THEN LAUGH WITH THEM
When I was a teacher, the biggest event of the school year was the carol concert. It was held in Ringwood church, which was packed to the rafters- parents, grandparents, ex-pupils and friends-huddled together, on oak pews. Most of us weren't regular church goers. So this once a year concert was like visiting a foreign country- somewhere else- where things are done differently. The children went crazy in church- the last day of term, Christmas round the corner, and the strange, packed building made it impossible for them to sit still.
They climbed on the pews, fiddled with the hymn books, talked and pinched each other. It was a teacher's nightmare- What will parents think? - he can't control his class- those rowdy children are a disgrace- calls himself a teacher? Ha- what kind of a teacher lets kids run wild in a Church? Inwardly I screamed- "Children be quiet. Sit still." Outwardly I wore my sour face. You know the one: grim, tense and tired. A face with all the joy squeezed out of it. It's a face harassed parents know all too well. We worry it will stick and attach itself like a horrible permanent mask- leaving us old and worn out.
It was my turn to read from the bible. Nervously I walked down the aisle to the pulpit. My class were silent now- they wondered what I was going to say. They watched, they listened, they waited- a model class. As a musician and artist I have a wild and unpredictable streak- I love spontaneous creations. In dance and music I am excited by the unexpected. But I also have a deep respect for discipline and sincere religious practice. I am a lover of sacred texts- over the years I have studied the great traditions of the world. So when I opened the Bible and read Psalm 23, I did so with a sincere heart. I'd been meditating on the passage for weeks at home- it had taken me to some deep, quiet places.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
But as I looked out at the Church, from the pulpit- in a flash everything seemed ridiculous, utterly ridiculous- all our human striving to be better, to achieve more, to avoid pain and frustration, to find pleasure- it all seemed silly- a whole lot of wasted effort- at the same time there was beauty- everybody together under one roof, a mood of love and fellowship. The children with their naughty, hopeful faces- looked full of life. The teachers looked tired, the parents worried. All of it was life. And all of it was O.K.
These thoughts washed over me as I leaned into the microphone and read from the Bible. But when I got to the part, "he leads me besides still waters', the microphone belched and hissed. Children in the front row laughed. I wanted to laugh with them in that moment. They were so vital and alive against the backdrop of ancient pillars, oak pews, and tired faces. But I pulled myself together, squashed the instinct to laugh- and put on my stern face. I continued to read from the Bible. Again, the microphone rebelled, spluttered and hissed- oblivious to the solemnity of the occasion.
The children in the front row laughed. They looked at me- they expertly read my discomfort- they laughed with me. "Isn't it funny. Now matter how hard we try, sometimes things don't work out." Their laughter said. And with that I was swept up- I laughed till the tears rolled down my cheeks. I quaked with the sudden insight- our effort to shape and control is like the sand dictating terms to the sea. Ridiculous- but from the pulpit, in the Church- divinely ridiculous.
I laughed. Half the school laughed. When I returned to my seat my class was laughing. Years later- an ex-pupil, now a man with a trendy beard- reminded me of this. He smiled fondly and told me, "Patrick, that's what we loved about you."