lenten journal: the question is . . .


    My little school is imploding.

    I have much the same feeling as I did when I worked in my first restaurant which was a small tea house owned by a woman who had always wanted to own a restaurant, so she found an empty space, took out a second mortgage, spent a lot of money, and lasted six months because she didn’t really know what she had gotten herself into. Though my school has been here six years, it is still trying to find its identity, which has proven to be quite illusive leaving us with predominant daily question of “How do we survive?” which is not a question that fosters growth and learning.

    Our foxhole perspective sent me back to something I read in Art and Fear a few days ago.

    It is an article of faith, among artists and scientists alike, that at some deep level their disciplines share a common ground. What science bears witness to experimentally, art has always known intuitively – that there is an innate rightness to the recurring forms in nature.

    Science advances at the rate that technology provides tools of greater precision, while art advances at the pace that evolution provides minds with greater insight – a pace that is, for better or for worse, glacially slow. . . . [a]nd while a hundred civilizations have prospered (sometimes for centuries) without computers or windmills or even the wheel, none have survived even a few generations without art.

    [I]n art as well as in science the answers you get depend upon the questions you ask. (104)

    To give some context to the passage, the authors weren’t out to foster a divide between science and art as much as they were using the distinction to say some things about the way art tells the truth by contrasting with how science tells the truth. More about that in a bit. First, I want to go back to the statement in the last sentence: the answers you get depend on the questions you ask.

    During one of my first units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), where I worked as a hospital chaplain, I read an article that talked about how we could help our patients cope with what was going on by helping them to ask better questions. Those who faced difficult diagnoses, for instance, might find more hope in turning from “Why did God let this happen?” to “What will this mean for my life?” The first ends up in blaming or patronization; the second offers room for discovery and growth.

    When I read the line about the quality of our questions, I made a note in the margin: what would Jesus ask?

    My mind jumped back to the healing stories in the gospels. On the one hand, the disciples saw a blind man sitting at the gate and asked, “Who sinned that this man should be born blind?” On the other hand – and thank God for other hands – Jesus met the man at the pool who had been there for years and years waiting for his chance and asked, “Do you want to get well?”

    The answers we get are only as good as our questions.

    Instead of asking how we are going to survive or what else could go wrong, I keep asking for the grace to remember that the kids in the building need more from me than fear, bitterness, or resignation. They need me to act like this matters so they can do likewise. They need me to ask questions that call us together and help us figure out how to make meaning of these days, regardless of how much it feels like I’m teaching at Titanic High. I must, therefore, go back and pick up art as a metaphor for life and faith and then reread the following passage:

    There is a moment for each artist in which particular truth can be found, and if it is not found then, it will never be. No one else will ever be in a position to write Hamlet. This is pretty good evidence that the meaning of the world is made and not found. Our understanding of the world changed when those words were written, and we can’t go back . . . any more than Shakespeare could. . . . The world thus altered becomes a different world, with our alterations being part of it. (106)

    One of our teachers left this week because he got an offer that he was right to take. We had a goodbye party for him on Wednesday. He had been here for almost three years teaching in the middle school, so the eighth graders were only in sixth grade when he arrived. He asked a great deal of himself and the kids and he got great answers from all concerned. At the party, one eighth grade boy said, “You’re the greatest teacher I’ve ever had because you helped me learn to be myself.” That teacher changed the world for the boy and helped him make meaning of the cultural hell we call middle school, which ranks right up there with writing Hamlet.

    In a school on its last legs, in a culture built on greed, in a political climate of rage and cynicism, in a world that is broken and hurt, what would Jesus ask?

    What will I ask? And then, how will I answer?



    1. One of the things I like about you Milton, though I know it is hard for you to live out, is that you seem to find yourself in these kinds of situations a lot in life. Working for an underdog or an institution with high ideals and practical struggles.

    2. I like this part “I keep asking for the grace to remember that the kids in the building need more from me than fear, bitterness, or resignation. They need me to act like this matters so they can do likewise.” I think sometimes in school we forget that even though it is our ___ (fill in the number) time in their grade, this is their only time in that grade. Thanks for that reminder. Deirdre

    3. I am pulling for you and your school, but even more, I am pulling for the guy who takes time to ponder the tough stuff. That is you. Thanks for an inspiring post.

    4. I’ve been a lurker out here for about 18 months or more and am just creeping carefully out into the light to say ‘thank you’ for this wonderful piece. YES. Asking the right questions is hugely important. And YES, art has a way of cutting to both questions and answers more quickly and surely than anything else we humans do. Thank you for your faithfulness in this place (the cyberspace one) and in that place (the small, struggling school one). May both continue to be ‘home’ for you for a good long while.

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