A Life Worth Living

On Sunday, May 22, John Nunes gave the Baccalaureate Address and received an honorary doctorate of divinity at Carthage College, an ELCA college in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The transcript is below:

To the illustrious F. Gregory Campbell, a presidential gentleman of vision and conviction; to the inspirational Harvard Stephens, a pastoral gentleman of passion and compassion; and, to all of you, my sisters and brothers, we are here! And in twelve minutes, I will be done talking. Clock it.

We are here. Contrary to the predications and the predictions of that Harold Camping, I’m so glad the world didn’t end yesterday for I would not have had this opportunity today to have front-row seats on a Carthage campus full of people sitting on top of the world: graduates with chests rightly puffed up, here with your smiling professors and these dignified-looking administrators. Your unceasing supporters: parents, grandparents, godparents, best-friends forever, Facebook friends, even a few brave fans of the Chicago Bulls, here today, those who have prayed for this day, and those who paid tuition and fees for this day, and those who truly feared that the 22nd of May might never arrive. We are here. Praise God.

There are actually some very good theological reasons to be glad that the world has apparently not yet ended. You see, we’ve got work to do! Graduates, you’ve seen it and you’ve felt it. You know this. As well prepared as you are by your world-class Carthage education, the world into which you are walking is quite, shall we say, messed up!

Headlines, everyday, offer good reasons for you to become so cynical and critical that you might be tempted to stay uninvolved or in bed or just inebriated. Yet, your generation continues to impress me. We, at Lutheran World Relief, are actually witnessing among this generation an incredible rise of passion for the work of global development; development means that more and more of the poorest of the poor are given access to the resources they need to work their own way into a life worth living. This generation of graduates believes it can make a positive difference in this world, in spite of what they’ve seen and felt. That’s called faith.

Faith, in the face of so much killing, stealing and destroying. Even since you came here to Carthage, You’ve seen

  • food riots from Egypt to Uzbekistan
  • a clean-up of New Orleans made complicated by broken bureaucracies
  • a global financial crisis that exposed deep ethical issues on Wall Street
  • a Ponzi scheme wherein Bernie Madoff made-off with a pay-off that ripped off little old ladies and, remarkably, some of his closest, lifelong, personal friends
  • you’ve heard the end of “drill, baby, drill” as 210 000 gallons of oil per day went spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, showing again how effective we humans are at destroying God’s good creation
  • you’ve smelled the brewing of Tea Party politics and a governor in Arizona laying down the hammer on undocumented immigrants
  • you’ve witnessed 200,000 of your fellow humans wiped out in an instant, not so much because of a natural disaster as much as because of Haiti’s preexisting social disaster of backbreaking poverty, corrupt governance, and a breakdown of civic infrastructure
  • And now, the Terminator? Say it ain’t so, Arnold!

With all these

  • stars fading,
  • illusions crumbling to dust,
  • dreams dying,
  • careers crashing,
  • promises breaking,
  • relationships dissolving,

thank God the world didn’t end yesterday, because there are too many of us who need the extra time to help get things right or get ourselves on the right track. I don’t exclude myself from this. In spite of what I believe, preach and advise, there’s a whole lot of Holy Spirit-work that yet needs to be done by John on John. (Only Monique is allowed to say Amen to that one.)

Martin Luther King once asserted: Deeply woven into the fiber of our tradition is the conviction that all people are made in the image of God. If we accept this we cannot be content to see anyone hungry or victimized or sick when we have the means to help them.1 You don’t have to be a college graduate to know that hunger and human suffering are much more than physical. Yes, there is a bottom billion, those one billion plus people on our planet who earn less than $1.25 per day — which is the World Bank’s estimate of what constitutes poverty. And people living in extreme poverty die disproportionately from diseases of poverty.

Several months ago I stood at the bedside of a 29 year-old mother of two who was in a malaria-induced coma. She was being cared for by an overwhelmed staff in an under-equipped rural hospital in Ethiopia. Her “crime”? Getting bitten by a malaria-infected mosquito and then taking too long to ride on the back of a donkey to get to the hospital in time. Diseases that we’ve eradicated, that are totally beatable and treatable, like malaria, kill millions because of a lack of access to healthcare.

But we in the West have our own diseases of poverty. For example, we suffer from affluenza, a serious epidemic of lost perspective, an anxiety caused by being addicted to materialistic and self-centered indicators of success.

Thankfully, there is good news here today. I believe our God is using the energy that your generation possesses to connect globally in a way that will help the rest of us to get reconnected to what really matters in life: like a life that doesn’t just equate personal worth with net worth, like a life where wealth is not measured only in terms of income or how much stuff you own or how many toys you have or how many mistresses you can keep hidden,  but a life that is more like the life that Jesus died to bring to us, like the life that John tells us that Jesus talked about (John 10:10), a life ripe with overflowing life, a life like we see refreshingly in some of the most economically backward countries which have the happiest of citizens. They are rich in the genuine joy they get in spiritual traditions, in respecting their elders, in authentic friendships, and in caring for the environment; much more joyous are they than we who are, to quote Fosdick, “rich in things but poor in soul.” We, who overflow with stuff, yet suffer from celebration constipation. Poverty steals, kills and destroys. Yes, poverty sucks, but there are so many ways to be poor.

I expect this generation of graduates to help us not to get out of the world, but back into the world with a subversive spirit of service to turns right-side up what’s upside down. We need you to help us get, not to the end of this world, but back to what matters, back to the beginning, back to first principles, back to Jesus. There’s simply no substitute for the One who substitutes himself for us and for our salvation:

  • His life for our death
  • His justice for human injustice
  • His justification for our estrangement
  • His hope for our disappointment
  • His joy for our despair
  • His innocence for our guiltiness
  • His forgiveness for our faultiness
  • His love for our hatefulness
  • His perfect peace for our chaos
  • His pardon for our death-sentence
  • His suffering for our sin
  • His amazing grace for our disgrace
  • His death for our life
  • His life for our future

His resurrection for my resurrection and your resurrection; Christ is risen indeed, alleluia! Risen, with a resurrection that gives rise to an insurrection; risen, with a resurrection that gives rise to an uprising, that gives rise to the revolution of values, our world so desperately needs.

That’s my call to you today. I respectfully pray that you would seriously consider fitting that call into your respective callings for the sake of the life of the world.

Amen. Thank you and Congratulations!

1 Martin Luther King, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: HarperCollins, 1986): 626. This citation is paraphrased and modified for this speech.

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