What am I here after?
Second Sunday after the Epiphany January 19th, 2020 Isaiah 49:1-7
An enthusiastic young priest is just starting at her first church. Because she is so excited by God and so new to being a priest, she eagerly visits lots of people at home and tries to talk to them about faith. So, one day she goes to visit an elderly gentleman. They have been chatting about nothing much for a few minutes when the priest tries to turn the conversation to God. She asks, “Tell me, Arnold, do you ever think about the hereafter?”
And to her joy, Arnold’s face lights up and he replies, “Why yes! I’ll go to the kitchen, or to the living room, or to the bedroom, and I’ll stop and think, ‘Now, what am I here after?” You don’t have to be a senior to ask that question. This week I found myself in the middle of Trader Joe’s wondering why I was there.
So, what am I here after? Why did I get out of bed today? What’s my purpose? We live in a time and place, when these questions whispered as they are in the deep hiding places of every human soul, are drowned out by the orchestra of anxieties, demands, duties, and stressors. Does the sheer madness of this over-active, over-stimulated, over-entertained, over-informed, over-stretched, over-filled, over-loaded, over-expected life make you just want to throw it all in? Gigabytes of knowledge incessantly pound away at the hard drive between our ears so we never have the chance to defragment, clean disk, or reboot. We dismiss and ignore and bury those transformative questions, those essential questions, those what-am-I-here-after questions, because we don’t have the time or energy to deal with them. Keep running, keep running, and don’t stop to ask why. Maybe I’m scared of the answer. What if I do stop and ask myself why I’m here and I realize I don’t know the answer? That all I’ve done for all these years has been for ‘I don’t know what’? Or what happens if I see that I’ve been doing it for reasons that don’t actually satisfy me – like my standard of living, my standing in other people’s eyes, my need to convince myself that I’m an important person, a good person, the kind of person people and God should love.
This morning we’ve read about some people who knew what they were here after. There’s Isaiah in the Old Testament lesson: “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” Simon Peter in the Gospel lesson came to know what he was here after too: Jesus says, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas – Peter”, the rock on whose leadership Christ would build the church. [And our patron Paul, in the lesson from First Corinthians, says he’s “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” St Paul’s, we’re named after a man who had a deep and passionate knowledge of what he was here after. And it seized him, fired him, and propelled him to a life of purpose. What are you here after?]
Meaningful organizations ask that question all the time. And when they have an answer they write it on the walls, etch it on their desks, and live by it. They allocate their resources according to it. The consequences if they don’t are harsh. Kodak forgot what they were here after. They came to believe that their purpose was to produce camera film. As a result, they couldn’t adapt quickly enough when the digital revolution began to render film obsolete. If Kodak had remembered that what they were here after was making pictures and not making film they may have adapted better to the changes in the marketplace.
Microsoft gets it: Our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.
Tesla even more so: To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
Then there’s Nike: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.
Reading these I’m inspired to think big and dream wild. What can God do with me? What can God do with us? Those companies may not succeed ultimately – after all, inspiring EVERY athlete may be a touch unrealistic, and empowering EVERY person may be a bit fanciful, but you know they are not going to die wondering if it’s possible.
What are you here after?
I found some personal mission statements – short mottos that guide people’s daily decision-making, and give them focus in their lives – what they’re here after.
“To serve as a leader, live a balanced life, and apply ethical principles to make a significant difference.” Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell’s Soup.
“To be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be.” Oprah Winfrey.
“To have fun in my journey through life and learn from my mistakes.” Sir Richard Branson.
“To thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” Maya Angelou
And then there’s, “I want to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.” That’s Fr John Francis.
What are you here after?
Now here comes the Surgeon General’s Health Warning. Actually, it’s God’s health warning. God loves you; he knows intimately what you are living through. And it could be that you’re not feeling inspired by this talk of personal mission statements, hopeful futures, and God having a purpose for your life. My words today may be very unhelpful to you because with what you’re experiencing it’s hard to have any hope for the future, let alone feel excitement for why God has placed you on the earth. I remember at several points of desperation in my life I have believed that the only reason God put me here was to serve as a warning to other people. “If you’re not careful you could end up like this guy.” There have been times when I have wanted to throw things at preachers because the purposeful and joyful life they were talking about was light years away from what I was living. So, if you want to throw something at me, please make it an altar kneeler and not prayer book; and b) stay with me another couple of minutes, even if you’re feeling frustrated right now. Today these words may be irritating and irrelevant. But one day God will bring you through this. He’s promised. Life will be more bearable, you will see the sun again, and you will taste the peace that comes from knowing God has created you, called you, and placed you on this globe for an amazing purpose. But God understand if you can’t believe that today.
I love Isaiah’s cry: “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” He was born for this. Parents sometimes raise their child and saying the same thing, “I was born for this.” Or we help a family member or friend in a way that is so profound but which was so surprising that we look back as say, “I was born for that”. Or, you have completed a project, responded to a crisis, did something heroic, maybe even saved a life, and you have walked away thanking God and reflecting, “I was born for this moment.” Sometimes it’s only many years later that we see the meaning behind some random-looking event in the past. Something happened. It was outside your control. You got hurt, maybe you lost something important – a job, a person, a marriage, a fortune, a home, your joy, your mobility, your healthy mind. Then, years later, new and beautiful things have bloomed in your life which could not have grown without that pain. And you see that random event was not so random after all. God had a plan for your life. There’s a loving, rational creator. He has named you, placed you, and given you a purpose.
So, learn to see the hand of God in your past, creating the present, and in the present, creating a future –a future where you will do amazing things.
So, what am I here after? It would be hypocritical of me to talk like this and not try to share an answer with you. I must answer the question even though I’m scared to. Even though it may cause me to re-assess my values, examine my direction in life, make major changes in how I use my time, my money, my other resources, even if it forces me to question the very foundations on which I’ve built my life, my home, my career. Even if the answer knocks my confidence or threatens my happiness, I must ask it, because what kind of life is it that never asks the question, what am I here after? What shriveled, malnourished, shadow of a life results if we avoid that risky question. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else. Or, if you prefer Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
So, here goes. My personal mission statement. Actually, I have two and I can’t decide which one I should opt for. My first attempt was: “To love God with all I have and my neighbors as myself.” It’s short, memorable, biblical, and assuming I don’t put in a filing cabinet and never look at it again, it forces me to ask ‘what does love look like in this situation – for that person’. It makes me put other people’s needs ahead of my personal comforts, to give of my resources, to listen to other people, to empathize, to worship and pray, and to place God’s reputation, and other people’s, above my tribal loyalty.
The other option is a bit longer: “To be the best man, husband, father, colleague and priest I can be.” Sounds inspiring, but it challenges everything I do and every hour of my day. If I’m to live by this it means I must seek training from people who are smarter and more talented than me, I must educate myself, devote time to my wife and kids, get rest and exercise, eat well-balanced meals, show up and be focused every day – no matter where I am and what I’m doing, I need to enjoy creative pastimes, and pursue spiritual practices with discipline. In other words, doing the stuff that will help be the best I can.
May you this week find the time and the energy to go to your place of prayer and ask, “now, what am I here after?”