Sunday Sermon – 13 May 2018

Asking Why?

It is no secret to many in the congregation that I spent most of my working life as a teacher, though I claim no more than as only a moderately successful one.

It came to me early in my teaching career, as it comes to all teachers, as well as to most men and women soon after they become parents, that we adults only truly start our education when we are brought into close contact with, and have responsibility for, children. And the tutors who guide us through that education process are the children we are supposed to be teaching.

Possibly that is a little exaggerated, but only marginally so.

My first experience of standing in front of a class of children came soon after discharge from the army at the end of the war. During my time away, I had applied to become a teacher, and had been accepted for training. But as the course did not start until September and I was released the previous Easter, I asked the local education authority in the small town where I then lived, if I could acquire some experience in a school during the intervening summer months.

I was sent to an old, church primary school where they were desperately short of staff. So much so, that I was placed immediately in front of a class of ten years olds and left largely to my own devices. That is when my education began in earnest. One incident from what might be termed a roller-coaster experience, sticks in my mind.

The class-room was heated by an open coal fire. On the mantel-piece, over the fireplace, was an old fashioned alarm clock, which busily and loudly ticked off the passing minutes.

I had discovered that one of the boys in this mixed class couldn’t tell the time. Ten years old and not able to tell the time, I thought! So I set about teaching him, using the clock as an aid. I would make progress where others had failed. Over several days I persevered, explaining the different functions of the large and small hand, and how these related to the figures on the circumference of the dial.

A week or two went by, and then towards the end of one morning I asked Billy – I think that was his name, and if not it will suffice – the time. He glanced at the clock and said confidently, “Ten to twelve”. It was! I felt a sense of pride and achievement. I must be one of those rare individuals, a born teacher. Unable to let well alone, I asked him how he knew, expecting him to refer to the position of the two hands on the clock face.

His reply was unexpected, and deflated my all too expanded ego. “Well, the dinner ladies have just arrived,” he explained patiently, surprised at the question.

Billy was more interested in the practicalities of life than in theories of time. Children have different thought processes from us, and who is to say that they are wrong and we are right. Maybe the arrival of dinner ladies is as good a way of telling the time as any other.

The never-ending curiosity of the child, and our desire to satisfy it, to increase our knowledge that we may slake their thirst, obliges us to educate ourselves. We need to know, so that we do not lose esteem in the sight of the child. We need to know so that the child may grow in knowledge and understanding. As we love the child, we want him or her to grow up wiser than us.

Though the child may be the spur, the goad, forcing us to discover more and more about the mechanics of the world, in order to satisfy what the elephant child in Kipling’s Just-so Stories possessed, “‘satiable curtiosity”, we adults have much more responsibility than merely answering “how” questions. There are “why” questions too. They are not only more difficult to respond to, they are crucially more important. Billy felt instinctively that how to tell the time was much less important than why tell the time.

It is the answer provided to the question “Why?”, or perhaps the search for a satisfactory answer, which influences the way we live our lives, and how we relate to others. The search and the reply determine the kind of people we become.

Appreciation of art, music, literature, drama, not to mention the spiritual search which is at the core of religious experience, are all quests for truth. A definition of truth might be, “It is the answer to the question ‘Why?'”.

Children seem to appreciate instinctively that “Why?” is the most important of questions, which could be the reason they reiterate it so persistently. It is a difficult question to answer. One which, expressed by a child, causes much irritation to we adults. We are apt to give a short, exasperated and unsatisfactory response. “Better go and ask your ….father, mother, teacher, grandad!” But searching for reasons is an attempt to make sense of the world. The need to do so is, I believe, a spark of the divine, of God if you like, within us.

Billy couldn’t make sense of the two black sticks moving round a white circular disk. But he understood the passage of time was important, and he had answered for himself the question “Why?”. Ten to twelve meant an imminent end to the drudgery of a morning’s school; the paradise of freedom was at hand, followed by Lancashire hot-pot, prunes and custard served by those dinner ladies. Possibly there might even be seconds.

There are those who say that life is aimless, meaningless. It is, they explain, simply the result of chance that we exist. There are no real answers to the question “Why?”, they assert. It is all purposeless. We are here and we should get out of existence what we can, enjoying ourselves whilst we can. If that means taking every advantage, regardless of others, then so be it.

We have heard, and still hear, that competition is the thing. That’s the way the world is … (occasionally “unfortunately” is added to ease the starkness of the proposition). It no use the weaker looking to the strong for sympathy, for the race is to the strong, and the devil takes the hindmost. There is no such thing as society, only individuals concerned with how, and never mind asking why.

If that is the spirit, if not the words, in which we respond to our children, then one can only say, with piety and despair, God help the future generations, for we can’t.

But it is not an answer we gathered here this morning should accept, nor want to give. Worshipping here implies the answers on our lips are in direct contrast to that rejoinder. For if christianity isn’t about tolerance, compassion, supporting the weak and comforting the sorrowful, it has become an empty sham.

I read somewhere that if a monkey was put in front of a type-writer keyboard and allowed to thump the keys long enough, the works of Shakespeare would eventually be produced. Even if that is accepted, and I must say I find it a difficult proposition to embrace, then it is certain that the monkey would have no appreciation of what he had achieved, or any understanding of it.

The whole aesthetic satisfaction in the works of Shakespeare is lost if we believe that it is only something a monkey could produce by chance. It is the creative mind at work that raises the spirit, and gives meaning to life. A creative mind is a curious mind, ever looking for the ‘why’.

“Pure chance” is a totally inadequate answer to a question “Why?” about the miracle of life; it belies all our experience. I believe in God, the creator. To create is an act of love, so the Creator is a God of love.

Though I started by saying that children taught their parents, that is of course only true in a limited field. The grown-up may lack knowledge to satisfy all a child’s questions, but the greater maturity of the adult enables him or her to dream, to have vision, to know of the joy which comes from creating, to possess knowledge which allows us to relish the world around us.

It is the mature adult who knows the deep satisfaction which may be found in serving another, in generosity of spirit, in sacrifice for a partner’s or friend’s benefit. Many will know the sense of contentment which comes, as a phrase we often use in our worship puts it, from “walking humbly with our God”.

If we have not learnt that the language of the market place, that which says: the strong survive at the expense of the weak; the race is to the fit and the devil take the hindmost; those who fail to win deserve to fail. If we have not learnt that such so-called ideals are the way to sterility and misery, then we have nothing of comfort to say to those who ask “Why?”

But if we know those things are false and omit to pass the truth on to our children, and to all who are bewildered or misguided, then we are ignoring their cries of “Why?”.

Though the main weight of care for children lies with parents, none of us, whether teacher or preacher, god-parent or grandparent, relative or neighbour, is immune from the childish question. The child asks “Why?”, we must respond by word and through example.

We can ignore the question, or treat it lightly by stone-walling or avoiding an answer. We can answer it, in fact and by example, by advocating a world that is based on greed, self-interest, avarice and jungle law. Or we can reply by showing the world we create around us is one of beauty, of caring, of love and understanding.

It only the latter response that will lead the child or the adult into joy and happiness. An answer to “Why?” is that only by the giving of love is contentment found. Other answers are a betrayal of trust.

That response is not only applicable to a child’s question. We must all be as little children searching ceaselessly, asking repeatedly, curiosity never slackening, if we are not to become self-satisfied puddings.

The community to which we aspire will encourage questions of “Why?”, and will answer, “We don’t know all the answers but we do know that love engenders love, and brings joy, as nothing else will or can”.

C.J. Rosling 18 October 1991, amended 12 April 1992

Fulwood 20 Oct. 1991 22 March 1998
Hucklow 23 Feb. 1992 22 June 1997
Upper 12 April 1992
Mexborough 8 August 1993

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