Finding life purpose

When BBC World News America aired the story of Jessica Cox Nick Vujicicpost01b-vujicica few weeks ago, I said, “Wow!” The story of Australian Nick Vujicic on PBS’s Religion and Ethics on Friday and Saturday, March 29 and 30, had me say, “Wow! Wow!”. Born without arms, Jessica Cox learned to overcome adversity to live a life that is above normal for most people, driving with her feet and even flying an airplane. She is also a motivational speaker, drawing inspiration from her own life.

The story of Nick Vujicic began on December 4, 1982 when he came to this world without legs and arms, due to a very rare autosomal recessive congenital disorder, tetra-amelia syndrome – though in his case he has a foot with two toes.  Like Jessica’s parents, Nick’s too were shocked and terrified. How do you take care of a child without limbs? And even more confounding: how can such a child possibly live the human life?

It is no surprise that when he was 10, Nick tried to commit suicide. In some ways, too, that thought of suicide helped him find a purpose in life. He says, “I tried to commit suicide…because I didn’t know the truth, write this down, the truth of my value, the truth of my purpose and the truth of my destiny”.

Like most of us, Nick asked, “Why? Why me?”

The answer, he says, came from John 9:3 where in response to why a man was born blind, Jesus said, “this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life”.That is how he discovered the meaning of his life and why he was born as he was.

Nick Vujicic has been to 44 countries and spoken to an audience of 5 million. He is also planning to preach in 27 countries next year. His message is “to let people know…how very precious they are to God…(and) to assure them that God does have a plan for their lives that is purposeful. For God took my life, one that others might disregard as having any significance and filled me with His purpose …”

I mentioned that Nick lives an above  normal life. His hobbies include swimming, surfing and even sky diving. This says a lot to the many of us who find enough reasons to complain. Furthermore – and this has repeatedly been emphasized on this site – everything happens for a reason. The “good” and the “bad”, all happen for a reason.

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Courage manifests in tearing down rather than erecting walls

Banias at CaesareaQuneitra Golan HeightsThis week’s visit to Israel by President Obama stirred memories of the years I lived there, a land I called “my second home”. In many respects it was my only home. I visited every corner of the country from Banias on the foot of Mt. Hermon to the Sinai before it was handed over to Egypt, and from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea.

I met and forged friendships with many people – Israelis, both Jewish and Arab in Israel and in the Galilee, Beduins and Druze. The visit to Quneitra, at the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Zone gave me a glimpse of what can be dark in an otherwise inspiring and uplifting land.

That was also when Israel, especially Jerusalem, was the place where people of all nations came together, reminiscent of the words of Isaiah 2:2-3: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’. For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”.

It was tourists and pilgrims who flocked to Jerusalem (and the Holy Land), not necessarily responding to any specific biblical passage, but inspired by the land of the Bible. Indeed, nowhere else had I seen so many people from almost every corner of the world at the same time. It was magical and inspirational.

Then came the Intifada and all that changed.

There are now walls going up, faster than tourists and pilgrims. In the Sinai border with Egypt – despite a peace treaty between the two countries – a 150 feet high fence is becoming the main attraction. All around the West Bank, walls of separation are the prominent landmarks.

They are more than walls of separation. Sadly, they are walls of self-imprisonment. Fear, and a false sense of security has driven the wonderful land to barricade itself behind walls, shutting out the enemy, real and perceived, as well as the friend.

All this is happening, twenty years after another people tore down a wall of separation, even though the circumstances are not the same. That is why President Obama’s visit reminded me of President Reagan’s words in Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev: Tear down this wall!”.

Compassion transcends family ties

The announcement this week by Sen. Rob Portman (R/Ohio) that he now supports gay marriage because his son is gay gives us all something of an unpleasant wake-up call. It is also a demonstration of the painful course that compassion must of necessity take.

For elected officials and those in ministry and vocations, whose decisions touch on others people’s lives and emotions, one would have to constantly ask this question: “What if, I was in that position?” “What if, my son, daughter, sister, mother, father etc was in that position?”

The irony of Sen. Portman’s reversal of position is that his original position must have either been based on some principle or it did not directly affect him personally. So, how do we show compassion and still uphold the principles we claim? Many people have difficulties with gay marriages. Yet, we all must fight for social justice, show love and have compassion.

Everyday, we make decisions that affect others. How do I make sure that my decisions and actions are compassionate and contribute to other people’s joy and happiness, which we all seek? This calls for more than family ties or even personal comfort. Principles too must have solid validity.

Life provides new beginnings and second chances

Prodigal son by RembrandtAlthough we look at life as linear, beginning with birth and ending with death and whatever lies beyond, this is not the correct view. In this view there is movement from one place on the line to the next in forward progression. There are opportunities for new beginnings and second chances in life which would not be possible in a linear progression.

In the First Reading for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, “The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt”. And so that place is called Gilgal to this day” (Joshua 5:9). Gilgal, as a noun, means a round place.

As a verb, Galal means to roll something on or away. There is, therefore, a play of words here, intended to convey that the past dark spot of the previous generation which left Egypt and rebelled against the Lord while wandering in the wilderness has been purged. The generation led by Joshua is therefore experiencing a new beginning.

This new beginning is characterized by the Crossing of the River Jordan, similar to the Crossing of the Red Sea. Joshua set up the 12 memorial stones after the crossing. Further, from this new beginning, the people will now harvest produce from the land; and living on manna comes to an end. Additionally, in preparation for the first celebration of Passover in the Promised Land, Joshua circumcises the Israelites just as the generation that left Egypt did under Moses.

It was at Gilgal that Saul was crowned king over Israel, and it was there too that he was rejected. Later, during Absalom’s revolt against his father, King David fled to exile in Jordan. When he returned, he was received by the people of Israel at Gilgal. It was also from Gilgal that Joshua conducted his campaigns for the possession of the land.

Gilgal becomes, therefore a place and symbol of a second chance and a new beginning. God offers that new beginning and that second chance. In the Gospel Reading, the Parable of the Prodigal Son highlights the new beginning even for the most rebellious.

This is not a matter of religion but of life in its wholeness. It is true that the Universe is self-correcting. It does replenish where a deficit occurs. We too, as integral parts of the Universe, have the capacity to flourish goodness where evil seems to persist.

This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them

istockphoto_5387259-depressionstock-photo-14160690-young-man518967_immmigration_rallyThe Parable of the Prodigal Son – or simply The Prodigal – is undoubtedly one of the most famous and familiar of Jesus’ parables. Its popularity is very closely linked to the title it has been given. It is the title character who makes the parable memorable.

The idea of a son literally forcing his father to dispense an inheritance which is not earned in the first place and then squandering it in frivolous luxury is deplorable in many cultures. For many, that is the despicable aspect of the other person – the one we can point fingers at. It is attractive when it is not speaking to me.

For others too, it is a good reminder to repent, especially since we know we have a loving Father who forgives unconditionally. It is comforting to know there is the Father who will take us back if we come back home, no matter how or how much we wasted in rebellious living. It is indeed for this very reason that some see the Father as the center of the parable.

Still, some would focus on the older son and his jealousy and unforgiving attitude, not to mention his failure to see his privilege and blessedness in just being in the presence of the Father. Indeed, many faithful believers would want to examine every expectation they might have for being faithful. Indeed,  I might just feel good to know that I am at home and not the wandering prodigal.

At the beginning of chapter 15 of the Gospel according to Luke which places this parable in the middle of the chapter, we read that the Pharisees and the scribes were murmuring: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”. Jesus was doing what they would not do, what they considered inappropriate for their class.

Those murmuring were essentially saying, there are those who belong and those who do not belong. Jesus’ response, in this parable and the others in chapter 15, is to show the value of every individual, regardless of their circumstances. Each individual is invaluable in the sight of the Father.

I would therefore look at this parable by asking myself: How do I relate to those who do not belong? How do I relate to the outsiders, those outside my social group? Even more specifically, how do I treat them?

Some weeks ago someone called on the telephone and said he wanted to make a donation to an organization that cares for the poor. He clarified further that he wanted to help poor Americans not immigrants because he believed it was wrong to give away what was deservedly Americans’ to undeserving immigrants.

My question during this Lent Season is: How do I respond to those outside my social group?

Our stories are the true catalysts for transformation

I went to a Lutheran seminary in Tanzania and in Jerusalem then I was ordained in the Lutheran Church. I worked in a parish then taught at the seminary. After that I did graduate studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. While there, I also substituted as pastor at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer as well as assistant to the Director of the Ecumenical African Institute at the Notre Dame Center.

I came to the US 24 years ago, for graduate studies at Yale University and later at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

That is one side of my story and it is quite bright. There is another side. During the years in New Haven, Connecticut and in Cincinnati, I went through divorce. First, there is no divorce in the church in Tanzania. Second, a man of the cloth does not fail, he is made of iron, or steel. That is the perception people impose on a man of the cloth.

The internal anguish I went through while trying to appear strong outside led me to drinking. And even this pain was not known to my friends. I remember, one day – well, it was on several occasions – after service in this one church in West Chester where I substituted, a friend invited me to his house for lunch. He said, “I heard you like whiskey!” Then he brought out a special bottle he had bought for me.

I don’t know where he got the idea that I liked whiskey because the truth was I hated it because it tasted bitter to me. But I had to pretend that I liked it for the sake of his hospitality. And after lunch, he fetched another bottle and packed them for me to take home with me.

Nobody knew the pain I was going through.

God rescued me from all that when I met a man from City Gospel Mission who has remained a dear friend to-date. And I continue to tell my story because: a). Everyone has a story. It is unique, it is given to you and you only. You own it, and only you can tell it. b). We are given the story for a purpose. We do not create the story; God gives it to us for a purpose. c). The story is transformative. It is intended to transform us and when we share it, it transforms another person and ultimately we transform the world.

The mistake we make is to not tell our story. There are two reasons why we don’t tell our story.

One, society has taught us to categorize everything into good and bad. So I can see my story as not good and his or hers as good. The truth is, all our stories, “good” or “bad”, as I have pointed out, have a purpose of transformation. Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of South Africa, once told this story: A drunk stopped a pedestrian and asked him, “Which is the other side of the street?” The pedestrian pointed, “That is the other side of the street”. The drunk shook his head in confusion, then said, “That is very strange. When I was there they told me this is the other side of the street”.

The second reason is simply thinking that we own the story to keep. A friend told a story of his 6 year old daughter. She has a talent for drawing and whenever she draws a picture that she considers to be particularly good she gives it away to somebody else. Naturally her mother says, “Oh! This is a beautiful picture; you should keep it”. But this little girl is telling her story through drawing, and rightly she shares it rather than keep it for herself.

We are here for a reason and whatever happens to us is part of that reason, part of the whole story. Whether we categorize it as “good” or “bad”, it has a purpose in the larger picture, and that purpose is transformation. It transforms us; it will transform another person when we tell the story; and ultimately it will transform the world.

Finally, remember what Paul says in his letter to the Romans, chapter 8, verse 28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose”.

There are many ways of telling our story.  Here I am telling my story. Each one of us will have to find a way of telling that story. That little girl shares her story through drawing pictures.

Our story, more than anything else, is the transformational catalyst.