Opening Convocation Reflection: Good Neighbors in the SGIS Ecosystem

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 reconnect, or better for our purposes this morning, to remind them that they are interconnected as they prepare for the challenge and excitement of their final year at St. George’s as students.

I have long admired the 20th century thinker and novelist Aldous Huxley. For years I taught his novel Brave New World. In the novel Huxley imagines a society that has had human connectedness and kindness intentionally pulled from its fabric. As a result of prioritizing comfort and stability over everything else, the world we encounter in the novel is devoid of altruism and philanthropy. The notion of family is as alien to the characters in the novel as the absence of the notion of family would be to us. Additionally, many of the challenges we see in our world are absent, but to the reader’s increasing horror so are love, relationships, and caring. In the final work of his career, entitled Island, Huxley offered advice that to my ear seems perfectly timed for us. In the novel he implores: “Never give children a chance of imagining that anything exists in isolation. Make it plain from the very beginning that all living is relationship. Show them relationships in the woods, in the fields, in the ponds and streams, in the village and in the country around it. Rub it in.”

Order of Service from Opening Convocation at St. George's Independent School August 15, 2016
Order of Service from Opening Convocation at St. George’s Independent School August 15, 2016

With Huxley’s thought in mind, I spoke for a couple of minutes to the Seniors on Saturday evening. I talked to them about their role as leaders of the school, and I spoke about the idea that we are each part of the St. George’s ecosystem. As you likely learned or will soon learn in biology class an ecosystem is a complex set of relationships among the living resources and residents of a place or area. St. George’s human ecosystem includes three campuses; it includes faculty, staff; it includes infants who are less than a year old and members of the Class of 2017; it also includes alumni, trustees, and families.  Here is the key idea of my remarks this morning: our job, OUR job, is to make the St. George’s ecosystem as healthy as we possibly can. Indeed, a substantial part of the lives that I wish for each of you after your time at St. George’s is that you make all the ecosystems of which you are a member healthier and more sustainable. I am thinking of your colleges and universities and later, your cities and neighborhoods, for they are ecosystems as well.

I also took some time in my comments to our Seniors to expand our understanding of what it means to be a neighbor. It is easy to limit the definition of neighbor to the people who live next door or across the street from us. In fact, if someone says that someone else is their neighbor, we naturally assume that they live very close to each other. However, I would like us to think of our neighbors far more broadly to include not only our school, but our city, our county, our state, our nation, and our world. I would like for us to include people with whom we disagree under the umbrella of our idea of neighbor, and I would like for us to be among the people who strive to be good neighbors. At St. George’s we are going to name our school’s effort to be a good neighbor SG901, for as much as any school, if not more than any school, we are deeply connected—we are neighbors—to all of our area code.

In the letter I emailed you recently I made an ask for civility within the St. George’s community. For me playing a healthy part in our ecosystem, being a good neighbor, and committing to civility and to civil discourse are all intertwined—in fact, to my way of thinking they are essentially the same thing. Striving to make the parts of the world we touch healthier, kinder, more humane is the same thing as striving to be a good neighbor, and the same thing as striving for civility in our interactions with others.

This is not just my ask, however.  In the Gospel today—a reading from Matthew we call the Beatitudes—Christ identifies “Peacekeepers” as the Children of God. By telling us that the peacekeeper is blessed he is calling us to be Peacekeepers. That should be us; that must be us. Peacekeepers embody the characteristics of a good neighbor, and they make human ecosystems stronger.

Every part of an ecosystem impacts the way the system as a whole functions. What part will you play in St. George’s ecosystem this year?

It is an honor to have you all here. Let’s make it a great year! Amen.

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Thanksgiving Chapel Talk: Faith and Action

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L-R: Ross Peters, Sophia Quesada, Bill McClain, Mayor Luttrell, Mayor Joyner, and Brendan Gorham.

(St. George’s was selected as the 2015 Good Sports Always RecycleTM Sustainability Steward winner by the Tennessee Office of Sustainability for advancements in reducing its overall waste footprint through energy and water conservation, recycling programs and the use of green space. St. George’s Independent School is the only school in the state to be awarded the designation this year. Today Shelby County Mayor Luttrell and Collierville Mayor Joyner joined us for chapel today to celebrate the school’s good work in this area. I spoke as part of the chapel service.)

Good morning!

Last Saturday morning, I woke up early to feed our dog, Mic, and to let him outside. Dogs don’t understand weekends, so our weekday schedule, really HIS weekday schedule, prevails on Saturdays. At 6:00 a.m. he got to work finding ways to wake me up, to let me know that it was time to go. There was snorting, some bumping, a little licking of my hand dangling from the side of the bed. After his inevitable victory that lead to my sleepy walk to the kitchen as he charged and bounced beside me and to his breakfast and later to his sprint around the back yard, Mic was already headed back to sleep with a full stomach, as I, now mostly awake, fixed some coffee and began to read the news and to watch CNN. It should have been a comfortable Saturday morning reveling in the knowledge that the Gryphons would have another home game after an impressive victory the night before, but it was not a comfortable Saturday morning. World events in Paris on Friday were disquieting to say the least.

There have been other disquieting national and global news moments in the last few years such as, Sandy Hook, Ferguson, Baltimore to name a very few. Additionally, there have been names of countries that have become shorthand for conflict and tension—Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea. And last week terrorist attacks in Beirut on Thursday and Paris on Friday have drained those of us who pay some attention. Drained us. Drained us to the point that it becomes difficult to take much more in. Becoming a knowledgeable citizen is exhausting, even disheartening because at times. What we learn can challenge our faith; it can dampen our hope. It might even, during this season of thanksgiving, cause us to postpone explicit expressions of gratitude.

As I have continued to process the tragic events of the last week, I have also been gathering my thoughts about what I might share with you this morning. Here is the core of what I would like to share:

  • First, becoming knowledgeable about national and global events is the beginning of engaged citizenship, and it is an obligation of a thoughtfully faithful person.
  • Second, we must respond to global events by taking local action in our school and in our community to make the world around us better for our presence.
  • And finally, our positive actions in the world represent both faith and thanksgiving.

Becoming knowledgeable about national and global events is a responsibility. The freedom we enjoy and, once you are 18, the power of our individual votes calls us to be growing in knowledge. Our opinions should be informed as we have an obligation to know what we can know and to strive to understand what can often feel beyond comprehension. To meet this demand we need both faith and reason—and perhaps a neglected truth is paramount here…developing faith and reason takes dedication, practice, and work.

In the face of scary issues—global warming, terrorism, political and cultural polarization—it is easy to withdraw, and it is easy to boil our opinions about complex issues down to simple sound bites. Indeed, we are often pushed in this direction through the news media that too often gives us the quick and the easily digestible instead of something more nuanced and closer to the truth.

And each of us individually bears responsibility for oversimplifying a complex world in that we want what we want immediately. When we can’t get what we want quickly, we quickly move on. Too rarely are we willing to read to the end of a news item. We stop after a paragraph or two, or worse, we read the headline and move on. I have been guilty of this, and I bet many of you have too. I believe we are fortunate to be in a school that pushes us away from the seductive gravity of short attention spans, ignorance, and apathy. In thinking about the things for which you are grateful this Thanksgiving, be thankful for teachers who challenge you, those who don’t let you off the hook for shallow thinking.

Sometimes, however, in our reading or watching of news we simply become overwhelmed not because we are not concerned enough, but because the depth of our concern stops us in our tracks. Rather than avoiding the news, rather than apathy regarding world events, we become paralyzed by them. In these moments our understanding of national or world events ceases to have any discernable narrative and becomes a sort of ominous background music to our daily lives.

There is, however, good news, friends. The good news is that there is much we can do to affect our world locally, and I argue that while we want to develop national and global understanding, we want to center our action locally, in the world that surrounds us—our campus, our community, our city, and state. The statement—“THINK GLOBALLY, ACT LOCALLY—is particularly helpful here. The school and larger community in which we live should be better because of our presence, better because of our willingness to overcome news overload and spiritual paralysis to make a difference in the city and region where we live.

Now, so far from the reading of the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew to my words, you might wonder, given our close proximity to the holidays, specifically to Thanksgiving, what does all this has to do with the season? The answer is: “it has a lot to do with Thanksgiving—it has everything to do with Thanksgiving.” I believe that our positive actions in the world represent both faith and thanksgiving. Through our actions, we live appreciation and thanks. And, importantly, through this sort of appreciation and thanks, we change the world. Words alone, while powerful as a means by which to give thanks, are not enough. As we move into a season of thanks and of giving, let us remember that our best way to give thanks is to give of ourselves to others.

After many many years of spending time in the mountains and woods of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, feeling overwhelmed by global events is for me like losing my compass, while re-reading the Beatitudes is like finding it again. To end I will read the gospel again. Listen in particular for the words: “mourn”, “merciful” and “peacemaker”. 

Matthew 5 When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

By our lives in this school and by the tragic events of the last weeks, we are called to action in the world—called to mourn, called to be merciful, and called to be peacemakers.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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