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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

What S.H.A.P.E. Are You?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 20, 2006


About a year or so ago, maybe a little more, the number one record album on the charts was a collection of the greatest hits of Elvis Presley. Not bad for a guy who had already been dead for 25 years. Certainly, if anyone was a success in the eyes of the world, it was Elvis Presley, right? But according to his friends, Elvis was an unfulfilled and unhappy man. He died of the side effects of obesity and drug dependency at the age of 42. In an interview, his ex-wife Priscilla once said that “Elvis never came to terms with who he was supposed to be or what his purpose in life was. He thought he was here for a reason, maybe to preach, maybe to serve, maybe to save, maybe to care for people. That agonizing desire was always with him and he knew he wasn’t fulfilling it. So he’d go on stage and he wouldn’t have to think about it.”

Elvis’s fame and celebrity—his so-called “success”—became just another drug for him. He didn’t know where to begin to look for himself; whatever the outer glamour of his life, he was a lost soul, drifting aimlessly through existence. He never came to grips with why he was really put here on this Earth…

We are put on Earth to make a contribution, Rick Warren tells us in his book, The Purpose Driver Life. He goes on: “You weren’t created just to consume resources—to eat, breathe, and take up space. God designed you to make a difference with your life…. You were created to add to life on Earth, not just take from it. God wants you to give something back…”

I believe that there is deep within u, an urge—a deep primal need—to add something to the collective wisdom, the great immemorial opus, of life here on Earth. There is something in us that wants to leave our campsite on this Earth better than we found it when we leave.

Whatever our personal theologies, there may well be something in the words of the Old Testament God to the prophet Jeremiah which resonates within us: “Before I made you in your mother’s womb, I chose you,” God tells Jeremiah. “Before you were born, I set you apart for a special work.” We yearn for a deep sense of purpose and meaning in our lives; in our quieter and more introspective moments, we might know in our souls that we are “on assignment” in this world. Coming to grips with what that assignment—that purpose—is, is one of our great challenges in life (perhaps our greatest challenge). A large part of our happiness and fulfillment, I think, will rest in how well we discern what our calling—our ministry-- truly is.

Yes, I said ministry. That’s so often one of those misunderstood religious words. Most people here the word “ministry”, and they think of professional, ordained clergy—ministers and pastors and priests, all dressed up in clerical garb and robes. But I’m using the term here in a much broader sense: As spiritual and religious beings, whether we happen to be ordained religious professionals or not, we all have a ministry, both within our chosen communities of faith, and in the wider world. In the Bible, the words for “minister” and “servant” are synonyms; they’re used interchangeably. If you’re serving others, then you’re ministering; and if you’re a minister, then you’re serving others. In the Gospel of Matthew we are told that as soon as Peter’s mother-in-law is healed of her fever, she pops out of bed and starts serving Jesus and his disciples lunch or dinner or whatever. She was healed so she could serve others. We are blessed with gifts in life in order to bless others. In our serving and helping one another, we reenact (and reinforce and re-create) the mystical oneness—the great communion—the interconnected web of all existence, of which we are all part. Our ministry—our service—to one another (and to the whole world) are the strands in the garment of being, the ties that bind us to all life. Regardless of our particular “day” jobs—our particular work and careers—every man or woman who truly lives out the values of his or her chosen religious tradition also has a full time calling to service, to ministry. “One Christian is no Christian,” said the great French writer Charles Peguy. Nor is there such a thing as a solitary Jew or a solitary Buddhists or Muslim or Hindu—if those people are living true to the faiths they profess. “No works; no faith,” we said a few weeks ago. You can’t say you practice a particular religion and not seek to practice that religion’s call to service.

Not only is this ministry a full time calling to service; it’s something that’s with you pretty much all your waking hours; it’s potentially a 24/7 calling. We can’t say, for instance, “I am going to answer my calling to service, from 10 AM to Noon on Sunday, and leave it at that.” Serving others means making yourself available. It means being willing to be interrupted when you’re trying to do “something else”. Look at Jesus: he was always being interrupted. One day, Jesus was walking to Jericho, where he had an important appointment, I’m sure, and a group of blind men start yelling at him. The Gospel of Matthew says, “Two blind men shouted, ‘Lord have mercy on us!’ Jesus stopped and called them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ They said, ‘Lord, let our eyes be opened.’ Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.”

Notice that the first thing Jesus does is that he stops. He doesn’t give the blind guys a wave as he passes by, and say, “Sorry fellas, gotta run. I’m on my way to Jericho! Call the office and make an appointment.”

If you want genuinely to serve—if you truly want to be a web weaver, and help knit back together this tattered garment of life—you have to be willing to be interrupted. “Life is what happens when we’re making other plans,” John Lennon once said. The greatest opportunities to service often occur, perhaps, when we’re trying to get something else done.

Back to Jesus for a minute: Most of his ministry and most of his miracles, according to scripture, were interruptions. All the people he healed—the blind men, the lame man, sick people, the paralyzed man, the dead child—all of them were people who stopped him when he was on the way to somewhere else and said, “Master, I need your help.” His first miracle? Interrupted at a wedding in Cana. His second? Interrupted on the way to Galilee.

People like to talk about following the footsteps of Jesus. One minister has said we might all be better off if we followed the foot “stops” of Jesus! As the book of Proverbs tells us: “Never tell your neighbors to wait until tomorrow if you can help them right now.” As that same minister says, “Servant-hearted people don’t procrastinate. They’re spontaneous, and they say, ‘OK, let’s do it.’” Let’s serve. Let’s find some way to minister unto one another.

This all sounds pretty overwhelming perhaps. But it’s no more overwhelming than breathing, if you think about it, and that’s something that comes pretty easily to most of us. The average person takes somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 breaths per day. Each one of those breaths involves the nasal passage, the lungs; then millions of alveoli, or tiny air sacs; from there, each breath moves into hundreds of blood vessels, from where it is transferred to the blood stream; then that same breath makes its way to the brain, muscles, nerves, and internal organs, fueling a host of vital bodily functions. There are literally millions of cells are involved in each one of those 250,000 breaths, hour after hour, day after day, year after year! (It’s a good thing for some of us that breathing is involuntary, and we don’t have to think about it. If we did, we might never find the time to get any breathing done!)

Now, think what it would be like if serving became as second nature to us as breathing! It’s not, of course, and it never will be. But perhaps we can seek and strive to make service as much a part of our spiritual natures, as breathing is of our physical natures. That, at least, can be our goal.

There is something inspiring about service: “Inspire”, from the Latin inspirare—to breathe, to take in breath, to take in the breath of life. Service feeds our spiritual cells, as much as oxygen feeds our physical ones.

In Israel, there are two famous bodies of water: the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. One (the Sea of Galilee) is vibrant and full of life; the other (that would be the Dead Sea) is stagnant water; in effect, it’s dead—hence the name. This is because the Sea of Galilee has both an inlet and an outlet; it takes in water, but it also lets it out. The Dead Sea, on the other hand, takes in water, but there is no outlet; and with no outflow, the water just sits there, and over time, the lake has stagnated.

Only if we complete the circle of life by giving back to life is the circle truly full. Only if we bless in return are we truly blessed. We are all called to serve. None of us is too small, or too weak, or too insignificant, or too limited to serve. If we can breathe, then we can serve.

Nor is there any such thing as an insignificant ministry in this life. No act of service is wasted, and sometimes the smallest acts can have the greatest consequences. As Rick Warren writes, “Small or hidden ministries often make the biggest difference. In my home, the most important light is not the chandelier in our dining room [that we light only on special occasions], but the little light that keeps me from stubbing my toe [or breaking my neck] when I get up at night. There is no correlation between size and significance.”

One summer evening, two young men, teenage boys really, decided out of curiosity to stop in at a tent revival meeting that had stopped at their small town in North Carolina. But the tent was crowded, and they couldn’t find seats, so they were going to leave. But an usher saw their predicament, and went up to them, and turned them around, and took them down the center aisle of the tent, and found them seats, near the middle of the crowd. That very night, at that tent meeting, one of those boys—a young man named William Franklin Graham (Billy Graham) heard his calling to become an evangelical minister. We’ve all heard of Billy Graham, of course; he’s probably the most famous preacher in American history. But no one remembers what that usher’s name was. But they were joined together that night in an indivisible garment of destiny; and the service of one (seemingly insignificant and small) laid the groundwork for the service of the other

No spiritual energy is ever wasted, and our service to others will often have consequences and ramifications far greater than we can ever trace.

How do we know how we are to serve? How do we discern our purpose, our ministry?

“You were shaped to serve God,” Rick Warren writes in The Purpose Driven Life. “God formulated every creature on the planet with a special area of expertise. Some animals run, some hop, some swim, some burrow, and some fly. Each has a particular role to play, based on the way they were shaped by God. The same is true with humans. Each of us was uniquely designed, or ‘shaped’ to do certain things.” We may disagree or argue with Warren’s particular theology in a hundred different ways, perhaps; but we would all affirm, I think, his insistence on both the incredible uniqueness of each and every one of us, as well as the amazing potential that each of us represents.

The average person possesses from 500 to 700 different skills and abilities, Warren points out to us—far more than we realize, and far more than we utilize. Each of our brains can store 100 trillion facts. Our minds can handle 15,000 decisions a second. Our noses can smell up to 10,000 different odors. We are gloriously and amazingly made, indeed!

As far as the uniqueness of each of us, and the wondrous diversity of our human species upon this planet, the numbers again tell an amazing story. DNA molecules can unite in an almost infinite variety of ways: 10 to the 2 billion, 400 millionth power (that’s close enough to infinite for me). “That number is the likelihood that you’d ever find [in all creation] somebody just like you. If you were to write out that number with each zero being one inch wide, you’d need a strip of paper 37,000 miles long!”

Indeed, all of the particles in the whole universe are probably less than 10 to the 2 billion, 400 millionth power, that 10 with 76 zeros behind it. Speaking about our uniqueness in all the universe is not just more vague Jeffspeak; it’s not just quasi-religious or spiritual psycho babble. It’s scientific fact. There has never been, and never will be, anyone exactly like any of us.

We each have a unique S.H.A.P.E.—all molded to complete the pattern of creation; all molded to particular ways of ministry and service.

We each have a particular S.H.A.P.E.:

Spiritual gifts (S)
Heart (H)
Abilities (A)
Personality (P)
Experiences (E)

We all have particular Spiritual Gifts: We have been empowered by Creation (by God, if you will) with certain gifts which we can use in service to all life. We have “Gifts in differing measure.” No one person has all the gifts of the Spirit, and unless we use our gifts they’re useless. (Like a present from Christmas that sits on the dining room table for month after month. Not very useful, is it?). We can’t use our gifts unless we unwrap them. So, open your gifts—look inside the box of your being—discover and discern what your particular talents for service are.

Secondly, in utilizing our gifts, we have been given heart—or passion—enthusiasm. The Bible (the book of Proverbs again) says “As a face is reflected in water, so the heart reflects the person.” Your heart reveals the real you. What you are passionate about tells what is really going on inside of you. “Your heart determines why you say the things you do, why you feel the way you do, and why you act the way you do.” Physically, each of us has a unique heartbeat—a pattern of rhythms as unique and unreaptable as our thumbprints. When deciding how to serve, don’t ignore your passions: pour them forth to beautify and edify the face of the world.

Third—your abilities are the natural talents with which you have been born. As I mentioned already, we each have between 500 and 700 natural abilities. I will now list all 647 of mine… only kidding! But do you want a few suggestions for how you might serve? In the Jewish and Christian Bible alone, here are a “few” of the abilities that are mentioned:

artistic ability, architectural ability, administering, baking, boat making, candy making, debating, designing, embalming, embroidering, engraving, farming, fishing, gardening, leading, managing, masonry, making music, making weapons, needle work, painting, planting, philosophizing, machinability, inventing, carpentry, sailing, selling, soldiering, tailoring, teaching, writing literature, writing poetry…

And that’s just in the Jewish and Christian sciptures alone! We haven’t even looked at ways other religions might list for service. There’s more jobs there than on Monster.com! “There are different abilities to perform service, but the same God gives ability to all for their particular service.”

Our abilities are from God. But it’s up to each of us to find ways to put them to work.

Then there’s “P”—Personality. There is no “right” or “wrong” temperament for ministry. But we express our gifts differently depending on our personalities. We are each like expertly crafted stained glass window, full of different shades and patterns of glass. Each of us catches the divine light in our particular way, and at our particular angle. Then, through the prism of our light and dark, and our different shades of being, we reflect that light back to the world through service and sharing.

Finally, “E”—Experience. We are shaped by our experiences in life, most of which are beyond our control. Our experiences mold us; they make us who we are; perhaps it is from our most painful experiences that we learn the most, and have the most to offer. Aldous Huxley once made a very important distinction that bears repeating. “Experience is not what happens to you,” Huxley said. “It is what you do with what happens to you.”

“What will you do with what happens to you?” Rick Warren asks. “Don’t waste your pain. Use it to help others.” Indeed, perhaps the greatest ministry of all comes out of the greatest hurt. Who could better minister to parents who have lost a child than those who have experienced such unspeakable pain? Who better to help an alcoholic in his or her recovery than one who’s been down that road? It is our pain, more than our joy perhaps, that best equips us for ministry to others.

“I don’t know what your destiny will be,” Albert Schweitzer once said, “but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “"Life’s most persistent question is, what are you doing for others?" And, he continued:
“Everyone can be great because anyone can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

This is the meaning of life, Mother Teresa once said, “to do God’s work with a smile.” Indeed, in the shape of our service to one another, we reflect the shape of God’s smile upon this world.


 


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