The following entry is the sermon given on Sunday, September 6, 2015 in St. Andrew’s Chapel by Headmaster Byron Hulsey to the 393 boys beginning the 127th session at Woodberry Forest School:
It’s a great privilege to welcome you here to this special place at the start of the 127th year at Woodberry Forest. I want to offer a warm welcome to all 128 new boys. I hope and trust that no matter where you are from you will come to think of Woodberry as a second home, the community of teachers and coaches and fellow students that cared for you and challenged you and shaped you at the most formative time in your life. Thirty-two years ago, my parents dropped me off at Woodberry as a new boy fourth former. From the moment I came on campus I had a feeling I have never shaken, a feeling that I might have had fleetingly in other places, but never so enduringly as I do at Woodberry Forest: Here I feel big and small at the same time. Right away, as a new boy, I knew that I mattered in this community. But at the same time, I knew then and I know today that this is the kind of place that has been, and always will be, far bigger than any of us will ever be. I believe that’s the pride, mixed with lasting humility, with which God wants us to live.
It’s fitting that we open the year here in St. Andrew’s Chapel and that we gather here once a week, no matter our faith orientation, to give thanks to God for His many gifts, ask His blessing on our family, friends, and the broken world around us, and seek His help as we make our way forward through the challenge and opportunity of a long and sometimes arduous school year. I love this place. Scores of times over the years I have come to chapel anxious and preoccupied. But I have often left comforted and cared for, secure in the faith that God knows me to my core and cares for me even when I haven’t always cared for myself. I hope that St. Andrew’s Chapel will be that kind of place for you, too.
Earlier this week we on the faculty renewed our commitment to you, namely and most importantly, that every boy under our care will be known, challenged, and loved. Old boys know from experience that those values are the relational essence of this place. When we are challenged by men and women we admire, we reach higher than we would have reached on our own and we become more than we ever thought possible. I do not blanch at the intentional use of the word “love.” I mean it here in the sense that here you will be cared for, here we will look out for you, here we will know you for who you are, and here we will invest emotionally in you until you graduate — and then continue to do so in the world beyond as you make your way forward as alumni of Woodberry Forest.
In return for being known, challenged, and loved, I ask that you respect that commitment and honor that trust by working hard, building your character, and taking care of each other. If you are an old boy, you know that precious little at Woodberry is easy. Here you are called on to work hard in order to make the most of this opportunity. There will invariably be roadblocks and obstacles, setbacks and injuries. Hard work and perseverance, grit and persistence — those are the qualities that will see you through.
Hard work, though critical, will not be enough. Here you will be called on to build your character, to make each day the choices of the hard right over the easy wrong and, in the process, build your character to something more noble and more enduring than you might have thought possible. In his recent book, The Road to Character, social critic David Brooks draws a line between “Adam I” and “Adam II,” the former who pour their energy into the “résumé virtues” of career accomplishments, and the latter who stay focused on the “eulogy virtues” that spring forth from our character, stand the test of time, and create a legacy for others to follow for generations to come. Mr. Brooks would say that “Adam I” would want to know primarily what Woodberry could do for him. “Adam II,” on the other hand, would want to know primarily what he can do for Woodberry Forest.
I invite you to consider that the expectation we have of you to “work hard” is all about Adam I and what you’ll do here to build your profile. It’s your stat page: grades, test scores, leadership positions, accomplishments in athletics, the arts, and extra-curricular activities. It’s brand management and it matters, but not nearly as much in the end as character. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Adam I is consistent with the natural instinct that some of us have to make a name for ourselves and maybe even become famous. More and more Americans in recent years actually aspire to a life of fame, one marked by a big salary, a vacation home or two, luxury cars, the newest and highest-powered gadgetry, all that money can buy. Our hunger for fame hasn’t always been so. In his book, Mr. Brooks notes that in 1976 there was a Gallup poll in which respondents ranked fame fifteenth out of sixteen in a list of their life goals. By 2007, just twenty-one years later, 51 percent of young people reported that being famous was one of their top personal goals. In another recent study, middle school girls were queried about who they would most like to have dinner with. Perhaps we should not be surprised in our pop culture world that Jennifer Lopez came in first, Jesus Christ second, and Paris Hilton third.
Popular authors and cultural forces like the Disney Channel for children feed our quest for fame as a worthy life goal. The fifth biggest bestseller in the history of the New York Times rankings is Dr. Seuss’s 1990 book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Elementary school children read this book as a way to learn the power of dreaming and reaching and questing. But its message is hyperbolic, and tilts us decidedly to Adam I and away from Adam II. Just one quote from Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! to make the point: “You’re on your own….Fame! You’ll be famous as famous can be, / With the whole wide world watching you win on TV.”
Building our character is work that never reaches completion. It’s the daily choices that make the difference. Last year’s football team might say it’s “brick by brick,” and it’s one of those construction projects that is never complete. You might think of character as what you do when no one is watching, or what you do when there’s no chance you can get caught doing something you shouldn’t be doing. As I mentioned before, it’s about choosing the hard right over the easy wrong. Yes, it includes adherence to the honor system; it includes general politeness, civility, and a genuine respect for others. But it, more importantly, includes gratitude for the bounty of our lives and an unwavering humility to admit and allow that in life there’s much we don’t know — and that even when we think we may be right, we just as easily might be wrong.
Embracing humility as a worthy virtue is an important element of character. Such an orientation will keep you hungry to learn more, to strive to be a little better every day, and to lend a hand to your fellow man. Taking care of each other is the highest form of character, and it flows from both gratitude and humility. Several evenings ago I was dining with a number of seniors who asked why I had assigned The Sunflower for summer reading. I hope you’ll be discussing the book in several of your classes as we start the year. I certainly don’t want to preempt those conversations this evening, but I will share with you that I assigned the book in part because Simon Wiesenthal poses a question that cannot be answered definitively. No one here knows how we would have responded to Karl’s request for forgiveness in the wake of the atrocities he’d committed. But just because a question cannot be answered does not suggest that it should not be asked. Instead, I believe that a great and good life requires the courage and bravery to pose these kinds of questions and to wrestle with the implication of what kind of community we wish to create here at Woodberry Forest as we grow in opportunities to take care of each other.
The themes of forgiveness and reconciliation are not easy to understand, resolve, or advance. Owning a mistake and accepting responsibility for hurting our fellow man does not come naturally. Apologizing can be difficult, and seeking to make matters right is not easy. It is, however, a mark of strength, and not weakness, both to apologize for having hurt a friend, classmate, family member, or colleague, and it is certainly a mark of strength to make amends with someone brave enough to step forward to ask for your forgiveness. There may be some deeds of fundamental evil, such as the war crimes committed by the Nazis in World War II, that are unforgiveable in this earthly realm. But as we seek to care for each other, we’d be wise to follow the example of Jesus and forgive our fellow man “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” — just as we seek forgiveness for our own missteps and sins along the way.
In closing, I want to offer one final thought about forgiveness. When we harbor a hurt or hold on to the pain that comes in the aftermath of having been trod upon by someone who’s let us down, we make a choice to allow their actions to keep us living in the past. We’re here this evening at the cusp of a new school year. The sheet is blank and we begin anew. But this year, no matter how hard we try, we’ll make mistakes and let each other down. In those moments, might we remember the wisdom of the prophet Buddha, who noted that “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” We’re likely to find that if we build our character by taking care of each other, we’ll inevitably succeed at taking care of ourselves. Amen.