by Rev. Scott Summerville
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
Last week Mary Ellen I traveled to New Orleans to visit with our daughter and son-in-law. It happened to be their first wedding anniversary last Sunday. You might think we spent the whole time down there in the Big Easy sipping mint juleps and sightseeing, but actually that was not the case. I spent a fair amount of time in New Orleans working on their car. Is there something in the genetic code of fathers and children such that, no matter how old the kids are, the father ends up working on the car? It makes fathers feel that they have a purpose in life.
New Orleans is a very complicated place: a mixture of grandeur and wealth and desperate poverty, vitality and decay. We spent half the day on Tuesday at the charter school where Ben, our son-in-law, is the principal.
It is an experimental school, like many of the schools set up in New Orleans after Katrina. This school is not like any school I have ever seen. At the beginning of the school day the teachers gather in a circle in the hallway to review the day’s plans and inspire one another, complete with clapping and singing.
The students, ninety ninth graders, gather outside in the morning. The principal comes out, and the students enter the school single file. The principal greets each one by name. The students greet the principal, then, before he lets go of each student’s hand to let them in the door for the day, the principal, asks them, “Why are you here?” The student answers, “To learn.” The principal says, “And how will you learn?” The student answers, “Achievement, respect, responsibility, perseverance, teamwork, and enthusiasm.” Watching those students enter the building shaking the principal’s hand reminded me of church, except the handshaking takes place on the way in rather than the way out.
Each time the students enter a classroom, the teacher stands at the door, shakes each student’s hand and greets them by name. And if anyone wishes to enter a classroom, even if it’s the principal, they must knock on the door, and when they do that, a student opens the door, steps out of the hallway, shakes your hand and says, “Hello, my name is ____; this is Mr. / Ms. ____ class, today we are learning _________; would you like to come in?”
The atmosphere was very personal and at the same time very formal. And there are all kinds of rituals are woven into the teaching at the school. For example, if someone is speaking in class and they are struggling to express something or to remember something, everyone in the class wiggles their fingers to signify that they are there giving that person who is struggling their attention and their moral support.
I told Ben that I was very inspired by the experience of being in his school. I was especially struck by some of the rituals that express personal affirmation: the principal and the teachers affirming the young people and the young people affirming the school and affirming each other.
Ben made an interesting comment. He said that one of the things that he had observed before he became the principal of the school was that it is common for young people to behave terribly in school, yet on a Sunday morning they may be found at church dressed up, shoes polished, behaving like angels. He asked himself, “Why are some of the worst behaving students able to be so different at church on Sunday morning?” The answer he got was that when those “bad kids” go to church, they enter a place where there is structure, ritual, a community of people who hold them to high standards, and there is a clear sacred purpose.
So he wanted to have a school where there would be structure, ritual, a community of people who hold one another to high standards of behavior and accomplishment, and where there is a clear and sacred purpose. In the case of his school, that sacred purpose is to learn well so that in the future one can serve and lead in one’s family and community. It was very inspiring to see the students and their young teachers and young principal throwing themselves into this sacred task. For these young people the stakes are very high – very high indeed.
It was also interesting to hear my son-in- law talk about the church – how the church offered a model for thinking about identifying a sacred purpose in other areas of life. When we think about church, we naturally think about the obvious things- what the place looks like, how the choir sounds, whether sermon spoke to us, whether the coffee was too strong, and so forth.
Another way of thinking about church is to ask ourselves, “Is my experience on Sunday morning making me more conscious of the sacred in everything else I am doing?” When we acquire real spiritual wisdom, we are able to find the sacred in everything, in everyone, in every circumstance and moment of life. So take that question with you, “Is my experience on Sunday morning helping me to be in touch with the sacred in every other place and time?”
We are now approaching the most sacred days of the Christian calendar: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter. In the story of Jesus in his final days there is cruelty, unspeakable cruelty, and there is amazing love. There is fear and grief, and there is great joy.
At the center of all these events and emotions there is a cross – a dreadful thing – an implement of torture. In these holy days we remember in a special way how suffering and joy, pain and wisdom, are woven together. When we grasp this, then we are able to find hope and meaning in every moment of life – no matter what the immediate circumstances of our lives may be.
Yesterday when I spoke with Rev. Clayton Miller, he said something important which I pass on to you with his permission. The last two months for Clayton have been about as miserable as anything I can imagine. It has been a time of suffering and uncertainty.
He said yesterday that this ordeal has been for him a time of deep and useful reflection and clarification about life. Just to be able to say that – to be able to say of one’s suffering, “I have made good use of this,” means that one has been able to draw from this suffering something of value, so this time, however terrible, has not been wasted. And he said that out of this time of deep reflection three words have emerged to form a core of meaning and strength. These words are: joy, gratitude, and generosity.
Joy at the sense of life’s abundance and goodness he has experienced in a new way even in this miserable experience;
gratitude for many things, especially for the flood of prayers and love and compassion he has experienced from so many people;
and generosity – the importance of generosity in life – generosity with material things but even more, the way people can be generous in their presence with others – offering that gift of presence.
It is through the contemplation of Jesus, his love, his suffering, his triumph, and through the witness of others who have drawn deep wisdom from their own suffering, that we learn what it means to grasp the sacred in every moment of life.
My son in law distilled all his passion for teaching young people into six words:
achievement, respect, responsibility, perseverance, teamwork, and enthusiasm.
Clayton distilled all his life wisdom and the fruits of his suffering into three words: joy, gratitude, and generosity.
Nine good words for us all.
Grace and peace to each of you.