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Saturday, 20 July 2013

Kerouac, Bergson, God: the Doppler Effect of school

22nd JULY 2013

Opening Prayer

God our Creator
you gather us
from many different places and cultures
to live and learn and grow together.
Bless our school community
and all who teach, study, learn and serve
in this place.

Grow in us
your Spirit of wisdom and courage
that we may make the most of the joys and the challenges of this day,
and of every day to come.

Inspire us
through the example of Jesus,
to help one another shape
a world that is beautiful and strong,
and a tomorrow that overflows
with justice and kindness.


Some of you will know that I am an addict of driving. It’s hardly unique to me, but the road, not exactly endless but hopefully long, not necessarily winding but whatever terrain dictates, is my preferred metaphor for human existence. Of course it has been a metaphor for life since long before the time of Jesus, probably since the first amoeba climbed out of the swamp with their Satnav perched on their dashboard (distracting them, I should warn, from the real primary task of navigation, though that might be another matter), but I probably first engaged with it as I pretended to read the novels of Jack Kerouac during my teenage years.

Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life wrote Kerouac. Amen, I gasped breathily, using a word I refused ever to voice in school chapel services but which I found paradoxically appropriate when reading the so-called (and self-named) beat poets. Or perhaps it was Joni Mitchell, and particularly her “Coyote” and “Refuge of the Roads” (amongst other songs) that implanted endless highways and by-ways in my soul.

For me within the road of life the real world of driving was, alongside one or two other activities, the pinnacle of human experience. Which is why I have just driven down to Sydney and back … 60 hours of wheels turning with the occasional bout of sleep in the back seat and endless is my idea of heaven coffee (though for other than addicts like me the coffee is undrinkable from Mount Isa to Katherine: the only worse coffee I have experienced was in US diners).

This may not be your idea of heaven. (Perhaps it may also mean I can claim the gig on tax as research, as it now forms the basis of my reflection for the beginning of a new semester). Nevertheless, here we are, on the road, reflecting on our jobs in which our primary role is to nurture others, nurture our successors on the road that they, too will travel, and indeed are travelling already.

Funnily enough, if we were to read the set reading for the day as I did at this gig this time last year on my first day in the school we would find Abraham setting out on a road to a desert: the desert perhaps more than anywhere else is the place I encounter the breathings of the divine. The desert though is a place we cannot stay, and tomorrow our main game begins once more. Still, Abraham, the great mythical patriarch, may have something to say to us:

Genesis 12:1-9

The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages towards the Negeb.

 Scientists among you will know far more than I do about the Doppler effect. Do not expect from this arts graduate a scientific analysis, but it provides a powerful metaphor. Usually applied with reference to sound or light waves I suggest it applies also to life-waves. I suggest too, since we are a school that teaches philosophy, that the much-forgotten Philosopher Henri Bergson might help us here, for although he doesn’t, as far as I know, speak of “time-waves” this kind of Doppler effect on the timeline of human lives is exactly what we are on about. You and I – all of us – are in the business of “life-waves” and “time-waves”, and in particular the life waves and time-waves of young humans. For better or for worse, as we look back on our lives, those in the educational sector (not just our teachers, but all school staff) are, after our parents and siblings, amongst the greatest single area of influence on the formation and direction that we have taken. Like the Doppler effect (yes: that is to say the “observed frequency equals velocity of waves plus velocity of the receiver relative to the  medium, all over the velocity of waves plus velocity of the source relative to the medium, all multiplied by the emitted frequency”, for those who care) the impact of our influence over young people’s lives is extended, swollen as it were in the passing through, disproportionate (here perhaps the Doppler metaphor breaks down) to the passing rate of time. There is a moment in time when we have the responsibility to nurture the potential in the lives of the children in our care, so that they can in turn midwife the very best future imaginable for times ahead that many of us will never see.

I mention Bergson. He is a largely forgotten philosopher today because he is not rational, sensible, scientific or empirical. He believed and taught that time is what we perceive it to be. Forget the ticking of the clock. The ticking of the clock says that we will have considerably less than 220, 898, 482 seconds – that would be a full, every moment of seven years – to influence our young charges’ lives. We have a gobsmack less time than that: the figure is, if we have one subject’s exposure to a child for say 30 weeks of each of seven years,  an opportunity of a mere 693,000 seconds. In that time, assuming their full concentration and ours, we needs must inculcate in them enthusiasm for the subject that we love, tools to explore and utilize that subject, and a few other life skills besides. It was the theologian Paul who said “all have sinned and full short of the glory of God” – at the very least, if we don’t take on board the Judaeo-Christian doctrines of God and sin, we must acknowledge “all fall short of the potential of 693,000 seconds.”

Bergson, though, said that time is not the ticking of a clock. So does the Judaeo-Christian doctrine of time, incidentally, because it argues that all time is pregnant with the Doppler effect of sacred potential. But let’s leave that for a moment: perhaps we might all instead remember a teacher who changed the potential of our own lives. I remember a class teacher when I was a ten year old who destroyed any potential I ever had in mathematics when he demolished my confidence by bawling me out in front of a class for a close but wrong answer to a maths problem. I was proud of my answer, to be so close, but rather than fine tune my performance he destroyed in a moment my embryonic love of his subject, and I have floundered at anything resembling maths ever since. But I remember too with thanksgiving my fourth form (year eight) English teacher who inculcated in my sprouting soul a love of the written word, a love that has stood me in good stead long after he died, on and out to this day forty years after he introduced me to a love of sentences and clauses, paragraphs and phrases, rhyming patterns and rhythms. The Doppler effect of these two men (they happened to be men) was immeasurable, and yours will be too. No matter your role in the educational community (for I remember kitchen staff, boarding house staff, grounds and medical staff with similar Doffler proportions) their impact was immeasurable (like sacred time).

Some of you will believe in the God I believe in, the God of Jesus Christ, others will not. But I suggest to us all that, if we are truly going to nurture in our charges the values and beliefs we address in our school mission, in the lives of our students, we dare not do it on our own. We are, if we are to be part of the Doppler effect of education, enmeshed in a bounden duty to enlist the support and teamwork of those around us, to dwell in the greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts movement of a school community. Perhaps we might learn even to whisper in our hearts our recognition of the need for a power far greater than we can imagine or comprehend, far greater than rationalism, far greater than mere human ability, the power that Judaeo-Christian and many other philosophers call Spirit, and the power that Christians believe is ultimately revealed in the remarkable Doppler effect of a humble, justice-proclaiming man who lived in Nazareth two millennia ago.

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life” wrote Jack Kerouac. The road ahead of the children in our care is life, too. Let us hope and even pray that the Doppler Effect we have on these lives may lead them into strong, wholesome futures that in turn lead them into a future filled with the realization of their own and humanity’s potential. For so great a task it is no shame to ask the help of a power greater than our selves or our small imaginings!

And of course, this chaplain wouldn’t be who he is if he did not leave with one final song to shape your thoughts on the Doffler effect of your vocation: do not expect the profoundest of complex lyrics, but perhaps more than most this song takes you into the depths of human potential: take time to listen and then go with God into the demands of this day and the remainder of this year.

PLAY: Les Miserables: “Little People”

Lyrics available at

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