In the film G.I. Jane, Demi Moore (trying to become a Navy SEAL) is asked by a (female) Navy doctor, “Why are you doing this?”
Demi replies, “Do you ask the men the same thing?”
“What do they say?”
The doctor tells her, “They like to blow up shit.”
“There you have it, then,” Demi concludes.
She wanted to be equal to any other SEAL.
Similarly, this week there is the news that two women have passed the grueling training to qualify as Army Rangers. Why did they do it?
Admittedly, the question as to why women would want to become Army elite betrays chauvinism: It’s for men. Why do women want to do this?
That viewpoint may have been valid for centuries, summoning on patriarchal practice and thinking in our society. But there have been adjustments to the American dream. More people are participating — not just men who are minorities (including gays) but women. The growth in our nation’s consciousness can be seen in a Marine recruiting poster that I saw in a hallway of a high school. It showed a woman in military fatigues teaching karate at a boot camp. The caption read, “There are no female Marines. There are only Marines.”
Okay — I get all of that — but I still want to know, “Why did these two women want to become Rangers?”
I could just cite the Army commercial and leave it at that: “Be all you can be.”
But there must be something more — something deeper. These two women aren’t going to be Rangers all of their lives. So where does it fit in — this ambition to become one? How does accomplishing something like joining our military elite fit into the bigger picture of their lives?
In other words, we are getting to the basic, foundational, existential question: What is their goal in life? We are they (we) alive? What is their (our) purpose?
I’m a minister, and so I tend to think theologically. There is a classic catechism answer for “Why are we alive?” It’s found in the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession, a document composed in the mid-1700s:
“What is the chief end of man?”
“The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”
As classic as that answer has been for centuries, today it sounds weak.
It’s weak not only for its non-inclusive language. (In those days, when the bearded theologians said “man”, they meant “man.” They weren’t thinking about women.) In addition, the answer is weak for its underlying reasoning. The statement is from the 1600s. Like much of religion in those days, this reason for “Why are we alive?” is based on fear of God.
The thinking was: We must focus on God in all that we do. Whatever we accomplish, we must give all credit to God. We must not think too well of ourselves, lest we lapse into Deadly Sins like pride (pride means we have decided to go it alone — who needs God?) and greed (ambition can be a type of greed, wanting more & more for yourself).
I hear versions of this fear of God all the time these days. People refuse to take any credit for anything that they have accomplished. They deflect all praise to God. Parents who are enjoying family life with their kids — “It’s all God’s doing.” A man who has success in business: “God has blessed me.”
In my many trips to the hospital, a minister will visit and will pray for me and will sum up the prayer by saying in a kind of negotiation that if I’m healed, “We’ll give You all the glory.”
There is fear behind this way of thinking. It is rooted historically in the ancient concept that the gods are jealous of our deeds. Thus, we must protect ourselves from them, lest we get big-headed. The gods can bring about our demise. In ancient Rome whenever a general was given a victory parade known as a “triumph,” he rode in a golden chariot with a slave standing behind him whispering in his ear the mantra, “Remember thou art mortal.” The movie Patton ends with George C. Scott narrating this practice. The film changed the mantra from the slave saying, “Remember thou art mortal” to something similar: “All fame is fleeting.”
The ancients feared fame. The Greeks called it hubris — getting ahead of the gods. The fear exists even today. People guard their words and demeanor, lest they seem to be getting big-headed. They always deflect praise to God. Even our purpose in life is focused on God: “Our purpose in life is to give glory to God.”
One time, I was watching The Simpsons. (No matter when I happen to tune in The Simpsons, no matter how randomly, there seems to be some theological matter being presented.) LIsa was baby-sitting the two little boys of the fundamentalist neighbors. They get out a board game — like Monopoly. Lisa looks around and says, “Where’s the dice?”
The boys reply, “We don’t use dice — dice are evil.”
They continue, “We just move one space at a time — it’s less fun that way.”
This is what happens when people believe their purpose in life is to give glory to God! Everything’s for God — nothing’s for me.
This thinking fits well with the ancient fear of the gods. But how does it fit with us today?
We are a lot freer today to think about God — without fearing that we’re going to get struck by lightning. Thankfully, many people have wrested themselves from the biblical (i.e., barbaric) mindset that if we make a false move, God’s going to get us. Many have grown with regard to their relationship with God. (Many haven’t.)
And so we dare ask questions. I mean, what kind of God acts like this? “Anything you people do, I want all of the credit. And don’t think you can do anything unless I walk you through it.”
It sounds like T-ball! Kids have to be taken by the hand and told, “It’s your turn to bat.”
It sounds psychotic! What kind of coach would want youngsters continually giving HIM all the credit for whatever they accomplish?
The best kind of coach, parent, teacher, advisor, etc., is one who desires to help, but ultimately wants their charges to fly! Whenever I was coaching kids’ baseball teams during my first pastorate in Wisconsin, I had as my goal, “I want each player to become like a coach.” That is, each player would gain the initiative to work hard (rather than having to be told), each player would pay attention to make smart plays (rather than the coach having to make stage whispers before each pitch), each player would take responsibility for one’s self to improve and to work well with others.
But what kind of God wants to be in such control of our lives that we are afraid to make decisions, afraid to step out and accomplish things, afraid to risk something new for the sake of growth, afraid to accept any compliments, and above all — afraid of abandonment should we NOT kowtow sufficiently?
In the 1500s, Michelangelo was given the assignment of sculpting a huge block of marble that had stood for years in Florence. Out of this mass of marble, Michelangelo brought out David.
In previous sculptures of the biblical figure David, artists portrayed him as a wimp. By emphasizing David’s smallness, they magnified the message that it was God Who enabled David to slay Goliath.
(We hear this view of life even in the children’s song Jesus loves me with the line, “We are weak, and He is strong.”) Michelangelo, however, was a scrappy fellow, even getting into a fistfight when he was a teenager that resulted in a permanently bent nose. He didn’t like the idea of David being a wimp. And so Michelangelo created the David that we know — in all of its gigantic size and strength and the steely look of determination.
Michelangelo’s desire to create a muscular David was in sync with the attitude of the entire city of Florence — where people wanted to be strong, they wanted to form their own republic — rather than being subjects of the domineering Pope Julius II.
Like a good Florentine, Michelangelo created a show of strength and confidence — a powerful David moving with resolve towards the taunting Goliath.
Who today has even seen or heard of the other sculpted Davids? The one by Michelangelo continues to inspire. It is over 14 feet tall (17 feet including the base). Strength, confidence…
This seems to me more in keeping with God’s goal for us. We are meant to be strong people. We are meant to live a complete life. “I have come to give you life — life in all its fullness.” (John 10:10)
But what is a full life? (Now we are zeroing in on the foundational question: Why am I alive? What is my purpose in life?)
A full life means: whatever I do, I want to experience the best and the deepest and the most meaningful thing that a human can experience. In short, in whatever I do, I want to experience the Spirit of God in my life. Because the working of the Spirit of God in a person’s life IS the best and the deepest and the most meaningful that a person can experience.
The Spirit of God has characteristics — beauty, excellence, kindness, revelation, inspiration…
Whenever we engage in an activity of the Spirit of God, we gain in our lives these experiences of beauty (like an opera singer working hard to get a role), excellence (like wanting to become Army elite), kindness (lifting up others rather than putting them down — a difficult one for teenagers who are so eager to elevate their own egos at the expense of others), inspiration (parents enjoying the delight in a child who awakens to learning), revelation…
Learning is a type of revelation. Things are being revealed to us — a new language that we have taken up, a novel from a great heart like Dickens or Steinbeck, an equation in algebra that solves a tricky problem…Learning is a way to experience revelation, a characteristic of the Spirit.
In short, what is our purpose in life? Our purpose is to experience God in whatever we do. It can be helping somebody get out of the morass of a deep debt. At my seminary, the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, every year around Christmas, a professor would go to the financial office and ask, “What student has a large debt?” The professor — anonymously — would pay that student’s debt!
If you think “salvation” is only about sins being forgiven, you haven’t had the relief of a heavy debt being lifted from you!
Another way to experience the Spirit of God is — perseverance. Because God perseveres in sticking by US. When we ourselves persevere, we participate in the workings of the Spirit. When Harry Truman was a young man, he owned a clothing store. The business failed during the Depression. Truman had to declare bankruptcy. It took 15 years, but he finally paid off all of the debt. THAT is perseverance. That must have felt good!
Our purpose in life is not to become a pharmacist vs. firefighter, a businessman vs. a teacher…Because we normally have a lot of living to do before and after achieving such a goal. Rather, our purpose is that whatever we do, however we conduct ourselves, we seek to experience the Spirit of God. We participate in perseverance, courage, beauty, revelation, inspiration, pursuit of excellence…These are qualities of the Spirit that we can feel in our own lives. And such an experience is the deepest and best and most meaningful thing in life .
I don’t mean to belittle personal goals like becoming a pharmacist or whatever. It’s just that there are two ways to advance: stabbing others in the back vs. pursuing by the ways of the Spirit (hard work, friendliness, learning, sharing…).
Fullness in life means seeking fullness in ALL areas of life — before, during and after going for a personal goal like becoming a plumber.
A full life isn’t so much about what we do. It’s HOW we live in whatever we do.
A full life isn’t about how many years we live. A full life is about the way we use our time.
Pete Seeger used to sing a song called Garbage. It was about how much of our lives we spend on garbage — not only foods but what we bring into our minds. “In the paper there’s a story about the Mayor’s middle, and he gets it read in time to watch the All-Star Bingo Game. We’re filling up our minds with garbage!”
One of the most frequent topics Jesus talks about is — opportunity. Make use of opportunity. We are finite beings. We don’t have all the time in the world. We are promised eternity, but we are not promised tomorrow. Make use of the time that we have to experience life to the fullest.
Jimmy Carter remarked at his press conference yesterday that once the cancer had gotten into his brain, he thought he had only a few weeks to live. Yet he said he was perfectly at peace. He commented that he knew he has lived a full life.
He has used his time well.
May we all.