There is an old story of a rabbi named Akiva. One day, Akiva decided that it was finally time to walk the seven miles into the village to restock his supplies. He had put it off as long as he could, so he set out as soon as the sun rose. When he had purchased all that he needed and had everything arranged in his packs so that he could carry it all home, he started the journey back.
While making the trek home, Akiva took advantage of the time to ponder deep and hard questions. He thought about the nature of God. He wrestled with the question of human suffering. He contemplated things like, “what does it all mean?” Among his thoughts were some very personal questions. Akiva thought about his life, the people he had known, and the things that he had done. He considered who he was as a human being and what others understood about him and learned from him. He thought long and deep about his own purpose in this world.
So lost in his thoughts was Akiva that when the road split off to the right to take him home, he missed the turn. He kept walking straight ahead, unaware that he had not taken the road home. When the road that he travelled finally came to a large, Roman gate, only then did he realize that he was on the wrong path.
As Akiva approached the gate, he heard the loud, booming voice of a guard: “Who are you, and why are you here?” the guard called.
In good rabbi fashion, Akiva answered the question with a question: “how much do you get paid to stand here and call out those questions?” he queried.
“Five drachma a week,” came the reply.
Upon hearing this, Akiva responded. “Leave your post and come with me. I will pay you twice that much to stand by the door of my house and ask me those questions every time I come and go.”
Who are you, and why are you here?
They are fundamental questions of vocation, meaning, and purpose. Who are you, and why are you here? They are questions that address the “big questions and and worthy dreams of our lives.” Who are you — in the existential sense? Why are you here — riding this planet, at this time in history?
These questions also address the everyday-ness of our lives. Who are you — today, in the daily experiences that you will have today? Are you a daughter or son? A teacher or student? An employee or employer? A friend? A person of faith? A beloved? A citizen?
And why are you here — in any given place that you find yourself? In class? At your desk? On the stage? In rehearsal? At home? On the road? Doing your homework? Paying the bills?
Who are you, and why are you here?
As much as these questions are personal, they also draw us out of ourselves and into the cares and concerns of the world — who are you in the face of the struggles and sufferings of others? Why are you here, alive at this time, amid the current questions and challenges that face our planet?
Within the Christian tradition, there are some guiding thoughts to help us answer these questions and figure out how to live as faithful people in this time and place. The Christian Scriptures teach that all of humanity is created in the image and likeness of God. Who are you? You are a being created in the image of God!
The Scriptures also give us guidance for the second question. Our brothers and sisters in the Anglican tradition remind us that the “chief aim of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Why are you here? To glorify God!
As you live and work and go about your daily lives, I commend these two ideas to you: you are created in the image of God to glorify God. I invite you to reflect upon and contemplate what that means for you in the daily living of your life and as you face life’s big questions.
What does it mean for you to bear the image of God and glorify God in your home? With your friends? At work? As you figure out how you will respond to the crises of our time — the needs of our planet, the needs of the refugee, the needs of the stranger, the needs of the sick, the dying, and the grieved?
These are each matters of faith and conscience for every one of us. As you wrestle with them, I invite you to hold the questions of Akiva’s guard before you: Who are you, and why are you here? And I invite you further still to live into the answers of grace: You are a being created in the image of God to glorify God.
May these answers guide you, lead you, and direct your days and your deeds in peace.
And oh, by the way, why not print off the questions of Akiva’s guard — who are you, and why are you here — and hang them by the door or tape them to your computer so that you are reminded to live into their answers each and every day?
Many Blessings —
Feb. 1, 2017
Rev. James A. Wetzstein and Rev. Charlene M. Rachuy Cox serve as university pastors at Valpo and take turns writing weekly reflections.