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“He Knows What He Is About”: Living a Life That Matters

How does each and every one of us live a life that matters, that makes a difference, that has meaning, purpose, and value—and that ultimately will be a happy life in the rich sense of the term, that will be blessed? This essay is adapted from a commencement address delivered at The Mount School, a high school operated by the Bruderhof Community in New York, on June 4, 2021.

A high school commencement address is one of the hardest genres of writing and speaking to do well. I’m a stranger standing before you, and standing in the way of your receiving your diploma, and getting on to the celebrations. If I’m being honest, I couldn’t even tell you who my high school commencement speaker was, let alone what he said. I doubt it had an impact on me then, and it certainly doesn’t impact me now. How do I avoid that inevitable, and unenviable, fate?

That’s not just a question for me. A version of that question is actually before all of us, especially for those graduating this morning, but really for every one of us each and every day of our lives. How does each and every one of us live a life that matters, that makes a difference, that has meaning, purpose, and value—and that ultimately will be a happy life in the rich sense of the term, that will be blessed?

In one respect, I propose that the answer is quite simple: by responding generously to God’s calling for our lives, discerning our unique personal vocation and living it out joyfully at every moment of our lives. John Henry Newman put it this way:

God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place . . . if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am. . . . He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.

He knows what He is about. Our job isn’t to mastermind the universe. It’s not even to have our own five-, ten-, or twenty-year plan. It’s just—“just!”—to respond at every moment faithfully, and generously. Sometimes we’ll get the clarion call like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, but frequently it’ll be the soft gentle whisper, and not with a detailed plan, but a next step. We’re asked to take that step, and to be confident that He knows what He is about as He asks us to take that step. For He has a task that He asks each of us to do, and we each have our part to play. St. Paul made this clear in his letter to the Romans: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body.” Many members, many gifts, many callings in life. Each of you has a personal vocation. Living that vocation out faithfully is what will lead to a life of joy and meaning.

The Christian Call

Although each of us has a unique personal vocation, there are some common features of all Christian vocations. Let me start with the most obvious, but also the most important, part of that universal call.

Not one of us will look back on our deathbed and say, “I wish I had prayed less.” “I wish I had spent less time talking to Jesus, less time reading his Word, less time worshiping with his body, the Church.” None of us will look back and regret our baptisms. As you graduate today, do not take your faith for granted. It is the most important gift you’ve been given by God, nurtured by your family and this school. The world many of you will be entering isn’t quite as friendly to followers of Jesus as the Mount and the Bruderhof are. Be sure to make the effort to foster your life of prayer and discipleship. Even Jesus himself had to take time apart from His disciples, away from the crowds, to talk to God the Father. You need to take time apart. Make a commitment to making that time. We all have a vocation to prayer.

 

Second, remember that God created us in His image and likeness, meaning we’re rational and free beings. God is Logos. He is reason itself, and we have a calling to develop our minds. No one will sit on their death bed and say “I wish I had wasted more time on Twitter and Facebook,” or “I wish I had binge-watched more Netflix original series.” Nor, I hope, will you say, “I wish I had spent less time discovering the truth about God, the cosmos, and man’s place in it. I wish I had read less Shakespeare and listened to fewer Bach cantatas.” Develop your mind to discern the deep truths embedded in creation and appreciate the beauty that man can make in service to God. Do not waste your intellects on frivolous pursuits. If you’re headed to college, you’ve been given a great gift, an opportunity to read the best that’s been written, to wrestle with ideas that the greatest thinkers have wrestled with for millennia—and to do so not as a way of puffing yourself up, but to discover the truth so that you can then share with others the truths that set us free.

I was fortunate that my time in college was a time of renewed and deepened faith. I discovered that faith and reason went hand in hand, that there was no conflict between what God revealed in the Bible and what the mind could discover through reason. This happened at Princeton, of all places, showing that God leads us and guides us wherever He places us: He knows what He is about. For me, college was my first encounter with devout Christians who instilled in me the habit of Bible reading and daily prayer. Then I met some believing faculty members who helped me see how the best of scholarship and the best of theology had no conflicts. For a world so intent on rejecting biblical wisdom in the name of scientific rationality, this vocation to study and knowledge is more essential than ever.

Work as a Way to Love

Now, you sometimes hear people say that no one ever says that they wish they had spent more time at work, but this is only half true. Sure, making money just for the sake of being rich or working just to climb the corporate ladder is soul-crushing and a waste of a life. But that’s a misguided way to think about your work. My prayer for those of you graduating and entering the workforce—whether that’s tomorrow or in four years—is that you see your work as an opportunity for service.

Many people on their deathbeds do look back fondly on the time they spent working, not as a means of acquiring money or status, but as concrete ways of loving their neighbors. They remember specific moments when they were able to serve people in a time of need: to mentor the high schooler starting out on a first job, to assist a family by providing quality work at an affordable price, to develop skills and virtues in themselves, and to help their neighborhoods flourish by sustaining a business that becomes a pillar of their community. Work, for the Christian, is not simple drudgery or a necessary evil. It’s a way to love both God and neighbor. Dignified, well-done work is an important part of any vocation. If you find and pursue work well, you will look back on your life and see how it made a difference.

 

Still, there is some truth in the counsel that no one says they wish they spent more time at the office. That’s precisely because work should be at the service of family and friends. Here, as in so many other places, you can see the wisdom in Aristotle’s dictum that virtue is the mean between two extremes. For every virtuous quality, there can be an excess or a deficiency. So, you could work too much, or not enough; you could work as a way to puff up your ego, or you could waste a life goofing off. The virtuous mean is to work the right amount—neither too much nor too little, and for the right reasons: love of God and neighbor.

Called to Communion

Part of being made in the image and likeness of God is that we’re not only rational creatures, but we’re relational creatures. We are called to communion. We have vocations to family, friends, and community. In most of American culture, this doesn’t come easily. Our society doesn’t reward, applaud, or encourage the happy family with a bunch of kids, or the guy who never forgets his friend’s birthday.

Speaking as a relatively new dad, and as a son who has parents about to enter their ninth decade of life, watching my children play with their grandparents, especially over the past year of COVID lockdowns, has really brought home to me, in a new light, the centrality and importance of family. It’s weird to say that, since much of my professional career has been devoted to defending marriage, and I can lecture for hours on the philosophy and social science of marriage. But lived experience is its own witness and testimony. They say that the greatest gift we give to our kids—after cooperating with God to give them the gift of life—is the gift of siblings, and that the greatest gift we give to our parents is the gift of grandchildren. They say this for a reason: it’s true. I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes.

So, as you graduate today, thank your mom and dad, your brothers and sisters, your grandmothers and grandfathers. And think ahead to what you want for your own future family. If your vocation is to marriage and family, ask yourself what you can do now, what concrete steps you can take, to prepare for life as a husband or wife. Marriages don’t just fall in our laps. We have to work for them. None of you will look back and regret the steps you take now to prepare for flourishing family life.

Resist Temptation

I’ve spent most of the past decade of my professional life engaged in legal debates about the definition of marriage and a sound understanding of sex and gender—and now, what the legal status and religious freedoms will be for individuals and communities who hold onto good, beautiful, and truthful understandings of marriage and human sexuality, even as our laws and culture have changed.

Most of you, however, statistically speaking, are unlikely to experience a struggle with same-sex attractions or gender dysphoria. Though if you do, know that the Bruderhof will love and support you. And they’ll do so with authentic love—helping you to embrace the reality of who you are as a child of God created male or female and called to the virtue of chastity. You’ll always have a home here.

While same-sex attractions or gender dysphoria are unlikely, as you graduate today and move on to your next steps in life, other sexual temptations are quite likely. They can and do ruin lives—and for what? Does anyone sit on their deathbed and say “I wish I had watched more online pornography”? There is so little to gain, and so much to lose. As you graduate and leave this supportive community, you’ll want to realize that the struggles for godly relationships between the sexes aren’t just “out there.” They’re not just about gay marriage debates or drag queen story hour. They hit each and every one of us.

None of us, on our own, can resist the various temptations. None of us, on our own, can live out the universal vocation to faithfulness. We all need to locate our faith and families within broader communities of virtue. So, I want to repeat myself, because this is important: being made in the image and likeness of God entails that we are relational creatures, made for communion with others, made for community.

 

Called to Be Faithful

As you graduate today, don’t leave your community behind. Maintain your friendships. Maintain membership in a church community. Resist the temptation to say “Well, my family were these uber-Christians, but I want to just be a ‘normal’ Christian, going to church one hour a week on Sunday morning, and otherwise living a ‘normal’ life.” There’s nothing “normal” about that. That’s the temptation to privatize our faith, to put Jesus in the Sunday morning box. Integrate your faith with your life, and integrate your life with commitments to other people and communities of faith.

The coming years will likely prove increasingly difficult for Christians in America, especially for those who do not have strong communities to rely on, but even perhaps for those inside a community as strong as this one. We don’t know what legal challenges lie ahead. We don’t know what cultural developments are in the offing. We don’t know what God has in store for us, but we do know that He knows what He is about.

Many of our efforts may be failures from a purely human, this-worldly, temporal perspective. Attempts at friendship may be unreciprocated, especially if we offer friendship grounded in authentic love in truth. Efforts to help others grow in faithfulness may bear no fruit. Running businesses and schools and hospitals and charities in accordance with moral truth may come with high costs. Do it anyway. Recall the quote from Cardinal Newman:

He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.

He knows what He is about. So do it anyway—first, because God asks you to be faithful, not to be successful, and second, because God has promised that in the fullness of time you will be successful in the only ways that matter.

Building the Kingdom of God

In the fifteenth chapter of his Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul makes an impassioned defense of the resurrection of the body,

For if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If our hope in Christ is for this life alone, we are to be pitied more than all men.

Our hope in Christ is not for this life alone. Paul describes what Jesus is preparing: “Then the end will come, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father after He has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power.” And then he describes what our resurrections will be like:

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead: What is sown is perishable; it is raised imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.

Imperishable. Glory. Power. All will be brought to completion, and perfection, in the Kingdom of God. A Kingdom that starts here and now. A Kingdom that we have citizenship in by virtue of our faith in Christ. And a Kingdom that we’ve been promised will be the fullness of being, and truth, and goodness, and beauty.

That is why none of the good works we do here and now, none of the steps we take here and now to follow Christ will ultimately fail. That is also the answer to my opening question. How do I live a life that will matter and make a difference? By following Christ each step along the way, knowing that He knows what He is about, and that He will bring all our good efforts to follow him to completion.

The Apostle John had a vision of what is to come:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Rev 21:1-5)

No tears, no death, no mourning, crying, or pain. All things new. Jesus put it this way: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Here. Now. The Kingdom isn’t just for after we die. We can be citizens of it here and now. And the work we do to build that Kingdom here and now will be brought to completion and perfection in the new heaven, the new earth, the new Jerusalem.

Being a member of this Kingdom isn’t like being a subject of a tyrant King, but being the friend of someone who lays down his life to protect yours: “No longer do I call you servants, but friends.” That’s another way of saying that to be a member of this Kingdom is to find yourself involved in a love story, with God and the communion of saints.

 

Class of 2021, congratulations on all of your achievements these past four years, and best wishes in the years ahead. If you remember nothing else that I said today, remember this: important as success may be, God doesn’t ask you to be successful according to worldly standards. He asks you to be faithful. As you go through life, ask yourself whether what you’re doing will matter from the perspective of eternity. After all, the only success of ultimate importance is faithfulness. The only real tragedy in life is not to have loved and served God.

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