Sunday, May 24, 2015
The Lasting Impression of the Spirit
The gospel today is part of the final goodbye of Jesus in John’s gospel. It is known as the farewell discourse. This is the last impression that the disciples have of Jesus before his death. Though he is soon to be leaving, he promises to be with the disciples in the Advocate, the Holy Spirit who comes in power in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles on this day of Pentecost.
Goodbyes are in the air, in scripture and in our common life. Today’s gospel is about the difficult and beautiful art of saying goodbye; of letting go and holding on all at the same time. In his goodbye to the disciples, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit. Jesus asks his followers, those who love him, to let go of him. In letting go of him physically, they will hold on to the Holy Spirit, the new experience of God that arrives on Pentecost. In the manifestation of the Spirit, Jesus will be with us until the end of the ages.
The art of the goodbye—the letting go and the holding on—is very much part of our experience right now. It is with us everyday, and there is a bittersweet element to the end of the year. There are forms of farewell that are coming to us, in ways both small and large, just about every day now. And there are big events coming with Tapping tomorrow and Rock Day for the class of 2016…oh, and don’t forget about Prom tonight. Even as new life comes to us, there is the anticipation of the end—what the scenes will look like, and, perhaps more importantly, what they will feel like when they finally come. The letting go and the holding on, the endings and the new beginnings, are mixed up together.
Our present right now is a time of active contemplation of the person, the student, the kind of friend you have been this year. It is also a time to remember the kind of person you want to become in the future. For seniors, now is the time to consider the last impression you would like to leave in the community. We are more used to thinking about first rather than last impressions. Our first impressions of a person or a place are not always accurate. But they can be corrected. They can become more accurate over time and experience of another person. But the last impression is harder to change, if not impossible. This is why saying goodbye is a difficult art, and also one of the most important things that we do in our lives.
Several years ago, I came across a small story about the big difference between a first and a last impression. It’s the story of Joshua Packwood who graduated as the valedictorian of Morehouse College, the famous all black college for men in Atlanta, Georgia. Packwood excelled as a student and as class president. He graduated with a perfect 4.0 GPA, and he was a finalist as a Rhodes Scholar. After college he was snatched up by Goldman Sachs where he began work as an investment banker. Packwood could have gone to Columbia, Stanford, or Yale. But instead he chose all back Morehouse, and he had no regrets. His future is brighter for going to the school where he thought he would learn the most, not the one that had the highest ranking in U.S. News and World Report, which isn’t a very good magazine by the way. Packwood’s last impression of Morehouse was as a valued member of the college community, and he had the complete respect of students and faculty alike. The last impression that Morehouse had of Packwood was as their class valedictorian and student speaker at their commencement ceremony.
What makes this story unusual is that Joshua Packwood is white.
As a high school senior, Packwood went to a largely black high school in Grandview, Missouri, and his grades and SAT scores attracted some of the finest colleges in the nation, including Morehouse. Morehouse called him on the phone a number of times, and they wanted to give him a full ride as a presidential scholar. After several phone calls, Packwood realized that the admissions people at Morehouse assumed he was black.
“Don’t let the white kids talk you down,” he was told on the phone. Packwood became intrigued.
“You know I’m white, right?”
There was silence on the other end of the line. This was not the first impression that either party expected. Instead of simply ending the conversation, a unique relationship began. Packwood made the decision to be the only white student at Morehouse College. Though there have been other white students in its long history, Packwood is the first to be the valedictorian. Packwood’s first impressions were mixed, and so were the first impressions of his fellow students. His black roommate, who was from a nearly all white school in Dallas, Texas, had chosen Morehouse to get the “black experience.” Instead he found himself rooming with the only white kid in the entire school. It wasn’t what he expected or wanted, and he was certainly disappointed. But they bonded, and a lasting friendship formed between them.
What impressed the Morehouse community about Packwood was that he always found a way to be himself. You know how hard it can be at Kent to always be yourself. Packwood adapted to a foreign community, but he was only able to do it by being himself—by maintaining his individuality. His peers wanted to know what he thought as a white person, in both academic and social circles, and Packwood provided his perspective honestly, with integrity. He chose to leave his own comfort zone, and his many friends at Morehouse left theirs as well to embrace him, to invite him into the inner circle of the school. He was the outsider who became part of a family. Morehouse students appreciated the way he never “acted black.” When students and his black professors asked him what he thought, he realized they did it because they really wanted to know. Packwood didn’t become something he wasn’t in order to fit in. He and the other Morehouse students did something far deeper. Joshua Packwood chose to be an outsider, and by being and finding his true self, he was changed for the better. It wasn’t easy at first, but the weird first impressions changed over time. He learned about how to live in the world with people who are different from him. Packwood didn’t choose the Ivy League for his college experience. In his mind, he chose something far better. He made the kind of impression on his college that will last for years to come, and he is proud to be a Morehouse man.
On this Pentecost Sunday, this is the kind of lasting impression the world needs right now.
This morning I invite all of you to consider the lasting impression that you would like to leave at Kent this year, especially if you are graduating. Whether you began your career at Kent as an insider or an outsider, you are now part of this place, and Kent is part of you. And it will always be part of you.
Saying goodbye is an open invitation to all of us to be the person we can be at our best.
With the last few weeks and days remaining in the year, the temptation before all of us is to just let the clock run out: to be safe in our familiar patterns and ruts; to hide our true selves until everyone is gone after Prize Day. I have no doubt that it will be far more satisfying to you to finish all of your classes with a strong effort, with a second wind of engagement and discipline—to finish through the tape, and not quit before the race is over.
But I am also a realist. I would simply ask you to be intentional in everything you do in the next two weeks. Even as you let go, I would ask you to hold on to what your teachers, parents, and friends have taught you about the kind of person you want to be. If you can’t be diligent, at least be faithful. If you can no longer turn on your mind, then turn on your heart. Seize the passing moments in their fullness, and open yourself to the beauty and love that is all around you. You can take risks to know and be known at your best.
Be intentional in the days to come. You will be rewarded for your diligence, your academic second wind, and the faithfulness of your heart, almost instantly. And that ancient God that Jesus knew inside himself can be discovered anew, in the time of the Holy Spirit; that we may be in him, and he in us, a love that cannot fade away because God is at the turning center. The memories we are making will blossom in the scenes to be born in our future; those small seeds are planted now. If you plant them well, with the best intention of your hearts, they will blossom in the future. They can grow into the largest of trees whose shade is sweet to others—whose branches stretch forward and upward always to the Spirit of God. May God bless all of you. May God bless this community in the lasting impression of our time together now.