Back to the Garden: lifelong learning

Text: Luke 10: 38-42 (Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha)

By the time the Woodstock Festival of Peace and Music occurred in upstate New York in August 1969, my friends and I were deeply immersed in the ferment of the ’60s. As 12-year-old’s in the industrial city of Cornwall Ontario, we had caught the bug of revolution as transmitted to us by Time Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Sunday school, and TV programs like Star Trek, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, and The Smothers Brothers comedy hour.

Unfortunately, this revolutionary ferment was not well-formed in our hearts and minds. We knew that nationalism was stirring next door in Quebec in a way that scared many; that long-haired young people in the US were protesting the horrors of the War in Vietnam; that the moon landing of July 1969 symbolized the incredible advancements in science and technology of the post-War period; and that traditional sources of authority in church, school, and government were crumbling in the face of rapid change.

Then in the 1969-70 school year that followed, we encountered a History teacher who made us sit in groups of four in which we discussed current issues. My group included my best friends Jimmy Owens and Rodney Robillard, and a fourth boy whose name I forget, but who, like me, was from a middle class family. The latter status made the two of us stand out in blue-collar Cornwall.

Our teacher came to label the four of us “The Hate Group!” He did so because we seemed to be against everything. We were against the monarchy because we thought it was past-time for Canada to break free of its British roots. We were against the Americans because we feared that Canada was just moving from one empire to another. We were against the War. And we were excited by the many movements of liberation springing up everywhere, but of which we only had a vague notion.

Our Hate Group struggled to figure out what was wrong with the world and what might cure the ills from which we suffered.

This changed for me one year after Woodstock in the summer of 1970. That summer, as we did most years, my family spent one month in a town that looked to my parents like one that would make a good vacation spot. Each summer, my father provided pulpit supply to a far-away United Church, which in turned allowed us to live in its manse.

In August 1970, we travelled farther than we ever had before — to The Pas in northern Manitoba. I appreciated a lot about that month – a rodeo that came to town, northern woods that gave way to farmland, hot weather that both delighted and oppressed us, and seeing the stark presence of First Nations poverty that was so evident on the streets of The Pas.

But the biggest impact of our month in The Pas came from a book that I found in the library of the manse – “How Children Learn” by John Holt. Published just three years earlier in 1967, this best-seller was a radical critique of school. It suggested that schools were designed less for learning than to teach children how to endure boredom and to prepare us for careers in industry.

With anecdotes from his own career as a teacher, Holt argued that children are inherently curious and will flourish if they are offered a rich environment in which they are free to follow their own desires. I was especially struck by Holt’s suggestion that the most difficult thing we ever master — learning to speak as infants — happens without any instruction whatsoever. Holt argued that if infants were instructed to speak in ways similar to how school instructed six-year-old’s to read, none of us would have ever learned how to talk!

There is much to criticize in Holt’s 1967 book, but I resonated strongly with it. I had always done well in school, but I was bored there; and most of what I learned, I learned through my own reading, TV watching, and exploring the city with friends.

When I read “How Children Learn,” I remembered an exchange in my Grade 3 class. One of our classmates complained about being punished for arriving late to school. What did it matter, he asked, if he came a bit late? The teacher admitted that it might not matter much now, but it was important for us to learn to arrive on time now so that when we found jobs in the industries that polluted Cornwall’s water and fouled its air, we would not be fired for tardiness.

She also assured me that I wouldn’t have to work in a factory. As a minister’s child, I was headed for university; and I was relieved to know that I was not one of those who needed to be regimented by the school’s clocks. But I also felt sad for the factory workers who spent their working lives in boredom and for their children who were being prepared for the same fate.

In the event, Cornwall’s industries began closing in the ’60s, starting with a linen factory in 1965 and culminating in the closure of the pulp and paper factory in 2006. But few in 1964 could foresee the de-industrialization of Canada that lay ahead.

In reading “How Children Learn,” I found a program of liberation. Life was for learning and learning was facilitated by freedom. In the 1970s Holt continued to radicalize – eventually joining with thinkers like the Jesuit priest Ivan Illich and his 1971 bestseller “Deschooling Society;” and I radicalized along with them. Schools produced ignorance, they argued. Transportation industries produced gridlock. Hospitals produced sickness. Food industries produced obesity. And so on.

These ideas are exaggerations, of course. But the impulse for liberation that first coalesced in my heart and mind when reading “How Children Learn” was crucial in later years, as when I entered university and got swept up in left-wing politics.

All of us struggle to stay sane in an a world made up of dysfunctional families and an economy that expands without limits; and unfortunately, the left is no exception. So, just as schools seemed often to produce ignorance, the left often seemed to produce authoritarianism. Or at least, that was my experience.

The path of freedom that Holt and Illich opened up in my high school years, has stayed with me. It helped me to extricate myself from left-wing politics when they became toxic. It helped me to persevere in figuring out what was broken within me in my 20s and 30s and to seek sources of living water that might be healing.

The liberatory impulse was still with me when I stumbled back into church 18 years ago. It helped to open my heart to the stark and beautiful teachings of Jesus and the surprising newness revealed by the stories of his death and the resurrection of the Risen Christ within us. Like Mary in today’s story, I decided that the better part was to sit at Jesus’ feet instead of busying ourselves with less important things.

I continue to follow this liberatory impulse in the midst of today’s craziness. It helps me to hear the words of Greta Thuneberg who spoke with such passion at the United Nations Climate Summit last week, especially when she talked of the insanity of political leaders who continue to pursue “fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”

A world whose atmosphere and oceans are choking on carbon and plastic and in which untold numbers of species are going extinct doesn’t need more economic growth. Instead, it needs spiritual growth. It needs healing. And it needs communities that care for their children not with money, but with learning environments in which they can freely grow and flourish.

We don’t need a better blueprint for economic prosperity. We need movements that place love and spiritual growth above all other values. So, I am encouraged by the millions of climate strikers this past Friday and by dreamers who continue to gather in festivals of peace and music. They are pilgrims with whom we can journey Back to the Garden from which we have been separated by 6,000 years of greed.

We yearn for freedom; and happily, in the figure of Jesus, we have a long-haired hippy who shows us a Way to find it – by dying to old ways of life and rising to a new life that is beyond tribe, beyond money, and beyond regimentation. It is a life of justice in which boredom has been turned into wonder; curiosity into learning; and the needs of soul-sick pilgrims and this groaning earth into a love that never ends.

May it be so. Amen.

Preamble to worship, September 29, 2019

Dear friends,

Welcome to today’s spiritual gathering. It is another chance for us to pool our voices, intentions, and energies. We do so each week to revitalize spirits and restore souls. Welcome to worship, a place where we do the joyous work of caring for one another as children of God.

Today our focus is on learning. I like the quote we found for the bulletin and opening PPT slide by M. Scott Peck of “The Road Less Travelled” fame — “The path of spiritual growth is a path of lifelong learning.” At Mill Woods United, we pursue spiritual growth both as individuals and as a community; and Peck suggests this means we pursue lifelong learning.

The past year has seen a lot of discussion and learning here at Mill Woods United. The Church Council and its Future Steps group led us through a process that resulted in a new and simpler Purpose Statement — “We are a spiritual community where you can explore your purpose and place.” This fall, they are circulating three articles that discuss our basic understandings of the word God. You will find the second of these three in your bulletin today. I hope that many of us will come to the church on Monday evening October 28 to discuss these ideas.

They are also helping me and the Worship Committee to innovate on Sunday mornings. As we did last Advent, this fall we are often using less-well-known translations of the Prayer of Jesus. We will switch between versions like the one from New Zealand we have used this month and more familiar ones like Wendy Edey’s sung version in the weeks ahead.

Another change is the lyrics of some of our hymns. When Voices United was published in the 1990s, the lyrics of a large number of its hymns were modified to make their imagery for God to be inclusive of both men and women. Most of these modifications, I believe, are barely noticeable even as they subtly improve the hymns and make them less jarring to modern sensibilities.

Over the summer, I found some re-wording of hymns that go beyond that. These are changes that shift yet more about how we envision the Sacred. Our opening hymn this morning is an example. “One More Step” is a familiar and popular hymn from Voices United. In the lyrics that will be projected from it in a few minutes, you may notice two changes. This version only has three verses and not five. And in them, the phrase”We’ll be travelling along with you,” has been changed to “I’ll keep travelling in spirit true.” This shifts our image of the Sacred from a person-like Being to something more like energy or presence. Such shifts are what we may talk about on October 28. Others of our hymns, of course, continue to have their original lyrics.

Another innovation in worship is fnding sources beyond the Bible – readings, poems, video clips, and so on. This fall, my inspiration has often been the Woodstock Festival of Peace and Music, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last month and especially Joni Mitchell’s iconic song about it. I decided to focus on lifelong learning today because of Joni’s lyrics “Well maybe it is just the time of year / Or maybe it’s the time of man / I don’t know who l am / But you know life is for learning.”

I am cheered by her thought that the process of figuring out who we are – whether as an individual, a church, or a country — is one that never ends, for life is for learning.

In today’s brief hour of worship, I pray that the songs, both familiar and new, the silences, and our reflections will open our hearts and minds to what is Sacred, and what might be the next step along the world that we will go.