What is the meaning of life? We have each probably wondered the question in those little moments where we were brave enough to face our own mortality and, at least let our spirits whisper the question: What is the meaning of life?
We look around and we can hear and see lots of people telling us the meaning of life. The producers create products that will “revolutionize our lives.” Students go to class to learn new information and make plans for what they want to “be” when they grow up. The designers create fashion, a new look, a new model of car or house that will “transform” us. Scientists look intently to the natural world, trying to understand how everything works. Religious types can scour the Bible, listen to various teachers of religion, and take up fights here and there about what is right and wrong, what is or is not God’s will. Children get a new toy and, at least for a while, are happy and content. Retirement communities promise warm climates, endless golf and pickle-ball, and friends galore!
But in it all… what is the meaning? Where is the meaning? How would we find the meaning?
Today we join Paul the Apostle. In his early life, he was a brilliant Jewish scholar and a leader of the Pharisees. He found meaning and purpose in standing up for the traditions of his religion and by persecuting those who posed a challenge to the Jewish faith. He especially opposed the Jewish movement of people who believed that Jesus was the messiah and that he had risen from the dead. I imagine that the night in which Stephen (an early Christian) was stoned to death, Paul went to bed content believing that it was a day filled with meaning and purpose.
And yet, something drastic changed in Paul’s life. He met Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus. From that moment, everything changed in Paul’s life. He fell to the ground in a blinding light and he became a disciple of Jesus; he learned the stories of Jesus from the other apostles, and he began to spread the good news of the grace of God throughout the Roman Empire.
Our story today picks up as Paul is concluding his second missionary Journey. He has traveled for years planting churches, encouraging the church leaders in various places, and sharing with everyone the good news of the Grace of God. In the series of events before our scripture, Paul was encouraging the believers and planting churches. After our story he will head back to Jerusalem, he will be arrested, and he will finally be brought to Rome where he will stand trial, eventually being put to death.
Join me now, as we hear Paul speaking to the church in Ephesus; a final farewell speech to his beloved church leaders.
Acts 20:17 From Miletus he sent a message to Ephesus, asking the elders of the church to meet him. 18 When they came to him, he said to them:
“You yourselves know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews. 20 I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house, 21 as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus. 22 And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. 24 But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.
What is the meaning of life?
-When I was in third-grade computers were just coming out and becoming widely available. Our teacher had an old Apple computer (new at the time) with green and black Oregon Trail on it. It changed our lives as kids. The entire classroom would sit around the computer and play Oregon trail during break, during recess, any time our teacher would let us. Fording the river, shooting a bison, preventing the family from getting dysentery: That was the meaning of our lives! At least in those short moments of third-grade bliss.
-In high school, I had a dark green Jeep Wrangler and in Sioux Center, IA in the summer time there was always “Cruise Night” on Sunday evenings from about 7:00-Midnight. The whole town, from one end to the other, was filled with cars and the highway became a flood of high school students in their shiny cars with loud speakers. My friend Trent and I found our meaning in trying to look cool, in getting girls to ride in my jeep with us, and in doing whatever it took to give the impression that we were tough and handsome.
-When I got married after college, I assumed that meaning would come by having someone with whom to share my life. I hoped that having a constant partner, a friend, and a sexual relationship would give meaning to my life.
-When I became the pastor here at First Reformed, meaning came from finally getting to do what I had spent so much time and effort in studying to do. A career, I hoped, would give me meaning.
-When our boys were born, there was a new meaning to life. Life now meant being a dad, caring for my children, and giving myself to them. Children, I hoped, would give me meaning.
But of course, none of these events or milestones are guarantees for meaning, are they?
Winning games, looking cool, owning things, getting married, starting a career, producing offspring, and any other task in life — none of them guarantees us a constant sense of meaning and purpose — do they?
In our passage today, Paul doesn’t give a lot of specifics about what he has been “doing” with the Ephesians. Oh sure, he says that he proclaimed the message to them and that he taught publicly and privately, but there aren’t a lot of details about what he DID for the Ephesians. But Paul does give some remarkable insight into HOW he has been living with the Ephesians. He points the Ephesian elders to remember “how I lived among you.”
Could it be that lasting meaning cannot come from what you DO. (Winning games, getting married, doing a job, having children, building houses.)
But can only come from HOW you Live?
What if life is a lot less about production and a lot more about posture.
Production is what you can do, achieve, create, accomplish. But posture is about HOW you do what you do, your stance, your disposition, your form.
One of my spiritual teachers, named Richard Rohr, talks about this spiritual reality like a container. Imagine a large vase or pot. This vase represents two halves of life. The first half of life we find meaning in creating our container. We define ourselves by what we do, what we can accomplish, the milestones of life, so to speak. In this first half of life, meaning comes through those tasks that we can do: wether it is winning the games, getting married, getting a job, having children, or building houses. What we DO defines who we are. And all of this is so important. It is so good to seek meaning, achieve milestones, and do the things that give us a sense of accomplishment.
But meaning in life cannot be sustained by the things that we can “do,” the tasks that can give us a sense of accomplishment. Sooner or later, if we are listening to the Spirit, the limitations of those things that we can do and accomplish are revealed. They do not have intrinsic meaning!
-We could win at every game from preschool all the way up to the Pro’s. But at some point, you reach the top and you feel great, but what’s next? You built the container, but now you realize that it’s empty!
-You get married. But at some point in your marriage, you realize that you aren’t nearly as self-less and kind as you liked to imagine yourself to be and your spouse cannot fix your inner loneliness or sense of inadequacy. You built the container, but now you realize that it’s empty!
-You got your degree and dream job, but at some point you find yourself working, working, working, and doing what you always wanted to do — except now you are sick and tired of it and you feel disappointed with life. You built the container, but now you realize that it’s empty!
-It doesn’t matter if it’s having children, if it’s building a house, or if it’s retirement! If meaning in life is defined by what we will do, then it will always leave us feeling disappointed.
One of the ways that you can tell if you are living in this first half of life is if you are looking ahead to the future, for a time when your life will “really begin.”
-like the college student who waits for life to really begin when they get a job.
-like the romantic, who waits for life to really begin when they get married.
-like the employee, who waits for life to really begin when they can retire.
This is first half of life thinking, where meaning is an objective to achieve in the future.
But second half of life thinking is different, it says, “I want to live right now! Today! This instant!” Meaning in the second half of life isn’t an objective to achieve, but more like a posture to practice.
This is why, according to Rohr, the second half of life is about filling your vessel up. If the first half of the spiritual life is about creating a vessel and finding meaning in what we can do, then the second half of life is about filling that vessel to overflowing!
-It is no longer defines itself by what it does. It defines itself by how much joy it can experience in whatever it does!
-It no longer looks for meaning from a marriage partner. It seeks to give love and appreciation TO a marriage partner – making a great marriage!
-It no longer looks for meaning in getting a job. It creates meaning and expectancy in whatever job it has – making employment meaningful!
-It no longer wants to build a house out of a sense of accomplishment, it wants to fill that house with love and hospitality for all.
The first half of life is task oriented, the second half of life is posture oriented!
One of the joys of Parenting small boys is that I get to watch children’s movies shamelessly, and I get to watch the same children’s movies over and over and over again!
A favorite in our household is the Disney/Pixar movie “Cars.” The movie is ten years old now, so if you haven’t seen it you had your chance! In the story a hot-rod race car named Lightning McQueen is the fastest and most talented up and coming race-car who has only one goal in his life: To win the Piston Cup. However, early in the movie, through a series of surprising events, Lightning finds himself stranded in a little podunk town called Radiator Springs. He is lost, he is sentenced by a judge to public service, and his only friend is a tow-truck named Mater who may have spent too much time in the sun.
It felt like a tragedy to lightning, to be stuck in Radiator Springs, except that slowly, through his relationships with the local cars, Lightning learns what it is to be loved and to give of yourself for others and for your community. Lightning is fundamentally changed when living in Radiator Springs, a town where his speed doesn’t matter and nobody has heard of his racing accomplishments.
The movie reaches it’s finale when Lighting finally makes it to the Piston Cup, he has the opportunity to win the big race and be the champion that he always dreamed he could be. Except something has changed in Lighting, see for yourself!
He finally had the chance to get what he had always wanted, except now he knows:
“It’s just an empty cup.”
If lightning doesn’t have love for others, giving others dignity and grace, then all of his accomplishments are empty.
How have you gotten “meaning” in your life? If you have built your containers, are you ready to start filling them?
At this point in Paul’s life, he is well into the second half of his life.
He is no longer concerned with all of his accomplishments, how high he has risen in his professional pursuits, he isn’t even bragging about how many churches he has planted or how many people have accepted the good news! Those are tasks for the first half of life, but now Paul is living into so much more. Look at Paul’s spiritual posture in verse 24!
“I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.”
So, how do we find meaning?
1.Do the things you hope will give you meaning.
Win the games, get the degrees, marry someone if you want to, build a house if you want, retire if you can…. DO whatever you hope will give you meaning.
THEN. When those things you can DO don’t give your life the inherent meaning you were hoping for….find your humility and shed your tears.
2. and join Paul in a posture of spiritual humility.
Where you only find your life by losing it, where you live as a captive to the spirit, where your container only has meaning when it is filled to nourish others, where you “do not count your life of any value to yourself….”
Seek this kind of life in Jesus’ name, and you will find it. Amen.