Pondering the Sermon on the Mount

Of course none of us can ever be sure we get the history right.

My imagination of what it was like for Jesus to teach in Palestine two thousand years ago is influenced by so many layers of the interpretations of the people who lived in-between. And yet I find the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) so deeply moving and confronting. Again and again I find these speeches challenging and informing my thinking.

Consider that ridiculous verse: If someone wants to sue you in order to take your shirt, let him have your coat too (Matthew 5:40)

Susan and I have decided to take it literally at times and have sought to be generous financially with people when we might have tried to secure our finances. This has meant that we could have been ‘ripped off’. On each occasion this hasn’t happened for us, and people have repaid us fully and generously in return. Of course Jesus isn’t proposing a system: be generous and others will repay in kind. There is every chance that I could have been exploited.

Did this make us fools? I don’t think so. We thought things through carefully and made deliberate choices. I need to note that for Susan and me these have been ‘face to face’ experiences with people whom we found had a particular need. I read the sermon as being about building community, not giving in to con men. Yet it is about the struggle of learning to be generous.

Don’t be mistaken. I don’t write this piece because I think I have become generous. Generosity has a forgetfulness about it. It is not yet a habit for me. In some homes I have visited it is embedded in hospitality and as ordinary as wallpaper. I have to be deliberate.

I wonder if an underlying idea is that we should aim for all people to go well, whether I understand them or not, or like them or fear them. I am to love my enemy (Luke 6:35). If I was a politician this might drive me to seek to build a fairer society or system of international relations. If I was a musician it might lead me to play music as a gift to everyone who listens. As a school principal I think I am called to try to create a school where each child flourishes. That doesn’t mean I give people what they want, or succumb to demands or avoid the truth because I am trying to conciliate. It isn’t a Neville Chamberlain approach to life. I wonder if it indicates an underlying view of human beings: others can be annoying , but so can I; I might have good reason for not liking someone, but they might have good reason for not liking me . Whether they like me or hate me, praise me or ignore me, my vocation is to enable them to go well.

So I don’t have to be defensive. I can learn to respond rather than to react. It seems in institutions that it is easy to believe Marshall Mcluhan’s comment that the medium is the message. Across these centuries do I take Jesus’ words to mean that my role is to rise above the milieu of hurt caused by tone of voice and height of modality to really attend to the issues at hand, to try to identify the best things to do so that a real benefit results?

And I don’t think it is about just making people happy. Happiness can be such a tyranny. I have known teenagers who have imbibed their parents’ mantra – I just want them to be happy – and have thus made themselves sole arbiters of their own happiness. Some have bordered on the view that the external world (teachers, friends, school structures) is there to make them happy. I have met some teenagers who become miserable spending their days pursuing their own happiness.

Of course all of us as parents wish for our children’s happiness, but is happiness a goal or an effect?

Again the Sermon on the Mount is fascinating and helpful.

Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4)

It is so beautifully self-forgetting. I think Jesus is saying that I need to learn to be content before God and within myself. I can’t rely upon my image: I must develop personal integrity.

This is a hard thing to do. I had a conversation this week with a member of staff about the impression created by an event at school. Both of us pondered the implications of how the event could be interpreted and how it would affect people’s perspectives of that part of the college. I am regularly being drawn back into conversations about style, not substance.

In the end I have to let people think what they want to think. Let it go. I have to make the best choices I can and be confident in them, until I have evidence to the contrary. My energy and efforts need to go into doing a good job rather than appearing to do a good job.



Conversations with my Daughters (3)

My youngest daughter and I chatted recently about the factors that she might consider when looking for a post-school occupation. She is in her final year of secondary schooling and is undertaking school-based assessments whilst preparing for exams in October and November.

What is the advice that I as a parent could give? Occupations have status, financial recompense, and enjoyment as factors. In schools we often advise people according to these criteria.

Our conversation turned to the area of the physical space that she might work within. When we choose an occupation we choose a type of environment: the gardener in the garden, the IT specialist with his screens, the Vet in her surgery. So I asked her to consider the physical space that she would be working within. What could she manage? What would she enjoy?

The other big question is why she wants to work at all. Does she want a job so that she can confine her work to what someone else asks her to do, and thus go home and leave aside work? Does she want a career so that her work gives her status, influence and the possibility of increased income? Or does she want a vocation so that she can live her life as an act of service and blur the boundaries between the public and the private self?

She knows that I see work as vocation. It is a Christian model that, since all of your life belongs to God, your work does as well. Work is a series of decisions to make, adventures to participate in, problems to solve… for the well-being of a community. This understanding is problematic in that even well-meaning individuals at work and in business can expect the person who takes this approach to serve their individual needs. And I would not want to see my daughter, because of her good will, be abused by  those who are just looking for someone to do their work. I am pleased that she is someone who is able to tell the truth about her life and work as well. Her work should not compromise her integrity.

Yet a great joy in life is in living and working cooperatively with others. “He that would save his life shall lose it, and he that would lose his life for my sake shall save it,” said Jesus. Perhaps if I can show her the joy in approaching work as a vocation, who she becomes will be more important, and more sustaining, than what she chooses to do.

Conversations with my daughters (1)

I have three daughters.

The eldest recently commenced work at corporate law firm in Sydney. This weekend we chatted about aspects of being a young woman in a profession such as Law, where most of the partners are men, and, increasingly, graduates are women.

She works hard and her employer treats her very well. She feels their trust in the responsibilities she is given and their respect in the positive feedback she receives. And, yet, there are things that she wonders about.

She notices of a Monday that some of the young male graduates stop with the partners and talk about the weekend. David Warner’s switch hitting in the cricket, for example.

“What is switch hitting?” my daughter asks.

Her husband explains.

My daughter reports that while the boys chat about cricket, she is working at her desk. Through the glass walls she watches their body language. She sees the comraderie.

Professor Roslyn Arnold developed the theory of psychodynamic pedagogy for school teachers. In positive relationships people mirror one another. Over time they can even develop the same facial expressions. Really effective teachers help children to mirror positive responses by their own body language. The body and the tone of voice are the teacher’s main ways of creating a positive class tone. It is very subtle. And this is what my daughter sees played out in her workplace: tiny nuances of connection.

There was a book she read, New Girl on the Job, by Seligson, ten tips for the workplace for women. A key insight that she gained from the book was that women are more likely to think that the employer’s top priority is for the staff to be industrious and to earn money for the firm. They come to work and get straight to it. They can easily become assistantised. The young men are happy to have a conversation. When it comes to a significant task, the partner in the firm asks the person whom he knows well, the one he can trust, the person who can talk as well as research.

My daughter asks me what I am doing as a principal of a girls’ school not just to seek to build trust, but to help young women to work out the dynamics of the workplace. I tell her about the plans for professional women to chat about such things at assemblies. She knows about the work we do in leadership development and the way that girls are constantly asked to take the lead in school activities. “It’s a start,” she says. “Women need to think carefully about how to communicate professionally with men who are in powerful positions.”

It makes me realise the importance of having some male teachers and leaders in a girls’ school.

And, I think, I will grab a copy of that book.