As we officially open Winter Term, I do want to offer one final, leftover note from Thanksgiving. I am grateful for your kindness and patience this fall, and I feel blessed to be part of this School this year. I learned a long time ago, as a kid, when I loved picking up seashells along the rocks near the ocean in Maine, that something doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. We none of us are perfect, and as a school, we have our flaws and failures; and together, we continue to work on them, to get better, to be better as individuals and as a community that aspires to kindness, generosity, compassion, and service to others. I’m grateful for the opportunity to do that work with you, and I’m excited about the upcoming Winter Term.
So many good things are coming at us over the next few weeks – Nutcracker performances, Lessons and Carols, winter sports, and a huge vacation encompassing the New Year. In all spiritual traditions, the time preceding the new year is a period of reflection and repentance, and optimism, and excitement. Earlier this fall, we honored the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Diwali as many among us took on the tasks of reviewing the past year, assessing how actions aligned with values, repenting the failures and committing to growth – to getting better, to being better. Last Sunday, Christians entered the time before Christmas known as Advent, a period of reflection, prayer, and preparation. In January, many among us will celebrate the Spring Festival – again, a time for reflection and preparation. Others know better than I, but most, if not all, spiritual traditions ask us to reflect and prepare and, yes, repent our failings before we celebrate rebirth and renewal in a new year. Spiritual traditions across the faiths offer us the opportunity to assess ourselves and admit that we come up short, that we fail, and that we can and will do better. That is the work of a lifetime, and it is good and worthy work that each of us must do. And when we celebrate rebirth and renewal, we celebrate love, even as St. Paul noted in the reading just now. We love God, by all names, in great part by loving people, certainly, our neighbors as ourselves; and in that love, we honor what is genuine, what is authentic, what is right, and what is good. As we open this Winter Term, I’d like to invite us, each and all from the entire span of traditions we embrace, to reflect, to repent, to re-commit to what is authentic, what is genuine, what is right, and what is good.
“Believe” is a popular commercial slogan during the Christmas holiday season. I hope I’m not ruining Christmas for anyone by outing Santa, but I know that when I was growing up, my willingness to believe had a lot to do with my love of presents. It was a sad day when I finally had to confess that I knew what my parents were up to – thank goodness I had a lot of younger brothers and sisters! “Believe” for most little ones at this time of year has a lot to do with magic. In my family, we love the Will Farrell holiday movie “Elf,” and when New York City finally comes together to sing, and “believe,” and save Santa, this outpouring of positivity overwhelms the forces of inertia and gravity and the laws of physics and creates happiness and good spirit and refreshes love – and yes, as the movie closes perhaps all of those do constitute magic, and yes, we can believe in it and we can love it. Why not believe? Isn’t everything better if you have faith? Well, yes, but this holiday “believe” campaign begs the really important question of what is it that one actually believes. Because what we believe is not always about the acquisition or delivery of what we want. Is what we believe, right? True? Authentic and genuine? Beyond what we want, beyond what makes us feel good, what are the real right standards, and where do we find them? How do we know what to believe? These are hard questions for us in 2019 if we really get to reflecting on who we want to be as people of character and how we are supposed to live in this world.
So, I ask myself, what do I believe? I know that I believe in honesty, gratitude, kindness, respect, and courage. I know that there are many spiritual traditions that offer wisdom and guidance, in good times as well as sad or hard times, and I embrace them. I need their advice and their teaching. I’m glad we get to do that here in Chapel. I know that endless partisan commentary and fake news challenge me to know what is true. I know that “whataboutism” is supposed to confuse me, as people try to distract me and justify themselves by deflecting attention away from their statements and actions to other issues. It is not easy to be sure of what one should believe, And that makes doing the work all the more important. At this time of year, this time of preparation and reflection, I know that I need to clarify what I believe, check my beliefs for ethical and moral soundness – what is good, what is genuine, what is true, even and especially if it is not what I want – and align my actions with those beliefs. Because I am old and I’ve done this a few times, now, I know for certain that I will fall short, that I will fail, that it won’t be perfect; and I also know that because I believe, I need to keep working towards aligning all of my actions with my values. My values and beliefs will help me, but just having them doesn’t do the work for me. That alignment is called integrity, and I believe that integrity, this unification of true and good beliefs and values and actions in our beings and lives, is the goal towards which all spiritual traditions point us.
As I was reflecting on the start of Advent, I had one of those “aha” moments standing in a store on Small Business Saturday. Near me, there was a family group – three young women, an older woman, and a baby – discussing some purchases, and they were taking up a lot of space in a very small shop. The women were speaking in Swedish, but the baby, strapped to the front of one of the younger women, was speaking in universal baby language, googling and cooing, wiggling and smiling, and broadcasting in universal baby language directly at me. Of course, I smile and coo at babies. I’m fluent in universal baby language, as are many of you, as well. Babies have integrity. They align all actions with values with beliefs – and in their helplessness, in their dependence, in their simplicity and in their promise, they are beautiful – genuine, authentic, true, real. Even if one has the hardest, most cynical heart in the world – even if you are the Grinch – that universal, Cindy-Lou-Who baby integrity touches one’s spirit and heart in the best authentic ways. Especially after becoming a mother myself, becoming responsible for that helpless, demanding, miraculous bit of humanity that is an infant, I’ve often reflected that in the Christian celebration of Christmas there is undeniable, unfathomable, heartbreaking genius in sending cynical humans a spiritual savior in the form of a baby – a poor child, an immigrant, no less, whose parents can’t find anyone to take them in, who are alone and persecuted as this child is born to them in a stable, in a barn, among animals. No perfection here, no status, no fanfare, no likes, no friends – just extraordinary simplicity and power and humility and wisdom and beauty. Could anyone love us this much, to send us a savior in the form of this baby son? How do we deserve to be entrusted with this gift, and how do we live to honor that trust? Phrased a little differently, could there be a better way to live than to become worthy of that trust?
In the Willa Cather novel, My Antonia, there is an important scene in which a poor Catholic immigrant kneels to pray before a candle-lit Christmas tree. This behavior looks like idol worship to the young protagonist, who looks on in horror and awaits the stern judgment of his conservative Protestant grandfather. However, the grandfather just looks on in respectful silence, and after the visitor has left, he tells his grandson, “the prayers of all good people are good.” I think about these words often, as we try to honor the many different spiritual traditions that members of diverse communities embrace. The prayers of all good people are good. Even if the Christmas tradition is not yours, or even if it is but you don’t really “believe,” I hope that you can appropriate this time of reflection and preparation as we celebrate what is authentic, what is good, and what is true, and as we again re-commit to taking advantage of the opportunities we have to live our values. I hope that you will take a moment, over these next couple of busy weeks, to unplug and walk along the ponds or through the snowy woods or even just to sit in the chapel and look out and look in and reflect on the beauty around us – in nature, in school, in the people here, in the people not physically here but here in your heart. In a few weeks, we will celebrate a new year at the darkest time of winter with festivals of lights and fireworks and optimism and good intention and excitement for what lies ahead. There is a lot of joy in our life and work together here at St. Paul’s, and as we celebrate with dance and music and wins and feasts, let’s celebrate our on-going commitment to getting better, being better, as people who believe and live what is genuine, what is true, and what is good.