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.


Justice Thurgood Marshall and The Bridges for Us to Build

Civil Rights Memorial from the State Capitol of Virginia

My father, daughter, Eleanor, and I took a walk this morning around Virginia’s Capitol Square in Richmond this morning. Having grown up in Richmond, I haven’t been back for a while–it was good to be back on the grounds surrounding the Thomas Jefferson designed building. The weather couldn’t have been more beautiful as we walked by the impressive 1858 Washington Memorial, as well as memorials to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Dr. Hunter McQuire. There are a number of other memorials there as well–you should go visit. To me, the most impactful memorial was the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial. Dedicated in 2008, it presents a clear and definitive counter-point to the older memorial to Harry F. Byrd, Sr., the creator of and leader of “massive resistance” to Civil Rights.  Byrd’s Memorial, already seeming rather mundane due to its proximity to the epic Washington Memorial, is also dwarfed by the Civil Rights Memorial.

The quotation from Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall above one of the four sides to the memorial creates an essential challenge for us–particularly in a moment when so much is happening that seems to pull us apart:

“The Justice System can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls, but it cannot Build Bridges. That Job belongs to you and me.” 

We will be in Richmond until Saturday enjoying Thanksgiving with family, but I know I will take Marshall’s challenge with me back to Memphis. When reflect on Marshall’s words, I think of the places in Memphis where I see the work of building bridges taking place. A number come to mind for me–the Church Health Center, Bridge Builders, Serve901, City Leadership, City Current, and the Crosstown Concourse come immediately to mind. There are so many more. This work remains and will remain important and essential. We all need to put ourselves in this picture.

Civil Rights Memorial from the State Capitol of Virginia, plus Eleanor


Marker Beside the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial
Marker Beside the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial


The State Capitol of Virginia
The State Capitol of Virginia

Won’t You Be, Please Won’t You Be The Helper: A Cum Laude Induction Talk

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Good Evening!

It is a pleasure to welcome parents, family, and friends to the Cum Laude Induction Ceremony.  And most importantly, it is a pleasure to welcome our honorees, accomplished members of our senior class—congratulations to each of you! The praise we offer you this evening is well-deserved. The challenges you have faced that led you here are real. And yet, this evening, at least this part of it, is really more about what you will do than it is what you have already done.

Fred Rogers once said: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

Fred Rogers who created and starred in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, a children’s program that ran for decades on public television, was a significant presence in my early childhood. Even ahead of Sesame Street, which was brand new when I was headed into preschool, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood was my favorite show. I would sit cross-legged in front of the television and be absolutely ready to join him as he invited neighbors into his home, as he invited us to get on the make believe trolley, and as we arrived in the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe.”

Rogers was an impressive thinker, and he had much more to say than his children’s television program could contain. Humane, kind, and strong-willed, he had some powerful things to share not just with small children, but with all of us. While some it might sound quaint to our ears, it is often also relevant and challenging.

For instance, he provocatively challenged the power of culture when he said, “Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated.”

He encouraged us to see the many facets of others, stating: “What’s been important in my understanding of myself and others is the fact that each one of us is so much more than any one thing. A sick child is much more than his or her sickness. A person with a disability is much, much more than a handicap. A pediatrician is more than a medical doctor. You’re MUCH more than your job description or your age or your income or your output.”

He even had something to say about keeping events such as Cum Laude Induction ceremonies in proper perspective, asserting: “It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.”

This evening, however, I would like to focus for a few minutes on something Fred Rogers said that tends to recirculate after national tragedies. Here goes—

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

In the wake 9/11, only a couple of years before his death, Fred Rogers appeared as a familiar and comforting voice to the very parents who had once been young devotees of his television program. This generation of adults was now struggling to explain the unexplainable tragedy of 9/11 to their children. Given the chance to speak to us once again, he told us to look for the good, to spend less time trying to make sense of what happened and more time seeking the good in others. In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, it was not hard to find the helpers he described. First responders by job title or by inclination were ready at every turn to help others even if it meant putting their own safety at risk.

The helpers showed up after the Boston Marathon bombing as well. Even as most were understandably running away there were plenty of people running to provide aid and comfort to the injured.

It is not just after tragedies, however, that helpers are relevant difference makers. These helpers have likely looked out for you, our inductees, at virtually every turn in your life—your neighbors, teachers, coaches, friends, religious leaders and…not to be missed this evening in particular…your parents have played this role for you in ways both visible and invisible to you. Helpers don’t often get a movie’s heroic soundtrack to announce their good work, and they come in a fascinating array of shapes and sizes, an infinite variety of backgrounds and professions. It is my belief that they outnumber, and will always outnumber, the forces that corrode, abandon and destroy.

I have been thinking a lot recently about people who have found their way to professional lives that incorporate the helper role. This should be a particularly apt moment for such ruminations as you have a universe of potential paths ahead of you, and you will have some choices to make not only about what you will do, but who you will become. There are innumerable examples we could discuss here—I will spare you a catalogue and focus on just one.

John Woolard and I were classmates at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia. Yesterday morning there was an article about John in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Here is an excerpt from that article, headlined “Passion for the planet led to big gig at Google for Richmond native”:

“During graduate school, Woolard’s interests had grown to include climate change and energy conservation.

“I was really focused on how you could take the power of the free market and use it to drive environmental change,” Woolard said.

Silicon Energy, which Woolard co-founded, produced software that helped utilities and other businesses save energy.

“It was one of these companies that really changed the industry. … Just through zeros and ones, or computer software, we were able to do the equivalent of avoiding the construction of two large coal or nuclear power plants,” Woolard said.

In 2006 at age 41, Woolard became president of BrightSource Energy, which built three of the country’s largest solar energy plants in the Southern California desert. “We did enough solar to serve 170,000 homes.”

Last July, Woolard joined Google, where he is vice president of energy.

Google uses a lot of energy in its data centers and other facilities, “so we try to make sure we are doing it efficiently,” and the company also buys a lot of renewable power, Woolard said.”

John is living the life of a helper—his own brand of that species. His is a life that creates a synthesis of both his professional ambition and skill, as well as his devotion to energy conservation and environmental sustainability.

So, Cum Laude Inductees, the question you and all of your classmates will have to work out in the coming years is this: what are you going to do with your remarkable gifts? You have them, oh my goodness but do you have them. Tonight we name that for you. You are going to know enough, connect enough, excel enough. But how are you going to become the helper? The most valuable things you do in your life, the things that will most clearly define you, will be what you give and how you help.

Fred Rogers can provide us one more insight before I close this evening. For me, it reveals the beauty of the helper most simply:

“There was a story going around about the Special Olympics. For the hundred-yard dash, there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line and, at the sound of the gun, they took off. But one little boy didn’t get very far. He stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard the boy crying. They slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him–every one of them ran back to him. The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in the stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long time. And you know why? Because deep down we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.”

If the members of this group of unique sprinters in a race choose to be helpers, you, my friends, you can be helpers as well, and you should be, and you must be.

Thank you.