Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Longer Road

The Longer Road
A homily delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 3, 2015
Gibson Memorial Chapel
Blue Ridge School, St. George, Virginia
Matthew 6:24-34

Here is the audio recorded file, live from this morning:

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. [1]

I want to remove the veil this morning and let you guys in on a little secret. We, as teachers, talk about you. We talk about you a lot. We talk about you all the time. You see we have these things called faculty meetings and these other things called in-service days, and they are often completely dedicated to talking about you guys, and when they are not about talking about you guys specifically and individually, they are about talking in general about how we can better serve you, how we can better equip you, areas where we are dropping the ball, areas we can improve, and patterns that we see within and across our classes, concerning you all, so we can adapt and change what we do. One of the big secrets about teaching is that you must adapt what you do to the student, if you're not growing you're lost, if you're not evaluating constantly how effective you are, you are finished, and if you aren't learning, you're dead. Maybe you didn't know that, maybe you did. It is something that when I was in your shoes I never imagined, let alone thought about.
I bring this up, not to make you paranoid, but as a way to introduce what I want to talk with you about this morning because on Monday we had one of those in-service days, and we talked about areas where we found our students lacking in the skills, attitudes, or overall preparedness we felt they would need to enter and then succeed in our classes. And overwhelmingly so, across departments and grade levels, one thing dominated our conversation,. and that was the fact that our students, you all, struggle the most with completing work that requires more than a couple steps. Let's call it three. More than three steps was the described problem area. By the third step you would either shut down, claim an early victory, and if not victory, contentment with less than great work, less than your best, or you would find and take a shortcut to the end.  I heard that again and again, from Math teachers and English Teachers, from teachers of freshman to teacher of seniors, and I know that I've seen the same phenomenon in my Juniors, too, and to be honest if I had to name one weakness that our football team had, despite all our success, and I'm speaking strictly from an offensive standpoint because that was my area of responsibility, and this weakness was exploited in our losses to STAB to close the season, if I had to name one glaring weakness, it is related to this same phenomenon. We could not sustain a scoring drive often for more than 3 or 4 plays. We depended on big plays because if we had to drive, something would derail that drive every time, like a penalty, a miscue, a turnover, a missed assignment, something. . . so we had to score fast or not at all. This worked for 7 games in a row, but then when we got to the reality, we were not equipped with the skills we needed to compete on the higher level.
I can't help but see the connection here. . . you, as students, as teenagers, as young men, are addicted to results, and lack the patience for the process, and all of your teachers, no matter the subject area were disheartened by that because the real meaning of education, as we all know, is not in the results, but in the process, not in the trophy, but in the doing, not in the grade but in the accumulation of connected skills. Because deep down we all know that the artificial trophies of success are meaningless, like a 60 point victory over Covenant when you have STAB on your schedule, too. When you leave here your success will not be based on the grade you got on a given quiz, but on your ability to process information, solve problems that arise, and to think logically and critically, and to have enough character to persevere through it all. When you hear quotes like, "Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world," when Nelson Mandela said that he wasn't talking about GPA. When Malcolm X said that "Education is the passport to the future" he wasn't talking about the piece of paper you get when you are done, but instead they meant like Einstein said, "Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think," and truly learning to think is not a goal, but a never ending process, of growing and growing, so yeah it breaks our hearts a little bit to hear of this overarching disease that has become so pervasive at this school. And I have to say that I don't think Blue Ridge has monopoly on the scenario, but rather that it is one evident throughout our culture today, and maybe not just in your generation either.
 So how can we address it? How can we fix it? Because I think the world certainly could use some changing, and we here as teachers, are trying to do our part in that noble venture, by preparing you to be the changers of the world, our little part is working to get you to be able to give your little part, you put all those little parts together and you get somewhere. So how can we teach you, inspire you, and convince you, that the most important aspect of your education is the process and not the goal, the acquiring of skills and not the scores? I think one way we could start, and, honestly, we struggle with this one, would be to help by giving you a more unified message about it. . . I chose the gospel passage that Keane read this morning. . . for a couple of different parts of it. The first is the opening line about serving two masters, that you end up loving one and hating the other. . . it is interesting because here, at Blue Ridge, we actually have two competing mission statements, one that is focused on the process and one that is focused on the goal. . . and they are subtly mixed together. One statement says we are teaching you to reach your potential, and the other says that we are All Boys, All Boarding, All College Bound. . . The first of those speaks to the process of learning and discerning and equipping with skills, and the second one, if ordered correctly is merely the fruits of the first, but too often it at least flirts with a focus on the results, because your grades have to be at a certain place if your goal is being bound for college. So subtly we are pushing a results oriented focus on you, or at least we are buying into and not rejecting a system that holds up the results as the most important piece, even when we, in our most idealistic, and high horse soap box, what is wrong with these kids today, self righteous faculty meeting speeches, claim that we want you to focus and truly come to love learning for learning's sake alone. Somewhere inside, our cynicism ends up giving you this mixed message about it, trying to serve the two masters at once, so the solution can't come only from us, we don't have the silver bullet because we struggle with it too. It has to come from you, and why would you choose to take that leap?
I don’t think it is laziness, because you all end up working so much longer taking an upfront shortcut because it always leaves you in an unprepared panic mode. I say it's cynicism because I think it comes down to a lack of faith on both of our parts, you all and us your teachers. It is the subtle lack of faith that acquiring the essential skills, or following prescribed steps in process, actually results in becoming prepared not only to be bound for college, but to have success there, too. That though the learning path is longer and more winding and takes a bunch of turns before reaching the destination it does actually get there, and when he arrives the traveler is in better shape, and has been prepared by the journey more soundly than he ever could have been by taking any short cut. That brings me to the second piece of the gospel passage. Jesus says, seek ye first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. In other words serve the one goal with all your focus, and everything you need will be taken care of, rather than focusing on any of the individual needs themselves. What does that take? Yes, faith. Faith that like the lilies you'll be dressed, like the sparrow and the birds of the air, you'll find food, not by scrounging for one or the other, but by seeking God. . . . It takes faith to travel the longer path, because it takes risk and letting go to some extent of the outcome. . . but such is needed to change the world. It is going to take faith on your part, faith in yourselves, faith in us, and faith in the learning process, for us to fix this disease. . . and I'm convinced that no other remedy exists, there is no shortcut, and no artificial crutch. We have to believe in what we do, and  you have to believe in yourselves, and we have to believe in each other. If we start there with simple faith, all of the other things will be added unto us.
I gave this speech to my English students on Tuesday because on their exams they were crunched for time, and reverted back to taking front end shortcuts to writing the essays on the test, you know writing the first ideas that come to your head, BS piled on BS with no organization, no planning, and no coherence, ignoring everything we had worked on for the last month completely. Pressed for time all the training went out the window because getting done was more important than the doing. They all knew it, and I called them out on it because even learning not to take shortcuts is part of learning, and maybe one of the most crucial, certainly enough to inspire me to take this teachable moment today and begin the conversation.
I wrote this song 11 years ago now. It fits the Christmas season, the Advent season, and it fits the message of this morning because it is about taking a leap of faith, taking a risk, the risk of one step, then another, the journey of one step and then another, not knowing exactly where you are headed, but having faith that each step will be led, why because the last one was, and having that be enough. The Shepherds in the song were sent on that journey by an Angel Choir, and the Wisemen by a star. We never hear of the shepherds again, but their lives had to be changed, and many poets through the years have been inspired to write about how difficult the journey for those Wisemen had to have been, but yet they took that winding road following a star because they believed that it mattered, they weren't sure how or why, but that it did. Here is my song, Leap of Faith. . . may we all take a leap of faith this year, when it comes to travelling the long road of real learning. Amen.

On a hillside late at night
To a group of lowly shepherds
Came a wondrous sight
Changing their lives forever.
They didn’t hesitate;
They didn’t wait;
They took a leap of faith
On that first Christmas Day.

Could an angel choir
Really set your soul on fire?
Would that be enough to hear
To rid you of your fear?
Is that what it would take
For you to make
Your own Leap of Faith?

In a foreign eastern land
To a group of magi wise,
Left all their plans
To follow a star that filled the skies.
They didn’t hesitate;
They didn’t wait;
They took a leap of faith
On that first Christmas Day.

Could a shining star
Make you travel from afar?
Would that be enough to see
For you to really believe?
Is that what it would take
For you to make
Your own leap of faith?

That child sacrificed for us all
On a cross at Calvary.
Do we today hear his call
Since He died for you and me?
We can’t hesitate;
We can’t afford to wait;
Lets take our leap of faith
On this Christmas Day

Could a lonely cross
Help you forget the cost?
Would that be enough love
Sent from God above?
Is that what it would take
For all of us to make
Our own Leap of faith?

Do we really need a sign
To change our minds?
Let’s take that leap of faith
On this Christmas day!

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 6:24-34). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.