What Does It Profit?

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Mark 8:36 KJV

I am a child of the sixties.  I was born in the early fifties, grew up in the sixties, and came of age in the seventies.  The fifties were a time of innocence for us baby boomers.   World War II was receding into the past and the Korean Conflict settled into an uneasy truce.  America was ascendant, and all was good.

Well, maybe not, but it certainly seemed that way. Televisions were becoming ubiquitous, and my neighbor even had color!  We had the Friday Night Fights, on Friday night of course, and Howdy Doody on Saturday morning.  The Honeymooners never failed to draw a laugh and a tear, and of course there was Ed Sullivan, Topo Gigo, and Elvis.

Sure, there were many things wrong.  There was the  Soviet Union and the air raid drills in case of nuclear attack.  There was Jim Crow and the backlash against the nascent civil rights movement.  President Eisenhower warned us of something called the military-industrial complex. But we were too young to really know or care about these things.  Things that in the end would define so much of our lives.

We started the Sixties with a young, vibrant, and idealistic president who asked us to give of ourselves: to our own, through Ameri-Corp, and to others through the Peace Corp.  He said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  He told us we were going to the moon, he promised us Camelot, and he delivered.  His idealism was infectious, and we were certainly infected by it.   Then, reality came crashing down on us all one day in November, 1963.

John Kennedy’s assassination could have destroyed our idealism. We were in shock.  We wondered why, we cried, and we mourned; and though we may have lost our innocence, the one thing we did not lose was the idealism he had imparted to us.  This lived on, and if anything, it became stronger and more real then ever.  But why?

A big part of the answer to that question, I believe, is that something else happened right around that same time that would also have a tremendous impact on my generation.  That something was called The Beatles.

The Beatles debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964.  They sang to us, and we loved them for it.  Their music and antics didn’t just entertain us though; they helped us to refocus our minds on what was important.  And what was important to us young boys and girls?  Why, young boys and girls, of course.

A simple song about holding hands, or asking someone to dance, reminded us that the important things in life were still there and could be had simply by choosing to have them.  But they didn’t stop there.  As we grew, they did too, and their music grew with them and us.  In their music they wove together, as if by some magic, the events of the day – the most fundamental experiences in life, and a spiritual journey.

Later, when the Beatles broke up, we were saddened by it, but we also soon realized that there were benefits to the break-up, as each Beatle was now free to pursue his own path.

John took a political one, certainly with a spiritual side, but distinctly political none the less.  Paul remained most true to the Beatles origins with his ballads and love songs.   And Ringo, well, despite his tremendous musical success, he was and is just Ringo, the “every-man,” and that is all he had to be.

But it was George, the spiritual one, seeking truth in meditation, music, and in the religious traditions of east and west, who may have had the most influence on me.  This may be because as I grew older, the world around me was changing drastically.  Our society was creating wealth at an unprecedented rate, and with it came materialism and the pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake.

Traditional, community-based religion was being abandoned and was being replaced either by a personal spirituality, accountable to no-one, not even G-d, or by a social-club religion which left the Judaeo-Christian G-d completely behind.  In either case,  for many, G-d, if He was even deemed to exist at all, became an impersonal force that required nothing from us – a Cosmic Sugar Daddy who could be tapped just by saying the right words or thinking the right thoughts.

Politics grew uglier every day, where in the West, defeating your opponent turned into destroying your opponent.  We were more civilized about it in the West than in the East, of course, where in places like the Soviet Union or Red China, political defeat often meant execution or lifelong imprisonment.  No, we destroyed lives by destroying reputations and demonizing our opponents.  This practice continues to this day.  Our political opponents are not just wrong, they are evil.

And what about traditional love and marriage?  There are still many that believe in these things, but they are certainly not the ones who predominate in our culture and society.  The hedonists of the sixties became the Me Generation of the seventies, who became the jaded post-modern cynics of today.

And then there was George:

“We were talking about the love that’s gone so cold
And the people who gain the world and lose their soul
They don’t know, they can’t see, are you one of them?”
from Within You Without You by George Harrison

Even if he didn’t have the ultimate answers, he was asking the right questions, echoing the words of Jesus, spoken so many years ago.

I’ve been thinking more about George lately, and his spiritual quest.  A quest that so many of us took up.  What happened to it?  For me, it slowly transformed back into the Christian faith I was raised in.  But it is a more stable faith, a more informed faith, and a scripture based faith.

As mentioned previously, George drew on many faith traditions to inspire him and his music.  In my own journey, I have also traveled many paths.  This has led me to believe that there is no one, true religion, the practice of which will gain you salvation.

Don’t get me wrong here, I am not saying that some religions do not bring you closer to the truth than others, and in this sense, all religions are definitely not equal.  Also, I am not saying that religion has no value; the right religion has tremendous value in that it does bring you closer to the truth.  Now, if we must have a one, true religion, that is it.

It has also helped me to understand that “The Church” is not a particular group or religion or faith tradition; it is the living body of the Word, composed of all who believe in that Word and have put their faith in Him, regardless of the religion, if any, that they may practice.

I personify the Word here because scripture itself does.  The idea of the living Word goes back to the very beginnings of time.  Didn’t G-d, with his Word, bring all things into existence?  In Genesis 15:1 Abram has a vision of the Word and the Word speaks to him saying, “Do not be afraid Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.”  Abraham believed in the Word and became the progenitor of nations and kings.

In fact, there are numerous places in scripture where the Word is seen as a person, speaking, and coming and going.  This idea of the living Word is one of the subjects that Michael S. Heiser documents in great detail in his book, The Unseen Realm, for those who would like to know more.

So if the simple practice of religion can’t “get you into heaven,” what can?  According to Judeo-Christian scripture itself, salvation comes by the grace of G-d, through faith in G-d and in His Word.  This is what I mean, then, when I say that there is no “true” religion.  Religion has been defined as man attempting to gain G-d’s good graces through works and the observance of rites and rituals and traditions.  The way of faith, on the other hand, is about what G-d did and does for us, not what we do for Him.

Well, what about my idealism?  I started off talking about how I thought the Beatles helped to restore the idealism of my generation.  If you look around at the current state of affairs in the world, one might think that the baby boomers have completely lost it.

I can’t speak for my entire generation, but only for me.  That idealism is still there and is as strong as ever, but it is different than the idealism of my youth.  It has been tempered by my faith and my experience.  By my faith because I understand that G-d is sovereign, and as scripture says, if G-d does not build a house, then the builders labor in vain.  To put it differently, if what we do is not in accordance with G-d’s will and plan, and is simply our own undertaking, it will in the end come to nothing good.

It has been tempered by my experience because  I have learned that if you want to change the world, it has to start with your own heart and head, and this is only something G-d can do.  It then continues to your family, your home, and your own backyard; to your friends, your community and your job.  My point, I’m sure, is obvious: If you want to change the world, you have the best chance of doing that in the world immediately around you.

This reminds me of the lyrics to another Beatles song, Revolution:

“You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead.”

 

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Faith, and What’s Important

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 NIV

When I was a child, I believed in G-d with a very real,  but innocent and naive, faith.   As I grew older, this faith was challenged, and frankly, it did not hold up very well.  One of the problems was my curious nature.

I was always asking questions, and my favorite was, “Why?”  Whenever I asked, “Why?”, and did not get a satisfactory answer, I would have trouble moving past whatever it was I was questioning until I did get an answer.  Over time I became the type of person that would dig and dig for answers to questions that were important to me, and just about all of them were, until I got a satisfactory answer, and I could then move on.

This trait led to a crisis of cynicism at a fairly young age, one that I still experience to some degree to this day.  At a point early on I began asking questions like “Why are we here?”, and “What is the point of everything?”, and I did not get any satisfactory answers to them.

As time went on, and still not getting the answers my obsessive nature demanded, I started questioning my faith.  The more I questioned my faith, the more cynical I became, the more cynical I became, the more I questioned my faith.  I entered a downward spiral, spiritually and emotionally, that seemed to have no end.

Eventually, after considerable fruitless searching and despair I decided that I needed to move on with my life.  Why I decided to move on I will explain below, but I began making decisions, and acting as though what I did had some meaning and purpose, even though in my heart I carried a great sense of futility.   My life went on like this for quite a few years.

Just about everyone has asked themselves similar questions, and have arrived at their own answers, or not.  But, whether one finds an answer or not, this search for meaning, and the results of this search, as filtered through our individual personality types, upbringing, and beliefs, are what drives and motivates us to think and do much of what we think and do.  The answers, or lack thereof, define us.

While the details of the answers that people arrive at to these questions are as varied and different as the people themselves, I believe that the answers fall into a number of broad categories.  There are those who will come to the conclusion that there is no ultimate purpose; those who come to believe that there is a purpose, but just don’t know what that purpose is; and those who attempt to define their own purpose.  There is a fourth category, which I’m saving, for the time being.

Those who fall into the first category, that there is no ultimate purpose, tend to become nihilistic and self-indulgent.  They lack any real belief in anything, and live only to “experience”.  One could say that experience is their purpose.  Existentialists fall into this category, and this was the direction I was heading except for one thing: this answer was simply unacceptable to me.

Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, or maybe it was because I saw purpose in everything around me, except myself, but I just could not accept the idea that there was no purpose except to simply exist for a time and then just slip off into oblivion.  True, the purpose of the things around me were man-centric, and it was man’s purpose I was questioning, but the simple fact that I could even conceive of the thing,  purpose, told me that it existed.

This led me to the idea that there was purpose, I just didn’t know what it was.  This also led me to my decision to live my life as if it had purpose, while continuing to search for that purpose.  The  fact that I was going to live my life anyway, whether I found an answer or not, and that in order to do so I needed food, shelter, companionship, all those things that make up a life, was also highly motivational in my decision to move on.

This leads us to the third option, which is to simply make up a purpose in an otherwise meaningless universe.  One could say that this is what I did, making my purpose to be discovering my purpose, but that would not be correct, since I did not believe that the universe was otherwise meaningless.

The person who adopts the third option accepts the fact the universe is meaningless and without purpose, but are still dissatisfied with the answer, and so provide their own meaning by doing such things as adopting causes, devoting themselves to particular subjects, or particular people or groups, or even simply to themselves.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that everyone who takes up a cause believes life is meaningless, and are simply inventing their own purpose.  On the contrary, I would say that most probably believe that, in fact, the activity or cause they are engaged in, is their purpose.  Since those in category two often, in their search for meaning, engage in similar behaviors as those in category three, it is worth dwelling on this a little more with an example of what is a true category three person.

I once read something about Karl Marx, how, while he was pursuing his socialist utopia, his family lived in abject poverty.  A quick Wikipedia check revealed that Marx had seven children with his wife, but only three lived to adulthood, due at least in part to the extreme poverty they lived in.  One might assume that this is what motivated Marx to write as he did, that he saw the poverty around him, the unfairness of it all, and decided he was going to change things.  The problem with this theory is that Marx himself was the product of a well-to-do middle class upbringing, and his own family’s poverty was not the inspiration for his single-minded pursuit of socialism, but was actually caused by it!

And what of Marx’s legacy?  Surely the deprivation that he and his family endured was somehow worth it, right?  Surely, he left the world a better place, more just, more humane, right?  Well, not exactly.  It is said that when Stalin collectivized the Ukraine, up to 7.5  million people starved to death.  In Communist China, in the late fifties and early sixties, tens of millions of chinese starved to death, as a direct result of the Communist government’s policies.

It is fitting to observe that if Marx had simply minded the wisdom of Solomon, quoted above in Ecclesiastes, the world, and his family, would have been much better off.  Of course, that he was an atheist, made this extremely unlikely.

One thing to note here is the difference between someone devoted to a cause out of love, passion, and a calling; and someone devoted to simply achieving meaning for their own otherwise meaningless existence.  People dedicated out of love, while often extremely self-sacrificing, do not force sacrifice for their cause on others.  They may ask for it, but they never force it.  People motivated by their fear of nothingness and anonymity, while sometimes willing to make their own sacrifices, often are willing to inflict pain and suffering on large numbers of people, for the achievement of their goals.

 This brings us to the fourth category, and that is the answer that provides the true meaning and purpose of our existence.  Different people will come to different conclusions as to what that is.  My conclusions are best illustrated by the story about Jesus, when he was asked, “What is the greatest commandment”?  It is worth relating the entire story, from Mark.

“And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all?  And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:  And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.  And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.  And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he:  And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.  And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question.”  (Mark 12:28-34 KJV)

It should be noted that Jesus was quoting from the Hebrew scriptures, the books of Deuteronomy (6:4-5, known to Jews as the Sh’ma Yisrael, or simply Sh’ma ) and Leviticus (19:18) when he answered.

 The meaning and purpose of our lives then, is to love.  Love G-d, love each other.  I am not talking about love as a noun, as a feeling, but love as a verb, as action.  Love as positive, creative action.  We have been created in the image and likeness of G-d, and we are told that “G-d is Love” (1 John 4:8, 1 John 4:16).  Aren’t we then meant for love?

Of course, when you truly love someone, there is work involved.  We want to please the object of our love, and have that love returned to us.  How often have the words “I love you, I will do anything for you” been uttered, in one form or another?  Countless.  But, what would those words mean without action behind them? Men and women, for example, in a loving relationship, work hard for one another and their children.  Why?  Because that is what love is and that is what love does.  The words, without action behind them, without sacrifice and the willingness to do so, are completely devoid of meaning.

So, what is important?  Well, love is important, but more than that, loving relationships are important.  Love requires relationships to be fully expressed, and many say that this is why G-d created us, in His image and likeness.  It was so that He could share His boundless love with more beings like Himself.  I would go so far as to say that love is not really possible without relationships to express that love, and that therefore, it is our relationships that ultimately give meaning and purpose to our lives.

First, our relationship to G-d is most important, because He is the source of all love, without whom love of others is not possible.  Whatever love we have, we get from Him.  Our life’s meaning and purpose is derived from Him and defined by Him, by our loving relationship with Him.

Second, our relationship with others is important.  Why?  Because, we return G-d’s love for us to Him by serving others.  We serve Him by serving others, because, let’s face it, what does G-d really need?  He’s G-d!  This service takes many forms, and differs depending on the one with whom we have the relationship.

We serve our spouse differently than we serve our children, and differently than we serve our employer.  We serve our friends differently than we serve the homeless stranger on the street begging for money.  But all of these relationships should have one thing in common, and that is love.  Love should be the motivating force for everything we think, say, and do.  Are we there yet?  Well, I can only speak for myself, and the answer is no, I’m not there yet and I have a long way to go.

At this point you might be wondering “Well, where does faith come in?”.  After all, the title of the post is “Faith, and What’s Important”.

In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul goes into a lengthy discourse on love.  I am not going to repeat it here, but it is very well-known in the Christian faiths, and if you haven’t read it, it is well worth the time.  Paul ends these passages with the famous line “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”.  (1 Corinthians 13:13)

I believe that Paul ordered “faith, hope, and love” in the sequence he did, because he was implying that the former required the latter, so that without faith, one could have no hope, and without hope, one could have no love.  While love is greater than hope, and hope is greater than faith, neither one of them could exist without faith.

This is illustrated by my own example.  If I didn’t have the simple faith that there had to be more to life, I would not have had the hope to move on, without the hope to move on, I would not have been able to find the love to establish the constructive relationships I needed to move on, and do the hard work necessary to maintain those relationships.

This idea of our meaning and purpose being an extension of our loving relationships with G-d and with others was illustrated to me in a profound way with the passing of my mother.  She was a person who loved life, loved a party, and loved  G-d and her family and was completely devoted to them.

I could go on at length about the trials in her life, the good times, and the bad, and how she responded to these things, but I think it is sufficient to say that all I knew of her was love, and the sacrifices she made for her husband, her children, and others, out of that love.

The meaning and purpose of her life became evident at her funeral service, in those who arrived to show their respects.  My family was wondering who would show up, after all, she was 90 years old.  I mentioned that she had a very active life well into her senior years, and had touched many people, but even I was a little surprised at some of those who were there.

The immediate and extended family were there, of course.  And there were others whom she had known in recent years, this was to be expected.  But there were others, such as the former co-worker, who hadn’t seen my mother since she retired over twenty-five years prior.  There was the friend who had gotten out of touch because of her own health issues, who just “had to come”, being pushed in a wheelchair.

There was the childhood friend of my brother and I, neither of us had seen in forty years, who remembered how welcoming my mother was to all of our friends when we were children.  And there was the son of one of my mothers childhood friends, who herself had recently passed, who came to express his sympathy, on behalf of himself and his family.  There were numerous others, family and friends, all whose lives had been touched for the better by knowing Mom.

My mother had few possessions, when she passed, and little money.  Her memories had long faded.  She hadn’t championed any great causes, unless you count being a lifelong Democrat, of which she was very proud.  But what she did leave behind was the lives she had impacted, the loving relationships she had established.  It didn’t matter that many of these people hadn’t been seen in years, relationships grounded in love do not require constant contact to be maintained; once established, they last forever.

In the end, our lives are defined and given meaning by others and our relationships with them, first with G-d, and then with all those we encounter on our journey.  When all else is gone, there remains only love, and there is nothing else.  This, then, is the meaning and purpose of or lives, to be loved and to love.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZwgybGTZ14 (from Moulin Rouge)