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Three Taps of the Gavel Address: ‘Camp Meeting Commences’

Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill addressed Chautauquans gathered for the season's final Sacred Song Service with the traditional Three Taps of the Gavel Address to close the 2019 Chautauqua Assembly on Sunday. His remarks as prepared for delivery, with light edits, are provided below. (Photo by Dave Munch, Chautauqua Institution multimedia producer)

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
—T.S. Eliot

Our organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, Jared Jacobsen, has dubbed this evening “Camp Meeting is Over” and The Chautauquan Daily headline reminded me that my job tonight is to declare that this is so. This final Sacred Song Service each summer season lends itself well to this narrative. The day’s sun has slipped beneath the horizon, hints of autumn can be felt in the air, and our beloved Amphitheater is far too empty. The Saturday crowds have left the grounds and a new group has not come to take up residence on “change over day.” And the likelihood that a gentle bark from one of our furry puppy Chautauquans will puncture the proceedings is far less than it was just a few nights ago.

“Camp Meeting Is Over”: Final Chautauqua Thoughts

The Chautauqua Choir and Congregation with President Michael Hill's Three Taps of the Gavel.

Posted by Chautauqua Institution on Sunday, August 25, 2019

This moment intentionally calls us to lean into the silence, to remember, to wonder — wonder what will await us after the echoing of three taps from a historic gavel that signals our assembly has come to a close for the 146th time on these sacred grounds, in this magnificent grove.

And it is indeed a precious honor to stand before you for a time-honored tradition that is among my favorites of each season. Keeping with Jared’s theme, we have come together around the last campfire of the season, the light of a single candle, to share our stories of a summer in community, to remember.

But I would like to consider a different framing for this gathering. Because this tradition also calls us to bring forward a special kind of goodness —enlightenment even — to the world outside of Chautauqua. Exploring the best in human values without “provocative, thoughtful involvement of individuals and families in creative response to such issues” only meets our mission halfway. That other half of our mission statement calls us to take the results of that exploration beyond this special place, and outside of these friendships we hold so dear, and to continue the exploration, to share all we’ve learned and experienced, and to bring these gifts to the challenges and needs of our other homes and communities.

And we have so much to take with us as we venture beyond the gates tonight. We take with us:

  • the wisdom of Rabbi Sharon Brous, who served as the first rabbi chaplain of the week in Chautauqua’s history;
  • the admonition from Hugh Hewitt that reactions to questions matter, and how we respond can be just as important as the question itself;
  • the evidence that communities can be the change we long for and that we have a role as change agents for good;
  • the splendor, talent and hope of our artists, who through canvases and sculpture, theater and opera, dance and movement, symphony and voice led us in conversations where words alone would not suffice;
  • a reminder that we have a role to play in “A Planet in Balance” and that sometimes what we most need is to commune with that planet on our lake, in a garden or on a joy-filled walk;
  • that the coveted free gate pass for those who turn 90 is likely to be redeemed by more and more of us as our science and community and faith help us to live longer on this planet;
  • that truly being challenged doesn’t always mean agreeing, and that disagreeing respectfully and fully and intentionally is exactly what the world needs right now. Reading letters to the editor in the Daily this year, or even more so those that came directly to my office, tells me that the same speaker, artist or preacher can be someone’s favorite and another person’s reason to question the sanity of my team. Here’s a little secret: that tells me we’re getting something right;
  • a reminder that laughter is sometimes truly the best medicine and is a common denominator that has the power to unify us;
  • an expanded notion of grace and a reminder that the world needs a lot more of it. And a shout out to my friend Jared, who plays us in, out, and throughout each week on this majestic instrument, the great Massey Organ. His final chords on a Sunday, those that make my bones vibrate, are sometimes the greatest reminder of God’s grace I feel;
  • Tarana Burke calling us to shift our culture in such a way that people understand that just because someone has power and privilege doesn’t mean they or we have to abuse it;
  • and so many lessons from our time with Wynton Marsalis, including the power of loving one’s elders and the wisdom to be found in the “Ever Fonky Lowdown.”

Chautauqua has given us so much to process and bring forward to a world in need of its goodness and its call to our better angels.

But tonight, as you recall, is titled “Camp Meeting Has Ended.” That rings with a finality to it, doesn’t it? If I might be so bold, Jared, I’d like to suggest a revision to that title. That revision speaks to that second part of our mission. Perhaps tonight we title our time “Camp Meeting Commences.” Because Chautauqua does not end today. Indeed, Chautauqua commences today. Now you might be thinking: “Is he actually going to tap the gavel?” “We can’t go home until he does, right?” Fear not: this is not just Michael Hill’s latest kooky idea.

The notion that Chautauqua commences comes from none other than Chautauqua’s co-founder, Bishop John Heyl Vincent. He concludes his book The Chautauqua Movement, written in 1886, with these very words:

“The real ‘Chautauqua’ is not dependent longer upon locality. The grove may be cut down, the buildings consumed by fire, the golden gate broken into fragments, the Hall of Philosophy remain only in memory, all visitors cease to tread the sacred paths of the old resort, and the Summer Meetings be forever abolished, — yet CHAUTAUQUA remains and must remain. The Chautauqua of ideas and inspirations is not dependent upon the literal and local Chautauqua. May they long remain united, and each minister to the strength and glory of the other!” (p. 252)

You see, we are supposed to do both. Come to this place and explore the best in human values AND continue that exploration when we leave this Summer Assembly.

Every Thursday this summer we shared an outline of our new strategic plan, titled 150 Forward. And, I wish to thank all who have joined us on Thursday afternoons as we unpacked the plan that this community helped us to create. In true Chautauqua style, you have raised important questions about the plan, and I hope we have offered helpful responses.

  • You encouraged us to pursue the right mix of challenge and support and to always seek to achieve that critical balance between heritage and innovation;
  • you demonstrated enthusiasm for our aspiration to live more fully beyond the season and off the grounds of Chautauqua as a means of bringing our mission to more people and to widen our circle of support;
  • you agreed that significantly enhanced philanthropy is not just a nice to have, but necessary for our long-term sustainability;
  • you championed the plan’s focus on optimizing the summer assembly season, conserving Chautauqua Lake, on inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility, an on leveraging technology to both build greater awareness of Chautauqua and to improve the on-grounds experience;
  • you applauded our aspiration to grow the number of programmatic and philanthropic partnerships and to strengthen existing partnerships, such as those that animated the 2019 summer assembly: National Geographic, the Stanford Center on Longevity, Erie Insurance, the National Comedy Center, and of course, the incomparable Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center; and
  • you reinforced our desire to invest more significantly in recruiting, retaining and developing our people — the servant leaders who serve both year-round and during the summer season at Chautauqua.

That plan and your responses speak to this notion of “commencement” tonight. I would argue that every one of the themes we explored this summer are topics that are impossible to adequately cover in five or six days. It leaves me wondering how we might continue the conversation we started this week through forums where we would engage with selected local communities, to unpack their unique challenges of race and culture, and to facilitate the conception of individualized community-based solutions, informed by the messages we curated and experienced this week in both in words and music.

As you read the pages of the new Chautauqua Magazine, you can also see many suggestions for continuing your exploration of each week’s topics through readings, by reviewing or watching for the first time the recorded lectures available at our online grounds. We want you to share that resource with everyone you know and continue to invite your family and friends to join in the discovery. What we learned here has the power to live on, and you are the distribution center!

But beyond that, imagine a Week Zero program next year, where we would cue up the forthcoming conversation on Climate Change Solutions with a pre-assembly film festival? Or, better yet, how about Chautauqua on the Sea — a cruise for solutions, where we further unpack our conversation with National Geographic on “A Planet in Balance?” How might ideas such as these and many others that have yet to germinate help us to bring Chautauqua to a broader audience and, thereby, create deeper and greater shared understanding and responsibility for intractable problems that have no regard for political ideology? (Both of these ideas are just that — ideas. So, please don’t leave here looking for the webpage where you can register for that cruise!)

Wynton Marsalis said at a gathering at the President’s Cottage this past week, when asked how he would describe Chautauqua, that Chautauqua is “a way of life and a perspective” and shared that we need Chautauqua’s perspective out in the world.

Just as John Heyl Vincent called Chautauquans nearly 150 years ago to more fully embrace our mission by unbinding ourselves from the “place,” at this commencement, I invite you to celebrate our intentions to unite this glorious summer assembly with the world outside of Chautauqua that is asking us to be more and do more in the world so that our work during the summer here on the grounds and our work outside of the season and off the grounds can minister to the strength and glory of the other.

Acknowledging that we will soon sing about commencing, of course, but also longing until we meet again, allow me to share two forms of prayer to close:

One of my very favorite moments each summer season is gathering with the children from Children’s School. Their delivery of what I have affectionately grown to call the “Children’s 95 Theses” always reminds me of the wisdom of our littlest ones. So in keeping with that thread, allow me to close with the wisdom of three children’s authors this evening:

"The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year — the days when summer is changing into autumn — the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change."
―E.B. White, Charlotte's Web

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
—A.A. Milne (Winnie-the-Pooh)

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
—attributed to Dr. Seuss

And in that longing and promise, a prayer from our Unitarian Universalist brothers and sisters:

“Spirit of life, we look within our own hearts, to the burning coal that is at the center of our being, the place where our hope for the world lives, the place where our faith in humanity resides and there we find the strength and courage to continue moving forward however muddy and rough the path may be.”

Until we meet again …

I tap the gavel three times.

Chautauqua 2019 both concludes and commences. 

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