Playing the Game of Life - address given by Sir Lloyd Geering.
It is an honour to be invited to speak on this occasion when we are celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Foundation of Otago Boy's High School. It is especially meaningful for me that it takes place in this church. It was here that I became a communicant member of the Presbyterian Church about a year after I left school. And that was due to a school friend from Otago Boys’ High, for during my five years at school I was never once inside a church. My friendship with Ellis Dick, a classmate for each of the five years, continued when we went to Otago University. We often played tennis together. On one occasion he invited me to a meal at his home and then to church. Before long I was in the Bible class, singing in the choir and even teaching in the Sunday School. And it was in this church, a few years later, that I was licensed as a Presbyterian minister.
Moreover, it was the minister of this Church, the Revd. Allen Stevely, who addressed the Annual Prize Giving ceremony in my first year as a pupil of Otago Boy's High School. That was 1931. He evidently made an impression on me for I can remember his topic to this day. Still reverberating in my oral memory are the Scottish tones in which he exhorted us to "Play up, Play up and Play the Game".
So that seemed to be an appropriate historical anecdote on which to base these reflections about celebrating 150 years of the life of Otago Boys' High School. How well did our school prepare us to play the game of life?
You may think that life is too serious a business to liken it to a game. To this I respond - the way we learn to play team games has a great deal to offer to the way we live out our lives. In the days when expanding European Empires were looked on with more approval than they are today, it used to be said that the virtues which promoted the growth of the powerful British Empire were learned on the playing-fields of Eton.
For similar reasons most secondary schools devote a good deal of time and energy to team sports. When I enrolled at OBHS in 1931 the playing of sporting games was still regarded as an optional extra, for they took place outside of school class hours. In 1934 a new Rector came to OBHS, in the person of Percy Kidson and he set about making a number of drastic changes. One of them was to make the playing of team games compulsory for all boys. So he included it in the school curriculum in the same way as gymnastics had long been accepted as such and it was time-tabled for every Wednesday afternoon. As I understand his reasoning, this was not just to ensure that boys had some physical exercise, for that was already catered for by regular sessions in the gymnasium. Rather, it was because of what team sports teach us. They teach us, in short, how to "play the game".
Perhaps no less a person than Jesus of Nazareth would have agreed with him, for he chose the playing of games as a topic for one of his parables. But to appreciate what he said, you need to know the bare outlines of what has been happening in biblical scholarship in the last two centuries. Before that, and from at least the second century onwards, it was believed by all Christians that Jesus was a divine figure - the Son of God, whom the Heavenly Father had sent down to earth to save us humans from our sins and to ensure for us an everlasting place in heaven when we die. That message was still being preached in this church by the Reverend Allen Stevely in the 1930's.
But that understanding of who Jesus was and did began to be challenged as far back as the 1830s with the epoch-making work of the German scholar David Strauss. 20th century scholarship took much further a process we may call the ‘deconstruction of the traditional figure of Jesus Christ’. It came increasingly to be realised that the traditional mental image of Jesus as the Saviour of the world was largely a creation of Christians in the early centuries. Some scholars even feared that the deconstruction would go so far that we would find ourselves having no reliable knowledge at all of that historical figure who lay behind the traditional image of Jesus Christ.
But in the last thirty years a more positive answer has been brought to light by the painstaking work of a community of scholars (mainly in the United States) known as the Jesus Seminar. After removing the divine cloak with which early Christian devotion had so quickly clothed the original figure from Galilee they uncovered what they call "a Jesus we never knew". They found genuine traces of the footprints and the voiceprints of an itinerant Jewish teacher - a man who, in only a short time, had become so popular among the country folk of Galilee that the Roman authorities, knowing Galilee to be the seedbed of political unrest, believed him to be a such a threat to their rule that they had to get rid of him.
What has chiefly survived about this man are the account of his shocking death by crucifixion, his striking one-liners (now gathered in the Sermon on the Mount) and his parables. These are little stories about how to live everyday life. They often have an unexpected ending - one that prompts the hearer to jump out of his or her mindset and see life differently. They make it clear that Jesus never promoted himself as a divine figure. Indeed he did not talk about himself at all. He did not even talk much about God. Rather he spoke of the Kingdom of God saying "It's like this and like this". By 'Kingdom of God' he did not mean the Kingdom of David that his fellow-Jews longed to see restored. Rather he was describing the kind of human society in which people could live life in the most fulfilling way possible. If Jesus did believe he had a mission, then in our contemporary language it would sound something like this. "My mission is to help you to live life to the full".
It is in this context of these parables about life that, on one occasion, Jesus chose the theme of playing games. He used his parable to demonstrate to the people who followed him how fickle crowds could easily become. He had observed this during his own short lifetime.
When Jesus left his home in Nazareth he first became an ardent disciple of John the Baptist, a preacher known for his fierce denunciations of all evil-doers and his self-imposed lifestyle of asceticism. Jesus soon reacted against that approach to life. He changed tack, and set off on his own, teaching what he believed to be a more complete and positive message about life. Even though he continued to admire the Baptist, he found John's teaching too negative and extreme, and his life of abstinence in the desert quite unfulfilling. Jesus abandoned the ascetic style of John the Baptist and lived a much more normal social life along with friends and followers.
But he was surprised by the criticism he was receiving from some quarters. He fully understood why people had become very critical of John the Baptist, saying the man must be mad to go about in goat-skins and live on locusts in the desert. But to Jesus’ surprise, these very same people were now criticising him for enjoying a normal life. They were calling him a drunkard and a crony of tax-collectors and prostitutes.
The crowd was like fickle children, he said. He likened them to children who had never learned to "play the game". When some children suggested they get out their flutes and join in a joyful wedding dance, the others said they were not in the mood. "Very well", came the alternative suggestion, "Let's play at funerals and sing a dirge". There was still no positive response. They did not know how to play the game.
What team sports teach us is how to 'play the game' and to take what we have learned in them into the game of life. The first thing to do in team sports is to master the rules of the game and then keep strictly to them. That is not always as simple as it sounds. I arrived at OBHS after four years schooling in Australia. I could not make head or tail of this game of Rugby that is played here, for I was used to Australian Rules, the most popular form of football in Victoria. In spite of my ignorance, my friends insisted I play in our form team in the inter-form competition. I hadn't a clue as to what I was expected to do and, on the odd occasions when I got the ball, I threw it about with gay abandon. Of course we lost. As my friends bemoaned our loss I said I couldn't understand how we could have lost as we had kicked at least one penalty goal and they had kicked no goals at all. They had only scored ‘tries’. I assumed this to mean 'attempts to kick goals' and they never got one over. My friends looked at me in despair. So I opted for hockey and quickly learned the rules for they are much simpler. Although I am now an avid follower of the Super Fourteen I still do not understand the rules that apply during the scrums and the break-downs.
The game of life also has its rules. We call them morals. Some of them are very simple and basic, such as respect for other people. We must treat them as equals and not do to others what we do not want done to ourselves. So we respect their rights and their personal property, including their privacy. What a different world this would be if we all meticulously observed that simple rule.
I still remember an incident in which this rule was spelt out to us at school. It was not in the class-room, as it happens, but in the gymnasium, where the instructor of the day was Mr J.P.Northey - or, as we boys called him, "Nordy". Nordy had the practice of delivering little homilies during our gym sessions. We often complained to one another that they took up valuable time that we would rather have spent on the parallel bars. Yet in hindsight I realise Nordy taught us more direct philosophy of life, simple though it was, than we learned in the class-room.
One day he told us about a man so full of joie do vivre on a sunny morning as he walked down the street that he went gaily up to the first person he met and punched him in the nose. "What on earth did you do that for?"complained the injured man. "Well it's a free country, isn't it?", replied the happy man. "It is indeed", came the reply, "but your freedom ends where my nose begins". Of course we rightly value freedom but we must remember it always has limits. Otherwise it becomes license, and that is a recipe for disaster.
The second thing that the playing of team sports teaches us about the game of life is that there must be constant practice and preparation before the game. Ask Ritchie McCaw about that! Leading up to the 80 minutes of a rugby game, watched perhaps by tens of thousands of observers, are days and even weeks of gruelling preparation.
So it is with the game of life. That is the whole point of formal education from kindergarten to university. It is preparation for the game of life, and the more we put into it the more satisfaction we shall have in our later professional and social life. In the five years I was at OBHS I often heard Old Boys come up and say that their school days were the happiest days of life. I cannot say that myself. In my experience I was much happier at university and in my professional life. Although I was never unhappy at school I often found my time there a grinding experience. That was probably accentuated by the fact that I had to travel in by train every day, living as I did on a little farm at Mosgiel and in a house that had neither electricity nor running water. I had to do all my homework by the light of a kerosene lamp. I sometimes complained to my teachers about the amount of homework they set us. But they were right. They prepared me exceedingly well, first for university to follow and then for my professional life later. I have always felt profoundly grateful for the sound basic training I received at this school.
The third thing to learn from team sport is how to become a co-operative member of a team during the actual game. I read in yesterday’s Otago Daily Times that our oldest Old Boy here – 99 year old Graham Robertson – said on being interviewed that this school taught him a lot about team-work and loyalty and these qualities had served him well.
Success in team sports, such as rugby and hockey, depends on how well each player performs in the position allotted to him. The team must learn to play as one harmonious unit – like a well-oiled machine in fact. It is team skill that scores the goals and tries, much more that individual stars. We saw that demonstrated yesterday in the match with Christ College. Christ College had a wonderful First Five who scored all of their sixteen points, but they did not win the match.
So it is with the game of life. The happiness we seek for ourselves as individuals depends on how well we can co-operate harmoniously with others for the common good. Out in the world there are many different teams to which we may belong, all at the same time. They often exist in a series of concentric circles - family, work-community, professional colleagues, local community, national community. In all of these we have the responsibility to become good team-players. Co-operating with others and putting the needs of the team before our own.
But there is one particular team that I wish to refer to for it is one that we became aware of only during the course of the 20th century and most people have still to recognize its significance and importance. I refer to the global community of humankind...
When I was at school in the thirties we were still thinking in terms of nations and Empires. Up until then we never spoke of human rights and the term racist had not even been invented. We took it for granted that being of European descent and British was the highest form of being human we could aspire to. We were inclined to treat patronizingly all other nations and ethnic groups. The British Empire was our team - the team to support and the team to belong to. We valued our British Passports.
How things have changed! World War II, the collapse of the Empires, the arrival of nuclear weapons, and above all globalization, are slowly forcing us to realise that we all belong to a larger team - the human race. We are one family but a dysfunctional one. As a global human family we are at war with ourselves and have become our own worst enemies. We are like children who have not learned how to play the game of life. Martin Luther King said it all - “We learn to live together or we will not live at all”...
We find it difficult to accept that the destiny of the human race must now takes precedence over the needs of the individual nations, including our own. Yet we refuse to surrender our national sovereignty to such a body as the United Nations and become fully democratic as a race. We are slow to learn how to play the game when it comes to our common humanity.
Perhaps the earth itself may force us to work as a team, for, if we do not, it may eliminate us from its surface. We have over-populated the planet and have become like a cancerous growth threatening all other forms of life. We are polluting the water and air so essential for life. We are destroying biodiversity and making many species extinct. We are causing global warming and interfering with the delicate and intricate ecological balance that enabled life to evolve. None of these problems are confined to one or even a few nations. They can only be solved by united global action in which we work together as a team. If we do not do so, we shall be shown up to be like the fickle, small-minded and self-centred children of the Parable told by Jesus.
We live in a global world, whether we like it or not, and are involved in the game of life on the grand scale. In this twenty-first century the very future of the human species is under threat as never before. All of us, of all nations, of all colours, of all religions, must pull together as one human team. It is on such global team-work that the hope now depends on whether others will be singing (where once our voices led) ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ahead.
Scripture readings: Job 28: 12-17, 23-28: Matt. 11: 11- 19