The following is the Baccalaureate sermon given by Dr. Hulsey in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Saturday, May 26, 2018, preceding the formal Woodberry graduation ceremony.
Just over a year ago three elite marathoners took off on a staged attempt to do what has never been done before, namely to run a 26.2 miles in under two hours. To shatter this otherworldly barrier, the runners would have to break the world record by almost three minutes, or 2.5 percent. Nike conceived of the idea, which was dubbed as Breaking2 and the attempt turned into a marketing bonanza for the company, which live-streamed the race on Twitter to enraptured fans around the world. Nike did everything possible to optimize conditions: the men started the race in the dark in near-perfect conditions, no wind and about 53 degrees. They ran around an almost completely flat 1.5-mile Formula One race track in Monza, Italy without any sharp turns; they were paced by a Tesla and a rotating group of runners positioned to block any breeze; and they sported cutting-edge, high-tech Nike shoes said to improve running efficiency by as much as 4 percent.
The pace was lightning quick, and had to be. The men knew they’d have to run each mile in an average of 4 minutes and 35 seconds. Let’s put that into local context. Robert Singleton holds the school record for the 1600 at 4 minutes 16 seconds. Kevin Bennert holds the Woodberry record for two miles at 9 minutes 16 seconds, already eight seconds slower than the pace needed to run a marathon under 2 hours. For almost two-thirds of the race, Eliud Kipchoge from Kenya hit every split. Only after 20 miles did he begin to fade, and though he fell short in the end by a mere 25 seconds, he crushed the previous record by over two minutes. Kipchoge’s brave attempt, even though he came up short, is testament to his courage, to incredible technological advances, to the power of marketing and the lure of social media, and to a fascination that we humans have long had with the notion of time, how it’s used, how it’s measured, and ultimately what it means.
Time’s on my mind for sure, and I’m certain that you’ve thought of it lately, too. Saturday morning, May 26. You (and your parents) have planned for this, worried about it, and almost certainly yearned for it. The suggestion here, of course, is that graduation can’t get here quickly enough and that freedom and opportunity await on the other side of the pillars when you roll out of Woodberry later this afternoon. Time crawls by on a Friday night study hall, or in the depths of a 90 for a class you never wanted to take that just won’t end, or through the whole month of February that leaves you limping your way to Spring Break. Rest assured that you are not alone. Almost every one of the school’s 6,637 living alumni have felt exactly the same way about their graduation day and what it felt like to make it through Woodberry Forest.
And yet you get to this last stretch and, at least for most of us, our notion of time flips. Having progressed so slowly for so long, time rushes forth way too fast, just when we want it to last a little longer. You’ve sensed the sweetness that comes with deliberately slowing down the flow of time: late night poker games on dorm; lingering after a meal on the patio of the Terry Dining Room just to hang with your friends; the gift of extra time necessary to complete a senior distinction project, to see something you would not have seen at first glance or worked your way through an idea that puzzled you at first; one-clubbing as the sun sets over the Blue Ridge; camping out on the Rapidan on one of the last Saturday nights of the spring. Here at Woodberry we often make the case that we’re a counter-cultural community, and perhaps that’s most obvious when we think about time. Like the technicians and athletes doing everything possible to run the marathon in under 2 hours, the ways of the world accelerate at every turn and in every subsequent iteration. Faster, faster, and faster, jumping from here to there, indulging in a quest for immediate gratification and instantaneous resolution in our push-button, turbo-charged society.
But Woodberry’s culture pushes back against the quest for speed. Sure there are exceptions—timed tests, track meets, buzzer beaters, and precious little free time between study hall and check in. But all in all the power of this place slows us down. Here we work hard to not confuse motion with movement or meaningful action. Here we practice a spiritual belief that what sustains us in life comes from a source that far surpasses a single moment of triumph or disappointment. Instead it’s rooted in the purpose of place and it springs forth from our alumni through shared bonds of hard work, enduring character, and deep devotion to our alma mater and to each other. None of that happens quickly, and it doesn’t happen in fabricated conditions on a Formula One racetrack with a Tesla pace car to show you the way. Instead it’s built over time through twists and turns, through accomplishment and disappointment, through joy and sadness. The culture here is akin to the strong roots that hold up the tallest trees. In this special place we’re held up and buoyed by beliefs and values that last beyond our days here, and we give thanks for that culture together this morning.
We on the faculty are grateful for the class of 2018 and for your families. We celebrate this morning the magical and mysterious alchemy of a connected class of one band of Tiger brothers, full of individuals who have pushed the edge in such a wide range of endeavors–in the classroom and in the worlds of athletics and the arts, as well. The broad-minded span of senior projects speaks to your varied interests and passions: building guitars, writing a full-length screenplay, canoeing the Rapidan to Fredericksburg, constructing a self-balancing cube, putting on a two-man play, and producing a film to honor the 50th anniversary of Woodberry’s integration, just to name a few. Beyond the formality of the senior distinction program, sixth former William Jordan created a community composter, and, like many of you, added his own contribution to the legacy of the class of 2018.
People, place, and beliefs shape us and generate the memories that bind us all together, but Woodberry calls on you now to bring the best of yourselves to the world to make it better. John Carter Walker, the school’s first headmaster, was clear about Woodberry’s ultimate purpose when he wrote that “we try teach that education is training for service to others rather than success for one’s self; to give rather to get; for sacrifice rather than gratification.” Today we hold those same beliefs and adhere to those same hopes. Now you take the torch from those who’ve gone before to leave this place and embrace the ideals of a servant leader, to serve others in ways that help them become who they were meant to be so that they might follow you in service to others themselves.
There may be a few of you this morning who aren’t sure you want to leave. Your emotions may be all twisted up: proud of what you’ve accomplished, exhausted by what you’ve endured, and anxious about the uncertainty that lies ahead. I get all of that, and I feel it deeply, too. If there’s any portion of you that doesn’t want to leave, please know that I’m not sure I want you to go–for you’re all I’ve known here as headmaster, and I’ve come to respect and admire your contributions to the school and our community. But whether we’re ready or not, our time together is nearly complete.
In the midst of uncertainty and apprehension about the path forward, I hope you might turn to the Old Testament prophet, Micah, who wondered about the meaning of it all nearly two thousand years ago. “With what,” he asked, “shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Thankfully it’s simpler and clearer than that, and Micah concludes that “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?”
Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. As you bid farewell later this afternoon, I urge you not expect the rest of the world to care right away that you went to Woodberry Forest. Instead, let your actions show them the difference Woodberry has made in your hearts and through your character as you lean into the world beyond. Know deep to the core of your being that the truths of this place will hold you in good stead for the rest of your lives, but avoid the temptation to project yourselves with hubris or arrogance on those around you. Be humble and hungry always. Wear your experience here lightly on the outside and hold in your heart the true value of what you gained here slowly, day after day, week after week, trimester after trimester. Take time to be curious, inquisitive, tender-hearted, and open-minded on the path that lies ahead. Have confidence in your ability to reach beyond yourself, but always have something to prove, or else you’re settling for a life of mediocrity that falls short of your potential. Stay rooted to the story of Jesus after the Transfiguration that Crawford read: be not afraid, and come down quietly from the mountain-top that has been this transformative experience without lording it in any way over those who just don’t know and won’t likely care.
You may have heard what I hear, too, that Woodberry’s not like the real world. This obvious truth is, in many instances, a thinly veiled critique of our quaintness, our idealism, and an Honor System that runs on trust: no locks on the doors, no worry or concern if you leave a backpack or computer untended, a naïve assumption that when we ask a question, we’ll get an honest response. If you don’t watch your back in the real world, someone will surely take advantage and the trust erodes pretty quickly. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve let you down by not preparing you for the real world. Instead, you’re armed now with the muscle and sinew to make trust, truth, and integrity the essential foundation for how you spend your time in college and beyond, who you spend it with, and how you lead when you get the chance. Each of you has the capacity to bring the best of Woodberry Forest to the world beyond. Here you helped shape our culture for the better, and you are poised to do so wherever you go. I see a better world in the future because I have faith in you and faith in what we believe. Trust, truth, and integrity are necessary to address the world’s problems and these values are foundational for a happy family and a meaningful life. Nothing endures or lasts without relationships rooted in faith and fidelity. Always seek to surround yourselves with men and women who will make you better, and better you will become.
Earlier this year I shared a Native American parable that is worth repeating. “A fight is going on inside me,” the Native American said to his grandchildren. “It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, ego, and unfaithfulness. The other wolf stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, forgiveness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faithfulness. This same fight is going on inside you and every other person too.” They thought about it for a minute, and then one child asked, “Which wolf will win, grandfather?” The old man simply replied, “The one you feed.”
My hope for you is that you’ll feed the lamb of love that resides in the hearts of each of you. The central power of this weekend is the magical mix of individual pursuits that construct the core of a connected and integrated class. Forged by trust, tempered by sacrifice, and smoothed by compassion, love is the tie that binds. Nearly four years ago when you came to Woodberry I shared with your parents a quote from one of my favorite writers, the Kentuckian, Wendell Berry, who wrote about an individual’s education when he noted that “Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become a common bond and we cease to be alone.”
The paths of self discovery at Woodberry have been varied and, for many of you, have been profound. But it’s love that binds you to each other, and that, far more than an award or accolade, is what we celebrate today. In his beautiful novel, Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry speaks to the redemptive power of love and reminds us that we’re part of something much larger and more mysterious than we will ever know. You might think of your own time at Woodberry as I share the following quote from Wendell Berry. His elderly female narrator experiences extraordinary love in an ordinary life, and then endures unspeakable sadness before she states at the end of the novel that, “I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.
Sometimes I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever. Some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay, until they die, and after. I was in it a long time with Nathan. I am still in it with him. And what about Virgil? Once, we too went in and were together in that room. And now in my tenderness of remembering it all again, I think I am still in there with him too. I am there with all the others, most of them gone but some who are still here, who gave me love and called forth love from me. When I number them over, I am surprised how many there are. And so I have to say that another of the golden threads is gratitude.”
Many years ago Nike ran an ad campaign far different from Breaking2. I remember one poster in particular. It was a photograph of a lonely runner on a deserted road amid rolling hills covered with a canopy of trees. The cryptic caption captured my imagination and intrigued and mystified me. “There is,” the poster stated boldly, “no finish line.” It’s taken me years to grapple with the meaning of this assertion, mostly because we’re conditioned in our culture to see life as a race, a series of constant finish lines where faster, faster, and faster win the day. The school year ends. The businessman closes a deal. The attorney wins a case. The surgeon saves her patient. The athlete wins the championship or endures a bitter defeat. The mother gives birth, and we mourn those who die.
And in our culture we mistakenly see graduation as a finish line. The diplomas you will hold in your hands later this morning are undoubtedly testament to what you have accomplished over the years to make your way through the heavy challenges thrust upon you here—to live on your own, to take the toughest courses, to struggle through defeat and disappointment, to choose the hard right over the easy wrong when no one was watching. Surely May 26 is a finish line for you. But more and more I’ve come to see the wisdom in the notion that “there is no finish line.” At our best, we are never complete, we are always under construction, and we are forever learning what we can do to live a meaningful life and to make a contribution to others. It’s the prevailing message in the parable of the prodigal son that Mac just read. Just like the terrible fight between the two wolves, we’ll all be conflicted in life and part of us will always be the prodigal son, the one who leaves home with ambitious dreams about hitting the big one and making it on our own. At various times in your life you will likely find yourselves succeeding materially, but at other times you might be slipping, searching for a toe-hold and yearning for material success. And when you struggle, you’ll have a choice: either to see your failure as a measure of your worth, or a chance for a new start.
And no matter how successful you may become, or how frustrated or disappointed, I hope and I pray that for you, just as it has been for me, Woodberry is a place of undeserved grace which calls us home like the prodigal son and reminds us that we are known, challenged, and loved. Here we are one and here we are welcome and here we are the beneficiaries of an abiding grace that we did not deserve, but instead exists as a gift from God and the faculty and alumni, and now the class of 2018, who have shaped this place for 129 years. Amen.