This speech was delivered at Convocation by John Sitler, on August 17, 2021
“Happy are those who trust in the LORD,
who rely on the LORD.
They will be like trees planted by the streams
whose roots reach down to the water.
They won’t fear drought when it comes;
their leaves will remain green.
They won’t be stressed in the time of drought
or fail to bear fruit.”Jeremiah 17:7-8
Fear, stress, anxiety – many of us are feeling that way right now.
These are the first days of school, and there have been so many changes since the last time we were together, changes in our own personal lives and in this community. Especially for the new students and teachers and staff, this is an exciting time, but also one of fear and stress. Even for us veterans, those anxieties and insecurities can bubble up to the surface.
When invited some weeks ago to speak briefly this morning, I had envisioned us together in Hart Park, under the shade of those mighty decades-old trees, speaking about how we would gather again in that same sacred place in May for commencement, here at beginning imagining the fulfillment at the end. But here we are on at the football field. Yes, this is a sacred place too, but not in the same way. Not the same evocative symbolism. Not quite as much shade.
When invited to speak the hope is that I will say something about what it means to be at a school rooted in the Reformed Tradition. The Presbyterian Church is part of the larger family of churches known as Reformed (with a capital R). It goes back many centuries to a time that we call the Reformation when some Christians in Europe concluded that the Church (with a capital C) needed to change in some ways. We can hold to core principles, values and beliefs, but we need to accept that our world – our society, culture, technology, science – is always changing and transforming how we experience and make sense of the world. Thus for the Church to survive — to thrive — it needed to adapt, change, and reform. So that is the slogan or motto of Reformed Christianity: reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God. Maintain the core of what is sacred and true, and with those convictions always be open to change, transformation, and reformation.
So what does that mean for us here today on August 2021 on Tomlinson Field?
Remember that no matter your cultural heritage, where you come from, what you look like. or what your personal beliefs are, we are all part of something much larger than ourselves. You are here in a place with deep roots, roots that go back many generations. Any doubt or fear or stress — or joy or comfort or source of giggles — other have experienced those same feelings. Every day on this campus we walk on sacred ground where thousands have walked and run and played and laughed and cried. Ground where before us others have learned, prayed, been inspired and thrived. Our roots go deep into those waters.
Look at that magnificent tree standing proud in front of the gym. It has never missed a football game. It is not sustained by rainwater alone. Its roots go deep, down to the waters we do not see but sustain life season after season. And its leaves, like us, are nourished and sustained by those deep roots.
Jeremiah wrote his prophecy at a time when his people were uprooted and exiled – but he reminds them to remember their rootedness in God and in one another, in shared story and history, in a shared faith and trust and the hope that they would survive and thrive.
I understand some trees in Hart Park have blown over and had to be cut down. We can hear the buzz of the chainsaws in the distance. Most of the trees remain, but to us the Park won’t look the same. It feels sad for many of us. But when you next walk there, take note of the new trees that have been planted. Their roots are working their way down to the deep waters that sustained their elders for generations. And they will grow. In future years your children and grandchildren will come to marvel at their beauty and greatness.
So as we begin this new school year, don’t be deceived by the dryness and the dust at the surface of day to day routine. Remember the living waters deep below us. Remember those waters when drought comes. We here at Menaul School are part of something much larger than ourselves as individuals. We are connected, we are rooted. And not only will we survive. We will THRIVE. Thanks be to God!
– John Sitler, Menaul School Religious Studies