Roxy is the chaplain at St. Cuthbert’s college in central Auckland. It’s her first call, and not at all where she was expecting to be when she set out on her internship.
Last week I took a mid-week chapel service for a group of senior school girls. I began by introducing them to the book of psalms as a collection of songs and prayers that reflect the people of Israel’s responses to the journey of life and faith. Some of them are raw, and some polished. Some are personal and some are communal. I explained how psalms are sung and said as part of worship, and that, depending on where we are in our own journey, the feelings or thoughts expressed may not connect with us at this point. But that doesn’t mean we can’t say them because we don’t agree.
Then I played them ‘don’t let me down’ by The Chainsmokers, and we had a practice saying the words antiphonally, recognising that in all likelihood, most of us weren’t actually feeling as desperate as the lyrics suggested.
Which led us to the Lenten psalm of repentance, Psalm 51.
And before we attempted that, I told them the story of David, Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite to give them the background associated with the psalm. There were looks of surprise and a frisson of scandalous delight as the story unfolded and then frowns of disapproval as David spiraled further into deceit and manipulation.
Clearly the majority of the girls had never heard this story before.
Once I had done all that preparation, I introduced them to the psalm, (The Message version), and we recited some selected verses antiphonally.
Of course, then I had to unpack and re-frame some of the language and images for them.
In all this, I was struck by the freshness of their response to scripture. They hadn’t heard a hundred sermons about it; they hadn’t already switched into autopilot at the familiarity of the opening words; they didn’t think they already knew what the story had to tell them – what it means and how they ought to apply it to their life.
And they said the psalm with palpable and authentic reluctance and discomfort – which if we are honest, if we said the psalm with any integrity, we’d feel that way about it too. Because it’s a hard psalm, which confronts us with a depth of guilt most of us are not able to fathom, and a depth of vulnerability and humility most of us find out of reach.
There are many challenging aspects of school chaplaincy, but this freshness is such a blessing. Just like any congregation, there is still much for the girls to unlearn when it comes to faith, although for them it is mostly a question of whether it has anything to offer or anything of significance to say.
But I wonder if this very obvious resistance isn’t easier to identify and work with than that of those who have been brought up in the faith, or, who already know the stories, the commandments, the ‘right’ answers, the ‘proper’ behaviour, the ‘correct’ interpretation, the ‘accepted’ application.