[What follows is a talk I gave last night at the Cum Laude and National Honor Society Induction at The Westminster Schools. Past readers of the blog might recognize some passages that have appeared on the blog before.]
It is a pleasure to welcome parents, friends, and most importantly this evening, students, to the Cum Laude National Honor Society Induction Ceremony. The students here this evening have distinguished themselves in many areas of school life from the classroom to the stage and from community service to the athletic field. They have earned this recognition, and in myriad ways they have sacrificed for it.
Recently, I have been thinking a great deal about sacrifice. If the students here this evening think only for moment, they will no doubt recognize the extraordinary sacrifice that others have made so that they might have the opportunity to be here this evening.
A visit this summer to Pearl Harbor ignited my current thinking about sacrifice. At the USS Arizona Memorial, the oil that still seeps from the wreck below the surface fixated me. Somehow its rainbow sheen dotting the surface of the harbor and drifting to sea on a postcard beautiful June day made December 7, 1941 feel like more of a living tragedy than the famous photographs of its last horrific minute on the surface ever could. One of the uniformed guides told me that there was enough oil left in the ship’s hull below that it would continue to leak for several hundred more years—a sort of long-term reminder of sacrifice.
I have been thinking about my visit there ever since. In fact, I have been thinking about it in combination with two other sacred places I have visited over the last several years—the American Cemetery in Cambridge, England and the American Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia.
(Photograph from American Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia. Brother buried next to each other–Ward and Wilbur Osmun.)
At each place there is a kind of immediacy that can easily escape me when I read about the sacrifices that men and women throughout our history have made for the people they loved and for others not yet born. In Cambridge, this feeling hit me when I first entered the small chapel at the cemetery where on the ceiling is a mosaic of planes flying across a blue sky that represents all the different military aircraft that flew from bases near Cambridge. It also hit me when I visited the Eagle Pub near Corpus Christi College in Cambridge where American Pilots and Crew stood on chairs and wrote their names, and often their flight groups, on the ceiling. Like the small stains of oil on the surface of Pearl Harbor, they stand as reminders of sacrifice.
In Tunisia, the feeling was most poignant when my daughter asked me why there were some grave markers that had no name and others where more than one person had been interred. I don’t remember exactly how I answered her, but I do remember stumbling through my response.
Back at the visitor’s Center in Pearl Harbor, as I walked along the water looking back across to the spot where so many ships went down and so many lives were lost in one horrific morning, I came across a prayer printed on a brass plaque. It was a prayer Eleanor Roosevelt kept in her wallet during the Second World War. It reads:
Lest I continue
My complacent way
Help me to remember
Somehow out there
A man died for me today.
As long as there be war
Then I must
Ask and answer
Am I worth dying for?
I believe the prayer voices a uniquely brave question–“Am I worth dying for?” It is a question that goes to the heart of sacrifice.
This particular question may give us an understanding of why having the talent, drive, and opportunity that has landed our students here this evening is really both a gift and a loan—a gift in that it is yours to use and a loan because you are called to pay it forward to others.
Throughout history and literature is the demand that we remember those who have sacrificed everything for others. Quite right—remembrance is an appropriate demand, but it is really only the least that we can do. The more vital statement of demand, and where this gets difficult, is to live a life worthy of the sacrifices others have made for us. The demand is to make something valuable from our blessings—our families, our education, our opportunities, and our faith.
At the end of the film Saving Private Ryan, John H. Miller, played by Tom Hanks, delivers his dying words to the young man for whom he has given his life, Private Ryan, and he implores him to “Earn this.”
While our lives lack the soundtrack of a major motion picture, they are replete with drama of their own, and in the end, like Private Ryan, we are each beneficiaries of sacrifices, large and small, dramatic and selfless. The question for our inductees this evening, and perhaps the rest of us as well, is: how will you earn the benefits of those sacrifices through the lives we lead and through the contributions you will make?
So…to the students gathered here, congratulations, we are proud of your accomplishments, and we look forward to seeing you successfully complete of your Westminster career.