I continue to work through Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World. In this book Taylor is looking at everyday experiences to show that they can become practices, which enhance our spiritual growth. The chapter I just read is entitled, “The Practice of Living with Purpose.” When I saw the title, I knew I would resonate with it. The theme of purpose has been an important one for me for a long time.
Taylor has a funny autobiographical story of her search for what God wanted her to do in life---for her that would become her purpose. Finally, she narrates, God spoke to her and gave her the one-line purpose for her life. What did God tell her to do? “God said, ‘Anything that pleases you.’” Well, that is clear, but it is pretty general!
As Taylor said, “At one level, that answer was no help at all. The ball was back in my court again, where God had left me all kinds of room to lob it wherever I wanted…Whatever I decided to do for a living, it was not what I did but how I did it that mattered.” I like her conclusion, because it matches my own experience. Taylor tells us, “If I wanted a life of meaning, then I was going to have to apply the purpose for myself.” In a way I think God can honor almost any avenue of work and life that brings the good, health and well-being.
Taylor then tells the story of a guy who works in a glass factory. His job was fairly non-descript. His work did not provide much interest; it was actually fairly unpleasant. But the guy was not unhappy. He was happy because his heart was in another place. He coached a soccer team in his little town. When work was finished, he would head to the soccer pitch, as they call the soccer field in England. As Taylor says, he “became an amateur soccer coach.” Then Taylor plays with the word, amateur.
Because I know Latin, I knew where she was going. Even though he was an amateur, that “did not mean that he was unskilled at coaching, although he was certainly unpaid. It meant that he loved what he was doing. Coaching was his amore, the thing that wedded his life to the players and the whole village for whom they played.” If you do not recognize that Latin word, it is part of the root word for “love.” An amateur is someone who does what he or she does because of the love of the thing. They are not professional only because they are not being paid.
Taylor ends the chapter by talking about what I would call a “general vocation” to which we are all called. This larger vocation is “the job of loving God and neighbor as myself.” She then elaborates. “Over the years I have come to think of this as the vocation of becoming fully human.” Once again, this is fairly simple, but it is not always easy. It sounds simple to say love God and also your neighbor. And doubtlessly, we fool ourselves that we really do love God. Because God is rather abstract, it is easy to assume I love God.
But the loving of neighbor is not always so easy. Of course, some of my neighbors are pretty easy. There actually are some lovable folks in my daily life. They make loving them easy. I look more like a pro and not an amateur when I love them. But then, there are others. I am tempted to think God has provided a few rascals in my life. “There you go,” says God, “try loving these rascals!” They may be grumpy. Often they seem way too demanding! I have a couple complainers in my circle. And then there is the one guy who is never happy regardless of how loving I am. That guy always wants more. That guy puts me back in love kindergarten every time!
It is with this cohort of people that my purpose becomes so clear. I wince because I know God is not going to be content with me loving only the easy ones. And God did advise that I love all my neighbors. On my bad days, I can’t see why loving most of my neighbors isn’t enough. If I can’t love all of them, then I need practice. I need to work on the amore---the love---that makes me a really good amateur lover.
As I write all of this and experience the temptation to whimper a bit about how hard it is, I suddenly realize I, too, am a neighbor. I am also the neighbor whom all my Christian and religious friends are called to love. I am their test. Perhaps on my bad days, I am one of the rascals. It never occurs to me, but I am the arena in which some folks are working out their purpose. If I am unlovable, then I am like that job that is hated and which never provides purpose or meaning.
I appreciate the clarity of Taylor’s discussion of living with purpose. It is not that complicated. The good news is she unhooks living with purpose from our job. Too many folks think it has to be connected with job or work. But that would discount kids, older people and the sick. If purpose is tied up with work, then they are out of luck---or condemned to life without purpose.
Taylor’s word and now my word are: if you can love, you can have purpose. Simply love God. And equally, love neighbor. If you can do that, then keep doing it. You have found living with a purpose.