The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Character isn’t something you’re born with. Personality….perhaps. But Character…no. We’re not just handed mental and moral qualities—these are developed in us over time and through experience. Henry David Thoreau put it this way: “You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge one for yourself.” St. Paul, in the epistle lesson for today, perceives a trajectory of the development of character in the religious life. Writing from prison prior to his death he states: “(for we know) that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” Paul knew whereof he wrote. He lived it.
I recently finished reading The Headmaster by John McPhee. It’s a biography of Frank Boyden. Boyden was 22 years old, and fresh from Amherst when he secured the position of Headmaster of Deerfield Academy. That’s a pretty impressive job title for a twenty-two year old—until you realize that Deerfield was on the verge of being shut down. One of the trustees related this less-than-inspiring evaluation of the situation: “It’s a tossup whether the academy needs a new headmaster or an undertaker.” Boyden took the job. After all…what did he have to lose? He would remain in the same position until his retirement—a whopping sixty-six years later.
Boyden was a remarkable success, building Deerfield into the distinguished academy that it is today. How did he manage it? In short, by concentrating on the whole student: he cared, not only about the academic development of the boys in his care, but also their social lives, their recreation and their religious obligations. So concerned was he about being connected to the students, that he placed his desk in the hallway of the school facing the front door. Imagine that. Every day—each day, he saw all of the boys, he paid attention to their demeanor, he learned what was going on in their lives, and was deeply committed to the outcome. And every day, each day, he held an Assembly with those same boys—so that all of them could be together as one community: upper classmen, lower classmen, and those in between. He wanted them to know they were important to each other as they formed the community of Deerfield Academy.
Among other things, Boyden stressed courtesy in athletics, believing athletic games could be a moral force—a novel idea in the early 1900’s. No matter how able a Deerfield player was or how close a game became, if that player showed anger—he was benched. If a basketball player said anything the least bit antagonistic to the man he was guarding—even something as mild as “go ahead and shoot”—boom—a substitute would go into the game. Winning wasn’t as important as good character.
What made Boyden so successful was his commitment to each boy in his care. He was “all in”—completely invested in their formation. Boyden was a success because he knew how to instill character.
Under his tenure, Deerfield had no printed rules and no set penalties. Astonishingly, in all his years as Headmaster, he expelled only 5 boys. He said: “For one foolish mistake, a boy should not have a stamp put on him that will be with him for the rest of his life.” He went on to say: “I could show you a list of rules from one school that is thirty pages long. There is no flexibility in a system like that. I’m willing to try a little longer than some of the other people do, provided there is nothing immoral. You can’t have a family of three children without having some problems, so you have problems if you have five hundred. If you make a lot of rules, they never hit the fellow you made them for.” Now, about those five who were booted: All possessed a common factor: the offender was unremorseful.
There is no doubt that Frank Boyden was a great headmaster. He is a model of what it means to be invested in character and community. But now I’d like you to think about this: God is completely invested in the formation of our characters as well. God is interested in the whole of your being: your spiritual life, certainly; but also your health, your mental well-being, the development of your ethical and moral center. God is invested in you. Take a moment and imagine that the office desk of the Almighty is sitting in the hallway of your home or place of work. Makes you sit up a little straighter, doesn’t it?
Character matters. We live in an era in which far too often educational institutions are seen as stepping stones to larger opportunities be it a “big name” college, a high paying job, a prestigious career. For too many people, the issue of “character” doesn’t factor into the equation at all. Perhaps we shouldn’t be scanning the horizon for the next opportunity—but examining the opportunity we’ve been given, right where we are. Because this moment—this time in the here and now, no matter your age or position in life, this moment and what you do with it matters. I don’t know about you—but I am convinced of this: character does matter: no matter who you are, what you do for a living, whatever your age and background might be—God sees to the heart, and is concerned about who you are becoming.
The gist of the Epistle lesson from Romans is this: As Christians—as followers of Christ, our aim isn’t an easy life, not even a happy life—but a purposeful life. A life of joy—whose true worth is rooted in our understanding of our relationship to God. The formation of us as human beings is one which takes place within the crucible of community: Church, school, home and work. What’s more, in the Trinitarian God whom we celebrate today, we have been given a fine model of what this means: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit, dwelling together as one. God understands community because God embodies community. And this church of St. Paul’s—this community of faith—well, we are a living example of the importance of spiritual community in the formation of our characters—individually and corporately.
What this means is this: if one person suffers, we all suffer—and through this we learn to endure. By enduring we find our characters matured and strengthened, and this gives us hope; and hope does not disappoint us because what we learn is that God’s love is ever with us. Resilience is one of the greatest gifts of the development of character. It comes through the experience of failure as well as the experience of empathy and develops into hope. We don’t learn resilience if everything is handed to us—we can’t. We learn resilience when things are challenging; and we get through, not simply as a result of our own merit, but through the grace and care of those around us. Resilience is most often learned in the context of community, one such as Deerfield, under the compassionate and interested direction of Frank Boyden; but it can just as easily happen in a church, a faith community such as St. Paul’s. Imagine a world in which our characters are formed by a loving, caring community, and you begin to get a picture of the hope that God exemplifies for us in the holy Trinity, and is calling us to become at St. Paul’s. In Jesus’ name. Amen.