“God made you for a purpose,” my mama assured me. “A big purpose. He has something special just for you to do.” Just like that, the purpose-driven shackles clicked over my wrists.
I know my mama meant well. She loves Jesus like nobody’s business – more than anything or anyone else alive or dead. Her highest life aim is to please Jesus, to “lay up treasures in heaven” purely so she can give them to Him in worship when she sees him. I know this about her. I emulated it.
I don’t know if Mama meant it the way I heard it, or intended for me to internalize the message in the way I did. I highly doubt she was trying to create purpose-driven shackles. I wanted to please God, though. I understood that the way to do that was to discover the reason He made me – the purpose that He had uniquely suited me to accomplish – and be about it.
So, I did.
In Biblical terms, I “chose me that day whom I would serve.” I enslaved myself to purpose-driven life for the glory of God.
I put everything of myself – time, talent, resources, relationships, money, effort, passion, skill – into what I believed to be my God-designed, God-given purpose for living: use stories to open hearts and minds to God.
This made my life akin to identifying a mountain early on and spending every single day either training or climbing.
It’s as exhausting as it sounds. I think I exhausted everyone around me, too, with my earnest and dogged pursuit of holy purpose.
Now that time has afforded perspective on my faith shift, I can see how that purpose-driven existence subconsciously set me up for disillusionment regarding God. There I was, doing everything and anything all day and every day for him and he wasn’t showing up when I needed him.
Going back to the mountain-climbing analogy…let’s say a manufacturer of special sustaining food told you that he had picked out a mountain that was perfectly suited to your climbing ability and, if you would but commit to the climb, he’ll provide all the food you need along the way. Now imagine that the food you eat on the climb turns out to be no more nutritious than rice cakes and water and you begin to get sick and disabled from lack of vitamins and nutrients. Would you get angry at the one who promised he’d give everything you needed for the climb he created just for you? Would you have gone into the climb expecting to be provided food that sustains you? After all, you trusted him to provide what he claimed: food to sustain you on the climb. And if you didn’t receive that sustaining nutrition, wouldn’t you question why you’re climbing this mountain in the first place?
It’s not a perfect analogy, but maybe it does what analogies are designed to do: give an illuminating image of the idea.
My whole life was about the obedient climb. Getting to the top meant hearing, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” I longed for the words.
So, when I stopped caring whether I ever heard them, stuff got rough. Was my work still my work to do? Was I still who I am? If not, who am I? Had I spent years doing the work only because I thought it was my work to do to fulfill a purpose I didn’t choose, but instead discovered and therefore had a holy duty to accomplish?
I love stories. I memorized my first one at four years old! Wrote my first one at eight! But for many dark months, stories lost their worth for me. I did not want to read novels or watch tv shows or films. I had no characters building in my mind. I felt no desire to tell a story even to my kiddos about the animals and plants and people we encounter every day.
I was shook.
I’d broken the purpose-driven shackles, but neither my hands nor my heart were sure what to do with the ensuing freedom.
An entire year passed. I made half-hearted attempts toward my old love (stories) again, but none took.
And then, one morning as I rounded the corner from my bedroom hallway and entered the sun-drenched living room, a cold and forgotten corner of my brain woke up. “Let’s make stories,” it whispered.
Across my mind flitted characters, scenes, settings, ideas. I stopped in my tracks, watching it all within. In a few seconds, it ended. I blinked into a world suddenly alive again with possibility. Hope. Joy. I literally laughed out loud.
As days flew off the calendar, I eagerly anticipated each new mental flash. Nighttime brought dreams – whole storylines and scenes. I no longer wanted to stay in bed to escape the colorless world and a day of uncertainty. I only wanted to linger long enough to make sure I had the story down.
Within two weeks of that first flash, pieces began falling into place for me to begin again. I am doing that now – assembling and creating stories for screen and page. This time, it’s from a wiser, gentler, humbler place, I hope. More on that later, maybe.
But for now I wanted to document something here. I wanted to make sure that I noted the particular moment when I shifted on the “purpose-driven” life approach.
One morning not long after that encounter in the living room, I climbed the stairs to Firstborn’s room. After awakening him and urging him to get ready for school, I felt a gentle pull toward his balcony door. I hadn’t stepped out there yet. The new house is pretty big. I hadn’t yet explored every nook and cranny, including that one.
But, grateful to feel those kinds of nudges and whispers again, I went. His balcony overlooks our backyard and the canal that leads to the Gulf of Mexico. We’d already seen triple tail, sheepshead, and dolphins swimming there. I stepped through the door and just past the sheltering overhang of the roof. I drank in the view of sleepy houses and a sky growing ever brighter with the dawn while a short, gentle breeze lifted the ends of my hair. It grew quiet. So, so quiet and still.
And then, without warning, a whoosh overhead.
Before I could look up, they were above and before me: a flock of egrets soaring mere feet from my face. As I watched, one bent in mid-air, scratched beneath its graceful white wing with its long, orange beak, and resumed flight. In an instant, they were gone – headed to an island elsewhere, gathering for breakfast and the day.
But that sound.
I had never heard the whoosh of bird wings.
When I close my eyes even now, I can hear it again. It is ancient, unhurried, inevitable.
For me, it was magical. But for the birds, nothing special lay in their flight. It was mundane enough to stop and scratch along the way, even.
Another flock came. And then another. Whoosh. Whoosh.
It tapped into the wisdom of my ways and with startling clarity I beheld the fallacy of purpose-driven living.
The birds fly because they are birds. It is who they are. It is what they do.
Their “purpose” is being birds.
What if my purpose is just to be me?
What if I focus on being instead of doing?
What if I simply settle into the ancient, unhurried inevitability of me?
I’ve mulled the thought for a good while now and, with each new affirmation, it is shaping how I live. Stories are active again in my life, but my involvement with them is undogged by a rushed need to produce according to a purpose. The people seamlessly joining in on my overhead flight are as unhurried as I, but also as sure-winged and solid. We are gathering into a soaring family because we are a soaring family. It’s who we are.
I’m learning. There are those in this group that have been flying for decades. They’re teaching me their ways and then letting me be so ungraceful as to scratch my wing in mid-flight. They don’t care. It’s part of flying and flying is who we are.
I go back to the balcony every few days.
Every time, as my bare toes curl on the weathered wood and the sun comes up on our sleepy island village, the whoosh surprises anew overhead. They always come. Every morning, as the dawn spreads across the sky.
It’s over between a breath and a breath, but I close my eyes and can hear it again even now.