When I went away to seminary 20 years ago, a clergy friend gave me a book by Dr Rachel Naomi Remen called “Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal”. Later I read her book, “My Grandfather’s Blessings” about her Orthodox Jewish Rabbi grandfather. Dr. Remen has been widely known for her pioneering work with cancer patients and the doctors who treat them. She is the Founder of “The Institute for the Study of Health & Illness at Commonweal”. On her website she writes:
We are all healers. We heal with our wholeness, our humanity, all of our life experience, even our wounds. Our own wounds can make us gentle with the wounds of others and able to trust the mysterious process of healing, and to develop an innate compassion and empathy for others, so that those in pain are not alone when they are with us, and know that they are safe with us. Our wounds do not diminish us, they make us trustworthy. Our vulnerability connects us to the vulnerability in others in compassionate and loving ways. Everyone has within themselves a hidden wholeness, a potential for growth. A healer reminds people of who they are.
Her writing and her stories have had a deep impact on my spiritual life. Four years ago Dr. Remen was offering a retreat for people beyond the medical community. The theme of the retreat was:
Walking the Path with Heart: Finding Your Authentic Life.
Here were a few of the teasers to help people discern whether to attend the retreat:
Does your purpose guide your life? Do you sometimes wonder if your life has any meaning?
Do you feel that you are here for some reason you cannot explain?
Do you envy people who have a clear sense of direction?
Do you know how to come home to yourself and live closer to your reason for being?
I signed up for the retreat? Rachel started with a quote from Dolly Parton:
“It’s not about finding your purpose. It’s about figuring out who you are and doing it on purpose.”
Barbara Brown Taylor – another spiritual giant in my life tells a story in her book “An Altar in the World” that is similar to this Dolly Parton quote. Barbara writes:
Earlier in my life, I thought there was one particular thing I was supposed to do with my life. I thought God had a purpose for me and my job was to discover what it was. So I began asking God to tell me what I was supposed to do. What was my designated purpose on this earth? How could I discover the vocation that had my name on it? Since this was an important prayer, I searched for the right place to pray it. After a few lackluster attempts by the side of my bed, I found a fire escape that hung precariously from the side of a deserted Victorian mansion next door to the Divinity School. Stepping over the “Danger: Keep Off” sign at the bottom, I climbed to the top, listening to the bolts creak as my feet thundered up the narrow iron steps. The fire escape turned out to be an excellent place to pray. Doing something that scared me cranked up my courage. I climbed up so often, I no longer remember which night it was that God finally answered my prayer. I do not think it was right at the beginning, when I was still saying my prayers in words. One night when my whole heart was open to hearing from God what I was supposed to do with my life, God said, “Anything that pleases you.”
“What!” I said, resorting to words again. “What kind of answer is that?” “Do anything that pleases you,” the voice in my head said again, “and belong to me.”
At one level that answer was no help at all. The ball was in my court again. I could be a priest or a circus worker. God really didn’t care. At another level, I was so relieved. It was not WHAT I did, but HOW I did it that mattered. If I wanted a life of meaning, then I was going to have to apply the purpose for myself.
There is a famous quote out there that has been attributed to Howard Thurman, a visionary activist, that holds some tension in it. It goes like this:
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
I think this could go along with the words of Jesus in John 10:1o:
“I have come to give you life and give it abundantly.”
I think this quote attributed to Thurman is a profound quote that was left unfinished. Is it possible to learn to come alive AND live abundantly WHILE serving the needs of the world and healing and helping other people come alive and live an abundant life?
And this is where the retreat with Dr. Remen got interesting, and offered an answer to that question. Rachel talked a lot about what she calls our “give-away” in life. That part of us that naturally rises to the surface and not only brings us joy, but also brings healing into other people’s lives. She invited us to get in touch and uncover what our give-away might be. She told a story of her college boyfriend who finally finished his dissertation at the end of 8 years in the 1950’s. Rachel went with him to stand in a long line waiting for the mimeograph worker to finally take his work and start mimeographing the many pages in order to bind it together. I can still remember watching our church secretary run the mimeograph machine to run the Sunday bulletin. She would have to crank the handle over and over. A seemingly mundane and thankless task. When Rachel and her boyfriend finally approached the entrance, the mimeograph lady gently reached out to take the pages and pages of his dissertation – she held it to her heart, saying, “You’ve done it!!! I am so proud of you. I will make it so beautiful and bind it in such a way that your children will be proud.”
THIS is like the story of the bricklayer – the one who wasn’t JUST doing the tedious, back-breaking labor of building walls with bricks – but the one who had the vision of building a cathedral. It is all about internal attitude regarding our work.
Five years ago this weekend, I celebrated my last worship service with Sand Point Community in Seattle, before coming to UCUP to be your pastor. There was a woman in her 90’s who loved to grow African violets. Every surface in her home was covered with African Violets. Her name is Tiero Jenkins, lovingly known by her World War II fighter pilot husband as the Tallahassee Lassie. If you go up to Paine Field in Mukilteo and visit Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection, you can see a replica of the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane that Colonel Jenkins flew in 129 missions during WWII. It has a picture of young Tiero in a 1940’s bikini, with “Tallahassee Lassie” emblazoned on the plane. Colonel Jenkins named the plane for his bride, who he met when stationed in Tallahassee. Tiero’s husband, as you can imagine, was NOT thrilled with all the plants covering every surface in the house growing into beautifully tended African Violets, but Tiero grew them for the pastor to take to people who were sick or grieving or recovering from surgery. This was Tiero’s give-away. And it was three-fold. It brought her joy growing them. It brought me joy visiting Tiero and Colonel Jenkins in their home for the next supply. And people whom I visited loved receiving African violets knowing they were lovingly grown by Tiero We understood that those flowers carried much more meaning and purpose. They carried a deeper connection of love and care and beauty.
“It is not our purpose that gives our life meaning; it is our give-away.”
We are privileged if our vocation turns out to be work that we are compensated for. But our vocation may turn out to be the thing we do for free, especially if you are retired, because it is at the root of who we are – it not only makes us come alive, it goes beyond us into the universe. It becomes our give-away. We CHOOSE to do it because it not only brings us joy, it enriches the lives of others.
The mimeograph lady and Tiero Jenkins – they both found their giveaway. What are the hidden threads that run through your life that point to your give-away? We are going to take a moment of silence to ponder that which makes us come alive AND brings joy and healing to the world. Next week I hope that a few of you might even be willing to share in your out-loud voice what you have found to be your give away and share it with us in worship on Labor Day weekend.
Trust into God’s good purpose for your life. When the prophet Jeremiah spoke these words to the ancient Israelites, they were in the exile in Babylon, far from home.
“For I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
plans to give you hope and a future. When you search for me, you will find me;
if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord.”
Jeremiah was calling them to live into a future that was yet to be – Find a place to live. Plant a garden. Raise a family. Even in this strange new place, remember the things you did before, the things that made you come alive – distinctively who you are.
We are called to trust into the future and realize that God desires not only our own happiness, health, healing, and well-being but the happiness, health, healing and well-being of ALL. May we each continue to discover who we are and who God made us to be, so we can do it on purpose. Amen.