Finding our Purpose

Preacher: Kent French
Date: March 29, 2020
 
00:00

Scripture: Jeremiah 29:10-14 and Romans 8:18-39 and John 21:15-19

(No audio is available. Please view the entire worship service on our YouTube page.)

 

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,

plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Jeremiah 29:11

 

I consider that the sufferings of this present time 

are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:18 & 28

 

Jesus said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ 

Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ 

And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ 

Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’ 

John 21:17

 

It is good to be with you again. Thank you for tuning into our online worship format.

 

I imagine that most of us have inundated ourselves in news about what’s happening with COVID-19.

We’ve been regularly checking the latest updates, sampling lots of think-pieces.

It’s on our minds constantly.

 

And if we’re paying attention, we know that things are going to get worse before they get better.

We will not be back in the church building on Easter morning. It’s possible we might not be back all together in the church building for weeks to come.

 

What’s going on in New York City right now, what has been happening in Italy for the past several weeks, and in China for the past four months are important harbingers for us to keep in mind about what is beginning to happen all around us here in the Boston area.

 

I walked away from last week’s online worship with the image of our community,

like houses of faith all around the world, as a kind of spiritual life raft.

We are in some rough waters. There are rougher rapids and rocks and falls and storm clouds up ahead. We all need to hold on tight to one another. We need to lean on one another, to gather our strength, keep our spirits up and move forward. We need to stay on the boat and hold on to those who might start to fall out.

 

And thank God, through the miracle of modern technology, we can hold on tight spiritually

with these online worship formats, through our Zoom Lenten studies and meetings. At the end of this worship we will have a Zoom coffee hour. We need to keep our conversations and our senses of humor alive and ready.

 

It will not be easy. It will provide constant and regular challenges in the weeks, and perhaps even months to come. We need to be prepared that members of our community will likely get sick. Most certainly, there are members of our community who have already lost their jobs or will soon. There will be financial hits all around us and even to us. And we must brace ourselves for the possibility that members of our community may die of this virus.

 

It this doesn’t happen, we will be most fortunate. And we will give praise and thanks to God together.

Regardless of what the future holds, we need to brace ourselves – physically, emotionally, spiritually.

AND we need to pace ourselves – physically, emotionally and spiritually. We need to take a long view of things.

 

All of this has made me think about what it means to have resilience, to make it through hard times.

 

One of the most creative, resilient people in my life is my brother-in-law, Michael.

Some of you will remember that I’ve spoken of him before.

He’s had a knack for taking good, pie-in-the-sky ideas and making them work.

35 years ago, he and some buddies came up with an idea for a fair trade coffee company.

Many potential investors said, “Nice idea, but do something that will work.”

 

But through careful market research and scrupulous planning,

they built a business called Equal Exchange,

which is a leader in fair-trade, doing $75M in annual sales,

and whose products were being served at Coffee Hour at United Parish long before I came.

 

Similarly, he has devoted the last 20 years to getting more sustainable, local agriculture into our mainstream markets and grocery stores, through a company he founded called Red Tomato.

It’s often an uphill battle against the overwhelming demands of expedient food production.

It hasn’t always been easy, it’s often stressful, but he’s made it work.

 

Many years ago, I asked him what gave him the confidence and resilience to pursue these pie-in-the-sky dreams and make them successful. I’ve always remembered what he said:

 

No matter what struggles I had in my life, I always knew in the back of my mind that I was a child of a survivor of the Holocaust. (His father, Yehezkel, grew up in Poland and spent the formative years of his twenties in Nazi concentration and death camps.)

And Michael said that knowledge – that he was the child of a survivor -- gave him a kind of inner strength that he could make it through.

 

I am aware that all of us here today are, in a way, are children of survivors.

To be CLEAR, for most of us, our ancestors did not survive anything as grim and menacing and horrific as the Jewish holocaust, but our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did survive other global crises, often worse than the current crisis.

 

They survived World War II, which dragged on in this country for four long years (longer in Europe and Asia) during which some 75 million people died, which was about 3% of the world population.

 

They survived the Great Depression, in which unemployment in this country peaked at almost 25%.

Some of the elders in our congregation were just little children when these world events happened.

 

They survived the so-called Spanish Flu Epidemic, when 500K in this country and some 50-100 million worldwide died. Some estimates are that 500 million people were infected worldwide.

And they survived this with much less knowledge than we have now about how viruses work and how to change our behaviors to get ahead of them.

 

And that epidemic happened just as they were getting over World War I, a global conflict with newer, faster technologies of death and destruction that shook the existential daylights out of humanity,

waking people up and ushering them into the post-modern age.

 

So it is certainly not the first time that something this large and catastrophic has happened to us in this country or to the global human family – but it is the first time in several decades and it is certainly the first time for most of us.

 

It helps to take the long view, to strive for more of a God’s-eye perspective.

 

For nearly 80 years in this country, we have experienced ever-increasing, overall economic prosperity. Certainly, economic inequity has been growing for the past 40 years, but overall economic prosperity has risen. And we’ve gotten used to it. We consider it normal.

 

My mother’s lifespan, like many people of her generation, is a great example of this.

She was born at the height of the Great Depression on a promising May day in a farmhouse in rural Missouri. The house had no electricity, no indoor plumbing.

There was a well pump at the kitchen sink.They dry-cured their meats.

They had an icebox for a few things in the kitchen– which only kept them cool until the ice melted.

The family all shared the bath-water, they kept chamber pots by their bed and had to go to the outhouse in the winter. Dirt, dust and flies were everywhere.

 

Early childhood diseases and nutrition later robbed my mother of all her teeth in middle age.

Her daddy made his living pushing a plow behind a mule. Her mother sewed all of their outfits,

slaughtered the chickens herself and made all their meals. About a quarter of our population lived that way as farm folks when my mother was born. As they’d say, they didn’t know they were poor,

because everyone around them lived the same way.

 

In her 20s, she married and went to live in the suburbs, raise a family and has spent most of her life in the American middle class. It wasn’t always easy. There were financial problems. But it was mostly good. My parents had good sense and were frugal in important ways.

 

And today she lives in a beautiful retirement community, surrounded by lagoons and palm trees,

a few miles from the ocean, with all the now-normal kinds of luxuries she could only dreamed of as a little girl.

 

We have gotten to where we take this kind of economic rise, this kind of luxurious healthfulness, for granted. As if we deserve it.

 

And frankly, we see that this kind of take-it-for-grantedness leads to carelessness and a lack of vigilance,

a kind of arrogance and self-centeredness which is now on full display in our government’s inadequate response to this virus. This is problem we share as a general culture – and not just on one side of the political aisle.

 

When we take a kind of entitled perspective, it sure is easy to forget where God is in all of this.

Where is the life and health and strength and source of our very being?

Where is the very spiritual core of who we are?

 

And so now, in the midst of this,we are having our own current global, existential-shaking kind of crisis. We didn’t sign up for this curriculum, at least not to be delivered this way. We didn’t ask for it,

but it’s the educational challenge set before us.

 

And as the challenge of this crisis swirls around us, we have our normal, individual human responses of fear, anxiety, anger, confusion, helplessness.

 

We also have other normal human responses of calm, courage, equanimity, compassion, kindness, adaptability, creativity and constructive thinking. These are all available to us.

 

It is these latter qualities that we must work on cultivating. We cannot succumb to the debilitating and destabilizing feelings. We must surround ourselves with people, ideas, spiritual practices that keep us internally strong, morally clear and physically and soulfully ready.

 

Because God still needs us to carry out the divine project in our midst.

 

As Paul wrote the Romans:

I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 

 

As Jeremiah quoted God to the Jews living for 70 years in the Babylonian captivity:

 

For surely I know the plans I have for you,

plans for your welfare and not for harm,

to give you a future with hope. 

Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me,

I will hear you. 

When you search for me, you will find me;

if you seek me with all your heart, 
you shall surely ever find me.

and I will restore your fortunes

and gather you from all the nations

and all the places where I have driven you,

and I will bring you back to the place

from which I sent you into exile.

 

Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord.

The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us

 

In the blog this week, I quoted Matt Crebbin, a United Church of Christ pastor who has served his local church in Newtown, Connecticut, before, during and after the Sandy Hook school shooting.

 

He offered some helpful advice to pastors about what it means to serve during a disaster.

Some of it had to do with taking care of ourselves.But what caught my eye, is that rather than try to find meaning in all of this, we need to focus on purpose.

 

 

 

As he put it:

“People living in the midst of the chaos of a disaster, do not have the ability and energy required get their heads around the 'meaning of it all'.  What they desperately need is a purpose.”

 

Governor Baker spoke to this in his press conference earlier this week as he gave the stay-at-home advisory and order to close all non-essential physical business.

 

He said:          

I sense a loss of purpose. Purpose is what drive us. Purpose is what fills our souls. Many feel lost.

But we all have a role, we all have purpose as we battle this disease: Protecting one another (from further spread of the virus).

We all have a role to play in this fight. With determination, cool heads and a selfless sense of community…we will all continue to meet the challenge before us.

 

As those of you who have been following along, our theme during this liturgical season of Lent  is about how to discern, how to find clarity in the chaos.

 

And this week we are focusing on what it means to find our purpose in the chaos.

 

For my brother-in-law’s father, Yehezkel (his name, by the way, is Hebrew for Ezekiel, which means ‘God will strengthen’)…he found his purpose amid the horror of the Holocaust by always helping others in the concentration and death camps and by keeping his wonderful sense of humor alive

amid the desperation and degradation. Peppering the pointless back-breaking work and starvation with little jokes, quips, observations and asides. That is what helped keep him alive.

That is what eventually brought him into the Promised Land of Israel/Palestine, where he met Michael’s mother. He would die of a heart attack at age 36, just six months after Michael was born, but his resilient spirit is alive in his son, in the socially responsible companies he would found, and even in the retelling of Yehezkel’s story here today.

 

For my grandparents, it was the purpose in giving their children a sound faith and the best education they could in order to follow the American Dream, a purpose lived out in me, my siblings and cousins.

 

You and I have purpose right now.

For health care workers, the purpose is really clear: stay calm, try to keep the inevitable anxiety low, take care of the sick and stay healthy yourselves. The enormity of these challenges are apparent to all of us.  Our prayers and our willing hand and feet are here for you.

 

For those of us who work in public health and research, your purpose is to keep the rest of us well-informed, work on containment measures, work on vaccines, help us get ahead of this virus.

 

For people providing essential services like groceries, drug store, hardware supplies – the purpose is really clear: keep providing for us, stay calm, stay healthy, stay at home if you’re sick.

 

For the rest of us, we have some clear-cut, abiding purposes – to support those in healthcare and essential services in whatever ways we can.

 

As a community, we have a purpose of caring for one another – which is happening in beautiful ways,

some of which you are will hear about shortly from member, Jack Lilburn.

You will also receive an email this week about neighborhood groups, United Parish members who live right around you, with whom you can check in regularly and stay connected.

 

We are also assessing our available funds for helping those among us will be hardest hit financially.

 

On staff, we can use your help reaching out to those in our community who do not have this kind of online access. Sharing the worship with them, perhaps over the phone or in your own summary, keeping in touch.

 

It also means we have a purpose caring for others around us, which is why we’ve started a section of our website on how you can help locally, such as: donating blood, making face masks, supporting the Brookline Food Pantry, donating to the Brookline Community Foundation’s Safety Net fund.

We are sure to add to this list going forward. Each one of us can participate in our own way toward these ends.

 

These are ways that we can follow in Jesus’ exhortation to Peter to “feed my sheep,” to take care of those around us.

 

Being clear on your purpose is a good way to combat anxiety. When it’s all feeling overwhelming,

it helps to take a breath, take a moment and remind yourself:

            what is my purpose?

what does God need me to be doing here?

 

It doesn’t have to be BIG, it doesn’t have to be beyond your reach, it just has to be authentic to how God made you.

 

At the end of this order of worship and in the “Opportunities in Lent” section of our website,

we have some exercises for you to get clear on some deeper, core areas of finding purpose in your life.

 

We also have some examples of spiritual practices to keep you grounded. Spiritual grounding is just as important as food and sleep right now. Don’t neglect it.

 

You can join our 20/30s Zoom study at 12:30pm today or another Zoom study at 7:15pm Wednesday evening.

 

You can reach out to other members of our community, checking in regularly and often,offering to run errands if you’re healthy, to offer companionship through virtual means.

 

And most immediately, you can help by practicing social distancing, washing your hands, staying at home as much as possible, especially if you’re sick. These are purposeful public health measures that protect us all.

 

And we can find our purpose in prayer, mustering the spiritual energy,the connection with God, the life-sustaining source of our being, the benevolent source that keeps us whole.

 

I believe that in all of this, whatever happens, God is seeking to work her purpose out through you,  through me, through us.

 

 

 

As Paul put it:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose. 

 

Together, keeping God in our midst, holding on together, over whatever rapids and falls lie ahead, we will make it through this day and the next and the next and the next.

 

And remember:

neither death, nor life, nor angels,

nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come,

nor powers, nor governments, nor pandemics, nor economic recessions,

nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

And let the people say, Amen.

 

© Copyright Kent French, 2020. All rights reserved.

 

Discernment: Finding Clarity in the Chaos 

Week 5: Finding a Purpose

Take-home questions

 

These are some questions and ideas for you to reflect further on today’s worship and to join us in our collective Lenten study of Discernment.

 

For thus says the Lord:

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,

          plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.

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,

          and I will restore your fortunes

          and gather you from all the nations

          and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord,

          and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

 

 

Questions for Further Reflection

If you were to look back over your life thus far and say what God’s plans have been, what would you come up with?

 

 

 

Have there been times when your plans didn’t align with what God (or Life) gave you?

 

 

How did you respond in the moment?

 

 

 

How do you explain it now?

 

 

 

In retrospect, how do you think God was using you and your gifts in that moment?

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Our Purpose 

 

How do you define ‘purpose’?

 

 

Who are people you’ve seen who have a clear sense of purpose?

How could you tell?

What did their lives and actions look like?

 

 

 

When have you felt a clear sense of purpose?

What made it clear?

What did it feel like in your heart and body when you were truly ‘on purpose’?

 

 

 

 

How can you imagine God is calling you to purpose in this moment?
 

Some suggested practices for the week ahead 

These are some easy-to-try spiritual practices that can help you as you launch into a season of discernment. Feel free to pick and choose, experiment and see how they feel and then report back to us next week. You are welcome to join us in study groups after Sunday worship in Lent or other times. Check out the homepage link at the bottom of the page.

 

Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina (literally divine reading) is a way of becoming immersed in the Scriptures very personally. It draws on the way Jews read the Haggadah, a text read during Passover that retells the Exodus story. Haggadah means “telling” and along with being a physical text, the word captures the practice of telling and retelling a story to find deeper meaning.

 

The Christian form of Lectio Divina was first introduced by St. Gregory of Nyssa (c 330- 395), and also encouraged by St. Benedict of Nursia (c 480-547), the founder of the Benedictine order. It’s a way of developing a closer relationship with God by reflecting prayerfully on God’s word in scripture. In Lectio Divina, the chosen spiritual text is read four times in total, giving an opportunity to think deeply about it and respond thoughtfully. When we practice Lectio Divina, we sometimes can imagine we’re actually involved in the events of Scripture.

 

Here’s how to get started:

Prepare

Light a candle and/or pray a prayer of invitation, saying something like, “God, let me/us hear from you,” and spend a few minutes sitting quietly so one’s mind is open to hearing from God.

 

Lectio (Read)

The first reading is an opportunity to get to know the Scripture passage. Listen carefully for any words or phrases that seem to jump out.   Write down or share those words if you are doing this with someone.  No need for lots of explanation, just share what caught your attention.

 

Meditatio (Reflect)

On the second reading of the same passage, listen for the deeper meaning God has infused in this scripture particularly for you in your life today.  How does it make you feel?    If  there’s no immediate response, ask God to be more present with you.

 

Oratio (Respond)

After a third reading, what action could you take based on this message from God, that would keep up the conversation with God and deepen your connections to the Spirit.  

 

Contemplatio (Rest)

After the final reading, spend around 5 minutes in silent contemplation. This doesn’t need to be  a time of prayer or deep though — just sit quietly and allow God to work. When the mind starts to wander and dart here and there, bring it gently back to stillness again.

 

 

 

Spiritual Examen

A spiritual practice derived from St. Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish Basque Catholic priest and theologian, who gave up a life of nobility and  co-founded the religious order called the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in the 16th century. The examen was developed in the 1500s as a core practice and is used to this day by Jesuits and other religious groups.

 

Find a quiet, comfortable place to spend about 10 minutes at the end of each day this week:

  1. Give thanks for all God’s gifts and benefits
  2. Ask for light/God’s presence
  3. Review the day: thoughts, words, deeds, desires, consolations, desolations
  4. Express gratitude, sorrow or purpose of amendment
  5. Ask for the graces you desire for tomorrow

You can make it as long or short as you want. Try repeating the practice throughout the week.

 

Practicing Gratitude

Another practice is to name and write down three specific things each day for which you are thankful. It could be anything: time with a loved one, a delicious meal, an unexpected break in your day, a kind exchange with a stranger, something in nature.

The point is to make it specific, and spend some time in your mind reliving the experience, savoring the feelings and thoughts they brought up in you.

This is a core practice that neuroscientists suggest in helping change some of our brain patterns from our predetermined negative, anxious bias to a cultivated, more positive, hopeful outlook.

 

Prayer Partners

We welcome EVERYONE at United Parish to try having a prayer partner in Lent.

You may think that you are not that spiritual, or that you don’t know how to pray, or even if you do, you don’t want to share that with someone else, that it’s private. That’s OK. Just give it a try.

It’s a holy experiment, basically committing to having a spiritual buddy in the congregation with whom you talk for 5-15 minutes each week from now through Easter (April 12).

You can sign up at unitedparishbrookline.org/prayer-partners-during-lent

 

An online “data-driven” daily discernment practice 

Methodist colleagues at the Harvard-Epworth Church in Cambridge have created a daily discernment opportunity, in which they email you a question each day to answer as part of your own private discernment practice. You can check it out and sign up at 40form.org/signup

 

Scripture for your week ahead 

Ponder this verse from the Epistles (James 1:5)  If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

Take a few minutes to read and reread it during the week, paying attention to how it lands with you at different times and in different situations. Are you able to trust God to provide wisdom when you ask for it? How is God calling you to listen and be receptive to divine wisdom?

 

Throughout your week, you may also want to re-read the verses from Psalm 42, that we chanted in worship today. For more information, check out unitedparishbrookline.org/news/opportunities-during-lent.