Colossians 3: 12 – 17
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
So…what do you do? This is our go-to question when meeting new people. I’ll admit, it’s not my favorite question to answer. My part time job is a bit of a mouthful and I’m always tempted to consider what I actually spend most of my time doing, which has got to be picking up toys. At the first break or the slightest lull in a conversation, we jump in with one of the most universal questions in our arsenal: what do you do? As we continue through this series of An Altar in the World, today’s topic is Living with Purpose.
For some, what they do, their vocation, feels like their life’s purpose. So for those people, and you might be one of them, this idea of living with purpose may seem fairly straightforward. You’ve figured it out. Your purpose is your vocation and vice versa. Barbara Brown Taylor whose work has shaped this series says, “Earlier in my life, I thought there was one particular thing I was supposed to do with my life. I thought that God had a purpose for me and my main job was to discover what that was.” I confess to often feeling the same. I think many of us do. If you’re not in the camp who feels like you’ve found it already, many of us spend lots of time searching for or thinking about our purpose or waiting for it to finally find us. But that can be problematic. Taylor suggests that “those who are busiest trying to figure out what God’s purpose is for their lives are often the least purposeful about the work they are already doing. They can look right through the people they work with, since those people are not players in the divine plan…The mission to read God’s mind becomes a strategy for keeping their minds off” the present. And also, I think, while searching for our purpose we end up saving the best of ourselves for some imagined time in the future when all the stars align; when we’re finally doing what we’re supposed to be doing, when we finally figure it out.
I’ve been in both positions. The situation of feeling that vocation and purpose were one in the same, that’d I’d figured it out. And my current position of “not so figured out.” It’s a kind of sweet spot where your work is your purpose, and I’ll admit, it’s a pretty good spot … until something changes. That’s the problem: What you do is subject to change, willingly or unwillingly. And then what of your purpose? What happens when retirement hits, you get laid off, you get injured or you’re just not able to do what you used to, regardless of how passionate you are about it. Your family member needs more of your time and care. Obedience to God or obligations to loved ones means walking away. Maybe you find that the skills you have to offer are no longer needed. When purpose and vocation are one in the same, purpose feels like it disappears along with the job. In our culture, vocation, and often by default, purpose are closely tied to our identity. That’s why our second question after “what is your name?” is “what do you do?” What we do often defines a good part of who we are. And when that piece is gone, sometimes we’re left wondering who we are without it. But if a change in circumstance causes us to feel we no longer have purpose, or even a stable sense of who we are, that sets us up for a very precarious existence, subject to the whims of all kinds of forces we can’t control.
I’ve recently finished a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If you like history and biographies I thoroughly recommend it. But you have to really like them. If you’re lukewarm, I’ll admit now, it’s quite an undertaking. Who is this, you might ask? And, perhaps more importantly, why would I choose to read 500 pages about him? Perhaps some questions don’t have good answers…
To the first question: Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who ultimately was instrumental in forming and shaping the Confessing Church in Germany, which was the Christian resistance to Hitler. He started and ran secret underground seminaries, communicated the truth of what was happening in Germany with key church and political figures around the world, and eventually served as a double agent for German military intelligence, with his cover being a pastor (which he was), ultimately playing a key role in an assassination plot to kill Hitler. All with a divinity degree! How could people say that’s not a versatile degree? The name of the assination plot he was involved in was Valkyrie. Ah, now some recognition. Tom Cruise, we all know, of course. I’d say if you don’t want to read the book, you could see the movie, but poor Dietrich, despite his central role in the plot in real life, he was conveniently left out of the Valkyrie movie entirely. I guess double agent pastors don’t make for good entertainment these days? Bonhoeffer did all this while continuing to write books that with a few others deeply shaped the major theological movements of the mid 20th century. He continued writing even during his last days in a German concentration camp where he was killed just two weeks before the camp would be liberated by Allied Forces. Bonhoeffer is a fascinating study of living with purpose.
For most of his young adult life, his jobs, vocations and life plans seemed a bit… scattered. He dabbled in this or that, he spent a year on this project and a few months there. Despite his prodigy status as a theologian beginning in his early 20’s, his diary reveals how often he really had no sense of what he was supposed to be doing with his life. He spent a year in New York at Union Theological Seminary, and while there, taught Sunday School in the largest protestant church in the country at the time, which happened to be a black church in Harlem and (with a doctrate) taught a confirmation class to very working class youth in Berlin killing time until he was approved to be ordained in Germany. He spent time in Spain, Rome and England serving a temporary pastor. These roles might have seemed to many as a waste of his potential. Certainly a disjointed existence. It appeared he was not making much progress on any sort of 5 year strategic plan. He certainly would not have equated this string of seemingly disconnected jobs and roles as his purpose.
But that’s not how he understood purpose either. For Bonhoeffer, he knew he had one purpose and he wrote about it regularly: to hear the word of God and obey it. It was to be in God’s presence and the Word enough to hear God’s voice and let that voice direct his days, his actions, his decisions, his plans. That to him, was purpose. He spent time each morning in prayer and meditating on a piece of scripture. It caused him to lead a far different life than many might have imagined. It ended up with him being ostracized from many organizations for being too outspoken, too in-support of the Jews, too early an opponent of Nazism, too blunt in declaring from the beginning that the church in Germany and Hitler could not be bedfellows. It got him banned from preaching and writing there, what many might have called his purpose, and ended him up in prison. And in the end, here was the primary leader of the Christian resistance to Nazism and how many of you have heard of him? He didn’t even make the movie!! Certainly not a life of success or notoriety. It would be safe to say, Bonhoeffer was robbed of his vocation time and time again. Everytime he turned around, someone was changing what he was allowed to do, overturning his circumstances, stripping him of his positions, his influence, his jobs, his freedom. And yet, to read his writings, it was a life he considered filled with purpose. It’s hard to imagine waking up for years in a jail cell in Nazi Germany after a failed assasination attempt and being able to write about purpose, but he did. It’s a sense of purpose that goes far beyond what we do, or what circumstances we find ourselves in. It was not tied to vocation or following passion or whether things are going well or all falling to pieces.
So what is purpose that is bigger than vocation? Especially in those times that our vocation seems out of sync, or missing, or different than what we had hoped it would be, or on pause? There’s a story by Nicole Johnson that has floated around the internet for a few years. After being a stay at home mom for years, Johnson admitted she had trouble finding a sense of purpose in her life amidst the chaos of this season. She shares this story:
One night, some friends and I were having dinner, celebrating the return of a friend from England. She had just gotten back from a fabulous trip, and was telling wonderful stories. I sat there, looking around at the others all so put-together, so visible and vibrant. It was hard not to compare and feel sorry for myself. I was feeling pretty pathetic when my friend turned to me with a beautifully wrapped package and said, “I brought you this.” It was a book on the great cathedrals of Europe. I wasn’t exactly sure why she’d given it to me until I read her inscription: “With admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees.”
In the days ahead I read—no—I devoured the book. And I discovered what would become for me, four life-changing truths:
- No one can say who built the great cathedrals—we have no record of their names.
- These builders gave their whole lives for a work they would never see finished.
- They made great sacrifices and expected no credit.
- The passion of their building was fueled by their faith that the eyes of God saw everything.
After reading that, I closed the book, feeling the missing piece fall into place. It was almost as if I heard God whispering to me, “I see you. I see the sacrifices you make every day, even when no one around you does. No act of kindness you’ve done, no sequin you’ve sewn on, no cupcake you’ve baked, no last minute errand done in love is too small for Me to notice and smile over. You are building a great cathedral, but you can’t see right now what it will become. But I see.”
We’ve been following this idea of altars throughout the series. Altars and cathedrals had much the same purpose, though certainly could differ in their scope. They were created to be something that stands out in the landscape to honor God. Something that catches people’s attention and points them to the holy within their midst. They help others notice God in the world. They announce it. How does your life accomplish the same? How are you pointing to the presence of God? What kind of cathedrals or altars are you building? What stones are you laying? Maybe you can’t see it quite yet.
If you’ll permit me to go back to Bonhoeffer just one more time. That time he spent in America teaching Sunday school at a black church? It gave him an in depth look at racial relations here, which sharpened his understanding and ability to see what was happening at the very early stages of Hitler’s policies against the Jews, making him one of the very first to speak out in Germany in their support. Those extended visits to Rome, Spain, and England? They cultivated the key ecumenical relationships he would need later to communicate with the outside world and the Christian Church at large the truth of what was happening inside Hitler’s Germany. It would not be hyperbole to say that these relationships he made and the information Bonhoeffer passed through them woke up the global church to the atrocities inside the third Reich. There was purpose, far beyond what he knew. His was to be obedient, faithful. But God’s was much larger than that. His life’s purpose, as he would define it, was to live as a disciple, to wake up each day ready to serve God..to live the words of Colossians that we heard this morning… “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…be thankful…Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…in your hearts sing songs to God… And whatever you do, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Col 3:12-17) It’s as though Paul is saying in this letter to the Colossians: this kind of life? This is what living with purpose looks like. It doesn’t matter what you do, whatever you do, be purposeful in these things, and God will take care of the rest. God will put all the pieces into their rightful place; pieces you don’t even see yet.
I won’t go so far to suggest that the next time someone new asks, “What do you do?” that you would say you’re an altar builder, someone who lays stones in the world that point others to God. But I would go so far as to hope that you might wake up each morning believing it. That you might take note of what you have the opportunity to build each day, no matter where you find yourself or what you’re doing, even when you don’t see how the pieces fit into place. Whether you’re right where you want to be or in a place you never imagined ending up, or somewhere in between. Whether you love your job or hate your job or don’t have a job. May we heed Paul’s words to be sure that “whatever you do…to do it in the name of Jesus” and with that, know that God has purpose for you. A life of “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience”… a life full of “songs to God in our hearts” (Col 3:12-17) is a life filled with purpose. It is a life that builds God’s kingdom, piece by piece. A life that builds altars in the world, some we may never even see complete.
And maybe instead of trying so hard to figure out our purpose or completely tying our purpose to what we do, which can be shaky ground, might we teach ourselves that purpose is not just what you do, but about how you do it, and who you are. It doesn’t need to come with success or achievement or even knowing for sure what it is you’re supposed to be doing. Only who you’re supposed to be following. Jobs come and go, passion fades, plans for our lives will twist and turn. Purpose is about faithfulness and trusting God will do the rest. God can certainly call us to jobs or vocations and they can serve God mightily, but purpose can be found in many unexpected ways. It need not be figuring out just one thing. Maybe we don’t even always need to understand what it is. Might we trust that a life of purpose can be equally lived out in our dream jobs, in the midst of dirty diapers and spilled apple sauce, in retirement, in middle school, facing an empty nest for the first time?
For the stone masons who built the giant cathedrals, most of them never saw the cathedral completed in their lifetime. Their purpose was but a small piece of the puzzle. But masons at that time left a mark on the stones they carved, called a maker’s mark: sort of a signature. Most of their marks got covered up as the pieces were put together, their name and contribution lost to history, though many of the cathedrals they helped to create still stand. For most of us, history will likely not remember who we are or what we do. We’ll get left out of the movie edition. Our lives and vocations will take turns we don’t expect. But no matter what, may we be purposeful. The lives we touch will remember. However we spend our time, how we live our lives, however we build our altars will matter, for they may point others to God, perhaps long after we’re gone. As we lay stones, not always sure of how they’ll fit together, may our own makers mark be visible. Not our own name, but the one who calls us to this life of purpose. May God’s mark, God’s claim on our lives, give purpose to all we do, whatever we do, that our very lives may stand as altars, living monuments pointing to the one in whom nothing is lost.
 Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World. Pg 108
 Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World. Pg 118-19
 Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer; Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Any reference to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and writings are paraphrased from this book.
 Abyssinian Baptism Church in Harlem had 14,000 members in the early 1930’s when Bonhoeffer taughg there, arguably making it the largest Protestant Church in the US at that time.
 Excerpt from The Invisible Woman: A Special Story for Mothers by Nicole Johnson (2005, Thomas Nelson Inc., Nashville, TN).