Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Baccalaureate Class of 2007

Glenelg High School, Howard County, Maryland

I want to thank you for taking the time to be with one another, and for inviting me to spend a few minutes with you tonight. Truth be known, I should be sitting down out there and listening to you, because you are the future of this country and the world. In one sense, that is what tonight is all about – taking time to reflect on just how you will take your place in the future of the world.

Not long ago one of America’s great authors died – Kurt Vonnegut. You may have read one of his books by now. Maybe you never will. But few people know that one year back around 1980 or so he preached a sermon in an Episcopal Church in New York City – Saint Clements’.

You all have heard that much of my life revolves around music. I play the drums, the guitar, I write songs, I sing. I have been doing these things all of my life. So you will understand why I found what Vonnegut had to say really spoke to me.

He began by saying that the one good idea we have been given so far is to be merciful – which of course has everything to do with how we treat other people. Being merciful includes things like working for peace and justice for all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.

Vonnegut went on to say, “Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by – and then we will have two good ideas. What might that second good idea be? I don’t know. How could I know? I will make a wild guess that it will come from music somehow. I have often wondered what music is and why we love it so. It may be that music is that second good idea’s being born.”

It is hard to understand how I might love hearing Amy Winehouse singing “They tried to make me go to rehab but I say no, no, no…” nearly as much as I enjoy listening to the Mahler Ninth Symphony – but I do. Winehouse and Mahler take me to different places and open my mind to new and different truths. That is the mystery and power of music.

So rule number One as you move on to the next stage of your life is pay attention to music. Listen to it, play it, sing it, dance and move to it, relax to it. Let music move you to new and wonderful ways of looking at and living life. Music is definitely at the center of the life of the Spirit.

Here are a few other things to keep in mind as you head off to more school, a job, the military, or working the family farm or business.

1) You have been incredibly cared for and taken care of here at Glenelg High School, and in fact every step of the way from elementary school to this moment. You will learn to appreciate this later if you have not already, but you have experienced the best possible teachers, coaches, music and arts directors, administrators, and perhaps most importantly, the custodial, cafeteria and engineering staff. An entire team of people have worked literally day and night to get you ready for the next stage of your life as well as meet your most immediate needs of a clean building, warm food, heat, a functioning septic system (!), manicured fields of play, equipment that works and is reliable, a new music wing, computers that work (most of the time), etc. Add to that, of course, every minute of their waking and sometimes sleepless lives your parents have taken care of every conceivable need driving you places, letting you drive places, helping with your homework, cheering at games, coming to concerts, not to mention giving you, just giving you, food, clothing and shelter. So always remember wherever you go, You Have Been Cared For with Love.

2) Always remember to say “Please,” and “Thank You.” Nothing will get you further in life than good manners, asking for things in a polite way, and always remembering to say “Thank You.” Most of the world’s most Holy books, Torah, The Bible and the Koran are essentially about giving thanks for all we have been given and living life with an attitude of gratitude, an attitude of Thanksgiving. For practice in this you can begin with the above mentioned parents, custodial staff, teachers, coaches, administrators, classmates, etc. Take time over the next few days to say, “Thank you” to those who have made a difference in you life here.

3) Take some time each day to be quiet and still. Even if it is only five or ten minutes, you will come to appreciate it. Perhaps before your day begins, sit in silence, breathe quietly, listen to the sound of your own breath. Feel the presence of something bigger and beyond your self. Some people will call this prayer, others will call it meditation, let’s just say it is a quiet time to reflect and to collect or recollect oneself. A time to be aware of who you are, with no one else and no other ideas, thoughts, appointments, assignments and any of the other background noises of life to get in the way. You are so precious. You are so essential to the life of this world. Be still and know that you are one with all creation: creator and created, subject and object, alpha and omega, yin and yang, one with the great Tao. It has always fascinated me that the same word in Hebrew that means Breath means Spirit. The same word in Greek that means Breath means Spirit. Spend time with the Spirit of life every day. Be still, breathe quietly, say and do nothing once or twice a day.

4) Don’t forget to vote. Democracy is a precious and valuable gift. It only works when you take the time to participate in the process. What you think matters. Your participation matters. This is one way in which you literally participate in history. Register, and vote: every two years at least you will have the opportunity. Don’t forget to vote.

5) Finally, I leave you with some wisdom from a rabbi who was a contemporary of Jesus. Rabbi Hillel once said: If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am for myself alone, who am I? And if not now, when?

Hillel was a wise soul. Although it can be said that the spiritual life is one that looks out for the needs of others, unless one takes care of one’s own needs, there is no self to care for others. You need to take care of yourself. No one else can do that for you. Rest when you need rest. Eat three good meals a day. Exercise is good for the mind as well as the body. Take care of yourself because no one else can take care of you. If I am not for myself, then who is for me?

But at the same time, in our culture it is all too easy to look out only for oneself. Be all that you can be. Buy all that you can buy. Consume all that you can consume. These are the messages our society delivers through advertising and peer pressure. The person who does not look out for the needs of others, especially the needs of the needy, is no person at all. There is a story told about a man who built more and more barns to hold all the stuff he collected, bought and gathered. After building very many barns and filling them all, he had a party. The problem was, he had spent so much time building barns and gathering things into the barns that he had no friends. So at the party he said to himself, “Self, we have certainly done a fine job!” A voice came to him saying, “Self? You are no self! Look at you all by yourself. You have all this stuff and no one with whom to share it. You have all this stuff, and tonight you shall die and what good will it all be? You are no self, but a fool.” If I am for myself alone, who am I?

And if not now, when? When will we grow up? When will be take care of ourselves? When will we look out for others? Oh, I’ll get around to it someday, we say. There will be time enough for that, we say. Later dude, we all say. When we take time each day to be still and quiet, we become aware of just how precious each day, each moment of each day, really is. If we know this, if we really really know this, it changes everything. It changes everything we do or say. It changes how we take care of our selves and relate to others. It changes who we are. It makes us into a self instead of a fool. If not now, when?

When I was your age, which I know must seem like a long time ago, I had a button on my jacket that said, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” That is what this day is about. That is, in the end, what every day is about. I have seen you and your classmates play football, lacrosse, basketball, soccer, volleyball, and field hockey. I have seen you sing songs, play instruments, paint paintings. I have seen you write essays, solve problems, do experiments, enter science fairs. I have seen all the wonderful and marvelous things you can do. I have seen how well you can do them. I have seen the spirit in which you are capable of doing it all. Know that this is just the beginning. Each one of you has a special and unique contribution to making this world a better place – you are an important part of this puzzle we call life.

So remember: Listen to music. Know that you are cared for and loved. Say please and thank you. Take time each day to be quiet and still. Don’t forget to vote. And remember, If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am for myself alone, who am I? If not now, when?

By the way, because of all the wonderful things you and your classmates have already done, teh world is already a much better and more beautiful place. I thank each and every one of you, and urge you to keep it up!
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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