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“What is my purpose?”

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On confessing Christ in a pluralistic culture

They had been three good days of sitting with the brothers and sisters of our conference and wrestling together about the language of our common faith. How do we confess Christ in a pluralistic culture?

The push and pull of language, personalities, and regions was itself a study in pluralism. We are bound together by the chains of our community, we were told. This is hard work at times. It isn’t easy getting our words right. It isn’t easy to really hear someone else’s questions and answers.

And so, as we checked into the airport, my associate pastor Ryan and I asked for seats together. We were both tired and the comfort of a well-known fellow traveller made sense to both of us.

An interesting seatmate

But something went wrong on the second leg of the journey home. As I was seated I looked around – no Ryan. I was in row 15 and he was getting into a seat near the front of the plane. Even as I looked up the cabin, my seatmate was pushing her way in beside me. I was trapped against the window.

“I haven’t slept for 36 hours,” was her greeting.

“Why?” I asked, regretting it even as the single word fell from my lips.

“Oh, it’s a long story.”

It was, and it wouldn’t stop until we landed and she left for her next connection.

I tried to find safe ground. “What do you do?” Maybe she had come off a long work shift.

“As little as possible.” No, that wasn’t safe ground.

“What about you?” she asked. Then, “You’re a pastor?! Oh my God!” She stared at me as if I were the Ghost of Christmas Past. “I have to ask you something. What is my purpose?”

Just that simple. It was the perfect question after three days of linguistic and theological gymnastics. We had been training for this.

Of course, nothing is that simple and while she paused briefly for my response it was also clear that she had an assortment of possible but troubling answers to her own question. These and the various internal conversations that encased them interjected themselves into my attempts to respond.

Running away

It wasn’t long before I discovered why she hadn’t slept for 36 hours. She was running away from a man – again. And when she ran away from things, she did it with the help of cocaine. Her brain was crackling like a broken radio, leaping from the past to the present, from reality to paranoia, from the bizarre to the mundane.

I heard about a father who left while she was still in the womb and how that traumatized her. How her stepfather sexually abused her and made her mother jealous. How she left for the street at 15. How she protected her own daughter, only to be rejected by her.

And the men…and her counsellor and her psychiatrist and her recovery groups.

Her stories poured out with a dull consistency but her question, buried under a load of tragedy, was real and sincere. It wasn’t always easy to dig out again and it wasn’t easy to answer. But that’s the question that lies at the heart of Jesus’ identity. It’s because he answers it that he is the Christ.

As I listened to her stories, and as I struggled to articulate some kind of response, some kind of confession, I came up against a hard reality: this was much harder work than a study

And when I needed it I didn’t have a metaphor, a paradigm, a symbol; in fact, I didn’t have any language that really worked. All I had was the story of Jesus and the woman at the well to remind me that this woman too was one of the people Jesus came to save.

What do you say to someone you will never see again? To someone who in a few minutes will walk off into a chaotic, pain-soaked world? To someone whose mind has been scrambled by years of drug and alcohol abuse?

I told her that her life does have a purpose but choosing to live like it does isn’t easy. It didn’t sound very complete, and it didn’t actually answer her question, but she said it made sense.

I hope it did, but it fell far short of what I thought a study conference should have produced in me.

On the other hand, maybe I was just supposed to listen.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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