The following was given as a talk at Morning Prayers in Memorial Church on September 15, 2015. You can find the audio here.
I ask a lot of questions – always have, probably always will. I’m curious about why things are the way they are, and what we can do to change them. I’m curious about why bad things happen to good people, and how the universe functions so intricately. I ask questions like “What is faith,” and, “Why does God work the way He does?” But above all, I think the question I ask most frequently, and most desperately would like an answer to, is, “What is my purpose?”
‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart’ – Jer 29:11-13
The question of my purpose has plagued me my entire life. What started out as excitement to get out into the world and make a difference became a point of frustration. I would ask myself, “Exactly what difference am I supposed to be making, and how am I supposed to be making it?” You see, I believe in the will of God and in the idea that every individual has a purpose on this earth within that will. And starting around high school, I have been increasingly aware of this notion that God is calling me to do something specific, but I can never quite grasp or figure out what it is.
So I went to El Salvador for a service trip. I didn’t actually go with the intent of pondering purpose, but I ended up having a number of particularly salient interactions with the Salvadoran people, one of which included a one year old orphan named Michael. Upon meeting him, I immediately noticed that his feet were deformed and bent at awkward angles. He had an enlarged forehead, and something in his eyes just wasn’t quite right. Had he seen a doctor? Would he receive treatment? Did the orphanage have the money to pay for it? I asked my questions, but unfortunately, the answers I got all amounted to a very unpromising “I don’t know.”
Children like Michael are why I’m drawn to global health. But this led me right back to where I began. Is this The Thing I’m supposed to be doing? And how do I even begin to go about it?
Well, even though I don’t have explicit answers to these questions, my experiences in El Salvador helped me reach one particular conclusion: The Bible is a wonderful source for peace and understanding. When all these questions were going through my head, I just sat down and read my Bible, and I was calmed. As a result, I had a strong desire to read the entire Bible, from cover to cover. I’m only in Exodus, but I’m still reading.
I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m going. And I think that is what comprises purpose.
I was listening to someone speak a week or so ago, and he said that we shouldn’t be so focused on trying to figure out what God’s purpose is for us that we fail to fulfill His purpose right now. There are several ways to fulfill our purpose in this life, but we can’t think of purpose as though it is a discrete concept. It’s not static; it’s continuous and fluid. You know how people say it’s not where you’re going, but how you get there? Well everything I do – being here at Harvard, being involved in the groups I’m in, connecting with the people I meet – all of that shapes who I am. Expecting all of this to culminate in a singular, amazing fulfillment of God’s plan for my life would be cheating myself out of enjoying the blessing of life now, but it would also be failing to be attentive to what it is that God would have me do today.
Purpose is both a long-term and short-term goal. Sure, the things I do now will one day allow me to do something else that will fit into God’s plan. And yes, that’s fulfilling His purpose for me. But so is guiding a blind man to the bus stop. And so is offering the leftover cookies I had from a meeting to a homeless person. Both of those instances were beautifully orchestrated in such a way that I and the other people were in the right place at the right time. And in those moments, I fulfilled God’s purpose for me. Did I plan to? No. Was I expecting that to happen? No. But I did do something meaningful.
God places us where he needs us, and He equips us with the tools we need to be successful while we’re there. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll figure out what that thing I feel called to do is. But that doesn’t mean I should do so at the expense of all the other day-to-day things I am also being called to do.
Romans 8:28 says, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” In all things. Even the little things. Those little things shape the person you become who may one day fulfill a larger purpose. But they’re all connected and part of God’s plan. Like watching an artist paint, we may not see the whole picture, but the artist knows what He’s doing. And the master artist, the creator of the universe and my Lord and Savior, is certainly no exception.
Michelle Odonkor ’18 lives in Leverett House.