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What Are You Doing on Earth?


Growing up in South Carolina, my family often vacationed at the beach during the summer months. I remember clearly one of the first times I stood at the edge of the ocean and looked out. I strained my eyes, even squinted, hoping to see something other than water on the horizon. That's all there was. I remember feeling so small. So very small. Such a vast expanse of water. Just a speck of me.

It can be unnerving to experience such clarity of perspective. And it's not just about the largeness of the universe and the smallness of a single human being. It's the uniqueness of each and every living thing. Snowflakes. Aardvarks. Wild violets. Identical twins. I'd still love to know how many humans have existed since the first ones surfaced on earth. Staggering to think. An unimaginable number. And only one you. One me. No other. Never before. Not yet to come. In the clarity of this perspective, we may wonder, "What am I doing on earth?"

But better yet is it to ask, "Who on earth am I being?" In doing so we tilt toward contemplating identity rather than purpose, although purpose has its place. In a conversation earlier this week, someone recalled another someone asking yet another good question, "When you look in the mirror, who do you see?" Seems simple, doesn't it? But think of all of the descriptive words, labels, names, identifiers you could pile into the space that comes after your responsive words, "I see..." Staggering to think, really.

In his passionate book The Ragamuffin Gospel Brennan Manning writes, "When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and I get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer."

The season of Lent beckons us to "get honest" as Manning has. Who are we really? Who are we as we see ourselves in the mirror and as others see us going about life on a Tuesday morning or a Saturday afternoon? Who on earth are we while we are on this earth? With continued honesty both fresh and raw Manning asserts, "The expectations of others can exert a subtle but controlling pressure on our behavior... In Christ Jesus freedom from fear empowers us to let go of the desire to appear good, so that we can move freely in the mystery of who we really are."

In writing to the believers in Philippi Paul uses a Greek word not found anywhere else in the New Testament. Curiously the King James version translates it "conversation." Its meaning has to do with civil affairs, with the constitution of a commonwealth, with citizenship. A few days ago, I received my membership card from Abingdon Presbytery in the mail. Clearly, I am theoretically in conversation with all the Presbyterians in this geographical area. But who might I understand myself to be in connection to this deep sea of believers? And for each and every unique one of us, of what really are we citizens?

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