Reflections on Meaning, Philemon and Turning 50

Okay, I am turning 50 in about a month. Half century. Statistically speaking, I should be well beyond the half-way point in my life. At least I hope so. I worked awfully hard for 50 years. It would be rather depressing to think that I am not even half- done yet.

It kind of gets me to pause and reflect. I never really had a “Mid-life Crisis,”… unless one counts quitting my job at age 38, selling our house, and moving with my family to the other side of the world to embrace the unknown in missions work. But 50 seems like a good time to think things through. If I break up my life into 25 year segments:

0-24 Key word is “Growth.” Learning, doing stupid stuff, learning some more, and hoping that in so doing, I grow up.

25-49. Key word is “Success.” Trying to succeed in vocation, trying to succeed in family life, trying to succeed in education, and trying to succeed in ministry.

I don’t think I completely met my goal with my first “quadranscentennial “ I haven’t really met EITHER goal with my second quadranscentennial, either. But life is too messy to package up so neatly. Nevertheless, I think I do have a key word for the next 25 years.

50-74. Key word is “Meaning.”

So, what do I mean with “meaning.” At one time I would have chosen the word “legacy.” However, legacy is a “success” term, and that was for the middle of my life, not now. Meaning for me is to live a life that has relevance beyond my own personal goals and own personal ambitions. There is a bit of transcendance in this concept. Arguably, the term “meaning” implies that there is an Ultimate Reality beyond ourselves, beyond the reality that we perceive around us.

I would like to apply this idea for meaning to two important aspects of my life: Paperwork and People.

I am NOT a people person. For those who know me, that is no surprise. My Taylor Johson test basically said that I am a “jerk.” Oh… not in so many words. But much of my plot was opposite of what the TJ said was normative and “healthy.” For years, that was okay with me. As an officer in the Navy, that wasn’t a problem. An awfully lot of people in the Navy are sociologically maladjusted. Then I worked as a mechanical design engineer for a major defense contractor. I did not need a lot of social skills for that either.Most of the time, I could sit in my semi-cubicle at my computer terminal doing AutoCAD with headphones on listening to Old Time Radio programs (never been much for listening to music). Every 90 minutes or so, I would stand up, rub my eyes, and wander into the land of humans. There I would route paperwork, check on manufacturing, or inspection, or testing, or more paperwork. I may not be so good with people, but I am pretty good, generally, with paperwork.

And that kind of worked for me. Strangely, perhaps in an act of divine humor, I went into Christian missions. I brought the same skills of my first 25 years and half of the second 25 to missions. To some extent that wasn’t a problem at first. I started out in a seminary environment overseas, and I am good in school. Then I became a cofounder of a medical mission NGO. Later, cofounded two other NGOs, and got my Doctor of Theology. None of this has panned out to “monetary success” but it still looks half decent on a resume’.

But in recent years, I have come to a rather startling (for me at least) conclusion. I realized that much of the most important memories for me are ones involving the people who I have deeply impacted (in a positive way I hope) and those who have likewise impacted me. Go figure… So for me, the attempt to find meaning in my next 25 years will be in seeking to develop relationships that have positive impact, that edify, that are sources of joy, pride, frustration, hope, and Christian love.

It could be argued that meaning is built on God, and God alone. I fully agree with the first part of that. Meaning is grounded on God. But God alone? God has made us both social beings and finite beings. The finiteness drives the necessity to interact socially. But tied to that is an innate need to connect with others… be it family, church, friends, coworkers, or others. So when I speak of meaning, I am not negating God, but seeing what areas in the life God has made me still lack adequate meaning.

I don’t feel alone in this. Read the later writings of St. Paul. The letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon are very relational. It is like the fire to preach and churchplant had settled down, and Paul was focused on encouraging others and being encouraged by others. Especially read Philemon. The book tends to be ignored, except for those interested in slavery. But read it as a letter in terms of relationships. I don’t always like Paul. I mean, he was great man of faith, and a missionary. He was only surpassed in New Testament writing by St. Luke. But sometimes Paul comes off as a bit too driven by task. We see this with his fighting with Barnabbas over John Mark, and his insulting Peter over who he chose to eat with. But by the time, Paul wrote Philemon, there seems to be a change. Relationships now are more key than getting the task done.

So does this mean I have to become who I am not? In some ways “yes.” That is, I need to become who I am meant to become. That will mean actively trying to build relationships over building projects and programs. But I can also leverage who I presently am in this as well. I may be a paperwork person… but that is not all bad. People need encouragement in both writing and in words. Students need a professor who takes the time to read what they write, and take a personal interest to develop the talents that God has given them. They need acknowledgement. They need structures and support to help them achieve their dreams. Paperwork is not a substitute for dealing with people, but paper (both the plant-based, and electronic kind) can build, and impact, relationships.

Just like Paul did in his letter to Philemon.

Christianity: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Meaning”

Deutsch: Viktor Frankl
Deutsch: Viktor Frankl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 The Atlantic Monthly has a great article, “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.” The article is AVAILABLE HERE.

It points out what has been known for a long time (including Victor Frankl‘s observations from his time in a WWII Concentration Camp, as described in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning“), People find more life satisfaction in living a meaningful life than in living a happy life.

This makes sense to me. I am melancholic by temperament. I am basically satisfied with life but I certainly would not describe myself as a “happy’ person, or a ‘joyful” person (“joy” is essentially the word that Christians like to use instead of “happy” because it sounds more spiritual), or a “victorious living” person. I find meaning in my life. I feel that in some small (perhaps very small) way, I am fulfilling my purpose and am making the world a better place.

Many parents say, “All I want for my children is that they be happy.” But let me suggest something better. “All I want for my children is that they find meaning in their life, and understand their place in God’s creation.

Drugs, sex, crime, violence… many things can make a person happy. Almost anything today seems to be justified with the basic statement, “But it makes me happy.”

Is it better to have meaning? Is it better to have purpose? Quoting a brief bit from the article,

According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high — as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word “happiness” in their titles. At this writing, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy, without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.”

Perhaps we need to change our own goals. Perhaps we need to change how we parent. Perhaps we need to change how we do ministry?

Many in ministry try to market a ‘happy” Christianity. Church services are relabelled as “Celebrations.” Focus is often on Victory and Prosperity. Perhaps Rick Warren has a point with the “Purpose-Driven Life” and the “Purpose-Driven Church.” But maybe we need to work more on helping people find their purpose… that might be different from others. Maybe “abundant life” has more to do with life satisfaction and purpose than it does with being happy.

So maybe in ministry we can adjust a famous quote from  the American Declaration of Independence:

  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (mankind) are created equal (by God and before God), that they are endowed by their Creator (Designer) with certain inalienable (God-given) rights, that among these are (eternal and abundant) life, liberty (in Christ) and the pursuit of happiness their unique meaning and purpose.