The following is a sermon given by Headmaster Byron Hulsey during the first chapel service of 2017.
My first teaching job after I graduated from the University of Virginia was at a co-ed boarding school in rural, southwest England. It was in many ways, the ideal first job: I learned more than I could have ever expected, I made some great friends, and I lived and traveled in a different part of the world that I came to love. Bryanston School was and is in many ways almost the polar opposite of Woodberry Forest: it is co-educational; there is not even a semblance of an honor system; it is unabashedly progressive; it even has a pub in the basement for seniors that is open four nights a week.
I remember many of my students like it was yesterday: Gracie Burnett, Liam Connelly, William Coleridge, Jon Curtis, and Ben Fogle come immediately to mind. One-on-one, these were great kids. Each was smart, funny, curious, and always interesting to be around. But together, they were a handful. They mocked my American accent mercilessly, they took advantage of the fact that I was new at the school and new to the profession, and they more than once showed a flagrant disregard for academic integrity. I remember many days during that first year, at the age of 23, when I was at wits’ end, totally frustrated, confused, and bewildered that my new school was so different than Woodberry Forest or UVa.
In my ninth grade European history class we spent the entire winter term studying World War I: the causes of the war, the military history, the war at home, the propaganda machine designed to stoke the fires of hatred against the evil foe, and the struggle for peace once the conflict came to a bitter and inconclusive conclusion in 1918. Those of you in Mr. Tallman’s class remember the war in all of its devastating horror: 70 million combatants from around the world were mobilized; 9 million of those who fought eventually died in the war; an additional 7 million civilians lost their lives as a result of the fighting. It was a brutal and devastating stretch of years in European history, and as the first modern, total war in history, it marked the end of innocence for all who lived through it. As a young teacher and a history major, I found the material riveting, and I loved the opportunity to look at the war from every angle. My students—not so much. They were their characteristically distracted selves, rarely, if ever, focused on the task at hand.
We closed the term with a five-day trip scheduled by the department chair to the World War I battlefields in Belgium and France. The ferry ride over from Southampton to Calais was a near disaster, as our students raced crazily around the ship and seemed on the verge of getting into major trouble at every turn. We bussed over to a hotel in Belgium late the night we arrived so we could be at the site of the Battle of the Somme first thing the next morning.
Some of you may know the history of the Somme: it was the epitome of “modern” trench warfare, with little more than a few hundred yards separating the German and British lines. On the one fateful day that the British troops went “over the top” in what was supposed to be a surprise attack, German machine gunners mowed them down mercilessly, leaving nearly 60,000 Englishmen dead or wounded. In fact, England lost more men on that day alone than the United States lost in 10 years in Vietnam.
We’d read and studied the Somme carefully back at school, and still I didn’t expect it. When we stepped off the bus, you could have heard a pin drop. In the moment it felt ghostly in a poignant way, as if these boys and girls had been utterly transformed into the most respectful, quiet, thoughtful, and mature group you’d ever met. I learned that day that there is something in an English person’s DNA that makes the Somme, even though it’s across the English Channel and on the continent, a memorial in perpetuity to a point in time where innocence was lost and the British Empire changed forever. I learned something more important, too, about teaching and humanity. I’d been mistaken to think that I knew my students and that as a group they were likely to be a disappointment. I learned that even when we think we know someone else fully and completely, there’s often another layer at the core of a person’s true self that we’ll never know unless we’re paying attention and open to the wholeness that you get when we cast our critical assumptions aside and take time to be surprised, often for the better.
I’ve been thinking about the Somme a lot of late, especially as we make our way through the Christmas season beyond Epiphany and into the dead of winter. On the one hand, the Somme represents some of the worst in our flawed and fallen human nature: fought over several hundreds of yards of “no man’s land” between national armies who’d convinced themselves that the other was morally depraved and demonic, the human carnage and the financial wreckage were simply catastrophic for Europe. Even today we struggle to understand what caused the Great War. It seems petty and childish. Millions died. So much was lost, and so little was gained. And while we look at the Somme and shake our heads in bewilderment about the inanity of man and how foolish we often are, there’s another story, too.
Late on Christmas Eve in 1914 British Expeditionary Forces heard their German counterparts singing carols and patriotic songs, and they saw their trenches lined with lanterns and fig trees. The following day on Christmas morning the guns fell silent, and British and German soldiers climbed out of their trenches and met in no-man’s land, exchanged gifts, took photographs, and played informal games of what we call soccer and they call football. They were, for that fleeting moment united and connected and made whole by a common belief in the gift of the Christ child for a fallen and broken world.
Tragically the truce did not last, and the war raged on. But here, in that one moment, we have the second competing image of how we might live our lives. On the one hand we fall prey to the natural temptation to see a dualistic, binary world of “us versus them”—angels and demons. That’s a zero-sum game of winners and losers that divides us from one another and even from ourselves. It’s a man-made and socially constructed narrative as old as humanity, and it pours forth in the Bible in the Cain and Abel story and all through human history in wars and conflicts that emphasize how we’re different and better, more pure and more righteous. Of course the other side sees itself in exactly the same way and the conflicts–personal, within a family or community, within a nation and between nations–rage on. The truth becomes elusive, trust evaporates; fear, suspicion and doubt fester. We see it today in the bitterly divided United States: red versus blue; Republicans and Democrats; gay and straight; conservatives and liberals; men and women; rich and poor; Fox News and MSNBC; the educated coastal elites at odds with the nation’s heartland; rural versus urban; police and Black Lives Matter demonstrators. The list goes on and on, and the identity politics and the slicing and dicing of the electorate we know so well threatens to tear our national community apart and leave us ever more certain that we are right, and the other side is wrong, that we are patriots and the other side are traitors to the cause.
And like any such nation, community, or family, we’ve had some of division and difficulty at Woodberry, too. We are lesser than the sum of our many parts when we fall prey to the temptation to think of ourselves and others as parts of a whole rather than the whole itself. But the Christmas truce at the Somme reaches through time, and made even my rowdy students pause just long enough to see a second, more complete and unified vision of who we are and who we can be, whether it be individually, here at school, or in the nation and world. At Woodberry we’re better when we practice and celebrate all of what we do here, whether it’s an eclectic and spirited cast in Spamalot last winter, extraordinarily diverse chapel choir and musical ensembles singing and playing at the candlelight concert in December, boys taking on sports they’ve never tried, diving into an elective class they’d never considered, or working with Mr. Phillips with younger students as a peer tutor. It’s singing Amici in chapel, after The Game, or at commencement. These programmatic and scripted initiatives matter, but just like the Christmas truce, it’s the unplanned, impromptu times of togetherness that can matter even more. It’s when a table of fifth formers with boys from all over the world hangs out with each other on Tuesday night, long after they’ve finished their meal, just to enjoy each other’s company. It’s down-time on dorm that you might spend with someone you think you know, but really don’t. I’ll never forget two years ago when sixth former Averett Flory from Columbus, Georgia told me what he loved most about Woodberry is that one of his best friends came from Hong Kong that he’d visited there the past summer. “If I’d stayed home and never gone to Woodberry,” he told me, “there’s no way I’d ever have a friend from Hong Kong.”
Forging these kinds of connections and building these relationships across apparent divides requires empathy and leadership, but it results in a reservoir of trust that is in short supply in our nation today. In just eleven days we will celebrate the peaceful transfer of power as President Obama gives way to President Trump on January 20. We should never take for granted the peaceful transfer of power between two competitive parties in our democracy, and the pageantry and celebration matter for our national community. During President Obama’s Farewell Address tomorrow and during President Trump’s Inaugural Address next Friday, be watching for signs that they want the nation to be knit back together and that they will work to make it happen. Fortunately, they have models of leadership in American history to which to point: After the bitterly divisive election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson claimed in his inaugural, “We are all Federalists. We are all Republicans.” In his first inaugural before the Civil War, Lincoln called on the North and the South to remember that “we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” In his second inaugural, before the Civil War had even come to a close, Lincoln emphasized that he’d go forward with “malice toward none and charity for all.” Just weeks later when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Grant asked Lee, “How many men do you have, and are they hungry?”
It’s one thing to be humble and magnanimous in victory, quite another to be gracious and charitable in defeat. And yet history can help us here, too. In 1992 Bill Clinton won the White House by overwhelming the incumbent, President George Bush. It was, for Bush, a bitter pill to swallow. Losing always is, especially when the stakes are so high and you’ve poured so much into a presidency that was rejected at the polls. And yet the elder George Bush has a vision of the country that is much bigger than us versus them or Republican versus Democrat or rural versus urban or rich versus poor. Just hours before the inauguration of his rival, President Bush went into the Oval Office one last time and wrote a letter to Mr. Clinton that he left in the desk. “I wish you great happiness here,” Mr. Bush wrote. “I never felt the loneliness some presidents have described. There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice, but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck, George.”
I hope we see similar threads of unified connectivity for our nation from those who have won and lost in the days ahead. But we can’t wait for others to do what we need to for ourselves and our community here at Woodberry. At our best we are the way the world should be, a place of wholeness and oneness, a community bound together by high expectations, trust, respect, and brotherhood.
Scripture tells us that God wants us live in unity as one body, the whole so much more mighty and meaningful than the sum of the separate parts. Saint Paul urges the Ephesians to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all through all, and in all.” May we all take time to listen and reach out; let us make a point in this new calendar year to get to know someone we might have never known and take care of a brother who needs a helping hand in a moment of confusion, difficulty, or loneliness. Because at our best, and that means right now, we are one band of Tiger brothers, forever and ever. Amen.