By Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento
(from the regular Column: “Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance”)
Sometimes fortune is very hard on me. Recently, for example, I had to spend well over an hour sitting in a middling discount clothing store while a teenager I know and love was shopping for middling discount clothing (and I just want to digress long enough to say that Kindle is an amazing invention). But even with a thousand books on my Kindle, I still noticed a sign in several places that was, evidently, designed to recruit folks to join the sales team at this middling discount clothing store.
At the top, in large bold letters, was the word Found. The middle was occupied by the photo of a man from about the waist up. He was standing among folded clothes and wearing a lanyard that identified him as an employee of this middling discount clothing store. He had a broad, inviting smile, but noticeably intense, slightly narrowed, eyes focused just askance from the camera, obviously engaging a customer. At the bottom of the sign, matching the word Found above, was the word Purpose.
There are so many, many, many directions we could go from here, none of them very pleasant or encouraging.
When the ship of meaning hits a storm and many of the words get washed overboard, you end up with signs like this one, tying the idea of a meaningful life to selling blouses.
First, don’t misunderstand. There is, so far as I can tell, no great shame in selling blouses. But there’s no great honor in it either, to paraphrase Tevia’s lament to God in Fiddler on the Roof. Surely a life of purpose should be something you take to your job, not from it. If there is already proper purpose in your life then, in the incarnational theology of Christianity, selling blouses can be an act of holiness. But God help you, friend, if blouses are where you’re planning to find your life’s purpose.
And that brings us to the more intriguing part of this Sign of the Times. Those with genuine purpose have a genuine opportunity in the present world. Once a word like purpose has been degraded this far, it is open to an extreme makeover. We can either abandon it and find an entirely new way to talk about genuine purpose in life, or we can try to redeem it and talk about how real purpose is actually different from selling blouses.
Both of those plans need to be discussed. Neither of them is what I’m here to discuss right now. What is really telling about that moment, what was, to me, most discouraging about the possibilities of that Sign of the Times, was my reaction to it. I was savagely cynical. It did not fall on me, as I have placed it here, from a comic frame of the world’s persistently infantile silliness. It fell as a melodrama and tragedy, and I despised the whole world from which it came.
That is the real problem. Because here is the first truth by which every Christian must measure themselves: You can never evangelize what you do not love.
Unless you love—on its own terms—what you want to change, you are not here to help. You are here to win. And that is a very different plan. Helping operates from a desire to build something we can both love more deeply than whatever we have now. Helpers, evangelists, are out in the rubble of an earthly city they love, rooting about for some small fragment of Truth or Beauty or Goodness, and when they find one, they hold it up, shouting, “Here! This! Let’s find more of these bits and get them all together! What a glory we might build!”
The second group—captivated by winning—operates from nothing more than petty ego and self-interest. They are the ones who are engaged in office politics, offering sly gossip and innuendo, and celebrating not things of glory beyond themselves but coalitions of power around themselves, drawing aside possible allies into flattering, whispered pseudo-intimacies: “I really can’t say too much about this, but you should know….” This preference for dominion in my hand over glory in our midst is undoubtedly a moral failing far more profound than looking for purpose in a middling discount clothing store.
And a failure to love the culture you want to change is the surest path not just to a failed evangelism, but to receiving perfectly justified mockery from our fellow citizens.
 George, Cardinal Francis, The Difference God Makes (Chestnut Ridge, New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2009), ch. 16, passim.