Kurt Senske - May 16, 2010 Commencement Address

Live a Life of Significance

Thank you President Heckler, Chairman Kraegel, board of directors, esteemed members of the faculty, family members and friends of the graduates, and most important, the Valparaiso University Class of 2010! That has a really nice ring to it – right?

Not too long ago, Laurie and I had a chance, very random, truly enjoyable dinner with two then adorable, hopelessly in love newlyweds whom you might know – Sandra Bullock and Jesse James. I share this with you not only to enhance the Google ranking of this commencement address, but, more important, to lift up just one cultural reference point that is indicative of the self indulged, ego centric, values free world in which you and I struggle to live and find meaning in.

When the values of our culture repeatedly drill into the core of our being that power, wealth, beauty, and success are the key to happiness, the question of what is God calling me to do, how do I lead a life of significance, can seem like a very strange, even eccentric question.

William Placher describes the time in which we live as most closely resembling that of the early church. Those who called themselves Christians were a minority. They were often forced to disassociate from their family, endure insufferable hardships, and meet in secret in order to avoid being persecuted for their beliefs.

Some propose that we have come full circle. In Europe and in many parts of the U.S., openly practicing the Christian faith is less and less considered “normal”. Placher explains, “The values of our culture seem to have so much to do with acquiring the lifestyles of the rich and famous… The question of “How can I pick up my cross and follow Jesus?” seems strangely out of place today.

Truth be told, it is a question that I have become obsessed with. Through my role at Lutheran Social Services I have witnessed first hand the negative multi generational impact that neglect, drugs, abuse has had on children and families. The horrific pain when individuals don’t live out their calling. The hurt that you and I cause when we don’t live out our daily calling.

At times when we are reflective, maybe at graduation, or suffer a tragedy or illness, we all ask, “How does God want me to live out my life?” or maybe more accurately, “How have I been called to participate in God’s life?” We ponder “How do I multiply the talents entrusted to me?” How do I know that I am in the right job? The right major? Sometimes, the questions become less esoteric. Why is my family life in such shambles? How do I pay the bills at the end of the month? Why do I keep messing up?

Daily we are painfully reminded that we are, in the words of Martin Luther, both sinner and saint. Or, to paraphrase Plato – we are a charioteer trying to control two head strong horses, each wanting to head in a different direction. All of us at times recite St Augustine’s prayer, “God, please make me pure, but not quite yet. We find that despite our best efforts, the relentless onslaught of societal values often overwhelm the seemingly archaic words of a beat up and dated leather bound bible.

In many ways you and I live in an amazing time. Most of us possess health, wealth, and freedom that those before us could never imagine. We have the freedom to decide who and what to worship. Some of us will worship status or money and will never have enough. Some of us will worship beauty and will never quite measure up. Some of us will worship our vast intellect and be in constant worry that someone will unmask our fraud. Some of us will worship power but in the dark of the night will feel weak and afraid.

Others of us will consciously choose to follow a different path. We will choose each day to embrace the life that God created uniquely for us. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Intentionally answering the question – How do I live a life of significance? How do you live a life of significance? - is of immense importance because – if you and I get it right – we, individually and collectively, have the power to change the lives of those that are placed in our path, and in the process, to change the world – to change the world. If we are indeed intentional in pursuing this life long quest to live a life of significance there will be days that we fail miserably. There will be days that we will become exhausted to our core. No, this is not easy work. However, we will also experience something better than the greatest momentary pleasure imagined – we will experience “a peace that transcends all understanding.” A phrase that means just that.

What I have come to appreciate most via my journey and occasional wrestling matches with God is just how meaningless our life is when we become disconnected from our spiritual existence, from our faith. And, when our faith is weak we become enslaved to ourselves. We seek – we conquer and we still “can’t get no satisfaction” so we selfishly begin anew with another ego induced pursuit.

When our faith is weak we come to despise the daily activities of our pathetic life – the traffic jams, laundry, inconsiderate boss, diapers, menial work place tasks, senseless homework assignments, broken relationships, the little aches and pains that dominate our waking moments.

Our life goes on autopilot, becoming this mishmash of seemingly meaningless repetitive tasks. We experience the uncaring societal forces that prevent us from acquiring what is rightly ours. We engage in random acts of selfish pleasures. We experience a life that is not significant by any stretch of the imagination. We wonder – Am I living the life that I was called to live? Deep down we know that we are not.

The good news is that as we seek to discover and live out the life in which we were called to live this is where you and I have an advantage. As Christians and as students, professors, and supporters of this value infused, Christ centered university we come to the starting line with a head start. When our relationship with God is strong we intuitively understand that it is our faith that influences the intensity of our daily living. It allows us to look beyond our ego. It compels us to go beyond ourselves in ways that no other energy can. It is the force behind what we do. It defines why we are. It provides our life with worth and meaning.

What makes this so cool is that with Christ at the center of our life; with us secure in the knowledge that our story will eternally never end; the pressure is off. We are no longer constrained to be merely successful in this life. Instead, we have the privilege of being called to be faithful. We have the opportunity to be significant. It no longer matters what we do. What matters is how we live our life.

From my perspective, living a life of significance is at its core – pretty straightforward. This type of life is in its essence a spiritual undertaking in which we consciously reject becoming a slave to our ego. By keeping our spiritual life as our focus our own ego becomes diminished. In the process we become equipped to care for each other - our families, friends, coworkers, community.

We begin to grasp Jesus’ daunting words, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself (let him deny himself!) and take his cross and follow me.” We understand that significance comes from preferring others over oneself.

We discover anew how to care for each other, how to sacrifice for each other. We gain deep satisfaction doing this in a myriad of unsexy ways day in and day out, over and over, knowing that this is how we are to serve in this particular moment. Wearing the mask of God we bring our spouse a cup of coffee, help a roommate through a painful break up, spend the night in the hospital caring for a friend, build a well in Ethiopia, care for an aging parent, write a new software program, teach a student, build a building, paint a picture, be a mentor, balance the books, plant a garden.

We discover that each and every activity is significant and even intrinsically rewarding in itself.

We discover that when we keep our spiritual life in focus and our ego in check it allows us to get at the heart of living – Have I made a difference in someone’s life today? Will my children respect me for how I do my work? What impact on my community do I want to make today, this year, this decade? What are the ethical ramifications of my decisions at the office? Am I creating lasting value in God’s kingdom?

Whether you are twenty one of seventy one, as you continue in your journey – a new job, marriage, graduate school, living in a new community, or a continuation of your present daily responsibilities, I urge you to become bold in your faith and actions.

I urge you to focus your passion and talents on the needs of the world. You will discover doors that magically open, chance meetings occur. You will become wiser and stronger than your wildest dreams.

I urge you to disown yourself. Allow yourself to experience gut wrenching compassion followed by selfless acts of mercy.

I urge you to each day begin a new story – one of service, one marked by intensity and integrity, remembering that the only narrative that matters is how well you serve those that you encounter.

I urge you to enjoy each and every immediate experience, knowing that we are indeed sinners and saints, broken and forgiven.

I urge you to focus intently on who God has placed in your path today and become totally immersed in your acts of service.

I urge you to pay attention to times of suffering, times of disappointment – opportunities to discover a new purpose in life, opportunities to allow God, in the words of Martin Luther, to work out the salvation in your life.

I urge you to give daily to God the best of what you have to offer knowing that living a life of significance is not a destination, but rather an ongoing journey. Follow the road less traveled. Follow Christ’s calling for you.

In doing so you will begin to comprehend the words of C.S. Lewis, “To follow the vocation does not mean happiness; but once it has been heard, there is no happiness for those who do not follow.” Just as each of us bears a unique fingerprint, so each has a unique calling to serve, a unique opportunity, in the words of the prophet Micah to live a life that is just, merciful, and humble. Christ calls us to be his slaves. As such, we are not “free” to pass by on the other side. Rather, we are called to diminish ourselves in order to see and serve those in our path.

As Christians we live with the confidence that death indeed has lost its sting. From this perspective we discern that it is how we live each day, not what we do that truly matters. Understanding both the futility and the eternal significance of our lives, we begin to view our life differently.

Our intuition, informed by our faith, guides us in knowing which of our activities to embrace and which to let go; whom to spend time with and whom to avoid; when to speak boldly, and when to remain silent; how to live and how to die. In doing so we realize that our worship and our work are mirror images, our avodah. We discover that we are living a forgiven, grace filled life of significance.

Thank you for inviting me to be a part of your special day. I look forward to being your partner as collectively we serve the Lord and change the world.