What’s in a Name?

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Luke 22:31-32

In this short statement, Jesus is recorded as using Simon’s name no fewer than three times and what a difference that must have made to the impact of his words and to the relationship between them!

We have probably all had the experience in a crowded room with a hubbub of conversation all around us of someone somewhere mentioning our name and we hear it above everything else that is being said. Or we glance at a page of writing that happens to have our name somewhere in it and it leaps out at us. We seem to be tuned to the sound of our name or the sight of it in print.

Our names are special to us or, as a teacher once said to me, our names are like music to our ears. They are a kind of shorthand for all that we are as people. What we are is poured into our name. In Bible times and indeed up to fairly recently in the western world, parents gave attention to the meaning of the name that they chose for their children. They poured into the name all that they wanted the child to become. When God gave a new name and Abram became Abraham or Jacob became Israel, the new name showed what he saw them becoming.

The names of those we teach are like music to their ears. Learning their names, remembering them and using them is vital to the development of classroom relationships. Just observe their reactions when we get their names wrong or, worse still, when we call them by the name of that older brother or sister that we taught a few years ago! Knowing their names is not simply or even mainly important for the control that it gives us in the classroom – it is vital to the development of a community of learning, to the establishment of those bonds within which we learn and teach together.

Lord, called Jesus because you save people from their sins, forgive us our failures to remember and use the names of those we teach and help us to develop those classroom relationships that mould us together into a community of learning. Amen.

Getting it all together

“In him (Christ) all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17

If we look in our list of Facebook friends or email address books, we find names curiously juxtaposed by alphabetical order, people sitting side-by-side in our lists who know nothing of each other and who would have perhaps very little in common with one another if they were ever to meet in person. What holds together all these different people? It is the relatedness of each of them to us who have compiled the list in which their names appear that gives coherence to the whole.

Our children and young people move from lesson to lesson through the school day, from mathematics to art to history to language to physical education. It is very important that they learn to see the differentiated aspects of reality, that they learn to analyse. But where do they learn to see the whole as well as the parts, to synthesise the different curriculum subjects together into a larger whole? We have become fairly expert at thinking the world apart but when do we think it together again?

The Colossians passage from which the above quotation comes says that everything was made by Christ and for him and that, in him, everything holds together. It is the relatedness of everything to him as its Creator, Maintainer and Goal that gives coherence to the whole. This is not some mere god-of-the-gaps in our present scientific knowledge but the Lord of the Universe who is above and behind everything that is.

How can we help to show this in the classroom? Parker Palmer writes, “Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.”[1] We can look for opportunities to make links across the curriculum, to look at a topic from a range of subject perspectives, to relate to those we teach as whole people but, perhaps most importantly of all, we can show it by living lives that have a wholeness that comes from Christ.

Living Lord in whom all things hold together, help us to show this connectedness in our relationships, our teaching and our whole lives. Amen.

[1] Parker J Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), p. 11.

 

“This is my Father’s world”

“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” Psalm 24:1

“This is my Father’s world,

He shines in all that’s fair;

In the rustling grass I hear him pass;

He speaks to me everywhere.”

These lines are from a hymn penned by Maltbie Babcock in upstate New York over a century ago. It is said that when going out for a walk to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Niagara Escarpment area where he worked as a church minister, he would say to his wife, “I’m going out to see my Father’s world”.

We tend to associate such thoughts with the awesome beauty of the natural world but does not our Father’s world also include the world of human beings and their creations? City streets as much as rural pathways, factories and offices as much as hamlets and farms, suburban housing estates as much as mountain moorlands? Our Father ‘shines in all that’s fair’ wherever we find ourselves in his world.

Another hymn-writer, Fred Kaan, captures something of this in his ‘Sing We of the Modern City’:

“In the city full of people, world of speed and hectic days,
In the ever-changing setting of the latest trend and craze,
Christ is present, and among us; In the crowd we see Him stand.
In the bustle of the city, Jesus Christ is every man.”

Yes, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. This verse from Psalm 24 does not say that the earth was the Lord’s or that, some golden daybreak, the earth will be the Lord’s! It says that the earth is His.

And what of you and me in the classroom? We are not simply teaching curriculum subjects to our children and young people. We are opening windows on God’s wonderful world and looking through them with those whom we teach, drawing attention to this feature and that. Let us think to ourselves and help them to think to themselves, as Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong put it in those gravelly tones of his, “what a wonderful world!”. It is truly my Father’s world and he truly shines in all that’s fair!

Help us, Lord, to see both on mountain-top and in city-street that you are present and among us and help us to help those with whom we teach and learn to do so with us. Amen.

Minds and Hearts

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  Romans 12:2

It is one of the dilemmas of moral education that right thinking does not seem to lead automatically to right living. We may know what is the good and right thing to do but we may nevertheless do what is bad and wrong. Graphic films about the effects of smoking do not lead teenagers (or some of their teachers!) to kick the habit.

In Romans 7, Paul writes (and we all know the feeling, do we not?), “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” However in chapter 12, verse 2, he seems to be saying that all we need is a change of mind as he urges us to be transformed by having our minds renewed!

So, if we think rightly, we will do rightly – right? No, wrong! The problem here is that we read back into this verse a contemporary understanding of ‘mind’ as the reasoning part of our being, the rational rather than the emotional or wilful. This probably owes more to Greek philosophy than to the Judaeo-Christian scriptures.

The Old Testament speaks of the heart as being the core of the being and this usage is followed in the New Testament. (See Timothy Keller’s great blog on ‘The Revolutionary Christian Heart’.) The heart is therefore not just the centre or source of the emotions as in modern usage – it is the ‘I’ that feels and thinks and wills. And when the New Testament uses ‘mind’ as here in Romans 12, it is not marking it off as a separate compartment of the person, a rational part that doesn’t feel or will. The renewal that leads to transformation is therefore not simply a change of mind but a making anew of the whole person from the core of their being.

Our thoughts and our feelings, our longings and our willing, are all in it together. We are to love God with everything that we are – heart, soul, mind, strength – and not all of these appear in every version of the Great Commandment in Deuteronomy 6, Matthew 22 and Mark 12, thereby showing that our precise psychological distinctions cannot be read back into scripture.

Holy Lord, please go on changing me as a whole person so that those I teach may see that there is a way to be made new in our hearts and minds and all that we are. Amen.

Seeing through their eyes

“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Matthew 18:3

My mother would sometimes say in her seventies that she was still a little girl on the inside. Some of my teachers I could not imagine ever being young but others had that wonderful capacity to come alongside me and to see the world through my eyes as a child or young person.

One of my favourite photos of my wife Val shows her with a little girl in her arms and they are watching a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Both look with total fascination at what is happening before their eyes, little Mady seeing it for the very first time and Val seeing it as if for the first time as she draw’s Mady’s attention to details of the unfolding scene.

In our verse today, Jesus is calling us to change and become like little children so that we will enter God’s kingdom. Do we not as teachers also not need to regain something of that childlike freshness, wonder and trust if we are to see things in the Father’s world again as if for the first time and help others to truly see them for the first time?

Poet William Blake wrote, “To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, / And eternity in an hour.”[1]

Nor is this necessarily a matter of progression, it may also require change, an about-turn, a conversion, a conscious effort on our part to see things differently, to become like little children or the young people that we seek to teach. What once was wonderful and new can sadly have become to us so ordinary and familiar. If we change, we may find the holy in the humdrum, the miraculous in the mundane and, as they look with us, so also may our students.

God of wonders beyond our galaxy, the universe declares your majesty! Help me to see it with fresh eyes and to help others to do so too. Amen.

[1] William Blake, Auguries of Innocence.

 

Slow Food

“Let me understand the teaching of your precepts;
then I will meditate on your wonders.”
Psalm 119:27

In an age of ‘fast food’, we prepare food quickly and we eat it quickly. The Slow Food movement started in the 1980s when an Italian journalist asked why, if there was fast food, there was not also slow food.

A European teachers’ conference in which I am involved takes place annually in different countries across Europe. When we meet in France, we have to provide significantly more time in the programme for each meal because they take much longer than in most other countries to which we go. However, the feed-back (pardon the pun!) on such occasions always includes comments about how good it is to sit and take time as we eat together.

In our age of instant communication and sound-bites, we also have speeded-up education and bite-size curriculum materials. Can we provide an antidote to this with a little space somewhere to meditate on the wonders of God’s wonderful world?

Consistent with his Quaker Christian faith, Parker J Palmer challenges us to provide for and welcome moments of silence in the classroom. He says that a typical group can abide about fifteen seconds of silence before someone needs to break the tension by speaking. He continues, “The silences that interest me most are the ones that occur midstream in a discussion … Like most people, I am conditioned to interpret silence as a symptom of something gone wrong … But suppose that my students are neither dumb-founded nor dismissive but digging deep, … wise enough to know that this moment calls for thought … not wasting time but doing a more reflective form of learning”.[1]

In the words of poet William Henry Davies, popularised in an advertisement for Center Parcs, “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?”.

We teach our children to read as quickly as possible, even to skim-read, and that has its place. But if that becomes everything, they will always read for gist rather than substance and detail. The psalmist’s approach to reading is different for he says he wants to understand and meditate on God’s wonders.

Lord of time and space, help me to give my students time to read slowly and space to be silent and dig deep. Amen.

[1] Parker J Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), p. 82.

Thinkers and Doers

“Prepare your minds for action”  (1 Peter 1:13)

We often divide the world into thinkers and doers. There are those who reflect and there are those who get things done. We tend to assume there is little or no overlap between the two groups.

According to a saying of uncertain origin, [1]Thinkers think and doers do. But until the thinkers do and the doers think, progress will be just another word in the already overburdened vocabulary of the talkers who talk”.

The big fisherman, Peter, would seem to be in agreement with this. He was certainly a person of action and sometimes, it has to be said, this was without careful reflection. Think, for example, of the occasion in the Garden of Gethsemane when he drew a sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant (John 18:10). But here in this call to preparation of our minds for action, the older and wiser (and forgiven) Peter seems to be an advocate of reflective practice. Although elsewhere in his letters he seems to give himself a lower attainment score than Paul for thinking and that apparently without envy as he acknowledges that his ‘dear brother’ writes some things that are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16), he nevertheless calls us in this verse to be thoughtful and to relate our thinking to our doing.

In the classroom, I can so easily switch into auto-pilot mode because I’ve taught a topic so often through the years. But do I reflect on my practice before, during and/or after teaching the topic? Do I ask often enough not what is being taught in my classroom today but what is being learned? Do I think as well as do? Do I aim at developing young people who both think and do, who have both understanding and skills? Do I model thoughtful action in the classroom?

Great Teacher and Gracious Lord, help me to be a doer who thinks and a thinker who does, for the sake of those I seek to teach. Amen.

[1] Probably a variant of a quotation attributed to the 17th century French writer, François de La Rochefoucald: “Thinkers think and doers do. But until the thinkers do and the doers think, progress will be just another word in the already overburdened vocabulary by sense.”

Two Hallelujahs

A few months ago at a conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, I sat with about a hundred other Christian educators from across Europe and beyond. The speaker was Ken Badley, a good friend of mine from Canada, and, as he brought his presentation to a close, he talked briefly about two hallelujahs, juxtaposing two video extracts in a way that moved me deeply.

The first video featured a flash mob performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah by an Ontario choral society. The video was recorded in a shopping centre food court by hidden cameras and planned by a small company called Alphabet Photography as a thank you to their customers. Unsuspecting shoppers were startled as, one after another, singers rose to their feet and joined the hallelujahs. Surprise turned to delight on the faces of many as the performance moved through “And he shall reign forever and ever” to “King of kings and Lord of lords” and ended with the climax of the closing hallelujah. I wish I could have been there! If you haven’t seen the video (and even if, like me, you’ve watched and listened to it many times), you can do so by clicking here.

Ken then played an extract from a second video, a very different hallelujah. This featured the late Canadian singer and poet, Leonard Cohen, and the Hallelujah song that had taken him five years to write when he was going through dark times.

Rooted in his Jewish faith, Cohen moves from the failures of David and Samson to sing of the necessity of a song of praise in the face of pain or joy. “There’s a blaze of light in every word; / it doesn’t matter which you heard, / the holy, or the broken Hallelujah!” Holy or broken, there is still hallelujah! “And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

I wish I could have been there to hear him sing the song. The scene is dark, the singer wears black but hallelujah swells up out of agony. Again, if you haven’t seen the video (and even if, like me, you’ve also watched and listened to it many times), you can do so by clicking here.

I remember as a teenager learning a chorus that had the lines, “I’m living on the mountain, underneath a cloudless sky, / I’m drinking at the fountain that never shall run dry”. There are indeed times when the skies are blue and joy fills the heart, when “God’s glory is on tour in the skies, / God-craft on exhibit across the horizon” (Psalm 19:1, The Message), when everything within us swells with hallelujahs to the Lord of Song. “King of kings and Lord of lords. … Hallelujah!”

There are also times, many times, in the valleys of life when all around seems dark, when the wicked prosper in the world and the poor suffer, when family concerns weigh heavily, when personal failures seem ever present. These are times when we are “on a diet of tears—tears for breakfast, tears for supper” (Psalm 42:3, The Message) and we ask over and over again, “Why, O Lord?”. We are not alone in this for the agonised cry of the young Prince of Glory from the tree of Calvary also shouted “Why?” into the darkness. We read, “From noon to three, the whole earth was dark. Around mid-afternoon Jesus groaned out of the depths, crying loudly, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’” (Matthew 27:46, The Message)

The many psalms of lament and the example of Jesus himself permit us to question the Father, to cry out to him with frankness and tell him that we do not understand why things are as they are. This is not the same as grumbling about God for these things are said to him and not behind his back (as if anything could be behind his back!).

However, the psalms of lament characteristically go on to utter what Leonard Cohen calls a “broken hallelujah”. Hear that hallelujah as the psalmist continues to lament :

 “Sometimes I ask God, my rock-solid God,
‘Why did you let me down?
Why am I walking around in tears, …’

Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul?
Why are you crying the blues?
Fix my eyes on God—
soon I’ll be praising again.
He puts a smile on my face.
He’s my God.” (Psalm 42:9,11, The Message)

Thank you to Canada for the Ontario choral society and for Leonard Cohen and their two hallelujahs and thank you to Ken Badley for putting them side by side, the holy and the broken hallelujah.

 

Welcome!

“Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” Matthew 18:5

The Master Teacher doesn’t just talk in abstract terms about children, he calls a little child and has him stand among them as he teaches them. Welcome a little child like this ‘in my name’, he says, and you welcome me, yes me!

Many teachers stand by the door and greet each child as they enter the classroom. At secondary level, it may be more a matter of catching the eye of each student if possible so that they know they are more than names in a class list. One primary level teacher I once knew would get to school early in the morning to go round the classroom, pausing by each desk to pray for the child who would sit there through the day.

drmakhado

The African Christian educationalist, Samson Makhado, urges us to see ourselves as hosts and our students as honoured guests. He writes, “Students will seldom believe that they have anything to bring unless there is someone who will show their willingness to ‘receive’ them. Indeed, we discover our gifts in the eyes of the receiver.” [1] This reminds us that we need to detach ourselves from our need to control and impress and to allow ourselves to become recipients.

Hospitality is something taken for granted in the Bible and in this passage Jesus makes it very concrete in his injunction to welcome the child. The old-style pictures on the walls of Sunday schools and in children’s books generally used to portray the children who came to Jesus as being washed, brushed up and in their Sunday best. This child may well have been anything but that! He may have been smelly and have had a running nose, the child about whom we feel perhaps a tinge of inward relief when they are absent from school. Nevertheless Jesus says that, as his followers who call ourselves by his name, we are to welcome the child and all that he brings … and in doing so we welcome Somebody Else too!

Welcoming Teacher and Lord, help me to receive with a truly warm welcome my students and all that they bring to my classroom so that they may discover their gifts in my eyes. Amen.

[1] Samson B K Makhado & Dean Spalding: ‘Community and Hospitality in Multicultural Classrooms’ in Journal of Education & Christian Belief, Vol 5 No 2 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 135-144 (136).

Welcome to my new website for those who teach!

I am about to transfer everything from johnshortt.org to this new WordPress site.

I hope to blog fairly regularly and plan to begin with some writings adapted from a series I wrote for ‘Another Day’ on the website of the Stapleford Centre.

I hope you will find this new resource helpful.

John