Fifteen years ago after being in Lexington for little more than a month I sat with the Washington & Lee family gathered in this spot to witness the inauguration of John Elrod as this university's 22nd President. That glorious occasion provided me the first of many opportunities to enjoy the beauty of this place and the people who are Washington & Lee.
Early 1996, I received a call from Burr Datz asking me to offer a prayer to begin one of the sessions of the Mock Convention that March. I agreed...though I wondered at the time if a Mock Convention called for a Mock Prayer. When the time came for me to stand before the convention and my knees were shaking, there was nothing mock about the prayer I offered.
My fondness for this university has grown year by year. In July of 2000 the sanctuary of the Lexington Presbyterian Church burned. We were out of our sanctuary until January 2003. The powers that be at Washington & Lee were quick to offer the use of Lee Chapel to the church on a regular or occasional basis. We chose to hold weekly worship in our Fellowship Hall...but were very grateful to be able to count on Lee Chapel as our second home for weddings.
This past winter I was surprised and sincerely honored when President Ruscio contacted me and asked if I would consider being the Baccalaureate speaker this year. As I stand here this morning, though, I wonder what I was thinking when I accepted his kind offer. I am humbled by this opportunity and know he is so well loved and respected by the Washington & Lee community that my words today will not jeopardize his job.
President Ruscio, Trustees, faculty, staff, friends...but most of all members of the Class of 2010 and your families...grace and peace to you all.
As you graduates leave this idyllic place you inherit a great many challenges that you don't need me to catalogue for you. One of those challenges that may not have occurred to you involves "paying attention"...noticing what is happening in you and around you...deciding to be whole persons, persons of integrity.
Your time on this campus has taught you a great many things about paying attention. You have learned skills here that have sharpened your ability to see...to see not simply what is there before you, not simply surface realities...but to see beneath and clear through to the heart of many things.
What you have learned here was meant to instill in you a life-long attitude or aptitude I will call "noticing." By this I mean a way of being in the world...a way of being a whole person...a way of approaching the world, not by using only ½ of your vision, but with the eyes of the mind and the eyes of the heart wide awake.
You become people of integrity when you find a balanced seeing. The word integrity comes from the same Latin root as integer - and conveys much the same sense - the sense of wholeness. A person of integrity, like a whole number, is a "whole" person, a person somehow undivided. The word implies not so much single-mindedness as completeness.
This definition of integrity is worth remembering because the word is used so randomly it has become a word with no substance...a word that is nearly meaningless. When, for example, the word is applied equally to Martin Luther King and to Bernie Madoff, it is hard to know what we are talking about.
What politician kicks off a campaign without promising to bring integrity to government. Funny how often that same politician slinks from office having been lambasted for lacking...integrity.
The boss introduces the new office manager by saying, "Bruce is a man of real integrity." But it doesn't take long before every employee know Bruce treats them like dirt, asks them to lie for him as he cheats on his wife, and on and on...
Some people say integrity is about consistency - about making up your mind and never changing it. I remember reading about a belligerent young man who once stormed at Mahatma Gandhi saying, "You have no integrity. Last week I heard you say one thing; today you are saying something entirely different. How can you justify such vacillation?" To which Gandhi replied, "It is quite simple. I have learned something since last week." Is there greater integrity in never changing one's mind...or in being open enough to be willing to admit one's mistakes and change one's mind?
J. C. Watts (strategist and former member of the US House of Representatives) says integrity is doing the right thing when nobody's looking. He says there are too many people who think the only thing that's right is to get by...and the only thing that's wrong is to get caught.
Stephen Carter is a Yale law professor and author of a number of books, including one entitled Civility and another entitled Integrity. Put one or both on your "to read soon" list. Carter spoke in Lee Chapel not so long ago and more recently at VMI. He says a person of integrity seeks to do three things:
My hope is that your legacy is such that your names will come to mind when faculty, administrators, and fellow students are asked to name people who personify wholeness, completeness, and integrity.
In her poem, Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barritt Browning wrote the following words:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush aflame with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round, and pluck blackberries.
She was talking about paying attention, wasn't she? She was talking about an attitude, an orientation, a disciplined way of seeing and being.
So how do you pull off this sort of "whole-sightedness?" I want to suggest part of the answer lies in making "noticing" a habit.
If you have spent any time traveling you may know what I mean when I say your senses take in everything - what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. It is as if every common bush is aflame with God. But when you return home the powers of observation seem to shut down.
When I moved back to Virginia I vowed that I would never take the beauty of this place for granted. And mostly I have kept that vow. When I ride my bicycle around Rockbridge County I do my best to pay attention...to delight in the sight of chicory growing along the highway, or the pleasing way the Maury River winds its way through Goshen Pass, or the haunting song of a Wood Thrush echoing from a deep forest.
I also do my best to pay attention to those things I would prefer not to see. I'm talking about the signs of poverty that exist not very far from this pristine campus...homes that have no plumbing, homes where children receive one very inadequate meal a day, homes that house extended families in too few rooms in an effort to keep homelessness at bay another day.
Whole-sightedness makes a habit of "noticing." Being whole people involves allowing ourselves to be shaped by what we notice. The physical beauty I observe from my bicycle fills me with delight...but it also leads me to care deeply about preserving that beauty. Paying attention to the beauty here in Rockbridge County leads me to do my best to be a careful steward of the environment. And the signs of poverty I see from my bicycle don't just fill me with sorrow. They lead me to take steps to address those physical and spiritual needs too many of my neighbors face every day.
Becoming whole people does not just happen. It takes effort. It takes the best that is in us. And it takes one another's support in the form of mutual accountability.
Samuel Wells, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, urges us to be careful and intentional about the habits we develop. To make his point he would have us consider the Battle of Waterloo - that final battle of the Napoleonic Wars in June of 1815 in which a coalition force of British, Prussian, and Dutch troops under the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon near the village of Waterloo, 8 miles south of Brussels, Belgium.
When asked to account for his victory, the Duke of Wellington famously said - "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton." He was saying that the success in battle was due to the long hours of character formation that took place at Eton, not far from Windsor Castle in England. To understand the success of the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, don't just study the Battle of Waterloo. Study what took place on the playing fields of Eton where the young men learned and relearned disciplines and skills put into practice at Waterloo.
Likewise, to understand what it means to be persons of integrity, don't simply look at a someone's behavior in any given situation. Study what went into making them that kind of person. Study the people they studied, the stories that helped to shape them, their daily habits.
I want to end this morning by reciting a Bible verse. These words come from Paul's letter to the Philippians. Paul writes...
Finally...whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things... (Phil. 4:8)
Paul was talking about paying attention, too, wasn't he - about making a habit of noticing. He was talking about wholeness, about noticing and honoring wholeness, and about how to move toward being whole people.
As you leave this wonderful university, plan to think about integrity. Read about integrity. Surround yourself with people who are people of integrity. Decide to be people of integrity...for if you do, you will be a blessing to this university, your family, the profession you choose, the community you choose to call home, and your God. And you will live in your own skin more peaceably.
Bless you as you take leave of this place. And may grace and peace attend you.