Last week, my husband and I retrieved our tween boys from their first almost two-week session at Camp Kanuga in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Since childhood, I have been a devotee of Episcopal summer camp experience because they provide opportunities to connect with one another and with our creator, especially by experiencing weather, starlight, new friends, liturgies, singing, and swimming. I’m a big fan of the summer camp experience because it offers a reprieve from a particular narrative that runs deep in our society I call ‘the rhetoric of the purpose driven life.’
Throughout my thirty years in higher ed as a student, professor, and administrator—and now in my life as the parent of two tween boys—I can attest to the pervasiveness of the rhetoric surrounding the so-called ‘purpose driven’ life. It goes something like this:
- Inside you, there is a unique gift.
- The work you have to do, particularly from your late teens through your 20s, is to find this gift, which is buried deep inside you, fall in love with it, polish it, become a master of it, and then monetize it.
- Once you have accomplished this, likely in your late 20s, you shall begin to create something unique.
- As you create your unique offering, please do your best to mentor others, lifting them up as you climb.
- And then, as your own narrative closes, you are to leave a legacy for others.
I’m pointing out this rhetoric, bringing attention to it. I’m not throwing it out or saying it’s wrong. It’s just important to recognize this common rhetorical framework that surrounds the idea of purpose. I don’t think it’s a narrative that we should cling to without a bit of reflection and awareness.
During my own summer camp days as a camper and leader at Camp Gailor-Maxon, which was held at DuBose Conference Center for nearly 100 years, I remember a sermon from the Rev. John Baker that disrupted the idea of ‘purpose’ in an early and foundational way for me. At the closing Eucharist, he told us that, while at camp, we had had an experience being in a thin space, close to each other, to creation, to the divine. And that when we left camp, we might hear someone say that we were once again back ‘in the real’ world. But Father Baker told us that camp was the real world. ‘This is the real world,‘ he said emphatically, as he gestured to 100 kids in freshly made tie-dye t-shirts and to the homemade bread and chalice of wine on the altar. ‘Don’t let anyone tell you that a world in which you can experience the unconditional, extravagant nature of God’s love isn’t the real world, because I’m here to tell you that it is.’
The Sunday morning after returning to Nashville with the boys from camp pickup, I walked out of my house past the piles of stinky camp laundry to go to church and reflect on the parable of the sower. Parables, of course, are wonderful little mysteries. Don’t think you know whodunit at first glance. You must live in the mystery and consider the parable from multiple angles. The genre of the parable is essentially a short story that you shouldn’t take at face value. The story of the sower inspires me rethink purpose and rethink assumptions we might make about what a ‘good sower’ is.
Theologians I respect like Barbara Brown Taylor, AJ Levine, and Diana Butler Bass have encouraged us to remember that this parable may not be simply about the seeds and where they land but also about the characteristics of the sower. In fact, the sower seems wholly unconcerned with where the seeds will land. The method the sower employs is messy, freewheeling, and almost wild. This method is not cautious, not careful, not stingy, and certainly not practical. The sower sows in such a way that shows us there’s plenty of seed to go around.
Jesus seems to love extravagance in other ways as well. When he feeds the multitudes at Galilee, there are enough leftovers to fill twelve baskets. When the woman with the alabaster jar cracks it open and anoints him with expensive ointment, her extravagant gesture pleases him. At other times, he tells us: Do not hoard up your treasures on earth. Do not cling to me, Mary. He tells us over and over and over again: Let it go. Let it all go.
We are to be open and to be lavish, right here and right now. We are not to cling to that material thing or the idea that we should be this or we should be that. And certainly, we should work hard not to foist clinging or hoarding onto others.
My favorite song from the Disney movie Encanto reminds us more eloquently than I ever could,
The stars don’t shine, they burn
And the constellations shift
I think it’s time you learn
You’re more than just your gift…
The miracle is not some magic that you’ve got
The miracle is you
All of you, all of you
You—not your gifts—are the miracle. It’s a startling and crystallizing idea that I feel the need let myself sit with for more than a minute or two. How might this idea change the way the way I teach, the way I lead others, the way I write? How might it change the way I parent these two tween miracles currently constructing a giant fort in the living room with all my furniture and all my clean linens?
There’s mystery at work in this world. Let go of the idea that there’s just one right way to sow your seeds. You never know when that one might fall on rocky soil and then get transported by the wind onto more fertile ground. May we parent ourselves and may we parent our children in a way that is less concerned with success and legacy and purpose and more dedicated to generativity, fruitfulness, and creativity.
In ways that are both seen and unseen, may we live alongside a giving, wild, holy, freewheeling, mysterious, awe-inspiring spirit. Do not hoard your time or your treasures or your love; give it all, give it now. To paraphrase Annie Dillard’s famous exhortation in The Writing Life, spend it all. Every time. Do not wait to share the best that you have to offer, right here and right now. The spirit backfills things from behind and from beneath, like water from a well. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. Do not wait to open your safe and find only ashes.