of blessed memory

I can still remember the way the light fell on her bed. The eyes that danced between laughter and fear. Her wild brown hair, the way her fingers flashed as she spoke. The deep stillness that came when she ran out of words and had told her story enough times to hear the truth of it: love is stronger than death. She knew it and had said it.

It’s been ten years now since I met her, and ten years since she died. But sometimes I can still feel her, as vivid as ever. We met when I was doing a chaplaincy placement at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. For a few months I got to walk the wards, sit by the bedsides, offer companionship and hear people’s stories. It was one of the most intense and blessed forms of ministry I have known.

Most days, it was hard to say what I had done. Bed to bed — being welcomed or scowled at. Facing the (bewildering) question: ‘Catholic or Protestant?’ Offering the bewildering answer ‘both,’ when I dared. Often it was no more that a break in their day — someone to talk to, a means of distraction. Sometimes they wanted help with something — a magazine out of reach, a cup of water. And often there would be days and days of watchfulness, hesitancy, courage-gathering before they would say, ‘yes, please do stay. I’d like for you to be here.’

It was a precious gift they gave me.

It all came back to me yesterday as I sat on the train to Edinburgh. I was reading Ewan Kelly’s new book: Personhood and Presence. Ewan was my supervisor at the Royal, and the book took me right back to the table in his office, where we would review the day.

Ewan is one of those people whose influence in my life is disproportionate.  He was my supervisor for only a few months. I was brand new. I knew nothing. We met formally, briefly, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have the slightest idea who I am. But when I remember him, I can feel the angels hovering as we reflected on what we had seen and heard and done.

Most of what Ewan taught me was about seeing the holy. He taught me to wait through the silences, or (harder…) to listen four times to the story, till the person could hear their own words. He helped me have the courage to believe in what I was doing — in what we were there to do — when there was so little to show for it, no way to be sure if it had mattered at all. And he taught me to enjoy it: to accept that when God stepped in, the gift was for both of us — patient and chaplain alike.

More than anything, he taught me– (though I only partially learned) — to accept my limitations. The first day, he gave an instruction: “If you come in and you are not feeling well, if you are worn out or sad, if you find yourself thinking ‘I don’t know if I can do this today,’ then don’t go onto the ward.” Read. Write. Think. Rest. Pray. But don’t go on the ward. His point was that we needed to accept that there were times when we had nothing to give — and that pretending otherwise would always be more about our needs that those we were trying to serve. His point was that when we found ourselves ’empty’, we needed to be filled — and the most responsible thing we could do in our care for others was to accept our own needs and limitations. It’s obvious, of course, and I’d heard it all before; but he made it true in the living of it, and tried to help me do the same.

So, this is a belated acknowledgement. Thank you, Ewan, for wisdom, grace, and shared moments of wonder. You taught well. I am still trying to learn.


I am still thinking about what it would mean if we taught wonder rather than region.  But before I get there, I want to share something I stumbled across.

Yesterday, while thinking about potential changes to the ICT curriculum, I went hunting for information on what schools actually do.  I was asking myself the question: ‘how does RE work on the ground?’.  In other words, how does all of that promising vagary really translate in the classroom.  I found a website for a nearby school which had curriculum related links for students, parents and teachers.

Under ‘Christianity’ and ‘Christians’ it offered this:

Christian beliefs and traditions

Christian people believe

  • There is one God.
  • God made the world.
  • God has three parts – The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
  • Jesus is God’s son.
  • When people die they go to heaven or hell.
  • God sent Jesus to the world to save people.
  • Jesus
    • was born at Christmas.
    • showed people how to live a good life.
    • died on a cross at Easter.
    • came alive again and went to heaven to live with God.

Now, you may think I’m about to have a go at that school’s RE curriculum.  I’m not.  I’m going to leave that to your imaginations, and to your comments.  No, no.  This is a failure of ICT.  Someone found a link and assumed it was reputable.  They trusted the nice people who provide resources for the hearing disabled, and forgot to ask whether they were equally conversant in Christian faith.

It’s a terribly difficult thing, teaching.  And it’s tricky, too, identifying the right resources.  So, I’m adding to my list.  Let us teach wonder and discernment instead of RE and ICT.  I’m sure I could make a course on wonder and discernment tick all the cross-curricular boxes. I’m willing to start tomorrow, so long as we can agree that there will be no exams, no red ink, and no end to the learning.


Today the secretary of education has offered a radical proposal: instead of teaching children how to use computer programs, we should be teaching them how to create programs. We should be helping them understand — and thus continually reinvent — how computers work.

There have been some splendid quotes flitting around the BBC about the pointlessness of wasting teaching time on Word and Powerpoint when today’s children can master such programmes in a week.  And there have been heartfelt comments about the ways in which students and teachers alike are ‘bored to death’ with the ICT curriculum.

I wish this were so.  I fear too often the teachers are scared to death of the curriculum, even as the students are bored.  And that makes me wonder about the Religious Education curriculum, too.

The RE curriculum is a slippery thing. The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence sounds promising in its stated goals for RE, though I wonder whether most adult Christians could demonstrate sufficient understanding to thrive at Key Stage 4.  In England, it seems more confusing.  If I have understood this right, RE is non-statutory, and thus the Deparment of Education guidelines are deliciously vague (proving insightful understanding and mirroring of the church?).  Each school must teach RE in a way that reflects the religious realities of Britain.  Each school must have an approved curriculum.  Beyond that there is much wriggle room, to allow for different types of schools and different religious traditions.  And, if that is not enough, then parents can always ‘opt out’ of religious education altogether, which raises all sorts of questions about just how essential RE is.

But despite all this, I have a hunch that the teaching of RE is not so very different from the teaching of ICT.  I remember clearly the RE exam questions which could offer a similar number of points (and time) for questions as diverse as ‘what are the five pillars of Islam’ and ‘explain what problems are caused for religious believers by the problem of suffering.’  Over and over again, religion was presented as that which could be reduce to a three point answer: the RE equivalent of rewarding ICT points for multi-coloured fonts and zooming images.

The proposals for the ICT curriculum suggest that we should be teaching children how to think about computers: how do they work? how do I need to think to understand them?  and then, with those basics in place, what creativity can I offer to help shape ICT for the future?

What if we asked the same questions for the RE curriculum? How does religion work? (so, we might begin with: what shapes religious consciousness?  what happens spiritually, cognitively, socially, morally, experientially?)  How do I need to think to understand religious belief? (openness to possibility, desire for meaning, capacity for wonder, bracketing of scepticism to explore trust, experiencing real change of heart…).  And then, the really interesting one: what creativity can I offer to help shape Christianity… Islam… Judaism… Hinduism… for the future?

Behind all this, I’ve been wondering what would happen if we tried to educate children in wonder rather than religion.  But that is for another post.

Today, I simply want to say ‘hurrah for the secretary of education.  RE next, please.’

play time

It’s definitely beginning.  My brain is coming out of slumber and seeking stimulus.  Bill Bryson has fallen into the ‘only late at night’ slot, and theology-lite books that looked promising last week are good for five minutes, but then I get bored.  Truth is, I’m bored with proper theology too right now.  Not with God.  Just with talk about God.

Enter random internet browsing…  and thus, TED talks.

This is today’s find:  Khan Academy.

The classroom teaching that I most enjoyed was Middle School Writing & Reading Workshops.  Nancie Atwell was the guru, and it is all very old and very ancient now.  Except that the good of it still seems not to have permeated British classrooms, and the model of education still stirs excitement for me.

Basically, the method says that to learn to read we must read, to learn to write we must write, and to become accomplished at anything at all, we must first make lots and lots of mistakes and not be afraid of them.

(call me on that one later — my educational philosophy says, ‘lots and lots of mistakes are good’.  my current life path says, ‘terrible mistake.  can’t possibly do that again.’)

I loved the workshop method because students were excited about what they were doing. I got to teach the moment instead of the curriculum (though that happened too).  And it was a whole lot easier to convince them of the merits of a semi-colon when the use of one suddenly added humour and pace to the narrative they were trying to create.  But I’ve always thought of the workshop model simply in terms of the English classroom.

Kahn Academy applies it right across the board — first with maths, and then with all sorts of other things. The ‘core teaching’ is done through video and progressive exercises that can be done at home; which means that the classroom teacher has infinite flexibility to respond to the needs of the individuals and to make time for creative exploration and application of ideas.   Better still:  it is all free, and you don’t have to be in 12 grade to learn Calculus.  Or to relearn in my case.  But I suspect I need to start with the 8th graders, and Algebra One.

(actually, for those of you who remember Hermione’s Heaven:  go to the exorcizes and follow the tree from the root.  Lots of gold stars to be had, while you remember the happy buzz of grade school.)