"The test of a good teacher is not how many questions he or she can ask the pupils that they will answer readily, but how many questions he or she inspires them to ask the teacher which he or she finds it hard to answer"
Alice Wellington Rollins
There is a wonderful link between the two passages that were read this morning. They are both illustrative of a particular kind of learning. Most often we associate learning with schooling, as shown in the often quoted Mark Twain statement, "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." I was sent to school at the age of four because my mother had two other children at home and the school was the most convenient baby-sitter available. And as difficult as it was for me going to school at such a young age, I did learn. First the alphabet and then a few numbers. I also have a vague recollection of recognising my name among the names of other students and being very pleased with that. And so my schooling began and continued for many years, as it has for most gathered here today.
It is a sad commentary on the methods and practices used in schools that so many students find learning a chore and are pleased to finish their formal education so that they can get out into the real world and not worry about having to continually learn all this new stuff. However, we all know that in most workplaces today education doesnt stop with the completion of a degree or a certificate or every week-long training session. There is ongoing professional development and continuing education that lasts for most of ones working life.
But what I am interested in this morning is really another type of learning. Its the kind of learning and knowing that is alluded to in both readings, in the second letter to the church at Corinth and in Marks narrative. It is the learning that comes through living and the experience of life and is about the heart of learning.
Someone once said you can have sixty years of life and experience and be a wise person, or you can have one year repeated sixty times and be filled with opinion and prejudice. But this morning I want to go even further than our experiences of life. The best learning is that which comes into our lives and changes us. It reshapes our inner landscape and at its deepest level is beyond even the intellectual and the cognitive. I know the rationalists and the cognitive scientists dont like that. They dont like the idea that there is something beyond our thinking capacities. And yet it seems obvious to me that so often we dont choose the life we live, rather life seems to choose us through the myriad of encounters that flow like a river through our daily existence. And at its most profound level we see that life-changing experience in the life of the Apostle Paul, in this passage to the Corinthian community.
Paul the Mystic
There is a beautiful sense of poetry in the words of the author of this letter to the Corinthian believers:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know, only God knows. And I know that this man was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.
Most commentators believe that this is the Apostle Paul referring to his own experience, albeit with some degree of humility. He is describing a religious experience, a vision perhaps, an encounter that will change his way of being in the world. And this will give him a new way of living and learning about life. These kinds of experience - and they dont have to be as profound as it is expressed here - can often lead to what some have called a "life of unlearning", a re-evaluating of much of what we learned in the first part of life. Mark Twain again is quoted as saying:
When I was ten, I thought my parents knew everything. When I became twenty, I was convinced they knew nothing. Then, at thirty, I realised I was right when I was ten.
Of course we dont really know what this experience of the Apostle was like. If in fact it was mystical, then it was not transferable into common language or linguistic formulas. But it somehow goes to the heart of what religion and religious learning are all about.
Jesus the Sage
It is popular in some theological circles today to refer to Jesus of Nazareth as a sage; one who drew his inspiration from the wisdom tradition. And there is no doubt some truth in that. His encounters, particularly with the rabbinical and pharisaic traditions, often left the person wondering, or questioning the meaning of what he had said. In the passage read earlier, the hearers of Jesus sermon in the synagogue asked:
"Where did this man get these things? Whats this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isnt this the carpenter? Isnt this Marys son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Arent his sisters here with us?" And they took offence at him.
It was difficult for the synagogue congregation to reconcile this apparent inspired wisdom with his very ordinary origins. They had watched him grow up. They still saw him as the child of the local carpenter who played with their children. Of course thats not an uncommon response, particularly if the person is saying things that challenge you. On the other hand I wonder, if he had gone off to the local Rabbi School and came home with a certificate you could frame and put on the wall, perhaps then it would have been a "local boy makes good" story.
But the fact is that not many of his townsfolk embraced his message and his teaching. They certainly were intrigued by his approach to the religious life, but they were perplexed and finally offended by it. Why? Probably because it was a radical reinterpretation of the religious life that they had inherited. And for them it was not good orthodox beliefs, theology or practices. No job for Jesus at the Theological College of Capernaum or the Central Synagogue in Nazareth.
Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honour, except in his own town, among his own relatives".
All the best teachers can have a bad day. Well of course it is much more than that.
The Best Learning Changes your Heart
What was it that they didnt like about Jesus sermon? The truth is we dont know. Which preachers love, because we can speculate and even elaborate on the text. Im going to suggest that the problem these synagogue parishioners had with Jesus preaching was what I suggested at the beginning of this sermon and that is that the best learning changes your heart.
Next weekend I am co-leading a retreat with Marg Loftus from the Wellspring Centre in Ashburton. The retreat is at Flinders and there are 12 people who will gather for the weekend and engage in what is called a Circle of Trust based on an approach developed by Parker Palmer, an American Quaker, to explore the inner life. The weekend is designed to engage each of the participants in a learning experience that is both communal - we share our reflections with each other - and also personal/individual, where solitude and silence can be the teacher. I suppose it is an education of the heart, not just the head, although everyone is expected to bring their head with them on the retreat. Palmer said this about how he saw the purpose of learning:
Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be [or who others think we ought to be]. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks; we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.
Now thats not just schooling nor is it just conforming to set beliefs and practices, although theres nothing wrong with good beliefs and practice. Its just that it is not the heart of learning. I would go as far as to say that this isnt just about religious faith or Christian learning. Even with the best professional education, doctor, lawyer, accountant, carpenter, cleaner, candlestick-maker, I am best motivated and energised when what is done comes from the heart, is authentic and has value for me and for others. I suppose thats the difference between a job and a vocation.
I think this can be illustrated by what happened to Nicodemus when he came to Jesus. He sought an answer and he got a question. He wanted a statement he could believe in and instead he got a way of life. He wanted a text or a passage of scripture and he got a mystery that would change his life.
What gave the apostle Paul the power to live life so fully was whatever he experienced in that encounter that lifted him out of the tradition that had nurtured him. It changed his heart and set him on a new path. What offended Jesus townsfolk was that same thing. Jesus called them to give up everything and to follow that same vision. As Issie sang this morning in that beautiful song from the Iona Community in Scotland, titled The Summons:
Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name
Lord, let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In your company, Ill go where your love and footsteps show.
Thus Ill move and live and grow in you and you in me.
Or in T.S. Eliots words, A condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything).