Sunday, February 22, 2004

Reflections on The Purpose Driven Life
and Confession of a "Liberal"

I started a Lenten-season series of classes at my new parish today. The series is based on the book The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.

I'll get my carping out of the way first. We saw a televised introduction to the program, which will consist of reading a chapter a day for the next 40 days and meeting in small groups for discussion as we seek God's plan and purpose for our lives. A video sequence showed scores of baptisms being performed by different ministers. Not one of these ministers was a woman. In fact, you scarcely saw a woman in the whole video who wasn't an attractive, California soccer-mom, Ms. Junior Jaycee-type. This bugged me a bit.

Minor carping about the messenger out of the way, the message seems to be a very good one. I read the book's first chapter this afternoon. Warren talks about our expectations and wants vs. God's plan and purpose for us. He makes a good point that the self-help books out there, even Christian ones, focus on what we want, what our goals are, how we will accomplish them, using our determination. Hudda, hudda, hudda.

Warren says, "But being successful and fulfilling your life's purpose are not at all the same issue."

To find our purpose in life, we must focus on God, for whom and by whom we were made, and listen to what he is telling us. To understand the purpose of an invention, ask the inventor, Warren says. "God was thinking of you long before you ever thought about him. His purpose for your life predates your conception. He planned it before you existed, without your input!"

This is a reference to my favorite Psalm, Number 139. Here are verses 12-15 and 22-23:

For you yourself created me in my inmost parts;
you knit me together in my mother's womb;

I will thank you because I am marvelously made;
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.

My body was not hidden from you
while I was being made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
all of them were written in your book;
they were fashioned day by day,
when as yet there was none of them.

Search me out, O God, and know my heart;
try me and know my restless thoughts.

Look well whether there be any wickedness in me
and lead me in the way that is everlasting.

God, who lovingly knit me together in my mother's womb, has a much better plan for me than I could ever imagine. He will help me see that plan if I ask him.

Maybe it takes a literal interpretation of the Bible to believe this. In many ways I am very much a traditionalist, a literalist reader of the Bible. I believe this is God speaking to us through the psalmist. I believe that He did actually look upon my forming body, the one in which He instilled His divine spark, and love me as I was in the womb. I believe that He knew me before the world began; that He had a plan for me even then. Not the easy way, but His way.

I screw it up a lot. He picks me up, dusts me off, and put me back on the path. This is sometimes called "grace."

Yes, I can be a flaming literalist. I was surprised, in fact, to read that there seems to be something of a controversy on the topic of the transfiguration. Well, I take it quite literally. God was there. The manifestation of God has effects on the physical world around that presence (sci-fi fans might like the wording, "a disruption in the space-time continuum"). The shining whiteness of the faces exposed to the effects of that manifestation is a physiological response to sudden changes in temperature, humidity levels, air pressure and only God knows what. Literalist, yes!

Anyway. I believe that God has a purpose for my life, and for yours. As I go through the next 40 days, I plan to journal something each day, if only a short paragraph, about my reading, reflection and group discussions.

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