A few years before I retired a group of my friends and I were having a lunch table conversation at the Rotary Club about what we will do once each of us at the table had retired. I was telling them that my brother had retired to Savannah, Georgia but still teaches drama at a university there. I told them that he had a very active career in television and the movies; never, however, rising above bit parts and television ads. Then one of the people at the table suggested that I also had wanted to be an actor. I said, no I had never thought of it as a potential for me. I have enjoyed being a career soldier, working at a university, mental health therapist, and now a parish priest.I did say, however, that I thought I would like to have been a stand-up comic. Then the question came, “Do you tell jokes in your sermons?” My response was, “Well, sometimes I do. My wife doesn’t like when I do. However, I tend to be more cerebral.” Then one of the table mates said, “I enjoy a cerebral joke every now and then.” So, I said “This reminds of the time I told the ‘Bell Ringer’ joke.” All but one remembered it, so the one at the table indicated that he would like me to tell it again. Luckily, just as I was about the start, the president of the club hit the Rotary Club bell and called the meeting to order.
A few years ago I thought it would be clever to record on the parish answering machine a philosophical statement about the function of the machine. I recorded my greeting like this, “You have reached the Grace Church answering machine. However, this machine is more of a questioning machine than answering device. It wants to know, who are you and what do you want?” Then I went on to say, “Those are the type of questions we ask here at Grace Church every Sunday.” That may have been a slight misstatement (as the politicians often say), but it was at least my hope that it was true. Then it went on to give the times of our services and alternative phone numbers for those who needed to reach me.
I got a number of critical comments. Most thought it was very ingenious and interesting. In fact, the callers would often compliment me. One person would often complain and leave long responses on the tape. But I was not deterred. I kept that “questioning machine” answer for several years. I stopped using it when we installed a new phone with a digital answering feature.
Nevertheless, the questions “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” seem appropriate for Advent. The officials of the religious elite of first century Israel demanded the same from John-the-Baptist. They wanted to know if he was the long-awaited messiah. He said he was not, but he said he was the one Isaiah had described as “One crying in the wilderness to make way for the one coming of whom he was not worthy to tie or untied his sandals.”
It is appropriate at this time, as we near the end of the calendar year, to ask the same questions of the church, institutions, and of ourselves as individuals. Who are we and what are about, or what are for on this earth? What do we want? Do we have a purpose and a meaning?
Groups and people who seem purposeless to themselves primarily are people who do not have the strength to survive in difficult times. When people or groups have a purpose in life they have a sense of inner strength that cannot be dampened by bad turns or unfortunate experiences. This is not just wishful thinking or theoretical. There is ample quantified evidence to demonstrate the truth of this idea. Meaning and purpose are a life force.
Let’s review the purpose of parish or congregation first. A parish church or congregation is in a community to be something and to stand for something vital. To me it is first to be a beacon of love in the community. A parish must demonstrate the fullness and reality of Paul’s words in his First Letter to the Corinthians where he describes the nature of love: It is kind, thoughtful and is never jealous. More than simply demonstrating the nature of love, a Christian congregation is to be a place where “love never ends.”
A parish’s purposes are multifaceted, but let’s just focus on a few.
- The primary purpose of a parish is to proclaim the Year of Our Lord, where the sick are cured, the lame walk, and the prisoners released from outer darkness; in other words, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- Second purpose is to live as if that makes a difference. We should be a place of joy and forgiveness. That means to me we are to overlook others’ faults, we are to be gentle to those who are a part of this flock, we are to welcome visitors and newcomers with a deep interest in them and their lives.
- Then I most important one is to worship God in the beauty of holiness. We are to stand before the Altar and proclaim our love of God and acceptance of Jesus as our savior. In so doing we keep alive the Anglican spirit of mediation that invites people into the fold of the parish.
Now what about you? Do you have a sense of purpose and meaning? If you do, you have a good sense and love of yourself. If not, explore who and what you are. You do this by asking the question, “What do you want?” Are your desires realistic, and are they appropriate? I have no desire to be an actor, and if I did, knowing myself as I do, that desire would not be realistic. What is the meaning of your life? Are you a biological accident that has been put on this earth to consume its resources or is there something you are here to do?
I am not thinking grand terms. When we begin to think that we will be “rulers of the world” we are having a delusion of grandeur. No I am thinking about the parts of life that color our hours and days.
What is my purpose in life? I think it is to be the best I can be at what I am called to do. My purpose is to be a man who loves his family and loves those who come into his life as friends and acquaintances; loving means, in that context, being open, honest, available to people. We should have no hidden agendas and no false fronts.
John-the-Baptist was one of those people who you knew right up front. There was nothing hidden, no secret scheme, and certainly no self-aggrandizement. He was who he was. In that openness he was powerfully spirit filled and led the way to the Gospel. We don’t have to dress up in rags, eat bugs, and walk about shouting that the messiah is coming, but we do need to be people who are also powerfully filled with God’s Holy Spirit so we can be the people we are meant to be and have a purpose that continues beyond today and lasts into eternity.