Back to School, again and again and again


There is something about this time of year that makes me think of going back to school, even though it has been quite a while since I was in school. The end of summer is in sight and fall is around the corner. There is something in me that wants to stock up on some new supplies and maybe get some new clothes. It is time start fresh with a new year.

Perhaps there is something in this ritual of a new season that also points us to change and possibility. There is something that reminds us that, no matter what our age, we are all learning, we are all growing. We are never finished with school.

Now change is the one thing we can count on in life—at least that’s what somebody thought to be wise said once. And yet how is it that we are open or not open to that change? What are those routines—maybe those ruts—we get into that really keep us from embracing that change or at least seeing the possibility in that change? Maybe there is something about this time of year that makes it easier to get off that proverbial dime.

And sometimes it seems for some of us there are lessons that we have to keep learning over and over again, sometimes it seems just because that is our path and there is something in that lesson that is never going to stick for us and so we keep learning and learning and learning and hopefully, one day will find the answer.

Life, we learn, can be a very good teacher.

A businessman is scheduled to attend a conference in a faraway city and he decides to travel on country roads instead of on the freeway so that he can enjoy his journey and relax. But after several hours of traveling he realizes he is hopelessly lost. Seeing a farmer tending his field on the side of the road, he stopped to ask for directions. “Can you tell me how far it is to Chicago?” he asked the farmer. “Well, I don’t rightly know,” the farmer replied. “Well, can you tell me how far I am from New York?” the businessman questioned again. “Well, I don’t rightly know,” the farmer again replied. “Can you at least tell me the quickest way to the main road?” the exasperated businessman asked. “No, I don’t rightly know,” the farmer again answered.”

“You really don’t know very much at all, do you?” blurted the impatient businessman. “Nope, but I’m not the one who is lost,” the farmer calmly answered.

Sometimes it is when we are lost that we have to begin our search. Think about those times in life when we are thrown for a curve. Think about those times when we don’t know what will happen. It is in that moment that something new can emerge. At least I think that is how life is. Day by day and in the process of experiencing life we learn more about who we are. We learn about where it is we are called to go.

The philosopher John Keats talked about it as the work of the soul. He said: “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”

Schooling an intelligence and making it a soul.

All of our lives we are learning and growing creatures. It is in the living of our lives that we come into the fullness of who we are.

How our souls get shaped comes down to mystery. We are born with inherent qualities. We are influenced by the people and environments around us. All of this shapes us to become the people we become. And still so much of our response to any given event will vary from person to person. Over time our lives take a shape and form unique to us.

What is asked of us no matter what our age is that we keep learning. We are asked to be in the present time and bring into it all the experience that life has brought us. One experience is integrated into all our other experiences. Life moves, maybe not in a straight line as much as it moved in a circle.

We come to know that there is knowledge and that there is wisdom and that the two are not the same. Wisdom doesn’t just come from a certain amount of classroom hours or from reaching a certain age. It is something much more mysterious.

Knowledge is important. Knowing what’s going on in the world is important. But it is also important to be in touch with the many kinds of knowing. How it is we embody gratitude and compassion and love.

What I have found, maybe you have too, is that as I know more I also come to know all that I don’t know. Life is strange like that. What I find is that the two seem to live side by side—the known and the unknown. Sometimes it is the simple awareness of how the universe is vast and complex and there simply are things that over and over again we keep learning.

In all of this there’s a paradox. Life gets more complex and at the same time it gets simpler. Wisdom, perhaps, is finding ourselves in that place of clarity. When we come round right as the Quakers might say.

The writer Thomas Moore introduces the idea, a little tongue-in-cheek, that we consider a system he calls “lower education.” He writes, “In this school a student comes to us with a Ph. D. and after four years of “learning” we withdraw the degree andthe next step is a four-year high school course, beginning as a senior and “advancing” to freshman, when we take away the diploma. Finally come the elementary years, beginning with eighth grade and descending to first. After completing the first grade the student becomes the teacher.”

Robert Fulghum, who was the author of our story for all ages today, is a UU minister and quite a few years ago now he wrote a bestselling book called, “All I Really need to know I learned in Kindergarten.” and I think there was some wisdom in that.

We all are asked to be learners in a particular kind of way. We are asked to live with our hearts open—to the beauty and brokenness of the creation—that we are constantly schooling our intelligence that our souls might grow.

There is a lot that makes things complicated these days. These days we are witnessing what feels like a surge of violence and hatred in our world. The news a couple weeks back of the violence in Charlottesville, VA, and some of the response, or lack of response, from our leaders. What is so difficult is the sense of going backwards, moving away from the beloved community, not towards it.

Even when the impulse might be to want to withdraw from the world, perhaps the spiritual task is to open ourselves to it—to bear witness to it. It means being willing to look at our own privilege and how that can keep us from being present with the suffering of the world and what we might do about that.

Gary Rhine is a Jewish filmmaker whose lifelong dream was to make a pilgrimage to Israel. After many years he ventured there with his youngest daughter, Odessa.

He writes: “One of the highlights, or maybe I should call it a low point of the trip, was our visit to Yad Vasem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. We spent several hours experiencing the multimedia presentations describing the horrible events which befell the European Jews. We saw the museum collection of uniforms and weapons of the perpetrators, and the personal possessions of the victims, and letters and poetry they wrote and paintings they created during the time.

“We spent the last part of the day in a unique memorial to the children killed by the Nazis. Standing in a darkened room, lit only by the stars of a synthetically created night sky, we listened to the names, one by one, of the young victims. The names went on and on and on. As I stood there crying, I felt the energy from my heart and from my soul draining out.

“For the next many days, I felt spiritually empty. Questions gnawed. How could human beings get themselves to a state of mind to want to do these terrible things to other humans? How could the rest of the world have allowed it to happen? And the most daunting questions for me—if humanity is capable of such evil toward one another, what’s the use of working to make the world a better place? Because up until then, I believed it was my responsibility as a spiritual person to make serious efforts to improve the state of the world. But why? What could I do that would ever overcome this amazing potential for evil?

During the flight home, as his daughter slept, Rhine had a realization. His words again: “The appropriate reaction to this experience was not one of giving up. It was to double my efforts. If humanity was capable of astounding evil, then it must also be capable of astounding goodness and compassion. I needed to do something strong to off-set the evil. Immediately, I felt myself filling back up with energy. In only a couple of minutes, I went from the empty, wilted and depressed feeling I’d carried around since Yad Vashem to an abundant, determined feeling. My next realization was that what had just happened to me was a religious experience, an epiphany.“

Sometimes these days when I look out at the state of the world I feel a kind of spiritual emptiness. We live in times where there seems to be rage all around us. Too often the world is focused on an eye for an eye and not how we might all see together. And sometimes that rage is in us. And sometimes it is hard to not become brittle and only live in that place of anger and fear.

It comes with the awareness—and the pain—of realizing that we have perhaps not come as far as we had hoped when it comes to eliminating hated and bigotry, the awareness that progress can be fleeting.

It is our task first of all to recognize that pain, to recognize that fear, and to recognize too that we can respond, that we can be part of he healing. It was good to see so many people march yesterday in San Francisco against hate. It is good to see people coming together here too, and in so many places in recent days.

We are asked once again to recognize that we are lifelong learners and that that process never ends. Sometimes we are asked to keep with it—to pray, to march, to do what it is we are called to do.

And this, I think, is where the lifelong learning comes in. We are asked to see the world differently. We are asked to stay open and to open our hearts. We are asked to pay attention to what might show us a new way, a different way, maybe a scary one, maybe outside of our comfort zones, but the way toward compassion and love, the way towards hope and possibility. We are asked to see how change is possible—and how we, in the lives we live, make real the beloved community.

This week the eclipse was the big news here in Oregon. While I will be fine if I never hear the phrase the path of totality ever again, I was struck by just how awe inspiring the eclipse was for so many. There are those moments when we see our lives as part of some vast and mysterious universe… when we get a glimpse of our lives and how they are part of something much larger.

And perhaps that is the place we are asked to put ourselves every day. Maybe that is what is at the heart of being learners our whole lives. it calls us towards humility be also into the space of mystery and wonder. It calls us to see in change hope and possibility—for ourselves and for what is around us. To be reminded of just how vast the creation is and how we are part of that creation.

May that be the classroom we all get assigned to this year.



Spirit of life, be with us in all our days. In all of our days help us to live fully in the midst of many changes, many deaths and many births. Help us live with the complexities of life, help us to be lifelong learners. Cultivate in us trust in the knowing and also in the unknowing. Grant us wisdom and courage. Grant us hope in all of our days. Amen.


Give yourself to life, as life gives itself to you, good people. Go this day in love and in hope. Amen.