Today is graduation day at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School. Below is the letter I wrote to our 2017 graduates that is published in this year’s yearbook. I suggest that the circumstances in the world remain as daunting as when this reflection was written.
Dear Members of the Class of 2017,
Because of deadlines necessary for publication of our yearbook in a timely fashion, I write this annual message to graduates months before graduation. In fact, I am composing this letter on a peaceful morning on a quiet campus during the Christmas break on one of the last days of 2016. I bring that up because of the many expressions I have seen recently on social media that this year cannot end soon enough. In a sense that is certainly understandable in light of the events of the year: unspeakable violence at home and abroad, an emotionally tumultuous election season, and the deaths of an unusually high number of iconic figures.
2016 will be a memory by the time you read this, and the rest of your lives will await you. Whether or not you were in the “good riddance” segment of the population when 2016 ended, I urge each of you to resist such a temptation going forward no matter the circumstances of any particular year, month, day, or hour. We reject the gift of time at our peril, and- may I suggest in light of our mission statement- at the world’s peril. Especially in light of rather than in spite of the disturbing events in our world, it is all the more important that you embrace our fond hope for you “to lead fruitful lives and to serve a world in need.” We best not reject or attempt to escape a world in need (which will always be the case until the end of time), but rather we do well to serve that world in any way that is true to our best selves.
So I encourage you to continue to move forward and to love and embrace the world. Resist the temptation to disengage in the face of challenges, difficulties, and tragic events. My wish for you is one that Jonathan Swift expressed many years ago:
May you live all the days of your life.
Until next time,
Last week, for the fifth straight year, we hosted a naturalization ceremony at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School, welcoming 30 new US citizens representing 28 different countries of origin. My heart is still filled with joy because of that experience, which I believe epitomized the best of our human- and American- values. That, in turn, put me in the mind of the term civil religion, first coined by the French philosopher Rousseau. I became familiar with the more recent use of that language studying at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley in the 1970s at a time when sociologist Robert Bellah of the University of California had developed a compelling theory of civil religion’s role in American society. His thesis was that there is a unifying non-denominational set of core values that epitomize the essence of the American character. (He further asserted that every society has its own brand of civil religion). Bellah also cautioned against the tendency of some to equate this notion of civil religion too closely with a specific explicit religious tradition.
I have reflected on Bellah’s work and the naturalization ceremony within the context of contemporary society. Many have (rightfully) lamented the decline of civility in our society. And one could also assert some activities presented in the name of religion are neither civil nor religious. One of the reasons that this year’s naturalization ceremony was so inspiring and consoling is that it was both Civil and civil- a specific civic commitment conducted within an atmosphere of civility, hospitality, and acceptance. Similarly, the ceremony was both Religious and religious- hosted by an Episcopal school with multiple references to an inclusive God. As such it served as antidote and encouragement as we in the United States struggle to find a path back to the lofty notion of civil religion so eloquently articulated by Robert Bellah 50 or so years ago.
We prayed for our US citizens that morning that their embrace of the American Dream will strengthen our country in the ways that immigrants who preceded them have done for so many years. May all of us who are US citizens embrace that Dream with renewed commitment and conviction.
Until next time…
Last month we celebrated the first Honors Chapel of our school year. Over the years reactions to such events have become more diverse and complex, with various questions raised: In the case of recognition for good conduct, why do we honor students for things we expect of them as a matter of course? Do we adults hold ourselves to the same standards for our behavior? Regarding academic honors, why do we use grades as the sole criteria for recognition? Does that not leave out some of our grittiest students whose persistence and achievement might not be fully recognized by the numbers? Good questions indeed, and they usually inspire me to focus on inclusion in my remarks at these chapels. At last month’s Honors Chapel I noted an “honor roll” available to everyone. Dictionary.com’s first definition of “honor” reads as follows: honesty, fairness, and integrity in one’s beliefs and actions.
Living a life with honor is attainable for each of us, no matter our “grades.” However, it is not necessarily an easy thing to do. In fact, at least in my case, it has been a lifelong journey to live more honorably over time. What has helped me immensely has been my spiritual practice to thank God each day for the gift of that day and to express my desire to live that day with honor. At the end of the day, I spend a brief time reflecting prayerfully on whether I have truly lived it with honor. I have days when my reflection is tinged with regret when I recognize the moments when I could have acted more honorably. In those moments I pray that I may have the gift of another day on which I can once again commit to living it with honor.
I thought of those remarks again this month when I read the news that Dictionary.com had selected “xenophobia” as its Word of the Year: fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers. How sad that this is so, but it also serves as added inspiration to aspire to find a place on the one honor roll that really matters.
Until next time…
Last week I celebrated my 70th birthday, a number I once could not have imagined. I am on the “cutting edge” of the baby boom generation since those of us born in 1946 are considered the first (or oldest, if you prefer) baby boomers. We clung to the notion not to trust anyone over 30 until we reached that age. I suspect that baby boomers like myself are responsible for the entire 40 is the new 30, 50 the new 40, etc., phenomenon. I actually saw a suggestion in a magazine that 70 is now the new 50! That nugget arrived on my radar just in time for my 70th birthday. I don’t believe it, but I do welcome the notion that attitude and engagement with life makes a huge difference regarding how we choose to live each day.
Some birthdays resonate more than others, and those that end in zero are among them. Actually, I was provided some helpful perspective years ago by my now-deceased mother. She sent me a happy 30th birthday card on my 29th birthday (see comment above about not trusting everyone over 30 and the presumed traumatic effect of turning that age for baby boomers). I had to conclude that it could not be that big a deal if my own mother lost count. Last year this lesson was reinforced when a friend sent me a happy 70th birthday card a year early.
Nonetheless, there is something when both digits in a person’s age change. Completion of another decade of life feels like a bit of an accomplishment. And to me, it feels even more like a blessing. My birthday was made especially memorable since I was able to spend it in the midst of our students, faculty, and staff. How many people are lucky enough to be serenaded on one’s birthday by well over 500 people, the vast majority of whom are age 14 and under? I am still feeling incredibly blessed today, a good reminder that each day can be blessed if we embrace it as the gift it is. Today is after all in a very real sense the only one we have to embrace.
Until next time…
P.S. An observation: We first baby boomers seem to love the spotlight and have difficulty leaving the stage. Two people with whom I share the same birth year have already served as US Presidents, and another is a candidate this year. That said, I feel supremely grateful that I have the privilege to do the work I do in the community in which I do it!