What is the Purpose of Life?

Elora Festival Sermon
Dr. Jay Baker
July 27, 2008

Where else in southern Ontario or in all Christendom for that matter would you have to arrive at church half an hour early in the middle of July to be assured of a seat. Such is part of the miracle that is Elora. I want to thank the rector for asking me back to preach a second sermon from this pulpit and I issue the same disclaimer I did on the first occasion. Being a family physician for 32 years, a coroner, and a chorister provide absolutely no credentials for preaching, and while being Chair of the Elora Festival and Singers has certainly increased the frequency and fervency of my prayers it adds not a jot or tittle to the rest. That said: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable to thee my strength and my redeemer.

I take as my text several verses of Psalm 8, the psalm appointed for today:

When I consider thy heavens, even the work of thy fingers; the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man, that thou visitest him. Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels, and dost crown him with glory and worship. Thou makest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; and thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet.

Abraham Lincoln once said: I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon earth and be an atheist but I cannot conceive how he could look upon into the heavens and say there is no God.

The first part of the psalm talks about God as creator of the universe. Here is the young David out under the stars watching his sheep. The air then would not have been darkened and polluted with smog and there would not have been streetlights to obscure the brilliance of the stars. He felt as we all have felt, perhaps standing in cottage country, under the stars overcome with a sense of mystery and awe. But the universe that the psalmist gazed up at was conceptually much smaller than that of which WE are aware. If the psalmist felt insignificant how should we feel. The Hubble telescope recently recorded the birth of a star. The photo shows a cloud of gas 170 000 light years away. In other words it would take 170 000 years traveling at the speed of light to reach it at a distance of 102 with 18 zeros miles or 102 quintillion miles. It is estimated that there are 10 billion galaxies in our universe with each galaxy containing 100 billion stars – David did not know the meaning of insignificance!

In the sight of a God who could make a universe like that, why should He care about us? In Genesis 1 vs 26 we read what God said: let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.

What does it mean to be created in the image of God? Contrary to what you may have heard God really is not some omnipotent clone of Noel Edison or even Robert Hulse. All thinking about God has to be tentative and open ended. We cannot fully understand his being and nature for that would tend to limit Him and surely we would not wish to be Children of a Lesser God. Most people in this country when asked still say they believe in God. And while they are less certain when it comes to the details of that belief, any God worthy of the name must remain beyond reason’s grasp. Martin Luther, when asked why he believed in God answered that he could do no other. He was compelled to believe and that compulsion came both from the heart and the head, the intuitive and the logical. Dr. William Osler arguably Canada’s greatest clinician said: Faith is the one greatest moving force which we can neither weigh in the balance nor test in the crucible.

Surely it takes more faith to believe that everything from the genius of Mozart and Shakespeare to the complexity of the human body to the glory of a fall day in Algonquin Park is the result of a random series of mindless purposeless events which mean nothing and go nowhere. Everyone’s favorite detective Sherlock Holmes is forever telling Watson that: When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth; or on another occasion improbable as it is, all other explanations are more improbable still.

Half a century ago the idea that God created the universe out of nothing was ridiculed by scientists but in modern quantum physics and astrophysics we learn that this is happening all the time. Modern science now postulates that the universe began as a cosmic singularity with all mass and energy compacted into a single point and then exploding in the Big Bang. Surely there are parallels between this and Gods utterance: Let there be light. The fact that it took millions of years for humans to evolve from the rest of the animals makes it no less marvelous or no less God driven than an instantaneous arising from the dust. And as we read in psalm 90: A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past. God’s time is not our time.

Is it just chance that the size of the earth, the distance from the sun, the makeup of our atmosphere, the thickness of the earth’s crust, the magnetic fields of the earth, the tilt of the earth, the speed of rotation of the earth and the length of its orbit are all optimum for life on earth? And if varied slightly would preclude such life from ever developing.

Is it just chance that provided that most plants require carbon dioxide to survive and give off oxygen while we require oxygen to survive and give off carbon dioxide. Just chance that narcotics derived from the poppy can control our pain, aspirin from the willow bark treats our inflammation , digitalis from the foxglove strengthens our heart and penicillin from bread mould cures infection? The complex and precarious symbiosis of our ecosystem is truly awe inspiring.

Albert Einstein once said: Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that behind all the discernible laws, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. He continues; The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly, this is my religion. Stephen Hawking the Einstein of our generation adds: It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.

What is man that thou art mindful of him and the son of man that thou visitest him?

Shakespeare almost paraphrases the psalm in one of Hamlet’s soliloquies. What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable. In action, how like an angel; in apprehension how like a god.

I believe that being made in the image of God means sharing his creative power – to be able to create and understand the images and sonorities of art, to be able to engage in abstract thinking, to be able to distinguish between good and evil and to have the ability to make moral judgements. Right and wrong to a believer must have an objective reality beyond what is useful to the majority. In short being made in the image of God means to have the wherewithal to invent, discover, refine and perfect all of the endeavours of the species Homo Sapiens throughout the ages. The human spirit is that part of us that is able to love and experience God directly and is found in no other species. Man has a unique relationship with God. Scientists have even found what has been called a God gene. The idea is that spirituality has an innate genetic component to it. Humans inherit a predisposition to be spiritual, to reach out and look for a higher being. It strikes me that any God omnipotent and omniscient as we would have him be, neither needs nor covets our constant attention and worship. Perhaps Christ gave us the first and great commandment, to love God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength, to answer our need to give our ultimate allegiance to some higher power.

Today’s epistle came from Romans 8 where we read: The spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God; and if children, then heirs; heirs of God.

And in 1st Corinthians 3:16 we read: Know ye not that ye are the temple of God and the spirit of God dwelleth within you?

If the spirit of God is within us and we are children of God then we all possess a spark of the creative divine. Man was to be the instrument by which God would do his work in the world and the expression of the being and character of God

What is man that thou art mindful of him and the son of man that thou visitest him?

We cannot all be Einsteins or Shakespeares or Mozarts or Robert Evans or Michelangelos or John Kissicks or Kiri Te Kanewas or Noel Edisons or Martin Luthers or Martin Luther Kings. We do however all have gifts and talents and our response to accepting our position as a child of God created in the image of God must be to make the best use of gifts that we have been given.

The psalm concludes by saying that God has given us dominion over all the works of His hands and has put all creation under our feet but surely not for us to trample on. Instead of running creation we are ruining it. In the past we have caused the extinction of untold numbers of species, we have razed and burned great swaths of the earth, we have spilled oil that has killed countless creatures in the sea and we have belched sulphurous fumes causing birds to fall from the sky and people to develop cancer and that now threatens profound climate change around the globe and perhaps our very survival as a species. Far too late we are finally coming to grips with the downside of the industrial revolution and modern society’s demands for instant gratification.

What is the purpose of life? I bet you didn’t think you would get the answers to that question today! We have been put in charge of this cosmos to tend and keep and rule it on God’s behalf so that we can protect, appreciate and celebrate the glorious work of the creator. God intends us to work in synergy with the powers of the universe but allows us to know the joy of true freedom the freedom to stumble and the freedom to make mistakes in order to attain maturity as true children of God. Let us hope we are not too slow at learning.

What is man that thou art mindful of him and the son of man that thou visitest him?

That thou shouldst so delight in me and be the God thou art;
Is darkness to my intellect, but sunshine to my heart.


Who’s Your Church?

I’ve always been a John – as it were. Despite my mother’s best efforts to have me haled by my given name, David, the world has consistently conspired to make me a John. I’ve managed to avoid the police lineups and the small town newspaper’s court columns (usually associated with those so ‘christened’) – but beyond that, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to being John. (A close second, of course, being the man with two – three if you count the middle one – first names, is Howard. In those take ‘em by surprise moments, acquaintances of some years revert to the ‘hi Howard’ – but I can live with that too.) My college roommate, John Macmillan, and I apparently exchange monikers early on in first year. Evidently not a one-off.

It certainly didn’t help that at my first real job at Stratford General, I was preceded by John Howard. How confusing was that for folks already predisposed to that salutive tic? Aside from ordering a few extra blood tests and fielding calls from time to time from salesman pushing lab supplies instead of psychological tests, no real fallout from that one either. Ever the leader in this informal dyad, John, however, jumped the name queue by some years in the second incarnation of our relationship, he a long time member of St. James. (Funny, nobody’s called Nicola Sheila yet – but that’s another story.) Lorne+’s first call to our household opened with, you guessed it, ‘hello John, this is. . .’ I can cut him a little slack, already having the neural pathways well-trodden with his long time parishioner’s name. I have to say though that, at sixty plus, Jim MacDougal’s greeting ‘in kind’ did give me pause. Hard on the heels of our neighbours inviting ‘John and Nicola’ to an evening of music with close friends from the street. Johnny Cash’s closing to one of his signature (poor choice of words, that) tunes – “Call me Bill or Bob or . . . anything but Sue!” started to carry new meaning. I’m sure folks were always mixing up John and Jesus as well. Beards, sandals, hanging out with a suspect crowd. Must have been no end of irritation!

And so to the point – I suppose there is one. I was cruising through the Weekend Globe a while back and stumbled on a derivative piece around Richard Florida’s book, the darling of U of T’s new ‘Prosperity Institute’. In Who’s Your City?, he maintains that folks tend to collect in certain geographic areas congruent or consistent with their personality types. Extroverts evidently populate the Eastern Seaboard. Neurotics the Northeast; conscientious folk the Southeast; and (surprise, surprise) Open-to-Experience people the West Coast – I personally have never heard that California is the fountain head of all things fringe and flakey!

We’d gone through ‘round 1’ of Ed Leidel (VIP – Values, Identity, Purpose) and were poised for the second visit wherein the identity of St. James would be sussed out. So, having our values clarified (accepting, questing, safe, and service-driven), I was indeed curious, against Mr. Florida’s background commentary, just ‘who’ we would be deemed to be. Nicola’s blog (preceding) has taken a look at the point Ed had suggested first considering: who is the patron saint and what’s he embody? So far, so good.

I have to say that small group, meeting at the end of May, nailed it. The signature ambivalence of the Anglican community was named – well, maybe not actually named, but certainly drawn in sufficiently clear terms to be identified in a closet at midnight with the door closed and the light off. St. James is female (oh, wait for it – here comes the ambivalence) – but with strong male characteristics. The church is remarkably similar – but diverse. She / he is middle-aged, but still behaving as if she’s (he’s) thirty. She / he dresses up (and down); likes the current CBC (in passing, anyone who has listened to the ‘vibrant, new CBC’ radio 1 and 2 cannot possibly have missed that the brain trust behind this dog’s breakfast of identity crisis – talk about trying to be 30 when it’s 50! – does indeed share a great deal with our current, fence-sitting, navel-gazing, ambivalent community which seems enamoured of the idea of being all things to all people); and drinks Scotch (well thank the wee man for small mercies). And her name (I guess the male parts, as it were, got 86’d at some point) is Jamie! So we’ve got a trans-gendered, cross-dressing, mid-life crisis ridden drinker as the personality. Oh dear. Richard would have something to say about this I’m sure.

I thought my identity crisis was crippling – but maybe I’ll just go back to being a John.

Definitely the views of the Web Master (and not his Scribe)!