To Be of Use

In her poem To be of Use, Marge Piercy writes: 

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well […]
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Greek amphoras and Hopi vases are created with a purpose in mind. Piercy says that we too are formed with and for a purpose. We need work that is real – work that fits our shape – work that is true to our very being. 

This month, I’ve aimed to weave a single theme throughout our Sunday services – that theme is summarized in the word “purpose.” What are we here for as individuals, as a congregation? Do we have a purpose? What is a good purpose? 

Last week, we spoke about having a call – that there is some right or perhaps fitting purpose for each of us. There is a workshop on Saturday the 20th that will help participants consider purpose in their own lives and explore how they may bring their actions into harmony with their purpose. 

Today, we continue to explore the purpose we find in our individual lives. 

As my family will tell you – probably while rolling their eyes in that long suffering but patient way - I have long been attracted to kitchen gadgets and tools. 

Open a drawer in my kitchen and you will find a collection of wondrous devices - each designed for a special job. An egg slicer is a tool that is made for one and only one purpose. With its egg-shaped recess to gently cradle a hard-boiled egg and its cutting wires spaced the perfect distance apart, it cannot be mistaken for a lemon zester, garlic peeler, cherry pitter, apple corer, or cheese slicer. It is a device that is both made for its purpose and one where the purpose is evident. 

What is your purpose? Do you have one? Were you created with a particular purpose in mind? 

According to the western religious tradition, the purpose of our lives can be ever so simply described: love god and love your neighbor. That – says the bible – is our purpose because God creates us for that very purpose. 

A world view in which an omnipresent, all-knowing, all-powerful God has created the plan can be comforting. It allows us to organize our lives without the need to question or the anxiety that comes of uncertainty. Just love God and your neighbour. 

But in a changed world where few of us continue to see the world in that traditional way, we have a greater challenge in understanding and organizing a “good life.” We have to ask ourselves the harder questions about what kind of life really is best. What is a good life – a life lived well? 

Is it enough to live for our own pleasure or happiness or is there something more? The marketing maching would tell us that living for our own immediate gratification is all that matters. 

There have been many many different ways of thinking about life’s purpose offered by religion and philosophies. I want to try to simplify that into to main ways of thinking: one measures life but what we aim for and achieve, while the other focuses on how we live each day. It is a question of outcome versus process. 

Let’s think about how these two ways of being might look at the end of life – at the moment when it is all summed up – the funeral. First, the outcome view: 

Our beloved Joe Bloggs is gone from us now, but he will never be forgotten. The life he lived changed the world forever. Joe’s work in medicine meant that millions will never know a painful death from cancer. His work with charities has resulted in a halving of the poverty rate in this country. The many schools and other public buildings named for Joe are just a small part of the testimony to a life that was well lived, generous, and rich in service. 

Or this more process view: 

We mourn the passing of our beloved Joe Bloggs. The stories that so many of you have told and continue to tell testify to the beauty of his life. His nephew tells how Joe was always there for him without a moment’s hesitation in times of trouble. His friends tell of a man filled with compassion – of a man whose sense of awe and wonder for the world was contagious. 

One told of how Joe spoke of the night sky and how the way he thought and behaved changed the friend’s view of the universe forever – bringing that same sense of awe and wonder to his own life. All who knew him agreed that Joe was authentic and present. He was a man who had truly found and lived from his true life’s centre. 

Two different Joes. Two lives that left an enduring legacy. Two lives lived with purpose. Two lives that bettered the lives of others around them. 

There is a different kind of funeral service, of course – the kind that ministers hate to do and the beveaved find nearly unbearable – funerals where there is nothing much at all to say. Sad lives can be lived without impact, without contact, without connection, without purpose, without love. 

In apparently different ways, both of our imaginary Joes lived lives of meaning. Each led a good life. Each felt the deep flow of life through his body and soul. 

[singing "There’s a river flowing in my soul"] 

In your life, will you aim to have a great goal – a great mission? Or will you focus on living each day with presence, connection and love? 

Marian Wright Edelman captures the first of these when she says: “Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.” 

A story from the Jewish tradition offers the second view. Rabbi Zusya was reported to have said “In the world to come, I shall not be asked, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ I shall be asked, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” That is, we are called to be truly and authentically ourselves – not to be some heroic prophet. Or as Jack Mendelsohn wrote in his book “Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age”: “To live is to grow, and to grow means to change enough to be able to play a creative part in change itself.” 

We are faced with a great dichotomy then. Is the good created by living for and immersing ourselves in a great purpose or is a good life one in which we live each moment to its fullest, loving as much as we can, being as authentic as we can, growing as much as we can? 

I suggest that either way alone is inadequate. The life lived for outcomes only can be fiercely empty from in the everyday. Burying oneself in work - even good work - is still a burial. No light or love can get into that isolated life. 

The life lived for each day - for each moment - lacks direction. To wander from place to place without a destination in mind leaves us without a glowing flame in our heats to light our way. 

The great way is the balanced life - to live with a great purpose that draws us further in the journey while at the same time, living with presence and authenticity. Knowing where we are going and still taking the time to notice, to appreciate and to love along the way. 

We need not be drawn down into the muck and mire of lifeless living. We can rise up. We can defy the gravity that keeps us earth-bound. We can create a life of meaning and satisfaction for ourselves and one another.