Editor’s note: The following is a commencement address given by Guy Sayles at the 2019 spring graduation of Mars Hill University in Mars Hill, North Carolina. It appeared previously on Sayles’ blog, “From the Intersection,” and is used with permission.
This morning, I make and elaborate on a simple but contestable claim: It matters.
It matters: your life, their lives and the life of the earth; who you are and who you become; what you do and what you leave undone.
It matters how you spend or waste time; how you earn, invest and squander money; and how you use or misuse your influence.
It really does matter that you live intentionally, not haphazardly – living with awareness in each moment but not merely for the moment.
It matters. That’s why we talk about calling and purpose.
We have an intuition that existence is, or could be, or should be meaningful. We sense that our being here is significant.
We feel that, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, something or Someone (I believe it is God) intends and invites us and everyone to flourish.
It’s important to be as precise as we can manage to be with such lofty words because, after all, life rarely has only a singular goal.
Across the years, more than one need or cause or project clamors for our attention and asks for our help. Many interests, people, places and experiences capture our imaginations, guide our pursuits and shape our practices.
I think, though, there is a calling that pervades all of our callings. The calling is to be as fully, joyfully and gratefully alive as possible.
The second-century Church Father Irenaeus of Lyons said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Surely, he was echoing Jesus who said, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.”
When I was in my mid-30s, I learned my grandfather once owned a motorcycle.
For many years after he left the coal fields near Logan, West Virginia, my dad’s father was a meat cutter – he preferred to be called a butcher – at the A&P Grocery Store in the west end of Huntington.
He was a good man, worked hard, took care of his family and was active in the 10th Avenue Church of God.
I always felt like there was something sad at the core of his life. He was anxious a lot of the time. He often seemed to be looking past where he was to somewhere else.
He seemed free to me only when we were walking, as we often did, beside the Ohio River, which ran near his house.
Otherwise, for reasons I couldn’t understand when I was a boy, he seemed locked up. He died not long after he retired.
Many years later, my grandmother said something that made sense of the sadness and constraint I had felt in his life.
At the dinner table one evening, our son, Eliot, barely a teenager, said he wanted a motorcycle when he got older.
Gladys’ eyes flashed, and she said, “Well, when I met Hearvy, he owned a big Harley-Davidson motorcycle and was about to take off across the country and back on that thing. After he met me, that was all over. I told him that motorcycles was dangerous. I seen a man get kilt on one of them things.”
“All that was over.” Please don’t let it be over for you, especially those of you for whom it is just beginning.
Don’t miss your best and truest life. Don’t lose sight of the beckoning horizon or surrender your curiosity about the wonders on the other side of the mountain.
Beware lest other people’s anxieties shut you down, their expectations trap you or your need for their approval tames you.
Tune out the anxious voices of convention and conformity. They can sound wise, even like the voice of God.
For years, I worried that they did. “Don’t take your life out on the open road,” they said. “Don’t rev it up too much; don’t go into uncharted territory, don’t feel the wind in your hair and the warm sun on your face, and don’t laugh for no good reason except the sheer exhilaration of freedom. Play it safe – or you’ll get hurt.”
Linus, a member of the Peanuts gang, once said, “Life is like a 10-speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use.” Too many of us limit the scope of our lives and use only a fraction of our potential.
It matters that you say “yes” to this calling to be freely and fully alive.
There is, likewise, a purpose that informs all of our purposes. Love is life’s purpose: being loved and loving, which necessarily includes being heard, seen, understood and accepted while also hearing, seeing, understanding and accepting others.
Love welcomes and delights in us as we are and then works and serves to make us who we can become.
To be loved and to love is why we are here. As William Blake wrote, “And we are put on earth a little space/That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”
It matters that you love and that you let yourself be loved.
The calling: to be fully alive. The purpose: to love and be loved. Flowing in and from this calling and this purpose are an array of callings and a range of purposes:
- To weave and reweave the fabric of civil community, seek reconciliation in the place of alienation and make peace in the face of division.
- To care for creation as a home in which generations after us will live and not as a warehouse of expendable resources for our reckless use.
- To befriend the lonely, stand with the marginalized, speak for the voiceless, lend strength to the weak and shelter the vulnerable.
- To make it your life’s work to contribute to the common good of the human family. People will pay you for some of this work, but whether they do or not, you will do it because it is priceless to you and valuable for the world. Maybe you will.
- Sing songs that set spirits soaring or liberate them to lament.
- Tell stories that illumine and ennoble our condition.
- Discover a cure for ALS.
- Provide skilled nursing for mothers giving birth, children receiving chemotherapy, athletes recovering from injury, veterans seeking restoration from PTSD or elders nearing death.
- Teach young people how to read the kinds of books that read them in return – works of literature that transfix and transform.
- Coach little league, helping kids to develop the skills of the sport and also the disciplines necessary to achievement beyond the field or the court.
- Start or join a business that engages you, solves a problem, meets a need, provides good jobs and makes a contribution to the community.
- Rise to the C-level of a corporation and lift its sights to the constructive differences business can make in our world, often more differences than our gridlocked government can manage.
- Do the work of the law, which is justice; of medicine, which is health; of teaching, which is truth; of politics which is the common good; of the military which is peace, and of religion – of faith – which is salvation – wholeness.
The work of your life is to come alive while you live, to love and to be loved. These things matter most of all.
The jobs you will have – the tasks people will hire you to do and the roles they will pay you to play – also matter; but, even the best job, the one most aligned with your interests, gifts and passions and even the one that pays well, gives you status and contributes to your feelings of success – is still, some days, just a job, only a means to other ends, like putting food on the table, a roof over your head, gas in the car and clothes on your back.
There’s dignity in such jobs, which is why they also matter, but never forget that what matters most is the work of your life.
Many people struggle these days to trust that it – anything – matters much. Fear fuels that struggle, and fear is the pervasive mood of our time.
Fear makes us vulnerable to indifference, which insulates us from demands we feel inadequate to meet, and susceptible to insecurity, which masquerades as pretentious power in the disguises of deception and the costumes of control.
Fear isolates us from people who don’t look, think, speak and act as we do. It divides the world into us and them, insiders and outsiders, friends and enemies.
Fear hardens our hearts to stone because we can’t withstand their being broken open by the immense beauty and intense brutality around us.
It builds fortresses against new ideas because things are already more complex and confusing than we can manage.
At its worst, fear causes us to create scapegoats to punish, humiliate and victimize. We make scapegoats out of the strangers who perplex us and the marginalized who mirror our own dread of not belonging.
You see, don’t you? That fear hems us in, cuts the nerve of courage and sidelines us from engagement.
It drives into enclaves of sameness, leaves us listless in the face of opportunity or crisis, and, by means of digitally delivered bread and circuses, numbs us to anything but outrage.
My grandmother believed that motorcycles were too dangerous to ride. Some of us fear that life is too precarious to live.
So much fear makes it nearly impossible to trust that anything matters. To find and be found by that trust – to hold and be held by the conviction that this is the kind of world in which life, calling and love matter – we need to take risks inspired by our intuitions, energized by our longings and animated by our dreams.
We must refuse cheap cynicism, intercept emotional entropy and honor our impatience with the status quo.
I cannot prove beyond uncertainty that tenderness, gentleness and kindness are more powerful than toughness, harshness and selfishness or that hospitality, mercy and patience are stronger than exclusion, judgment and haste.
I cannot demonstrate to you beyond the need for a kind of faith that hope emerges from despair, love casts out fear, and life is stronger than death.
From my experience, though, I trust that they are.
It is only honest to admit that this is a world of crucifixions, and it is a risk to confess that it also a world, because there is a God, of resurrections.
I urge you to bet on love. Gamble on fullness of life, the reality of calling and the adventure of purpose. Wager that it matters.
A consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC), he served previously as an assistant professor of religion at Mars Hill University, an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and as pastor of several Baptist churches.