All of us at one time or another have faced the question, “Who am I?” and that question naturally opens up the question that naturally follows it, “Why am I here?” It’s the question we ask of ourselves as creatures with consciousness about who we are, why we exist, and can distinguish ourselves from the rest of the created order. Perhaps it’s the first evidence we have that we are persons with a soul. Maybe you’ve posed the question this way, “What is the purpose of my life?”
When in doubt (as most of us are on occasion), we should go to the doctor … Dr. Seuss pondered our birth because our birthday calls to think about why we came into being:
If you’d never been born, then what would you be?
You might be a fish or a toad in a tree.
You might be a doorknob or three baked potatoes.
Worse than all that, you might be a wasn’t.
A wasn’t just isn’t. He (or she) just isn’t present.
But you – you are you, and it’s truer than true
That there’s no one alive who is you-er than you.
Shout loud, “I am lucky to be what I am!
Thank goodness I’m not just a clam or a ham
Or a dusty old jar of gooseberry jam.
If I am what I am, and it’s a great thing to be,
If I say so myself, happy birthday to me!”
Why are you here? The Bible tells us we are here because God wanted us to be here. While we all have unique birth stories, in the deepest of truths behind those birth stories we learn God created us and as God’s children, we are meant to have fellowship with God, to be God’s girl or boy, God’s man or woman, here in this place and in this life, right now and throughout our lives.
Hear the blessing from the creation story in Genesis: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” … God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. God blessed them.
Thus, our faith offers us a simple yet meaningful answer to the question of existence. You are a special creation of God. You are more than a fish or a toad or a clam; you are the very image of God. Woman or man, fresh-faced and freckly, or bent over and wrinkled, you are here because God wants you here. You are here because God put you here.
We cannot help but ask the question of existence at various stages of life. We first ask, “Who am I and why am I here?” when we’re young. Often the answer comes in the form as borrowed identity from our parents or an older sibling who loans us a transferable part of their identity. First I was Delbert and Libby’s surprise second boy. (By the way, the gift of my existence came in the form of never hearing them say I was their Oops baby and with that, I was blessed.) Then I was Donnie’s little brother. But eventually, I learned I had my own identity, earned mostly or wholly on my own merits based on those things I did well and those things I did poorly. I had to rise or fall on my own according to my sense of self and my willingness to live a truthful life.
It’s interesting to realize Paul wrote this epistle of joy to the church in Philippi while in prison (thus, this comes from the collection of prison letters Paul wrote while holed up in some Roman jail in order to make sense of his time spent there). So please don’t layer on top of this happy optimism an undeserved dismissal as merely pious talk. Paul faced real danger in jail and was often poorly treated. He endured because he knew death could be faced because of his belief that death would open the door to being with Christ for eternity. With that, he could then hold his own life loosely and could turn his attention to others, partly understood as a part of how he answered the existential questions of existence: “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”
Maybe such an attitude could open the door of understanding with an answer that’s driven less by my own narcissism and more by the larger meaning that takes courage to face. Dietrich Bonhoeffer raised the question in light of his imprisonment after participating in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler. He considered the contradictory answers of others in light of what he saw himself to be. To others, he appeared strong, serene and self-sufficient; but to himself, he considered himself sick, empty and weary. To all this, his trembling faith affirmed, “Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O Lord, I am Thine.”
I didn’t know it then, but in the contract of life, I was made a steward of my life. I was given charge of this body and all my relationships and the work I did and all the love I shared as a responsibility to the One who made me and launched me in the world.
But the question is one we face at all the important stages of life and again after childhood I pondered the meaning. I revised and updated my self-image based on my decision to marry and again when I became a father to two children who looked to me for the needs of their lives not to mention guiding them toward answering the questions of existence for themselves. I worked my way through several layers of education and experience as a minister and the nature of the question deepened as I lived an existential life, meaning I could not minister to you without knowing a deep sense of my own identity.
A 24-year-old young woman in Biloxi Mississippi was so despondent about her life that she jumped from a wharf in an attempt to end her life. As she later admitted, she was simply “tired of living.” But it also happened that a man saw her jump and thrash about in the water and he knew in a flash what she was doing. Forgetting that he didn’t know how to swim, he stripped off his coat and dived in after her. When he came up, he thrashed in the water and was in serious danger of drowning himself. The woman saw this in amazement and paddled over to him. As he was gulping water down with his open mouth as he bobbed up and down in the water, she grabbed hold of him and pulled him from the water. Instead of taking her own life, she saved a man from drowning!
Most of us face the question with a sense of dread or anxiety because we’re afraid the answer to the question will just be another opportunity to feel shame or guilt over how our lives have been underwhelmingly lived.
But many of you know the question continues persistently to the later stages of life. This I know because you’ve taught me well. So sometimes an older person asks, “Why am I here?” or, it comes in the revised version, “Why am I still here?” Often that question is voiced in the shadow of some dark illness or the loss of one’s partner in life. The question is wearying and often asked out of some sense of despair.
A woman, who eventually lived to see her 101st birthday, had an answer to the question of “Why?” So long as she had life and breath, she would pray. She was not intimidated by what others thought as she moved to the nursing home and asked them how she could pray for them. No longer could she teach a Sunday School lesson, or sing in the choir, or help with the church picnic. Yet she could still pray. So she faithfully prayed and prayed and prayed. She prayed for her church and her pastor and the other ministers of her church. She prayed for her friends who might be experiencing sickness or loneliness. She prayed for the children and the youth. She gave herself to a new purpose after her body no longer gave her strength to work. While she longed to leave and go be with her Lord, she also knew that as long as she was alive, she had a reason and a purpose for life.
In truth, we are stewards of this life and it’s ours to live, but it’s not ours to live for us alone. It’s a gift from God meant to guide us toward service and sacrifice.
© Dr. Keith D. Herron 2023