O Lord, thou hast searched me
and known me!
Thou knowest when I sit down and
when I rise up;
thou discernest my thoughts from afar,
Thou searchest out my path
and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
- Psalm 139: 1-3
Yesterday I took a trip down the Turnpike to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of Hanshi Deshbandu, the most veteran teacher of my alma mater, Mullica Hill Friends School. A native of India, Teacher Hanshi introduced the concept of a world beyond southern New Jersey to her 6th grade students and she brought us closer to it. We fasted on World Hunger Day, we sent paintings and poems about peace to the Shankar’s International Children’s Competition held annually in New Delhi, we cooked foods from around the globe for class feasts and held mock General Assemblies. When Teacher Hanshi brought us to the United Nations we were sure she owned it.
One after another, generations of alumni stood up from their folding chairs arranged in rows on the school lawn to testify about this woman who, in our school of roughly one hundred-and-twenty students, was so engaged with us in every grade that she was more like teacher/ aunt. We used words like “funny” and “generous” to describe her yesterday, but no one mentioned that the name “Teacher Hanshi” caused many a 5th graders knees to knock when they thought of the coming fall. That’s because the main word kids used to describe Teacher Hanshi was “hard”.
In the world before computers, if there were crossed out words or misspellings in your page-and- a-half report about the Erie Canal, Teacher Hanshi would call you up to her desk, point to your sub-standard product, declare “No gitch-gitch!”, tear your paper in two and you would spend the remainder of the morning re-writing it more carefully. She warned with elaborate detail about the failed lives that lie ahead of us if we didn’t study. As a child, it seemed to me that she used the word “Discipline!” as often as anyone else used the words “yes”, “no” and “but”. When we got silly she’d turn off the lights and make us meditate for what felt like an hour but was more likely ten minutes or just long enough to find some aspirin. I burst into tears more than once in her class. Earning bad grades, being too loud in the hall (again) or disappointing Teacher Hanshi in any way seemed to me the gravest of all sins, not out of dread for her wrath but because of her love. Like a flood light, Teacher Hanshi’s love seemed to discover every gift and character flaw I had before I became aware of them myself and she would not settle for “passable” from me or any of her kids. She wanted our best version of ourselves. Nothing else would do.
Many people seem to long for proof of a loving God even though I think such evidence abounds. It’s in the smell of fresh cut grass, in the miracle of any colony of ants, in every leaf, in your extraordinary ability to paint a picture or sing a song however badly. And most astonishingly, God’s love is in the human experience of loving and being loved, which is the same thing as knowing and being known. C.S. Lewis thinks a reason we have trouble recognizing this is because what we’re often hunting for is mere “kindness” from God. We want a God whose only desire is that we avoid suffering without that dreadful, knowing love of God that wants our highest good.
Lewis says "You asked for a loving God: you have one. The consuming fire that made the worlds, persistent as the artist's love for his work and despotic as a man's love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father's love for a child,”
Teacher Hanshi’s love is not the stuff of Hallmark cards, thank God. Like the wind shapes a mountain, I pray that I will love you, and you will love me that way, into our full holiness, into the likeness of Christ.