What Purpose Shall We Serve?

What Purpose Shall We Serve?

United Church has very bright and talented people. Lots of folks in this congregation could be good at a variety of different jobs and tasks. Many of us not only hold down jobs we also have avocations coaching, providing leadership at church, or in community organizations, volunteer commitments that make a difference: Foodline, First Stop, Huntsville Assistance Program, Community Chorus, Huntsville Music Study Club, PEO, Toys for Tots, Alabama Water Watch and the list goes on. The question is not whether or not we have a purpose, but rather what purpose or purposes out of an array of possibilities should we serve.

I am aware this can be a particularly troubling issue as young people plan for their futures. Once again at our house we are receiving countless college catalogues, because we have a High School Senior at home. Because the cost of higher education has risen, the stakes are much higher, when young people make college choices. If a young person’s undergraduate choices turn into a five or six year program before graduation that can be a very costly mistake. The average debt of a graduating college student in 2010 was $25,250. Students who change their majors or transfer schools, or take five or six years to finish can run up far more than the average in debt. And so I have great sympathy for the pressure High School seniors experience in making their choices about what purposes they will serve in their lives, and how they will prepare for them.

So how do we make decisions, and how can we open ourselves to God in making our decisions? First, let’s return to the story of Mary and the angel for a moment. While some people would disagree with me, I believe Mary was presented with a decision to make. I don’t believe that God forced her to become the mother of the Messiah against her will – I don’t think God engages in divine rape. Though the story as we have it doesn’t tell us there was a pause between the angel saying, “for with God nothing will be impossible,” and Mary’s response, “let it be to me according to your word,” I think Mary took more than a few moments to make up her mind. And she had a lot to consider.

First, in that culture to show up pregnant, when you were betrothed to a man, was dangerous. If Joseph had denounced her as an adulteress, she could have been stoned to death. Pregnancy and childbirth are still something of a risk, in those days many women died. Also giving birth to a messiah was risky business. Matthew’s Christmas Story makes plain that the Herod’s ruthlessly eliminated any pretenders to the throne, and the Romans as we can see in the crucifixion of Jesus were not keen on Jewish messiahs.

Mary also perceived that to be chosen by God may not always be a favor. Note her reaction to the angel’s greeting, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”

“But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.”

When God chooses people, God almost always wants something difficult and inconvenient, just ask the prophets. I don’t know of anyone God has approached to ask them to go lie on the beach and sip piña coladas. I know some people who are hoping that is what God is going to ask of them, but I don’t think so. Mary had a lot to consider in making her decision.

How long the angel had to wait for an answer, we don’t know. No matter how long, it probably seemed like an eternity. Gabriel was probably relieved when Mary finally said, “let it be to me as you have said.”

So how does Mary’s story speak to us in our decision making? First, when we have a decision to make we need to give ourselves time. Whenever possible we should avoid being rushed into a decision. When the salesman says, the price is only good for the next two hours, walk away from it. Creating a false deadline is only to the salesperson’s advantage. We need time to make thoughtful, prayerful decisions. If we are trying to make a decision about our purpose or purposes in life, it’s worth spending a few days or weeks or even months before making a decision. Don’t rush to judgment. God waited for the fullness of time before sending the Messiah. The prophets had seen him coming for centuries but as God said to Habakkuk, “still the vision awaits its time. . . wait for it; the fulfillment will surely come.” (Habakkuk 2:3)

Sometimes that means beginning the decision making process sooner rather than later. There are real deadlines in life we have to recognize. The deadline for applications is December 31st. Or the deadline for filing income tax is April 15th. So we need to back up from the deadline and begin the decision making process in advance in order to give ourselves enough time to thoughtfully, prayerfully make a decision. Sometimes we have to begin the decision making process before we have all the information we need like when we have applied to several schools, and we don’t know which institutions will accept us, and we will have a limited time to make up our mind after receiving the information. Back up and do as much information and advice gathering and sorting through options as possible before the deadline. Enter into prayer and consult with good spiritual friends to narrow down the options as much as possible before the deadlines.

Like Mary we also need to enter into decision making understanding that we can’t always be safe. Life is full of inherent risk. There are no guarantees we will always make the right decision. There is no magic and sometimes there is no right decision, just choices among different options.

When praying about decisions, don’t wait for Gabriel to show up. Listen in prayer, be silent, and listen to your dreams. God for sure can’t answer, when we are talking all the time. Keep your eyes open, sometimes answers appear, when we least expect them. Don’t miss the miracle.

Pray with good spiritual friends, people who know how to listen, rather than giving advice. Often when we allow ourselves to verbalize what we are thinking or wanting, and what we are afraid of, and what we hope for, answers become clearer. And the answers aren’t always what we want to hear. Don’t become paralyzed by indecision. Pray for the courage to act, even when the answer isn’t what we would prefer.

A person was asking for help with a difficult decision and asked some friends, “how do I know the answer. It’s not like I will get instructions in the mail. How do I know?”

One friend wrote back, “don’t rule out the mail so quickly. answers often come when and where you least expect. Because of my ego, the answer almost always comes from someone I don’t like.”

Another friend wrote this very insightful comment: This might sound weird but for me it has been true. I personally don’t believe God cares as much about our specific decisions as we think — I believe HOW we make the decisions and our underlying reasoning is the key. If we ask something like “should I buy this apple or this orange?” God is likely to answer “I am that I am” or “feed my sheep.” I don’t think it is like “The Price is Right” where we have to pick the right door to win the prize. The outcomes and what’s behind the door isn’t really that important — but Love is always the answer. If we make decisions in Love, we can proceed confidently, and even if the superficial appearance of things makes our decisions look like they were wrong later, it is ok.” We have many different purposes we can serve in our lives. If we choose from love, it will be O.K.

Life is full of decisions, and one of the most basic decisions we have to make is our attitude about life. Will we choose possibility or limitation, hope or despair. I ran across a story that expresses this basic truth about attitude.

Jerry was always in a good mood and always had something positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would reply, “If I were any better, I would be twins!”

Jerry was a natural motivator. If an employee was having a bad day, Jerry was there telling the employee how to look on the positive side of the situation.

Seeing this style really made me curious, so one day I went up to Jerry and asked him, “I don’t get it! You can’t be a positive person all of the time. How do you do it?”

Jerry replied, “Each morning I wake up and say to myself, ‘Jerry, you have two choices today. You can choose to be in a good mood or you can choose to be in a bad mood.’ I choose to be in a good mood. Each time something bad happens, I can choose to be a victim or I can choose to learn from it. I choose to learn from it. Every time someone comes to me complaining, I can choose to accept their complaining or I can point out the positive side of life. I choose the positive side of life.”

“Yeah, right, it’s not that easy,” I protested.

“Yes, it is,” Jerry said. “Life is all about choices. When you cut away all the junk, every situation is a choice. You choose how you react to situations. You choose how people will affect your mood. You choose to be in a good mood or bad mood. The bottom line: It’s your choice how you live life.”

Several years later, I heard that Jerry had been held up at gunpoint by three armed robbers. While trying to open the safe, his hand, shaking from nervousness, slipped off the combination. The robbers panicked and shot him. Luckily, Jerry was found relatively quickly and rushed to the local trauma center.

I saw Jerry about six months after the accident. When I asked him how he was, he replied, “If I were any better, I’d be twins. Wanna see my scars?”

I declined to see his wounds, but did ask him what had gone through his mind when he was shot. “As I lay on the floor, I remembered that I had two choices: I could choose to live, or I could choose to die. I chose to live.”

“The paramedics were great. They kept telling me I was going to be fine. But when they wheeled me into the emergency room and I saw the expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, I got really scared. In their eyes, I read, ‘He’s a dead man.’

“I knew I needed to take action.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Well, there was a big, burly nurse shouting questions at me,” said Jerry. “She asked if I was allergic to anything. ‘Yes,’ I replied. The doctors and nurses stopped working as they waited for my reply. I took a deep breath and yelled, ‘Bullets!’ Over their laughter, I told them. ‘I am choosing to live. Operate on me as if I am alive, not dead.”

Jerry lived thanks to the skill of his doctors, but also because of his amazing attitude. We have the choice to live fully. Attitude, after all, is everything.

Life affords us the opportunity to make many decisions. We are living through difficult times right now, and it is easy to give into anxiety, fear, depression and despair. Attitude is everything. Attitude is a choice. The story of Jesus tells us that even in the face of defeat and death, we can rise stronger than before. Choose life. Choose hope. Choose faith. Choose from love, and it will be O.K.

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