The Meaning of Life – by Greg Albrecht

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Friend and Partner Letter from March 2016

In one of my favorite Peanuts cartoon strips, Snoopy the beagle sits on top of his doghouse and forlornly ponders: “Where am I going? What am I doing? What is the meaning of life?” 

 #1 – we are born, we go to school and then, when we grow up, we hope to get a job. BUT is gaining knowledge and having a job the meaning of life? Teenagers and young adults often feel they will find the meaning of life with someone who will love them forever.  

#2 – however, when young people get a little older many get a job, find the love of their life, marry and have children many discover that a career, a marriage and children do not help them find the meaning of life – 50% of all marriages find the seemingly endless treadmill of earning money and paying bills and interminable headaches with child rearing to be more than they “signed up for.” Many marriages dissolve because one or both partners grow tired of the self-sacrifice marriage requires. 

#3 – some couples who remain married in spite of the difficulties they encounter find themselves barely able to tolerate their kids and a boring career – they yearn for the time when the kids leave the house so they can retire and relish what’s left of life. BUT is getting rid of the kids, retiring from an empty career and then golfing, taking trips and watching television the meaning of life? 

When the house is finally empty, many find their time increasingly consumed with visits to medical professionals, receiving prescriptions, waiting for test results and enduring procedures, surgeries and treatment. 

#4 – some experience the last six months of life as a time when incredible sums of money are expended and “heroic” medical measures are undertaken in a vain attempt to prolong their life. BUT is prolonging life the meaning of life? Even as the end of their physical sojourn draws near, many are filled with dread, believing suffering and death to be a punishment they receive from God. 

The quest for the meaning of life often begins in earnest when suffering and pain reminds us that we are not the independent, self-sustaining person we thought we were. The meaning of life is often found during the giant struggle between despair and love, between self-centered emptiness and the new life given to us in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. 

The meaning of life is the real life that Jesus came to reveal – an abundant life here and now as well as forever – abundant not in possessions and things but abundant in love and grace. The meaning of life is discovered in the love expressed by Jesus in his suffering and his death on the cross. 

Our natural state is to look for love and the meaning of life in all the wrong places while running from and fearing suffering and death. But the path to Christ-centered meaning in life leads us to and through the path of suffering and death while the purpose and significance promised by all other paths during our physical life turn out to be only fool’s gold – an illusion and a mirage. 

The gospel of Jesus is clear: when one is willing to surrender the quest to find meaning in life apart from God, one is then given the gift of God’s grace and love which is the meaning of life. There is no other destiny or goal in life that surpasses God’s love and grace! 

     The meaning of life comes out of and through the crucible of suffering – first and foremost the crucible of suffering and death is of course the cross of our Lord. This physical life we lead is not all there is – that’s the lesson of “The Tale of Three Trees.”

     Deep within the forest, three young trees growing up next to each other were talking about what they hoped to be when they grew up. They were only six-foot-high saplings – their lives as full grown trees were yet ahead of them. They dreamed about the great things they would do – all three trees wanted to grow straight and tall, but for differing reasons: 

The first tree said: “I want to grow straight and tall, without any defects, so that one day I will be considered to be of the highest quality hardwood and then be chosen to become an intricately carved treasure chest, filled with precious gems and gold.”

The second tree shared his dream: “I want to grow straight and tall as well, without any knots or bumps, so I can be turned into one piece of lumber so long and strong I can be used as part of a hull for a grand sailing ship. I want to be part of a mighty ship that will take people to a kingdom of peace and love, far from the violence and heartaches of the world into which the three of us came.”

Then the third tree told the other two what he yearned for: “I want to grow straight and tall so I will become the greatest and tallest tree ever, soaring into the heavens. When people see how tall I am all they will be inspired to think about is the love and grace of God.”

Many years later, a lumberjack came into the forest and cut down all three trees. When the woodcutter’s expert eye saw the first tree, he thought its wood could be used as furniture, so he cut it down and sold it to a carpenter. The first tree was delighted, because its dream was still alive! Perhaps a carpenter would make a treasure chest out of its wood. 

When the lumberjack examined the second tree, he saw a tall tree, with few defects – shipbuilders looked for the kind of lumber that could be fashioned out of this tree, so he cut it down as well. The second tree was also happy, because its dream was still alive too. Perhaps shipbuilders would see his potential and use him to transport many people to a new world of peace and love. 

Finally, when the lumberjack turned his attention to the third tree, he immediately saw knots and defects that meant this tree could not serve any worthwhile purpose. He could only foresee this malformed, “despised and rejected” tree (Isaiah 53:3) might one day be used as rough cut logs or even as firewood. 

When the first tree was sold to a carpentry shop, it was turned into a feed box for animals, and then placed in a barn and filled with hay. A feed box for animals was about as far as one could get from the treasure chest for precious jewels the first tree had dreamed of becoming! 

When the second tree was sold, it was cut into pieces of lumber and used to construct a small fishing boat. An ordinary fishing boat was far from the dream of an ocean-going sailing ship that would transport people from violence to peace, so, like those of the first tree, the hopes and expectations of the second tree were also shattered.

Not long after the first tree had been placed in a barn as a feed box for animals, a man and his pregnant wife came to the barn looking for shelter. She gave birth in the barn and her baby, Jesus, Immanuel – God with Us – was placed in the feed box (Luke 2:7). The first tree (a feed box for animals) was now holding the unique, One and Only Son of God – the greatest treasure ever.  

About thirty years later, that same baby Jesus who had rested in that feed box was now grown, and, along with his disciples, stepped into the small fishing boat that had been constructed from the second tree. The second tree (the small fishing boat) had transported the Prince of peace (Isaiah 9:6) who would transform and transport many from kingdoms of violence and hatred to a kingdom of peace.

Meanwhile the “despised and rejected” third tree languished in a place where rough cut logs were kept. One day soldiers came and formed a stake out of the third tree, and that stake became the cross Jesus carried on his back to Golgotha. He was nailed to his cross and the cross was inserted into the earth so that Jesus was lifted high above all humanity, as he had said: “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). Thus, the third tree (the cross of Christ) was used to exalt Jesus above all so all humanity would know the love of God and how his grace can be embraced.  

“The Tale of Three Trees” is a simple story, but it reminds us that the ultimate reality and meaning of life is found in Jesus and his cross. Empty, vain attempts to prolong our physical life amount only to pride and self-glorification. The three trees dreamed that when they grew up they would become 1) treasured and unique (the first tree), 2) strong and powerful (the second tree) and 3) admired and respected (the third tree). 

If we live only for ourselves and our own accomplishments, we can only be defined by our pride and our self-centeredness. But when we willingly come to the cross of Christ our flesh and our pride and our self-seeking glory is crucified with him (Galatians 2:20) – our identity is now in him – we rise from who we were to who we are now in him. Jesus now lives in us, in a new, resurrected, Christ-centered and Christ-filled life

To serve Jesus and to serve others in his name is the ultimate dream – the transcendent MEANING OF LIFE – to which we aspire. By God’s grace, we follow Jesus, who lives out his humility and his life of service in us so that all that we are is his. By God’s grace, we proclaim his glory and his grace! Because of his cross and his resurrection, we are given Christ-centered life, which is the very MEANING OF LIFE! The grace of the Lord Jesus is with us and in us because of his cross and his resurrection! He’s alive! He is risen – AND THAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE!

Because of him, serving in his name, 

Greg Albrecht

Letters to My Friends

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