To Live Rather Than to Exist


The opening page of the sermon I preached yesterday, as part of a service that combined celebration of Pentecost with the recognition of high school graduates

British humorist P. G. Wodehouse said: “I always advise people never to give advice.”  His advice about not giving advice is advice we often ignore, especially during commencement season.  We can’t seem to help ourselves.  We don’t seem to realize that graduates don’t want another speech; they want the program to be over so they can do the party that comes after the program.  And, they don’t want another card filled with our pearls of wisdom; they want money. 

I don’t have money to give our graduates, but I also hope I don’t have something as useless as advice.  Instead, I have a challenge and an invitation for all of us, not just for graduates.  In his speech to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College, the late David Foster Wallace framed the challenge:

How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out . . . [How to make] it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head (This is Water, pp. 60, 130). 

That’s the challenge: to live rather than to exist; to be wide-awake rather than to sleepwalk; to get outside the narrow and dark walls of ego and find the spaciousness and brightness of a life open to the wonders of the world and the mysteries of other people; to give your life for things you believe in, rather than to have your life bled out of you by things you don’t; and, most of all, to refuse—adamantly, even defiantly refuse—to live without the transcendent and transforming ecstasy of loving and being loved. 

It’s a challenge for all of us, not just graduates.  The cliché’ we say at a commencement is “it’s the first day of the rest of your life.”  That’s true for all of us, every day, including today.  Despite what we think and fear, it’s never too late to take up the challenge of living a life that matters, instead of settling for whatever kind of life might happen to us.

Here’s the invitation: You can’t meet the challenge of a life worth living by yourself and on your own, and you don’t have to.  You can, if you will, let Jesus guide you and accompany you.  One way to understand Jesus is to think of him as “a Spirit Person” (a phrase Marcus Borg used in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time).  Jesus was filled to overflowing with the Spirit, which means he had an immediate and intimate awareness of God’s presence and power.  The Gospels tell us that the Spirit descended onto him at his baptism, strengthened him in moments of temptation and trouble, inspired him in the face of fatigue and frustration, guided him when he sought wisdom, embraced him when he prayed, and raised him from the dead after he gave his life for us. 

The Spirit set him aflame with love and caused him to radiate God’s healing compassion.  The Spirit showed him bright wonders of mystery and made him shine with the beauty of God.  The Spirit taught him to dance with joy, and his delight gladdened his friends.  The Spirit gave him courage in the face of opposition and enabled him to embolden people who were tempted to give-up or give-in.  The Spirit showed him that there are heights and depths of glory just above and beneath the way things appear, and gave him the words and images to open others’ eyes, ears, and hearts to greater experience of life.

Jesus, overflowing with the Spirit of God, still does these things, and can guide us to live our lives in ways that matter.