What To Pack For Your Next Story: A Commencement Address

St. George's Independent School Class of 2016
St. George’s Independent School Class of 2016

[The Class of 2016 graduated on Sunday, May 22nd from St. George’s Independent School. It was a lovely graduation. The Valedictorian and Saludatorian speeches were particularly well done. I gave the address below right after the opening hymn, “Be Thou My Vision.”] 

Good afternoon—what a beautiful day for this gathering!

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It has always really been about stories. We’ve been telling them to you and telling them about you since before you were born. Your families dreamed of you before you arrived and many of them I bet told anyone who would listen all about…the day you first rolled over on your own, the day you took your first step, went to kindergarten, took a bus for the first time, moved up to sixth grade, went to dances, played in games, made the grade.

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As wonderful as those stories can be, there is an even better story ahead for each of you. You’ll tell this particular story through your actions, through your relationships, through your respect for others. When you leave here and go to what’s next—colleges and universities across the country and when you move beyond even that deeper into your adulthood: jobs, relationships, marriages, and children of your own—when you leave here, the life you lead will be a story drawn from where you’ve been and drawn forward to the world you wish to create.

“when you leave here, the life you lead will be a story drawn from where you’ve been and drawn forward to the world you wish to create.”

The other night when I spoke briefly to you during Baccalaureate practice, I said that you were in a moment in your lives when you were caught between—not really fully where you’ve been and not yet where you are going next. Such moments are challenging—it is not easy to move from your St. George’s story to what is next, to go from one stage of life to another, to move from what is completely familiar to what will be new at virtually every turn. Indeed, this is part of the reason we commemorate such transitions with gatherings like baccalaureate and graduation ceremonies, so we can surround you in this in-between place with a strength greater than the sum of our parts. That said, such ceremonies, rites of passage, also mark a moment in time when those who love you, who know you best, announce unambiguously that we believe you are ready to begin your next story, that we recognize a deep reservoir of intelligence, strength, faith, and resilience in you. The message we send you today is that you are ready. You have the things you need—they are already a part of you.

That said, I have three things I would like to ask you to keep close by, to pack in and amongst your clothes, books, and computers. Three things to keep within easy reach.

First, pack kindness. Lead with it. All the work you have done, all of the sweat and frustration you have endured, as well as all of the success we recognize today only has value in as much as it allows you to live a life of connection and contribution to your family, your neighborhood, your community and city, your nation and your world. Recognizing the primacy of relationship allows us to see the primacy of kindness. I focus on it here because I know…

  • Kindness is not easy; it is certainly not quaint or trite; kindness requires courage, it makes us vulnerable, and it requires selfless contribution. It requires thinking of others before we think of ourselves.
  • Kindness sets a high bar; it is rigorous. It is not simply a hobby. It is not OK to be kind only when it is convenient and to shut kindness out when it is not practical.
  • Kindness is not seductive but its alternatives are, and they are ubiquitous.
  • To do unto others as you would have them do unto you requires selflessness, self-awareness, and yes…kindness.

I say all this about kindness knowing how often we each have fallen short of its mark, and knowing as well that we each will fall short again. And again. When you do fall short, apologize, and move forward resolved to do better next time.

Second, pack your best self—you’re going to need it, the people you love deserve it, as do the communities in which you will live, serve, and lead.  We are living in a moment in history when we have more dynamic and significantly more powerful means of connection than at any other time. If we think it, we can communicate it—globally. If we want to know more, we can find it—immediately. Strangely in this environment we can feel surrounded by people who disconnect, who alienate, or who dismiss others. Please don’t be swayed, deterred or diminished by those voices, and please don’t allow yourself to become one of them. Our education, certainly the education we seek to provide at St. George’s, should lead us to be among the people in the world who overcome these challenges, among the people who find ways to create relationships and partnerships that transcend the distances that separate us. I believe this effort is at the heart of our school. My most earnest hope is that you leave here with a desire to participate in making a better world. To do this work, to make this part of your story requires casting off pettiness, meanness, self-righteousness, and instead prioritizing humility, selflessness, and contribution. It requires your best self.

Finally, after packing kindness and your best self, pack the ability to count to ten. You might think after all the math classes you have taken I might suggest a more advanced mathematical skill, but counting to ten might be the most important math you do. Yes, life happens fast, but most often you have time to think before you make decisions. There are moments in our lives that require us to be reactive—for instance, you don’t have time to count to ten before you make every decision as driver. But more often than we recognize there is time to think about what you are going to do, to think about who you should be in a given situation. Please, please count to ten before you act—before you say what can’t be unsaid, before you forget what is most important, before you miss an opportunity to make a situation better.

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Interestingly, this entire graduation ceremony is a sort of counting to ten before you move your tassels and turn your rings, before you put on dark glasses and head into summer. This counting to ten allows us time to be thankful for you and the lives you have led here; it allows us to celebrate you and wish you well before we are each immersed once again in our daily lives and routines. In this particular ceremonial counting to ten under this lovely tent, on this beautiful day, at this remarkable school, I am excited about who you will become, the lives you will make, and the stories your lives will tell. So…

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. Godspeed Class of 2016. Thank you.

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With Paige Madison, Member of the Class of 2016
With Paige Madison, Member of the Class of 2016

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Radio, Radio: Two Recent Interviews About St. George’s

Over the last month I have had the chance to speak about St. George’s Independent School with Jeremy Park as part of the LPBC Radio Show and with Duncan Williams’ Chairmans Circle Radio Show. I am grateful to have had both of these opportunities. Please click on the pictures below to listen in.

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Duncan WIllimas Chairmans Circle Interview
Duncan Williams Chairmans Circle Interview

Ecce Homo: Caravaggio Reveals Jesus’s Humanness

[I delivered the following chapel talk at St. George’s Independent School Chapel this morning. I projected the images on a screen behind me. The gospel was from Mark, Chapter 10: 13-16: People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.]

View from the Sacro Monte Di Orta (Photograph by J. Ross Peters)
View from the Sacro Monte Di Orta (Photograph by J. Ross Peters)

     “Like a cinematographer, he goes in for the close up distilling the story to its bare bones and thus taking control of the narrative in order to reinvent it into something far more personal.”

In the summer of 2014, my wife, daughter Eleanor, and I travelled for the second time to Northern Italy for several weeks in order for my wife to complete research on a remarkable place called, the Sacro Monte Di Orta—or the Sacred Mountain of Orta, a Renaissance era pilgrimage site where twenty chapels are dedicated to St. Francis. My wife, Katie, is writing a book about this beautiful place set atop a hill on a small peninsula on Lake Orta, which sits at the mouth of the Ossola Valley not far from Switzerland. My job was to provide photographs for the book, so I spent many days shooting inside and outside of these captivating, dimly lit sacred spaces.

Chapel XII Sacro Monte Di Orta (Photograph by J. Ross Peters)
Chapel XII Sacro Monte Di Orta (Photograph by J. Ross Peters)

One day we took a day off in order to drive to the town of Novara to see a painting by my favorite Renaissance painter, Caravaggio.

Art seems to be everywhere in Italy—much of this presence of art around every corner, on and around every altar, arose during the Renaissance when the need for painting within the Catholic Church accelerated as part of the Counter Reformation. Recognizing the impact of visual images on a largely illiterate population was central to the Catholic Church’s push back against Protestantism moving outward quickly from Germany and Europe. As a result, there was tremendous need for artists, and Rome in particular deepened its hold as the epicenter of the art world. Living often within shouting distance of each other, many different artists painted some of the central scenes of Jesus’s life—copying one another, competing with one another. One of these scenes is called, “Ecce Homo”—the most famous version of which, Caravaggio’s, we went to see in Novara.

There are many paintings and representations of the moment near the very end of Jesus’s life when Pilate publically reveals Jesus to a crowd and says, memorably, “Ecce Homo” meaning “Behold the man”. A number of these versions depict many people–we see not only Jesus and Pilate and Jesus’s torturer but also the animated crowd bearing witness to the events leading to the crucifixion.

Ecce Homo from Sacro Monte Di Varallo (Photograph by J. Ross Peters)
“Ecce Homo” from Sacro Monte Di Varallo (Photograph by J. Ross Peters)

In fact, in some representations Jesus is almost lost in the scene. His presence is not always where a viewer’s eye goes first. It can be a scene of large scale—many people enacting a public drama.

Titian, Ecce Homo
Titian, “Ecce Homo”

To me the most compelling painter of the Italian Renaissance is Caravaggio. Painting in the 16th and 17th centuries at the same time Shakespeare was at his prime, he was able to capture dramatic moments, such as “Ecce Homo.”

Caravaggio, "Ecce Homo"
Caravaggio, “Ecce Homo”

And indeed his own life was full of high drama, and vendettas, and insults, and violence. Within a year of this painting’s completion, he killed a man in a sword fight causing him to flee Rome and likely never deliver the painting to the man who commissioned it. He was a man of stunning artistic vision and deep, most often self-inflicted, darkness. He was the most talented in a city of talent.  He was violent even by the standard set in a violent city.  In our world he most likely would have been painting in prison, a high security prison.

In his painting of “Ecce Homo” he does something fundamentally different with his representation of this dramatic moment. Instead of painting the entirety of a scene that would have been already familiar to his viewers, he zeroes in on only the most essential elements. Like a cinematographer, he goes in for the close up distilling the story to its bare bones and thus taking control of the narrative in order to reinvent it into something far more personal.

To our purpose this morning, Caravaggio takes us to Jesus, the human being, a man facing suffering as a human being, not as a visibly empowered divine being. The Jesus he presents has a countenance, a facial expression, that might exist among us—might be among the homeless, might be an exhausted refugee, might be our next door neighbor after a house fire, perhaps he might be our friend facing traumatic personal, fully human loss. To reinforce the concept that Jesus is a man who might walk among us, he portrays Pontius Pilate in Renaissance era clothes so as to make the entire scene contemporary, immediate.

During the the Easter season in early Spring, I find that we focus so much on the very end of the story—Christ’s resurrection and ascension–that we can lose sight of a necessary balance between his divinity and, importantly here, his humanness.  To understand the full power of Jesus’s story we must maintain focus on the fact in the gospel story that he is a man–a human being–AND he is divine. In his “Ecce Homo”, Caravaggio brings our attention squarely to Jesus’s humanness. He cuts out all of the static of a crowded stage and places us in a unique proximity to Jesus’s suffering—depicted as stunningly human. Jesus looks vulnerable, tired, reflective, withdrawn, introverted. Even without showing us Jesus’s eyes, Caravaggio pulls us toward the interior of the man—everything else is secondary thus reversing what is usually a public scene to a uniquely private one. Through Caravaggio’s famous manner of capturing light in his work, he draws our attention away from the two other people on the canvas and onto Jesus. Interestingly, Jesus’s form is not highly idealized even though it commands most of our attention. Caravaggio’s representation of Jesus stands in contrast to many depictions of him as super-human—as a highly muscled savior, a man with a middle linebacker’s musculature. Not this one. His defined muscles appear more as a result of his thinness than as a result of push-ups.

Our scripture today is from a different, much earlier part of Jesus’s life and ministry. It is interesting that both the gospel reading today and Caravaggio’s “Ecce Homo” reveal significant aspects of Christ’s humanness. While we see his human suffering in “Ecce Homo”, we see his abiding and human love for others through the way he reaches out to children, the way he seeks connection with others, the way he seeks to bless them even over the objection of the disciples. There is something remarkably tender about his gathering up of the children. Placing the two scenes next to each other creates a tension. He is capable of not only despair but joy. While in “Ecce Homo”, he seems to be withdrawing from society, in our gospel today he seeks connection, and he seeks to take action by providing a blessing. Both images of Jesus are revelatory—he is a man who has felt human joy and despair himself.

I feel so strongly about facing Jesus’s humanness because it makes me see his divinity in a more complete and powerful light. It is the idea that Jesus is both human and divine that is the transcendent detail of his story. Caravaggio draws our attention to this, and he allows us to see him in a vastly different way than the fuming crowd there to jeer him. He also makes us see a familiar scene through new eyes. The painting calls us to rise above the crowd and “behold the man”. Through the perspective of the painting, Caravaggio elevates the viewer above the crowd to which Pilate speaks. Caravaggio seems to be calling us, and perhaps himself, to rise above the crowd and to a closer connection to Jesus, and thus to faith.

To behold means to take in, to reflect upon, to contemplate, or to witness a person who is remarkable and impressive. Yet Caravaggio makes Jesus not obviously remarkable or impressive at all—he normalizes Jesus’s physical form in order to emphasize, I believe, that he is human. Interestingly, I think that is exactly Caravaggio’s point—what makes Caravaggio’s Jesus truly remarkable and impressive IS his humanness–one placed on earth not simply to be among us, like a mythological god meddling in human affairs, but one born of a mother, to be one of us, as one who can gather children up in his arms to give a blessing and also toward the end of his life, one who can experience despair.

Ecce Homo. Behold the man. Amen.

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Mutuality and Ascendent Partnerships

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“We recognize what has always been true, if often dismissed–that is, that we exist in a web of mutuality.”

[Several years ago, I wrote about the role of partnerships in schools. Below the brackets is part of what I wrote. I am struck with the ongoing relevance of this kind of thinking and of the strategic necessity of creating and maintaining partnerships. On Saturday, St. George’s partnered with the Wolf River Conservancy and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to provide a family day on the Wolf River hosted at St. George’s. It was great to see so many people experience for the first time our outstanding setting along the Wolf and our unique access to Mid South wetlands. We have also developed an unprecedented relationship with City Leadership and Serve9o1 in a space we are calling the St. George’s Bunkhouse in the Vollentine-Evergreen neighborhood–you can read about that partnership HERE

What is happening through such partnerships pulls our school into the community from which it draws families, and it pulls the community to us. Through partnership we become a good neighbor, and we become aligned with the best ambitions of our city, county, and area. We recognize what has always been true, if often dismissed–that is, that we exist in a web of mutuality. For too long independent schools risked becoming artifacts of separation, virtually stiff arming the outside world–in so doing they risked underserving both students and the community. That coin can and should flip.

There are many institutions and non-profits thinking in similar ways about the importance of partnerships in the Memphis area. A couple come to mind first for me though there are, of course, many more. Rhodes College has made a priority of being a valuable neighbor through the Bonner Center for Faith and Service. In this work Rhodes has become a national leader. In a different context the amazing redevelopment of the old Sears building into the Crosstown Concourse, is at the forefront of creating connections between everything from housing, healthcare, wellness, retail, education, and office space. The most exciting forces–in education, in the non-profit, and in the for-profit world–are thinking big about how partnerships can weave the fabric of the city into something stronger, more inclusive, and more sustainable. Notably, the areas largest banks, First Tennessee and Regions, are focused on this work as well as expressed through their thoughtful deployment of Community Reinvestment Funds. In short, they recognize the power of betting on Memphis and Shelby County. They too realize that we are in a web of mutuality and that the generations to come will be at risk if we allow the constituents parts of the community drift too far apart now.]   

Design Rendering of the C
Design Rendering of the Crosstown Concourse from http://crosstownconcourse.com/design

From 2012…”Partnerships. Local ones, international ones, public-private ones, online ones.  Partnerships between schools, between teachers, between academic departments, between students, between teachers and students, between the school and students, between the school and parents, between the school and the community in which it exists.  More and more the value of partnerships is finding its way into the identities and the realities of schools. Some partnerships are making their way from the co-curriculum into the curriculum, while others are pulling our schools and some of our students’ learning out of the classroom and into the world.

I have written often in “Ross All Over the Map” about the importance of creating a Progress Culture in schools, and of late I have been constantly reminded that partnerships will be a cornerstone of establishing, maintaining, and expanding such a culture. I am struck with the realization that the schools best able to nurture these partnerships (rather than just accumulate them) will be positioned to give their students the most meaningful and sustainable experiences.”