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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 22 May 2015

A Lion Hunt: farewell to school-leavers

In Iraq and Syria, Isis has been destroying priceless remains from the ancient world. The legendary site at Palmyra is only the latest threat. A few weeks ago we learned about the ancient site at Nimrud where Isis has hacked down marvellous buildings and sculptures that were irreplaceable. Human life is cheap at the hand of radical Islamists, whether it is flesh and blood men, women and children, or the memories and heritage previous generations have left behind.

However, all is not lost. If you go to the British Museum, you can see some of the reliefs from Nimrud that were taken away by archaeologists in the 19th century. My favourite is a 9th century lion hunt from Ashurnasirpal’s palace. Lion-hunting was the sport of kings in the ancient world. Ashurnasirpal claimed he had killed 450. The king is standing in his horse-drawn chariot. One poor lion is being trampled underneath, while another is rearing up behind the king who is firing arrows at him. But don’t be taken in. These iron age lions were not wild. They were reared especially for the king’s entertainment, stabled and then released like greyhounds let out on to the track. It was entirely staged.

Maybe leaving school feels a bit like being a captive lion let out of the trap in order to be hunted for the sport of others. Not for you I’m sure: Dunelmians have the prospect of excellent results this summer, and university, college or a promising job to go to. That’s not true of other, less privileged students whose future may be a lot less promising. When my Jewish mother came out of Nazi Germany as a refugee, she was much the same age as you. But it meant the end of her education. This was among many things she could never forgive the Nazis for. She made sure that her own children had nothing but the best when it came to school and university. How much I owe to that!  

At leavers’ services I’m usually the one who stays behind while everyone else heads off for new horizons. Not this year. I am in the odd position of being a leaver too. When School reassembles in September, I shall be retiring. This is my last school sermon here. So what I say to you I’m saying to myself too.  For you and me, what lies ahead of us is a threshold we must cross into another life beyond. It may not seem real just yet. After all these years of schooling, what is life going to be like for you? After all these years of taking services and preaching sermons, what will it be like for me? It is edgy, facing a future that we can’t know yet. Yes, life should always be opening up ahead of us, full of possibility and promise. But like E. M. Forster’s past, the future is another country. They do things differently there. It’s a landscape we need to get to know. It will take time.
So how so we say goodbye? First, with thankfulness. My schooldays weren’t the happiest time of my life: I’ve found that life goes on getting better. But education is such a formative period in our lives. There will have been difficult or uncertain times when we have been under pressure, or wondering why we are here, or feeling anxious or fearful or alone. But I hope that while still being true to those experiences, we can all celebrate this rich period in our lives. In our second reading, St Paul asks us to think about what is true and honourable and commendable: ‘if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ This isn’t just the popular wisdom of the old song ‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, don’t mess with mister in between’. It’s seeing how all of life is a great gift. At these thresholds it’s important to take stock, reflect on the ways God has been good to us and has led us on our journey to this point. And this should make us thankful. Gratitude lies at the heart of a contented and fulfilled life.

Second, we should say goodbye in a spirit of hope. Looking ahead is as important as looking behind. Yes, so much is unknown to us. How can we predict where we shall be even a year ahead, let alone a lifetime? But life has begun well for you. I remember as a five year old seeing a huge advert in the tube for Start-Rite shoes. It showed a child holding the hand of a parent, brave but not quite certain yet, taking tentative steps down a long straight road towards a sunrise. ‘Start right and they’ll walk happily ever after.’ I used to wonder what lay beyond, how far these little shoes of mine would carry me. The journeys you make, your life’s work, the friendships and the loves that shape your lives: it is all part of the sunrise that lies ahead. And school has given you the foundation of lifelong learning which is not simply gaining knowledge and skills, but about knowing yourself, about emotional and spiritual intelligence, about becoming good citizens, about forming sound values and growing into mature wisdom. Even in dark times, we can grasp the future confidently, for God walks with us at the best and worst of times. He promises never to leave or abandon us; he is the focus of our best hopes and expectations.

 ‘For all that has been: thanks! To all that shall be: yes!’ said a great UN statesman Dag Hammarskjold. So we pause on this threshold today, being aware of what is happening to us. I am finding out that ‘mindfulness’, stopping to think and reflect rather than rushing headlong from one phase of life into the next, is making a big difference to how I feel about leaving here and retiring. But let’s end where our readings do. From the Old Testament: ‘you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace.’ And St Paul: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.’ He goes on: ‘do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.’ I should love to promise you a future free of anxiety and care, and would be glad if someone offered it to me. That’s not reality, of course. But this is: something that was said by a great woman of the middle ages, Julian of Norwich. ‘God did not say We shall not be troubled, we shall not be travailed, we shall not be dis-eased; but he said, we shalt not be overcome.’ Isaiah and Paul would have liked that. It makes all the difference to how we navigate the challenges and complexities of life.  

Paul says finally, ‘the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ That is the truth by which I have tried to live and hope to die. He will not let us down. So have wonderful lives. Make a difference to the world. Flourish and be happy. Trust in God. Go well. And God be with you all.

Durham School Leavers’ Service, 22 May 2015 Isaiah 55, Philippians 4.4-9

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