By Stuart Dunnan
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hos. 6:6)
The end of the year at Saint James is always a very emotional time for us, as we are a boarding school with only 230 students, so the relationships we enjoy are close and substantial. Our students usually begin in the eighth and ninth grades, or what we call second and third forms, and we do not admit sixth-formers or postgraduates, so most of those graduating have been at Saint James for four or five years, maybe three, only a handful for two.
Their journeys therefore have been long, at least in relationship to the span of their lives: full of triumphs and failures, friendships strengthened and loosened, lessons learned, forgotten, and learned again. And this year of course was no exception, as we had a very devoted and loyal graduating class who had grown from boys and girls to young men and women together on our campus. So you see before you a broken-hearted priest headmaster grieving for his children.
Every year in chapel, I mark the beginning of the end for us by giving essentially the same homily, which the students call my “Don’t burn your bridges talk.” Taking my text from Miss Madeira’s famous advice to her girls that they should “function in disaster, finish in style,” I remind the students that leaving such a close community with so many friends and teachers they care about and who care about them is never easy, so they need to be aware of how emotional this time will be for them and how tempted they will be to avoid saying goodbye to those they have grown to love more than they are able to admit and thus to leave in the wrong ways.
And then I take them through the usual list of avoidance strategies: “sneak away at midnight, the new best friend, complete denial, check out early, and burning your bridges.” Now you may be familiar with these strategies or even guilty of them yourselves, but allow me to elaborate.
To “sneak away at midnight” is to avoid saying goodbye and then pack your bags and leave quickly; that way your friends are left behind wondering when you left and (here’s the benefit) missing you terribly.
To make “the new best friend” is to find someone new to spend all your time with doing “fun” things and enjoying “easy” (and therefore superficial) conversations, avoiding more substantial and difficult conversations with more long-standing friends whom you will miss too painfully. One particular variant of this is to make your new best friend an inanimate object like “your friend the computer” on which you can play your favorite games or “your friend the iPod” on which you can listen to your favorite tunes, or even “your friend the Frisbee” or “your friend the lacrosse stick” who will play with you and keep you busy so that you can never sit down and talk.
The “complete denial” strategy is best and most often practiced in my experience by the English, who absolutely refuse to acknowledge that any change is happening. Thus when I left Oxford after living there for seven years in a nine-year period to return to my native America, the usual conversation went something like this: “Cheerio, then; see you when you get back.” “But I am not coming back.” “Well then, see you when you do.” To paraphrase a long-running London comedy: “No emotion, please; we’re English!” (I would say “British,” but the Welsh are emotional.) At Saint James, it involves the promise that we will be in constant touch for the rest of our lives when the truth is that we will no longer live together in the same state, let alone the same school, and we will be lucky if we see each other once a year.
The “check out early” strategy involves going home as much as you can if you live nearby or failing to do your work or indeed anything productive on campus, as that would involve genuine engagement with other people. The departing student therefore gets very busy planning the life to come, fine-tuning the move and talking online with future classmates, ignoring as much as possible the surrounding company of long-standing teachers and friends. In the most extreme form, he or she just wears the college tee-shirt, hides in his or her room, and sleeps a lot like a bear in hibernation.
But the most destructive by far is the “burning your bridges” strategy, which absolves you of saying goodbye to the people you love by getting mad at them. The best way to do this is to get into trouble and be punished so that you can expose the school as a “prison” and turn the faculty into your “jailers” and “persecutors.” Even the other students will have “betrayed” you because they have failed to be punished with you, proving the “falsehood” of their friendship.
This strategy often flows naturally from the “checking out early” strategy, because a great way to get into trouble is to check out early, to fail to follow “the rules” or to refuse to meet your obligations. I have sometimes seen departing faculty do this: they stop coming to meals and start shirking their duties, getting by with the minimum and acting like martyrs when I call them on it.
All of this, I think, brings us to the heart of what is sinful in our human nature: that desperate need we have to be loved in all the wrong ways and to fail to respond with love to those whom God has placed around us. I can think this year of one sixth-former in particular who greatly loves the school and knows it, but who “checked out early,” broke a major rule, got himself suspended, and lost his last week before commencement.
Processing this with him, I tried several ways to get him to see his mistake, but I could not quite get him there until I described for him our week without him, and how much I missed him. And then his eyes filled with tears, and he could feel the pain of it, the pain he had caused and the pain that he felt: of goodbyes unspoken, of thanks never offered, of friendships unconfirmed, and love unexpressed. And my eyes filled with tears too, tears for him because I love him and felt for him, but also tears for me, as I have done the same so often myself.
Hosea’s plea with us is that we love God not in some fake and using way, acting all religious when it’s comfortable but ignoring him when he gets in the way of what we want, but in a real and faithful way, just as he loves us. Like children at school, we are tempted to “obey the rules” and not to embrace the rules, internalize and understand them. In this way, we constantly fool ourselves, burn bridges, and become false martyrs, failing almost on purpose to see that one true way of life that the rules can teach and defend.
By acting in this way, we are tempted to make God some sort of anonymous and distant authority whose relationship to us is one of random closeness and occasional relevance, inspiring only guilt. We fail, in short, to see how much God loves us, and we fail to love him back. In St. Paul’s words, we cling to a mere obedience to God as our judge, and we fail to see him as Christ has revealed him: as our faithful and loving father. We choose to obey and fear him, rather than to love and believe in him. We fail to belong to him, to live as his children, and to join in his purpose.
My students always laugh at me when I compare myself to God, and they should. But loving them as I do, and wanting not just to be obeyed by them, or worse only obeyed when they think I will catch them, I cannot help but sympathize with God in his relationship with me. Surely, every parent and teacher in this church will understand what I mean.
Why do we avoid God’s great love for us in Christ, made so real on his cross and in this Eucharist? Why do we avoid his sacrifice? Why do we turn away? Is the emotion too much for us, the gratitude too overwhelming? Do we lose too much pride, too much independence? Will it make us too needy and too vulnerable? Or is it just that we are coming to this meal only because it is required, getting by with the minimum?
It is a hard thing to be grateful, to perceive just how much God loves us and to trust his love enough to change, to live our lives more gratefully. It requires, I think, real courage and humility, a willingness on our part to be open to pain, the pain of loss, defeat, and rejection that comes with living for Christ in this world, the pain which comes from giving ourselves, as he gave himself, away. And so, we are tempted to avoid him, and thus to lose all the joy and purpose which only he can bring.
And here is the saddest truth of all: when it comes to the love of Christ, we are not just tempted to avoid saying goodbye; we are actually tempted never to say hello. We are just too afraid.
There is a tradition at Saint James that the headmaster preaches to the graduating class for the last time in chapel just before they walk up the central circle to the senior steps to graduate, and I often wonder what I can tell them that I have not told them before, which is only this: just how wonderful they are and how very much I will miss them. And so, my only hope for them is that they will live their lives accordingly: with all their promise before and all my love still with them.
And isn’t that what Christ tells us: just how wonderful we are and just how much he loves us? Isn’t that why he sits with us, tax collectors and sinners that we are? Right here in this church this morning? And isn’t that why he calls us not merely to obey, but to follow him?
The Rev. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan is headmaster of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland.