Coming Alive for the World

Almost from the first day, I knew that I wasn’t cut out to work in
a bank. Banking didn’t involve any of the gifts or talents I
thought I had. Worse, certain talents I don’t have are essential
in banking, like the ability to add and subtract numbers. But, at
twenty-one years old, I had worked in two banks and I’d spent two
years in a business college. The die seemed to have been cast.

Perhaps I would be just another of the world’s millions who were,
as Thoreau put it, living lives of quiet desperation, spending my days
doing something I didn’t want to do. This was the era of The Man
in the Gray Flannel Suit, of the Stepford Wives, songs about
ticky-tacky houses, and, in the department of religion, books with
titles like God’s Frozen People. It was as if the whole population
of the era knew it was living an unpleasant myth that had nothing to
do with their true humanity and hadn’t a clue as to how to stop
doing that.

But, one day, I received a catalogue in the mail from a small Baptist
college in Providence, Rhode Island. I don’t know why it was sent
to me. Part of a grand plan, no doubt. The college prepared missionary
teachers, medical missionaries and emphasized preparation for the
ministry. The pictures of the bucolic setting of the college, complete
with gothic-style buildings and green lawns, and descriptions of the
life of students committed to religious service reduced me to tears of
frustration and longing.

I knew that was what I wanted to do. It was where I belonged — not in
a cage counting other people’s money. But I was married, with two
children. How would I ever pay for more college and then three or four
years of seminary? I wrote to the dean of the college, telling him how
much I would like to study there and describing my situation. He wrote
back a brief note ending with, “God’s will is God’s
enablement. Come ahead.” Being a firm believer in God’s will
in those days, I went ahead. Back to school. Back to the night shift
in factories. I graduated from the college, went to seminary, earned a
couple more degrees to fill up wall space — and here I am. Simple as

The college Dean said “God’s will is God’s
enablement.” Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss.”
The late dean of Boston University Chapel, Howard Thurman, said
“Ask what makes you come alive and go and do it.” Shortly
after I graduated from seminary, I participated in the Ordination
Service of one of my classmates. After the service, in the receiving
line, a man shook my hand and said something truly insightful about
the theologian, Paul Tillich, whom I had quoted. Later, during the
reception, I came across the man again. We got into a conversation
about religion and theology. Assuming, from our conversation, that he
was a religion professor, I asked him where he taught. He looked
momentarily puzzled, then said, “Oh, no, I don’t teach — not
in any school, at least. I’m a gas station attendant.”

That was one of the places where I learned that blue collars and white
collars don’t tell us all that much about the people who wear
them. This man earned his living by pumping gas. But he was alive to
and alive for the grand and deep issues of existence and the profound
matters of the spirit. One of my favorite philosophers in the sixties
was Eric Hoffer. Hoffer wrote very readable philosophy–and radical
stuff. He wrote three books that I know of: The Ordeal of Change, The
True Believer and The Passionate State of Mind. Eric Hoffer was a New
York City longshoreman.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come
alive and go and do it. Because what the world needs is people who
have come alive.”

The seminary I attended following college had a large number of older
students–men and women making mid-life career changes. My classmates
included a former police chief, a Hood Milk Company vice-president and
a New York Times correspondent. Another of my classmates was the east
coast marketing director for Shell Oil. His story was that, during his
fifth cocktail party of the week, he looked down at the martini glass
in his trembling hand, put the glass down on a table, excused himself,
went home and applied for seminary. That was over thirty years ago.
Stan is still serving the Presbyterian church in a small Vermont town
he went to right after graduation and still farms the same acres and
cuts in the same woods.

“Ask what makes you come alive …” I check in with myself
every once in awhile, ask myself what makes me come alive, ask myself
what my bliss is. I want to be sure that, if I want to be a brain
surgeon, there’s still time to get in the training. For me,
fortunately, it always comes out the same. I’m following my bliss.
I’m doing what brings me alive.

Speaking of being a brain surgeon — suppose your work is not your
bliss. Suppose what you do to earn a living is not what brings you
alive. Can you really just chuck it and do something else? We have to
face the fact that, most often, it’s not that we can’t change
our lives, but that we won’t — won’t pay the price. My
classmate, Stan, and his family gave up the big house and the servants
in Scarsdale and moved into the tiny parsonage of a country church in
Vermont. Not many would do that and, besides, times have changed. Most
people these days are in hock up to the year two thousand and fifty
and couldn’t quit their jobs if they wanted to.

But what will bring us alive is not necessarily a new line of work.
What made that gas station attendant so much alive was not that he
pumped gas but that he studied theology. Theology brought him alive.
Pumping gas just paid for the rent and groceries.

I never for a moment take for granted the fact that the vocation —
the calling — that brings me alive also pays my bills and that that
is a luxury in our time. I am privileged to have my work and my
vocation be the same. “Vocation.” It comes from the Latin
voce, roughly translated as “calling.” In our time, most
people need to have a job that pays the bills and to find a calling —
that which feels like destiny — to bring them alive. “Ask what
makes you come alive” and, if it isn’t your job, ask again,
“What makes you come alive — and go and do it.” And that
need not necessarily mean changing your job.

Years ago, I suffered one of a minister’s greatest nightmares. I
forgot about daylight savings time. The phone rang beside my bed. The
Service had started and my friend, the head usher, thought I might
want to come and participate. Somehow, I was out of bed and behind the
lectern in about ten minutes. Still flushed and panting, I opened the
hymn book to the reading I had chosen for the opening words.
Unfortunately for whatever dab of composure I had left, the words were
Henry David Thoreau’s, from Walden, beginning, “We must learn
to awaken!” Thoreau said, in Walden, “I wish to learn what
life has to teach and not, when I come to die, discover that I have
not lived. I do not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear

If we need to hang on to our jobs to stay alive, we need to be sure
that, in Thoreau’s terms, we are truly alive. The Buddhist
teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, speaks of the ways in which we keep our
senses deadened to the life that is at hand. “Even when we have
some leisure time,” he says, “we don’t know how to get
in touch with what’s going on inside and outside ourselves. So we
turn to the television or pick up the telephone as if we might be able
to escape from ourselves.” For many, of course, it is far worse.
They keep themselves dull and deadened with drugs or alcohol or any
number of addictions or obsessions which keep them from facing the
world alive.

How do we come alive?

First, we have to look closely and honestly at our lives to see if we
are fully alive, fully aware. That may take some courage. Howard
Thurman raises it as a question, “Ask.” “Ask what makes
you come alive …” You don’t know if you don’t ask. We
may have spent much of our lives avoiding that question. Asking what
makes us come alive might be confronting the fact that we are not
fully alive. We may fear that we could not bear the sorrow of
admitting that we are not living our lives and that–so we fear–there

is nothing we can do about it. And so, Thoreau said, “Many people
live lives of quiet desperation.”

What has to be said about that — about the unwillingness to face our
lives as they are–is that denial is rarely, if ever, complete.
It’s a basic psychological truism that what we push down in one
place comes up somewhere else. If nothing else, not facing the whole
of our lives — the sorrows, pains, losses, disappointments,
unfulfilled yearnings, as well as the joys and successes — means that
we are not living the whole of our lives. We cannot deny much of the
reality of our lives and be fully alive. Denial of a critical truth in
our lives becomes a small corner where we spend most of our days and
endure most of our nights.

To come alive, we must first ask the question. Make the time, find the
place, be in the quiet and ask the question deep within: How is it
with me? How is my life? Am I fully alive? And then we have to let the
true response come. Let it come, not as it has — sneakily, furtively,
like something alien and dangerous — but let the truth of our lives
come simply as how it is. The regrets, the might-have-beens, the
if-onlys, the loneliness and dissatisfactions and discontents: let
them be, let them into the light. They do more harm in the dark than
they can ever do brought into the light. With the whole of our being
brought into awareness, then we can ask the question, “What is it
that brings me alive?”

When do you feel most fully alive? Most filled with energy and
enthusiasm? Is it when you are by the sea? Walking in the woods?
Playing an instrument? Working in your garden? Building? Solving a
computer problem? Do you feel a flow of energy when you write? Do you
come alive when you dance? When you sing? What makes you come alive?
“Go and do it,” Thurman said. When we have brought fully to
light what it is that really brings us alive, then, of course, we face
a decision. What to do with it? One philosopher of the sixties and
seventies–those days of The Hollow Men, The Stepford Wives and
God’s Frozen People called this a moment of
“alternation.” It is the moment, he said, when we look over
our shoulder and see a large key turning, slowly, in our backs. And we
know, in such a moment of truth, a moment of awareness, we know that
we are living mechanically, automatically. In such a moment, we can
decide to turn off the machine and go with the spirit, follow our
bliss, go with “The Force,” or we can turn back to

Well, it could be that I’ll face an empty sanctuary next week
because you all will have gone to live on the Big Sur or you’ll
have enrolled at Berkeley or moved to Vermont. Taking that state of
being alive all the way should be the first consideration. You come
alive by the sea? Why not move to the sea? And when all the
“Becauses …” come, as they will, then they must be chased
down to the final degree, each roadblock to living fully our true
being must be compared to how it feels to come alive before they are
allowed to keep us where we are.

Well, if you are here next time, if you haven’t packed up and gone
art school, I hope, if painting makes you come alive, that you have
decided to make more room for it in your life; to find your teachers,
to learn where you can, to paint for yourself in all those hours you
lost or gave away. Play the music that brings you alive. Write the
stories and the poems. Sing. Dance. Plant. Build.

Ask what brings you alive and live the answer.

“The world needs people who have come alive,” Howard Thurman
said. But he said first, “Don’t ask what the world needs…
ask what brings you alive.” Why did he say that? Aren’t we
supposed to ask what the world needs? The world needs people who have
come alive. There are people who go to the world’s needs out of
their own needs — out of their own incompleteness. Some go to the
world’s needs looking for something to fill their emptiness. Some
go to the world’s needs as an outlet for their anger.

And it’s not that they do no good at all. If you’ve served a
meal to a hungry child, you’ve fed a hungry child — and it
doesn’t matter why. But the world needs more. The world needs
people who have come alive. If you’ve been around a person who is
fully alive, you know what being in that person’s presence does
for your own mood. Alive people are invigorating, inspiring,
encouraging. They don’t suck the life out of you because they
don’t need your life. They have their own lives. They have come
alive and have a sense of life that not only empowers them but
empowers the people around them.

We should embrace life fully because life is so good when we are fully
present to it; because the world needs people who have come alive; and
because the people who are close to us need us to come alive and be
fully present with them. Let us not come to the end of our lives only
to discover, too late, that we have not lived. Now is the time to
claim the fullness of our lives; now is the time to ask what brings us
alive and to do it.