Remember the Mustard Seed: Vision Week Speech
The following was originally delivered by Derek Reed as a speech for the 2012 Vision Week Speech Competition. It won first place. In my four years here, I’ve grown accustomed to hearing the vision talked about at the macro level, with regard to issues like what the school as an institution will look like in 20 years or how we will accomplish our grand master plan for remaking American society. But the fact is, I graduate in three months, and before I figure any of that out, I need to know what the heck I’m supposed to do when I leave this place. So tonight, I’d like to focus on what it looks like for each of us to fulfill the King’s vision as individuals.
With that purpose in mind, I think there are two parts to it. The first is clear; the second is a bit more subtle. We’ll get to that later.
The first part of our vision is excellence. That’s why our curriculum is rigorous, and our professors don’t inflate grades. We don’t want things to be easy. We want to work hard. That’s why you find students taking 15 credit hours while juggling a part-time job, an internship and House leadership.
But why? What is it about excellence that attracts us and pushes us to do things that other people think are crazy? It’s because our vision puts emphasis on growth. We want to do the work it takes to develop into a certain kind of person. Listen to this passage from the school’s website:
The college aims to produce graduates who command the important intellectual traditions, who think lucidly about social and political issues, who write with force and flair, speak with eloquence and are eager to exchange ideas in open debate with those who espouse different views.
The website says this because at King’s, we want to be the kind of people who take the things we see or hear and think about them critically. When we hear a presidential speech, we want to recognize what traditions the president is calling forth, what values he’s advocating and how it all fits into the bigger picture of American political history. When we see a T.V. commercial, we want to understand what story it’s telling us and discern whether it’s worthy or true.
The vision of King’s is to teach people to be active in the world, not passive. That’s why Professor Jackson pushes us to love education for its own sake. When you love knowledge for itself, not for what it can get you, you don’t sit around and wait for it; you go out and get it. And your pursuit of it extends beyond the classroom. This is one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about King’s. It’s a place where it’s cool to read Dostoevsky for leisure, where students spend time after class debating the theological ramifications of birth control. While we’re in school here, we get to be nerds. And I love it.
But the vision doesn’t stop when we graduate. Our education prepares us to be excellent in the workforce, to think critically and creatively as problem solvers and to be faithful in our careers, because we genuinely love what we’re doing. If you’ve filled out a job application recently, you know how important this sustained sort of excellence is.
The industries we set our sights on at King’s are loaded with the world’s best talent—especially if they’re located in New York City. This place is a proving ground. People come here to test their skill and ambition against the toughest competition in the modern West. We study at King’s because there’s something about that challenge that excites us, and though I don’t think we’re at the point yet where we’re “beating the Ivys,” a phrase that gets thrown around here, our education does prepare us to work alongside them, to sit at the same table. For a school in its second decade, I think that’s pretty remarkable.
But if all we bring to the table is excellence, we won’t have given the world anything it doesn’t already have, and we’ll have missed out on the second, more subtle part of the King’s vision. Because, even though they have all of the talent and resources in the world, the industries we wish to inhabit are broken. Ask anyone who has worked in the city. Offices here are some of the most high-strung, cutthroat and gossip-filled places you’ll find. People jockey for position, hold grudges against one another and work hundred-hour weeks, sacrificing themselves to idols of wealth, pleasure, rivalry and self-image.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that these people are missing out on some part of human existence that should come naturally to them. In fact, this consuming self-centeredness is the trait that comes most naturally to us.
After all, there is nothing more vivid to me than my own thoughts and values; nothing more real to me than my own likes, dislikes and emotions. These things, all highly personal, form the lens through which each of us sees the world– the filter through which anything coming in from the outside must be fed. This is why, unless I’m careful, I will view every experience in my life like it’s part of a movie, in which I am the protagonist and everyone else plays supporting roles. Most people passively live their lives in this way, and this is the central problem of our modern existence.
But it’s precisely here that we can offer the world something it doesn’t have: love, selfless and pure. If we’re dazzled by the reality of God and his mercy, we can transcend the natural, selfish instinct and live in a way that stands out in our self-centered world. “Do nothing out of selfishness or vain conceit,” the scriptures say, “but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”
This second part of the vision isn’t made explicit in the college’s literature, but it’s every bit as important as the first. This is what Paul was trying to tell the Corinthians: "If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge […] but do not have love, I am nothing." I think we can say the same thing about the skills we value at King’s: If I write with force and flair, if I think lucidly about social and political issues, if I rise to the top of strategic institutions, but have not love, I am nothing.
If that sounds trite or ephemeral or idealistic, or if you think you already have it down, pause with me for a moment and look around this room. Chances are there’s at least one person here whom you resent, either because he or she has wronged you, does things you disapprove of or simply annoys the hell out of you. Maybe it’s that kid in your 9am class who clogs the discussion with the most banal and ridiculous questions you’ve ever heard. Maybe it’s the freshman sitting in the café who thinks it’s appropriate to blast music from her laptop while everyone else is trying to study. Maybe it’s the House of Reagan.
Please don’t think I’m trying to scold you or say you’ve failed at something that should come easy. I’m only trying to show how excruciatingly difficult it is to live a life of selfless love, day in and day out, in myriad un-sexy, little ways that don’t make headlines and don’t look exciting on admissions brochures. Because our default setting is self-centeredness, and it takes a staggering amount of work to get outside of ourselves and understand that each of the seven-billion people on this earth is every bit as real and sensitive as we are.
But this is how Jesus said it was done: "The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which was planted in the ground; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches." If we’re to follow Jesus’ lead, we can’t look first to seize positions of authority, or even “to change the world.” Above all else, we must content ourselves to be buried like mustard seeds, to lower our educated, excellent selves, just as God lowered himself to a criminal’s death. Our priority must not be leading or commanding or even changing the people in our industries; our priority must be to serve them as if they were more important than our egos, our ambitions and our greatest personal desires. Which, if we believe the Gospel, they are.
This is why, no matter what career path each of us chooses, no matter what we do in life, we’ll all hear the same words when this whole messy struggle is finished, and we stand before our Lord: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
The King’s vision, fulfilled, is no less than this: that our education would cause us to love sincerely whatever we choose as our careers and equip us to do them excellently and that we would take the all-consuming energy with which most people pursue self-gratification and turn it outward, daily, to serve the people around us. That this would become our habit of being. It’s the most difficult thing we’ll ever try to do, because it requires denying our most natural impulses, but if we’re looking to affect the world positively, we have no other option.
If, like me, you’re feeling burdened by what this requires, remember the mustard seed. We have to believe that the one who lowered himself to save us is also willing to aid us in our imitation of him. We have to believe that, even though our best efforts are small and insignificant, he makes them bear fruit that they have no business producing. We have to ask for his help, like St. Francis of Assisi did in his famous prayer, and I want to close tonight with those words.
Pray with me:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
Derek is a senior in the House of Reagan.
Watch Derek perform his speech here.