The struggle of my life

I went through several changes before settling on the calling that would define my life. In high school, I fell in love with mathematics, at which I excelled, and so I determined to pursue that love in higher education. Two years in an Honors B.Sc. program went very well, but I hit the wall in year three. The nature of the discipline was very different, and I found myself struggling with academic work for the first time in my life. During that year, a friend challenged me: “Are you going to work with people or things?” Good question! Higher mathematics is perhaps the most “thingy” discipline anyone could imagine, far removed from the ordinary lives of almost everyone — including me at the time, truth be told.

I made a change: I would walk away from the world of mathematicians, and embrace the teaching profession, where I would be dealing with people. I got my B.Sc. (a general degree with double math. major), and then enrolled in teacher training. Much of what I had to endure in that one year needed for certification was ridiculous and ultimately useless, but I did well at it.

I had financed my year of teacher ed. with a bursary from my home school district. They gave me $1200 (a princely sum in 1969) for my year of training, in return for two years guaranteed service in their employ. If I left before the end of the two years, the whole bursary became repayable immediately.

The first while there went reasonably well, but I soon found that I really could not connect with most of my students. I had spent 5 years away from my home town, and it seemed to me to have changed dramatically in that time. What had actually happened was that I had changed: my politics had become firmly left-wing, I was deeply committed to the movement for peace, and I had found a reason for this in the Gospel as I had come to perceive it through my various connections at University.

Long story made short: the move back to my home town was a disaster. I had changed a great deal, but the town was still stuck in its historical dysfunction, and too many people remembered me from before. Added to the problem was my parents’ prominence in the community, which gave me more visibility than I wanted.

My time in the classroom had some real high points. I loved it when a student’s eyes lit up as they “got it!” On the other hand, I struggled with those students who just couldn’t get it. I was teaching Grade 9 math., with a curriculum of algebra and geometry that I found exciting. One of my students handed in an assignment which was so full of nonsense that I had to work hard to give him 15% on his work. What was wrong? I went to the office and pulled his file, and found that he had received a final grade of 40% in Grade 7 math., and 30% in Grade 8. Why was he in a Grade 9 class? Answer: he had been identified early on as headed for the “pre-vocational” program in our High School, and the Jr. High was simply moving him along.

I protested to the higher-ups, the Principal, Vice-Principal, and the Deputy Superintendent, and received the consistent answer: “You have a curriculum to teach. Teach it. Some will fail.” All I wanted was some remedial workbooks for this boy and others like him to use, so that they could succeed at something.

I got discouraged, and I began to lose control of my class. My avowedly peace-making ways became the laughing-stock of some of my students, who understood violence as the only way of settling differences. By the spring of my first year, I knew that this was a disaster, and I could not go on, even though I could not afford to leave before the end of my second year.

As things fell apart, I had several sessions with the V-P and the Deputy. At one point, one of them (I’m not sure which one) said, “Robin, your problem is that you are a very reasonable person, and you expect everyone else to be the same.”

Truer words were never spoken. It took quite a while for me to accept their truth, but I’ve been living with it ever since. I made sojourns back in the math. world, from which I eventually received a Master’s degree, and then into the world of government bureaucracy, where I learned a whole lot of important life skills. Finally, I changed course, entered seminary, was ordained, and spent 26 years in the service of the church.

Shortly before graduating from seminary, all prospective graduates had an interview with the college faculty. The basic question was “Are you ready and equipped to be ordained?” We agreed that I was, and then went on to a session of helpful observations from the faculty. I don’t remember what else they said, but one thing has stuck with me: “We have observed that you do not suffer fools gladly. We believe this may be a problem for you in your future ministry.” Their observations were based on aspects of life within the college community, but their assessment was correct.

The two assessments from school and seminary authorities were separated by almost 20 years. Both groups had seen the same thing in me, and as predicted I have struggled with them ever since, even seven years into retirement.

Life is a struggle at times, and sometimes the struggle is almost more than we can bear. Last Sunday’s lectionary reading from Genesis is perhaps the archetypical story of struggle in the Bible. Jacob struggles all night with “a man,” who is obliquely revealed to be God in person, and who ultimately blesses Jacob and gives him a new name — Israel.

Jacob learned and was changed by his struggle. I have had my own struggles, whether or not I have understood them at the time as struggles with God, and I hope I have learned from them.

We all struggle in our own way with people who do not see things as we do. For some of us (ME!) this can be a huge obstacle in life. May we all learn to live with others as they are and as we receive them.

Living in the Middle

Notes for a sermon preached at St. George’s, Edmonton on July 16, 2017
Texts: Gen 25:19-34; Ps 119:105-112; Rom 8:1-11; Matt 13:1-9, 18-23

Some years ago, I attended a workshop entitled “Unresolvable but Unavoidable Problems in Church Life” led by the Rev. Roy Oswald of the Alban Institute. The title was a pretty good hook, attracting about 200 clergy and lay people from more than 15 denominations. I have since read Roy Oswald’s book, which expands on the workshop’s content. If he’d used the book’s title for the event, I don’t think he would have drawn nearly as many. “Managing Polarities in Congregations” doesn’t have the same buzz, does it? It’s also quite opaque, unless you’re hep to modern management-speak. (What’s a polarity anyway?)

Polarity_Map cropped

I could quite happily spend a couple of hours or more dealing with this topic and how it applies to church life, but since you didn’t bring bag lunches, I will go straight to the bottom line. There are many situations and issues in life – church, personal, business, government – which are unresolvable because they hold two positive things in tension, which work against each other. We can’t resolve issues like this, but we can learn to live with them.

After attending this workshop, I began to look at life a bit differently. It has been said that if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In my case, finding polarity management very interesting, I started applying it everywhere. Sometimes it was even appropriate to do so!

Enough theory! Let’s look at the Scriptures. This is one of those Sundays when the prescribed lessons have no obvious linking theme. We heard a story of family conflict, an exhortation to “live in the Spirit,” and the best-known of Jesus’ agricultural parables. I suggest that there is something connecting them. Let’s look at them in turn:

First, Genesis, and the story of Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, or as the KJV puts it, “a mess of pottage.” This is quite a family: parents playing favourites, brothers competing for their parents’ approval, and with each other. Esau is a “manly man,” helping the family by hunting for food. His brother Jacob likes to hang out in the tent, helping his mother with the cooking. By traditional patriarchal standards, Esau should be preferred, but his sly brother tricks him into giving up his rights as elder son: this family’s story will continue through the younger brother. It’s not much of a model for family life. None of its members come off very well; all of them live somewhere on the edge of integrity. They live somewhere in the middle between the ordinary ways of the world and holy righteousness. Nonetheless, God’s chosen people will come from this family.

Second: From Romans, we hear Paul contrasting living according to the flesh with living in the Spirit. “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” He expands the contrast in Galatians:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.                                                                    Galatians 5:19-21a,22-23a

The choice seems clear: choose the Spirit over the flesh. However, Paul’s assertions that his readers are indeed “in the Spirit” seems to me to be more hopeful than factual. He is telling them what they should be, but surely the truth of most people’s lives is that we struggle with the competing pulls of flesh and Spirit, and live our lives somewhere in the middle, sometimes close to one side, sometimes to the other.

A note here: “flesh” doesn’t just mean things associated with sexual matters. Paul uses it as a generic term for the ways of the present age—the world in which we live. Living “in the flesh” is associating ourselves with things that ultimately do not bring life but death. In contrast, living in the Spirit is living according to the ways of the new age inaugurated through the Resurrection of our Lord. We may know well that this is how we are called to live, but as Paul said in the previous chapter (last Sunday’s lesson), it is all to easy to do the things we do not want, and not do the things we want. Our lives are lived in this ongoing tug-of-war between the ways of this world—the way things are—and the ways of the world to come—the way God wants them to be.

Finally, there’s the parable of the sower, which I have heard re-named “the wasteful farmer.” This man goes out and strews seed without apparent regard for the kind of soil at hand. Much of the seed is wasted, because the soil is beaten down, or rocky, or full of weeds. Only some soil is rich and fertile, bearing grain “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” Unlike for other parables, Jesus gives an explanation to his disciples. We can almost hear them saying “We’re the good soil! We will give the good harvest.” Maybe so, but I suspect that those disciples were rather more like most of us. Sometimes we are good soil, and we give a good harvest for the Gospel of Christ, but at other times, we are hampered by the lack of understanding, by the cares of the world, by failing to feed our passion for the Word. The various kinds of soil live within each of us, and thus we live in a constant state of being “between.”

We are both good soil and rocky soil.
We live both in the Spirit and in the flesh.
We live both as people called out by God, and as people experiencing the complications of ordinary life.

We live in the middle.

And yet…

Like Jacob’s troubled family, we are called to build God’s people.
Like the earliest disciples, we are called to be fertile soil for the Word of God.
Like the early saints in Rome, we are called to live into God’s new age, living according to God’s ways.

God knows that we live in the middle—and God still calls us, ready to use us in God’s great mission. God has a purpose for every one of us. May we strive to be aware of our calling, and may we be dedicated to following it, in this world into the next.

Amen.