Let's start with a bit of dialogue from a not-too-old film. Shirley Valentine is a 42-year-old English housewife who has gone with a friend to Greece on a holiday. The scene is a quiet outdoor bar on a Greek island, probably Mykonos. She is sitting alone at a little table near the beach, watching the sunset ...
Funny, isn't it? You know the way you picture something and you've imagined how something is going to be - well, it never turns out like that, does it? For weeks I've pictured myself sitting here - sitting here, drinking wine and I knew exactly how I was going to feel. Now that I'm here, I don't feel a bit like that. I don't feel at all lovely and serene - I feel - pretty daft, actually. And awfully, awfully, old.
I've led such a little life. And even that will be over pretty soon. I have allowed myself to live this little life when inside me there is so much more. And it's all gone unused, and now it never will be.
Why do we get all this life if we don't ever use it? Why do we get all these feelings and dreams and hopes - that we don't ever use?
Why, indeed? Most of us lead lives that are pretty little, filled with feelings and dreams and hopes that go unused and, like Shirley Valentine, we get lost in our unused lives. Then we watch the overwhelming tragedy of New Orleans unfold and find ourselves thankful, or at least not whining so much about, the ordinariness of our lives. But still, there is that nagging sense that what we are about is not quite what it could be, if only ...
If only what? There is a formula for making something out of our little lives. Jesus said it, and at first it seems to make no sense. The formula is, in a nutshell, "give yourself away to others." He said that if you try to save your life you're going to lose it. But if you lose your life, you will save it.
Jesus also said that where your treasure is, that's where your heart will be. Note the order of the instruction. He didn't say, "Get your heart right with God and you will become a generous person." It works in the other direction. Be generous with yourself - your treasure is not just your money, it's your time and your energy and your attitude toward your neighbors and the world. Be generous with yourself and your heart will change.
Now there's a remedy for a little life. A generous life is not a little life. A generous life is a huge life, overflowing with new possibilities, running over with new beginnings and second chances. Why do you think you have all those feelings, and dreams, and hopes, that you don't ever use? Use them! There are scads of places where you can be useful. Use your imagination. How many can you think of, this very day? If you lose your life for the sake of others, who knows?
Thomas Dahl is a former pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Juneau. He retired in 2004.