Get a Life
A few years ago, I had the privilege of preaching the graduation sermon for my alma mater, Union Presbyterian Seminary. Not having preached a graduation sermon and not knowing exactly what approach to take, I decided to offer the graduates one piece of unsolicited advice. I told this group of gowned and hooded graduates that as they go out to serve as educators, pastors, professors, chaplains, counselors, and prophets my one piece of unsolicited advice is this: “Get a life!”
Anna Quinlen, novelist and former NY Times writer, dishes out the same advice in her book: A Short Guide to a Happy Life. Anna writes:
You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are. So I suppose a piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you developed an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast while in the shower?
Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes . . . Get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger.
Turn off your cell phone . . . Keep still. Be present.
Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work. Each time I look at my diploma, I remember that I am still a student, still learning every day how to be human.
Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas making fuchsia star bursts in spring; look at a full moon hanging silver in a black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is glorious, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around.
I can only echo a loud “AMEN” to Anna’s advice, but as I do, I must note that the advice she gives is not original to her. Much of it has a distinct biblical ring, sounding a similar note to the wisdom from the book of Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is life indeed; it brings food and shelter, without fear of evil” (Prov. 19:23).
Some of it has an even more familiar gospel ring. On the winding campaign trail to usher in the reign of God, Jesus pauses for a conversation with his struggling students. He asks what kind of life they are chasing after. Then, he launches into a graduation sermon suggesting that to get a life, to find a real life, means that you first have to give up chasing after the life that everybody tells you that you need. “Those who lose their life for my sake,” says Jesus, “and for the sake of the gospel will find it” (author’s paraphrase).
The students of Jesus are ready to walk on stage and receive their diplomas. They have given up jobs; they have given up all their stuff; they have even left behind their families. They are sure that they have passed all the required religion courses with flying colors and they are ready to graduate. Just then, Jesus steps on stage and tells them “if you think you understand me and what it means to follow me before the upcoming horror show in Jerusalem then you are closer to the devil than to God.” Jesus reminds his students and remedial learners in every age that life is about giving up and giving away so we have room to receive.
Looking out over a sea of future ordained leaders of the church, I cautioned them: “Just on the day when you sit poised ready to begin your lives in ministry after long years of theological education, Jesus shows up telling you to think twice about the kind of life you have been told to ‘get’ since childhood. Just when you are graduating into a society that is ‘spiritual but not religious,’ Jesus shows up calling you and me into a life that is spiritual AND religious, a life of engaged faith lived in community and marked by the hard, public work of cruciform love.”
The Jesus we meet in Mark shows up not just for grand ceremonies; he sits beside us every Sunday. Just when we think we cannot give one more dollar or attend one more choir practice or sit through one more committee meeting or take one more week off to go on a more mission trip or tutor one more student, Jesus shows up inviting us into a generous life, like the life of the wealthy impoverished widow who gives her last dime to support an institution that was no longer worth a dime. Just when we feel that we have given as much as we can possibly give to the church, Jesus shows up saying, “Alright, if you are ready to get a life, then give yours away!”
Written to a Christian community struggling to “get a life” in Christ in a thoroughly pagan Roman society, John of Patmos also doubles as John of Cove. He sits here, inviting us to imagine what life looks like on the other side of giving it away. In the twelfth chapter of Revelation, this visionary exile has a dream of the Satan, the great accuser of God, set loose on earth and yet defeated by a bleeding lamb and resisted by those who “did not cling to life even in the face of death.”
Like Mark, in his Revelation, John invites us not to cling to life, but to the lifegiver. Cling to Jesus when the reality of evil seems far more plausible than the sovereignty of God. Cling to Jesus when the stain of sin seems far more evident than the mercy of the One who sees beyond our sin. Cling to Jesus when common sense tells us not to get involved, not to raise our voice in protest or waste our time in advocacy. Cling to Jesus when people look at us as if we had three heads when we set aside time each day to read Scripture, to sit in silent reflection, to feast at this table, and to pray. Cling to Jesus when people think baptism is a sweet, little meaningless ceremony, rather than a water mark that claims us for life. John of Patmos sits among us, inviting us to cling to Jesus, to hold on for dear life, for that is precisely where Jesus will lead us.
Long after Will and Kristin have celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary and Oliver and Norah have retired from their jobs, I pray that Mark and John of Patmos will keep showing up in this sanctuary. I pray that they will not sit quietly, well behaved, silent, and in a corner, but will keep up their restless ways, keep inspiring us to get a life that shows we “care so deeply about its goodness” that is, living a life centered in Christ, “that [we] you will want to spread it around.”
So, my prayer for each one of us today is the same short prayer that I offered to a group of graduates several years ago. Sisters and brothers in Christ, “get a life!”