A Baccalaureate Message

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Below is the message I gave this morning for Salem Academy Baccalaureate…

It is such an honor to be here with you today, in this beautiful setting of the May Dell. It is wonderful to look at the faces of our seniors before me, and to know how strong, creative, brilliant, kind, and compassionate all of you are. None of us could have imagined a time like these past 15 months, and yet here you are – having accomplished more than anyone could have expected, under the most challenging circumstances. You have not only done your academic work – you have continued to do all the wonderful extra-curricular things that really make Salem Academy special.

Our clubs are strong and healthy.

Our plays are vibrant and creative.

Our younger students have been mentored and cared for.

You have created mutual forms of support, lifting each other up on difficult days.

And – you have even offered support and kind words for those of us who are fortunate enough to work here – and on behalf of all of us, thank you!

Now the traditional Baccalaureate message normally talks about accomplishments, and success, and how to be even more successful when one goes off to the greater world.

This morning, I’d like to reflect on what “success” truly is. I remember back in ancient times, when I was in high school – we had senior superlatives – and they were the superficial things from the 1980s than any John Hughes movie could highlight more fully.

I did very well academically in high school – was a leader in various clubs – very active in my church and the community – in short, I did all the things one needed to do to be successful. And the one thing I really wanted was to get the Senior Superlative for “Most Likely to Succeed.”

Now I am certain all of you can guess how this great desire of mine ended. I lost out to a rather quiet young woman whose brother had won “Most Likely to Succeed” a couple years previously. And yes – I was bitter. And I was so immature that when I ran into her 7 years later, as I was finishing a Masters at Duke and had a good job waiting on me – I remember smugly thinking “I’m more successful than she is.”

I am not proud of that!

I hope and pray that all of you are more mature and grounded that I was at age 18 or age 25. In fact, I know you are!

I bought into what society told me success was –

Good grades

A big name school

A “good” job

Connections with important people

Having influence in the world

Receiving awards & accolades

Having the appearance of someone who had power and “had it all together”

Now I am not standing here before you saying that any of these things are bad – not at all – but what I am saying is that if we strive for these things because we believe that is what society expects of us – then we have lost sight of what it truly means to be successful.

One good thing that has come about the past 15 months is that many people are rethinking how they want to live in the world – what success means for them. Does it mean spending most our time on things that really do not have value? Does it mean filling our homes with possessions? Does it mean that we are so focused on how we appear in the world, that we rarely connect to others in deep, meaningful ways?

All of us have dealt with real trauma in the last 15 months – and in a variety of ways. The pandemic, growing awareness of racial injustice, mass divisions in our country, economic challenges, growing environmental devastation, isolation, loneliness, grief…

What is the best way for us to live in this world? Especially in the midst of such challenges?

The most important thing for any of us is connection.

Connection to our deepest selves – who we truly are and we who want to be

Connection to each other – our closest circle of loved ones, others in our society and the world

Connection to creation – to the gift of nature around us – the very ground of our being

To be successful means that we are connected.

Now all of you have done a fair amount of mindfulness activities with me during your time at Salem. The core of a mindful practice is to be connected to ourselves, to others, and to creation.

One of the true gifts of Salem Academy is the connection each of you has to each other. Sophie very graciously sang an old song I requested for today – Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend. Now I know that many of you heard that and thought, “Wow – that’s the Gilmore Girls theme.”

Yes,it is – but many years before that – it was a thought-provoking song from the 1970s about what it means to be a friend.

What it means to be connected to another person – when you are down and troubled, a true friend is there with you, brightening up even the darkest night.

Our sacred readings which Emma read for us today all focus on connection – how we are connected to another.

We are to love one another as we love ourselves. And please note that says we can’t truly love others unless we love ourselves first.

We are to be in community with others with kindness, compassion, a humility of spirit, an understanding heart.

Now – this isn’t always easy – and sometimes it’s really hard. And on those days when it’s not easy to be in community with others – even those we truly love – then it’s time to work more on loving ourselves and be connected to the most important part of ourselves – so that we can love others.

So – for this Baccalaureate message today, I wish each one of you success. And not success as the world defines it – but success as the deep spirit of the world defines it.

I wish for each of you continued deep friendships and love.

I wish for each of you compassion and wisdom.

I wish for each of you the deepest of connection – to yourselves, to creation, and to others.

I’d like to end this message by asking our seniors to come forward to the table up front in just a moment. You will notice there is a big pottery bowl with small rocks there. They come from the grounds of Salem, right here at the May Dell in fact. And I want you to take one rock – to take it from this home of Salem – and to carry it with you as you go around the globe to the various places you are heading.

When you look at this rock – remember these things –

You are always connected to your Salem family

You are connected to creation, and the very literal ground of this institution

You are connected to your own inner being, and you are as strong as the rock you hold.

The Farewell

L to R: "Jiang Yongbo, Aoi Mizuhara, Chen Han, Tzi Ma, Awkwafina, Li Xiang, Lu Hong, Zhao Shuzhen." Courtesy of Big Beach.photo credit – https://variety.com/2019/film/festivals/the-farewell-review-awkwafina-1203117966/

Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things we have to do as humans, especially when we don’t want to do it. Even if the separation is just for a few days, weeks, or months, when we love someone, we don’t want to let them go. We want them to be part of our lives, to share our joys and disappointments. When we are facing saying goodbye forever, the pain can be almost unbearable. The recently opened movie, The Farewell, explores these deepest feelings of having to say goodbye. Rapper turned actor, Awkwafina, stars in this dramatic role, based upon a real life event from writer-director, Lula Wang. The movies begins with this sentence on a blank screen, “This story is based upon a actual lie.” Real life normally seems to inspire the best stories..

Awkwafina plays Billi, a struggling young New Yorker who as a child immigrated from China with her parents. Her grandmother, Nai Nai, remains in China, along with the rest of the family (with the exception of Billi’s aunt and uncle and cousin, who have resided in Japan for a number of years). Nai Nai is dying from cancer, and as was a common practice in China, the family has decided not to tell her. The family gathers from their various homes for the wedding of Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao – simply a ruse to come home for the final time before Nai Nai dies.

Billi’s Western mindset and emotional connection lead her to believe that telling Nai Nai the diagnosis is the right thing to do. Certainly, we here in the West believe it is our right to know what is going on with our own bodies. Not knowing such information would seem like a betrayal from those we love the best.

Billi listens to her family’s rationale behind such a decision, and learns that Nai Nai didn’t tell her own departed husband of his fatal diagnosis years before. One family member tells Billi that the community is more important than the individual, and that the family “carries the grief” for the dying member so that the one dying does not have that burden.

Carrying another’s grief is such an incredible, beautiful image. In this society, filled with rampant individualism, we don’t want to carry our own grief, much less another’s. We just want to anesthetize pain with food, alcohol, ignorance, or means of escape. As much as we try to ignore our own pain, we do an even better job ignoring other’s. We want to blame people who are experiencing difficulty, instead of sitting with them in the dark days and working with them to find some better path or to change systems and structures which create pain.

I am so thankful for loved ones who have wanted to carry grief or pain with me. I hope I can at least do that in part for others – to carry what I can that might help relieve the burden.

Without giving away the ending, the movie does tell us that Farewell is never really a permanent goodbye. One of the most beautiful (and entertaining, as real life often is even in the midst of pain) scenes comes from the family visiting the gravesite for Nai Nai’s departed husband. They give offerings (a common practice in many cultures), and celebrate his presence with them, even if his physical presence is gone.

I pray that we in the West can better understand what it means to be community and to carry another’s pain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who Can Claim Community?

Community

Several weeks ago I was seated in a very familiar auditorium with hundreds of other United Methodist clergy. This is not an unfamiliar setting – I’ve spent much of my life in similar circumstances. As part of our meetings, various invited and scheduled individuals – leaders of our conference or denomination – stand and share information with us. I have forgotten much of what I heard during those few days, but one message still leaves me in shock.

One of the leaders of our seminaries stood up and began to share a story from a few years ago about an “athiest church.” For any of us who are aware of the great diversity of spiritual movements not just in our country, but around the world, this is an old story. Secular humanists have gathered for many years to provide insights for life, communal support, and values as to how to live in the world. Yet, it seemed to be news to this man. He continued this story, relating that when he heard it, there was one thing that came to mind – He thought it was “pathetic.”

My mouth hung open, stunned. My friends sitting near me shifted in their seats, obviously uncomfortable with such strong and judgmental language. This man continued his talk, stating that the Bible tells us that only followers of God can gather in true koinonia. Koinonia is a Greek word (and the New Testament was written in Hellenistic Greek) which essentially means fellowship. He stated that only people who gather in God’s name can have God’s presence in that community, and for others to copy this is pathetic.

Jesus was Jewish, but he never limited his contacts to people who were Jewish. In fact, it was often the non-Jewish people who became some of his closest associates, who carried forth his message, who even changed his mind about the nature of God (as in the Canaanite woman). If Jesus himself did not believe God’s presence could only be limited to his particular brand of religion, how can we make such statements today?

The past couple years of my life have been some of the most difficult I have encountered. And some people I know who claim to be Christian have been the most hurtful. And some of my most powerful encounters with the spirit of Christ have been through people who are athiests. Who are we to limit where God is in this world, how the Divine works, where true community and love and support can be found?

Our society and world are so incredibly divided, filled with hate and mistrust of “the other,” and lacking in the ability to engage in respectful dialogue. For those who claim to follow the spirit of Christ, we should be the last ones to pass judgment where the Divine is present or is not present. I give thanks that the Divine is present throughout all of creation and in each person I encounter.

“Loneliness is the great affliction of our age.”

“Loneliness is the great affliction of our age.” I was only half listening to the author being interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition, but that one statement echoed throughout my small car. I repeated the phrase a couple times before asking my daughter to find a slip of paper and write down the sentence. I continued driving to church while Ava graciously recorded the statement. I listened more closely and soon discovered the author was Lawrence Osborne, promoting his new book The Ballad of a Small Player. I admittedly have not read anything by this British writer, but his insight spoke to me, especially as we were heading to weekly communal worship.

Humanity certainly has been afflicted throughout history. Sometimes it’s easy to spot the problems – violence, disease, fear, greed, discrimination, hatred. Each of these things is prevalent in the world today, but I believe Osborne is correct in his assessment. Loneliness is the greatest of all the ills facing our world today. The irony is that we are more exposed, more connected than ever before. Through the internet, and social media in particular, we oftentimes end up sharing far more of ourselves than is perhaps a good idea. We have hundreds of “friends,” place our every unfiltered thought on twitter, and post selfies of every size, shape and sensitivity multiple times a day. We create an interesting timeline of our lives, encouraging people to know how #blessed we are or sharing our outrage over poor customer service at the local store.

Yet, in the midst of this extreme lack of privacy, we are lonely. A recent study by the University of Chicago revealed that loneliness is dangerous for one’s health even, placing a person more at risk than poverty. During my years of working with college students, I know that isolation (real or perceived) is one of the biggest challenges. The teen and young adult suicide rate continues to increase. If one feels completely alone, the pain is often so great that death seems the only escape.

There are a number of reasons I attend church (and not just because I’m a minister). One of the primary reasons is for the community. God calls us to be in relationship, and we know God most clearly when we are connected with others. It is when two or three are gathered together that God is present. Even when we are not in the physical presence of another, knowing that we are connected with someone else in spirit holds a great power – a great power of grace.

Community doesn’t always need to be found in religious or spiritual organizations. That is obviously an easy place to combat loneliness and isolation, but we can create community with others in very powerful ways. Friends can oftentimes become closer than family. Our co-workers and neighbors can provide support and understanding in ways we can’t always imagine. To heal the great affliction of our age, we are called to connect with others. Social media is a great way to enhance relationships which are already present. It’s not a substitute for doing the deep face to face work required in friendships. Connection is not just about time – it’s also about quality. We must risk ourselves and that which is at the heart of who we are, so that others can truly know us and we can truly know them. That’s scary to do. Revealing ourselves is not always received as we would like, but when it is received with grace and love, it has the greatest power in the world.