Transcript of Chapel talk given by Lee Burns '87, McCallie Headmaster, on December 10, 2015
On July 27th, I happily noticed on my calendar that I had a meeting with sophomore Benjamin Stipanov. I look forward to and enjoy meetings with students, especially ones that students take the initiative to arrange.
Benjamin brought in a large bag. I had no idea why he wanted to meet or what was in the bag, but I was curious.
“Remember what you said during your chapel talk last December?” he began. I did recall my chapel message, and I was delighted that he seemed to as well. I know from personal experience that teenage boys aren’t always apt to enjoy, appreciate and remember formal and sometimes preachy talks by adults, so I was surprised.
“You told us what you wanted for Christmas when you were a boy and that you didn’t get the one thing that you really wanted,” he continued.
So I opened the bag to my Christmas wish of 1981: an Atari Gaming System. Atari was the first real gaming system...the great-grandfather, I suppose, of X-Box today. Instead of getting an Atari, however, my parents had given us an Odyssey — a cheaper and clunkier cousin with less cartridge choices.
Benjamin included four cartridges, joysticks, including an extra one, and instructions on how to set it up. My 1981 Christmas was now complete.
I really liked the way that all turned out, so I thought I’d tell you another Christmas wish I had and see what might unfold. As a 15-year-old a few years after my Odyssey Christmas, I had my eyes on an Audi sportscar. My parents, instead, got me a two-door brown Honda Civic with a 90 degree hatchback without air-conditioning.
So I’ll keep my calendar open for July 2016.
I reflect back sometimes on stories of Christmases from long ago. Christmas, indeed, is a season of stories. Chaplain Dietrich has been reading us the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke in recent chapels. Besides the Christmas story, we all have our own stories, including from other faith traditions beside the Christian one I follow.
Whatever your particular religion or belief system or worldview, I want to suggest that we all have a story that informs how we lead our lives. I’d like to take several minutes to share with you a bit of my story...and the story that has emerged to most shape my life.
I always knew I’d go to school here. My grandfather had been a beloved teacher and administrator here for almost 50 years, my dad grew up on the campus, I attended all sorts of McCallie camps and sporting events as a young boy, and it seemed logical that I would be a third generation Burns boy to become a McCallie man.
Some of you, as I did, grew up on Lookout Mountain and attended Lookout Mountain Elementary School. I made good grades there, played quarterback on the football team for one of my seasons, and point guard in basketball during the winters. When I was bored in class, I would draw up football formations and plays: blitz packages and trick plays in particular. Coach Potter and Shulman have expressed no more enthusiasm for my plays than did my 5th grade football coach when I improvised to a bootleg that was not one of our official plays.
As much as I enjoyed playing football and basketball, I was small, short and skinny, so I began focusing a growing and significant amount of my time on tennis.
As a new McCallie seventh grader in the fall of 1981, I was allowed a place to practice as one the 18 members of the varsity tennis team. Several days a week were devoted to drills, while other days consisted of challenge matches to determine the order. Though ineligible to play in any official varsity matches, I would play challenge matches against the other players. Mr. LeSourd was the head coach, and I soon got my initial spot: #18.
I had more sense than to tell Mr. LeSourd that I thought I was better than last, but I had the opportunity to prove it through my matches that fall. I won my first match, and then the next several, and then a few more, and I had worked my way up to #2 with just enough time the last week to play a challenge match against a senior for the #1 spot. We were rained out a couple of days that week, leaving just one last day for fall sports. My opponent was sick that day, though I would have liked to have seen a doctor’s note for that.
During that fall season, I developed or deepened an important story to guide me: I wanted to win, to be the best ... and if I worked hard enough, I could do it.
I applied that same story or principle to my academic work here. A’s were the highest grades, so I wanted to make all A’s. Even better, I’d find the hardest classes and make the highest grades in them. As I got older, it seemed natural and good to seek admission to the hardest and most selective colleges in the country. As with my tennis, I set goals, worked very hard, and was self-disciplined.
I learned during my teenage years that there’s another good story to follow as well. Follow the rules. Do what the adults ask you to do. Be respectful. By doing so, I would be a good person, and I would earn various types of recognition and roles. These, too, would help with college admission.
Most Sundays, as a family we attended Sunday School and church. During the nights when all nine of us in our family were at dinner together, we said our prayers and had a devotional. I knew my Bible pretty well; I had a 100 average for the year in my 7th grade Bible class with John Strang as my teacher.
In the New Testament, Jesus talks a lot about the religious leaders of his day who knew the Old Testament scriptures so well. While they knew the history of their ancestors and the letter of the law, while they performed its many rituals, they missed its spirit...the heart of the matter...a desire to love Him and others.
Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son, the younger son who dishonors his father by seeking and taking his inheritance prematurely and running off with his new wealth to a distant land, where he squanders it in reckless and debaucherous living. While we often focus on the younger son’s obvious bad choices, it is the older son whose reaction is equally telling, as he is incensed that his father would welcome back so graciously and extravagantly his younger brother while he the elder son was an obedient and respectful rule-follower for his whole life. The older son was, outwardly, a good person ... and also self-righteous and judgmental with his hardened heart.
As I wandered down the path of worldly success, and, I think, matured, I wondered: am I but a Pharisee or Sadducee who knows the Scriptures, a self-righteousness young man who knew of God but knew Him not? Am I simply an older brother, a respectful rule-follower, essentially a good person whose seeming goodness would please God? And if so, so what?
A life built around performing can be one of great pressure and anxiety. There is always a next grade to earn, a next degree to obtain, a next game to win, a raise or promotion to get. There is always an audience to woo or win over. A life centered on achieving is exhausting. And when the losses or disappointments come--and they will-- they can bring a profound and often destabilizing crisis of identity.
So, too, is a life of rule-following goodness a precarious one. It hinges on having an inherently and completely good and noble heart--a supposition I reject as humanly impossible--and having extraordinary power of self-discipline and self-denial. So when our good rule-followers inevitably stumble, they can be swept you away, like a house in a storm built on sand rather than rock.
At different times in my life, I’ve seen with increasing clarity the cracks and crumbles of the life stories I constructed to use as my guides, to make sense of my life, to direct my steps. Performing and conforming, I found, while enticing for a while, are eventual dead ends. Simply working harder or doing better or trying to be good are unsatisfactory answers to many of life’s challenges and heartbreaks, nor do they bring us the joys and peace possible for a human to experience.
Author Michael Goheen writes this about stories:
"The question is not whether the whole of our lives will be shaped by some grand story. The only question is which grand story will shape our lives. For the one who has heard Jesus’ call to follow Him, the call comes with summons to enter the story of which He was the climactic moment--the story narrated in the Bible. It is an invitation to find our place in the story."
My question to each of you is this: What grand story is shaping your life?
Many years ago, I made a conscious choice to find my place in the grand story of God’s love and redemption through Jesus, whom I believe to be His Son. When I did that, I found that my life’s orientation and pressures began shifting, from the need to achieve to a posture to receive. I realized that the good things I was pursuing were not ultimate things which, in fact, were far better. I was freed from the pressures and guilt and the many ways my stories had constrained me. I was even freed from performing for God.
Many of the world’s great religions are built on doing things to please God, to earn His favor, to experience His blessings, to win one’s way to heaven. Christianity, though, is built on a counter-intuitive premise: that we can’t earn our way to God; instead, that we simply exchange our failed and sinful record for the perfect record and life of Jesus, who was sacrificed on our behalves. His perfection — the perfection we need to be in right relationship with God — was given to us as an undeserved gift.
It’s amazingly good news...impossible, supernatural news ... news that’s understandably hard to accept, especially in a society in which we are so self-sufficient and in which we are so inclined to write our own stories. And it’s often difficult to be believed by teenagers, who may be appropriately skeptical of the worldviews and belief structures that their parents may be seeking to impose upon them.
At different times earlier in my life, I hesitated or doubted to really believe or engage this Christian message for myself. Was it but a comforting myth for unsophisticated people from a simpler time? Could a smart person really believe any of this?
I took two astronomy classes at Dartmouth College. I thought, naively, we would study and name constellations. Instead, we explored weak and strong nuclear forces, electromagnetism, gravity, Einstein’s theory of relativity, black holes and dark matter. We examined the speed of light, the life cycle of stars, the rate of expansion and acceleration of the universe, and the elements that were scattered throughout our universe probably many billions of years ago.
In that class and later years, as I dug more deeply into the impossibly exquisite fine tuning and balancing of these various forces to allow for a universe and life even to be possible, as I tried to ponder the size of our universe and infer its origins from its present acceleration, size and age, I was taken back to — and taken aback by — a Genesis 1 moment of creation. How could this universe be here but by a God, whose power to create is beyond the comprehension of what any mind could realize?
I’ve been drawn to and fascinated by many world-renowned scientists — physicists, astrophysicists, biologists, and others — who reach that the conclusion that, based on the complexity, scope and harmony of the universe in general and our natural world, there must be a God who is responsible for creation and the world we experience.
I knew many of the individuals, stories and themes of the Bible, but, as I matured, I thought I should more carefully study and consider it. I realized that many of the greatest philosophers, thinkers, scientists, artists, and leaders throughout much of history had given it much more thought than I had, and that many of them found it profound, transformational, and the greatest influence on their work and lives. I recalled that many of the people I had most admired during my life thus far — men and women who seemed to exude a joy, peace and purpose, who so naturally seemed to want to serve and help others — were students and followers of this God of the Bible.
So I discovered this book more carefully than I did here as a student. I was stunned by the amount of scholarly research done upon it. I discovered how intricately it fit together ... how its many prophecies were fulfilled centuries later ... how extra-Biblical archeological and historical records provided corroboration. I was moved by how so many people during Biblical times had sacrificed their lives as a testament to the truth of its message. I was moved as I read it. I came not just to understand better God and His Son and His love for me and all of us, but I came to understand myself more deeply, including my hidden messes and distresses, and especially my need to be saved by Him rather than trying impossibly to fix it and polish it myself.
Through my study of science and the Bible, I came to the intellectual conclusion that the God of the Old and New Testaments is true, even as I recognize that I don’t understand all of it ... or misunderstand or misapply parts of it. But it wasn’t just my mind that was establishing or deepening a new belief. It was my heart as well.
I have heard it said that the heart is an idols factory. It makes things that we worship, and much of what it makes, while sometimes good, is not worthy of worship: success, money, recognition, celebrity and so forth. It is often a place of pride ... a place from which we judge and condescend.
While I still struggle with some of these things, maybe all of them, my heart is much softer than it once was, more grateful, more gracious toward others, more attuned to differences and the struggles of others, more inclined to forgive, freer and more fulfilled. I have a joy and peace that once eluded me, that hid behind smiles and trophies.
Last month, I was walking down a long hallway in an athletic building at MBA in Nashville before our football playoff game there. A trophy case stretched its full length, and I paused in the area where they had their 1987 trophies. I saw what I desperately pursued my senior year at McCallie: the state championship tennis trophy. I had lost the match in the state finals to their #1 player.
I had ended up my McCallie tennis career where I concluded it in seventh grade: in second place. It’s probably a good reminder to me not to put myself first.
Mark Richt, Georgia’s recently fired football coach, said this, “Rings collect dust.” So do trophies. So do stories that are temporary and self-serving.
So I ask each of you: what’s the grand story that animates your life?
This Christmas, Christians around the world rejoice in this story.
That God so loved the world — the world that He had created, the men and women He created, the men and women who chose to disobey Him with the free will He gave them — that He came to rescue and restore us from our brokenness in a broken world by sending His beloved Son Jesus to live a perfect life, to be sacrificed in our places, and to give us His righteousness, therefore offering us hope and peace, now and forever.
For 2,000 years, men and women, old and young, simple and sophisticated, from around the world, have recalled this grand story and rejoiced in this gift. The wise men from the East, probably from the well-educated and elite from their society, began their journey to Jesus by their fascination with a distant star that they followed. These wise men were open to exploring, to being led, to following a script from another story.
In the upcoming days, in this and all seasons of your lives, I encourage us to contemplate the grand story or stories of our lives, to see if our stories are the best ones to guide and define, to see if there are any stories that should be pruned or replaced to free up bandwidth for different ones. Finally, I encourage you to be open to exploring, to receiving, to believing, to worshiping.
Let us pray.
You know our stories, our desires, our hearts better than we ourselves know them. May you fill and shape them with your love and may our hearts overflow with gratitude and joy, so that we might love and serve You and others, in this season and always.
In Your Son’s name I pray.