Back to school with God


A personal reflection on this morning’s service by John Dempster

Tuesday coming is a significant day for many of us in Hilton – the schools go back after the summer – and lots of us in the community, children, young people, teachers, school support staff, parents, grandparents, are directly or indirectly involved. So it was very appropriate that the theme this morning was ‘Back to school with God’, as a reminder that whatever our school-related role is, firstly, that God goes with us and secondly that we go with the support and blessing of the whole church family.

The service was led by Elaine Watt and (from Scripture Union) Colin Carmichael, with lots of input from children and teenagers.  Colin reflected on the story of Nehemiah in the first part of the Bible – when he heard that his home city, Jerusalem was in ruins, he responded by praying, both in persistent prayers and in ‘short, sharp’ prayers. Colin encouraged us, if we’re feeling that we’re running out of words when we come to God to find some of the great prayers in the Bible – Nehemiah’s prayers for example, or the prayers of Jesus – and let their words guide us as we tell God what is on our hearts.

And the children gave us some examples of ‘short, sharp’ prayers – ‘Help me Lord to understand my sums; ‘I’m sorry, God for telling a lie’; ‘Help me to forgive my friend for being mean’; ‘Please help me, God, not to get angry’; ‘Please help me to concentrate and listen’; ’I’m nervous Lord, please keep me calm.’  

Many of us would have felt that the service had acknowledged and addressed our current situation and concerns and enabled us to enter the coming week with God-grounded confidence

When Duncan told us the theme at the very start of the service my immediate thought was that there are times when we need to go ‘back to school with God’. In fact, we are perpetually in God’s school, expect for those times when we jump over the school gate and play truant. For as God’s children we are never done with school. We are all learners – and we are teachers of one another. We all have sessions of individual tuition from God when we hear God’s whisper, and times when we learn together (in a church service or small group) and situations when we encourage and support one another on a one-to-one basis

And my next thought was of the need to be real, to be genuine. We know what the God we reach out to is like, for God’s character is as we see it in Jesus. There is much about God we do not, and cannot see, but we trust that all that is unknowable about God is consistent with what is seen in Jesus. Jesus is ­real.  If we are to teach and truly encourage others then we need to be real – not two-faced, but ready when it’s appropriate to be honest about who we are, and which point on the journey we have reached.

And at this point I thought of Robin Williams, who died tragically last week – a man who had helped the world to laugh, and yet knew deep inner sadness and despair. Many saw only the laughter, and the generosity of spirit which characterised the man. Few saw the pain. And there are many people in any community in deep pain.

Many of us do not show our true selves because we don’t know how our self-disclosure will be received, or we’re ashamed, or afraid of being real, or because we feel pressured to conform. But learning takes place – our learning, and the learning of others through us – when we are real with ourselves, and acknowledge our broken parts, and seek help disclosing as appropriate in a safe environment, and encourage others to seek help. As Christians we are learners and teachers together.

And I thought about something I learned last night when I saw it expressed in a way I hadn’t noticed before. I was re-reading a book called Falling upwards: a spirituality for the second part of life by Richard Rohr and something he said (something which hadn’t registered the first time I read the book) made sense.

We aim to be perfect, he says, we try to drive out every last bit of imperfection from our lives, and even though we try to deny the dark stuff in us we realise that we will never be perfect, and we despair. But ‘perfect’ has another meaning – that of completeness, or wholeness. When we realise (a) that as fallen human beings we will never be sinless in this life and (b) that we can come to God, and to one another as we are, not splitting off the dark stuff but acknowledging it humbly it’s then that we are whole, then that we are free, then that we are real.

That was my lesson for yesterday – and it’s when we are real that we teach and learn best.

Another thing has just come to mind. The service this morning reminded me of the warm, secure environment which school staff seek to create in schools. Last night, someone in our house was watching the very first Harry Potter film. It seemed so sweet and innocent – Harry and Hermione and Ron looked incredibly young – and though the Hogwarts environment was challenging, you were safe under the benign rule of Dumbledore. There’s something in me that yearns for that security, that knowledge that some great Dumbledore is ultimately in control.

A Christians, we believe that God is not a human invention, a great imaginary Head Teacher in the sky, a dream spun  to give us meaning in our pain, but the great Reality towards which all our hungerings for meaning point us.

That great Reality, the Reality seen in the face of Jesus goes with us this week us we go back to the routine – the school, but also the office, the difficult family situation, the struggle with poverty. God is with us, calling us to be real, to be perpetual learners and teachers, to be familiar both with the persistent prayer which is living in God’s presence, and the frequent ‘Help me…’ prayers.

When we drag out heels back to the school gate, it is open, and our great Dumbledore is standing in the playground watching out for us, severe, yet with a hint of a smile.

Here’s the prayer, by Peter Millar which Duncan used at the end of the service – I particularly love the ‘compassion-filled surprises’. Bring them on, Father God, bring them on!

It’s called Journey Blessing

May our journey ahead
Be blessed
With God’s
Often uncomfortable peace
Compassion-filled surprises,

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