Monday, October 24, 2016

October 23, 2016 Your Life Has A Purpose

How many of you remember your search for a vocation?  Some of you are now in the process of deciding what to do with your life, while other of us are further down the road from that experience.  I sympathize with young people today, and the much-increased pressure that seems to be on them now to find a plan and purpose for their lives.  There is so much pressure to do well academically, to gain admission to a good school, and to earn scholarships to pay for what is becoming an incredibly expensive endeavor.

When I began high school it was required that I declare a major.  Not having much of an understanding at that time of what a major was – outside of a military officer – I began to research various vocations, finally settling on that of a civil engineer.  I’m not sure why civil engineering appealed to me, but it did.  Funny thing about engineering, however; you need to be really good at math, which I was not, and am not.  My entire high school class schedule was predicated on the idea that I would be an engineer – four entire years of classes laid out in front of me.  And the first semester I failed Algebra.  What do you do for the remaining three and a half years of studying to be an engineer when you can’t pass Algebra?  I thought about a number of vocations, with becoming a teacher very high on my list, and I was very close to going in that direction.  I’ve done a little teaching on the side over the years and really enjoy it, but there was always a pull toward ministry, and in spite of my looking to go in other directions a few times over the years ministry has always kept a strong hold on me, and I understand that is my purpose in life.

Purpose is what I want to speak to this morning.  Last week I began a new series of messages under the theme of Your Life.  Last week was Your Life Matters; this week is Your Life Has A Purpose.  The final two messages will be Your Life Has A Future, and Your Life Is A Gift.  For the final message in the series, Your Life Is A Gift, I would like to hear from you.  If there is a person in your life who has been a gift to you, would you mind sharing with me about the manner in which they have blessed your life?  You can call me, text me, send a tweet, Facebook message – any way in which you would like to communicate.  I will certainly respect any desire you might have to keep the other person’s identity a secret, if that is your wish.

Our text for this morning is from Acts 9:1-16, which you will recognize as the story of the conversion of Saul, later to be known as Paul.  In this text there are a number of lessons we can learn about purpose, a few of which we will have the time to consider this morning.

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.  He went to the high priest
and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.
“Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.
Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus.
For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem.
14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.
16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

1.  The difference between a general purpose and a specific purpose.
One of the most common questions I have been asked throughout my years of ministry is a variation of this one – how do I know God’s purpose/plan for my life?  That’s a big question, and one that is not easy to answer.  I would begin by making a distinction between what I call a general and a specific purpose.  A general purpose is one that is the same for all followers of Jesus; indeed, it is the same for all of God’s children, and it is this – we are called to love God, to love others, and to serve God and others.  A specific purpose is one that applies to your life in how you will live out that general purpose.  So while we all share the same general purpose, the way in which that purpose manifests itself in a specific way is different for everyone.  A specific purpose can be reflected in the vocation in which we work, where we will live, the way in which we use our talents and abilities, and even the person whom we marry.  Most people, when asking about their purpose in life are asking about how they can discover their specific purpose.  That is a much harder question to answer.  If, however, you were to ask me how to discover your specific purpose I would tell you something along these lines – don’t worry too much about it.  Allow it to unfold.  Your instincts and passions will certainly lead you to a particular vocation in life, and there may well be several types of vocations that can fulfill your purpose.  Your specific purpose, in God’s view, is not as important as your general purpose.  That is not to say that your specific purpose is not important, because it is, but too often we think far more about our specific rather than our general purpose.  We put so much energy into our specific purpose, and often think more of our specific purpose than our general purpose.  In terms of what God wants us to do with our lives, I would say I believe he is far more concerned with our general purpose than our specific purpose.  Personally, I believe there are many, many good and useful ways for us to live out a specific purpose for our lives, and I believe that God may not worry as much about the details of our specific purpose as we do.  God, I believe, is more concerned that we live out our general purpose, and because I believe this I would say that we must remember that our specific purpose always serves the general purpose.

2.  Our general purpose can be very disruptive to our life.
When I told my mom, the summer after I graduated from high school, of my belief that God was calling me into ministry, the first thing she told me was this – just remember, there is no shame in ever leaving the ministry.  That was the first thing she said; wasn’t that a strange thing to say!  But, in fact, it really wasn’t, because sometimes it has been incredibly difficult, and there has been more than one time that I prayed – and prayed hard – that God would release me from my call and lead me into something else.

    One of the lessons to learn from our Scripture text this week is to find that our purpose can be very disruptive to our carefully structured lives.  In verse 16 of the text God says to Ananias, in speaking of Saul, I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.  Saul, later to be known as Paul, had his life incredibly disrupted by his purpose.  Paul was becoming the guy for the religious establishment.  He was on an upward trajectory in terms of vocation and career, had the outward trappings of success, he was most likely one of the “go-to” guys when anyone had a question or an important task, and then suddenly everything changed.

I have several minister friends who are former atheists.  Talk about a disruption to life!  To travel from disbelief to belief and into ministry!  Sometimes God can really disrupt our lives, and it can certainly happen when he calls us to our purpose.  Paul’s life changed dramatically, very dramatically, and he was never the same.  The change certainly wasn’t easy, it wasn’t more comfortable, and it wasn’t more successful by any outward measure.  But it was his purpose.

I believe that Paul’s experience ought to remind us that we can easily fall prey to the belief that, individually or as a congregation, any movement other than upward, toward some outward measure of success, must be perceived as failure.  Sometimes, the discovery and the living of our purpose can lead to what is perceived as a downward trajectory.  This is certainly what happened to Paul, as he moved from his former life to his new life, upon discovering his purpose.  Paul went from a position of power and privilege to a point where, at the end, he was in prison in Rome, awaiting his execution.  There were many, no doubt, who perceived Paul as a failure, but he was not, because he followed God’s purpose for his life.  It was the same with Moses as well.  Moses had wealth, he had power, and he was a prince of Egypt.  Moses had everything, but in discovering his purpose, he lost what people would have most envied about his life.  The lesson is this – embracing a spiritual purpose in life may alter – and alter very dramatically – our career path, our comfort, and our very carefully ordered life.

So, be careful about praying to discover your purpose, because your purpose is about more than finding a job that leads to success, achievement, and comfort.  Discovering your purpose might lead to a very big disruption in your life.

3.  Don’t measure your ultimate purpose in life by your vocation.
Most of the time, when we ask the question what am I to do with my life we are really talking about what vocation we should pursue.  And that’s not a small question.  A lot of time, effort, and expense is invested in the search for, and entrance into, our vocations.  Just don’t base your entire life upon your vocation, because your life is more than the sum of your vocation and the accomplishments you achieve in your chosen vocation.

Reading through the New Testament you will find, among the many interesting facts about Paul’s life, this very intriguing one – there are only two mentions of his vocation in all the writing either by him or about him.  Isn’t that amazing?  Only two.  Do you remember what Paul did for a living?  He was a tent-maker, but almost nothing is said of this in all of what we learn about Paul from the New Testament.

We often measure our worth by our vocation, and our vocational success in life.  If you are judged successful by some kind of outward measure, and have a corresponding financial success, it’s tends to be easier to find a greater sense of self-worth.  And if you are in a vocation where you can earn a great deal of not only fortune but also fame or notoriety, well, then, you must really be a valuable person.

Society assign a relative value to every choice, we make, and that certainly is true of the vocations in which we work.  Consider teaching, for instance.  We love, in our society, to talk about the importance of being a teacher.  And it is a very important and worthy vocation, in spite of the fact that we don’t assign it much monetary worth.  In fact, the vocations in which some of the deepest meaning is found are generally the ones with the smallest amount of financial reward.  If a young person announces they want to be a teacher we praise that choice, especially if they choose to serve in an urban setting where it is difficult to attract teachers.  When someone announces they will become a doctor, and that after completing their training they will travel to a third or fourth world country to provide medical care for the poorest of the poor, we praise that choice.  And while most people would like to earn a lot of money, we don’t praise the pursuit of money in and of itself to the extent that we praise the pursuit of service.  If, however, a person desires to earn a great deal of money so that they can then give that money away to worthy causes, we praise that goal.

Remember, please, that your life is more than your vocation.  Your life, and mine, is really about love and service, and we are all called to both love and service.  Within the Christian faith we have this idea we call the priesthood of all believers.  The priesthood of all believers, among other things that it emphasizes, says that all of us, regardless of our vocation, have a calling upon us from God.  And that calling tells us that our vocation is not the great measurement of our life, but our vocation can be a tool to be used for the work of our ultimate, spiritual purpose in life, that is, our general purpose.  A spiritual purpose can bring meaning to any vocation, even if it is a vocation we might otherwise see as not fulfilling, or glamorous, or adventurous, or financially rewarding, but in the use of our spiritual purpose, it can be a great tool for God’s kingdom. 

In 1980 I had moved to Dothan, Alabama and taken a job in a manufacturing plant owned by the Hedstrom company.  Hedstrom is a manufacturer of swing sets, children’s furniture, and bicycles and tricycles.  I worked on the tricycle line, where I had really hoped to become a test driver, but my legs were too long to fit under the handlebars.  I didn’t like my job, or working in that facility.  I punched the time clock at 5:00 a.m. Monday through Saturday, which was very hard for me, not being a morning person.  I spent many ten and twelve-hour days carrying tricycle parts to the tables of those who packed them into boxes.  I spent about thirteen months working there, and when I left in order to return to seminary I was very relieved.  Looking back on that time, however, I find that in some ways, I miss that job.  From the distance of the now three-plus decades I am able to see the ways in which God was able to use me in that position, in ways that are different from, and even beyond, some of the ways in which he is able to use me as a minister.  When I was working in that job I believed it was a dead-end job that had no meaning.  Now, however, I understand that it wasn’t the job that mattered, but the way in which God used it in relation to my life purpose, and that adds a great deal of meaning to what I had previously viewed as meaningless.

Your life has a purpose.  It might not always be as obvious as you might like, and it is certainly larger than just your vocation.  God is intent on using you not only to fulfill your purpose, but his as well.  His larger purpose is the one that matters most, so be certain to let him work through you as he works to accomplish not only your purpose, but his.

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