Tag Archives: meaning

The Human Search for Meaning

IMG_0044One of the many reasons I like going to church each Sunday is that I am reminded regularly of what it means to be fully human and to live life to the fullest, within a human community, a society.

For I do not live alone. What I do affects others. What others do affects me. With the creed of self, of rampant individualism birthed in the sixties and nurtured by the sexual revolution, one needs reminding regularly what it means to be human, that we are a human community.

And the community is not only a horizontal one in present time, but one which extends back in time and forward in the future. What I do today affects future generations. What my ancestors did, my parents, my grandparents did, has affected me.

So in church I come face to face with the fact that not only do I bear some degree of responsibility for others, that it’s “not all about me,” but that my life has real meaning.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the Wall Street Journal writes of the vital role of religion in society:

“No society has survived for long without either a religion or a substitute for religion… Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal. If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but refuses, on principle, to guide us as to how to choose… the twenty-first century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.”

We are creatures who  seek meaning. We are recognizing today that generations have been raised in a largely secular society that has sought to strip serious meaning from the public square, substituting causes, grievances and movements that gather around likes or dislikes. These politically correct “isms” do not tell me who I am, why I am here, how I should live, where I have been and where I am going. There may be meaning on some level in decrying global warming or GMO’s or political candidates but not meaningful enough to ward off depression and it’s offspring, despair.

And there is plenty of depression and despair that has filled the void. Pharmaceuticals and other feel-good drugs have followed suit, re-enforcing the divine monarchy of self and isolating us more and more from one another. The vicious spiral continues downward into darkness.

And so I go to Church where I am told that, as a matter of fact, it is not all about me. Mary Wakefield writes in The British Spectator, “In my twenties… full of self-pity…. I dropped in to see a priest… and poured out my woes. (He) listened quietly, then said: ‘The point of being a Christian is not to feel better, it is so God can use you to serve others.’ Others? It wasn’t all about me! I actually laughed with the relief of it.”

Yes, the relief. And we end up feeling better by serving others. Instead of contemplating my own needs, worship and service pulls me out of myself, towards God and my fellows, and life becomes deeply and beautifully meaningful. Depression and despair will ever be nearby, waiting to fill the void, so I make sure there is no void to fill. I make sure I am full to the brim with meaning, with God, by going to church regularly.

Our preacher today spoke of his heartrending experience as a social counselor to prisoners being released in California. He has come to see that their broken lives do not exist in a vacuum, but were influenced by earlier generations – their parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents. And so the “sins of the father” were indeed visited upon the children. He works to stop the cycle.

Our preacher said how science has given us proof of that legacy in the way drug use is biologically passed on to offspring, so that newborns must undergo a detoxing, shattering the air with their screams.

We are not alone in our actions. No man is an island, as the priest-poet John Donne said.  We are affected by those who have gone before us and we will in turn affect those who come after. We affect one another today.

Douglas Murray writes of the slippery slope of euthanasia, assisted suicide, a topic debated in Britain, passed into law in Holland and Oregon, and recently signed into law by the governor of  California. Mr. Murray traces the acceptance of this shift in our culture to the baby-boomer generation desiring the “full panoply of rights”:

“The right to education and welfare were followed by sexual liberation, which… came with the idea of having total rights over one’s own body, including the right to abort unwanted fetuses… the baby-boomers (are) awarding themselves one last right – the ‘right to die.’ “

The ownership of one’s body is a powerful idea. The fallacy lies in the fact that we are communal beings, with responsibilities to one another today and to the future. In terms of abortion, the fallacy also lies in the right to own another human being by virtue of that person residing within one’s body.

We fought slavery and won, but society will always know the anguish that we allowed it to happen at all. So too, as we kill our children because we own our bodies and claim ownership of the life growing within, we will grieve far into the future. We shall wake up and see the greatest genocide of all, generations of Americans lost, our own children, our own grandchildren, and now our own great-grandchildren, all fellow human beings on this good earth. We know already the grief of Rachel weeping for her children that were no more, the slaughter of the innocents. We are linked together in our humanity.

It has been observed that where euthanasia has become legal, palliative care has lessened. Those in favor of assisted suicide using the euphemism “death with dignity,” point out that I don’t have to choose death by injection. But others choosing assisted suicide may mean that my end-of-life care, my palliative care, will diminish in quality, availability, and affordability. A slippery slope. We are linked together.

There are ways to care for one another that reflect our Creator’s love for us. When we choose death instead of life, at either end of our numbered days, we withdraw from our common bonds, our humanity. Christianity and Judaism has taught for centuries to choose life over death. Doctors have sworn an oath to do so; what do they swear to uphold today? Can I trust my doctor?

I recently watched a good friend meet a good death. I pray, when my time comes, that I die as well as he did. He knew who he was, why he was here, and where he was going. He knew he was passing through a gateway into eternal life, eternal love, eternal joy. Shedding the corrupted body is not easy, but we have many means to palliate and soften the journey.

When I go to church I am reminded of these things, these “higher” things, the difference between truly living life to the fullest, as our Creator intends for each one of us to do (he should know) and slowly dying by degree, inch by inch, slipping into myself, into depression, despair, and eternal death, even while living.

And when I come home from church I come home full of meaning, full of God, nourished and ready to brave the six days until the next Sunday.

Hell’s Vestibule

Sayers.Hell.Dante2It seemed appropriate, since the Bay Area is currently gripped by a heat wave, to reread Dante’s The Divine Comedy beginning of course with Hell. I’m using Dorothy Sayers’ translation in verse, and finding it surprisingly readable. I especially appreciate her “Story” summary at the beginning of each Canto, and her “Images” at the end, all most helpful and clear.

It was also appropriate, in this heat wave, to arrive at our local parish church, St. Peter’s Oakland, surrounded by its courtyard demolition. The garden and patio will be lovely, to be sure, when finished, but in the meantime we are negotiating chicken wire fencing that guards churned earth and pavement slabs. We enter the church, not ceremonially up the steps to the open narthex, our normal route across the threshold, leaving the public space to enter the sacred, but through side doors, maneuvering through back hallways.

So between the heat pushing down upon us like a great closing lid and the courtyard disorder, Dante seemed quite at home in my little brain.

Then, to this turmoil was added the Epistle and Gospel for today, taken from the Sixth Sunday after Trinity in our poetic Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The readings seemed to be all about sin and death (St. Paul) and hell and judgment (Our Lord).

We don’t speak of sin, judgment, and hell these days (in polite society, or rather politically correct society), and try to avoid speaking of death. I had forgotten how these Scripture readings appear like sudden flames in high summer, hard words not content to be safely corralled in Advent or Lent later in the year. And these words are so out of fashion. Today’s culture claims there are always reasons for why we harm one another and ourselves, always explanations, always escape from judgment by changing words and banning others from discourse. It is interesting that Christ not only mentions judgment in this passage but Hell as well, and we are to be judged for the simple sin of disrespect, calling someone a fool. “Whosoever shall say to his brother, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell-fire,” Christ warns in St. Matthew 5.

Such a delicate sin, it would seem, even a lighthearted sin, silly really, part of me secretly says, calling someone a fool whether in thought, word, or deed. Yet on second look, it seems more serious, something spawned by pride, an arrogance that slides subtly into our speech as it takes hold of our hearts, like a snake constricting our love.

For love is the opposite of pride. Love is the sacrifice of self for the other, not the uplifting of self over the other.

Words matter. Today especially. Sin is banished by embarrassment. Judgment deserted. Hell has long been hidden quaintly in fable and fantasy. Or has it? We pretend death does not await us… are we pretending about Hell?

I’m not too far into Dante, but the third Canto places us at the Vestibule of Hell, Hell’s Gateway. Spirits whirl about, distracted, following something here, then there, all the while groaning and shrieking and turning in anguish to keep up. Sound like our world? These are those who, when given the choice of Hell or Heaven, choose to not choose, to remain neutral. They are the undecided, those called by St. Paul “lukewarm,” who are neither for God nor against him. Even Hell spits them out. And so they spend eternity running after the latest thing, just as they did on earth. As Sayers points out, Christian eschatology allows us to choose Heaven or Hell. It would make sense that some choose not to choose. Dante could see our world; his world must have been similarly sophisticated.

I’ve known many people in this vestibule, or headed for it, inside the Church and outside. They slide along in a colorless and unfeeling world by banishing words that are uncomfortable or perhaps too true, too painful, to face. 

As a Christian I am glad to be reminded of hard words, thankful to be forced to face sin and Hell and judgment. The facing makes it far more joyous to be given the antidote to sin and Hell and judgment, an antidote in those same readings of today. And so, St. Paul explains, in one of the most profound and possibly difficult passages in his letters, that we are baptized unto death. He says that when we are baptized our sins die with the “old man,” the sinner in us. And as part of Christ’s body through this baptism, we follow Christ into his own death in this way, but we also follow him into his new resurrected life. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

This is good news indeed, real gospel. These are strong happy joyous words of truth. I would rather know and face my enemy – sin – that old man within me – so that I can die a bit so that I can live a lot. I don’t want to chase the latest idea, blown about by the whirlwinds of pride and arrogance, screaming in anguish and doubt and indecision. I want to know the truth, face life as it is.

The Church helps with this by reminding us, again and again, what is real and what is not, what is true and what is false, through Scripture and Sacrament, through Council and Creed, using words carefully chosen and honed and perfected through two thousand years.

We cross the vestibule and enter, not Hell, but Heaven, every time we enter a Church that holds these words close to her heart.

Meaningful Work

My sixty-seventh summer has passed. My sixty-seventh autumn is upon me. And linking summer and autumn is Labor Day. While instituted in 1887 to honor union labor, Labor Day has come to be a celebration of all kinds of work, whether organized into unions or not. 

I believe human beings are wired to work, to produce, to create in some fashion. The Midwest killing over the summer by someone who said he was bored reveals the despairing numbness that comes from lack of purpose, lack of work.

Purpose. Rick Warren speaks of The Purpose Driven Life. We ask one another, what is the purpose of man? What is the purpose of life? We seek meaning, and work is an expression of the meaning we have found.

Of course there are many jobs that seem mindless, meaningless. I filed and typed for long hours and longer days as I cobbled my may through college, and later, as a single parent, as I supported myself and my young son. Not all work is meaningful, but most work is productive, if at least for the boss or the company worked for. At the end of each day, the file cabinet was plump with the filings from my inbox, and my inbox was empty. I had been productive. And when I received my paycheck it felt good to have earned it.

And in a sense every job, including sitting here at my computer in the comfort of my office lined with icons and books, with my cat nearby and my husband’s ballgame heard in the distance, has long periods of routine work, of slugging along. But I have been blessed with meaning in my life, so that no matter what work I do, it is offered to God. I am secure in the knowledge that I have tried to listen to God’s voice, I have tried to understand the next step to take, the next turn in the next crossroads (no pun intended).

Christians are or should be purpose-driven people. They know who they are and why they are and how they came to be. They know where they are going and they know the way. Sometimes we take wrong turns, more than we confess, but God brings us back. Through his Church he gives us road signs and we finally get back on the main highway, the way to home.

This morning we witnessed two young adult baptisms in church. The young ladies, one finishing high school this coming year, the other in the middle of her college years, had been brought home to the Church by their grandparents. I thought how wonderful it was that at this moment in their lives, when so many crossroads would soon appear before them – choices of classes, schools, careers, dating, marriage, family – they would have the grace of God empowering them, nudging them along. They would see signs that would steer them in the right direction. And as they make these choices, they would have a reference point – God’s will, his design for them, as expressed through the Church.

We are forever wandering and forever coming home, every one of us. And the nature of what we do with our lives, how we spend our time each day – our work as children of God on Planet Earth – matters. It matters because everything matters, everything counts. We may not always get it right, but as a member of the Body of Christ, we have signposts helping us along, helping us choose. 

Many baby-boomers will be retiring in the next decade, and they will face these choices, how they will spend the rest of their lives, their hours, their days, their weeks, their years. Some will volunteer at local hospitals. Some will take another job to supplement their income. Some will spend precious time with children and grandchildren, or neighbors and friends. Some will volunteer at church or temple. Some will give their time to spas and saunas, fitness clubs and golf courses. Whatever the trade-off that is made for the remainder of their days, they will choose activity that brackets and organizes their time, and this choice will shape them in the last leg of their journey through time. 

For me, I have the Church, and through the Church I have God. With the Church as my home, with the family of God surrounding me, with the sacraments and hymns and joyful Sunday worship, I have signposts along the way. I need only watch for them. Without the Church I should wander aimlessly, bored, purposeless, without meaning to my work. With the Church I can see; I am given productive years as I travel the last leg of my journey to Heaven. In the Church I am home, and when I stray I know the way back. A good exchange for my working life.

In today’s Gospel, Christ tells of the ten lepers he healed, but only one returned to give thanks. Today, this Labor Day weekend, I give thanks for the meaningful work God offers us, and I return each Sunday to give thanks again and again.