Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Count it all joy!

My brief remarks to our faculty on March 25, 2015

We are approaching the anniversary of my father’s death last year on Palm Sunday, so my 3 sisters, brother and I have been a little nostalgic, sharing memories about him—and laughing a lot. One of those memories was our ritual every morning. We had family morning prayer, and Dad would wake us all up by ringing this bell he had installed at the foot of our stairway, shouting up the stairs “Rise and Shine!”  As teenagers, we hated that bell. My sister Jennifer, not a morning person, would come down the stairway scowling at the world, shooting daggers at my father, who had been up for an hour already, said prayers, and run a few miles, so he was rearing to go. So each morning, there was kind of this competing force of my father’s unrelenting cheerfulness vs. his teenage children’s crankiness about waking up as we stumbled our way through morning prayer. But the takeaway looking back—and the thing you don’t really notice so much or think about until it’s gone—is my father’s cheerfulness and what a gift that was to our entire family.

A few days ago, I was talking to one of you who has been a teacher for quite some time now—I won’t embarrass her by telling you who she is—but it occurred to me, while talking, that one of her great attributes as a teacher is JOY. She loves teaching, she is passionate in looking for ways to become a better teacher, she cares about her kids and their learning in a truly admirable way—and through it all, radiates joy. What a GREAT thing. What a great inspiration for all of us.

And then, just a passing note. Yesterday afternoon, I was talking to Julianne, getting the debrief about our spring break trip to Spain—26 kids, herself, Andrew and Veronica. She said it was spectacular, the kids were spectacular—everything went well. At the end of our discussion, I asked her if anything stood out for her—a memory she’d treasure. And she said, yes, many things, but one small moment in particular. Toward the end, they were about to eat, she was talking with someone, and she turned around, and all 26 kids were holding hands, about to say grace, and she was invited to join them. That moment was very powerful for her—a kind of sign that things were "going right" at JPII, that the mission of the school was alive in our students. She was able to take great delight in that.

Count it all joy, whenever temptation and trials come upon us, because in that testing comes steadfastness. (James 1:2-3)

JOY. Cheerfulness. Delighting in our students. As we tackle these last two months together,  let’s make a very deliberative effort to be people of joy in what we do, so that this joy radiates to our kids. Let’s find ways to delight in our kids—in the small things, in our banter with them before class or while walking down the hallways, or talking about the game we attended the afternoon before. Throw your life into theirs—and let’s enjoy and appreciate this magnificent vocation we’ve been called to as educators. COUNT IT ALL JOY!  May God bless all of you this spring.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

National Arts Honor Society Induction Remarks

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins

I think this is a wonderful poem for us this evening—for it reminds us, in this age where all of us are tied slavishly to our electronic devices—to glory in those “dappled things” around us, and to see in all the wonderful variety of these things, the grandeur and majesty of God.

I believe the purpose of a school art program is to develop this sacramental view of the world, such that in things great and things small, we can detect God’s signature, his handiwork. And I think, too, it’s to develop students with a capacity to see more deeply, to feel things more keenly, to recognize subtlety, to see the sublime in the simple, and to be adverse to any kind of template thinking that tries to categorize all the fantastic variety of our universe into sweeping generalizations.

I want to congratulate all of you tonight for being inducted into the National Arts Honor Society. Being inducted into an honor society isn't merely an honor; it's also a commissioning. I charge you to be students that bring color to the hallways and classrooms of JPII, both literally and figuratively. I charge you to be alert to those occasions when we need to think more about people than policies, more about specific circumstances than the bottom line. I charge you to be, at some level, a nuisance to me as the headmaster—within reason—challenging ME to avoid spreadsheet thinking about our school program and all the ways we serve our students and build community here.

This is a great place—a great school. I'm feeling that more powerfully myself, as I prepare to leave in June. I suspect some of you who are seniors are feeling it, too. It’s more than our beautiful campus, or our very fine test results. It’s about people—the quality of our students and faculty, the relationships we build together. Seniors, as your high school career now draws to an end, I suspect you are beginning to have that strange feeling of being excited about the future, but at the same time, experiencing that tinge of regret about leaving, with all of its memories, good times and friendships.

Seniors--new inductees--all those present tonight, my final charge is to cherish this place, to thank God for it, to cultivate these relationships even more deeply. It’s in those relationships that we experience the glory of God in these many "dappled things" most powerfully. 

Praise him!


Approaching the one year anniversary of his death.

Dad had one flaw: he didn’t accept aging gracefully. In fact, he hated everything about it. The prospect of slowly losing his faculties was one of the great fears of his life.  

So it was a moment of grace when he died suddenly at Orange Beach on April 13, 2014.

It was a Sunday morning--Palm Sunday in fact. Mom and Dad attended an early Mass, ate breakfast together, and then went down to the beach--she with a good book to read, he, never one to stand still, for a long walk down the coastline.  It was during that walk that he collapsed, and the medics called to the scene could not revive him.

“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15). So said the sign on the front door of my parents’ home. So lived my father.

On one level, he was a devout, traditional Catholic, a daily communicant, president of the parish council at tiny St. Joan of Arc Parish, the song leader, the usher and the lector. My three sisters, brother and I would tease him, suggesting he should become a deacon, so he could give the homily, too.

But on another level, he was anything but traditional.  In the summer of 1971, he and Mom were introduced to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement by a friend of theirs, and that led to a deep conversion and a life-long commitment to serve the Lord as best they could. We moved downtown to join in a covenant Christian community with two other families, pledging to support each other to live radically Christian lives together. We changed parishes in the move—my sisters and I transferred from the most affluent, suburban Catholic school in Mobile, Al to an inner city Catholic school that had previously been all black. We took in strangers who needed a home: one night it was Carnival workers, once it was a recovering drug addict for a period of a year, another time it was an unwed woman who lived with us for the last few months of her pregnancy, later on, it was simply a medical student, needing a place to call home for his residency.

It would be impossible to list all the many guests we had for dinner, many of whom simply needed friendship. “Mr. Mosely” was a regular: he was an older man, a former alcoholic who lived in a halfway home, obviously damaged by a difficult life, a little smelly and unkept. It didn’t matter to Dad, who would go pick him up for our Thanksgiving and Christmas Day meals and give him a place of honor at our table. For us kids, having Mr. Mosely with us was “normal,” so we never thought it was a big deal.

Every school morning, we’d begin the day with my father ringing a bell at the foot of the stairs—a signal it was time to wake up for family prayer. As a teenager, I hated that bell. “Rise and Shine!” he’d say with too much cheerfulness as my siblings and I grumpily descended the stairs. Of course, by that time of day,  Dad had already said his private morning prayers and run a few miles, so he was rearing to go. That describes him pretty well: cheerful, always rearing to go. 

He often got called on to help people in dire straits. I remember one time a family we knew was evicted from their rental home, and they had to get moved out instantly. They called Dad, and I was drafted, too. The whole house was a complete wreck—nothing was packed, and I remember Dad and I using a snow shovel to simply scoop up what was on the floor, place it in bags, and bring it out to the truck. Dad helped people reroof their homes, rebuild their garages, resurrect clunker cars, install appliances, fix what was broken in their homes. And he did all these things with great cheerfulness and joy—happy to be serving others, happy to live out the gospel admonition to “love thy neighbor.”

He was a lot of fun, too. He had a great sense of humor, loved telling stories, had a few corny jokes that he’d retell over and over—my siblings and I knew the cues that led to those jokes and we tried hard to avoid them, but our many guests at the dinner table often fell prey, much to our father's delight and over our feigned moans. He played ball with us growing up and was very competitive—I remember he once beat me 21-2, playing “one on one” on the basketball goal he made for us in our back yard. There was no "going easy" on us; we had to earn the victory, so it was a great milestone in our young lives when we could actually beat him. If it wasn’t basketball, it was ping-pong, or tennis, or chess. We had many "epic" matches together. 

In fact he was a very fine athlete: in high school he won the tennis doubles championship in Memphis, TN. I remember as a young boy the first time I looked at my father with awe: it was a faculty softball game in Fairhope, AL and the first time my father batted, he jacked a home run on top of a 150 foot bluff in deep right field. The next time he came up, they delayed the game to send three people to scramble up the bluffs in case he hit another one up there, and right on cue, he did so, but they caught it, and everyone stopped playing to laugh for a while.  He was generally fit through out his life, running several miles each day up until he was in his mid-sixties, and then walking thereafter. He cared about his health and his fitness in an admirable way.

He loved Mom. That was the other great constant in our family. Though the two of them were rarely romantic in front of us, we never had reason to doubt they were deeply in love with each other—Dad made Mom laugh a lot, and there was real joy between them. Their love and delight in each other gave real stability to our family. 

He possessed great pride in his children and grandchildren, helped us with science projects or speeches we wrote for student elections, attended every sporting event we or the grandchildren ever played in, and archived much of his grandchildren's activities via video-taping. He wasn't very good as a videographer, however: he'd get too excited if his grandkids did something well, forget he was taping, such that the camera would swing violently up and down, making the viewer sick to his stomach watching. The grandkids got to the point of expecting this: another sign of their grandpa's love and pride in them. They wrote about this and many more things when he died, eulogizing him beautifully here.

His funeral was a testimony to the impact his life made on others: 13 priests and two archbishops concelebrated the Mass, with three deacons attending. But we were also edified by the full Church, representing a great cross-section of Mobile: former colleagues and faculty members, students from the inner city whom he tutored on Saturday morning, with their parents, people whom he had once helped, those who had lived with us for a time, teenagers he had recently taught at McGill or St. Mary's, black/white, young/old, Catholic/non-Catholic, rich and poor--those distinctions didn't matter. His nineteen grandchildren were the lectors, gift-bearers, pall-bearers and altar boys. Dad once told me he wanted his funeral to be a joyful one, a "homecoming" he said, and I think he was likely pleased. For my mother and our family, it was deeply cathartic in a way that a good Catholic funeral can sometimes be. 

It’s been a year since, and yeah, I still miss him. I’ll hear a joke from time to time that I know he’d love, and I miss calling him and laughing with him about it. Did you hear that Mahatma Gandhi was often in poor health because of all his fasting? And that he his feet were often sore because he went barefoot? Or that he had bad breath because of his unusual eating habits? That made him a "Super-calloused-fragile-mystic-hexed with halitosis." Dad would have loved that joke! 

He was a man's man, a great father, and still the most authentic Christian I’ve ever had the honor of knowing.