Questions in Life

The good people at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Living Well Center for Vocation and Purpose invited me to address the school on the topic “Lives Worth Living.” Yikes! This is one of The Questions in life—right up there with “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is true, beautiful and good?” and “Where do socks go after you put them in the dryer?”

For me, this turned out to be a good, if slightly disturbing, time of reflection. Our lives can be consumed with busyness—all the stuff that we do or need to get done to make it through the day, week, year, life. A lot of this is necessary, some not so much. Even those called to public ministry get swept up in the endless round of meetings, reports and events. And some in this world don’t have the luxury of carving out time for contemplation as they struggle to keep their families fed, clothed and safe from harm.

As I write this it is Lent, a time of reflection and examination. I do have the privilege of time and, with the added incentive of a deadline, here are some thoughts.

We are inundated with messages of salvation, or at least better lives, through things. Ads for products as diverse as cars, toothpaste, brokerage firms, weed killers and more are carefully crafted to cast an aspirational vision of the good life. Sometimes this vision of the good life is presented in such a beguiling way that one forgets what product is being advertised. It’s possible to get
lost if you go down this road. There will always be a new thing, the promise of a more beautiful you. It’s there—just beyond reach.

Jesus warns us about this in the parable of the rich man, who believed he had attained the good life. “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ ” (Luke 12:19-20).

So, what’s the point? If materialism doesn’t bring meaning, why not just give up?

In Ecclesiastes we hear: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Nihilism, oddly enough, can provide a frame for meaning. “Who cares?” can quickly become “Don’t care.” Protected from disappointment by withdrawing from this world of care is as tempting as a frenzied life in pursuit of self-made happiness.

I believe there is another way, a different way, of shaping our lives. The cruciform life is the life worth living. The cruciform life delivers us from our constant striving to make our lives have meaning through our own efforts. It saves us from the exhausting pursuit of self-justification and worth, from the loss of our true selves in all of our posturing.

Jesus, crucified and risen for the sake of the world, breaks through all of that. He breaks down all pretense on our part and all claims of salvation that the world offers. God comes to us, cherishes us, bids us to come to God’s life and peace. Augustine, an early Christian theologian, knew this when he wrote: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”

The cruciform life also breaks through nihilism. Free from the necessity of saving ourselves, and from the numbness of the pointlessness of all that, the cross breaks us open to others, to the world. The rush of feeling back into a self that has cut itself off from circulation is painful. But it is also a sign of life. We can feel, we can touch and be touched by others. The cross sets us free to serve the neighbor. Here is the life worth living that God gives us.

 

A monthly message from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her email address: bishop@elca.org. This column originally appeared in the May issue of Living Lutheran. Reprinted with permission.