It was gorgeous. The highway through northeastern Oregon crossed rolling hills of range land covered in still-green grass and scrubby sagebrush. Bluffs of creased rock rose beside the road. Tall trees surrounded solitary ranch houses in scattered valleys. It was the type of landscape that makes a person seem small in the universe. Psalm 8 came to mind.
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,Psalm 8, New Revised Standard Version
the moon and the stars that you have established,
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God…
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands…
My in-laws have lived for almost 90 years on farmland in south-central Idaho and are grudgingly considering a move to a retirement community in the other end of the state. We had just visited them to hear about their decision and help them prepare for the move. Their minds tell them to move but their hearts want to stay. Their lives had meaning in Twin Falls where they were rooted and their friends lived. Could they find new meaning and purpose in Spokane?
As I drove home to Seattle, I thought about the fragility of life, the passage of years and the meaning of life. In eighth grade I had to learn the first question of the Westminster Catechism in order to join the church and the words of the Catechism returned to mind now: “What is the chief and highest end of man [sic]? Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. ”
Hearing that voice of the Catechism in my head put me over the edge. Such beauty and such sorrow just to glorify God? Really? What kind of divine being would create a world like that? It sounds like the ultimate in narcissism and selfishness.
If some human dude told me my main purpose in life is to glorify him; the healthiest, wisest thing I could do would be to laugh in his face and run the other direction. If self-denigration is a prescription for a stifling, abusive human-human relationship, why would it be different for a human-divine relationship and worldview? If it’s unhealthy between human beings, it seems an equally unhealthy way to think about God.
However, because human beings are meaning-makers, myth-makers, I needed an alternative way to think about the meaning of human life and my place in the world that would give my in-laws and me something purposeful and worth living for. I threw my anger, questions, despair and hope at the universe as I drove on in silence and beauty, wrestling with the Divine while my husband and dogs slept.
Just the day before, I had held a blue and white plate painted in 1765 and wondered whose table it had originally graced, for what was it used, and what stories were told at that table. I considered that in fifty years, someone may hold items I now treasure and wonder about the people owned them, as well.
A voice says, “Cry out!”Isaiah 40:6-8 , New Revised Standard Version
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
I had done my best all that weekend to be patient and kind as my beloved mother-in-law sorted through one-half of one closest. I do my best to be a good daughter as my mother progresses into severe dementia. I try to find meaning and purpose in my own life while dealing with one health issue after another. I have tried to find God and purpose for life in all of these situations. Here’s where I’ve ended up:
Plants and animals evolve. Rocks wear away in the elements. Rivers carve new paths. So, too, our understanding of that which is beyond our comprehension needs to be open to new path, new crevices, evolving into new ways of thinking and believing about eternal matters. Here’s what I believe, what I reaffirmed as I drove through the beauty of western Oregon with a heart full of love and grief:
Partnership with God
I believe that each of us in this world is a partner with that which created the universe. We are therefore to cherish the world and all its life forms. I believe that each of us and all of us together exist as partners with the Creator of the universe to bring health, wholeness, and fullness of life to everyone. To do so, we must live justly, practice kindness, and walk humbly, as the prophet Micah says. In the words of Jesus, we are called to be servants of all and to give our life for others.
I don’t know where life leads, but as surely as birds sing and flowers bloom and the sun rises each morning, humans are created to bring goodness into the world; and beauty, and joy, and love. I believe the world is still being created and that we are part of the process of creation unfolding. I believe not in obliteration of self to God, but partnership with God.
Some would say God is near. I’d like to believe that. I don’t know. In the meantime, I feel as one who has stepped off a cliff and holds on by her fingernails. “I believe. Help my unbelief.” If there is a God, he/she/it is different from anything we can conceive, so our descriptions need always to be conditional.
I continue to act my way into being. Do good. Affirm beauty. Live. Love.
So, what do you think? What would you say is the purpose of human life? Are you searching? Let me know. Let’s talk.
I remember that the Bible talks about the Kingdom of God is at hand. If we really believe that, our life is really a training place for what is to come. We build character in the life on earth and try to become more like Christ. We do it without perfection and many failures. This theological understanding has always brought me comfort. God is with me through all my failures. Karen
Barbara, going to make a couple corrections here. The justice, kindness, and humility quote is in Micah, not Hosea, and the first question of the Shorter Catechism is “What is the chief end of man?” (No “highest.”) It does not speak to becoming godlike or “moving towards perfection, as “highest” might imply, but simply to our place in creation. The chief end–main reason to be–of animals, it could be said, is just to be and to take their place in nature. The raison d’etre for humans is a calling that includes will and thought as well as function.
To me, the answer represents two sides of the God/human equation. We glorify/worship God, and God gives us joy in return. It is symbiotic. It could be called a partnership, but it is never an equal one.
So the question it leads to is “What does glorify and enjoy mean?” The Shorter has scriptural references for every statement, which makes it amazingly easy to compare each one with scripture. The first reference for “glorify” is I Cor. 10:31: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” It’s not only worship, but being what we might call Christlike in every part of our lives. “Enjoy” references to various verses in Psalm 73, which talk about strength, trust, desire for God. I might choose other verses, but these are a start.
Oh my goodness, how did I make that mistake on Micah 6? Oh, Laura, I do miss our theological conversations! I’ll fix the scripture reference tonight and come back to the Catechism tomorrow when my brain is brighter.
Just read your post…At the same time finished reading THE UNIVERSAL CHRIST/Richard Rohr.
A beautiful sentence spoke to me reflecting your post and journey. “We are bookended in a Personal Love—-coming from Love, and moving toward an ever more inclusive Love. This is the Christ Omega!” Just entered my eighties and am learning to relax in this love, the deep rivers of God’s Grace. Thanks for your post. Asking and reflecting on hard questions is a gift you bring to us.
That quote is wonderful: “We are bookended in a Personal Love–coming from Love, and moving toward an ever more inclusive Love. This is the Christ Omega!” I’m going to clip it and save it. As I look at blue sky beyond the cedar trees in my backyard and feel a slightly cool breeze, that thought brings great peace. Thanks.
Surely you are hanging on by more than fingernails, but with your intellect, emotions, spirit, meaning searching every where you look. In the meantime you are physically and capably driving the car going to Seattle. I felt with you the importance of the old plate and grace, patience in sorting and reliving, noting beauty around you making it all right. Wonder what the enjoyment that was meant in Westminster! Will have to look it up some way.
I didn’t learn the Westminster catechism as a child, but I believe the chief and highest end of human beings is to strive to achieve the Kingdom of God on earth, which means to make the world a better place for all life on it. As you say, to partner with God to bring health, wholeness and fullness to everyone. That includes ending all war and violence. How? Start by loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. Sounds like you are doing just that in cherishing and caring for your in-laws. May they be surprised by joy as they find meaning and purpose in Spokane.
I agree with you, Dori.
That God demands man—indeed, created man—to worship him is a fact. He desires the praise and worship of every man and woman without exception. What does this tell us about God’s character? Is his demand and desire for worship unreasonable?
(You tell me…)
Taken from Catholic.com/magazine
I was reminded of that when I read your last entry.