The class of 2020 called Shannon Roth, government and US history teacher, and senior class sponsor, to share the commencement address at their outdoor socially distanced graduation, amidst a global pandemic.
Uncomfortable? Lean in!
First, I want to share with you something that Mrs. Seitz reminded me this morning: you began your senior year in the parking lot over there with a big breakfast together on the first day of classes. Now you will also end your Senior year in the parking lot- the first class to do so in our school’s 100 year history!
Second, let me acknowledge the honor that this is to get to speak to you, Class of 2020, at your graduation. You know that your class has always had a uniquely special place in my heart and it has been beyond an honor and a privilege to be your teacher in the classroom and the privilege continues with your nomination to make this speech.
As I thought about my message I started with the reality we have all been living for the last few months – things just aren’t the same and we are being stretched in new and different ways constantly. None of us are comfortable anymore. I could frame my talk on how to get through this, but as I thought about it, I realized this is my wish for you and what I want my speech to center on: My hope for all of you is that your lives and faith will always be a little uncomfortable. To put this into personal practice I plan to include in this speech two things that people are always warned not to talk about in a big speech or around people they don’t know well- Faith and Politics. But what did you really expect from a Government teacher at a religious school?
As some of you may be squirming in your cars already I really want to drive home the point that being uncomfortable in your lives is a place where true growth and change can happen. You are now getting ready to move into adult life and I hate to break it to you but life is not always that comfortable- in fact there are probably more times where you will feel out of your element or just on the edge of mental exhaustion than not, and I want to tell you that this the place you really need to be if you are living a life worthwhile. As people of faith this is clear to us in both the words and actions of Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7 he clearly warns us “Go in through the narrow gate, because the gate to Hell is wide and the road that leads to it is easy, and there are many who travel it. But, the gate to life is narrow and the way that leads to it is hard, and there are few people who find it”.
The way is hard, and there are few people who find it, but this, this is our true calling: to venture into those hard places, and situations, and navigate through them to find a fulfilling life.
One thing that has become more and more clear to me as I teach Government in our modern context is that rhetoric and governing have become fights; there are opposing teams and you fight to make your team win, not necessarily to make life better for all. So in November, we have one of the biggest political elections in our country, the race for President. And if what happened four years ago was any indication, from now through November is going to be rough. People are going to be picking sides, fighting for their choice, and using rhetoric that will surely divide instead of unite. This will make life uncomfortable, but instead of backing off or watching from the sidelines, I encourage you to lean in. One of the greatest gifts for me as a Government teacher is teaching at a school like EMS where I have students with wide ranging views on politics. There are people on almost every point of the spectrum: Conservative, Moderate, Liberal, Socialist, Independent etc. You spent a year in a classroom where you heard ideas and values that differed from your own personal beliefs — sometimes even the very opposite — and you heard them from someone you love and respect. You have been granted the gift of being around others who you deeply care about who differ from you. Not everyone gets this. Sociology tells us people are likely to mix with others who believe the same as them and so their views are never broadened, stretched, or tested. They are comfortable. But you have already experienced the discomfort of difference. And if my classroom was any indication, you were able to do so in a respectful manner. You were able to listen and be stretched because of relationship. My hope for you is that EMS has created citizens that will infiltrate their college and work communities who aren’t afraid to talk about the hard stuff, to truly listen to someone they disagree with and to lean in to that difference. That is where true change that transforms can happen.
We need more citizens in this country and world who are willing to look at the tough issues and grapple with the questions that don’t have easy answers and do so respectfully.
Right now in our country there are many controversial issues that need work. We know that we need big systemic change in race relations, policing, the environment, immigration policy, gender roles, the national debt, healthcare, and the list goes on and on. None of these issues are easy fixes, none of these issues have one clear answer. What is needed are people who are willing to engage in those difficult, and I mean difficult, discussions. They will assuredly be uncomfortable, but to reach resolution and transformative solutions people will need to be uncomfortable in the discussion. Most of us here will need to face our own positions of privilege (because let’s be honest, most of us in this community are privileged in a lot of ways). Listening to others with different perspectives, backgrounds and needs will be key.
If we can successfully face these issues and lean in, even while uncomfortable, we can be the change that is needed. One of my favorite quotes of Frederick Douglass, an American social reformer and abolitionist, seems especially timely in our present life, almost 150 years after he spoke these words: “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.” Powerful, powerful words that touch the heart today. Change is never easy, systematic worthwhile change is always a struggle. But we need to be open to discomfort and instead of turning away or watching from the sidelines, it is our imperative to lean in. This, this was the life of Jesus, and this is the life of his followers in our World today.
Let’s look at Jesus and how comfortable he was during his time in this world. His life started with a virgin birth that almost broke up his parents and no doubt caused controversy in the community he was born into. In one of the only stories in the Bible about Jesus as a youth in Mark 2, he is accidentally left at the Temple by his parents for three days, and when his parents return they find Jesus “sitting with Jewish teachers, listening to them and asking questions”- Jesus was already leaning in to learning from those around him and asking the tough questions. Then Jesus is tempted by the Devil three times right after he has spent 40 days and nights in the desert. Jesus is tempted with the easy life that he will later speak of in the Sermon on the Mount, but he stays true to his convictions, leans in, and chooses the tougher path. Then, when Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth to minister he is not given a comfortable welcome: “When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were filled with anger. They rose up, dragged Jesus out of town, and took him to the top of the hill on which their town was built. They meant to throw him over the cliff, but he walked through the middle of the crowd and went on his way.” Jesus didn’t run away from what surely was danger to him, he turned, faced the crowd and walked through them- showing another way. Throughout the gospels Jesus’ life continues to be uncomfortable; he is constantly at odds with the Pharisees (religious leaders) and Sadducces (political and economic leaders). He chooses to interact with those on the margins of society – paralytics, those who are demon possessed, children, the unclean, a woman who has committed adultery, a Samaritan woman at a well, AND those who are very different from him: tax collectors like Zacchaeus and Roman officers. Jesus’ entire life and ministry is a story of uncomfortable situations and positions where every single time Jesus leans in to discomfort, regardless of the laws or norms of society. I hope in your time here at EMS, you have been convinced to do the same.
So, if my wish for you is a life of constant interaction with the uncomfortable, what tools or hope can I give you along your journey? There are two key elements to living this uncomfortable life in a manner that is sustainable: community and resilience. I hope that you have experienced and interacted with both these elements in your time at EMS. One of our great strengths here is community and I hope you all have experienced community here in ways that have helped you grow, develop, and feel supported. Community is key to resilience, hope and change. Even God in human form, Jesus, needed a community to sustain his work in this world. Jesus didn’t travel or teach alone, he had 12 disciples and dozens of others who walked with him (including a number of women, which was somewhat taboo at the time). Jesus leaned on these people when he often had to lean in to the difficult issues in society. Having a community to support you in doing this in today’s world is just as important. There are many communities for you to join and lean on, and to offer support. I encourage you to find a faith community, whether in a formal church setting or in informal devotional or faith formation groups. You also can use your immediate and extended family systems, clubs, friend groups, and others to create community- and I encourage each of you to do so because those communities will support and push you in difficult times.
Also, resilience is key. Very few worthwhile things in this life are easy. As human beings we will always be imperfect and we will fail, sometimes more than we succeed. But what is important is being resilient in failure and through difficult times. One disservice that I feel the American education system often promotes is the idea that you need to get things right the first time. We feel like we should always know the answer, or be able to succeed on our first try, we always need to get that A. And that mindset is really not beneficial to real life. You will fail and fail again, but those failures and how you react to them, will determine the growth and change you are able to affect. I was not born a great teacher, I have characteristics that lend to my having success in teaching but it has been a long, hard worthwhile journey to arrive where I am today- an imperfect but fulfilled educator. I have failed or missed the mark many times, as I am sure you have seen, but I have been resilient, been supported by a community, and used my frustration and failure to affect positive change.
And you have more than just me as an example. Each teacher, administrator and student out here has been resilient in these last two months. We all had to move to a totally new environment where very few had already experienced success, but we adapted, persevered, and were resilient and we have benefited from it. In Government class you got the opportunity to learn constitutional law from Jeffrey Rosen, President and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and quote “the nation’s most widely read and influential legal commentator.” Because of the coronavirus you also got to hear, for the first time in history, a live broadcast of Supreme Court oral arguments. It is true that you lost other things but think of all the positives you have gained from being resilient. I also see resilience in your fellow students. Ethan is a great example, he came to EMS this year for his senior year was to be a member of the EMS Basketball team. Unfortunately for Ethan, before the season even began, he suffered injuries that kept him from playing basketball. However, Ethan was resilient, he continued to be a part of the basketball community, even from the bench, and he became an important and valued member of our entire school community. Ethan, I am sure it was difficult for you and I am sure you let your frustration show at various points but I never personally saw that. All I saw was a resilient student who made the best of what was surely an uncomfortable situation. When I hear “Flames Strong” I often think of you. And Ethan is not the only one, there are many of you who have been resilient through great hardship.
The anthem of this pandemic period has been the song “Rise Up” by Andra Day and its lyrics dovetail perfectly with what I am telling you in this speech about being uncomfortable and yet resilient using community support. These lyrics remind me of the fighter that I know is present in each and every one of you and we, at EMS, have been blessed to be your community support for these last years.
“You’re broken down and tired
Of living life on a merry go round
And you can’t find the fighter
But I see it in you so we gonna walk it out
And move mountains
And you’ll rise up
You’ll rise like the day
You’ll rise up
You’ll rise unafraid
You’ll rise up
And you’ll do it a thousand times again”
I hope when you hear this song in the future you remember my challenge to walk through all those difficult places and issues and be resilient, even if it takes a thousand times to get it right.
I love each and every one of you and we, as a faculty and staff, hope you know that you will always have a home and supportive community here at EMS. I also have great hope for each and every one of you as you go out into the broader world and live the uncomfortable but meaningful life of a person who is willing to lean in and change the world in little and big ways. May you, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt “do the thing you think you cannot do” and in the words of the Old Testament prophet Micah, “Do justice, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly with your God”. Amen and Blessings!