A Reading from the Book of Isaiah
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
When Rev. Hundley asked me earlier this year if I would be willing to offer a chapel talk at some point this fall, I was honored by the invitation, as I always value the chance to speak with you—to be part of this great communion, this great tradition of chapel that binds our community together. Although with so much else on our minds with the pandemic and school reopening, it did not occur to me at the time that the date Rev. Hundley had suggested for my chapel talk would be during the week of the presidential election. A daunting task during any election year, but especially so during 2020, a year that has come with so many complexities and challenges. As I prepared for today’s chapel talk, I’ve been thinking about how to provide some context for what we have experienced these past months—how to impart some sense of meaning to events that often seem to exceed our comprehension.
I’d like to begin by saying how truly wonderful it has been to welcome our boys back to school after many months of separation due to COVID-19. Your presence has restored our spirits, filled us again with a sense of hope and possibility, and reminded us of all that we love about this school.
I spend a great deal of my time thinking about all of you—our students, faculty, and staff and the members of our extended St. Albans community. I want to acknowledge all that you are carrying—all that your lives hold—as we wake each day to a world we could not have imagined a year ago. A world of masks and social distancing, of online and hybrid learning, of daily symptom-screening apps, of uncertainty about the future, of fragmentation and unease in our larger world. Everything, at least in my life, feels amplified: the questions, concerns, and worries—the sense of not having control over our lives—the sense of things we have long taken for granted now in question.
Bishop Mariann Budde recently told a story about someone once saying that, for Lent, they were planning to give up pizza and catastrophic thinking.
The fact that 2Amys Pizza has remained open for takeout during the pandemic means it’s unlikely I’ll be giving up pizza anytime soon.
But at times in the past nine months, catastrophic thinking has probably exerted an even stronger hold on our lives. Life in a complex democracy is never easy. The framers of the Constitution often described America as an “experiment.” Self-governance requires an extraordinary level of effort, maturity and grace. And a capacity to live with a certain level of dissonance and disharmony, as citizens from widely divergent backgrounds and life experiences work through the often messy and tangled process of finding solutions to immensely complex problems.
But I am certainly not the first to observe that the challenges and arguments that have always been endemic to democracy have in recent years—and perhaps especially in the past nine months—felt more visceral, more emotional, with more of a sense of everything being up for grabs. I read the other day that 80 percent of those who are voting in this presidential election, regardless of which candidate they are voting for, believe that what is at stake is not just two competing sets of policies, but a kind of existential referendum on whether America itself can endure.
Talking about these issues isn’t easy. At St. Albans, our job is not to tell you what to think, but to encourage you to think. Not to provide easy answers, but to invite you into a life of continual questioning—of the world and of your own assumptions. But to do all of this within a shared framework of values that bind us together as a community: To cultivate humility, rather than certitude. To teach you how to negotiate difference and disagreement—which are inevitable in any complex democracy—with character, with integrity, while always honoring the humanity in others. To help you become young men of discernment.
And to help you make sense of the world and your lives when the ground beneath you feels like it is shifting in confusing and disorienting ways.
The passage from the Book of Isaiah that began our chapel service today calls us back to a time, perhaps not entirely unlike our own, when there was a profound sense of unrest and unease in the world. It speaks of “parched places” and “ancient ruins”; of “breaches” in need of repair.
Reading this passage in preparing for our service today reminded me of two other pieces of writing I recently happened to be reading—that speak to this moment, at least for me, with resonance and meaning.
The first is a passage from the First Book of Samuel that tells the famous Biblical story of Eli and Samuel. It begins memorably: “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.”
And then this line, which when I read it recently spoke to me in ways in had not before: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” (1 Samuel 3:1-10)
It is a reminder that, while our own challenges and worries today are of course unique to our own historical moment, we are not the first to struggle with doubts, to feel a heaviness of spirit, to feel the absence of the vision and clarity and wisdom that we need. It was a reminder to me that part of the human condition is figuring out what to do when we do not know what to do, when the qualities we most need are rare, when the vision we long for is not available to us.
Around the same time as I was thinking about this passage from the Book of Samuel, I was reminded of another piece of scripture—not part of the Biblical canon, but part of America’s civic liturgy, part of what some scholars call the “American scripture.”
It is Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. For those of you who have visited the Lincoln Memorial, one of our most sacred civic spaces, you have probably seen the engravings of the two speeches that Lincoln is most famous for delivering: the Gettysburg Address delivered in 1863 and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address delivered in 1865 towards the end of the Civil War. While both of these speeches rightfully deserve their exalted status as among the greatest documents in American history, it is Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address—delivered in 1861, as the nation stood on the brink of Civil War—that has been on my mind in recent weeks.
Lincoln travelled by train from his home in Illinois to Washington, D.C., to take the oath of office as the nation’s 16th president, against the backdrop of arguably the two greatest challenges this nation has ever faced: the moral reckoning with the institution of slavery and the very real possibility, in 1861, that profound divisions and separatist impulses in this nation would make it impossible for there to be a United States of America.
Lincoln somehow had to find a way to speak to the immensity of this moment, to a nation in spiritual and political crisis. He reminded us on that day of the power of words—words that reach across to us today, across the centuries, across our divisions and fears, offering us hope and a future, inviting us all to be “repairers of the breach:”
In the beautiful final paragraph of his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln memorably says:
“I am loath to close. 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, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Words alone will not solve all of our current challenges. Even Lincoln seemed aware of the limits of words when he noted in the Gettysburg Address that “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here.” And yet we do remember. Because America is, at its heart, an idea—an aspiration—its meaning has, in important ways, always been about words: freedom, dignity, fairness, conscience, a more perfect Union. About our continuing struggle to live up to their promise and possibility. About the memory of this struggle and how it is part of our civic inheritance—part of the “mystic chords of memory,” in Lincoln’s beautiful phrase. And about the moral resources that are always there, even in our darkest moments of division, to remind us of the enduring possibilities of our country when touched, as we know we can be, by the “better angels of our nature.”