Staying Square and Holiday Whiplash: Grateful Presence for the Season

[What follows is a letter going in mailboxes today to the families of St. George’s Independent School. All of the pictures are from our Memphis and Germantown campuses Book Parades.]

Thanksgiving and Christmas come so close together that just as soon as our attention turns fully to the first, we have to turn it immediately to the next. Holiday whiplash.The close proximity of the two highlights of the year confounds school calendars and creates a wind-sprint in Episcopal schools in particular as we strain to fit in every Christmas Pageant, gift exchange, Choral concert, and rigorous exam into a space barely, just barely, able to contain it all without bursting at the seam right through the New Year and into January. With that in mind, for this newsletter I have sought a topic that might serve both Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I recently joined Head Chaplain, Jessica Abell, and Germantown campus Assistant Chaplains, Kim Finch and Carrie Carpenter, in Atlanta for the National Association of Episcopal Schools Conference. While there were a number of highlights, and we each learned a great deal, several speakers stood out for me—Ketch Secor, member of Old Crow Medicine Show (and writer and lead singer of “Wagon-Wheel”) who spoke about his father—a legendary Episcopal School Head; Becca Stevens, Founder of Thistle Farms, who gave a deeply engaging talk about the work of Thistle Farms; and the Most Reverend Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, who during a celebration of Communion, delivered a homily as powerful as any I have ever heard. (You may remember Bishop Curry as the Celebrant from the Royal Wedding in May). His words challenged and comforted in equal doses, and I gave him, and indeed to Becca and Ketch as well, my full and undivided attention.When I give someone such rapt attention, I tend to turn square to them. Like a tennis player prepared to return a vicious serve, I find that my shoulders become parallel to the speaker. I am fully present for them, and the rest of the world melts away in much the same way it does when I am engrossed in a book. Just before Thanksgiving Break, I went to the Germantown campus Book Character Parade, and I was reminded of the amazing space of complete and joyful engagement a book can provide children and indeed all of us. We become so dialed-in that we can become a bit vulnerable—ever sneak up on someone lost in reading? At the NAES Conference, I entered a similar space of deep engagement, and I was fortunate to share it with fantastic colleagues from St. George’s and from around the country. Thankfully, no one snuck up on me—or I would have jumped from my seat.Often—far too often—we tend to skate so lightly across the surface of experience that we risk missing the full import of what is happening around us. We risk becoming people who only read the headlines of our lives. Given the hope and possibility that has been delivered to us, represented in the nativity we celebrate December 25th, this sort of experience skating is not good enough for us—most saliently, it is not good enough for the education of our children. At St. George’s we want more for and expect more of our kids.So what does this have to do with Thanksgiving and Christmas? A lot. Our Chapel theme for November is gratitude, and only when we are fully present, when we are open to both the wonders of and challenges of the world around us are we in position to appreciate creation and our role within it. Though it is a good idea to share greetings of the season no matter your faith tradition, it is not the saying of such things as “Happy Thanksgiving” or of “Merry Christmas” that defines our gratitude–it is instead in our thankful presence for the season and for the years that encase it. Gratitude is requisite for both the celebration of Thanksgiving and of Christmas, and indeed all the days of our lives.

I am grateful for St. George’s each day, and I hope you will continue to join us in helping your children be fully present for all this school has to offer. My New Year’s wish will be that we lead by example in teaching them to square up to it all, for in doing so, they will be able to live their gratitude and their appreciation for the lives we share.

A Christmas Gift, Undeserved and Beautiful: Reflection from SGIS Lessons and Carols

(Photograph from The Altria Theater)
(The Altria Theater, formerly known as The Mosque. Photograph from The Altria Theater)

[I gave the following talk as part of the St. George’s Independent School Service of Lessons and Carols yesterday. The service included students from each of our three campuses and from the second through twelfth grades. Additionally, we had participation from a recent graduate who read one of the lessons. It was a simple and lovely service.]

Merry Christmas! It is a pleasure to gather here for this purpose this evening.

When I was in third grade, I was in the St. Christopher’s Lower School Choir, and our big moment of the year was singing at the Richmond Ballet’s and the Richmond’s Symphony’s Production of The Nutcracker. Mr. Munson, our choir director, somehow managed to pull a distractible group of little boys into some sort of generally cohesive group. The weather on the day of the late afternoon show was gray and cold pre-Christmas December, so our mothers had bundled us up so completely that our movement was limited as we pretended to be astronauts walking on the surface of the moon toward the stage door of the theater, at that time called The Mosque. The Mosque, now renamed The Altria Theater, is like a larger version of The Orpheum here in Memphis.

I remember flashes of many things—coming in the stage door and down a dark hallway, continuing by the Orchestra Pit where musicians uncased and tuned their instruments, then up flights of stairs and a red-carpeted hallway to our position. I also remember scanning all the motion of people finding their rows, greeting each other, and at last I remember spotting my parents and sister settling into their seats below. As a member of the choir and thus a part, however small, of the production, I had a powerful feeling of being a part of something huge, of getting to see behind the curtain to where something amazing was going to happen.

Squirming in red St. Christopher’s School V-neck sweaters and neckties before the lights went down, we arranged ourselves in the side balcony, where we could see not only the symphony’s conductor, but also everyone below in the audience. Additionally, our view provided us with an excellent view of stage where soon Clara would see her world transformed by a gift.

(Photograph from The Altria Theater)
(Photograph from The Altria Theater)

For our purposes this evening here in our “Lessons and Carols” celebration of the season, the holiday season, the Christmas Season, imagine we were that night long ago in Richmond, Virginia the best choir ever to sing for the “Dance of the Snowflakes.”  We certainly thought we were. Afterward the Symphony’s conductor told us what a nice job we had done. He was particularly happy (hear: relieved) that we had stood up in unison and begun to sing on cue. All of our parents told us how nice we looked, how well we sang. In my mind, Tchaikovsky himself would have praised the near perfection of our contribution. Aglow from our success, we basked in the applause after hurrying down to receive our accolades: “Such nice boys…so well behaved…such strong voices.”

[Go to the 2:06 mark to hear the chorus sound the way we were supposed to sound]

Once we returned to gather our coats and mittens and wound our way back across the stage and though the mystery that is the backstage of all good theaters, we emerged out the stage door, as if we had slipped back through a veil into the world we left behind a couple of hours earlier.

But we were startled to find that the world transformed in our absence. The streetlights and car headlights lit up a new world of soft, big flake snow already fast to the sidewalks. The roads too, no matter how numerous the cars were edging down Main, or Laurel, or Franklin Street, were quickly disappearing beneath it. Walking across from Monroe Park in front of The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, the crowd was laughing, loud and happy to be huddled together under umbrellas or sweeping the ground with the side of their hands to see if the consistency was right for snowballs. The surprise of it, the lack of its forecast, made the scene all the more joyous, for the world had been remade in only the time it takes to follow the familiar story of Clara and the Prince through The Pine Forest and onto to meet the Sugar Plum Fairy. This early snow was a gift, undeserved and beautiful. To my mind it was as if The Nutcracker itself had made all this happen—it was magic.

More importantly, most importantly, it was Christmas. If anyone had failed to recognize its coming, they couldn’t miss it now. For Christmas is a gift, undeserved and beautiful as well.

So…at last…thank you to all of our participants this evening—you have deepened the meaning of the season for all of us. And to all gathered here, I cannot promise you snow when we open those doors at the back of this chapel in a moment, but I can promise you this: the gift of Christmas is coming like a wonderful surprise snowstorm to transform our world. Be joyful and be glad in it.

Merry Christmas! Thank you.

 

“Love is Bearing Witness”: A Former Student’s Christmas Message

The St. George's Independent School Upper School Choir sings during the 2015 Service of Lessons and Carols
The St. George’s Independent School Upper School Choir sings during the 2015 Service of Lessons and Carols

[I spoke near the end of our Lessons and Carols Service early Sunday evening. Held on our Germantown Campus, it was a full Chapel with participants and families from each of our three campuses. It was a lovely service. Below you will find the reflection I shared.]

Good evening and Merry Christmas!

I have had a number, an impressive number, of amazing students in my career. I have been fortunate beyond easy thanks to teach in schools where my students were busy teaching me at every turn. Now well-over twenty-five years into my professional life, I have a list of students who continue teaching me long after they last exited my classroom.

One such person is Janet Smith who was a student in my AP British Literature class at Asheville School. Like so many St. George’s students, she was a smart, witty, often slyly funny class participant. She never failed to have something interesting to say.

On Christmas Eve 2012, a number of year after she graduated from high school, Slate Magazine published a piece by Janet entitled, “Christmas With My Homeless Aunt.” Its subtitle is, “She spoke fluent French. She came with mice in her suitcase.” And the first paragraph is, “When my father smiles, the wide gaps between his teeth are on cartoony display. His family could afford braces for only one child, and, as the girl, his sister’s looks won priority. In adulthood, Debbie was the homeless woman with perfect teeth.” Even if I had not known the author, I would have read it just for the title and hook alone. Paragraphs like that when written by former students make English teachers proud and even tempt us to try to take a tiny sliver of largely undeserved credit.

Her message in the piece has stayed with me, and I thought about it as I looked forward to this event, our Service of Lessons and Carols. Here is the part that captured me—the part that makes it a well-timed piece for the Christmas season:

Toward the end, here in part is what Janet asserts:

“…I’ve learned that love is bearing witness. That’s how my dad has always had to love his sister. He’s given her help whenever he’s had the opportunity, but mostly he’s had to show his love by bearing witness. He loved her by bearing witness. And, in his grief, bearing witness is how I love him.”

“To bear witness” is to tell or reveal the truth of something. The story she tells about her aunt is an extraordinarily hard one about the difficulty of loving, specifically, the difficulty of loving when we feel as if we can only fall short. We cannot heal all the people we love. In trying to help others, we can quickly find our own limits. Sometimes we can only “bear witness” to the struggles of others and the brokenness of the world and then go about doing the best we can to serve.

Celebrated in joyful song and important lessons such as those we have shared and heard this afternoon, however, this season, the season of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, is the moment when we hear the good news that there is perfect love for imperfect people like us who so often fall short. It is the sort of love that can heal us and those we love and the world in which we live. The bearer of that good news is the reason we come together today. And that news, the news of Christ’s birth, is the reason we have cause for joyful celebration.

So with that…Merry Christmas, St. George’s! Here’s to a year of kindness, of forgiveness, of giving, and of loving. Here’s to a year of bearing witness. Here’s to a joyful holiday season for all!

Amen. Aleluia. Thanks be to God.

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Christmas with my homeless aunt. – Slate Magazine

Written by a former student from my days teaching at Asheville School, this will likely be the most memorable piece I read this holiday. We teach them and soon enough they teach us.”I’ve learned that love is bearing witness.”  Christmas with my homeless aunt. – Slate Magazine.