Begin With Goodness

Begin with goodness. This is something of a mantra I use at the start of something new—a new morning, a new school year, a new class or faculty meeting, a new encounter with a colleague, student or stranger. Begin with goodness

The idea is simple, but ideas by themselves are incomplete. To come alive and reach their fullness, Episcopal schools are centered in the conviction that ideas and ideals like goodness must take on flesh and become part of our everyday lives and practices. In the language of faith, goodness must become incarnational

One of my favorite things about the start of each school year in Episcopal schools is the opportunity to unabashedly celebrate goodness and inaugurate habits of goodness that the entire community can participate in. My celebration of goodness works in a three-part sequence—each emphasizing a different person of the Trinity—that begins in chapel, spreads throughout the school, and eventually works its way from the classroom into the homes of families. 

My goodness sequence begins with what I call ‘The Goodness Chapel.’ Emphasizing the actions of God the creator, during chapel each September I make sure to have a Goodness Chapel honoring Rosh Hashanah—the two-day celebration of the Jewish New Year that retells the Biblical stories of God’s creation of the world, its creatures, and Adam and Eve. Rosh Hashanah provides the early reminder that it is good to celebrate and appreciate the religious diversity of our communities, and it encourages us to have our school year begin where the Biblical story begins, which is especially fitting since Episcopal schools are a continuation of that story of original goodness.

After each act of creation, the Bible tells us that “God saw that it was good” (a refrain that the whole school is encouraged to enthusiastically repeat together during the Goodness Chapel). At three different points in the story God responds to what is seen by blessing it. The story underlines how goodness works on a circuit of recognition and response. Creating and recognizing goodness naturally elicits a good, often creative response. Just as God responds with a blessing, we can respond to the goodness of God and life in a variety of celebratory ways. The most common responses to goodness—and the easiest to integrate directly into the Goodness Chapel—include singing and worship, welcoming neighbors (not least of whom should be a local rabbi), sounding the shofar, making resolutions, eating apples and honey to celebrate a sweet new year (this can usually be coordinated with the dining staff), and, like God in the story, giving blessings.

Giving blessings leads to the second part of the goodness sequence, which I call ‘The Good Samaritan Chapel.’ Emphasizing Christ’s expansive understanding of what it means to love our neighbors, during this chapel I have students volunteer to act out Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan and I end by introducing new students and faculty to a school tradition I call ‘Good Samaritans of the Week.’ The tradition is straightforward: each week in chapel, with the consultation of teachers and administrators, I name at least one Good Samaritan—a student and/or adult within the school who has gone out of his or her way to show acts of kindness and compassion to neighbors without any expectation of recognition, reward, or praise. In chapels for the remainder of the year, the Good Samaritan of the Week stands and receives a blessing from everyone assembled in the chapel. All are invited to offer a blessing by raising a hand towards the Good Samaritan and saying the following blessing I wrote: 

O God, from whom all blessings flow,
bless these Good Samaritans we know.
By serving others we’re serving you,
so help us do what’s right and true.

It took me years to realize the explicit relationship between goodness and blessing, but in her superb book Opening Israel’s Scriptures, Ellen Davis spelled it out for me perfectly: “Blessing is fundamentally an act of acknowledging the essential goodness of the other’s being; it is a commitment of one’s will to the flourishing of the other.” The Good Samaritan Chapel and the weekly tradition of blessing the Good Samaritan of the Week have been some of the greatest sources of inspiration for recognizing and the spreading goodness beyond the chapel and throughout the school.

My goodness sequence concludes with what I call ‘The Goodness Project.’ Building on the Goodness Chapel’s emphasis on seeing and responding, and on the Good Samaritan Chapel’s emphasis on actions and blessing, the Goodness Project is ingrained within the religion curriculum. An alternative to traditional testing, at the end of the first unit of Biblical Studies students imagine themselves and the world as being connected in the Spirit of goodness. For their project, they must mirror key actions found in Genesis by practicing holy perception and documenting six instances (six days) of seeing and naming goodness in the world and in themselves. They create a slideshow of original photographs (seeing) with accompanying descriptions of the goodness they see in each image (naming). At least one of these photos must be of their natural environment; another must be a self-portrait that captures the goodness of the student him or herself; and another must be a photo of someone who’s been a ‘Good Samaritan’ in the student’s life. The Goodness Project concludes in practicing a sabbath, during which students share the slideshows of what they have seen and named with family, and they interview a family member about the goodness of life. This act of sharing and conversation is simultaneously an act of blessing, of acknowledging essential goodness. Over the years, I’ve learned that one of the greatest qualities of Episcopal schools is the ability to encourage meaningful conversations at school and at home about goodness, love, spirituality, and other things close to our hearts but less frequently on our lips.

I am sure there are many other ways to begin with goodness. But I offer this three-fold sequence of goodness to give some concrete expressions and examples of what celebrating goodness might look like at the start of this school year. If you remember anything, remember this: Begin with goodness!

The Rev. Timothy J.S. Seamans is an Episcopal priest, author, and Chaplain at the Cathedral School for Boys in San Francisco, CA.