Affliction Is A Treasure

April 27, 2017 by Ben Palpant


Moses and Christine (above)

I have taught at The Oaks for nearly twenty years. The first day assembly each year is a sobering reminder of my age when I look out over the student body and realize that most of them were not even born when I started cutting my teeth as a classical and Christian school teacher. What those students may not know is that The Oaks has shaped me as much as it will ever shape them.

There are more lessons I have learned than I could ever truly recount, but one lesson that I have learned and re-learned many times during my career was reinforced a few weeks ago when my 11th graders were studying John Donne, a metaphysical poet known most notably for quotes like, “No man is an island” and "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."

Tucked away in his remarkable Meditations and his poetry are gems like this: “Affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it” or “another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.”

That is a mouthful and can require some unravelling, which is why one student raised her hand and admitted to not really understanding what he meant when he wrote, “this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me.”

What she did not know was that I was teaching despite grief awakened by John Donne on this particular day, reliving my "goodbye" to Christine - one of my adopted mothers.

I had not planned for our readings to reveal this grief, but in God’s sovereignty, here we stood on the threshold of an encounter where our lives, separated by age, demographics, experience, hair (or the lack thereof), and tastes in music, might connect in a beautiful and meaningful way. I knew I had to tell them about Christine’s death because it was the best example to help them understand what John Donne wrote. So I did. Not without trepidation; after all, no teacher wants to cry in front of his students.

Christine was a Ugandan refugee whose husband, Moses, was a teacher at the boarding school near my childhood home in Kenya, Africa. She was an outspoken, gregarious woman with one of the biggest hearts I have ever met. She loved God with all her heart, soul, mind, and strength and she could make even the most apathetic (like yours truly) believe by sheer force of will. Christine loved God, people, and food—in that order—and she wore her feelings and her thoughts on her sleeve. I knew without a doubt when I earned her indignation and I also knew when she was pleased with me. I recall nearly suffocating in her largeness when she hugged me and, although I’m taller than her now, I would undoubtedly jump to do her bidding. A brief anecdote might better portray her.

I was probably around eight years old when my buddy and I slumped into her house, announcing our boredom to the ceiling, unaware that a women’s Bible study was in progress. As I recall, our announcement of boredom came during a time of intense prayer. She rose forbiddingly and shooed us out of the house saying, “Go save someone for Jesus Christ and don’t come back until you do! Don’t come back for dinner neither, until you got another disciple with you!” She spoke and that was that. With nothing else to do but obey and little heart to rebel against such a woman, the three of us wandered off to find some poor kid who didn’t know our urgency and wouldn’t know what hit him. We found him playing with an ant hill in a field. He was hitting that clay tower with a stick to watch the ants scurry. My friend nodded toward him wordlessly and I agreed. This was the one.

“You know who Jesus is?” I asked. He looked back at us blankly, probably wondering why we felt a desire to interrupt his pleasure. I repeated the question.

“Naw. Don’t know no Jesus,” he replied and promptly returned to whacking the ant hill.

We felt like we had hit pay dirt. My friend launched into an admittedly shaky rendition of the gospel story while I filled in any glaring gaps. The kid listened passively. Not knowing what to do, we asked the next logical question, the answer to which would either unlock food for hungry boys or an evening of isolation and shame and starvation: “So, do you want to ask Jesus into your heart?”

“Sure,” he said.

We hid our shock and fumbled through a prayer of repentance with him. When we finished, we dragged him home like a trophy to Mama Christine, who welcomed us home with all the pomp due to warriors. I felt like a million bucks when she smiled that way and I knew that we would eat well that evening.

That was Christine in a nutshell. But there was also the time when she visited the United States just before my wedding. She hugged my bride-to-be as if she were her own daughter, then held her at arms length to take a good look at her. Without blinking, Christine turned on me and said, “What is wrong with you, boy? This girl is too skinny! You got to feed this woman so she can be fat and happy!” I wasn’t sure what to say to that, except “Yes, ma’am."

Christine died due to diabetic complications at a hospital in Uganda. She was bigger than life, at least in my memory, and was like an adopted mother to me and many, many others. She and her husband helped raise many AIDS orphans and her death robs them of a dear mother too.

This is what my students did not know when they entered my class that day, January 13th. They did not know that I carried a thousand memories in my brokenness. They did not know what I was trying to hold together, for their sake. They did not know how difficult it was to stay focused on them while my heart was ten-thousand miles away, weeping with my friends in Africa. But these are the little moments that cannot be orchestrated.

“What does John Donne mean when he writes, 'this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me?’” Donne says that by considering another person’s mortality and pain, I contemplate my own and thereby remember my dependence upon God almighty. That’s what I told her in a nutshell after I confessed my pain.

School, counter to popular belief, is not a sanctuary from reality. It is not a sanitized space removed from the struggles of life. It need not be a place where we pose and preen and hide our humanity in hopes of climbing the corporate ladder. School is where we meet together to study the works of God, to track his voice on the wind, and trace his fingerprint in the converging lives around us.

A school, at least as God intended it, is an incubator of faith. We grieve with others and walk with them, the best we can, through the valley of the shadow of death. Suffering, especially shared suffering, becomes a place where mysterious truths are revealed, mysteries that evade the simple and foolish but reveal themselves to the wise who mine for them in the dark. Suffering becomes a place where (dare I say it?) hope meets us in unexpected, disruptive ways, like tears wept in front of dear students.

The great and dangerous call of education is to open ourselves (teachers, students, parents, administration) to the possibility of change. It requires that we table our agendas, our fears, our pride, and humbly learn. We must learn, not so we can have more influence or more control or greater honor, not so we can simply ask questions and plumb the depths of every philosophical pothole. We learn so that we can ask the right questions at the right time, so that we can plumb what deserves to be measured, so that we can discover how God works in the world, and so that we are ultimately changed into the likeness of his son, Jesus, the Christ.

Who knew that we would read John Donne on this day — that a 16th century poet could serve as a doorway into shared experience and a chance to mine for gold? And who knew that my student would ask the one question that would unlock all these memories and welcome my students into my grief?

Weep with those who weep. This is not a futile exercise, but a hope-filled demand of community and fellowship. On January 13th, 2017, my students and I got to discuss the beauty of living in community where the lessons of our mortality need not be learned first-hand. To the surprise of us all, British Literature class was suddenly (or maybe it always had been) a meeting place with the divine love of God, a place of vulnerability and humility and mutual grief that points to our future resurrection.


The Palpant family in Kenya, Africa, 1982; Ben at the front (above)