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Odysseus, Pain, and the Christian School

I was recently listening to an interview with a university professor who teaches single books as seminar courses. One of those books, books he found iconic, was The Odyssey. I found myself pretty interested partly because I have taught The Odyssey myself to high school students (9th graders) and partly because he had some fascinating insights that would have benefited me in my own teaching. For example, he described the book by Homer as the first science fiction novel with the protagonist leaving his home and visiting a variety of fantastical worlds; he talked about the book as one about family – Odysseus doesn’t even appear in the first four parts as his son Telemachus considers how to deal with his mother’s suitors; he talked about Odysseus as a person interested in others, always going off to examine the new cultures in which he finds himself and then impacting that culture in unforeseen ways.

And this is where he talked about pain – that Odysseus suffers enormous pain but also inflicts it wittingly and unwittingly on others. Indeed, his name can be translated as the man of pain – inflicted and inflicting. His name can also be connected to ὀδύσσομαι meaning to rage or to hate. His ten year journey is a series of encounters that constantly test his fidelity to his wife Penelope just as the suitors are testing her virtue in a similar vein. The outcomes of these encounters always seem to come to the possibility of a “happy ending” while actually resulting in grief, the death of many of Odysseus’ comrades, and his own personal pain.

We seem to be in a time in Christian schools where we are on a 10 year journey of inflicting and inflicted pain. We are surrounded by a culture that reflects as many kinds of perspectives as Odysseus faced. We too are faced with issues of fidelity but with less clarity. While Odysseus is crystal clear about his priority to return to his wife, son, and elderly father, we are less clear about our priorities in the midst of cultural concerns around human sexuality, gun violence and gun control, social media opportunities and threats, common core / biblically integrated tensions, political position-taking and following Jesus, care for the immigrant and national security, #MeToo and #MeNext. It is easy for us to experience pain as our brothers and sisters in the Lord take positions with which we may profoundly disagree. It is equally easy to give pain as we explain our positions in ways that can wound and demean our neighbor.

I am not speaking here in generalities. The recent Florida shootings have alerted us to the fact that our children, the students in our Christian schools, also have deep feelings and opinions about possibly all of these issues. Some have been involved in school violence, even if only as a bystander. Some are immigrants themselves. Some have minority status and read the signs of the times very differently from those of us from the dominant culture. Some are using their smart phones to radically improve their chances of success. These (and many more) are very concrete issues and they are ones our children are discussing amongst themselves with and without our consent. As one student noted, this is the generation that is growing up as the 1999 Columbine Massacre and 9/11 terrorist attack generation. They are also the generation that has the most fearful parents.

In 1941, Roosevelt gave the famous address where he spoke of the four freedoms including the right to freedom from fear. We seem a long way from freedom from fear. We are in a time where it is politically lauded to stoke up fear. We are afraid maybe because the threat seems so personal. The media lives and dies by fear, or so it seems. The result from a child’s point of view is that relationships have become seemingly more fragile and the experience of pain more common. Jean Twenge released a study recently showing the steady increase in child, adolescent, and young adult depression since the 50s.

Is the Christian School response to fear and to pain the locked door and armed guard? Unfortunately, the children bring that fear and pain with them into the school. Surely there is a danger in all of this that the idea of a loving God who tenderly cares for his own is being lost? C.S. Lewis identified this issue in The Problem of Pain: “If God were good, He would make His creatures perfectly happy, and if He were almighty He would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.” How can we help our children not lose faith as they experience a time of unprecedented prosperity (a whole other issue for our Christian schools) while simultaneously experiencing a time of maybe unprecedented psychic stress?

One solution is to quote a lot of Scripture. But we have to be cautious here. For example, Romans 8 says: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” But this references the sufferings of the saints as they witness to the resurrection of the risen Lord and suffer for their faith. It has little to do with what we are talking about here. Another example might be St. John telling us: “perfect love drives out fear.” But this references the fear on the day of judgment where the love of Jesus washes us whiter than snow and thus we have no fear of punishment. That doesn’t seem to be helpful either. Quoting Scripture is a hazardous business. Yet our answer must lie in the word of God somewhere.

It seems to me that there are four aspects that we might profitably explore and I circle back to the story of Odysseus to illustrate:

  1. Our children are on a journey and, like it or not, we are in a foreign land. Psalm 137 asks rhetorically how can we sing songs when we are in a foreign land – for them the land of Babylon. We must be with our children on that journey accompanying them on the way and teaching them the skills they will need for the journey that Bunyan called Pilgrim’s Progress – St. Paul’s Ephesians belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, feet fitted with the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.
  2. Our children are not alone on that journey. Surely we, their teachers and mentors, are going with them as are their parents and relatives and siblings and church families. But they must know that God goes with them too. Richard Wurmbrandt tells that when he was in solitary confinement in communist Rumania, angels came and sang to him when all else had failed. Our children must know that (following on from the Ephesians passage above) they can be in constant communication with their Father in heaven through “pray(ing) in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests”. Far better than a smartphone, their persistence will bring a response from God full of his sacrificial love (Luke 18).
  3. When we are dealing with pain and fear, it is not so simple as with an action that is morally right or wrong. St. Paul put it well when he wrote in Romans 7: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” Let’s face it, if Jesus could be betrayed by Judas dramatically, Peter sorrowfully, and deserted by everyone else except the women, it is clear that our children are going to struggle in situations where answers are not simple and certainly not just one word. Yes, Christ Jesus has “saved me” but that still has to be worked out on a day by day, minute by minute, confusing basis.
  4. Our children must know that, through a glass darkly, they have assurance of hope and new life. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13). They are on a journey; they are not alone; it is complex and difficult; the future and the present is “faith, hope, and love”. As Christian school leaders and teachers, we must not be in despair ourselves but full of faith, hope, and love. Of course, the greatest of these is love.

Maybe it is wise for me to leave the last words to C.S. Lewis. He notes that “For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.” It is important for our children to know that they cannot be immobilized by pain or fear but be proactive believing that they can make a difference. The decision to act is a key one and the direction that takes determines whether their journey is going to be successful in each stage. Lewis puts it differently and more eloquently: “We are, not metaphorically but in very truth, a Divine work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character. Here again we come up against what I have called the “intolerable compliment.” Over a sketch made idly to amuse a child, an artist may not take much trouble: he may be content to let it go even though it is not exactly as he meant it to be. But over the great picture of his life—the work which he loves, though in a different fashion, as intensely as a man loves a woman or a mother a child—he will take endless trouble—and would doubtless, thereby give endless trouble to the picture if it were sentient. One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and re-commenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumb-nail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.”

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