Rev. Doss
Rev. Joseph Morris Doss

2003 Baccalaureate Service

The Right Rev. Joseph Morris Doss P'03, Retired Bishop of New Jersey

In the Time of Your Life

A future is looming with little benefit of the familiar, painful good-byes, grief, anticipation. It is a wonder you can sit and listen attentively to anything at such a time of transition, with all of your emotions and your thoughts flying in so many directions. These transitions are exciting, but anxious and difficult. I recall an important moment of transition in my family’s life, one that had Andrew Doss excited with both anticipation and trepidation.

Your schoolmate was four years old when I accepted a call to move from New Orleans to Palo Alto. As his seven-year-old sister Katherine was informed, she simply closed her eyes and collapsed to the floor in a heap of misery. Andrew thus was alerted to a certain sense of reservation, but he was quickly taken by wonderful images: a big truck, that would come to load all of our goods and carry them off, all the way across the country; a big airplane taking off into the sky; he would be in it, to look down on all that is.

Nevertheless, his mother decided that we should process our feelings of anxiety and grief. Sitting at the dinner table she asked everyone to name what we would miss most. Immediately both children began to name friends, and tears began to well most pitiably. Jumping in, she said, “Well, I think I will really miss the French Quarter.” The teary eyes of both children popped wide and Andrew cried out, “You mean, they don’t have a French Quarter in California?” There was no good response forthcoming and the two little bodies slumped down into their chairs with the heaviness of the loss. Trying to move on, I joined in. “I know I will miss crayfish.” “Oh no, Andrew blurted out, “don’t tell me they don’t have crayfish in California?” And down they slumped further into their chairs. Two grown-ups should have known better than to keep going, but it was then suggested that we surely would miss Mardi Gras. Mouths flew open in utter and absolute disbelief, and the pain sculpted on each young face was memorable, “There’s no Mardi Gras in California?” Now only the two pair of eyes remained just above the table, peering across at one another in anguish. Andrew turned his face to his mother and, steeling himself, asked, “Momma, do they have candy in California?”

Yes, there is candy aplenty out there, but you are going out to face concerns as vital to you as that question was to a four year old.

It is my purpose to honor you by talking about the deepest of matters, and indeed the most sweeping. In the classic terms of my Christian tradition we will be examining no less than the very purposes of God for creation and for the fulfillment of history. If your religious tradition has a different perspective about creation and history, or if you do not believe in any transcendence at all, I trust it can be said that we will address the highest of the ideals shared by humanitarians and the communities of faith. Saying that, allow me to open with a question that may sound… “cheesy”?; “lame”? Nevertheless, this is a point at which you must allow those of us here with you, your family, your educators, your supporters, to ask you the inevitable question, “What do you want to do with your life?” “At what are you aiming?” I will couch this in specific terms: In the time of your life, which of two basic postures will you take? Are you to go forth to enjoy this world, to relish the experience of life, to embrace its innumerable pleasures and blessings? Or, shall you aspire to improve the lot of humanity and enhance the goodness of the earth, to right wrong and relieve suffering? But then, on the one hand, how can you hope to find joy and fulfillment in this world without a dedication to make your personal contribution to it? On the other, how can you enjoy life if you are focused on what is wrong with it?

Perhaps it will prove helpful to approach this with a relevant educational theory. Palo Feire wrote a book that made an impact on my generation called Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In it he asserted that every educational system takes one of two postures. Of course it will want to do both things, but inevitably it will lean, at least lean, one way or the other. The system will be designed to help students understand the way things are, either so that they can conform to society and succeed within it, or so that they learn to critique society in order to improve it. It may be interesting for you to ask yourself which of the two educational opportunities you most sought at Amherst College. Let us move the question from your immediate past to your future.

I will make two statements of faith. Even if anyone chooses to discount references to God and transcendent reality each remains a statement of faith. Which is the most important statement for you personally? The first: We are called to embrace this life, as it is, as a gift, to make gratitude for this gift the basic attitude of our life—especially in belonging to a people of thanksgiving—to become at home in the world and achieve the fullness of our humanity in becoming lovers—finally, lovers of all that is, of the entire created order. The second: We are to make this a better world. This world is not the final reality or our true destiny. We are to resist evil, identify where there is wrong and name it, support the weak, the oppressed, and the deprived; strive for that justice, compassion, and righteousness which reflects the inner life of God and which finally will be established when the prayer is realized that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven.

Perhaps you find it difficult to choose one statement of faith over the other. I hope so. Each of us, perhaps like an educational system, has a strong tendency toward, a “posture” toward, one or the other. That must be resisted, for you are called as a human being to serve each equally and simultaneously. If you try to live according to only one calling, rejecting or ignoring the other, you will be doomed to despair – what the poet called “lives of quiet desperation”, and what the theologian called a sickness unto death.

We know the extreme and the stereotypes only too well, because they do exist in fact. We can picture selfish people of wealth, privilege, status, and power, luxuriating in extravagant opulence, lording it over the masses, blind to the needs of others unlike themselves. Despair. And we can picture the angry self-righteousness of people who avoid facing the personal issues of their own humanity by drowning themselves in causes, the more grand and the more impossible the cause the better, by pointing their finger out there, at others and at the frailties of social institutions and structures.

The Judeo-Christian tradition demands that we live out both callings as complementary. They exist in a dynamic tension within which each is necessary to the other. Human beings must be dedicated to embracing creation as it is given to us with a passion that is joyful. We need to have fun, to dance, to sing, to laugh, to worship, to take pleasure in the arts and in them discover truth, beauty and good. We need to be in genuine community with one another in peace and harmony. With the same passion and joy in life human beings need justice, and not only for oneself. We need a just society. We need to cooperate with Mother Nature, and protect her good earth. We can struggle for a just society only by being detached from it and—this must be said—faith in a just and fulfilled future is a gift, a compelling gift for those who capable of giving themselves on behalf of justice in the time of our life. Our humanity cries out for us to take up both callings with equal passion and commitment and joy.

The Judeo-Christian tradition (and I suspect this is true of all the children of that wandering Aramaean, Abraham, and thus includes the Muslim tradition)—we have always viewed history as going somewhere. The traditional terms are familiar: “shalom”, the “new creation”, the “kingdom of God”. Within history, and giving it meaning and purpose, each generation and each person is to contribute to the end toward which it is aimed, one in which heaven and earth are finally joined. I think of the wonderful Hebrew concept of “tikkun olam”, the obligation of each believer to participate as a partner with God in the healing, the repairing, the perfecting of this world. The years will fly by with speed that you can hardly imagine at this stage. You cannot expect to know the fullness of shalom in the time of your life. But if you have confidence that it is coming, your contribution to making it present where and to the extent possible will satisfy a craving, a hunger deep within each creature, the thirst shared by all creation, and it will do so for you at least sufficiently to make your life healthy and whole. That contribution provides meaning and purpose to each moment a person consciously chooses to offer it. Grateful for your life and loving it, you are called to make the time of your life a thanks-offering in your stewardship of creation and in your effort to bring creation to its fruition.

I want to point to the examples of two contemporaries, world famous, who demonstrate the wholeness of mind, body, and spirit that come only when a person genuinely and profoundly loves this world and, out of that love, takes action on behalf of others to do something about what is wrong with it. To one another, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu of South Africa are the dearest of friends and the most valued of colleagues. To the world, they have done more than anyone else, and suffered significantly in the process, to free their people from oppression. “Looking the beast in the eye”, to use Tutu’s words, they dedicated their long and fertile lives to make this a better world. Yet they each testify that have always been captured by the beauty and the wonder of this world. Their grand passion for life and their realistic assessment of the horrors people can inflict on one another are reconciled in their faith. These are happy and wholesome human beings.

This is particularly remarkable for Nelson Mandela when one considers the years he spent in prison. He was incarcerated from 1964 to 1990. Try to picture that: twenty-seven years. This proud son of an African Chief, this well-established attorney, this leader with so much to do, went to jail at the age of 46 and did not get out until he was 73 years old. Those twenty-seven years should have been his most productive, and they were taken from him by a wicked system. Now picture the man as he has become familiar to the world: the nobility of his carriage and the deep character shown in his face, in every way the very image of the international statesman and of the wise old man of the village. In fact, with all his dignitas and gravitas I will wager that the man most of you picture in your minds is smiling. Invariably, the pictures of Mandela capture him in a smile. My daughter and I recently went to see Amandla, a documentary about the music of the South African freedom movement, and I am not surprised how the scene that most moved me and that remains in my mind, is of an exuberant new President of newly constituted South Africa, at the spry age of 76, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of his people, dancing, caught up together in a shared moment of sheer mass ecstacy.

Nelson Mandela did not come out of jail a bitter man; instead he had developed from a brilliant, if perhaps flawed, revolutionary into one ready to take the stage of history as a giant. Like Moses chased into exile, Mandela was shaped by his prison experience into the leader who could shake his people free from the oppressor and lead them toward the promised land of democratic freedom. He still likes to quote W. E. Henly’s Victorian poem, Invictus, “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” It stands as a kind of personal motto for those years in which the oppressive society thought they had taken away his freedom, and so they had except for the freedom he discovered within. From out of that interior space, with fresh and magnified moral authority, acquiring its own power and influence across the land and around the world, he provided what was needed. Nelson Mandela does not hesitate to credit his faith for his personal maturity, a faith that grew into a vision during those years of enforced contemplation. Here is a man who has done great deeds and who has done them out of his ability to find the joy in life and to make his contribution, even during imprisonment.

The South African freedom movement enjoyed two leaders of grand moral authority, one inside jail making a mythological impact, and one on the outside, having to engage in the day-in and day-out difficult and grimy work of peaceful revolution. I think of Desmond Tutu and I see dancing eyes, always sparkling with the pleasure he is receiving in the company of others and in everything he does. The man is laughing all the time with a happiness that is almost giddy. I know of no one who is as much fun. I think of the time my wife and I, together with some parishioners, went with to dinner with Desmond and his daughter while they were visiting in New Orleans, and then went to do a little dancing. The first place we happened into a young man approached and graciously informed us that we were in a gay bar. A certain buzz had already started round the room, and then picked up as the great man was recognized. Desmond was not the least bit fazed, but demonstrated his good humor in a snappy dance with his daughter. By the time we left it was to cheers and calls of best wishes.

Of course, what the man was doing as the leader of the South African freedom movement and as the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town was very serious, and required the sharpest of wits and of political skills. Tutu had them in abundance. I will offer this example of Desmond’s inimical attitude in those days. In the year in which he won the Nobel Peace Prize I heard him speak these words during the reception following a service, with a milk punch in one hand and his genuinely warm and beaming smile never leaving his face: “I have no doubt,” he said, “that justice will prevail because it is God’s will. History is slow and cumbersome and difficult. History is the real blood and guts of real people. But, history is wonderful; in it God is working through his friends for the human cause. I have to be honest with you. The people I feel sorry for are the oppressors. They cannot win. Don’t you see how hopeless is their cause? They are up against God! Even while on top they can’t enjoy being there. There is no pleasure in being captured by things and power over people that you believe you need, and that, when all is said and done, are all you have to delight in. What delight? God love them; they are miserable in their role, and their cause is doomed. The will of God is going to be done!! Praised be! By the way, these are the best milk punches I have ever had. Thank you!”

This is the time of your life! You are on. In the time of your life, go with faith in this world, for it is God’s creation. Embrace it, take pleasure in it and do so with all the passion you can muster. Learn to live in accord with the gratitude you feel for your life. In the time of your life, go with faith in your ability to contribute to the great causes of life, the causes no less than those of God for your time and for history. In the time of your life, go in peace to love and serve with gratitude. In the time of your life, live!

Photo: David McGaughey '04