Why we are here

Why are we here?  What is our purpose?  These are questions Jesus thought about - and he had an answer.

Full Text: 

Why we are here

March 6, 2016 – Mark 12:28-34


            For most of my life – at least since I was a senior in high school – I have asked the question, “Why am I here?” 

            At different times, it has taken different forms.  Sometimes it is, “Why are we here?  Why is anyone here at all?”  Then it is more a cosmic, existential question – what does it mean to be human?  Sometimes it has been a very down-to-earth, practical question, more a question of purpose – Why am I doing what I am doing?  Of all the things that are competing for my attention, what should I focus on and how should I decide?

            Jesus, too, thought about these questions – not in teenaged angst; nor in mid-life panic.  But he thought about what he should be doing – why had he come – so he could stay true to his purpose.  And he also thought about what any of us should be doing – why were we created?  He must have thought about it because when he was asked, he had a response.

            Jesus has come to Jerusalem to do what he has come to do.  He is in the temple teaching and debating, as rabbis do.  In his case, however, many of the questions are more hostile.  His opponents are trying to trick him into saying something that will lower his standing in the eyes of the people or give them a chance to lower the boom on him.

            There is a question about his authority.  There is a question about paying taxes to Caesar.  There is a question about the resurrection.  All of these questions have an agenda.  They are designed to trip him up and make him look bad.

            But then there is one scribe – himself an expert in the law of Moses – but not apparently following the other scribes in their opposition to Jesus.  He hears Jesus’ answers and thinks, “This guy is good!”  So he comes to pose a question.

            “Of all the commandments,” he asks, “which commandment is the most important?”  It is a question that is often asked by rabbis, but it seems to hold a special importance to this scribe.

            Jesus gives this traditional question a traditional answer – Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. Then Jesus couples this commandment with another – You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  This is another traditional answer that any good Jew would applaud.

            Then the scribe says something that is radical – Loving God and loving neighbor is more important than any sacrifice you can make at the temple.  It is radical because he is making this statement in the temple itself, the site of burnt offerings and sacrifices.

And Jesus approves.  He says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  To understand what this means is to be close to where God really is.  You can be faithful to God without the temple and all its rituals.


            I have been serving as a night chaplain at Meriter Hospital (now Unity Point Health) for over five years.  All in all it has been very rewarding.  But there are nights and even stretches of nights when it has felt less so.  I begin to wonder why I am there and if I should stop doing it.  But then there will be a night when something happens to remind me why I keep doing it.

            Such was the night when I was paged to the Adult Psychiatric Unit.  A man named Alan had asked to speak to a chaplain.  I stepped into his room, introduced myself and settled into a chair. 

He looked at me and said, “I just want the pain to stop.”  His face fell into his hands and his shoulders began to tremble.

            Alan had just been admitted to adult psychiatric unit.  He had been having feelings of wanting to kill himself.  This was by no means the first time this had happened.  What was different this time was that he called his daughter, who suggested he come to the hospital.

            Alan was a gray-haired man in his sixties.  In his twenties, he had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, a condition that blesses the sufferer with high highs, but also curses them with low lows.  Over the years, he had gotten married, had children and started his own business.  But mental illness had also taken its toll.  His wife eventually divorced him.  He lost his business after a work-related accident. His children – except for the daughter – were mostly distant.

            There was one thing, however, that weighed on his mind more than anything else.  Some years before, he was helping his elderly mother clean the snow from his parents’ driveway.  When he moved one of their cars, he accidently backed over her.  She died as a result.  Alan could not forgive himself.

            My first impulse was to tell him it was only an accident.  But then I realized he must have heard that attempt at consolation before from others and it hadn’t worked.  So, I kept silent and continued to listen.

            “Sometimes I wonder why I’m here,” Alan said.  “I’ve tried to kill myself so many times I’ve lost count.  I’ve been cut down twice from hanging myself.  Another time I drove my pick-up at 80 miles an hour into a cement culvert.  The next day at the hospital the doctor told me that the CT scan revealed that one of my kidneys was full of cancer.  They needed to take it out.”

            Then he said, “If I hadn’t tried to commit suicide, I’d be dead right now!” He shook his head and began to chuckle, which I took as a good sign.

            After an hour or so of talking, Alan told of another time he had tried to commit suicide.  “I was lying in bed and trying to slice my forearms with a knife, which is a lot harder to do than you’d think.

            “Then my mother and Jesus both walked into the room – just as real as you sitting there,” he told me.  “My mother said, ‘I forgive you.  It was an accident.’  Then Jesus said, ‘I forgive you. It was an accident.’

            “When I told my psychiatrist about it, he said, ‘Those were just images.’  When I tell my friends, they think I’m crazier than ever.”

            I looked at him and I said, “That was real.  That was your mother.  And that was Jesus.  They were saying, ‘I forgive you,’ and they do.”

            But the look on his face said that he still wasn’t ready to forgive himself.

            Alan was due to stay several more days in the hospital.  His doctor was trying to adjust his medications to the right level.   He told me that the nights were the worst. During the day, there were distractions.  But at night there was nothing but the voice telling him to kill himself.

            I told him that I was here all night and that there was a chaplain on duty every night. So, if he started hearing that voice and needed someone to talk to, he could just tell the nurse and have the night chaplain paged.

            At last, his question turned once more to, “Why am I here? Why after everything I have done – even all the times I’ve tried to kill myself – why am I still here?”

            I paused.  Then I said, “Just between you and me, I think one day you will find out why you are here.  Maybe it will be in this life.  Maybe it will be in the next.  But one day, you will know why you are here.”  And with that his face seemed to soften and turn more thoughtful.

            Finally, I prayed with him, wished him well, and shook his hand.  He thanked me and I headed back out into the hospital.


            To meet another person where they are, human being to human being; to walk with them for a time in the darkness they are experiencing; to let them know they are not alone – this is why I am here.

            It is why we are all here.  The way that you walk with someone will not be the same as the way that I walk with someone.  Maybe you will take a meal to a family that is grieving.  Maybe you will help a neighbor you have trouble getting along with on a project.  Maybe you will ask someone if they want to talk.  You don’t need to force yourself on anyone.  But you may offer your presence, your companionship, or your help, because that is what you would want.  That is what you would want from someone else.  Whatever that is, try to do that.

            Love God with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength.  Love your neighbor, as you love yourself.  This is more important than anything else.  And this will bring you close to the kingdom of God.