One Body, Many Parts: An Opening Convocation Reflection

[I gave the following homily at the Opening Convocation of St. George’s Independent School on its Collierville Campus two days after the violent and tragic white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.]

Good morning!

Good first morning of the 2017-2018 school year. A particular welcome to our sixth graders just joining us for the first time on this campus, as well as to the remarkable and impressive Class of 2018.

Hear the last part of today’s scripture from Romans again: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”

These lines got me thinking about our differences and our interconnectedness. It also made me think about our individual bodies and how when one part is not working well, all the other parts are affected. This played out in my life when I faced significant hearing loss.

For the first time in 2002 in my left ear and later in 2015 in my right, I had a condition called Otoschlerosis. When one has Otoschlerosis, the stapes bone—a tiny bone—the smallest in the human body—stops vibrating. That means that there is nothing to communicate sound vibrations to the ear drum. As a result, over the course of about six months, I went deaf in the affected ear. Hearing aids reduced the problem to an extent; however, hearing aids seemed to eliminate a lot of sounds and voices in order to allow me to hear the voices closest to me. In order to do what they do, they simplify the world of sound.

During these two periods of hearing loss, it was stunningly disconcerting to find myself in a world that felt constricted, too small, oversimplified. I was missing so much. I felt out of balance, and in fact, I would lose my balance sometimes.

The condition left me discouraged and exhausted because I knew what better hearing sounded like. I remembered what it was like to hear clearly and make meaning from the many voices around me. I knew I was missing what I considered to be a necessary variety of voices that surrounded me.

Fortunately, there is a surgery that largely solves the problem called a stapedectomy. It is an amazing surgery in which the stapes bone is removed and replaced with an artificial stapes bone made of platinum and Teflon. Today my hearing is close to normal. Going to our scripture today, I have never been more aware of the value and interrelatedness of all of our different body parts and systems than when the bandages were unwrapped a couple of weeks after surgery and immediately I could hear again. I felt whole again.

I was so overwhelmed with the amount of sound I could now hear after these bandages were removed that I had to sit down for a while before driving. The world had opened back up, and I was overwhelmed and elated for an hour or so, a dangerously distracted man. For the first time in many months, I could hear people speaking around the corner, and I could understand people without having to look at them while they spoke.

The sort of deafness I experienced is not the only kind of deafness. Deafness can also affect a group of people who cease to hear voices not their own.

Here is my worry: in our country and in the world there is a risk of becoming deaf to each other because we forget the importance of hearing different voices. Rather than losing our hearing to a medical condition, we could simply forget to use our ears. St. George’s stands against that kind of deafness. Our school is intentionally a place that challenges us, at times uncomfortably, not to be deaf. It challenges us to hear the voices around us. It challenges us to work with others, to benefit from and share with others.


Our school is intentionally a place that challenges us, at times uncomfortably, not to be deaf. It challenges us to hear the voices around us. It challenges us to work with others, to benefit from and share with others.


Over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, evidence of deafness to those of different backgrounds revealed itself in the hateful, bigoted statements voiced by white supremacists, and their actions led to dreadful acts of violence.

Following this violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., the Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral, issued a statement that said in part:

“Violence and extremism in the guise of racial identity or racial pride are as sinful and twisted as violence and extremism committed in the name of God. The tragic events in Charlottesville today, and the hatred that fueled them, grieve the heart of God. All of us need to repent of the racism that still flourishes in our nation.

Together, we join with all people of conscience and goodwill to pray, in the words of our Prayer Book, that God would “take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth.”

Reverend Hollerith continues, “We will pray for the victims of this tragedy; for God to soften the hearts of those blinded by racial hatred; and for all Americans to find the courage and strength to do the hard work of repairing the racial divisions among us.”

The work of our school, and any great school, is to create an environment where we do hear each other, care about each other, and recognize our shared humanity. This effort has never been more important. There is so much wonderful work and fun and shared purpose ahead for us this year at St. George’s—it is in our hands to make something valuable out of this school year, but I want to challenge each of us to fend off the deafness wrought by arrogance and narrow-mindedness. I want you to listen to the experiences of those different than yours, listen to those who go to different houses of worship than you do, listen to those that come from a different zip code than you come, listen to those who look different than you look. Becoming educated involves learning more about others and challenging our assumptions. To do this, we have to listen carefully.

In the school year to come, let’s remember the gift we have been given that allows us to come together in this school, and help us to hear and learn from the remarkable variety of voices around us. I am excited about the year to come at St. George’s—I can’t wait to get it all started.

Thank you.

Some pictures from the first day of school at St. George’s…

 

 

Opening Convocation Reflection: Good Neighbors in the SGIS Ecosystem

I am re-posting my convocation remarks from the last two years at St. George’s Independent School. This is post two of two.

Ross All Over the Map

With the 2016-2017 Prefects as well as John Leach, Rector of the Church of the Holy Apostles (Photograph by Suzie Cowan) With the 2016-2017 Prefects, as well as John Leach, Rector of the Church of the Holy Apostles (Photograph by Suzie Cowan)

[I gave the following reflection during the St. George’s Independent School Opening Convocation today]

Good Morning! Good FIRST morning of the 2016-2017 school year.

Before sharing a couple of thoughts with you, I want to give a shout-out to the Class of 2017. I couldn’t more excited about the creativity and leadership of this group of seniors. I would also like to offer a round of applause to our prefects who have been hard at work preparing for the year ahead.

On Saturday evening, most of the Class of 2017 joined Mr. Gibson, Mr. Morris, Mr. Gorham, Ms. Hardy, and I at the St. George’s Bunkhouse in order to socialize, to eat Central BBQ, and to see our new space—it is awesome(!). Our time together was a chance to…

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Doers Not Hearers Only–Opening of School Year Student Convocation Talk

In advance of the first day of classes at St. George’s Independent School tomorrow, I am reposting my talks at Opening Convocation from the last two years, while I am polishing up my comments for tomorrow’s Convocation. So this is number one of two…

Ross All Over the Map

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(The author with the Senior Prefects from St. George’s Independent School August 17, 2015)

(Below is my welcome back to school Chapel Talk from St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, Tennessee on August 17, 2015. The school has over over 1100 students JK-12 on three campuses. I delivered the talk that follows to students, families, faculty, and staff on the Collierville Campus, which serves students in grades 6 – 12. The remarks I gave varied a bit from this text in relatively minor ways though my welcome was a bit longer than what appears here.)

Welcome—welcome in particular to the Class of 2016…

When I was about six, my family switched churches from a tiny Episcopal Church far out in the west-end of Richmond, Virginia to a much larger urban Episcopal Church, St. James’s, which was much further in town. To my second grade eyes, this new church seemed huge…not just…

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SGIS Commencement 2017: Valedictorian’s Address and Co-Salutatorians’ Addresses

[On Sunday, May 21 under a giant white tent  on our Collierville Campus at St. George’s Independent School, around 1650 people celebrated the Commencement Ceremony for the Class of 2017. With the permission of our Valedictorian, Graham Sisson, and Co-Salutatorians, Ryan Bray, and Isabel Correia, I am posting their speeches here. In Fall Graham will be head to Dartmouth College, Ryan will be attending Texas Christian University, and Isabel will be going to the University of Notre Dame].

Ryan Bray

At the end of my eighth grade year, I found myself in a strange position; for the first time in my life, I had to switch schools, and I really had to think about what it was that I wanted from high school. I would not consider myself to be particularly outgoing and was incredibly nervous to go to a school where I knew basically no one, so I sort of dreaded my first day of classes at St. George’s. However, the past four years have been a period of my life which I will never forget, and to think that I have been fortunate enough to be named salutatorian, or rather co-salutatorian, truly is an honor. I am proud to be standing in front of you all to deliver this speech, despite the fact that my greatest fear is public speaking.

Although I am the one who put pen to paper and actually took the seemingly thousands of quizzes, tests, and other assessments, I could not have done it without my teachers. If not for the them, I certainly would not be in this position. I would like to thank all of my teachers for helping me to get to this point, especially those who have had the good fortune to teach me for multiple years. Mrs. Philpott, thank you for coming up with unique ways to help your classes learn; it is very easy to make AP World History unbearably boring, but somehow you managed to avoid that and helped spark my love of history. Mrs. McMullen, thank you for being so patient in the face of my constant pessimism and for believing in me no matter how difficult the lesson became; your class was as rewarding as it was frustrating, and there is no one else I would have rather had as a math teacher. Mrs. Imorde, I have no idea how you convinced me to take four years of a class that studies a 2000-year old dead language, but I am glad you did. You have helped me grow and change more than any other teacher, and I am eternally thankful for all the good you’ve done for me.

Believe it or not, I do have friends whom I would like to thank, people who didn’t think twice about approaching a quiet and angsty new student and trying to be his friend. Cassie and Eva, thank you for having a contagious laughter that never fails to brighten my day, and, Maggie, thank you for being you. Thank you, Noah, for being kind to me from the very beginning and for continuing to be my friend. Thank you, Grant, for not elbowing me in the face like you did when I played against you in eighth grade; I’m glad to say that we are now friends. And, although I am now supposed to hate you for being smarter than me, thank you, Graham, for always having an open door at your house and for serving as a place where many great memories were made. If I had the time, I could thank everyone from the class of 2017 individually, because you have all become sort of an extended family; the friendliness and cohesion that I experienced surpassed even my highest expectations, and I can’t imagine myself graduating with any other class.

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not thank my family for their profound impact on my life. I am blessed to be supported by aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents that have always shown me nothing but kindness and support, and I can only hope to have a fraction of those qualities one day. Dad, the advice you gave me was simple yet life-changing: for me to “be the best that I can be.” I hope I’ve made you proud. Mom, thank you for always being my biggest fan and supporter, and I don’t know what I would do without you. Justin, although you are the weirdest person I’ve ever met, I could not ask for a better brother. If not for all of you, I would not be standing up here.

In truth, I’m not sure if this speech was supposed to have some overarching theme or idea, but I wrote it the only way I could think of: as a thank you letter. I wish I had time to thank everyone, whether it’s Coach Ruffin and Coach Nick for supporting me in basketball even though I ended my legendary career with a career-high of 12 whole points, or Joel and Camille for getting me involved in Young Life and helping my faith grow and mature. I wish I could take credit for standing up here, but I simply cannot. I am merely a product of everyone whom I’ve interacted with, and I am grateful that St. George’s gave me a place to meet all of these wonderful people. As I now look ahead to my years at TCU, I can feel confident knowing that St. George’s, and the people who make up St. George’s, have prepared me better than any other place could. Thank you.

Isabel Correia

Mr. Peters, faculty, family, friends, and fellow members of the class of 2017, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today. In fact, for some of you, these next four minutes may be the most you’ve ever heard me speak. While I have been very involved in St. George’s these past 7 years, I’ve built up a reputation of being quiet and reserved, far from the center of attention. At the moment, however, I am out of my element, and couldn’t be more in the spotlight.

A few months ago, as the idea of college was becoming more and more real, I was thinking about the people I’m going to meet in college, and I got a case of the “what ifs”.

What if they don’t like soccer like my best friends do?

Or even worse, what if they don’t like my favorite musician, Alvaro Soler, and I’m the only at my university that has heard of him?

I’ve come to understand, however, that instead of fearing that people won’t already share my interests, it’s actually quite the opposite. Yes, it can be scary to go out into the unknown, but we do it many times throughout our lives in order to grow. Think back on the first time you stepped foot in the upper school, regardless of whether you had been a gryphon for one day or for 10 years. Everything was new; we had preconceived ideas of what high school would be like, from older siblings, books, and Hollywood, but we were still experiencing many unknowns for the first time. It was uncomfortable yet exciting, and here we are, we got through it, and we are better because of the big change in our life.

We are about to set off into a new “unknown,” one of many in our bright futures. We’re an incredibly close class. Many of us have known each other our entire lives; sometimes we know too much about each other. We know each other’s likes and dislikes, hobbies, style, and opinions, but when we leave the St. George’s bubble, we will encounter a world that we don’t know and that doesn’t know us. We are going to meet new people whether we want to or not, and we are going to be out of our comfort zone. No matter how outgoing we are, it may be daunting to be in this new stage in life where the world doesn’t know us.

I want us to look at this inevitable “unknown” as an opportunity. The world may not know us yet, but we get to show them who we are. We get to share our passions, gifts, and talents with others, and that’s a beautiful thing.

When I was told I get to write a speech, many speech topics flooded my mind, but I found it difficult to settle on a theme. Think back on all the papers we’ve written and projects we’ve created in our St. George’s career – and there have been many; most of them had a prompt or a set of instructions, giving us boundaries and an end goal. But a few of our projects gave essentially no prompt; maybe we had to write an essay about any aspect we wanted in a particular book, or we had to do a senior independent study creating anything we wanted, within reason, that had a meaningful impact on the community. I’m sure my classmates would agree with me in saying that these open-ended, instructionless assignments are the most intimidating and daunting, yet once we find our theme or the project we want to pursue, it ends up being one of the best and most enjoyable assignments we have created. It may have taken us longer to come up with the idea, but the end product is something we are more proud of. Often, we don’t come up with the idea until we start the project. Personally, my best work comes from rewriting and reimagining what I’m doing. For example, I wrote two whole speeches before I finally figured out what I wanted to say to you all today.

This idea of writing and rewriting is relevant for our futures. After high school, we have more freedom than we’ve ever seen. We’re living without our parents making our major decisions, we’re figuring out what we want to study, and we’re continuing to understand the world. Like an essay without a prompt, there aren’t instructions for what to do with our lives once we walk out of this tent today. We may have to start working down a certain path before we discover what we want to do with our lives. It will be challenging and may seem scary, but once we determine what we want to do, it will be worth it in the end. As we go off to share our gifts with the world, my advice to you is to be patient, and don’t be afraid to rewrite your path. Congratulations, Class of 2017, on over a decade of greatness.

Graham Sisson

Mr. Peters, members of the board, faculty, family, friends, and classmates, words cannot describe how honored I am to be the final student to address this incredible class of 2017. But if I can’t even find the words to describe how honored I am, how am I possibly going to find the words to actually describe this class and our illustrious St. George’s career? Well, where else to turn than to God’s word. For those of us who have already been to church once this Sunday, don’t worry, I have no intentions of taking you there again.

In the parable of the rich fool in the twelfth chapter of Luke, a wealthy farmer is blessed with an abundant harvest. So, “he thought to himself, ‘what shall I do?” In answering this natural question, the fool says “‘this is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones…’ I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink, and be merry.’” We at St. George’s can very clearly see the foolishness of the wealthy farmer’s plan to keep his blessings to himself. In fact, our school, teachers, and students of the Class of 2017 are dedicated to living out the opposite of the rich fool’s plan, as we so often empty our barns and share our blessings.

As a school, we are dedicated to this idea of sharing our abundance. It would be easy for us to remain secluded in the suburb of Collierville, acting like a private ski lodge or country club more so than just looking like one. Instead, our school is dedicated to playing a larger role in our community. Our SG901 and Citizenship programs are prime examples of our actively seeking to live outside of ourselves. With the all-important guidance of president Alton Stovall, our new bunkhouse represents our school’s eagerness to empty our barns here in the Collierville suburbs, and share some of our abundance with the greater Memphis community. I’m also going to use this time to shamelessly plug our St. George’s Great Outdoors program, my baby of sorts as Prefect of the Outdoors, and use it as another example of our school’s eagerness to involve students with more than just classrooms, in this case God’s creation from here to Colorado to Maine.

But we are far more than just an eager mission statement and philosophy; our faculty truly embrace this idea of emptying their barns into our lives. As Coach Vogel is always quick to mention, none of the faculty got into the education business for a large paycheck. No faculty member decided that teaching or coaching will equate to taking life easy, eating, drinking, and being merry. Knowing this, it strikes me as incredibly impressive the extent to which our teachers and coaches have invested themselves in our lives. Whether it’s teaching us about integrals, Pavlov, or literature from the Spanish Golden Age, every teacher we have been blessed to come into contact with at St. George’s has been truly passionate about our learning of the material. And, whether it’s yelling at us to run faster from a bike, hitting harder ground balls after we miss one, or gently urging us to lay off the hammer throws into the wind, our coaches at St. George’s are invested in more than just our teams’ results; they’re invested in our development as young men and women.

But lastly, and most importantly, this class of 2017 is an embodiment of what it looks like to empty our barns and share our blessings. On the athletic fields, our seniors have led teams to regional victories and state championships for years, clearly sharing their athletic abundance with their teammates. We have double digits numbers of classmates taking their talents to the next level, where they will continue to share their lacrosse, football, track and field, swimming, and baseball blessings with a new group of fellow athletes. But that’s not to overshadow those, who like myself, have shared countless hours with our high school teammates, but will have only the intramural fields on which to share their talents in the future. On stage, our seniors have shared their blessings with the entire school community through their heartfelt performances, whether it’s the award-winning choir, the audience-moving theater groups, or the face-melting Modern Music Ensemble. Not to mention the behind-the-scenes work of those who make sure these performances happen. In the community, our seniors have led clubs and groups throughout their high school years, impacting everything from the lives of our own students to those of underserved students in Binghampton. Our seniors have organized a countless number of Best Buddies events, Shrine School basketball games, Medlife supply drives, Smile Train fundraisers, and bake sales for literally every imaginable occasion. The Bleacher Creatures have completely changed the nature of our school’s student spirit, have you seen Bayard lead a fourth-quarter roller coaster, and the Prom Committee spent months planning a truly incredible prom night. All of these commitments take an immeasurable amount of effort, yet our class has been more than willing to share themselves for the better of the community during every stage of our career here. In the school itself, our seniors have led everything from the student government to each and every class they find themselves in, I know we can all think of a few students who share themselves a little more than needed in the classroom. In all of these areas, I am honored to be a part of this Class of 2017, who so readily share their blessings with those around them.

Four years ago, my sister stood on this stage and gave her own commencement address. While I don’t remind her enough, she, more than just about anyone else in my life, is a shining example of what it means to empty her barns and share her blessings. Taking a page out of her commencement address playbook, I can think of no better way to conclude my address than with a charge from the word of God. Philippians 2:3-4 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others,” and it is with this charge that I leave you. Thank you.