With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
— T.S. Eliot
I recognize that the hour is late. But I am filled with such emotion, such joy, and gratitude when I think about the privilege that has been bestowed upon me. I want to share with you what is in my heart at this blessed moment in my life.
So much of this service has been about situating my own story into a larger story, the story of St. Albans and its luminous history; the legacy of the school’s prior headmasters—two of whom are here with us this evening—and the story of this school’s relationship with the National Cathedral and the grandeur of the Episcopal tradition.
The great American writer Walt Whitman once said, when thinking of the vast sweep of human experience and the history of institutions like ours, that life and its mysteries are like a “powerful play.” The play began before we arrived and will continue once we are gone, but each of us, for a brief moment, may, in Whitman’s inspired phrase, “contribute a verse,” may leave something of ourselves that will make a difference once we are gone.
And that is what I hope I can do during the time that God has given to me as the leader of this community—that I may contribute a verse to the great unfinished story of this school.
In early September, I stood in this very space and began to share with you in my Opening Day homily my vision for our school’s future, especially in the complex and confusing times in which we live. I spoke about the idea of a moral—rather than a tribal—conception of brotherhood, once based on care, conscience, and civility; about the quality of “discernment” I hope we can instill in our boys, one that not only knows what is good and is right but is committed to living in the grace and the light of those redemptive and inspiring truths; and I have spoken about the transformational quality of a St. Albans education—how our boys and families are initially drawn to our school because of its academic reputation, but find within our culture a different way of being in the world—a transformation of their vision, values, and character.
Tonight, however, I would like to share some more about myself, about my own transformation, about the people who guided and loved me, about the journey that led me to this place and this moment, about how I’ve come to see my own story—and that of St. Albans—as part of the same story.
A few days ago, as I was preparing these remarks, I was reminded of the first Bible I ever owned, a leather-bound version of the King James Bible given to me when I was in fourth grade by one of my Sunday School teachers. I opened the front cover and found an inscription from my teacher I had not read in many years, from Second Peter 3:18: “Continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Now this is a rather standard thing to say to a young person beginning his journey of faith, the sort of exhortation one can find in many places in the Bible. But looking back across at the expanse of time, from a young boy to where I stand today, I understand it now in a way that I could not when I was younger. I can now see that those two words—grace and knowledge—and the complex relationship between them—have shaped me into the person I am today and have brought me to this blessed moment in my adult life, some thirty-five years after I first read those words as a young boy.
To explain what I mean, I’d like to share another story. Last year, during my final months at my prior school, Princeton Day School, I found myself talking one day with one of the school’s most beloved teachers. He asked me how I felt about finishing my final months at PDS and beginning a new chapter of my life at St. Albans in Washington, D.C. I said to him: “As much as I will miss my friends and colleagues in Princeton, I feel like I am going home, back to Washington where my wife and I began our family together, back to the city where I began my career as a teacher after I left the legal profession, back to the place where I found my true calling, and back to a boys school, which is where I first experienced the joy and fulfillment of life as an educator.”
Now this teacher from my prior school was a brilliant but idiosyncratic guy, known for saying profound but sometimes puzzling things. That day was no exception. He looked at me and said: “That’s a great story, Jason. And it reminds me of something I’ve always believed is true. All of life is The Iliad and The Odyssey.”
I looked back at him with what was probably a rather confused expression: “That’s interesting. I love those classic works of ancient literature. But I’m not entirely sure what you mean.”
He then said to me: “What I mean is that all of life follows the arc of those two great books. All of life is about leaving home and coming home.”
I believe that the arc of my life—the path that brought my story and the story of this school together—is part of a larger story involving grace and knowledge, leaving home and coming home.
I have often spoken since my arrival of my belief that teaching is a “calling.” When people ask me why I left the legal profession in my early thirties to become a teacher, I will instinctively say: “I felt a deeper calling to devote my life to education, to the world of ideas, to the building of an intellectual and moral community, to making a difference in the lives of my students.”
The idea of a “calling” is a spiritual one. It gets at the idea that we do not entirely choose what we do with our lives. Instead, what we do with our lives in some fundamental and mysterious way chooses us. Wisdom, on this view of things, is about understanding the path marked out for us—the work we are “called” to do by someone or some thing beyond ourselves—and the larger providential design in which our life and our work finds its deepest meaning. As Jesus says in our gospel reading this evening from the Book of John: “You did not choose me but I chose you.”
It’s a beautiful notion—this idea that God has marked out a plan for us—and that it calls us so clearly that it ends our wanderings and puts us firmly on our life path.
But life has taught me that even when we begin to understand what our true calling is, we are often led astray, wandering far from our true home. Looking back, I always knew in my heart that I wanted to be a teacher. But in my early adult life, I fell off the path. And life since then—the journey that has led me here—is a story of finding my way back—of leaving home and then coming home. Thinking back on that wonderful inscription in the Bible given to me by my fourth-grade teacher, I finally understand the way grace and knowledge work together to help us find our way home.
For much of my life, knowledge alone seemed the answer. As a philosophy major in college, I was captivated by the Platonic conviction that philosophy—the love of knowledge, the love of wisdom—was the gateway to the highest truths—believing that when we understand intellectually what Plato called “The Idea of the Good,” it will transform us ethically and spiritually, calling us homeward.
But over time, I came to believe that something was missing from this picture. What if we can know the Good and yet still choose not to do it? What if there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path?
It was the philosopher and theologian St. Augustine who showed me the missing piece of the puzzle. He did so by supplementing the Platonic vision with the idea of Grace.
Jesus often ended his parables with the beautiful phrase: “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” Grace is what enables us to hear the truth and to take it fully into our hearts. Grace reaches out to us when we have wandered far from home and calls us back homeward.
I recall reading a story when I was in my early thirties, right about the time I was trying to sort all of this out, still practicing law but trying to imagine a new life as a teacher. The story I read at that moment in my life was, appropriately enough, about two teachers—a retired professor coming back to see her star student who had become a professor at the same college and was struggling with a terminal illness. The older professor, a famous scholar of literature, tenderly took out a children’s book and read it to the younger professor, her former student, in the final moments before her passing.
It was about a young boy who wanted to leave home, running away to seek a new adventure.
The parent says to the child: “If you run away, I will run after you, for you are my child.”
The child says to the parent: “If you run after me, I will turn myself into a fish in a trout stream and swim away from you.”
The parent says: “Then I will turn myself into a fisherman and fish for you.”
At this point, the professor reading the story looks up from the page and says: “Isn’t that beautiful? A little allegory of the soul. Wherever it goes, God will find it.”
The child then says: “If you try to fish for me, then I will turn myself into a bird and fly away from you.”
The parent then says: “If you turn yourself into a bird to fly away from me, then I will become a tree that you come home to.”
All of life is about leaving home and coming home.
And about the grace and love that beckon us home, about understanding, in the passage from Joshua read this evening by my wife, Olinda, that “the Lord God is with you wherever you go.”
The great writer and scholar of religious experience Frederick Buechner was first introduced to me by my high school teachers. Years later, I learned that he was a graduate of the Lawrenceville School, where I spent six of the most formative years of my career as an educator. Buechner has a beautiful way of thinking about the idea of Grace in Christian thought and human experience:
“After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested anymore. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.
“Grace is something you can never get but can only be given....
“A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace.
“The grace of God means something like: ‘Here is your life. You might never have been, but you ARE. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. I love you.’
“There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.
“Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
After years of wandering far from home and my true calling, I found my way back home. And the path homeward was a gift of grace, not something of my own making.
I have been blessed so abundantly in my life, and I feel such enduring gratitude and thanksgiving to those who have kept faith with me, believed in me, and loved me. The passage from Colossians, read this evening by my high school English teacher, Gates DeHart, speaks of the gratitude in our hearts that make us “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” And that is how I feel tonight.
Thank you to my mother, my first teacher, for your enduring love and influence, for introducing me to a world of books and ideas and knowledge, for the many sacrifices you made and the gift of education that has made all the difference in my life.
To my beautiful wife, Olinda, and daughters, Francie and Abbie: Thank for you allowing me to be a part of your life—for showing me each and every day an unconditional love that sustains me and surrounds me, and without which nothing would be possible. Olinda, thank you for sharing your life and your faith with me, for showing me a model of grace and humanity that continues to fill me with such joy and gratitude each and every day I have been blessed to share my life with you.
To my teachers: I became an educator hoping to give back to my own students the many gifts you gave to me. My education led me to truly wondrous places, citadels of learning. But my teachers helped me understand that education is not about where you go, but about what goes through you. They showed me a model of a life dedicated to asking the important questions—of valuing learning for its inherent humanizing potential. And they did this with a deep love and concern for who I became as a person. The Apostle Paul speaks in Corinthians of those who can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, but have not love. My teachers understood, as Paul did, that teaching is an act of love, one that has always been with me and means more to me than they will ever know.
To my friends, mentors, and colleagues who have taught me so much during my years as an educator: Thank you for the gift of your friendship, for teaching me so much about myself, for encouraging me during moments of self-doubt, and for all that I have learned from you about teaching, education, community, and the sacred work that we are privileged to do as members of this profession.
But on this blessed evening, as I think back on my life, what I am most thankful for is the gift of grace that brought me here, the grace that helped me find my way home.
“Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.”
God be with you.