Lives of substance

What makes for a life of substance?

Put another way: At the end of the day or the end of our lives, what truly matters?

As we considered topics for this issue about college life, we decided to ask these questions to a few people and see what they would share with young adults. Knowing that college can be a time of great pressure to do all the right things that lead to the right career or partner or path, we wanted big-picture wisdom from those at different points of life’s journey. We asked a college chaplain, a young adult volunteer (YAV), and a retired Christian educator: What makes for a life of substance?

Here is what they said. 

– Jill Duffield, Outlook editor

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Did you fulfill the requirements?
Is it on your resume?
What good is that course/study abroad/summer job?
Have you done your service hours?
Can you fit in another internship?
What about taking the GRE, just in case?
You could add another major, or a minor…

Day in and day out my students face a barrage of questions just like these. Even in the first weeks of college when everything is new, shiny, exciting and a bit terrifying, they’re being asked about internships and careers. It’s not any wonder they’re anxious, overwhelmed and unsure.

So then, what’s a college chaplain to do? First, always feed them — and usually vegetables, they could probably use the nutrients.

Second, ask them to take a deep breath, assure them it will be all right, and then stand with them as they explore their own sense of place in this big and miraculous world.

I have the extraordinary privilege of serving a community that values the life of the spirit as much as the life of the mind, serving a community that values the art of discussion and passion of service as much as the ability to write a thesis or take an exam.

And this means we swim upstream from the prevailing culture and ask our students to swim upstream, too. We know there’s no place on a résumé for “What gets you up in the morning?” or “What lights your fire?” Yet we ask it of them anyway. We know the value of a liberal arts education continues to be questioned. Yet we remain ardently committed to the notion that issues of the day deserve to be discussed and great literature continues to have a place of value in our discourse.

Among the more than 60 Presbyterian-related colleges and universities we find great diversity, but also share a common purpose to not only grant degrees, but to equip our students for lifetimes of meaning, service and global and local engagement. Serving at a Presbyterian-related college means knowing we have been called to educate the whole person. And we do this better than most. It is because of our Presbyterian heritage that as educational institutions we are rooted in living as people continuing to seek meaning for our own lives and those of our students.

10255585_779555323260_7001653512573896041_oIt is a sacred duty to swim upstream next to my students – particularly as the stressful waves of pressure for financial success and stability, student debt and familial pressures crash against them. But I never do it alone. I accompany my students knowing the history of my church is built upon the foundation that all have been called, that all have purpose and that the great cloud of witnesses goes with us. In the midst of the cacophony of voices demanding they check off the right boxes and succeed at being more well-rounded than their neighbor, we’ll be next to them, asking what excites them, what challenges them, what brings them joy. And probably feeding them vegetables.

LIBBY SHANNON serves as associate chaplain and associate director of the Center for Spiritual Life at Eckerd College in St Petersburg, Florida, of which she is also a graduate. She is co-moderator of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and loves books, baseball and bicycles.


Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 10.56.09 AMWhat makes for a life of substance? This is a question I constantly wrestle with. Such wrestling is a common characteristic shared amongst my millennial generation, especially those of us within a subculture of young, exploring Christians who are not quite satisfied with hand-me-down answers and beliefs, but wish to feel and taste this changing world for ourselves. I have formed a few major beliefs in response to the many experiences that have shaped and changed me as an individual and a follower of Christ.

I believe a healthy and inspired relationship with our food and the environment has the power to be incredibly grounding. For the past four years, my work has dealt with food production in some form: from rural small-scale vegetable farms in the deserts of Arizona to working on a small permaculture farm in the deep villages of southern India to being a young adult volunteer (YAV) running an urban community garden in a New Orleans neighborhood. Through these challenging experiences I continue to be humbled by the amazing wonders and surprising lessons that creation teaches me. I see the supper table as one of the most sustaining environments for positive human engagement. The disappearance of the meal table in our culture scares me. What meaningful interactions are we compromising for the sake personal conveniences and an efficient lifestyle?

I believe another contributing factor to a fulfilling life is learning how to help and care for others around us. I was raised by Christian parents who make a very direct connection between their faith and and hands-on service for people in need, especially the “others” who fall into the margins of society. This value of caring for our brothers and sisters in need was carried throughout my father’s ministry leading a small Pentecostal church in Arizona. I have questioned my faith so often, but time after time I find a solid embrace of the gospel when I see people truly supporting and caring for one another.

Beginning in GardenAll of these things – growing food, sharing meals and helping others in need – contribute to building healthy relationships with people. I know that if I take nothing else away from my time as a YAV in New Orleans, I will cherish the relationships that were formed. There is an amazing power in getting to hear someone else’s story. In the process of sharing stories and opening up our personal lives, there is a bond that forms, creating a safe space for me and the other individual to grow and be supported. Striving for a safe space where people can be honest and genuine with one another and learning together each step of the way makes for a life of substance and even a little bit of heaven on earth.

VINCENT GROSSI has spent the past four years gaining experience in small agriculture. This fall, he started his second year as a YAV in New Orleans running the J.W. Johnson Community Garden.


Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 10.59.08 AMWhen I was in college I truly believed that a life of substance was one lived in total sacrifice. Consequently, I decided that God was calling me to be a medical missionary in the Congo. It sounded grand, faithful and difficult. As I matured, my ideas of a life of substance began to change as I quietly began wondering if God really wants people live a life of suffering. Or, does God want what a person does in the search for meaning to also bring joy

I now know with confidence that a life of substance is a life lived using the gifts that God has given – lived in ways that reach out to other people to enrich their lives and deepen my faith. For years in my service as a Christian educator and then as a presbytery associate executive, I hung a poster in my office with a picture of a little girl in a yellow rain slicker facing the world that read: “The way to truly keep the faith is to share the faith.” Looking for ways to share my faith with others while working, volunteering, playing and praying brings me joy. I believe the sense of substance and meaning in life comes from a focus on reaching out to others in practical and faithful ways.

Years ago I found a model that uses four pieces of paper to help identify ways to live a life of substance by looking beyond yourself. I try to practice it as I weigh the choices and opportunities around me.

On the first paper I list the things that really energize me, the things for which I have passion. Each time I do that there are some familiar ideas and some new ones that emerge.

On the second piece of paper I list the things that I am good at. This is difficult because somehow our world makes it easier to list our shortfalls rather than our strengths, but I believe joy and a sense of meaning come most often from doing things for which I have a gift.

On the third piece of paper I list the many things that I normally do during the day that are within or on the edge of my comfort zone. I find I am more likely to really move beyond myself as I consider the three pieces of paper together.

Elaine's pictureThen, on the fourth piece of paper, I am able to identify where I believe I can make a difference in my world and get involved.

I know God smiles when we identify our passion, develop the gifts and talents we have, use those gifts in natural and regular ways, and believe we can make a difference in the lives of other people.
All our gifts come from the Holy Spirit. So the question is: What are you going to do with your gifts to live a life of substance and meaning? Look in your community for a need that could use those gifts and move beyond yourself.

ELAINE BARNETT  is certified Christian educator and a ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota in Florida.


Life is short. That’s what they say at least. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average life expectancy for Americans is 78-79 years. For someone young, that seems like a long time. Each year we blow out the candles on a birthday cake, however, brings that number closer and closer.

In my work as a funeral director and embalmer, I see lots of death. Each day brings a different family, a different story, a different opportunity. At any given time, I am brought into contact with complete strangers facing one of worst experiences of their lives. Every death is different, and yet, every death is the same. Sometimes an ending is sudden and tragic, other times it is after an extended illness or long, healthy life. I am learning that no matter how the death occurs, it is never fully expected and nobody is ever really prepared. None of us expects to die and few of us have an accurate concept of how losing a loved one affects us — as individuals, as families or as a community.

We live in a culture of instant gratification, fast food, texting, speed-of-light technology and major denial over many real elements of this life. It is far too easy to walk the outer perimeter of community, to get to know friends and family just on the surface, but never deep enough to encounter their real hopes and fears — much less let them see our own.

Relationships are messy. People say hurtful words and difficult things like death and sin interrupt our days with real pain and real wondering. I would venture to say that yes, life is short, but more so, life is too short to sit on the sidelines. Real life, real faith, real love is found when we dig our heels into the grit of this earth. When we weep with those who weep and when we rejoice with those who rejoice, we uncover beautiful pieces of our broken humanity and get to see Jesus binding us all back together in himself.

Margery Williams’ much-loved children’s storybook “The Velveteen Rabbit” speaks to this concept as well. “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

DSC_3754_2It is worth it. It is totally worth the awkwardness and fear to be real with each other. Being honest and trustworthy challenges us into faith outside of ourselves, and by God’s grace, we are met with the strength to live fully and to be fully known.

CAROLINE McGILL is a young, Southern gal who loves living in Charleston, South Carolina. She is a 2012 graduate of Presbyterian College and she works as a funeral director at J. Henry Stuhr Funeral Home. Caroline writes about death, funerals, and “Mortician Life” on her blog.



Away in college? Build a support group as soon as possible. Be sure to include at least one member of the faculty or administration, perhaps your advisor. Don’t forget your campus minister. The work may seem very hard, but try. You may do better than you think. Stay in touch with your parents, and seek their advice, especially on the big decisions. Make time to do what has to be done to keep you on track academically. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.
– Bill Lancaster

Play is important throughout your life.  Having fun is vital.  (This may seem counter-intuitive as an adult.  Think about it though.  Even Karl Barth said, “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.”  You won’t ever have to seek out difficulties of your fellow man; they will be right under your nose.  Help them as best you can.  Then go play.  It relieves stress, which helps you think more clearly, which in turn keeps you alert to the serious issues at hand.)
 – Kristine Gabster