Living on purpose in 2011

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Look for what God is doing in this world he loves

by Jan Johnson

I was excited as I drove to the home of an intelligent, much-admired woman who offered deep insights at distinguished speaking engagements. But when I saw that her lawn needed mowing and yard was untidy, I was taken aback. I’d expected better than this. Would I want to live next door? How would her unmanicured yard affect my property values?

A few minutes later, our conversation zinged with tales of how God was working: her passion for helping women overseas; the mysteries of loving and letting go in family life; an outreach project in her community. This was someone who sought first God’s kingdom and righteousness. I wondered how many people would have gone unhelped if she’d spent more time on her lawn. I would probably love living next door to her.

It is not uncommon at the start of a new year to admit to ourselves that we are not satisfied with life as we know it. We have hectic days when we wonder, “Would the disciples have run their lives with daily planners in loose-leaf notebooks?” Or perhaps we find ourselves in more life-defining moments, sitting in places such as hospital waiting rooms and wondering, “Has my life counted for anything? Have I made a difference to anyone?”

Purpose in life gets muddied when we assume, as I have done, that “what God is doing” is whatever somebody asks me to do, especially if that somebody is a leader. But the cauldron of burnout and the wasteland of busyness have driven me to have ongoing conversations with God to find out what God is doing in me and in this world God so loves. Here are some snatches of that conversation.

God at work on earth Old Testament events and gospel encounters make it clear that if the Trinity had a business card, it would read: redemption, reconciliation, mercy and justice. God pulled nations and people back from their slide into sin and despair (redemption), reconciling them to each other, to themselves, and with God. Jesus chided the religious elites for being busy being good (tithing even from their spice racks), but forgetting justice and mercy (Luke 11:42). But how can I fault them? Even thinking redemptively is a challenge! The first time I was asked to think redemptively, it confused me. I was writing an article on teens and violence for parents, and the editor instructed me: “Don’t tell parents how to protect their kids from violent situations at school. Speak to the topic redemptively."

“How?” I prodded.

“Find teens who have turned around a violent person or situation,” she said.

Would I want my teenagers to act as peacemakers? To be anything but safe? I found someone else’s teen who had behaved redemptively by speaking peace during a racial disturbance and began praying for the strength to want to behave redemptively rather than choosing the softer, easier path in life.

 

Seeking purposes within God’s work

So I began asking God, “What redemptive things am I called to do? What breaks my heart that breaks your heart? What issues of redemption, reconciliation, love and justice draw me?”

Through this ongoing conversation, I saw several things that broke my heart and became my purposes in life. One of them was defending and encouraging the oppressed (Ps. 82:3). Something enormous happens inside me when I meditate on stories of Jesus interacting with have-nots. I love how Jesus traveled across the lake to Gentile territory (unwise for a Jewish teacher) to interact with a man full of demons who called themselves, “Legion.” With great courage and tenderness, Jesus showed justice and mercy to this naked, screaming graveyard-dweller who mutilated himself (Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39).

One way I encourage and defend the oppressed is to volunteer at a drop-in center for the homeless. I’ve never encountered anyone like the dear man Jesus ministered to, but I keep nudging Mike and Jim and Paula back from their slide into sin and despair as I offer a smile, a clean towel and a listening ear.

God keeps leading as we listen. When a mentally-impaired woman asked me to help her fill out forms to get custody of her baby, it seemed unmerciful to tell her that it might be unwise for her to care for her own child. So out of mercy, I helped her spell her words correctly. But out of justice for the baby, I prayed the child would find a home in a loving family. These moments of working within my purposes in life are not easy, but they are when I am most alive.

 

Listening to God instead of living by lists

While I still love “to do” lists and numbered priorities, they no longer rule my choices. Repeated reading of the gospels shows us that Jesus didn’t live from lists of things to do but from thoughts of people to love. And those people often interrupted him. One time, Jesus was hanging out with a friend, Peter, after an intensive round of synagogue teaching. But after he healed Peter’s mother-in-law, his day with a friend was interrupted: the whole town showed up at the door to be healed. So Jesus met those people’s needs (Luke 4:31-44).

Many times, our purposes in life are fulfilled in moments etched only in God’s Daytimer.

So I plan my day and make lists, but I also “listen to God.” As I spend time with God in silence and solitude—and eschew busyness, hurry, clutter and perfectionism—God prods, nudges and urges us to love the person we’ve overlooked, making suggestions more practical than anything we’d find in a self-help book.

 

Letting go of all that distracts

Although the kingdom of God is within me (Luke 17:21), the American dream sidetracks me: making a “decent” living (although I’m rich by global standards), raising “decent” kids (who need every advantage middle-class America offers), and living in a “decent” neighborhood (no overgrown yards).

To live by kingdom purposes in 2011 and beyond, we have to stay tough. Jesus never made decisions the way we do: take the job that pays more; do service that fulfills you; seize the opportunity that will enhance your reputation. Instead, Jesus keeps asking: “In what redemptive way have I loved you that you need to pass on?”

Of course, God’s nudging terrifies us sometimes, so we converse more. We take a deep breath and step out into a truly Jesus-permeated moment and wonder why we ever hesitated. Why are we surprised that life with God in that invisible kingdom is so engaging?

 

Jan Johnson is a speaker and author of 14 books. This article is adapted from her book, Living a Purpose-Full Life (Waterbrook Press, 1999). For more information, check her website: www.janjohnson.org.

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