In the film Simon Birch, loosely based on John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, there’s a scene that knifed my heart. Simon, born with dwarfism, goes to his local church seeking spiritual guidance. He enters the pastor’s study and struggles into a chair.
Simon: “Does God have a plan for us?”
Pastor: “I like to think so.”
Simon: “Me too. I think God made me the way I am for a reason.”
Pastor: “Well, I’m glad that, um, that your faith, uh, helps you deal with your, um…you know, your condition.”
Simon: “That’s not what I mean. I think God is going to use me to carry out a plan.”
Later, Simon gets discouraged and returns to the same pastor.
Simon: “I want to know that there’s a reason for things. I used to be certain, but now I’m not sure. I want you to tell me that God has a plan for me, a plan for all of us. Please.”
Pastor (shifting in his seat, obviously uncomfortable): “Simon…I can’t.”
Sitting in the theater, I had deeply mixed reactions to that pastor’s response. Initially, I was angry, even outraged. I felt like saying to him, “Listen, if your doubts have undermined your calling to support the unique destiny of each person, why don’t you take a break or consider a new line of work?”
However, another part of me empathized with his weariness. In my 32 years of ministry, I struggled with tragedies that rocked the foundation of existence. Stillborn children, a young man killed just days before his wedding, suicides, overdoses, floods and fires, cancer that wrenched parents from their children. I always refrained from unsolicited platitudes like “God has a purpose for this.” Those words are hollow, even insulting, as we cry out against injustice or suffer from breathtaking loss. There are questions that simply have no satisfactory answers.
However, I do know this. If Simon came to me with the same query, I wouldn’t hesitate to answer.
Yes, I do believe that God/Creator/Spirit/Tao/Higher Power has imbued our lives with divine purpose, a plan that permeates our days if we embrace it. And though none of us can fully fathom the mystery of this providence, we can experience it in numerous ways. These are some I’ve discovered in my own life.
God’s purpose appears as divine appointments. With deep gratitude, I think of meeting my wife, Donna, when we both needed love and companionship. I look back on how she and I have helped each other through some very dark valleys. I think of counselors and mentors who entered my life exactly when I required their wisdom. I think of how, as a pastor, I was invited into the sanctums of other people’s struggles, offering timely support.
God’s purpose grips us with a love that brings order and healing. God is love, says the famous verse in John’s first letter, and as we move from asking why? to how? this love becomes an experience of life’s design. It drives us to spend ourselves for justice, to comfort the lonely and outcast, to be a conduit for unity and peace. I treasure these simple but profound words from Thích Nhất Hạnh, who died earlier this year after a lifetime of blessing other people: “The more you understand, the more you love; the more you love, the more you understand.”
God’s purpose compels us to exercise our gifts. We all have something to contribute. This is what Simon meant when he said, “I think God made me the way I am for a reason.” Thousands of years ago, David rejoiced with these famous words from Psalm 139: “I praise you, for I am reverently and wonderfully made!” Writers like Wayne Dyer helped awaken me to the unique impulses that arise within me when I connect to Spirit. I enjoy epiphanies that tell me, “This is the purpose for which you were created!” In many ways, including my doctoral work, I have always encouraged people to discover and exercise their gifts and talents. As Dyer famously said, “Don’t die with your music still in you!”
Friends, on this Thanksgiving 2022, I have a shout out to our Creator for all of us. Thank you for not only giving us loved ones on this journey, but for being WITH us, offering purpose that illuminates our paths. May we experience your active presence—and our unique part in your plan—more clearly every day.
Thanksgiving blessings to all of you!