Monday, June 4, 2012

Courage and Success - Kurt Nelson

Rollins Chapel. 6/3/12
Jeremiah 1:5           
Philippians 4:4-9*

This concludes our chapel series for the year,
as well as our month-long discussion of courage.

Courage was really Richard’s topic.
And I don’t think I’m alone
in thinking that he’s probably shirked his duties a bit,
by really only offering us half a sermon on the subject.
But, we carry on…
And I will say,
I’ve come to understand,
as you’ll soon see,
that the idea of courage
really resonates with me.

And I’m certainly glad to be able to offer
something of a farewell sermon,
as I prepare for the next step.
Though it was made immediately clear,
as I sat down to write,
that I can’t do justice to the value and learning
of this place and people to me,
over the past five years.
In these 8-10 minutes.
So I’m not really going to try.
But fear not.
I still have some thoughts.

Those of you who know me well,
likely know
that I carry with me a good number of questions.
And one of those questions,
is about what I should really be doing with my life,
professionally speaking.
I love the work I do,
and especially the people I work with.
But still, I feel pulled in many directions.

A slight tug toward a more purely academic life:
Teaching, writing, grading, judging,
creating knowledge.
All that business.
But more often,
I feel pulled toward the world of direct action,
Direct engagement.
Feeling like my life is not lived fully enough,
radically enough in response to the challenges of the world,
and the call to serve the least of these.
And that tension –
a productive one I hope -
between academics and action,
between faith and intellect,
has led me comfortably,
but questioningly,
to where I stand,
and where I’m headed.
But I still sometimes ask myself,
“why am I here?”
Here with these bright, talented, driven young people.
Who are pretty likely to succeed,
with or without me.

Every so often, I’ve noticed,
or God,
or the universe,
offers a moment of clarity.
A moment of renewed zest and zeal,
for the work before me.
I pray and I hope for these moments,
but, if you’ve ever experienced one,
I suspect you know,
that they are not nice or easy.
Rather, they come -
at least in my experience –
in the face of some wrong, or challenge,
so stark,
that it becomes clear that lived response,
is the only answer.

So I had such a moment this week,
in a relatively innocuous context:
in the Tucker Foundation’s living room,
at a session of the weekly program,
What Matters to Me and Why.

I’ll offer a few details of the talk,
so you know where I’m coming from.
but I don’t want to dwell on them too long.
Because it seemed like such a perfect distillation,
of a much larger problem.

This particular faculty member spoke about
how professional excellence mattered to her.
Essentially, she spoke about success.
And how that success was a function of hard work,
not talent.
She called it the “Michael Jordan principle,”
which means,
working harder than everyone.
Giving up on sleep,
any semblance of balance,
and other aspects of life.
It means constant striving,
and naked competition with other would-be professors,
both real and imagined.
all for the purpose of success.
It was a troubled image.
Laden aptly with sports imagery,
drawing comparisons of course to Michael Jordan,
who while tremendously successful,
was so driven
in his career
by spite
as to recall
in his hall of fame acceptance speech,
the coach who cut him from his Freshman High School Team.
Even more troubling was the comparison
to Junior Seau,
Hall of Fame Linebacker of legendary work ethic,
who, just last month,
not 5 years into his retirement
took his own life.
But indeed these men are paragons of success.
They achieved, tangibly.
And we love them for it,
even if they go so far as to sacrifice their own well-being.

And we must, I think, pause,
and truly wonder
Are these the kind of lives to which we aspire?

But most troubling for me,
more than any singular detail
or metaphor of success
was that when asked explicitly,
 “What Matters to You and Why.”
The response was “Professional Excellence”
with not a single “And why?” in sight.
Which is, of course,
the whole point.

And this really suggests to me,
the crux of one of our great societal challenges:
We don’t know why we’re ambitious,
or to what end we ought be.
We just know that we are.
We know we must strive,
simply because success
is who we are.
There may be fleeting glimpses of ideas,
like wealth or influence,
comfort and stability,
a better life for our families.
But I honestly think these are secondary,
To the fact that there is no “and why.”
We are essentially defined by this narrow,
hollow vision of success.
I see it dripping from so many friends and colleagues.
I notice it working within myself.
But so too it’s larger than that,
as one student reminded me.
For this is at work in our basic, economic self-organization.
We seek growth in GDP
for no greater reason,
I would suggest,
than that’s what we define as good.
We have become so committed to a model of growth,
that “we have long since stopped asking, ‘what for?’”
And so naturally,
we give up on Sabbath.
we give up on balance or perspective or pause.
Because if we do not succeed,
then we are not us.

And as I sat there,
hearing this distilled version of our view of ourselves.
I couldn’t help but think,
that this is why I’m here,
(to be fair,
a lot of me was also thinking,
“please can I leave.”)
but indeed there are so many problems with this worldview.
Because, to put it bluntly,
 that’s not who we are,
and that’s not success.
But it’s the idea we set forth.
And it causes manifold problems for us,
and for the world around us.

We could reasonably conclude
that the problem is thus Ambition.
Or success itself.
That perhaps we could just relax.
Leave success to the wind,
And go with the flow.
But I’m not sure that’s right.
Because there is, I think,
a really necessary tension,
in life,
between being driven and being satisfied.
Between feeling like something is missing,
that we need to solve,
and feeling like we are fine the way we are.
I suspect we all know people who have swung too far
in both directions.
Those whose ambitions define them.
And those who never put their talent to good use.
And I think the problem probably isn’t ambition,
but rather lack of courage.

Now, I don’t mean to get too Lutheran on you,
but I do think we have the answer before us.
That who we are is not success,
or satisfaction.
Rather, who we are is loved.
And who we are is also always flawed.
Unable to achieve our own perfection,
but also fully justified.
And if we dare to believe that,
A whole world of possibility is opened.
because knowing that we cannot “succeed”
in the ultimate sense,
we can begin, perhaps, to seek the good,
for those around us.
And thus our ambition leads us not to define ourselves,
but to ask,
To what end?
Why am I on this path?
Where am I being called?

What if, like Jeremiah,
God knew me before I was formed,
and set before me a task or a direction?

This text dares us to wonder,
if there’s not something more to it all.
Dares us to wonder,
what we are being called to, and why?
And make no mistake,
that’s a scary set of questions to ask.
Because while the answer may very well be medical school,
or Teach for America,
or even – God help us – corporate recruiting,
the answer may very well be none of those things.

So often,
our education has become about that narrow success.
And is thus not about the question, Why?
But the question, How?
So we focus on knowledge and skills and experiences,
to achieve.
But really, what I think education needs,
is a boost of courage.
For there is no success without asking, “and why?”
There is no success without at least pondering,
where we might be called.
And thus there is, I think,
no success without courage.

Because it takes courage to really ask, “and why?”
And it takes confidence to forge those unusual paths,
that the world so needs.
“It takes courage,”
ee cummings said,
“to grow up and become who we really are.”

And I find myself wondering if Courage comes really,
from simply knowing why
we are doing what we are doing.

And perhaps we can thus draw inspiration from Paul,
who wrote even as he was imprisoned
and nearing the end of his life:
Whatever is just and honorable
Whatever is true and commendable and pleasing.
Think on these things.
Do these things.
Succeed in these things.
Because they are good,
because they are right,
because they are true.

And thus perhaps,
we can with courage and confidence,
go forth to build communities.
To teach and listen and heal.
To offer bread to the hungry,
To comfort the afflicted.
And afflict the comfortable.
And seek to make the lives of those around us,
just a little better.
These things are,
I think,
worthy of our ambition.
Worthy of our thinking and our doing,
worthy of our courage and our confidence.
Worthy of being called,
Not only in our professions,
but in the fullness of our lives:
with family and friends,
at work and play.

And so we go from this place,
you and I,
I hope,
Where am I being called?
and putting before ourselves and others the question,
“and why?”
Knowing we are imperfect and loved.
And hoping that we are called forth,
to a fuller, realer vision of success.
Amen.  Amen.

*Jeremiah 1:5              (NRSV)
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.
*Philippians 4:4-9  (NRSV)
4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

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