Princeton University Religious Life

A Gift Prepared for Us

Thomas G. Popp Jr., Class of 1964
Princeton University Chapel
April 11, 2010

As an undergraduate, I was an active Chapel Deacon. There had not been crucifers prior to my day, and I got to be the first of those. I have been able to fill that role at a few of my reunions as well, and it is always a great thrill. Certainly, however, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to occupy this distinguished pulpit. It is a delight to get to do so. I am honored and humbled to be here this morning, and I thank Dean Boden for her gracious invitation.

Will you pray with me.

In November of 1963, I was a senior at Princeton. On Friday afternoon, the 22nd of that month, I was in my room, when Bill Faust, my roommate, came in and told me that President Kennedy had been shot. Of course we did not then have the internet or the personal devices by which we could get news instantly wherever we were, so throughout the afternoon and evening we gathered. We gathered around radios, television sets, and dinner tables, mostly in stunned silence, as we learned of the president’s death and the events that followed. We watched each other’s faces and tried to figure out what it all meant. Although the US was already deeply mired in a war in Viet Nam, this was the young president who had made it seem that anything was possible, who had promoted the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, who had gotten us through the Cuban Missile Crisis, who had created the Peace Corps, who called forth the best from each of us.  “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” We gathered in small, wondering groups, that Friday. And on the following day we gathered in this space, this very Chapel, to mourn collectively and to reassure each other that the rest of us were still here. Regardless of our political opinions, as a community drawn together by common experience, as Americans, as Princetonians we prayed and we sang and we cried, perhaps already knowing that a part of our national innocence had died with our young president.

Although we gathered in our time of crisis, we also responded individually. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after college. Maybe seminary. Maybe Peace Corps. Maybe graduate school in one of what I now call the “helping professions,” like social work or medicine. Maybe a job back home while I sorted things out. What I came to know with great clarity that weekend in 1963 was that I would join the Peace Corps. I was called to be a volunteer. And nine months later I was in Africa, in the newly independent country of Malawi, in the district of Karonga, where I served proudly for the next two years as one of forty in an excellent tuberculosis control project. I had found “my calling.”

Knowing the next step in a journey can be blessing enough sometimes, even when you do not know what lies at the journey’s end.

That initial call led to many places I could not have predicted. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I learned what I did not want to do, like go into medicine, and I learned where my passions lay. I was assigned with another volunteer, who went on to a distinguished career in tropical medicine, who would have been happy to spend his life in the hospital lab with a few bright professionals. Not me. I cared about community. I was always out in the villages with the people. I got good at the language. I knew everybody’s name. I knew who their kids were and who their aunts and uncles and grandparents were. I knew what mattered to whom. I was “adopted” by the headman of one of my villages, and ever after, I was known by his name. In fact, to this day I am Mwanjabala. And although it took me a few years after coming home, I went on to a career as a city manager, where I always sought to know everybody locally, to know what they cared about, and to have the kind of working relationships that could get things done. That was what I loved. After graduate school in public administration, I worked in local government in Hanover, New Hampshire, suburban Philadelphia, and finally suburban Madison, Wisconsin. I am retired in Madison now. It has been a good life.

St. Paul writes to the young church at Corinth that God gives many different gifts to many different people. Paul even identifies some of those gifts: wise counsel, clear understanding, simple trust, healing the sick, to name just a few. In the Eugene Peterson translation of the New Testament, Paul sums it up this way: “each person is given something to do that shows who God is.”  These are gifts of the Holy Spirit, says Paul. They are not of our own making but are gifts of God. The fact that two Peace Corps Volunteers, assigned to the same place with the same training and the same job description, would respond so differently is a reflection of God’s different gifts to each. Neither is better or worse. I contend that both responses “show who God is,” to borrow Paul’s phrase, by showing two different personalities, two different sets of gifts.

Similarly, St. Paul writes to Timothy, his young associate in Ephesus, of his own ministry. He says that God “first saved us and then called us to this holy work. We had nothing to do with it,” Paul says, “It was all [God’s] idea, a gift prepared for us in Jesus long before we knew anything about it.” I confess that I am no theologian and that that part is a bit of a mystery to me: how the gift of our talents and our passions got prepared for us in advance. But the fact that each of us is given unique abilities and personal traits is no mystery at all. It’s just fact. Our calling is indeed “a gift prepared for us.”

You are the only one ever with your particular combination of characteristics. No one can be you but you. This is not surprising. In fact the opposite would be much more surprising, that somewhere, some time your clone existed. Still, it bears repeating: you are the only one with your set of gifts from God. And my central argument this morning is that it is your responsibility to use those gifts to the glory of God. As a child in catechism class I was taught that “the chief end of man is to glorify God.” Your gifts enable you to do that. Dottie Billington writes, “Your fingerprints and genes, personality and mind, abilities and interests are yours alone. No one else on earth comes close to duplicating you. You are unique. You are special. And that is a treasure for you to cherish, and protect. You were meant to do one thing in life, to become your authentic self.”

Marianne Williamson says it this way: “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.” An almost identical sentiment is attributed to Nelson Mandela.

In other words, living a life that revels in the abilities and passions that God gave us glorifies the Giver, shows who the Giver is. When we open and enjoy that gift prepared for us, we honor the Giver, we glorify God.

This is not hedonism. Although I certainly have nothing against a good party, I am not advocating here what Will Durant calls “the undisciplined pursuit of individual pleasure,” a pursuit by which he says that civilizations collapse and die. I am aware that in the teachings of the church there is a strong thread of self-denial, self-effacement. I am here to preach the opposite. We are allowed to have a good time. More than that, we are required to revel in the gifts prepared for us by God. It is only by knowing and naming and using our gifts that we are able to glorify God. Living authentic lives that honor the gifts prepared for us by God may not be sufficient, but it is necessary if we are to glorify God.

I contend that not only is there no one else like you but that it is your JOB on earth to figure out who this one unique person truly is. I contend that becoming that authentic person is required of you as you seek to glorify God, who gave you the gifts and graces you possess, who dreamed up and created this being which you are.

One caveat: the expression of your gifts needs to do no harm to others, and it needs to be grounded in love. If you were to conclude that the authentic you was a murderer or rapist or someone who needed to commit violent acts against others, that would certainly not be pleasing to God. In the same passage of the same letter to Timothy that we heard today, Paul says, “So keep at your work, this faith and love rooted in Christ.” In other words, the work you do must be not only earnest and fundamentally of your core being, but also loving. Paul adds, “God doesn’t want us to be shy with his gifts, but bold and loving and sensible.” Live out loud, he is saying, but always in a way that is loving of others. Mother Theresa describes herself as a pencil in the hand of God, writing love letters to the world. What a wonderful description of a life well-spent.

So the question becomes, how. How do I discern my gifts? How do I know my calling?

Certainly we all know people who get it wrong. I myself spent years denying that I was gay, being fearful of people’s opinions and reactions. But I am gay. When I really paid attention, I knew. That is the authentic me, and I now embrace this gift of God with all the energy I formerly used to deny it. I also have enormous admiration and respect for today’s young gay people, who are insisting on their own integrity in a way I was not able to do at their age. Their stories and their examples are deeply moving.

You may recall that even Moses got it wrong, at least at first. Five times God had to ask him to lead the people out of Egypt. Moses kept saying “no, I’m nobody, I won’t know what to say, they might not believe me, send somebody else.” Finally, God became angry and said “Go!” And finally Moses went.  

Getting it wrong can have its deleterious effects on you, too, for that matter. One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from Quentin Crisp, who says, “It’s no good running a pig farm badly for thirty years while saying, ‘Really, I was meant to be a ballet dancer.’ By that time, pigs will be your style.”

So how do you finally get it right? Let me list a few suggestions.

One thing to do is listen. That may be the most important thing you can do. Be aware of the clues that are all around you. Take time every day for quiet listening, maybe on a walk, maybe when there’s no noise in the house and you can take a little while away from the busy-ness of life. Intentionally listen.

Pray. You may have the ability that Moses had to have a direct conversation with God. Initiate that conversation. Spend part of it talking to God and part of it listening. You could learn more than you ever imagined through the regular discipline of prayer.

Have adventures. I had always wanted to go to the South Pacific. Then one day I received a bonus from a grateful employer, a travel gift certificate big enough to pay for a round trip ticket, and I was out of excuses not to go. So I did my homework, selected Vanuatu, booked passage, and went. For two months I lived on a remote island in a small village teaching English in an elementary school. There were no cars, no roads, and no phones. There was no electricity and no western medical care. I slogged about barefoot in the mud like everyone else. But I was fed and cared for, given shelter and useful work, treated with gentle good hospitality, invited to weddings and every celebration and village meeting. I was 63 years old at the time, and for sure I had the time of my life. I learned more about myself than I could have imagined, just by having an adventure.

Study scriptures. Doing so is one of the Means of Grace, according to John Wesley. Wise and ancient people spent their lives living as they believed God wanted them to live, recording the stories. They have much to teach. Read the scriptures.

Keep a journal. You will be amazed to read later what you were once thinking, how you once felt. Write it down in a journal.

Do the thing you fear. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I’ve lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

Switch roles and be a servant. In mid-career, when I was between “real jobs,” I spent a season once scooping frozen custard at a fast food place while I job-hunted. I cleaned up messes. I cleaned the toilets. It was sticky and yucky sometimes, fun sometimes, humbling all of the time, and blessedly temporary. For me. But being treated like a lackey is a way of life for some others. It was an experience I hope I never forget. Switch roles.

Go to the wilderness. Apolo Ohno is a winter Olympian. Between the 2006 and 2010 games he got away from training and into another lifestyle, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to compete again. So his dad sent him alone to a cabin in the woods and told him to figure out who he wanted to be. Make up his mind. Come back when he knew. After a few days, surrounded by nature, Apolo returned to his father restored, with renewed purpose and determination. He had found himself in that cabin. He had seen into his own heart. He went back to serious training. And he went on to become the most decorated winter Olympian ever. Go to the wilderness.

Sometimes, as in the case of my decision to join the Peace Corps, you just know the right answer. In a piece for The Pennsylvania Gazette Steven Schwartzberg writes of being on the eve of a three-month-long silent meditation retreat. “Remind me,” he says. “I chose this, right? Choice seems the closest word. But it doesn’t quite fit. As with many of the large and often unexpected decisions I’ve made in the past few years, this one registered internally as a surprise, more like receiving news than generating it. I awoke one morning and heard myself think, ‘Huh! I’m going to do a three-month retreat.’  As if it were already determined, as if I’d received a terse memorandum from my boss. Of course, I could have ignored the urging, or deferred it until it shrank away. But big life decisions are a curious mix of the logical and the preposterous, of steering and getting out of one’s own way, of initiation and surrender. And so now here I was, relishing this last day. Wistful. Excited. Freaked out.”

Sometimes you just know what you are called to do. For me, many years after serving in the Peace Corps, going back to Malawi was what I had to do. All through the nineties, when I was still raising kids and working, I watched with growing shock and sadness as the AIDS pandemic worked its inexorable way across sub-Saharan Africa. Children in Malawi, as in many countries, were being orphaned in huge numbers. I was aware of useful, caring, effective work being done for orphans elsewhere, and I kept saying to myself, “I know Karonga, I know the people, the language, the culture. I have to go and do what I am able for these kids. I can do this. If I don’t do it, who will? I have to go.” But I didn’t go. And still I didn’t go. Until finally, once I was retired, I HAD to go. And I went.

I wrote a couple of grants. I bought tickets for my daughter Emily and my exchange student son Digo, and in 2005 we went. We spent sixty days checking it all out, listening and consulting, making a plan, finding a good local partner, getting the project to the design stage. When we came home, we wrote more grants, mostly through Rotary, and soon the work was underway. Several hundred kids in six villages are now getting some form of help, mostly to enable them to stay in school and to keep track of and respond to their other needs, and the project is an ongoing success. Digo and I went back in 2007, and we plan to visit again this August.

I am not the world’s savior. But I AM responsible to use my knowledge, skills, abilities, and talents where I can, for the glory of God. St. Paul wrote to Timothy about the gift prepared for us by God, the work we have to do. This orphans project in Karonga, Malawi is part of what that means for me. Some children and families in one specific place on this earth may have a better future because of what I am able to do.

Each of us has the responsibility to learn the nature of the gift prepared for us by God. Each of us must open and celebrate that gift to glorify God, the Giver. What I have learned from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is that when we come to the end of our days on earth, we want to be able to look back and say that we have done what we needed to do. Whatever our work was, we did it. I have come to know that now is the time to get on with our work, while we can, so that if we have found our calling and have lived our lives as the authentic persons we were meant to be, then at the end of our lives we can rest contentedly. But it all comes from knowing what that calling is.

Don’t get that calling wrong. Maybe in the end what matters is that you be vulnerable. Be open. Listen to the signs all around you. Listen to God. Get out of the comfortable place you’re in and try something new, maybe especially something that scares you. Be open to all the messages. Be vulnerable to what the world throws your way, and see what you can learn. Try going belly up now and then, and see what happens. 

I want to leave you with one last image. My dad came to this campus as a freshman in 1927. He was later to run a very successful business, which he conducted in a practical, brass-tacks, no-nonsense manner. But he had four years at Princeton before he assumed his career responsibilities, and I like to think that maybe he allowed himself to dream just a little. While he was an undergraduate, this Chapel was being built. And he used to tell the story of coming in here while the skilled craftsmen were at work. He would watch the stonemasons and woodcarvers. And he would literally lie down on his back, belly up, in one of those pews where you are sitting now. He liked especially to watch the workers installing the stained glass windows in the clerestory. He had no role to play but to observe. He simply took in what was around him. I can imagine that the stories depicted in those windows may have suggested faraway times and places. I know that for him getting to watch them being built was a very special memory. And I can hope that while he watched he was also learning about himself.

“Each person is given something to do that shows who God is,” says St. Paul. A unique calling, an individual nature, a special role to play, unlike that of anyone else ever -- that is the gift prepared for us, prepared for each of us by God. Seek that gift. Know that it is there. Search carefully till you find it. Don’t spend your life doing something else. Don’t get it wrong. Be brave and bold to open that gift and rejoice in it. Receive it with gratitude and celebration. Use it to glorify God. And get on with it now, while you still have time.


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