'Learning to Say Yes'

December 2, 2021
John Finley IV '92, MDiv '98.
John Finley IV '92, MDiv '98 / Photo: Barr Foundation

John Finley IV '92, MDiv '98, co-founder and Head of School, Epiphany School, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on December 2, 2021.


The Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes used to tell a story about the chaplain to the British Royal family, who apparently liked to say, "If there's one thing the Queen Mother and I detest, it's name droppers."

I however, am shamelessly proud to claim Peter as a dear friend and to say that morning prayers was a home for me when I was an undergraduate. I'm honored to be asked back, and I want to talk to you today about saying yes. One of the great dangers in life is that we become conservative, making compromises to protect ourselves from a life that might otherwise prove Hobbesian, nasty, brutish and short. Seeking safety, we hold back when we should say yes.

When I was a freshman, someone froze to death in Harvard Square. My friends and I heard this as a call, and our response became what is today the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. Years ago, Scott Seider wrote a book about the shelter entitled Where Harvard Meets the Homeless.

In the book, he demonstrates that among other things, the shelter has served generations of Harvard students as a sort of social justice entrepreneurship incubator. For me, work there led to a change in my trajectory, working now with economically disadvantaged children. For my friend, Katya Fels, it led to the creation first of On the Rise, an innovative program for women, and now the Full Frame Initiative.

Our friend Ellie Lee made a movie called Repetition Compulsion that launched her career as a filmmaker. Another friend went onto a career in development in the World Bank. More recently, it inspired Sam Greenberg and Sarah Rosenkrantz to start Y2Y, the shelter for homeless youth. So many lives impacted from saying yes.

Marge Piercy ends her poem, To be of Use, with the lines, "A pitcher cries for water to carry, and a person for work that is real." Each of us must have something real to do. Again and again, holy scripture, commends those who answer when called, who immediately drop their nets and dive right in, faithful people who live out the benediction, "May you love God so much that you love nothing else too much, and may you fear God so much that you fear nothing else."

Let me end with a story about a pious man who lived by a river. One day, the river started to flood. As the waters rose, a soldier drove up in a Jeep. "Hop in," he said. "I'll take you to safety." "No, said the man. I'm trusting in Jesus." The water continued to rise. Two neighbors paddled by in a canoe. "Come aboard," they said. "No," said the man. "I'm trusting in Jesus."

Still, the water rose, and a helicopter flew by and dropped a rope ladder. "Grab on," they yelled. "We'll take you to safety." "No," yelled the man. "I'm trusting in Jesus." When the man drowned, he went to heaven, and he was sopping wet, and he stormed into Jesus' office. "I trusted in you and look what happened to me." "My child," said Jesus, "I sent you a Jeep and a canoe and a helicopter. What more do you want?" Friends, here we are, what more could we want to say yes?

Let me conclude with a familiar prayer attributed to St. Francis.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me so love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy. Oh divine master, grant that I 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.

Now let us say together the prayer that Jesus taught: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be don on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.