As exam season begins to recede in requests at prayer meetings and results play on many minds, one of our school chaplains Considers how we can all act when tested.
June is exam season here at Ellesmere College: Pass or fail. Succeed or fall flat. Hit or miss. Survive, thrive, or go under…. These are the thoughts running through our student’s minds. Oh, and, ‘when will it be over!’
But the students aren’t the only ones who are under pressure, subject to self-scrutiny, and hoping for the best. Teachers are seeing the fruits of their labours, sometimes over many years, and waiting, and hoping, and praying, that students have ‘taken ownership’ of their learning, disciplined themselves and arrived at the exams ready, eager, and relaxed.
Parents too are pushing down their own anxieties so that they can better ‘be there’ for their children.
Student, teacher, and parent alike are coming to the end of their power, they are coming to the end of their control over outcomes, they are beginning to move into uncertainty, vulnerability, and – hopefully – humility.
And when we can’t control the future, we begin to critique the past. We rake, mull, and sit in judgement over what we have already done. Questioning, doubting, realising that we probably haven’t done everything we could to prepare ourselves, our students, and our children.
In these moments we have at least three choices: we can rest in God’s forgiveness and grace, we can ignore our failures and feign ignorance when things go wrong, or we can give in to despair by enthroning ourselves as judge over the past.
Clearly the first option is preferable! But how do we get there? And I say we because it’s not only students, teachers and parents who have to face uncertainty, let go of past failures, and find a way to face the future with hope. We all do. In fact, we are daily confronted with our lack of power, and with the unforeseeable consequences of a life that’s never quite what it should be.
As a parent, as a teacher, and as a student I have drawn great, and I mean great comfort from the story of the triumphal procession – the story told on Palm Sunday. On that day Jesus rode into Jerusalem and the crowds praised him – as they should. As the Christ entered his city on a donkey the crowds exulted in the arrival of the Messiah – as they should. When his people saw the Word made flesh, they welcomed him – as they should. But they were praising the one they thought would overthrow the Romans, they were exulting in a victory through violence, and they were welcoming worldly freedom, not spiritual new life – individual liberty, not the rule of God.
So, they were right, and they were wrong. We too, all of us, are often right and wrong in our worship - at the same time. So often our worship centres on what God has done for us but fails to move to who God is in himself. We thank him for boosting our self esteem and supporting our plans but forget to listen to his cross-shaped vision for our lives.
It’s the same with our whole lives: we’re trying to get it right, but we’re getting it wrong at the same time. We’re a jumble of mixed motives, half baked commitments, and covert self-centredness. Whether we’re studying, teaching, parenting… however we’re trying to serve God in the world. We should expect that because what we do with our lives is part of our worship.
So, what does God do with the wrong-headed but rightly directed praise of the Palm Sunday crowd? He uses it to scare the authorities into crucifying Jesus, he used it to save the world! God transformed the shades of grey in their lives into the technicolour of an eternal Easter. The longing to see Rome vanquished from Israel is woven into Gods victory over sin, the violent victory envisioned by the crowds creatively contributes to the death of death on the cross, and the hope for personal autonomy becomes part of God’s display of his own sovereign freedom.
So, as we let go of children, students, exam results, and control over the future we can find peace in the knowledge that God will weave all of our successes and our failures into his perfect plan. We can marvel at the power and compassion of Him who goes through death in order to draw the threads of our stories into one glorious his-story. And knowing what kind of God we have, we can choose humility, rest in God’s grace, and find forgives as we give the future to Jesus.
Fr Phillip Gration is one of the permanent school chaplains within the Diocese of Lichfield