+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A group of schools in poor communities across the country states that its goal is to teach 49 percent academics and 51 percent character. The fundamental idea is that while academic learning can be fun, exhilarating, and gratifying, it is also difficult, exhausting, sometimes daunting, and even discouraging. To be able to overcome barriers to academic learning, character is at least as important as intellect.
Students at this group of schools not only get a GPA – a grade point average, but also a CPA – a character point average. The character report card evaluates qualities like enthusiasm, integrity, perseverance, self-control, optimism, gratitude, curiosity.
When I first heard about character point averages, I wondered if churches should give CPAs. Spiritual growth surely overlaps with character development. Churches should help our hearts and souls grow and expand, helping us become stronger, healthier, more Christ-like. CPA might allow us be more aware of our progress, to chart how we’ve evolved.
It may be difficult to measure that transformation. Possibly CPA is trying to measure what is beyond our ability to measure with much precision. But CPA might add accountability. If a parish is not helping its people grow, the character of its people transforming, it’s not doing its business. The main point of CPA is that it directs attention to a top priority: what our souls are becoming. The path to the good life – a life not only of happiness but of purpose, of meaning, of value – comes from cultivating character.
A middle school reading teacher at one of these schools with character report cards discovered a student chewing gum in her class. The student denied it: “No, I’m not [chewing gum]. I’m chewing my tongue.” The teacher replied, “O.K. fine.” Then later in the class, the teacher again saw the girl chewing gum and said, “You’re chewing gum! I see you.” She said, “No, I’m not, see?” and she moved the gum over in her mouth in an obvious way. The whole class saw what she was doing.
The teacher said that a few years ago, before the school began putting such emphasis on character, that she would have blown her top and screamed. But this time, the teacher said to the girl, “Gosh, not only were you chewing gum, which is kind of minor, but you lied to me twice. That’s a real disappointment. What does that say about your character?” This devastated the student.
The student had often struggled with her own behavior, and in that moment the teacher worried that in the middle of class the student would have a mini-meltdown – what the school calls a “baby attack.” But instead of a baby attack, the girl spit out her gum and sat through the rest of class. After class, she approached her teacher with tears in her eyes. The two had a long conversation. The student said, “I’m trying so hard to just grow up. But nothing ever changes!” And the teacher replied, “Do you know what does change? You didn’t have a baby attack in front of the other kids, and two weeks ago, you would have.”
This student’s moment of failure, lying – moral failure and embarrassment in front of her class, was also a moment of rising up, becoming a new person. She experienced real pain and shame, but it became movement to a new and better life. Trying so hard to just grow up, she held herself together in that horrible moment.
Her story highlights the value of failure, that in uncomfortable moments, when we mess up, that’s where real learning can happen. Some educators argue that we have over-indulged students, protected them from failure, and what kids need more than anything is a little hardship, challenge, deprivation that they can overcome. If that’s true for kids, it’s also true for adults. Our failures, our challenges, our hurts can lead to learning and growth, to fuller, stronger life.
A school administrator said, “It’s middle school, the worst years of their lives. But the kids who make it are the ones who can tell themselves: ‘I can rise above this little situation. I’m O.K. Tomorrow is a new day.’” It’s the ability to see the moment in a larger context. Again, that’s also true for adults. By learning to fail, accepting it and growing from it, we’re more likely to experience happiness and meaning.
Often we don’t try new things, or see things in new ways, or take new adventures because we fear failure. Failure is frightening. Failure is a death-like experience. Failure seems like non-existence. Have you thought about your experiences of failure? What they’re about? I fear that I won’t be appreciated, I won’t be important, I won’t be good enough. The girl chewing gum no doubt feared whether her friends would still respect her or trust her or want to be with her. She had to be worried whether they’d ignore her or avoid her or look down on her or, worst of all, pity her. When we fail, we often feel like we don’t belong, that we’ll be rejected and alone, and that’s like death.
But here’s the good news: death is part of life. I say that at every funeral: death is part of life. The cross, what we celebrate today, shows us that in Jesus, in God, death leads to new life. The cross is where humanity did all it could to shame and dishonor God, but it became the moment when his glory and honor was most visible.
Crucifixion was a vile means of execution, intended not merely to cause excruciating pain, but even more to humiliate and shame: the victim naked, spit upon, often soiled with his own excrement, mocked, insulted, mutilated. And yet this morning we’ll sing “Lift high the cross.” According to John, the cross is the moment of Jesus’ exaltation and glory. Jesus is lifted up on the cross and lifted up to resurrection. For John, it’s the same, the same action, the same event. The cross and resurrection are one.
We honor the cross because it shows us the way to live, that dying and rising are one. It’s the larger context for all of existence, the motif, the pattern of life and growth. We experience it in the seasons of autumnal dying and winter death followed by spring birth and summer growth, and then the cycle starting again, and if we sliced open a tree, we’d see it recorded in the growth rings which witnessing to the life and light experienced after the challenge of a dark winter. If we sliced open the human heart, we want to find those growth rings.
The cross, the fundamental Christian symbol, shows us Jesus dying and rising. This is the way of life, the way of transformation. Jesus is the incarnation of this way, the enfleshment, the embodiment of dying and rising, that this is the way to God. When we’re baptized, we enter into God’s life by dying in the baptismal waters and rising to new life. Jesus repeatedly invites us to take up our cross and follow him, to accept some danger and risk and thereby experience a fuller, richer life.
On Friday morning, I went to a prayer breakfast at All Souls’ Episcopal Church up Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park. September is recovery awareness month, and the DC Recovery Community Alliance sponsored the event to direct attention to supporting folks in recovery and reclaiming lives lost to drugs and alcohol. Joe Clark, an Episcopal priest, a retired rector, gave a talk pointing out that after cancer, alcoholism kills more Americans than anything else. He joked darkly about the biggest difference between someone battling breast cancer and alcoholism is that the person fighting breast cancer is put on the prayer list.
I heard the cross in his remarks. He said that the beginning of hope is when we bottom out. Hope begins when we accept a kind of death, let go of our pride, and glimpse that a new life may be had.
Joe talked about baseball, how it’s a game about failure. The greatest stars of the game only get a hit one out of three times. Baseball, he said, expects errors. Errors are part of the game just as they are part of life, a normal part of the human experience, part of the truth of us, because all human beings are broken. The good news is that in the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, brokenness, errors, failure leads to new life.
X In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Mike Feinberg, co-founder of KIPP, speaking about the goals of KIPP teachers.
 Paul Tough, “What If the Secret to Success Is Failure?,” The New York Times, September 18, 2011. The point made here by Angela Duckworth.
 Tough quoting Tom Brunzell, dean of students at KIPP Infinity.