Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Learning how to learn

At my last high-school reunion, a number of tributes were made to our teachers – all now long gone.

            That hasn’t been true at past reunions. Occasional references to one or two of the teachers, perhaps. But typically in a mocking tone – recalling occasions when we had outsmarted Bill Fraser by getting him to talk about movies instead of teaching us French Irregular Verbs. Or the time we stuffed H.W. Fowler’s briefcase through a trapdoor into the attic while he was temporarily out of the room. 

            Or – a particularly memorable event – the morning Jean Skelton opened her class attendance book to lead us in the Lord’s Prayer that opened every school day, and discovered that her printed copy of the prayer was missing. She fumbled to a standstill after “thy Kingdom come…”

            We attempted to stifle our hilarity.

            She glared around the room, and unerringly picked out the boy who had done it. (No, it wasn’t me.)


But seriously…

            Pranks aside, though, we were incredibly fortunate. In a small school, teachers could get to know each of us individually. We didn’t have a high turnover of teachers; we didn’t have large classes.

            In hindsight, those teachers were amazingly tolerant. After a few moment’s confusion, Mr. Fowler simply left the room again, and by the time he came back, so had his briefcase. There were no repercussions, no penalties. 

            Yes, we did learn specifics. The inexorable logic of Euclid’s geometry theorems, for example. How to conjugate Latin verbs. Memorizing famous monologues from Shakespeare. The difference between a rabbet and a dado joint. The periodic table of chemistry elements. 

            But more importantly, we learned to learn. It was not just WHAT they taught, but HOW they taught it. They gave us a safe environment in which to make mistakes, and to learn from those mistakes. They had faith in us, as learning beings, even when we made fun of them. 


More than answers…

            I think, I hope, I learned from their example with my own children. So often, it seems, we’re so busy trying to teach them facts and skills we’re convinced they will need to know, someday, when they grow up to be adults themselves, that we fail to consider what they’re actually learning from us right now. 

            We think that teaching consists of getting the right answers back. 

            This story, probably apocryphal, keeps going around. A Sunday school teacher wanted to stimulate participation, so she asked, “What’s furry and climbs trees?”

            None of her students ventured an answer. 

            She tried again: “It collects nuts for the winter.”

            Still no answer. 

            “It’s red, or grey, or black, and has big front teeth.” 

             “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus,” the bravest boy finally offered, “but to me it sounds a lot like a squirrel.”

            Too much of education focuses on what the answers are “supposed to be”. I consider myself fortunate to have attended a school that didn’t try to teach me what I should think, or should do. My teachers trusted me enough to let me figure out some of those lessons for myself. 

            Even if a lot of that learning didn’t happen until after I had left school. 


Copyright © 2018 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





Lots of mail about last week’s column, where I felt offended by the words on a plaque, “Jesus always picks the finest flowers first.” Most of you shared my feelings; a few didn’t.


I disagree with everything Steve Roney says here, but I know he speaks for many: “I entirely agree with those parents who commemorated their child. I think they are obviously right.

            “Given only that heaven exists, a child who dies young is far better off than staying alive on earth: their innocence ensures they are there. They won the race in record time. So although a parent may mourn, it is not for the child that they mourn. It is for themselves. And is their pain really greater than, and more important than, the child's joy?

            “And for that matter, have they lost the child? Or do they not have a friend in heaven looking out for them? Why would we think the blessed dead are away from us? Why not speak to them? If they have ‘lost’ the child by no longer staying in touch, why blame Jesus?


Gloria Jorgenson: “Anything that brings that family solace is acceptable. They have enough on their plate without having to worry about the impact their dedication to their child may have on some passer-by. It's no wonder that people don't know what to say to the recently-bereaved when even something as innocuous as this message causes such a reaction.”


Alison Playfair: “It is fascinating to me how something that brings great comfort to one individual has the complete opposite effect on another. I hear the indignation you felt upon reading that simple verse. You saw it as a comment on 'who Jesus is' while I am sure they saw it as a comment on 'who their child was' -- the finest flower in their garden. 

            “As a minister I try to listen compassionately for the needs of the bereaved in their words and choices of verses, even when they don't always jive with my own theology or understanding of who God, Jesus, Holy Spirit is or how they act. 

            “For the bereaved, the logical connotations that proceed from that particular statement were probably not examined at the time. If there is a sensitive way to reframe something. I do it. I am aware, though, that the time for theological discussion may or may not be in the midst of grief.”


Fran Ota: “After many years in ministry, I've learned to let some of this ride by. It's not my theology, but neither is a theology of ‘Jesus as friend’ -- but it's your theology and your comfort in grief, as life moves on. You see it as maligning -- and I hear that, Jim -- but I also hear voices of deep grief; and, to be honest, echoes of the feeble theology we have taught our congregations: 'God needed another angel'. No that's not my theology, but if it comforts the family, then they need that comfort. If I were their minister, I might address that either with them at a later date, or through teaching or preaching. But if that gives them the comfort they need, then that's what they need.”


Caroline Davidson: “You were offended by the plaque and so would I be. But our friend would forgive the people who put it there. Their lack of understanding is unfortunate. We can hope that someday they too will understand the truth of God's love.”


Wayne Blackwood: “Thank you for putting my thoughts into words! It will be two years this Sunday since we lost our daughter to breast cancer. You know, firsthand, what that means for us and for her husband and three children. I confess to the same kind of anger. I always had problems when people approached death as being solely God’s decision -- and now  that thinking is even more difficult to hear. I realize that people do what they must to deal with such situations, but it is very difficult for me, as clergy, to accept that God is somehow responsible for the hell our family has experienced. Again, thank you for making me feel not-so-alone. That’s the God I have come to know over the years in action.”


Tom Watson: “What a horrible thing to say to a parent who has just lost a child: ‘Jesus always picks the finest flowers first.’ When I first went into ministry, I had a funeral for a child. I remember hearing someone saying that to the parents and I wanted to sock him. I hadn't heard that phrase for a long time but it still rankles me.”


John Shaffer: “I reacted so negatively to a minister who made that flower point that l never forgave him. Yet how to explain that some find comfort in the thought?”


Barbara Beatty: “Once again you speak to my heart. As a 74-year-old RC (recovering catholic), the God of my childhood was like Santa Claus, keeping a list of my sins to prepare my punishment. This childhood god who I was told loved me was just about as scary as Sister Mary Alice of Jesus. In recent years I have encountered several enlightened Anglican priests who have helped me sort out the religious abuse my family suffered, to stop polishing my anger to keep it bright. With help I am finding a path that does not paint all Christian believers with the memories of a frightened child who bit her nails to the quick.”


Ralph Schmidt: “Thank you for your columns and poetry [http://quixotic.ca/My-Poetry]. They add a richness to my life I would otherwise not have.

            “Also, to thank you and say ‘me too’ for your column about dealing with comments like God taking a wee one etc.  Over the decades I have had to deal with those comments… They do not reflect my God, nor my understanding of God through Jesus. How many times have I said, ‘All these things we ask in the name of friend Jesus, who teaches us when we pray together to say…’ The Divine, to whom I pray, is kind, forgiving and affirming -- not cruel and arbitrary.  Once I worked through my anger with God I realized that through it all Jesus was there through the love and presence of others.  It was good to read your words and feel your faith today.”


John Willems: “I had harsher thoughts when I heard a minister from my denomination say about two young girls who were tragically killed in an auto accident, ‘God needed two Rose buds to complete his bouquet.’  I could have emptied my stomach right there.  Then what bothered me more was that nobody else was bothered.”


Ian Wood: “Your latest column arrived the same day as the funeral of a lovely Christian friend. Pam Garrud was a Methodist minister who had written her own funeral address.

            “It began, ‘This has been a difficult and surprising journey to death. I have been joking that I always wanted to win the lottery, but not like this. It’s shocking and a very difficult adjustment to consider yourself healthy and vital and then to be struck with a disease (cardiac amyloidosis) that most physicians have never heard of and that literally invades the molecules of your organs until they can no longer function.

            ‘I do not believe that God caused this to happen for a reason. I don’t believe in a God who visits either illness or fortune upon us. I believe in a God who chose to become incarnate in Jesus and who voluntarily chose to enter into life’s suffering, even to the extent of doing something as apparently ridiculous as dying on the cross. This God suffered both at the hands of the powerful elite, as well as entered into physical suffering. Throughout my illness, I have felt Jesus’ presence/the divine presence near to me, simply ‘being’ with me, loving me and never leaving me alone.’

            “I doubt that whoever wrote the words on that plaque actually believed them – surely no sane person could. It is sad that in grief meaningless phrases get trotted out in an attempt to help the bereaved, which when analysed is actually offensive, [but] may help a parent cope with their loss in the short term. Regrettably such rubbish does long term damage by reinforcing a false image of a controlling and manipulating God.”






Psalm 1 lends itself to paraphrases. I have written three, and could do a dozen more, but here’s one of them. In a cartoon, the ancient guru sits cross-legged at the top of a mountain while a visitor asks, breathlessly: "What is happiness?"


Do not pursue happiness;  it cannot be captured. 

Like a wild bird or a bouncing ball.  it is always just beyond your grasp.

Happiness comes from immersing yourself in God.

Instead of struggling to keep your head above water,

yield yourself to the deep flow of God's universe. 

You will not drown;

you will be swept along by forces beyond your imagining.

Foam on the surface gets blown around;

driftwood piles up on sandbars;

people obsessed with themselves

end up as rotting debris on the rocks.

But the current rolls on. 

So let yourself get carried away 

by something stronger than a social eddy.


For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

                  And for those of you who like poetry, I’ve started a webpage http://quixotic.ca/My-Poetrywhere I post (occasionally, when I feel inspired) poems that I have written. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca,  or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blankemail(no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca(If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have been blocking my posts because they’re suspicious of too many links.

                  Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                  Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,”an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom

                  Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony”-- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet



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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: school, learning, Teachers



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