In 2003 I was given a new lease on life with an aortic valve replacement. I still had a house full of kids and was relatively young (45) so, while I was genuinely appreciative of an extension of my life, I got back to living. I saw my kids graduate from high school, go to college, join the military, get married, have babies and all the other good things – and challenges – that life brings.
This year, at the ripe old age of 59 I found myself again needing a new aortic valve. Facing mortality and possible open-heart surgery I started looking inward at what my future could be, if there was a future. I’m at an age where the “what should I do with my life” starts to get a little desperate. Can I get some more bonus years? And if so, what should I do with them?
I’m not the bargain-with-God type. I certainly am not afraid to ask for His help in a tight spot but cutting deals with God does not seem like a good plan. Life is a continuous challenge and I would rather depend on God’s grace and mercy than some ill-conceived (by me) contract. But being in this current predicament did cause me to ask this simple prayer: if my current medical problems can be resolved that I might have God-given purpose for the next twenty years.
Now, to many people, especially when they are younger, purpose can be a huge thing. I think of Billy Graham, who had a singleness of purpose and a sense of urgency to preach the Gospel to over 215,000,00 people in 185 countries. I think of Neil Armstrong, who not only had the good fortune to be the first man on the moon but the good sense to say this: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I even think of my ophthalmologist, Dr. J.D. Bonner, who takes his thriving practice on the road to Uganda every year to help save the sight of hundreds of folks with no access to medical care.
But I’m getting a late start for any of that.
I found myself hanging out at the hospital with little to do and lots of time to think and some ideas were impressed upon me. I had my old black leather Bible handy and pulled a length of paper towel out of the dispenser to take notes. And, if you will stay with me, I think I have the answer, a specific response to the question “Lord, what shall I do?”
“He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly, to love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8
A little back story about this passage is useful. Israel was in a near-perpetual state of not following God. All He wanted was their obedience – which they understood all wrong. They rolled out a long list of religious performances they had maintained and it was impressive: burnt offerings, thousands of rams, rivers of oil. Hey God – whaddya want, our firstborn sons? And yet they missed the point of their relationship with God and the point of any religious observance: be a better person! Let’s break it down:
• Do justly – do what is right!
• Love mercy – be kind to all!
• Walk humbly – fear the Lord!
God was looking for obedience and hoped they would find love – His love. And that love would be carried out in the lives of His people. No rams needed, skip the rivers of oil, spare you son. Just try being nice.
Unfortunately, this story is as old as, well, the Bible. There is a continuous theme, current to this day, of humanity wanting to run the show. Oh sure, we will play the religious game but there is a deep undercurrent of abuse of power, corruption, self-serving and outright evil – and that’s just in the church!
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?” Isaiah 58:6,7
Once again, the people were running around doing “right” – they claimed to have fasted and afflicted their very souls to please God. But he pointed out that all the while they were exploiting their people while seeking their own pleasure – all in the name of a higher calling, of course. God had that same better idea we saw above: be a better person! Break it down again:
• Eliminate religious burdens – silly rules that do not produce righteousness
• Stop oppressing people
• Share what you have – there shouldn’t be a hungry or naked person in your community
• Take care of your family and friends and neighbors
The problem is when we seek God collectively in an institutionalized setting the same result happens: some people need to have power over others. Class structure is established, power is brokered, rules and boundaries established. But none of that is a factor in a man’s faith walk with God! We all know people who had that quiet spirituality, a sense of universal serenity, a closeness with God. I think of my wife’s Granny Gibbs. She sat up there in her trailer and talked to God. About her family, her friends, her city, the world and the problems in it. And I suspect He listened intently – there was no guile in her prayers. And that is where our faith should take us – to the object of our faith, God, on behalf of the well-being of others.
And it’s not just an ancient Old Testament problem. Jesus ran across the same attitudes and the same problems – actually, it had gotten worse, fractioning off into diverse groups each with its own agenda and set of rules.
“But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:34-40
Clever tactic – when you want to challenge something, get your lawyer buddy to do it. The question was what was the most important thing to do – an impossible question in a legalistic religious society because EVERY law was critical. Perfection in law-keeping was the goal – and that law contained 613 very specific rules plus a host of new ones made up for the sake of religion! Fortunately Jesus, being God-in-the-flesh, was a little smarter than the crowd of yahoos and pointed out (again) that being a better person was the point. Break down what He said:
• Love God – your focus and attention should be paid to His standard
• Love your neighbor – that same love should be shown to others.
In another passage (Luke 10:25-37) still another lawyer challenged this idea with “Who is my neighbor?” To which Jesus answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan. So, what is the correct answer to the lawyer’s question – who, indeed, is my neighbor? There are rules – I’ll make you a simple list:
b) See A
We spend a lot of time wondering what MY purpose is, what can I do/be/accomplish. And the whole time the entire purpose for our lives is right in front of us. We don’t need to preach, or go to the moon, or heal people’s eyes. We need to do the minimum required – we need to be better people! It’s not what I can do purposefully for the next twenty years – it’s do what I should do and then God can use me where He needs me, minute by minute, day by day, year by year. And, hopefully, decade by decade.
At the beginning I promised you an answer to the question “Lord, what shall I do?”. It’s the easiest thing in the world, you won’t need a degree, don’t have to go to foreign lands, it’s really not even an inconvenience. Ready? Here you go, in two parts:
a) Be kind to the next person you meet.
b) Repeat A
That’s a life on purpose.