The following is the Baccalaureate sermon given by Dr. Hulsey in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Saturday, May 25, 2019, preceding the formal Woodberry graduation ceremony.
Dozens if not hundreds of times over the past two, three, or four years, you have walked through the Barbee Center past the iconic mural of an early baseball team here at Woodberry, a mural anchored by a quotation worth remembering forever: “Effort in sport is a matter of character rather than reward. It is an end in itself, not a means to an end.” Now that you are on the cusp of graduation, it is worth reflecting on the fundamental, overarching purpose of Woodberry Forest. What is it for? Why does the school exist? If you have truly and fully embraced all that we are, what will you have gained from your experience here? We’ve said that Woodberry is a hard thing worth doing the right way, but why is that? This morning I’d like to focus my remarks on the concept of “character rather than reward” and connect that ideal to the invitation we all enjoy to live an undivided life without a veil.
Most adolescents go to high school because it is another rung on the proverbial ladder and a next step to college. The most accomplished strive for good grades and high test scores. Of course they have opportunities to explore the arts and play sports, occasionally at the highest levels. They develop friendships that can be sustaining and elevating, and they might establish a relationship or two with a teacher or a coach who shapes their experiences in powerful and important ways. The prize, though, is college, and while there are of course individuals who look for a grander meaning above the fray and a larger purpose to all of the effort, the truth of the matter is that many educational experiences are not a “matter of character rather than reward.”
The ideal Woodberry experience, however, is designed to turn those transactional experiences into a transformational opportunity for every boy in the Tiger Nation. Here we elevate character over reward, and it is important for us all to remember that the parchment of the diploma that makes alumni equal forever is far more valuable than any award bestowed upon an individual on Amici Night or later this morning. And why is that the case? Because character matters most, and it will last you a lifetime and it has the capacity to shape those around you for the good of all.
The honor system and a culture of moral integrity mean more to Woodberry alumni than any worldly accomplishment. Reflect back on how far you’ve come in these few years. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we can each allow that when we came to Woodberry it was not natural to take full responsibility for our own academic work when you might have cheated for a higher grade, or to respect always what belongs to others even when the dorm fridge is stocked with cokes that aren’t yours and you’re really thirsty, or to tell the truth always, even when we knew we might get in trouble. But over the years it has become natural, and the foundation of your character has been established for life. You’ve made good on that quote in the Barbee: “effort is a matter of character rather than reward.” We are here this morning to celebrate the undivided life, in other words, life without a veil, and to lift up that noble form of deep integrity in a Woodberry rite of passage that will mark you as a Tiger forever.
The character of which I speak, by the way, is far more than mere endurance all the way to graduation. It is the way that I believe God wants us to live our lives: open, free, honest, trusting. No matter where you go on to college, no matter what your profession, no matter what your material circumstances, we are called to life without a veil. If you’ve truly embraced the honor system beyond a set of rules to obey just to graduate and instead you’ve seen it as a life force woven into your identity, you’ve caught glimpses of life without a veil. Over your time here those glimpses have developed into a fuller, deeper, more panoramic view of who you really are, a keener understanding of the purpose of life, and and a more complete appreciation of your place in our community and beyond. Here you have come to belong. Here you are rooted. Here you will always be welcomed back for who you are and for what you mean in a community that values character over reward.
Living without a veil is a life challenge, and your graduation from Woodberry is a mere moment on that journey. Like many of you, I got my learner’s permit when I was fifteen. I grew up in northwest Texas, where the highways are straight and flat and traffic is light. And I had a trusting father. In the summer after I got my learner’s permit, the two of us went on a road trip. For a while Dad drove and I sat in the passenger seat. But he’s always loved a nap, and when he got tired, he’d put the car on cruise control and crank his seat back, doze off, and let me steer from the passenger seat. I could see way up to the horizon, and if we needed to brake, I’d nudge him and he’d oblige. But we loved the cruise control. And we made up games like trying to go as many consecutive miles as possible on those northwest Texas highways without having to tap the brake.
That made, as you might imagine, construction zones a real nuisance. I remember thinking that summer, “I can’t wait until all of this construction is over. Then we’ll really be able to go.” Well the truth of the matter is, of course, that roads are always under construction, kind of like the Walker Building! And each of us is under construction, too. If we are building our character, we will always be under construction, open and eager to learn a little more and grow a little more.
There is no finish line for life without a veil, simply because the swirl of forces in the world will always make it incredibly hard to live life without a veil or to take our many masks off, first for ourselves and then for those we love and trust. The Christian tradition is full of examples that elevate light over darkness and orient us to the purpose of life without a veil. In Paul’s letter to Corinthians, he makes reference to “treasure in clay jars,” the beautiful truth that each of us is unique as a child of God in a body made of clay, ever attentive to God’s voice commanding us to “Let light shine out of darkness.” In the Gospel according to Matthew we learn of the very moment that Jesus died: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” It was torn in two so that we might embrace the opportunity to live without a veil, first to ourselves, and then one to another.
Of all the forces in our wider culture that make life without a veil so very hard to embrace, fear stands supreme. Fear holds us back. Fear has us assembling and projecting layers of masks for self protection. Fear makes it hard for you to be you, and fear dulls the piercing and redemptive power of the undeserved gift of God’s grace and His assurance that each of us, stripped of any earthy accolade or material possession, is enough. We like to think of fear as unique to our circumstances, and while it is true that fear ebbs and flows culturally, it has always been with us as an constant element of the human condition. I recently learned that the life-giving phrase “Do not be afraid” is repeated 366 times in the Bible, once for every day, and once, perhaps, for no reason at all.
Sometimes the forces of fear come from the world beyond, but more than occasionally, they originate with us. The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue has shared that his favorite story about fear comes from India: “It is several thousand years old, and it is a story about a man who was condemned to spend a night in a cell with a poisonous snake. If he made the slightest little stir, the snake was on top of him and he was dead. So he stood in the corner of the cell, opposite where the snake was, and he was petrified. He barely dared to breathe for fear of alerting the snake, and he stood stiff and petrified all night long. As the first bars of light began to come into the cell at dawn, he began to make out the shape of a snake, and he was saying to himself, wasn’t I lucky that I never stirred. But when the full force of light came in with the full dawn, he noticed that it wasn’t a snake at all. It was an old rope. Now the story is banal, but the moral of the story is profound: in a lot of the rooms of our minds, there are harmless old ropes thrown in corners, but when our fear begins to work on them, we convert them into monsters who hold us prisoners in the bleakest, most impoverished rooms of our hearts.”
In this morning’s Gospel reading from Matthew we’re given the good news that in the swirl of worries about tomorrow, the light for life without a veil comes from the Holy Spirit, and it is constant, and it resides in each of us. We’re invited to follow God and shine a light on our darkest selves so that we might love others as we have been loved. Mrs. Hulsey, who has taught me more about courage than I could have imagined, has a card taped to the mirror in our bathroom. It says simply, “feed your faith, and all your fears will starve to death.” Life without a veil is, in Woodberry language, a matter of character rather than reward, and it will always be the hard right over the easy wrong.
As you bid farewell later this afternoon, I urge you not to expect the rest of the world to care right away that you went to Woodberry Forest. Instead, let your actions show them the difference that Woodberry has made in your hearts and through your character as you live in 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 and arrogance on those around you. Be humble and hungry always. Wear your experience here lightly on the outside and hold in your heart always 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 to reach beyond yourself, but always have something to prove, or else you are settling for a life of mediocrity that falls short of your potential.
Most of all, remember always that you matter and that you, through God’s grace, are enough. Lean into life without a veil so that you might serve others wrestling with their own struggles with darkness that each of us endures. Understand that we are one band of Tiger brothers, each blessed with opportunities to do a little good every day, and so, as the Boy’s Prayer concludes, “grow more like Christ.” Amen.