On being Protestant and thinking about the Sacraments (Part 1)

A Note from the Editor: This is the first in a three-part series on the Sacraments from a distinctly Protestant perspective. Today we’ll cover communion, tomorrow we’ll cover baptism, and Friday we’ll cover the possibility of the Church itself functioning as a Sacrament.

Recently I’ve had a few conversations about the Protestant sacraments, particularly why it’s important to celebrate them. On the one hand, we acknowledge that we partake in the sacraments because Jesus told us to. However, it is also commonly acknowledged that in many people’s understanding, the sacraments seem to do little for the Christian. Catholics and Lutherans seem to offer a more robust approach to the sacraments, but we disagree on transubstantiation and consubstantiation. Protestants are left with the definition that the elements of the Lord’s Supper are merely symbolic and we are supposed to reflect on Christ’s sacrifice when we partake in them. I did some research and realized that there is a lot of thought behind the sacraments that Protestant Christianity doesn’t necessarily focus on. In a three part series, I want to offer some posts working through my own thoughts on the issue. My aim in this and two subsequent posts is to think through a definition of the sacraments, then Baptism and Communion as sacraments, and finally, how participation in the Church body is sacramental, if it is not properly a sacrament itself.

As a place to begin, some definitions are necessary. The sacraments are a visible sign of an inward grace, instituted by Jesus Christ to symbolize or confer grace, and sacraments are participated in communally by Christians as a confirmation of their covenant relationship with the Godhead.

Crucial to a robust understanding of the sacraments is an examination of the words “sign” and “symbol.” A sign is “a superficial or natural reality but with a deeper and supernatural significance, accessible only by faith.”1 In the course of the service of communion, we receive a representation of the sacrificed body of Christ (given by God) to ourselves, and we (in faith) internalize and receive it by eating. Thus, the sacraments are a sign insofar as they are a thing we do outwardly to signify an inward spiritual reality, i.e., a grace that is given by God and received by us.

The term symbol has been somewhat more controversial, because it seems to imply that something is less than real. While there is a fair amount of overlap between signs and symbols, the distinction for symbol is primarily a result of the incarnation. When Christ entered into the world, he united the human and the divine, and this is an important element that the word symbol captures. Thus, baptism is not just a cleansing of the body (as it essentially was in Judaism), but in a real sense it represents the cleansing of the soul from sin through “death, burial and resurrection to new life.” Jesus’ incarnation and participation in baptism intermingles the elements of baptism with the grace imparted by God to believers. To conclude, the initial definition’s use of both sign and symbol is appropriate, because both aspects are very present in the definition. While not all signs may be a symbol, all symbols are signs, and this seems to fit both definitions squarely.

Understanding the phrase “confer grace” is another important component of properly grasping the sacraments. It’s my understanding that “conferral of grace” is the presentation of Christ which fulfills the attesting work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. This affirms the faith of believers and gives strength and mercy to their souls. While the sacraments do not give salvation, there is an understanding in the church that grace is somehow imparted through participation in the sacraments. John Calvin had this to say on the subject: “When we see the visible sign, we must rise aloft, and understand, that God accomplishes the thing in truth, which is signified unto us by the visible sacrament.”2 Thus, the action of the sacrament points us to the work done by God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and to recognize the grace that is imparted. I think it is fair to say that the sacraments, as a vehicle of recognition, impart grace, because the recognition and acceptance of grace is the manner by which the sacraments deeply affect the life of the believer.

There have been periods of time in the church when the sacraments were thought to confer grace regardless of the reception by the human participants. However, theological thought has since revised itself in most branches of the church, and now most churches believe that they confer grace only when the participant receives them in faith. Now, does the eating of bread and wine or the dunking of a person in water itself confer grace? No. But we believe that God is actually using the sacrament as a means of grace to the believer.

The manner of God’s use of sacrament in this manner is debated, but some scholars helpfully argue that when Christ became human, he redeemed everything associated with humanity: souls, bodies, and actions. The idea of the first two entities receiving redemption is one that most are comfortable with, so I will not address them. The main thrust of these scholars’ thought concerning actions is that because Christ did things while on the earth, when He died on the Cross, the specific actions that He participated in had the ability to confer grace. This brings up the potential for objection that all of daily life therefore has the ability to confer grace, as they are actions that Christ did. Perhaps, and I will address this later. The immediate answer, though, seems to be that Christ instituted the sacraments as specific actions that He participated in and then instituted for the Church to follow. However, explicitly stated in the definition is the phrase “instituted by Jesus Christ” and thus, most of daily life is eliminated.

One of the last elements of the definition also adeptly addresses the concern over the inclusion of the majority of Christian life: the participation in the sacraments as confirmation of their covenant with God through Christ. Regular affirmation of our covenant with God is necessary, because if there is anything that humanity is famous for, it is its corporate ability to forget. Israel’s inconsistent history with God is the most obvious example of this, and I think we can all probably add commentary from our own lives. Since we are a forgetful people, we need to be reminded of and reaffirm our covenant with God. By participating in a ceremony that regularly helps us recognize the grace given to us, we reaffirm the covenant that we participate in. While we may live our lives in such a way that reflects our covenant relationship with God, daily life is hardly a reaffirmation of our covenant relationship with him.

The final element of the definition that has not been addressed is the communal practice of the sacraments. It is important to note how believers participate in the sacraments. It is the person receiving the sign who is considered a participant in a sacrament, not the one administering the sacrament. I could be wrong, but it is my understanding that you can only receive communion or baptism from someone else, you cannot administer it to yourself. The aspect of reception is critical to understanding the sacraments: it suggests that we can do nothing to earn our salvation, it’s all grace, all received, all finished. Even in their administration, they remind us of and reinforce the conferral of grace.

In sum, the sacraments are both sign and symbol, received from a fellow believer, that confer grace in the life of the believer, confirming their covenant relationship with God and participating in the actions of Christ that bring about his redeeming grace. In my next post I consider this definition in relation to the Protestant sacraments of baptism and communion, how it helps correct my own misconceptions, and how this fuller definition of the sacraments really impacts one’s understanding of these two practices.

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1Fahey, Michael A. Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology: Sacraments. (Oxford, Oxford University Press. 2007),  271.

2Calvin, John. Sermons on Deuteronomy (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth. 1987), 1081.

The Forgotten Gift of the Dove Real Beauty Video

You’ve probably seen the Dove Real Beauty Sketches Youtube video. Last week, it generated a lot of responses, from the informative to the satirical, both pro and con. Surprisingly, no one I read mentioned the feature of the video toward which I gravitated most strongly.

While everyone else watched the women, I watched the strangers. I watched the people who had just met a woman and were being asked to describe her features. If you watch them, they simply beam when they give examples of her beauty. The chance to say something good about another person draws joy into their hearts. They enjoy finding and identifying loveliness in the features of others’ faces. It delights them.

That generosity, that impulse to respond to the good in others, intrigued me.

This video shows a subtle surprise: strangers eager to build up, not to tear down. Ours is an individualistic culture. Because of this, we tend to view the unproven people around us as competitors, not helpers. An immoderate sense of independence can make us see someone’s proffered help as a declaration that they perceive us as weak.

However, this assumption creates community disconnections: an immoderate sense of independence can inhibit other people’s ability to be Christ to us. It presumes that the dance of the Christian life is a solo act, instead of recognizing that there are moments when another dancer must support us as we dip. Back around Christmas, I heard many exhortations that giving is better than receiving. It’s true, and I don’t want to contradict it. But, perhaps Easter provides a chance to reflect that I can’t always be the giver. Receiving is its own art: it is an act of humility and moderation that comes too easily to some and only with great struggle to others.

There is a natural give and take to generosity. To act as though I’ll always be the giver is to pretend to be God, just as much as to act as though I’ll always be the receiver is to give up on the restoration of the image of God in me.

Accepting gifts blesses the giver, by letting them be like Christ to us. A few weeks ago, I walked by one of Nashville’s homeless newspaper vendors. I didn’t have any money on me, so I smiled and wished him a good day as I passed, wishing inwardly I had some something for him. He returned the greeting as I went. Then, he called after me, “Ma’am! Ma’am!” I turned around to see him holding out one of his papers toward me. Sadly, I stuttered that I didn’t have any cash on me. He smiled a toothy, beautiful smile and said, “Take it. I want you to have it. On me.”

I almost didn’t. But, the joy on his face—exactly like the joy on the faces of the strangers in the Dove Real Beauty Sketches—made it evident that I would be selfish to keep him from the opportunity. Who was I to pretend that this man didn’t have anything worth giving me? I thanked him and took the paper.

He had the chance to give to someone totally undeserving. It was my role at that moment to be the undeserving one. It was his role to be Christ to someone.

A Rewording

“I like Christ, it’s Christians I can’t stand.”

This cliché has bounced around for years. Various forms can be heard in casual conversation and heated debates, in parishes and on bar stools. The accepted rumor is that it was initially said by Gandhi, which is understandable given 100-some years of occupation by a “Christian” Great Britain, accompanied by unjust rule, perpetuation of vicious racism and woeful events such as the Salt March. Now, it is bounced around by atheists, Christians, Buddhists, and everyone who has had an unpleasant experience with the church per se.

There is indeed an unfortunate truth behind the phrase: Christians are often not the most effective ambassadors of a risen Christ. Christian men and women slip and fall along the straight and narrow path, and as a result, we get the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and folks like the Westboro Baptists. Indeed, Christ is a wonderful person—His human representatives frequently fall short.

That said, it is time for the Body of Christ to stop using this phrase. Let it be said by those who have encountered those witnesses of Christ who have stumbled in their walk and who choose to judge the church based on their limited experience. Let those who have been burned by the Christian community use it to justify their separation from the church. But do not let it be heard amongst the Christian body. Paul says to believers in Corinth that “the body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free.”

To an unbelieving world, Christ and his church cannot be separated. Every Christian—every believer who professes the name of the Jesus Christ—is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Every member of the church—no matter how nominal—is a witness to the resurrected Lord. When said by one who hasn’t experienced the grace of Jesus, the statement “I like Christ, I do not like Christians” is a tragic statement. When the same phrase is repeated by a member of the church, it is utterly insane. It would make as much sense to say, “I like my head, but I simply cannot tolerate anything below it.”

Christ is the head of the church. His followers are the body, and we are called to be a family. A family may argue; a family may fight. A family may even need to cut ties with a member who is toxic to its unity. All these things are acceptable and beneficial, if occasionally grievous. But no matter what happens, a family is still a family. No matter how dysfunctional, a family must love each other. In his book The Church, Matt Jenson states that “the church’s catholicity commands our commitment to her unity.” As the Body of Christ, we should be known by our love and unity. If we do not love each other, how can we love our neighbor? If we do not love our neighbor, will anyone know our Christ?

We don’t get to choose our family. As individuals, we don’t even have the right to prune the family tree—the crazy uncle is still a part of it, no matter what personal opinion says; Jesus is the Gardner, and when he prunes, he works through the church. The role of the church—and of every member therein—is to strengthen the community of Christ. We are to come to the aid of those in need, to reproach those who gone astray, and to walk a difficult and winding path together. Whether or not we like each other is irrelevant, although with a family reunion every Sunday, it would certainly be more manageable if we learned how to.

If there is anything that Christ loves, it is His church. And Christ does not love in a dispassionate, reserved manner. Christ does not look on His Body and say with a neutral indifference, “I love you, but I don’t always like you.” No, Christ loves His church with a raging fury, and as members of that church, we are given the freedom and responsibility to be a manifestation of that love to others. In this system, we are allowed, with the blessing of our Heavenly Father, to declare, “I like Christ, and I am crazy about His people, no matter how crazy they may be.”

Giving Up: The Significance of Sacrifice

I’ve been contemplating a new life motto:

“I give up.”

I consider this not in a self-loathing or self-pitying way, and this is not to say I don’t believe in my value or abilities (to an extent).

Rather, I think of it in a relational way, a spiritual way, even, considering certain types of fasting, a physical way.

My new motto was spurred by an Ingrid Michaelson song, “Giving Up,” which popped up on my Pandora station recently. I’d never heard it before, and I was immediately struck by the lyrics of the chorus (of course, it’s better listened to):

I am giving up on making passes

I am giving up on half-empty glasses

I am giving up on greener grasses

It’s a love song, and I find it to be a rather theologically sound take on Christian commitment in marriage. I once heard it put this way: “When you say, ‘I do,’ you’re also saying, ‘I don’t’ to everyone else.” When my husband and I got married, we committed ourselves to each other and our marriage, which means we promised to give up on things like flirting with or dating others, physical intimacy with anyone else, and most shades of emotional intimacy with others, too. We were (and are) giving up on living individualistically.

I don’t think everyone should or needs to get married—some are meant for singleness and celibacy. But I think those who resist marriage because they don’t want to give up their independence are missing out. They choose to sacrifice bigger, deeper, longer-lasting joys for smaller, more immediate pleasures.

I think it’s worth it, giving up.

And I think this idea has far-reaching spiritual and theological implications (which also encompass the physical aspect I mentioned). When the young rich man asked Christ, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” the Lord didn’t reply with, “Hoard your wealth, and focus on doing whatever you can to make yourself happy.” He said:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21)

In other words: give up. Give up your wealth, your comforts, your self-serving ways, for Christ. The apostles, when called, literally gave up their former lives—Christ called Peter and Andrew while they were fishing (doing their job), and Scripture tells us that “they immediately left their nets and followed Him.” (Matthew 4:20)

Christ doesn’t stop at possessions or trades, though; He takes it all the way: deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. (Matthew 16:24) So what do we need to do to serve Christ, to live fully as Christians?

Give up.

Finally, a thought on fasting, which is a very literal approach to giving up. Physical fasting, obviously, demands one to give up certain foods; many Christians also fast from certain activities or other indulgences. In the Church, this activity serves several spiritual purposes: to remind us of our limits as human beings and dependency upon God; to help us focus on things of God, instead of on serving our desires; and to remind us that faith and Christianity are active, not passive. They are effortful, requiring work, even pain, and especially sacrifice.

We are called to give up. Which is why I think this makes such a good marriage, spiritual, and life motto. This idea of giving up reminds me of two other related interests of mine: minimalism and monasticism. Minimalism, or the practice of living lightly on necessities rather than messily on luxuries, has many pragmatic benefits: it can help save space, reduce stress, and save money. But I also find it to have spiritual significance, similar to that of monastic living. Living simply puts into practice the monastic mindset of disconnecting from typical worldly desires or material goods for the sake of pursuing greater goods like spiritual clarity and fullness and a stronger devotion to God.

And that’s what all of this giving up is about, anyway. We give up so that we may gain more.

Repentance Songs and Easter

As many Christians in the world celebrated Easter this week, I think of the long, self-reflective days of Lent drawing to their exciting fulfillment. In my church, Lent is a period of intentional reflection and repentant prayer, hemmed together with the hope of forgiveness and deliverance from those things we find in ourselves that we wish weren’t there. Moving toward Easter in that mindset has helped me reflect on the nature of repentance.

Repentance begins in the true and beautiful, humble self-knowledge required of the Christian. This self-knowledge is not hateful, but compassionate; not despairing, but realistic; not lax, but dynamic; not aloof, but developmental. It is Dante’s Purgatory, where the creatures sing as they work on unlearning their sin, and know their sin without self-hatred, but hope.

They sing because opening the palm that clenched sin so long is a relief. They sing because finally (finally!) they get to be free of being what they were. They’re grateful for the momentous and intense gift of forgiveness, and also for the chance to learn how to be holy, to be what they always wished they were.

I can clench my fist tightly around my sin, bury it deep in my palm, and make it as invisible as possible. And I do that because I wish they weren’t there—I wish I wasn’t proud or vain or slothful or timid. Through repentance, God unclenches my fist, and there it is; sin, lying exposed and ugly in my sweaty, tired palm.

To the Christian, it’s clear that repentance is beneficial, but we still anticipate its unpleasantness, like swallowing medicine, getting the oil changed, doing taxes. Actions which must be done, which we choose, and which we drag our feet toward and get through as quickly as possible. But, the sustained effort of Lent occasions its own joy. That unattractive side of my soul that I lie to myself about can’t hide from the ongoing spotlight continual prayers of repentance and reflection cast.

Self-deception covered it, and kept me sick.

Self-knowledge—that revelation God gives me of my own weakness, that surgical blade’s kind and painful prodding—exposes everything I can stand to see.

Without Easter, that self-knowledge would have to melt into the shoulder-shrugging aloofness the world gives to sin, or else mount into hopeless self-loathing. But, Easter will not leave me at self-knowledge. Easter brings a new life. In Dante’s Purgatory, the would-be saints attend the school of repentance with their eyes on heaven: they accomplish their tasks, unlearn their vices, and teach their hands and bodies the habits of virtue. And, of course, they sing.

While he doesn’t get the afterlife correct, Dante understands the Christian life well, especially the fundamental principle that one of the worst punishments for sinning is having to be a sinner. The best thing about repentance and renewal in Christ is getting to be forgiven and holy. The repentant Christian knows the song Dante gives to the would-be saints of purgatory: it is the joyful, still song of thankful relief from burdens of being what we were never made to be.

Consider the Birds of the Air

Consider the birds of the air. Specifically, consider the sparrow. A person can learn as much from a bird such as this as they can from any other element of Creation. Maybe that’s why Jesus drew the eyes of the people to the birds of the air—he knew they were some of the best teachers, and they spoke to the literate and the illiterate, the rich and the poor.

The sparrow is the ultimate example of a worldly creature. Not worldly in our peculiar Christian dialect, but worldly in the fundamental sense. The sparrow is worldly in that it lives, breathes, and dies wholly dependent on the divine World-Maker. We should take note; we should be more worldly.

Saint Francis was perhaps one of the worldliest men to ever walk the earth. He owned a brown, rough-spun cloak that he was quick to give away. He allowed himself the luxury of canvas shoes when his feet became too old to walk the ground uncovered. He talked to animals. To make a remarkable biography short, Saint Francis lived in the world as the perfect houseguest. He enjoyed creation, and created things. He was worldly, not in that he acted as other men did, but in that he sought to reconcile God and our fallen world, without seeking to shackle himself to it.

We so often dream and speak of Heaven that we forget that our eternity will be spent in a new earth that God makes for us. Our bodies will be resurrected and our world will be redeemed. We will be—in a perfect and whole sense—worldly. The world may be broken, but the sparrow is held by its Creator. Even in death, the sparrow is courageous; he knows no other hand but the hand of the Father, and rests in His providence.

People who amass money and fast cars and houses with private butlers aren’t necessarily bad people, but they certainly don’t deserve the title of worldly. They aren’t interacting with the world well; if anything, they should be pitied as fearful. They haven’t learned to rely on the world and the God sustaining it; instead, they try to protect themselves from it. The wind-whipped sparrow tucked in its nest is worldly. A man in his mansion is hiding—hiding from the sparrow, for the sparrow reminds him that his mansion is nothing more than a gilded nest of sticks.

Consider the sparrow—that wholly dependent being. If God should choose to feed it, God will feed it. When the wind picks up, and trees are shaken, it can do nothing but trust and carry on. And when it drops to the ground, never to rise again, Christ himself kneels down to carry it away. Where man lies to himself, the sparrow is honest. Where man is frail, the sparrow is strong. Man is rich. The sparrow is free.

Being poor isn’t fun, or so the old phrase goes; yet is it wrong? Folks who toss this expression around seem to hold that life is intended to be comfortable and fun. This is a dangerous stance to take; as C.S. Lewis wrote, “If everything seems to come simply by signing cheques, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God.” Putting our very souls in the hands of a street preacher isn’t fun or safe; regardless, it is life to the fullest. In many ways, we should envy the sparrow, which through its very nature is made dependent on God. All things are permissible to the sparrow, while we are so often owned by the world, unable to flit about on the breeze because we are too tied to the ground. Saint Francis preached to the birds—and the birds listened. The birds preach to us, and we so often go away sad, and take our seat at the bar with the rich, young ruler.

This does not imply a life of foolish neglect, for even a sparrow builds its nest and gathers food. Even a sparrow knows to take care of its young. When Jesus calls his listeners to consider the birds of the air, he is not calling them to a life of carelessness, but to a life of trust—in many ways, the blind trust of a sparrow. The sparrow doesn’t worry, doesn’t store up food in barns; instead, it trusts its Creator for its next meal—for its next breath. It has no other choice.

Remember the old saying: God takes care of fools and little children. It seems fitting to add sparrows to that list—those birds who are so foolish as to dance through life, flitting from heavenly perch to heavenly perch—perfectly worldly beings.

Oz, Womanizing, and the “Flirt to Convert” Impulse

Spoiler Alert: This post is full of plot and character details from Oz the Great and Powerful.

As I’m about to critically examine one aspect of this movie, I want to be clear – I really enjoyed Oz the Great and Powerful. I didn’t regret spending $11.50 to see it, I plan on buying the DVD, and I highly recommend it. Bright, playful, and well-told, I thought it was great and—I’m not ashamed to say it—pretty powerful.

As with any good story, the real adventure takes place inside the protagonist. Oscar (alias, the Wonderful Wizard) begins as a womanizing, deceitful con man more bent on greatness than goodness. His lies break hearts, promises, and women both in Kansas and in Oz. But, in Oz, he meets Glinda the Good, whose trust in his innate goodness draws out virtue he didn’t even know he possessed. He ends the story a great man and, better than that, (as Glinda says) a good man. They kiss, and colorful lettering spells out “The End.”

I left the movie theater with a smile, a warm heart, and a single cautionary note.

The way we understand Glinda the Good is important. If Glinda is a Christ figure (after all, there is only One who is Good), then this is a great story that reminds us of the redemptive power of the perfect love that comes only from God. If, however, we see her as a woman in love, we may be opening ourselves up to misunderstanding our roles.

The danger is this: I might watch Glinda and think, “I can do that. I can take on that role. I can truly, deeply, compassionately, and virtuously love the womanizer, believing that his innate goodness will shine through if I trust him enough. And, if I do it long enough and hard enough, he’ll change.”

Women have a dangerously strong tendency to want to save bad men. (The same may be true the other way, too—good men wanting to save bad women.) It’s a cliche—”he’ll change.” Compassionate people sometimes choose partners who are bad precisely because we don’t want to leave them on their own and believe that we can help.

I know it’s a hair-splitting, subtle thing, but the premise that the love of a good woman will redeem a bad man shows up often in the myths of our culture. If we see a story line enough, we start to believe it as a reality. We “flirt to convert” because we’ve seen it work out so many times that we forget the vast majority have been on the movie screen. The problem is clear: reality doesn’t back this story up.

The consequence of this thinking should be apparent (brokenness, victimization, abuse, etc). The reason for that consequence is this: I am not Christ. I am not perfect and I am incapable of redeeming anyone on my own. By trying to be perfect for someone else, we deny our own weaknesses, creating a one-sided relationship. By trying to save someone directly—not by pointing them to Christ, but by trying to be God for them—we open ourselves to damaging treatment and, besides, create only a weak presentation of Christ for the bad men for whom we hope to “be Christ.”

Glinda the Good is not you and not me. The role of Glinda can only be filled by Christ.

Finding Meaning

I saw a meme on Facebook the other day that read: “Join a Hilarious Adventure of a Lifetime! Work, Buy, Consume, Die.” It’s funny because it’s true…so it’s also not really that funny. Reflecting on it a bit further, I find it to be a provocative comment on what seems to be the norm in modern culture, especially in the United States.

We go to school. If we’re lucky, we get a job related to our degree and/or interests. Then we work for roughly forty years until we’re able to retire, which (if I understand retirement commercials correctly) is the time of life we all look forward to, the time we really get to do the things we love, spend time with our families, and enjoy some peace and quiet for our remaining fifteen or twenty-ish years (and that’s if we’re statistically fortunate; the current average life expectancy in the U.S is only seventy-eight).

This meme got me thinking about how we choose to live our lives and from where we derive meaning. What are the things to which we devote the most time and energy? For most people, at least based on what I’ve observed, it’s our job. We spend more hours at work than we do at home with our families, or relaxing, or enjoying hobbies, or in church.

I don’t want to look back when (God willing) I’m pushing eighty and see a life full of work- or money-related stress, too little time off, and too much energy put toward material things that ultimately fade away. I don’t want to live the life of the meme.

I want to do well in my work, sure; I want to be proud of what I accomplish, and I hope to accomplish something worthwhile. But ultimately, what I do for a living, what I buy with my money, and whatever successes or accolades I achieve (degrees, promotions, awards)—in the end, these things don’t define me. I’m not saying that our actions don’t shape or reflect our character; of course they do. But the “American Dream,” or maybe I should call it the “Retirement Dream,” is ultimately unfulfilling: work long and hard, save your money, settle down…and then what?

I recently read an article in The Atlantic called “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.” The article tells of Jewish psychologist and neurologist Viktor Frankl who was sent to a Nazi concentration camp in 1942 and lived to write about it in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. One of the major points of his book is that the difference he observed between those in the camps who lived and those who died was a sense of meaning. The article includes one quotation in particular from Frankl’s book that resonates with me:

Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is.

As a Christian, my cause, my purpose, my meaning lies with Christ. But it’s not just for me; I believe that meaning for all of humanity is found in Christ. It is our inheritance, freely given to us, in which we are created to participate. Everything else is secondary. And that, far more than any “American Dream” or narrative of hard work and success, gives me profound comfort.