12 Thoughts on Living with Purpose
Adapted by Kate Huey from Chapter 7 of Barbara Brown Taylor's book,
An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
Like Martin Luther, Barbara Brown Taylor sees our everyday "job" as part of the grand scheme of God’s intention for our lives: "Whatever our jobs in the world happen to be, Luther said, our mutual vocation is to love God and neighbor."
Your everyday work, no matter what it involves, offers "ample opportunity to choose kindness over meanness…"
"…to engage someone whose fears, wants, loves, and needs [are] at least as important as my own."
Even though "many people work at jobs that are too small for them," Taylor writes, "most people want to be good for something.…"
"…to do something that matters, to be part of something bigger than themselves."
Taylor describes the Indian teaching about "karma yoga – literally, the work path to God."
"Mother Teresa walked it when she knelt by the bathtub in her hospice to wash someone fresh off the streets of Calcutta . . . . There was a sign over the bathtub that said, 'This is my body.'"
Taylor observes that if we "do useful work unselfishly, menial tasks can work even better than exalted ones" as a spiritual practice.
"It is possible to stack cans of beans on a grocery store shelf with the consciousness of a spiritual master."
Taylor says that in our work, "Every human interaction offers you the chance to make things better or to make things worse."
However, there’s a price to be paid: "To decide to make things better can cost you bundles of self-interest. To decide to make things worse generally feels a lot more powerful."
Use power carefully, because "power rolls away from you like a rogue wave, as the person you slammed into finds someone else to slam into, and so on, and so on."
"The good news is that you can set off the same sort of chain reaction with unwarranted kindness. Kindness is not a bad religion, no matter what name you use for God."
Even if you think you work alone, your work connects you to others—whether you’re writing in your office, or watching over an empty building at night, or cleaning the school while the children and teachers sleep.
"Any worker with a good imagination should be able to come up with hundreds of people whom his or her work affects."
Your "true work," the work that feeds your heart, may be that other work you aren’t paid to do: the word "amateur," after all, is related to "amore," to love.
"In the midst of lives driven largely by compulsion, the choice to take on more work simply because we love doing it is an act of liberation."
"The vocation of becoming fully human" says Taylor, is "learning to turn [your] gratitude for being alive into some concrete common good."
How? By "growing gentler toward human weakness" and "practicing forgiveness of my and everyone else’s hourly failures to live up to divine standards."
Because our faith is incarnational, we are to understand "the human condition as blessing and not curse, in all its achingly frail and redemptive reality."
That's what Jesus did: "When people wanted him to tell them what God's realm was like, he told them stories about their own lives. When people wanted him to tell them God's truth about something, he asked them what they thought."
But Jesus didn’t stop there; he taught us what to do to live a life of purpose: "Wash feet. Give your stuff away. Share your food. Favor reprobates. Pray for those who are out to get you. Be the first to say, 'I'm sorry.'"
For followers of Jesus, this "being fully human became a full-time job."
Ironically, trying to figure out "God’s purpose" for our lives can distract us from the very work before us, which offers its own possibilities for goodness.
"Press beyond being good to being good for something in a world with the perfect job for someone like you."