Playing in the Mud

When I was a teaching assistant at Princeton Seminary, I played co-ed intermural football, something no one over thirty with bad knees should do, as my wife reminds me, but it was a good way to get to know my students. We played the big championship game one year after a week of rain. The field was so muddy we could hardly walk, much less run, but we played hard. When the game was over both teams were muddy and bloody, some were winners, others were losers, so we did the only appropriate thing. We started running and sliding head first through the mud, caking mud on one another, and generally getting covered in the stuff. When one of my students came home his wife nearly kicked him out of the house for being an idiot, but his twelve-year-old daughter came to his defense, “Daddy’s teacher was out there, too.” My wife was more understanding. She just shook her head and pointed to the washing machine and the shower. Julie wasn’t surprised I was a mess because she knows that I’m a firm believer in playing in the mud. Learning in the mud: As a kid, you learn a lot by playing in the mud. You learn that you have to walk differently in mud, and that if the mud is real deep it can suck your shoes and socks off. You also learn that there is a whole other world under the surface of the earth. You find that we share this planet with all types of creatures, some of them inhabit our nightmares, but we depend on all of them. You learn how deep roots go; how trees grow from acorns; and that bottles can stay buried forever without decaying. If you play in the mud, you learn that rubies and emeralds are hard to find, but that there are lots of other beautiful rocks hidden away. You learn how to help nature grow things. In short, you learn. Playing in the mud can lead you to become an agriculturalist, an archaelogist, a geologist, a paleontologist, an entymologist, or any number of other ‘ologists, and that’s not all. Potter’s clay is just a more refined form of mud, but it is the raw material of the artist. I don’t know for sure, but I bet that before Micheangelo created his Moses, Pieta, or David, he played with a lot of clay and mud. Playing in the mud can lead you to surprising discoveries. This mud player became a historian and a theologian. I think I would have had a harder time wading through all of the murky waters of history and theology if I hadn’t spent a childhood in the mud. Salem What’s all this got to do with us today here at Salem? Our students may look prim and proper, but believe it or not, we encourage our women to play in the mud. We affirm the motto of the Magic School Bus on PBS “Get dirty, make mistakes, learn something.” Few of our classes involve literal mud, but many of them do get you metaphorically muddy. The answers are not cut and dried; students have to work for themselves to clear up their confusion. They have to learn the important lesson that you have to live with confusion and ambiguity. Most important, they learn to explore and to make mistakes. Making Mistakes This can be a hard lesson. We very much want to get the right answer and make a perfect grade on the test. Many of us go through every day of life as if God is grammar teacher marking down every mistake. The fear of being wrong keeps us from striving for the right answer. Instead of taking the risk of being wrong, we say or do nothing. We play it safe and keep our skirts clean, but we don’t learn anything that way; we don’t do anything that way; we don’t make the world a better place. Studies have shown that this is particularly true of girls in school. Around seventh grade, the average girl in the average school stops raising her hand to answer or ask questions. In part this is a response to the fact that teachers tend to call on the boys, but it is also because in many and various ways our society teaches young women to stay neat and clean. Women risk a lot when they speak up in school. If they succeed they are branded as significantly undatable. If they fail they are ashamed. So it is safer not to try at all. It is the easy way; the safe way; the clean way, but it is not thebest way. Unfortunately much of our nation’s education is geared this way. In school we learn that wrong answers get us punished with a red X, the scarlet letter of the academy. We learn that there are schedules to keep; grades to master; a limited body of knowledge to memorize. The one question we learn to ask constantly is “is this going to be on the test?” We learn there is only one right answer. I remember that my shop teacher in seventh grade kept telling us that there is one tool for every job and a job for every tool. I still think that shows a lack of creativity. I think you can do almost anything with a Swiss Army knife and a rope. But most schools don’t teach us that. Grades By the time we get to high school we have been taught over and over that the point of school is to get a good grade. If you think about it that’s a ridiculous idea. The point of school is to learn, perhaps even to learn how to learn. Grades are only a way the teachers acknowledge that you have learned. Getting the grade without going through the process is worthless. Cheating is a way to avoid the mud; to keep from taking the risk; therefore it keeps you from learning. If you get the grade without the work, you have nothing. Character Playing in the mud is a way not only to develop people’s minds; it is a way to strengthen their characters. I’ve been talking about taking risks, experiencing things, making mistakes, and even getting dirty, but this does not mean self-destructing through drugs, sex, or thrill-seeking. It has been my experience that young people who walk on the wild side are ones that have not discovered how to learn and grow. They turn to drugs and sex to block out their minds and souls; to stop the endless yearning and avoid the pain of growth. Those who turn to sex and drugs are not taking risks, they are trying to avoid them. They are so afraid of mistakes and failure that they turn to something to give them a quick and easy thrill, a thrill anyone can have. The best way to help children avoid drugs and premature sexuality is not just to say no; it is to discover the joy and challenge of living and learning. Women who have learned to enjoy life and live with the ambiguity of life are less likely to take short cuts such as drugs, cheating, and lying provide. The Church I hate to admit it, but the Christian Church often teaches us the wrong message. Instead of opening us up to the joy of discovering the workings of God in all of creation, churches often try to lock us in to old answers. Instead of teaching us to learn from God, we are told to be content with the answers we’ve been given. Instead of helping us to probe our doctrines and scriptures for meaningful truths and deeper insights, we are told to live by another person’s interpretation. Too often the church has confused morality with ignorance of the world. We often equate morality with shutting ourselves off from the rythyms of life, but true morality is intended to help us go out into the world. Moral teaching gives us the rules and resources we need to go out into society, raise families, run businesses, and find new solutions to difficult problems. The true message of Christ is a call to live as fully living, imperfect human beings. When we read the Bible with open eyes we see that the Old Testament is full of people of genius and courage challenging the old assumptions. We see Deborah leading her people in war and prophesying in the name of God. We see Elijah challenging the powerful and being driven into exile, but in his despair discovering the reality of the one God. Jesus In the New Testament we see Jesus probing people’s souls, asking them questions without a single answer. Jesus frustrated many of his hearers. They came to him for the answers. They wanted to know what was going to be on God’s final exam, and instead Jesus asks them questions and gives them stories to think about. In our readings for today, Jesus sent his students out into the world without all the answers. He says, go and do what you can to help others. When they came back, they told him of their successes and their failures. Jesus sent them out into the mud of life and there they found their potential and their faith. Learning The greatest tools in learning are a probing curiosity, a flexible spirit, , and a willingness to be wrong in order to find what is right. The best thing that a school or a teacher or a pastor or a church can do is to develop these natural gifts in students. It is important to impart knowledge, but it is even more important to lead students to the fountain of knowledge; to help them discover the truth for themselves. In short, to help them play in the mud. I think this is what Salem is all about. We push our students; question them and offer different points of view so that they will question back and offer their ideas. We send them into the world of work, of learning, and of service where they will see for themselves that some questions have many answers and when you encounter a problem you have to roll up your sleeves and get a little dirty while you fix it. We give them ancient texts and help them to read with their own eyes; to challenge accepted answers; to try new approaches. We grade them and they learn that a bad grade is not the end of the world, it is the call to excel. We build young women’s esteem by sharpening their minds and letting them make mistakes. I hope that we can learn to do the same thing in our home, our own lives, and in our churches.

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  • Brad Jones  On March 4, 2010 at 2:45 am

    Amen! It is a dangerous thing when people don’t think, regardless of whatever views they claim to hold to. I don’t think we should neglect or disregard the wisdom of those who have gone before us. I also don’t think we should blindly accept everything we are told. I feel as though a lot of modern education is “giving a man a fish” instead of “teaching a man to fish”. Praise God for people like you who truly care about giving students a real education. Some of my fondest memories are of classes I took with teachers who wanted me to actually THINK. And in being in their classes, my life was forever changed.

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