Opening Chapel Homily
Posted August 30, 2012
I was not a very strong kid. For a long time, I was the shortest, the smallest, in the 1st percentile, the one in the front of the line, meaning that 99% of the kids my age were bigger than me. When I was on the swim team in first grade, I overheard an adult say, “Why did they let that 4-year-old on the starting block with the 6-year-olds?” I wasn’t a strong teenager, either, to the point where the only part of the presidential fitness test I even came close to passing was the sit and reach.
And then there are the Olympic athletes, who I spent way too much time watching this summer. They are the epitome, the definition of strength. It’s hard for me even to imagine how many laps 17-year-old Missy Franklin must have done to in order to prepare herself for breaking the world record in the 200-meter backstroke, which she did just a few weeks ago. I can’t help but wonder how many hours 16-year old Gabby Douglas spent in order to become the picture of strength and grace during women’s gymnastics, resulting in the first Gold ever for an African-American in that particular event. Wu Minxia, a diver from China, showed incredible control, entering the pool with little to no splash, leading to Gold.
The reading that Augusta did for us from the letter to the Ephesians, which some churches will hear this coming Sunday, talks about being strong: “Be strong in the Lord and the strength of his power.” The author then counsels his audience to “put on the armor of God…the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.” The picture painted is that of a first century Roman soldier, which I’m going to go out on a limb and say none of us have ever been or ever will be. At the same time, if we scratch the surface, the author’s on to something here. The people he’s writing to have recently become Christians, so they’re trying to figure out how to live a new life.
Whether this author is from our religious tradition, whether we identify with a particular tradition or not, we’re all trying to live a new life in some way, shape or form. I think the letter to the Ephesians may be onto something—new situations often require strength. Every single last one of us is facing new things in this room, the same way the people of Ephesus did so long ago. For many of us, this is a brand new school as far as you’re concerned because this is your first year here. You’re figuring out the schedule, names, the many steps you have to go through in order to login to Veracross, what’s good for lunch, what Sigma and Mu actually are, what morning meeting time really is, and more.
Even if you’re a returning student or returning employee, there is some aspect of your life that is new— we all have brand new schedules with brand new classes and perhaps students or teachers who are new or new to you, maybe you have a new role this year, maybe you’re on a different team this year or not on a team this year, maybe you’re trying something new or not doing something you did last year, boarders are living in different rooms than last year.
Whether it’s your third day, your third year, your thirtieth year, all of our lives are transformed by the beginning of the school year. Taking on things that are new, like a new school year, more often than not, requires a certain amount of strength. Sometimes when we start doing that new thing we may start to think, “Can I really do this?”
One of the best parts of the Olympics is the unexpected ways it made me reconsider what it means to be strong. It reminded me my definition was way too narrow. Mr. Edmonds stole my thunder on Monday by talking about how gymnast Jordan Weiber didn’t get to participate in the individual events and yet was able to find the mental strength to be there for her team and helped the American women’s team win Gold for the first time since 1996.
Americans Missy May Franklin and Kerri Walsh medaled Gold for the third time in the row for women’s beach volleyball. They weren’t exactly the underdogs or new, but being the expected winner, being the person who returns to school and feels expected to perform, comes with its own kind of pressure, right? One of the things that I thought was so strong about Missy May and Kerri is the way I never saw any blame or irritation for plays that went awry. They trusted each other, and if they were getting mad over every fouled up play, I’m guessing they would not have been able to win. It takes a lot of strength to trust someone else that much.
Americans Tianna Madison, Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight, and Carmelita Jeter broke a world record that had stood for twenty-seven years in the 4-by-100-meter baton relay race, a race that some said they wouldn’t even finish because they were sure to drop the baton. They had the strength not to let other people psych them out about something they could not only do, but they could do faster than any other women in the world, ever recorded.
Even if you don’t share my obsession with the Olympics, our summer reading had people who were strong in different ways, too. Louis Zamperini from the book Unbroken is a particularly fascinating example. He was in the United States Air Force during World War II, and his plane was shot down. He and one other guy on the plane survived in a raft for a ridiculously long time. Not giving up, figuring out ways to keep his sanity, ways to get food and water, took an incredible amount of strength.
Being strong means different things in different situations. Again, from our summer reading, in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, George Guy, who ran the lab at John Hopkins that eventually figured out how well HeLa cells could culture, worked on the project over twenty years before they found those particular cells. Twenty-three years! That kind of persistence is strength.
At the same time, sometimes strength is knowing when we need to change. In the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, another of the summer reading books, at the end of the book, the author concedes that her particular parenting style that stands at the center of the book didn’t work as well with her second daughter. She had the strength to change her mind, which can be just as valuable as the strength needed to stand your ground. What do we need to do differently from last year?
Strength comes in so many different ways, in so many shapes and sizes. I know this not just from watching too much television or from reading books. I know it from being your chaplain, whether I’ve been your chaplain for three days or three years or somewhere in between. I’ve watched you reaching out to meet people who you don’t know yet, whether you’re new or returning. That’s strength. I’ve seen a student come back with a smile on her face when I know she was still a little disappointed she wasn’t coming back to school with the leadership position she had wanted for this year. That’s strength. I’ve heard you speak English to each other when it would be easier to speak something else. That’s strength. You are all strong. I think we’re often stronger than we give ourselves credit for—stronger than we even know.
So keep putting one foot in front of the other, and ask for help when you need it. Saint Mary’s will make you strong if you let it. I’ve seen it happen: the girl who cries about the mere thought of giving her junior speech in front of just the junior class, later volunteering to speak in front of the entire school at senior chapel; the girl who decides not to take all of the hardest classes at the same time if that’s beyond her, because hey, mental sanity is nothing to sneeze at; the girl who was homesick her first year not only sticking it out but then becoming a boarding prefect to help others who may be homesick. Saint Mary’s will make you strong if you let it.
As the popular saying goes, “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a battle.” It may not be the kind of battle that the letter to Ephesians had in mind, but the saying is on to something. Whether we’re new, new to a role, nervous about a class or college applications, missing someone or somewhere, may we all help each other find our strengths in the coming days and weeks, whatever they may be. Amen.
The Reverend Ann Bonner-Stewart, Chaplain
Saint Mary’s School
August 24, 2012
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