Do Not Rely on Yourself

A Message by Chapel Prefect Henry Zhao ’18

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PC: Shay Benz ’19

Today is the first day of the second week of school, which is to say that today is day 8 of our new year at Stony Brook. For everyone in my class, this year will be our last; but for most of you, it will only be another stretch in what appears to be a strenuous and endless journey. I have heard the graduates last year say that time will fly by, and before you know it you will be standing in front of Memorial Hall, ready to march down Chapman Parkway one last time with your fellow classmates and the sound of bagpipes. But that day is still very far ahead. For now, Memorial Hall is simply disorienting with its redesigned classrooms and your new schedule, and today is just day 8 of school.

There are 271 days that await you from now until the end of this school year, 187 days if you don’t count public holidays and weekends. That is approximately 27 academic weeks and holiday breaks you will probably spend doing homework. Over these weeks, you will learn about the rise and fall of ancient near-Eastern empires with Mr. Smith; the rise and fall of titration curves and pH values with Mrs. Ball; and if you are taking AP Calculus, the taste of tears with Mr. Winston.

Your vision will be stretched far and presumptions about the world shaken and shattered, but only if you are willing to challenge and explore. Your academic career and even course of life, now poised to attain this many AP credits and participate in this many extracurriculars, will be recalibrated and redirected – but again, only if you are willing. Here one ventures beyond the confines of high school curriculum and knocks on the gates of true scholarship.

“Your vision will be stretched far and presumptions about the world shaken and shattered, but only if you are willing to challenge and explore.”

Then, the clock finally hits 3:15 and you breathe out a long sigh of relief, glad that the academic day is finally over. But wait, there’s more. If you are in cross country, Mr. Hickey will soon begin to casually ask you to run 5 miles, and you will be out of breath by mile 2, and you will catch a glimpse of Louis Wang running in front of you at the speed of those Chinese bullet trains, and you will want to quit. If you signed up for swimming, you will probably cramp like you’ve never cramped before. And if you signed up for volleyball, the coach is Mr. Winston again and I have no advice for you.

Then, sports are finally over, but boarders will drag our devastated bodies back to the dorms and into the showers. We get dressed properly in accordance with the dress code, and sit through dinner, often in uncomfortable silence. Then dinner is over. You return to the dorm and attempt your utter best at doing homework for the next two hours while your roommate’s music blasts through her headphones. At the end of the day, you will learn to pray with your brothers or sisters, “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Sometimes the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus; but sometimes, you will simply go to bed still anxious about a test or meet coming tomorrow. Such a day is for middle schoolers, such a day remains for seniors; such is the long-suffering fate of all Stony Brook students.
The Stony Brook School is an institution dedicated to the rigorous education of a new generation for Christ.

However, the rigor can be too arduous even for the most precocious and industrious of students. We do not have a lack of such students here: I have no doubt that all of us have tremendous precocity and capacity for good works. After all, the Scriptures say that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” So some 380 of us are gathered here, ready to study, practice, and challenge ourselves with all the talent and drive we can afford.

But I do have one worry from being in this school for the past three years, which is that we may be so overwhelmed by the ardor of good works that we forget or ignore the true foundation of this place, the Word of God which commands us to work and rest. Surely you have seen for yourself now that a day in Stony Brook is not easy. A week is even harder, not to mention “bonuses” like the Declamation or the PSAT, coming soon to a classroom near you. Generally speaking, there are two approaches one can take when met with all this stress and toil: he can forge himself by William Ernest Henley’s famous declaration,

“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

Or, he can take comfort in the gracefully written lyrics of “Y.M.C.A.”:

“Young man, are you listening to me? I said, young man, what do you want to be? I said, young man, you can make real your dreams! But you got to know this one thing: No man does it all by himself, I said, young man, put your pride on the shelf…”

Now, Mr. Brummeler will say that I just presented a false dilemma. I partially agree with him, because anyone can see that there are many merits to the first approach, an odyssey of self-discovery and self-improvement. It is an unwavering testament to the human will, whereby one tempers her internal strength by aiming at an impossible end, then by fortitude and an inexhaustible hope plod along the grueling and endless path until one day, after countless days of disappointment and lethargy and uncertainty, she suddenly finds herself… there, rejoicing in the delightful rewards of her hard labor. This approach manifests itself in all of us, although in different arenas. To some of us, that arena is the classrooms of Memorial and Gaebelein; to others, the courts of Field House and Swanson; to yet others, the workshop and backstage right here in Carson. The feature of Stony Brook is that it will put you to test in all these categories and another crucial one that I often forget: the arena of our minds and hearts, our character and virtue. Therefore, day by day you will wrestle in multiple arenas and struggle not to be overcome by these impossible ends, until one day, you suddenly find yourself in front of Memorial Hall, ready to march down Chapman Parkway for one last time. Then perhaps you will resonate with the words of St. Paul,

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

And who’s to say that this journey of self-fulfillment has not been fulfilling? You have accomplished so much and built a splendid monument for yourself. I think there is nothing wrong with that at all.

But before that, in the midst of this protracted journey – one day the world will seem to collapse. It can be the night before the Final Exams or the morning before a much-anticipated game. It can even be today. But that day will come. Maybe that day won’t strike this year or even during your Stony Brook years, but it will strike – and when you are the least on guard against the vagaries of life. That’s when one must choose: do I continue to make an idol out of myself or will I take refuge in the Word of God, the Word that is “my rock and my fortress and my deliverer”?

“…and when you are the least on guard against the vagaries of life. That’s when one must choose: do I continue to make an idol out of myself or will I take refuge in the Word of God?”

The Lord declares,

“For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I am the one who helps you.’”

In youthful vigor I pride myself on being independent and self-reliant. But God also says,

“Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.”

Eight centuries after these words were recorded in the Book of Isaiah, the Son of God speaks in infinite compassion,

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The Spirit of God, too, commands through St. Peter:

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”

I must confess that I don’t know if someone with more courage and resolve can overcome the crushing difficulties that seem to be an inevitable part of life. I can only say that I cannot. During periods of high spirituality I feel as if I’m on the top of the world, but they never last. Shakespeare’s character Polonius says, “To thine own self be true.” And if I’m honest with myself, sometimes the obstacle is just too daunting for me to surmount.

Over the past three years, there have been quite a few moments when I thought my world was going to collapse around me: in the dorm, on the field, during Mr. Winston’s calculus formula test. In these occasions, academic, relational, or spiritual, the anxiety and insecurity were the same before and after I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior: the challenges do not become easier when you are a Christian. In fact, if you claim to be a follower of Christ, heartily believe in sound doctrines, and still worship your grades, relationships, or some other idol – they will still crush you. An initial benefit of being a Christian is the fact that through this new lens called Christianity, you are enabled to see what is truly important and valuable, which is the love of God and other people.

But recognizing the new reality is one thing, and living it out is another and a much more difficult task. Christ Himself warns that

they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.”

No, the anxiety and insecurity do not diminish; I can only testify that in all these trials, a Christian’s heart may be afflicted in every way, but it will not be crushed; her mind may be perplexed, but it will not be driven to despair; she will be persecuted, but not forsaken; she will be struck down, but not destroyed – because she knows that the Lord God hears her cries and blesses her through these trials.

“Her mind may be perplexed, but it will not be driven to despair; she will be persecuted, but not forsaken; she will be struck down, but not destroyed.”

Therefore, my encouragement to all those who profess the Christian faith is the words with which St. Paul encouraged the Romans:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

For the rest of us who are still looking for something or someone to believe in, to have faith in, to rely upon – my encouragement is for you to include Christianity in the scope of your search and not to dismiss it on superficial grounds. The essence of the Christian truth is not only to know and be known, but equally fundamentally, to love and be loved. So I heard that one’s conversion is often not the direct result of intellectual conviction but a felt need for love and acceptance in times of distress.

“The essence of the Christian truth is not only to know and be known, but equally fundamentally, to love and be loved.”

But you do not need to wait until a time of distress: this place offers plenty of opportunities to explore the faith that moves 2.4 billion people to call each other brothers and sisters in Christ. Over the next 27 weeks you will be required to listen to plenty of sermons given by some very intelligent people who also have a lot of wisdom. Might as well be engaged in some of them, especially the ones that confront your worldview – the probability of all of them being completely ungrounded or false is fairly low. There are also the Christian Life programs of Driven and the optional chapel, and on behalf of the Christian Life Team I extend an invitation to all among you who would like to believe in a God of Love but finds her intellect or emotions in the way: “skeptics are welcome.”

For all of us, my fervent hope and prayer is that we will not rely solely on ourselves, but find a more stable foundation, one that does not change with age, shake with emotional fluctuations, or stress under unforeseen situations of hardship and pain. I truly believe that if one seeks such a foundation with an open mind and sincere heart, in the end she will find nothing but a Cross.

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