New York Yankees fan, and that he tragically lost his oldest son in a freak accident when the boy was only two years old.  Please read John 14:1-6, and then read the following with an open heart, an open mind, and with the aid of the Holy Spirit.

 

******************************************************************************

 

These days, I usually do funerals for people who were born in the 1920s and the 1930s.  I often times talk about how people who were born in the 1920s and the 1930s are members of what Tom Brokaw called America’s Greatest Generation.  According to Tom Brokaw, America’s Greatest Generation is the generation that produced many of the strengths our society enjoys today.  They’re the ones who survived the deprivation of the Great Depression.  They’re the ones who went overseas to win World War II – not for fame and fortune, but rather, because it was the right thing to do.  They’re the ones who came back from the war and worked hard to make the American Dream become a reality.  America’s Greatest Generation is the generation that worked long and hard to build the great society of which we are the beneficiaries.

 

Tom Brokaw’s book came out in 1998 and almost immediately made the best-seller list.  Yet not long after that, someone wrote an article criticizing America’s Greatest Generation.  Yes, they built a great society.  Yes, they worked hard to make the American Dream become a reality; but at what cost?  The cost, the author proposed, was their children.  America’s Greatest Generation built our great society at the expense of time with their children.     

 

Well if that’s the case, then George Smith (not his real name) was the antithesis of America’s Greatest Generation. George was deeply involved in the lives of his children and deeply involved in the lives of his children’s friends, as well.  As his wife put it just the other day, “George worked hard, he provided for his family, and he adored his children.”  Let’s just say that George had his priorities in order.

 

Of course, as with all of us, there was a human side to George, as well.  After paying for two weddings in just a few short months time, George looked at the dog and said, “They’re killing me.  They’re just killing me!”  I suspect, however, that he would not have had it any other way. 

 

George, as you may have gathered by now, was not exactly a romantic.  For example, did you ever hear the story of how he asked Beth to marry him?  They’d been dating for about nine years when they happened to be driving down State Road hill.  George looked over and said, “Well, we might as well get married.”  Unbeknownst to Beth, he’d already bought her a ring.  Beth said, “Yes,” and the rest – as they say – is history.

 

George and Beth were married in 1976.  They were together for nearly thirty-seven years.  When they were married, they were married “’til death do we part.”  I often times talk about how we strive for such things in the sermons I do at weddings.  I always say that in marriage, the two shall become one.  It’s biblical, after all.  But for those of us who are married, we realized that that does not happen overnight.  It happens after many years of love, hard work, and a word that isn’t spoken that much any more.  That other word is sacrifice.  It takes years of love and hard work – and it takes sacrifice – for a marriage to be successful.  Obviously, George and Beth were able to accomplish that.  As someone once said of marriage, “You can choose to be happy, or you can choose to be right.”  George and Beth chose to be happy.  And in the process, I think we can safely say that the two had indeed become one.

 

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why it’s so very difficult to say our final goodbyes.  I mean, to whom is it more difficult to say goodbye: to a friend you’ve know for a week, or to someone with whom you’ve spent a lifetime?  George achieved a great deal over the course of 60 years.  He impacted a lot of lives, and he made a lot of friends.  Only now he’s gone, and we’re left wondering why.  It doesn’t seem fair.  Someone so good, someone so compassionate, someone so caring: why was he taken from us so soon?

 

I suspect the disciples of whom we read in the gospel according to John could relate to how each of you feels right about now.  Three years they had spent with the Master – not a lifetime, to be sure – but it was time enough for him to have grown on each and every one of them.  They watched as he healed the sick, gave sight to the blind and mended the lame.  They listened as he spoke of a kingdom that had no end.  The more they saw – the more they heard – the more they came to love this man called Jesus with a love they had never known before.  What had begun as mere curiosity had turned into a call to discipleship.  What had begun as mere friendship had grown into a deep, abiding love. Surely it must have seemed to the disciples, at this point in time,

as if everything was going their way.

 

That’s when Jesus dropped the proverbial bombshell.  He told his beloved disciples of how soon he would be leaving them.  Jesus wasn’t moving to another town; Jesus was going to die – and not just any death – Jesus was going to die the agonizing death of crucifixion.  He told them of how he would be betrayed.  He told them of how he would be condemned.  He told them of how he would be beaten, and he told them of how he would be crucified.  Then Jesus tried to tell them of how on the third day he would rise again from the dead, but the news seemed to fall on deaf ears.  All the disciples could see was their hopes and dreams being dashed before their very eyes.  All the disciples knew was that Jesus would soon be gone.

 

When it comes to situations like this, we are dealing with what theologians call theodicy.  Theodicy is defined as how a God of love relates to evil in the world.  Some advocate what we call the theodicy of soul-making.  In other words, God brings suffering into our lives to build character in us; to make souls, as it were.  But that leaves us feeling as if we are nothing more than pawns in some sordid kind of game.  Others advocate what we call process theology.  Process theology claims at its roots that God is a heavenly persuader, but that God is not sovereign.  In other words, bad things happen to good people in this lifetime because God is powerless to impact the outcome one way or another.  But that leaves us feeling absolutely hopeless, does it not?  I mean, if GOD can’t do anything about our situation, who can?

 

Ladies and gentlemen, sometimes there simply are no answers.  Sometimes we just have to place

our trust in God, as hard as that might be.  The most profound and comforting explanation I have ever come across for the pain with which we sometimes have to deal comes from a simple poem called, The Weaver.  The author is unknown.  Listen closely to the words:

 

            My life is but a weaving between my Lord and me.

            I cannot choose the colors he works so steadily.

            Oft times he weaves in sorrow, and I in foolish pride,

            Forget he sees the upper, and I the underside.

 

                        The dark threads are as needed in the weaver’s skillful hand

                        As the threads of gold and silver in the pattern he has planned.

                        Not ‘til the loom is silent, and shuttles cease to fly,

                        Will God unroll the canvas and explain the reason why.

 

Some things simply cannot be explained.  Some things we simply have to leave in God’s hands and trust that he will somehow work them out.  Looking back on what happened to Jesus Christ, we have a clue as to what God was up to then.  Surely what Jesus endured confounded his disciples, but 2000 years this side of the cross, we have a sense as to what God had in mind.  Jesus Christ came to show us how to live, and to show us how to love.  Jesus Christ died to put our sin to death once and for all, and to give us the hope of life everlasting.  And because Christ lives, we have the hope of life everlasting, as well.

 

I suspect George was well aware of that promise.  In spite of outward appearances, George was a man of deep faith.  The point is that George lived his life as if he believed in God.  He lived a life of service to others.  He gave every bit as much as he ever received.  And God has a special place prepared for those who live their lives that way.

 

I wrote a poem about 16 years ago when my wife was suffering with a particularly deadly form of ovarian cancer.  The poem is called, “Forever,” and I read it now with Beth in mind.

 

            We always thought we’d have forever

            When first we came to be together.

            And love was a romantic song;

            An endless stream that rolls along.

 

                        You always saw the best in me;

                        Opened my eyes when I could not see.

                        You’d pick me up when I was down;

                        Make a smile out of a frown.

 

            When we were young, those were glorious days!

            At each other we’d cast a longing gaze.

            We always thought we’d have forever

            When first we came to be together.

 

                        As we grow older, our love stayed strong.

                        How ‘bout those kids we brought along?

                        Then they grew up and moved away.

                        But you and I were here to stay.

 

            Our hair, how it changed, from dark to light.

            We began to change, like day to night.

            But some things they will never change.

            Love’s not something you rearrange.

 

                        How can I go on, now that you’re gone?

                        My life seems empty.  Where is the dawn?

                        For nearly a lifetime, our love grew stronger.

                        It’s hard to be a couple no longer.

 

            We always thought we’d have forever

            When first we came to be together.

            Yet perhaps, somehow, through Christ we do;

            For heaven’s the place I’ll again find you.

 

This, of course, is what we refer to as the resurrection.  And this is the part in the funeral sermon when I usually declare the “dearly departed” to be hale and hearty in the kingdom of heaven.  But I came across something quite profound about this sort of thing in a book not long ago.  Listen to this.

 

Robert Dykstra was a minister in Saddle Brook, New Jersey.  Much to his utter shock and dismay, his wife of 30 years – Yvonne was her name – took her own life.  In a book entitled, She Never Said Goodbye, he describes the horrendous trials he endured in the aftermath.  Listen to how he described his grief:

 

Death defies all our deepest spiritual imagery.  The promise of a future heavenly home takes a back seat to the harsh, present homesickness.  I can’t talk or think about heaven until I’ve dealt firmly and courageously with the finality of her physical death…She is gone, and nothing can bring her back to me, and spiritual language gives me no answers.  It only leaves me longing.

 

Did you catch that last part?  Spiritual language gave him no answers.  It only left him longing.  Thus, all this talk about heaven is nice, but we still need to deal with the loss.  We still need to deal with the fact that George will not be coming back to us.

 

Here’s how you do that.  When you lie in bed at night all alone – at that point between being awake and asleep – cry out to God in your mind.  Repeat the words, “God, God, God,” to your-self, then simply clear your mind.  God will come to you, and God will give you what we call a peace that passes all understanding.  You will find yourself being mysteriously and miraculously upheld in a way you have never experienced before.  And you will discover that this business of faith is very real indeed.  It won’t bring George back, but it will give you the assurance that he is in a better place.  And knowing that in your heart, you will find yourself able to persevere.

 

George spent a lifetime – albeit a short lifetime – fulfilling God’s will for him here.  Now he has passed from the temporal to the permanent, from the finite to the infinite, from life here on earth to life in the kingdom of heaven.  His place has been prepared for him and now God has taken him home.

 

Can you about imagine what George has experienced over the course of the last few days?  I’ll bet he’s met Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle – all while holding a precious little boy on his lap.  Because right now, I believe he’s alive.  He’s alive and living in eternal fellowship with his family and friends who passed that way before him.  Thus, it is not “Goodbye” we say to George today.  It is, rather, “Until we meet again.”  Amen.

 

What’s in it for me?

Dear Dr. Jensen,

I know that the biggest selling point of the Christian faith is life after death. That’s a wonderful sentiment that probably makes a lot of people feel good. It’s just that life after death is just so far off in the future. What good does it do in the here and now? What I want to know is: What’s in it for me?

Signed: In on the secret, but a little impatient.

Dear Impatient,

I had the most bizarre dream the other night; a dream that really rattled my cage. It seemed my wife died and was met at the Pearly Gates by none other than St. Peter himself. St. Peter said to her, “Would you like to come inside?” She said, “Oh, more than anything else in the world.” St. Peter replied, “In order to enter the kingdom of heaven, you’ve got to pass a spelling test.” My wife said, “Spelling is not exactly my strong suit, but I’ll certainly do my best.” St. Peter said, “Spell ‘God.’” My wife said, “G-O-D,” and St. Peter quickly replied, “Welcome to the kingdom of heaven.”

Well in this dream, after my wife’s untimely demise, I quickly took up with a woman who was half my age. I was having the time of my life when I was tragically killed in an automobile accident. And I was met at the Pearly Gates by none other than my wife. She said to me, “Would you like to come inside?” I said, “Oh, more than anything else in the world.” She replied, “In order to enter the kingdom of heaven, you’ve got to pass a spelling test.” I said, “Spelling is not exactly my strong suit, but I’ll certainly do my best.” My wife then said, “Spell…Czechoslovakia.”

The question of how one gets to heaven and who really gets to go there is a question that has plagued humanity since the beginning of time. In fact, that is exactly the question that was on the mind of Nicodemus in the third chapter of the gospel according to John. Nicodemus was a teacher of the law and a member of the prestigious Sanhedrin, which was essentially a Jewish high court, some 2000 years ago. He came to Jesus by cover of darkness since Jesus had already caused quite a stir amongst Jewish leaders, and he did not want them to know that he was there. Yet Nicodemus sensed there was something special about this Jesus. So he came to Jesus with a question by cover of darkness.

He began the conversation with these words: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Do you see what Nicodemus was doing? He was beginning the conversation with flattery. As Dale Carnegie once said, “Flattery is telling another person precisely what he thinks about himself.” Perhaps Nicodemus was thinking, “Flattery will get you everywhere.”

Yet Jesus wasn’t fooled by token flattery. He knew why Nicodemus was there and he did not waste time on palaver. He looked right at Nicodemus and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, one cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus was talking about spiritual matters, while Nicodemus thought he was talking about earthly matters. Thus, the first thing Nicodemus said to Jesus in response was, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” So Jesus got him on the right track. He said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

It is from this brief exchange that many have taught that in order to get to heaven – in fact, in order to even be considered a Christian – one must be born anew. Now I’m here to tell you that that’s true, but there is a catch. The Greek words translated “born anew” are genaythay anothen. They literally mean, “begotten from above.” What that is saying is that the process of being born anew or begotten from above does not begin with us. The process begins with God. As Jesus later said to Nicodemus, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you know not whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

So you see: the process of being born anew is a gift from God, not a personal achievement. Oh, a gift must be received that we might possess it, but it remains a gift just the same. The point is that faith and salvation come by way of the Holy Spirit, not by way of our concerted efforts. This is meant to keep us humble and to engender faith within us out of gratitude rather than out of pomposity. But still, our American culture leads us to believe that we are in control, that we are the masters of our own destinies, and that we make all the choices, does it not?

Many years ago, there was a very devout woman in my church in Salem, Ohio named Elaine. She had a son-in-law who had a Ph.D. in neurosurgery. In other words, he taught neurosurgeons how to operate. He was clearly an incredibly brilliant man. He was also an atheist, which broke his mother-in-law’s heart. Elaine tried long and hard to convince her son-in-law that God was real, and that he really ought to have faith, yet she found herself confounded at every turn.

She was telling me about this one time, so I said to her, “Let me have a crack at him.” She said, “Oh, he’d kill you in an argument!” I said, “That may be true. But what I’d say to him is this. Faith necessarily begins with God. If you don’t have faith, maybe it’s not because you have rejected God, but rather, it’s because God has rejected you.” Elaine quickly replied, “You can’t say that!” That was not at all what Elaine wanted to hear, but based upon the theology of faith we just described, it is altogether possible that that is exactly what was occurring.

The American Religious Identification Survey, conducted in 2008 by Trinity College in Hart-ford, Connecticut, reveals that 80% of Americans surveyed identify themselves as Christian. Of course, that begs the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” Because we all know full well that the 80% of Americans who claim to be Christian are not a part of the church. I think of my own family. We went to church every Sunday morning when I was a kid. I became a minister, in no small part through the influence of a man named Bill Skinner of the First Presbyterian Church in Sioux City, Iowa. My brother and my sister – also raised in the church – have no part of the institutional church to this day. They’re relying on me to get them into heaven, and that sentiment hurt no one more than it hurt my mother.

I know there are people in the world today who are in the very same boat. They raised their children in the church. Then they watched their kids grow up and move away and begin to raise families of their own. Only they are not raising their children in the church. No one’s heart is more broken than a grandmother who sees a son or a daughter fail to raise her grandchildren in the church.

Here’s the thing. We stated very clearly that faith begins with God. That’s what the church has taught for 2000 years now. Thus, are we saying that God is rejecting those people? Is God rejecting our own children and grandchildren? Or could it be something else? Remember, we said that faith is a gift from God. Yet a gift must be received in order to be possessed. Could it be that our children are simply not ready to receive the gift?

In March of 1978, the Presbyterian Church conducted a survey of its membership. The study was called, “Prayer, Religious Practices, and Sources for Christian Growth.” Church members, church officers and church ministers were asked how often they prayed, how often they read the Bible, and how much these practices meant to them. What they discovered was that the less control people felt they had over their lives, the more likely they were to be involved in seeking a relationship with God. Did you catch that? The less control people felt they had over their lives, the more likely they were to be involved in seeking a relationship with God.

Women were more likely than men to pray and to view prayer as being important in their lives. Younger and older people were more likely than people in their middle years, poor people more likely than rich people, and divorced or widowed people more likely than married people. You see, when we are without the defense of being able to pretend that we are in charge, we become more willing to turn to God. The more deeply people have been wounded by the experience of life, the more open they are to a relationship with God. We become more eager for a relationship with a God who just might upset our plans and disrupt our conveniences when we feel we are not in control. Thus, when we feel as if we are in control of our lives, God is a luxury we may choose not to afford. But when we feel we are not in control – when we feel as if we need help from an outside source – we tend to be far more open to faith in God.

Perhaps that’s why our children and our grandchildren are not in church. It’s not that God has rejected them. It’s that they feel as if they are still in control of their lives. And chances are they will not turn to God until the vicissitudes of life convince them to give that sentiment up.

Jesus told Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born anew, or begotten from above. From those words we derived that faith begins with God. It has to do with the movement of the Holy Spirit. Yet a gift must also be received in order to be possessed. Still, I suppose, the question remains: What do I really gain by being faithful? Or, perhaps even better still: “What’s in it for me?”

There is perhaps no greater fear than the fear of death. A few years ago, however, a survey determined that the greatest fear in America was the fear of public speaking. Jerry Seinfeld did an interesting bit on that. He said, “A recent survey says that the greatest fear in America today is the fear of public speaking. Death…was number two! So in other words, at a funeral, most people would rather be in the casket than up front doing the eulogy!”

Truth be told, I think our greatest fear is death. No one wants to die, at least not while they’re healthy. So Jesus addressed that fear. As he said in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” So what do I really gain by being faithful? What’s in it for me? Eternal life is what’s in it for me.

Of course, I never like to read John 3:16 without adding John 3:17. John 3:17 says, “For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” We tend to stop with John 3:16 and try to determine who’s in and who’s out. Now this tends to upset some people when I say it, but I really believe it. I do not believe it is our job to determine who is in and who is out. I believe that’s God’s job. Suffice it to say that those who believe in Jesus Christ are in. Who’s out is up to God.

Of course, people today want something a bit more tangible. To say that faith in God can bring us eternal life is seen as pie-in-the-sky theology by some. So when they say, “What do I really gain by being faithful?” or, “What’s in it for me?” they want something they can sink their teeth into. They want something in the here and now. So I’m going to give you that right now.

I did a funeral for someone not long ago who was not a part of my church. In fact, she was not a part of any church, and neither were her two sons. I did what I always try to do in a funeral sermon. I share pleasant thoughts about the dearly departed, then we dip down into the valley of the shadow of death, then we try to emerge in the light of the resurrection. In my mind, I’m following the pattern of the 23rd Psalm. After that was accomplished, the funeral director then led everyone past the casket for one last goodbye. I wish they wouldn’t do that! In any case, one of her sons began shaking violently in his grief, and crying out, “I can’t believe this is happening! Come back to me, Mother! Come back!” It was the desperate agony of a man in pain. It was the sheer trauma of a man who was no longer in control. It was the utter devastation of a life without faith.

Contrast that story with a certain couple who were very active in the church. Bob and Libbie were members of The First Presbyterian Church in Meadville, Pennsylvania for 61 years, and were married for nearly 69. When it says in the Bible that the two shall become one in marriage, such was indeed the case for Bob and Libbie. They were devout in their dedication to one another, and they were devout in their faith. Nearly every Sunday morning, I could look out in the congregation and see them sitting pulpit side, about a third of the way back, right beside the outside aisle; Bob in a coat and tie and Libbie in a bright blue hat.

When Libbie died in the Meadville hospital at 11:55 p.m. on July 12th, 2007, 91-year-old Bob got out of bed, got dressed, and drove down to the hospital in the middle of the night. I’m sure it was a beautiful goodbye. He shed a few tears, but he did not fall apart. Because of his faith – because of his profound faith in God – he knew he’d see his Libbie again. And a little less than three months after that, he went to join her. Faith brings eternal life, but faith brings peace in this lifetime as well. Because of our faith in Jesus Christ, we have nothing to fear; in this lifetime or the next. That’s what’s in it for us.

DOES LIFE HAVE A PURPOSE?

“Dear Abby,” the letter began.  “I am a 21-year-old male who feels lost and unfulfilled because I don’t know what I want from life.  I am one of three adopted children.  I was the child who always needed the family support system the most.  I come from a not-so-happy family, one with all of its priorities centered around money – or, more accurately – the lack thereof.  I never felt the love a child should feel from his family.

     “My problem these days is my alcohol intake.  I can’t stay away from beer.  I drink to forget my family problems and the fact that I can’t seem to get anything right.  I dropped out of college because I don’t have a passion for anyone or anything.  I used to have hobbies, like writing and photography, but the alcohol has taken away my motivation and my creativity.  I feel like I’m losing my will to keep trying.  I want so badly to keep trying, but my emotions are keeping me down.  I just want something new, something I can give my all to, something that won’t hurt me in the future.”  Signed, “What Can I Do?”

     Abby’s response was to recommend that that young man seek out a support group called Emotions Anonymous.  While that is an excellent suggestion, my recommendation would have been a little bit different.  I would have suggested that this young man learn how to pray, that he take some time to worship God in the church of his own choosing, and that he pick up a Bible and read it at least five minutes a day.  In short, I would have suggested that he seek to discern a purpose for his life – or, more specifically, God’s purpose for his life.  As a theologian by the name of Augustine put it some 1600 years ago, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”  I believe the young man who wrote the letter to Dear Abby has a restless heart and it will remain restless until it finds its rest in God.

     Augustine suggests that our hearts will forever be restless until they find their rest in God.  Is your heart restless?  If so, perhaps you should ask yourself this question: “How far have I strayed from God’s purpose for my life?”  A 21-year-old man wrote a letter to an advice columnist seeking purpose for his life.  Up to this point in his life, he has been unable to find it and has found himself turning instead to alcohol.  I suspect a good counseling professional would say that he has been self-medicating.  He us using alcohol to numb the pain and the emptiness he feels inside.  Yet if Augustine is right, perhaps the reason he has not found purpose in his life is because he has not yet found God’s purpose for his life.

     Perhaps the place to start is to explore just exactly what God’s purpose for our lives really is.  Does God have a purpose for our lives?  I believe God does have a purpose for our lives.  Yet in order to discern that purpose, I think there is one basic question that we have to get right first.  That question is this: Does God exist to serve us, or do we exist to serve God?  If we get the answer to that question wrong, chances are good that we’re never going to get the rest of it right either.  And unfortunately, there are a lot of otherwise very intelligent people who get the answer to that question wrong.

     The day after the events of nine-eleven, Anne Graham-Lotz, the daughter of Billy Graham, was interviewed by Jane Clayson on The Early Show.  Clayson said, “I’ve heard people say, those who are religious, those who are not, that if God is good, how could God let this happen?”  I suspect the basic theory behind that question is the belief that God exists to serve us.  And if, in fact, God does exist to serve us, then clearly God failed us in this instance.  Clayson then added, “To that, you say?”

     Lotz replied, “I say God is also angry when he sees something like this.  I would also say for several years now Americans, in a sense, have shaken their fist at God and said, ‘God, we want you out of our schools, our government, our business.  We want you out of our marketplace.’  And God, who is a gentleman, has just quietly backed out of our national and political life – our public life – removing his hand of blessing and protection.  We need to turn to God first of all and say, ‘God, we’re sorry we have treated you this way and we invite you now to come into our national life.  We put our trust in you.’  We have our trust in God on our coins; we need to practice it.”

     Does God exist to serve us, or do we exist to serve God?  Get the answer to that question wrong and we’re never going to get the rest of it right either.  Jane Clayson saw a God who exists to serve us.  Anne Graham Lotz saw us existing to serve God.  The answer to the aforementioned question is: We exist to serve God.  That does not mean God does nothing for us.  I mean, if God did nothing for us, then what would be the point of having God around?  Yet first and foremost, we must remember that we exist to serve God.  We serve God not in order to get something from him, rather, we serve God because of what we have already received.

     Perhaps we see just exactly how God wants us to serve him in the sixth chapter of the Old Testament book of Micah.  The question is asked, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?”  The passage goes into what God doesn’t want, but then it dictates just exactly what God does want.  The words of God are these: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”  For those of us looking for purpose in life, I think we may have found our starting point.

     My theological training comes out of what we call the Reformed tradition.  I presently serve a Presbyterian congregation.  The Presbyterian faith is called a confessional faith.  That means we consider the creeds and confessions of the Church to be a part of our faith foundation as well.  The creeds and confessions of the Church are what we call sub-Scriptura, which means they rank just below Scripture in formulating our belief system.  The creeds and confessions of the Church include The Nicene Creed, The Apostles’ Creed and The Westminster Confession of Faith to name but a few.

     The Shorter Catechism is one of those confessions to which the Presbyterian Church adheres.  The Shorter Catechism is a condensed version of The Westminster Confession, originally written to assist children in learning about the Christian faith.  The Shorter Catechism is a series of short questions and answers.  When it comes to expressing God’s purpose for our lives, few things define it any better.  The question is asked in the Catechism, “What is the chief end of man?”  In other words, what is our purpose in life?  The answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”  To enjoy God forever, obviously, is to have joy in this lifetime and to have eternal life as well.  Yet how do we glorify God?  The prophet Micah would say, “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”  Perhaps Jesus Christ has something to add as is recorded in the gospel according to Matthew.

     The scene is a mountaintop in Galilee.  Jesus has been crucified, resurrected, and has made several post-resurrection appearances to his disciples.  This is his last appearance to them before his ascension.  Here is what he had to say: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

     These words have been called The Great Commission.  What does the word “commission” really mean?  It literally means “co-mission.”  The Great Commission is a great co-mission we are called to undertake with none other than Jesus Christ himself.  For those of us looking for purpose in life, we may have found our answer.  Our purpose in life is to make disciples of all nations.  Our purpose in life is to make a difference in Jesus’ name.  Yet just exactly how do we go about making a difference in Jesus’ name?  What follows is the story of one woman who seems to have figured it out.

     Once upon a time, some dinner guests were sitting around a table discussing life in general.  One man, the chief executive officer of a large corporation, decided to pontificate upon his understanding of the problem with education.  He blurted, “What’s a kid going to learn from someone who decided that their best option in life was to become a teacher?  It’s true what they say about teachers, you know.  Those who can, DO.  Those who can’t, TEACH.”  Then he looked right at one of the dinner guests, and elementary school teacher named Susan.  He said to her, “You’re a teacher, Susan.  Be honest.  What do you make?”

     Susan replied, “You want to know what I make?  I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.  I can make a C-plus feel like the Congressional Medal of Honor, and I can make an A-minus feel like a slap in the face if the student did not do his or her best.  I can make 30 kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall in absolute silence.  I can make them tremble in fear when I threaten to send them to the principal’s office.

     “You want to know what I make?  I make kids wonder.  I make them question.  I make them critique.  I make them apologize – and mean it!  I make them write.  I make them read and read and read some more.  I make them spell the word ‘beautiful’ over and over again until they will never misspell it the rest of their lives.  I make them show all of their work in math and hide it all on their final drafts in English.

     “I elevate them to experience music and art and the joy of performance so their lives are rich and full of culture, and they take pride in themselves and their accomplishments.  I make them understand that God is up above, watching over them like a mother hen cares for her chicks.  I make them believe that if they have the brains, they should follow their hearts.  And if someone ever tries to judge them by what they make, they should pay them no attention.”

     The mouths of the other dinner guests were agape as Susan concluded: “You what to know what I make?  I make a difference.  What do you make?”  As you might suspect, that was pretty much the end of the conversation.

     Augustine once said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”  Our hearts will forever be restless until we find our purpose in life.  Our purpose in life is found when we find God’s purpose for our lives.  And we will find God’s purpose for our lives when we find a way to make a difference; when we find a way to make a difference in Jesus’ name.

     It occurs to me others might have questions of a theological or spiritual nature.  Please send your questions to: brianjensen@meadvillefpc.org.

 

Dr. Jensen holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Iowa, a master’s degree in systematic theology from the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and a doctorate in Christian spirituality from the Columbia Theological Seminary.