August 23, 2015

People of Purpose


Text: Ephesians 5:15: “ Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise...”

About a month ago the newspapers in England carried a story about a new research project being launched among schoolchildren in the UK. It’s not about a new curriculum; it’s not about a change in the offerings in the school cafeteria. It’s not even about math scores or achievement tests.

Instead, it’s about a study being funded by one of the largest and best-known charitable foundations in England, the Wellcome Trust. You might recognize that name; Mr. Wellcome made his money on pharmaceuticals, and so not surprisingly the foundation he endowed gives its money to research efforts focused on health and well being. Our equivalent here might be the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

It turns out that the Wellcome Trust has made a gift of just a little shy of ten million dollars to conduct a randomized control study on the effectiveness of teaching mindfulness meditation to middle-school and high-school students in the U.K. Three thousand, two hundred students between the ages of eleven and eighteen will be taught techniques of mindfulness meditation, and another three thousand, two hundred students will be put in a group that receives what are called “personal, health, and social education lessons.”

And six hundred more students will be given neurological testing before and after mindfulness training to see whether the training helps them their self-control and emotional regulation.

You probably know that mindfulness meditation is a kind of recent expression of meditation techniques that have been taught in the Buddhist community for thousands of years.   

Contemplatives in our own tradition, monks and nuns, are familiar with the same basic set of ideas, and indeed there is a long-standing tradition of conversation and exchange between nuns and monks of both Buddhist and Christian traditions.

Maybe that’s why I especially enjoyed one of the news items that appeared at the time this story broke in England, this particular one in the Guardian. The Guardian’s reporter quoted a teacher who has been thinking about what it will be like to teach a bunch of high-schoolers a meditation technique anchored in ancient Buddhism. Here’s what the reporter wrote:

One teacher involved in the project admitted it could be a challenge to sell mindfulness to young people. “It is not especially cool,” said Paula Kearney, a geography teacher at the UCL academy in north London who has trained her pupils in mindfulness. “I have had a lot of ‘Miss, I’m not going to do this, this is ridiculous’.”

I suppose what makes me happy in this is the thought that our Buddhist brothers and sisters have a tradition that is at least as uncool among teenagers as teaching the Christian tradition of prayer to our own youth...

But I digress. There is a reason why the Buddhist sages taught their followers meditation, just the same way there is a reason why our own ancestors in the faith taught us that the very center of our relationship with God must be, not in laws or in acts or in study, but in prayer.

Our prayer is more than just our conversation with God. It is much more than just the words we say together as a community when we gather in worship on Sunday morning.

Our life of prayer is how we find and follow our purpose in life. It is how God brings us to a place separated from our self-interests, our ambitions, our desires, our self-delusions, and allows us a glimpse of our life from a higher perspective and a larger view.

Christians are meant to be people of purpose. We are not meant to be people who merely sit in satisfaction at what God has done for us. We are meant to be people who respond to God’s gift to us by acting as God’s agents in the world. And our actions are meant to be guided by, and aligned with, God’s purposes in the world.

There are virtually no limits on the ways in which we can waste time. Whole industries are built catering to our ability, willingness, and even eagerness to waste the precious time of this life that we are given.

Of course it’s not that we must always be at work, always at the grindstone, always be “on.” We need down time; we need our sabbath. If we’re going to go by the suggestion of scripture, we should be off about one seventh of the time.

Now you will say to me—I never get any time off. I’m always working. If it isn’t the job, it’s taking care of my family, or looking after my kids, or doing my homework, or getting ready for a class, or running errands for the church, or, well, you know what’s on your list.

And I don’t doubt that all that is true. I have a life like that as well. But if I sat down and examined everything I do, every choice I make about how to spend my time, every moment I waste chasing another curiosity down the rabbit-hole of Wikipedia—well, it would be hard to mistake me as a person of Christian purpose.

Paul is teaching that little church in Ephesus a lesson about the preciousness of time. He’s telling them that what it means to be a Christian is to be person distinguished by a kind of seriousness of purpose. It’s to be a person who really thinks twice about all of the temptations around us to misuse the time and the energy we have, gifts we’re supposed to be using responding to God’s gifts to us.

That doesn’t mean we’re supposed to be joyless; in fact there is deep joy in the life God gives us to lead. And it doesn’t mean we’re supposed to be serious all the time, or without the capacity for laughter and lightness.

But it does mean that we are meant to have a purpose; and that purpose is meant to be the measure of everything we do, as individuals and as a community. Our lives of prayer are the means by which we discern that purpose, each one of us, and our whole community as well—and then have a standard by which to ask ourselves, at the close of each day, whether the choices we have made and the time we have spent helped or hindered the purpose we’re meant to serve.  Amen.