The following talk was delivered by Headmaster Lee Burns '87 to the Upper School student body in Chapel on December 10, 2014.
I want to begin by thanking the 150 or so of you who participated in Candlelight this past weekend. Your music was beautiful, and it helped me to begin to prepare my heart and mind for the holiday season. December is a holy time for Jews and Christians, and If you are celebrating Hanukkah or Christmas in the upcoming days, I hope it is a special time for you and your family.
Over the years, as a boy, teenager, young adult and now middle-aged adult, I’ve approached and experienced Christmas in a variety of different ways. As a boy, I recall the longing for certain presents. What would Santa bring? What would my parents give me? I remember the delight of a Christmas morning with a pinball machine, another year with a Space Invaders video machine. I remember the shock of getting a $100 bill from a great aunt I rarely saw. But I also recall Christmas mornings that left me flat and disappointed: sweaters and coats didn’t excite me, a pair of dress socks each year from a great uncle, an Odyssey video gaming system when all my friends got an Atari, a sense that some of my brothers or sisters got more than I did, being forced to eat a green bean casserole prepared by an aunt.
Some of my childhood Christmas memories are of trips: a family ski trip to Breckenridge, a trip with my parents to the Sugar Bowl to see the Vols play, a trip with friends to play a tennis tournament in New Orleans.
As a boy, I recall the longing for certain presents. What would Santa bring? What would my parents give me?
I recall some Christmas traditions as a boy and teenager: Christmas eve dinner as a family, all of us going to the midnight Christmas eve service, with some of us wearing pajamas as little children. I recall my parents making all seven of us children sit on the stairs for a picture on Christmas morning before we raced down to see what Santa and my parents had brought us. I remember that we drank orange juice out of Santa cups on Christmas morning and that my mom cooked a terrific coffee cake.
In recent days, we as a family, my wife and our three children, have put up our Christmas tree and wreaths and bows on the windows. We’ve marked our calendars for the Christmas programs of our children and a few parties for my wife and me. The Elf on the Shelf has arrived, and we carefully move him each night so that our four-year-old son, Preston, will wake up with a sense of excitement and curiosity of where in the house he will be.
The other day, Preston told us he wants a batcave for Christmas. He also wants a horse. I’ve never heard him talk about a horse before, but now he wants one, along with 42 things on the list he dictated to his older sister. 10-year-old Arthur wants a bunch of airsoft guns so he can have battles with his friends all over this campus. 12-year-old Betsy would be embarrassed and upset with me if I said anything about what all she wants, so I’ll spare you any detail there.
Last week, Sarah asked me what I wanted for Christmas. For many years of my life, it was easy to come up things. The challenge was narrowing it down or prioritizing it. “I don’t know,” I told her. I’ve thought about it some since she asked me, but I hadn’t come up with anything.
- I want McDonalds to get rid of the McRib sandwich, once and for all. I ate one about 35 years ago when they first came out, and when I see the commercials that they are back, I almost get a gross taste in my mouth again and that nasty feeling in my stomach.
- I want U2 to play Spears Stadium on a warm Friday night this May.
- I want to meet J.D. Salinger, author, of course, of Catcher in the Rye. I know he’s passed away, but if Preston can ask for the Batcave, I can ask for a meeting with him.
- I’d like to come to basketball practice this winter and take the ball at the top of the key against whatever five players Coach Shulman thinks will shut me down. My cross-over dribble will break Junior’s ankles as I roar by him. I’ll go airborne around the free-throw line, and as Corey and McClendon converge on me in the lane, I soar above them, and throw down a ferocious dunk over their outstretched hands. I’d like for Robert Noble to get that on video and for JaVaughn Craig to post that as one of his many tweets that day.
- I’d like for you guys to get more sleep. And eat breakfast each day. You’ll feel better and do better.
- I’d like for the Vols to win their bowl game, even though it’s the Taxslayer Bowl. And I’d like to run through the T.
- Speaking of football, I’d like an upgrade on the McCallie sidelines so I can signal or call in plays. I’d settle for being a decoy signaler, yelling orbit and yo and double stack and other such things while I move my hands in all kinds of directions.
I’d like for it to be proven that eating red meat in large quantities is good for us.
- I’d like to eat or drink whatever Richard Henderson does.
- I’d like for Downton Abbey to have more than six episodes a year.
- I’d like for you guys to be intellectually curious, open minded, leaning forward to take chances and pursue adventures, undaunted by the possibility of failure.
- I’d like to sing “O Holy Night” in Candlelight.
- I’d like for you to read more... and laugh more, too.
- I’d like to be able to speak in that deep, James Earl Jones voice...or at least like JJ Moncus.
- I’d like to get rid of the crick I’ve had in my neck for about a week now.
- I’d like for Pat Conroy to write more books.
- I’d like to play a duet on the piano with Billy Joel.
- I’d like for us to have more conversations as a community about current events.
- I’d like for Ohio State and Florida State to lose big in the playoffs. Really big.
- I’d like for us to get rid of the bad smells on campus: especially in the Davenport locker rooms and in Belk.
- Speaking of locker rooms, I’d like for us not to use the stairwell area by the main basketball court as a locker-room. And I’d like for us to take pride in our locker-rooms, even though they are old and smell like stale 1972 sweat.
- I’d like to travel abroad more.
- I’d like a faster golf cart.
- I’d like a strawberry banana smoothie every day, and for vegetables to taste good.
- I’d like, among our many teams, for your hard work, commitment and teamwork to yield many championships.
- So that’s my list, as of Monday night. I’ll give to it both to Sarah and our elf on the shelf, though I suspect I’ll get a few Brooks Brothers shirts on Christmas morning again this year.
Christmas, it seems to me, is often a grab bag of getting. Throw out a bunch of things you want, and see what you get.
But perhaps a more important question than what I want is this: what is worth wanting?
As I’ve aged, I’ve gained, I hope, some wisdom. And by that I mean, you see how things unfold, how they play out, what patterns emerge. So I know that, even if McDonalds gets rid of the McRib, they will reintroduce its foul cousin, the Filet-O-Fish, in its place. But they will bring back the McRib in 18 months anyway.
But wisdom is, I think, more than simply having a good guess of what’s probably next, based on prior experiences. It’s understanding a bigger picture, a bigger narrative, a bigger story of our lives...a picture, a narrative, a story that may not be readily or easily seen.
Like many of you, I’ve heard the Christmas story dozens or even hundreds of times. My parents made me go to church starting as a little boy. I learned many Bible stories. I knew many Bible verses. In some ways, earlier in my life, I may have heard it so much that I was desensitized to it. That may be the case with some of you. For others of you, the Christmas story -- the story of the birth of Jesus -- may simply seem peculiar or a distant historical event or a cute fairy tale for children and unsophisticated adults.
The message of God as Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer can be a hard one to wrap our minds around. It’s natural to resist, both with our heads and hearts. We live in a world which promotes self-sufficiency. We are taught that we are inherently good. We believe we are smart, able to comprehend everything, and we are taught to only believe that which we can detect with our senses and measure. We are taught to follow and trust our hearts, whose desires must be noble. Why would we need a Redeemer, and from what would we even need to be rescued?
At McCallie and in your future colleges and graduate schools, you will study many important subjects, and I hope you do so with great dedication and passion. As adults, you will make many decisions. But of anything you study or contemplate, I believe that the most important question with which you must wrestle and eventually answer is this: who is this God of the Bible, and what is my response to Him?
The God of the Old and New Testaments claims that He created the universe and our earth, that He created humans, that we humans, of our own volition, rebelled against this perfect and loving God, from whom we were all then cut off because He, being perfect, cannot be with anyone imperfect. So he sent His Son, Jesus, to live a perfect life, a life that we with our fallen nature could not live, and then for His Son to die an atoning death for us, to be sacrificed in our places, so that we might have the perfect record one day of Jesus standing in front of a perfect God.
It’s a magnificent claim, a miraculous, supernatural claim, and I understand why a lot of people have a hard time believing it. And I respect the fact that there are other faith traditions with different claims.
The story of Christmas is, I think, primarily one of a rescue mission.
As Christmases passed by in my life, I began to contemplate more deeply the messages from the Old and New Testaments. I began to spend more time reading the Bible. I began to spend more time in prayer. I considered carefully how these 66 books, written over several thousand years, fit together so beautifully and precisely, how all these prophecies came true centuries later, how historical evidence from other sources seem to confirm the Biblical accounts, how brilliant philosophers, scholars, scientists and others came to believe that it’s a greater leap of faith not to believe in God than to believe in God.
I began to read more about and spend more time with people who had a peace, joy and purpose in their lives, and they attributed it to faith in God... and an ever-growing trust in Him. I wanted to be more like them; I wanted what they had.
And, finally, I began to spend more time reflecting about the nature and desires of my own heart. Though I could present a nice public image, I knew there was a mess beneath.
I’m glad that McCallie is a school in which we have different faith traditions and that we demonstrate respect for all individuals and their faith traditions. Some of the closest friends I have are members of other faith traditions, or those without a faith tradition, and I cherish those friendships.
When I, though, made the conscious decision to place my trust and hope in Jesus Christ, whom I believe to be the Son of God, I discovered a profound peace, purpose and hope, especially by knowing that I need not earn God’s favor; in fact, I could not earn his favor. Conditioned to be a goal-setting high achiever, I only needed to be a receiver: to accept His love. I was given what I did not deserve, making His grace and love all the more remarkable. And I found that unconditional love far more fulfilling than any grades or achievements or positions that I had earned.
I wasn’t given an assurance of prosperity or health, but of peace and hope. I wasn’t enabled to stop sinning, but to be forgiven of my many sins...and freed from the consequences of them...and freed to lead a life less constrained by the trappings of the world...a life with a coherent meaning despite the chaos of the world...a life of joy and hope despite the seasons of pain...a life with a growing impulse to serve and love despite my natural selfishness.
The story of Christmas is, I think, primarily one of a rescue mission. It’s a mission of love we can’t fully comprehend, of God breaking through time and space to rescue a fallen people who may not even know they need rescuing, who certainly don’t deserve it, and who could never rescue themselves.
We live in a noisy and busy world, and it’s hard to find silence and stillness. It’s often, though, in silence and stillness that we do our best searching: that we consider and sense that there is something beyond the here and now, that we have souls, that we long for something or someone that only finds its satisfaction in the supernatural.
Like a small baby born on a starry and silent night.
This Christmas, I want something worth wanting: something not just good, but something ultimate, something that won’t fade or dull or grow boring, something that won’t leave me thirsty for that which never quenches my thirst. In John 4:13, Jesus says to the woman at the well:
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
This Christmas, I want more of Him and less of everything else.
Let us pray.
Thank you for the many ways you have blessed each of us here this morning. I pray that, in the upcoming days, we would slow down and find quiet and still moments to reflect upon these blessings. That you would know us and care for us is remarkable, and that you would rescue and redeem us through your son is more than I can comprehend. Grant each of us, as your children, joy and peace, and may we love and serve You and others. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.