One of my favorite authors is a man named Robert Jordan. I’ve always been a fan of fantasy and science fiction. This is the kind of thing I like to read when I just want to relax and get away from it all. I’ve always appreciated the great, epic stories of imagination: The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Dune, The Foundation Trilogy. I even have a T-shirt that says “Frodo lives,” but I don’t often wear it in public. Robert Jordan’s life’s work is called “The Wheel of Time.” It’s a massive undertaking weighing in at no less than 14 big, thick novels, all telling a single, vast, complex and epic story. Some would call it a waste of time I suppose, but it feeds the imagination and, for somebody in my line of work, that’s a very important thing to do.
I wouldn’t mention it except that, in thinking about Martin Luther King Sunday, I was reminded of an interesting idea that comes from Jordan’s story. As the Wheel of Time turns, he tells us, it weaves all of life into its patterns. A common understanding among the characters of the story is that the wheel of Time “weaves as the wheel wills,” which is their way of saying what will be will be. However, in the weaving of the patterns of their lives, there are some people, some characters, that have a powerfully magnetic ability to draw other people to themselves, shaping the patterns of time around their own agendas. These people are called “Ta’veren.” A “Ta’veren” is “a person around whom the Wheel of Time weaves all surrounding life-threads to form a Web of Destiny.”
As far as I know that word “Ta’veren” is something Jordan made up, but as an idea it fits Martin Luther King very well. He was a man like that; someone who drew people to himself with the power of his words and his passion. He wove people into a web of destiny that deeply impacted the way we live and think. He overturned an existing social consciousness, and replaced it with something I would call healthier, more just. He didn’t do it all by himself, of course, but King was at the center of the vortex. He was the one with the vision; the one with the dream. His work is far from accomplished. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether we’re making progress or losing ground. But just the fact that people continue to be drawn into King’s vision all these years after his death, is an indication of his ongoing influence.
There was a short piece on NPR I heard a couple of years ago, talking about the, then, nearly completed $120 million Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC. The memorial was paid for by contributions from private donors, but one of the comments in the NPR piece was that King himself would not have wanted any such thing. Representative Elinor Holmes Norton, a longtime civil rights activist, seemed very conscious of the contradiction of a humble man who emptied himself for others being so lavishly honored. She said, “This is not simply a memorial to King. It is a memorial to the movement he led. And that is how he would regard it. One has to really come to grips,” she said, “with the deep humility of this man. He would never have wanted a memorial like this [for himself].” Isn’t that interesting. But that contradiction, I think, arises precisely because he was the kind of person he was; someone who drew others into his vision. He was powerfully humble, powerfully inspiring, and powerfully motivating. We remember him as a man who was born with a mission.
Now in the Bible this idea being born with a mission can be found in a number of places. Today’s passage is one of four from Isaiah that we call, “Servant Songs.” It’s not clear who Isaiah thought this servant was supposed to be. Down through the ages, scholars of the Bible have made a number of suggestions. Some think the servant was the nation of Israel as a whole. Some say it was one of the Israelite kings. Of course, once Jesus came along, several hundred years later, the early Christians identified him as the servant of Isaiah’s vision, and many people in the church have been following that logic ever since. But whoever it was, the idea that the servant had been formed by God “in the womb” was powerfully inspiring. It comes up over and over again.
Jeremiah claims that God told him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Before you were born I consecrated you.” (Jeremiah 1:5) The writer of Psalm 139 said that God had knit him together in his inmost parts, in his mother’s womb. In the New Testament Paul says, “God had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace.” (Galatians 1:15) And Jesus of course was the Word of God who was with God from the beginning of all creation. One way or another, all of these people are spoken of in much the same way. Like King, they were born with a mission that became the driving force of their lives and drew others into the orbit of that vision.
The challenge though, at least for me, comes when I began wondering how my own life fits into this vision, this idea. Was I born with a mission? Were you? Do you feel that a purpose was ordained for your life before you had even been delivered into the world? Do you have that sense? This is one of those questions where, if you have to ask, the answer is probably no. Our life’s purpose for many of us isn’t something that is easy to get a handle on or describe.
There’s a great old classic golf story that actually speaks to this point. It comes from a time shortly after the game was invented. A Scottish golfer, it seems, once had an opportunity to give a demonstration of the new game to then President Ulysses S. Grant. He carefully placed the ball on the tee and prepared to hit it. He must’ve been a bit nervous though, because when he took a mighty swing, the club hit the turf and scattered dirt all over the president. The ball, however, never left the tee. Again, the golfer swung and again he missed. Grant waited patiently, supposedly, through six failed attempts. The president then quietly observed, “there seems to be a fair amount of exercise in the game but I fail to see the purpose of the ball”
What’s the message here? Well, maybe it’s that, in the great golf game of life, all too often the role most of us seem to be playing is the ball. It’s incredibly easy to fail to see the purpose.
A few years ago, the famous mega-church pastor, Rick Warren, from out in California, came out with a book entitled, “The Purpose Driven Life.” It was a bestseller for many months. Churches all over the country were using it for classes and sermons. Personally, I had some discomfort with the conservative theology. But I thought Warren did a great job bringing some clarity to what living a Christian life is all about. I think that clarity is largely why it was so popular. Warren starts off in the first chapter with these words, “It’s not about you!” Very clear. “It’s not about you.” He goes on to explain. “The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you are placed on this planet you must begin with God. You were born by God’s purpose, and for God’s purpose.”
Now, I don’t know, just standing up here this morning, how many of you would be willing to take that at face value. It’s very different than an awful lot of the self-help books that are out there. Many authors tell us how to discover the purpose and meaning of our lives. But it’s not very common, these days, for people to say that God is at the heart of it all. God is the center. Whatever my purpose is, it is that purpose which God has given to me.
However, if you’ll think back to every single one of those “Ta’veren” people I mentioned earlier, it’s a purpose every one of them knew and accepted. Martin Luther King was very clear that his vision came from God. He was very clear that it was not his vision alone but God’s vision working through him. And, in spite of the fact that he spent his time directing people’s attention away from himself, the very fact that his life has ended up being so celebrated is a powerful expression of how deeply inspiring God’s vision was to him, and to us through him.
There’s a wonderful book by Parker J. Palmer called “Let Your Life Speak.” One of the things he says is this, “I must listen for the truth and values at the heart of my own identity. Not the standards which I must live by, but the standards by which I cannot help but live, if I’m living my own life.” Palmer, in his own way, was saying much the same thing as Rick Warren, much the same thing as Martin Luther King. When we are driven by the vision that has been placed in us from the time we are born, then we are being the people God has called us to be.
We may not all know it, we may not all have this ongoing, constant sense of clarity that we were called for a particular purpose that covers the whole of our lives and brings together in a coherent way everything we think and everything we do. It’s a unique person, like King, who has that kind of experience, that kind of clarity. For most of us the purpose of our lives is less clear. It is something we are continually rediscovering, continually learning as we go along. But as we engage in that journey of discovery, if we are faithful to it, ultimately what we must come to is that what we were meant to be was in fact born in us. We, too, each in our own way, have been born with a mission.
John W. Gardner, the founding chairman of Common Cause, once said “it’s a rare and high privilege to help people understand the difference they can make – not only in their own lives, but also in the lives of others, simply by giving of themselves.
Gardner tells of a cheerful old man who asked the same question of just about every new acquaintance he fell into conversation with: “What have you done that you believe in and you are proud of?” He never asked conventional questions like “What do you do for a living?” It was always, “What have you done that you believe in and are proud of?” The question often produced some interesting and meaningful responses. He was delighted by a woman who answered, “I’m doing a good job raising three children;” and a cabinetmaker who said, “I believe in good workmanship and practice it;” and another woman who answered, “I started a bookstore and it’s the best bookstore for miles around.” In an interview, the old man said, “I don’t really care how they answer. I just want to put the thought into their minds. They should live their lives in such a way that they can have a good answer. Not a good answer for me, but for themselves. That’s what’s important.” (Dr. Dale E. Turner, MSC Health Action News, July, 1993, p. 7)
“What have you done that you believe in and you are proud of?” What a great question. I’ll make you a bet. If you think about that question, give it some time and attention, I’m believe you will discover that what you are most proud of in your life, and the mission you were born with, are very closely related. None of us here would be called “Ta’veren” in the way that Martin Luther King Jr. was, but we too have been born with a mission from God, and the journey of faith, ultimately, is all about discovering what it is and living it out.