Sunday, October 15, 2017

Striving to be Great

My talk to St. Michael students on October 17, 2017

“Great hearts and minds to do great things" we say on our brochures and web page.   But what do we mean by the word “great”?

Remember that story from Luke’s gospel? A young man, perhaps not much older than you, comes to Jesus and says “Good Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: Keep the Sabbath holy, Honor your parents, don’t lie, steal, murder.” “I’ve done these things since I was young,” he tells Jesus proudly. Jesus, eying him, says, “There is one thing further you must do: give all your possessions to the poor and come, follow me.” And the gospel says the young man walked away sad, for he was a wealthy man. 

My take on that story is the young man is basically a good guy. He’s following the commandments. But Jesus challenges him to go deeper than that—to be great. I think that may describe most of us: on the whole, we’re pretty good people. We’re not killing people, most of the time we’re not stealing, we don’t often take God’s name in vain, we’re not sleeping around. But God calls us beyond even those things. He desires us to be great. 

I read an interesting book a few years back by Jim Collins, called “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t”. He studied many companies on Wall Street, trying to figure out if there were common characteristics in companies that had out-performed the market by three times the general averages—the “great companies” —vs. those who had only done well, “the good”. One of his findings is very provocative: “Good,” he says, “ is the enemy of the great.” Listen to that again: “Good is the enemy of the great.”  What he means is that often the good companies were happy with their performance—“good” for them had become “good enough”, so they weren’t driven to seek more. Their vision in what they could be, what they could become, was limited, ordinary, and because of that—they remained  ordinary. 

I think that can be true of all of us: you as students, we as your teachers or school leaders. We often measure ourselves against others and say to ourselves, “Well, maybe I’m not studying as much as I should, but I’m doing a heck of a lot more that my friend in another school.” “Maybe I could be a better teacher, but I’m sure better than _______”. “Maybe I’m not the best principal, but I know I’m better than most”. That kind of thinking will guarantee that we’ll be at most, “better than average” students, teachers or principals, but we’ll never be great. We’ll never be the true difference makers in this world if being “good enough” is all we aspire to be. We’ll always be less than God dreams for us. 

One of the things I am proudest about St. Michael is we have one, simple, ambitious goal for you: we want you to be great. Look carefully at our mission statement: scholars, leaders and disciples of Jesus Christ--not just "students" but students who aim to be the best they can be; not just part of a group, but leaders, influencing others to be good; not just Christians, but disciples, true followers of Jesus. 

Dare to be great. That's not just a slogan: we think that through God's grace, you really can be great.   It’s why we want you be “renaissance students”—to strive to be good in many things: scholars, athletes, musicians, people of faith.  It’s why we give you the chance to earn 32 credits in high school. It’s why we ask you to take two years of foreign language and two years of the Arts—unique to area schools. It’s why your teachers push you to take Honors and A.P. classes, even if you’re not sure you can do it. It's why we don't have a lower, third academic level--it's college prep for everyone. It’s why we play sports, usually against much bigger schools, even if it means at times we get beat.  It’s why we emphasize the importance of a life of faith, Mass each week, theology classes that require work just like the other classes, and why we pray so frequently together. 

As we wind down second quarter, don’t be like the young man who merely does the minimum. Challenge yourself to be more than that. God wants us to use all of our talents to the best of our abilities and he promises us that when we do so, we’ll thrive and be happy. Ask him to help you. He will. 

Onward and upward! 

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Back to the Grind?

First, my thanks to everyone who made homecoming week enjoyable last week—to Maddie and our House Council for organizing fun dress down days, to our cheerleaders for our pep rally, for our football team, for a very competitive game in our first ever varsity game, to Coach Knapstein for all the preparations for the week,  to Mrs. Andrews and all those who helped plan, set up and clean up after the dance. All in all, it was a very good week.
So here we are on Monday, the beginning of the week AFTER homecoming--“back to the grind” we may be tempted to think. But I’m reminded of the story of two bricklayers in medieval France who worked alongside each other. One bricklayer was a miserable cuss, always complaining about how boring and mind-numbingly dull his job was, “brick after brick, day after day, the same dang thing.” The second brick layer was the opposite. He was cheerful as he worked, smiling, often whistling happy tunes. After watching  him for several months, the foreman became curious, so he asked the second brick layer why he was so happy all the time. The brick layer looked up, a little surprised, stepped back from his work, pointed at the structure they were building, and said: "I'm doing a great thing,” he said, “I am part of building a cathedral!"
I think as we face the routine parts of our lives—for you, the classwork, the homework, the writing of papers, maybe the drudgery of athletic practice in the hot, humid afternoons of coastal Alabama—we’re often tempted to see things from the perspective of the first brick layer: the same thing, over and over. It’s easy for us to lose the big picture. But it’s worth remembering that you, too, are building cathedrals. No, not the literally building. But yes, the cathedrals of your lives, places where God resides, sanctuaries. If you work hard, you will one day succeed in college, you will become a good husband or wife, a good father or mother, a person of faith, a disciple of Jesus Christ. And if we take that big picture view, like the second bricklayer, I think it will help us be grateful for our work here, for this school, for our teachers, for our friends, for the challenges that stretch us to become better students, better friends, better sons and daughters. 
So my prayer for you is that God gives you grit and vision: grit to work through the "grind," but vision to see this is all part of  "the process," as Coach Saban likes to emphasize, the process by which God is creating you to be the person he wants you to be, which will ultimately lead you to a happy, fulfilling life. 
The first quarter ends in 18 days. Work hard!