L-E-T-T-E-R-B-Y-L-E-T-T-E-R

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It is a sunny morning at St Cuthbert’s and the all age communion service is about half way through.  Angela, the vicar is preaching on the Gospel of Luke Chapter 15. The children, sitting at tables on one side of the church, are engaged in activities on today’s Bible passage.  The younger ones are colouring a picture of the father welcoming the younger son home while the older ones are doing a wordsearch.

Lily, who is five, is engrossed in colouring the father in a bright, cheerful orange.

Every now and then she looks up and gazes around the church.  From her position at the side she can see the altar, the stained glass window of Jesus’ baptism and the eagle lectern.  Sometimes she listens to the Bible readings and the prayers.  If she likes a particular hymn, she hums along and swings her feet.  She likes watching Angela when she consecrates the bread and wine; she is a bit far away, but Lily can see well enough to watch when she is breaking the wafer and holding up the cup.

Lily is able to dip in and out of the worship because colouring is that kind of activity.  There is nothing lost if she puts down her orange crayon for a few moments and even while she is colouring she can absorb the sound and feel of worship.

James, who is nine, is doing a wordsearch.  The words and music of worship are passing him by, for his mind is totally engaged in searching for P-R-O-D-I-G-A-L which has been arranged diagonally backwards:  L-A-G-I-D-O-R-P

It is hard to see what the point of this activity is and how it helps James understand, remember or reflect on the story.  The words are arranged in alphabetical order but this means little to James, who is working down the page rather than across it: “Father hungry kisses pigs rings two”*.  While some may wonder why a hungry father is kissing pigs or just who are the two he is ringing, James has long stopped expecting wordsearches to make narrative sense.

It also does not matter that James does not properly understand several of the words: repentance, prodigal, fattedcalf, for he does not see them as words but as combinations of letters.  He has learnt to look for the more unusual “j” as a starter for jealous without once pausing to wonder why the word was included.

The key words have been chosen by others and act as a veneer, allowing the adults involved to think that James is engaged in a fruitful Christian activity, while they worship undisturbed.  But in reality, the wordsearch is hindering James in his journey of faith.

My friend is telling me the story of her disastrous experiences with the plumber; it is so reminiscent of Flanders and Swann that both of us are crying with laughter.  She does not however end her story by giving me a list of key words to find in a wordsearch in the hope that I will appreciate her story better:  P-I-P-E, H-A-M-M-E-R, T-H-U-R-S-D-A-Y.  This is not how adults engage with stories and it is not how children engage with them either.

There is no discussion of the concepts behind the words, but even if there were it would not help James for as soon as the discussion is finished, he is back to looking for strings of letters that have no connection with what the word actually means.

The freedom to create her own response might have helped Lily engage more deeply with the story, but even within the parameters of the colouring sheet she has some degree of freedom.  She can choose the colours and patterns, think about the action and emotions shown in the picture, pause and reflect.  James has none of this freedom and the wordsearch requires his full attention.  He is using his brain to solve the puzzle, a completely different kind of activity from the engagement and reflection that could lead him towards a deeper faith.

It could be argued that children “love” wordsearches and they certainly keep them quiet and occupied.  But children “love” other things as well without anyone feeling the need to include them in worship every week: sweets, waterslides, alien destroying computer games…

But perhaps I’m wrong… perhaps wordsearches can help people on their Christian journey… Perhaps we should be offering this activity to the whole congregation and reflecting together afterwards on how it has helped us spiritually…

*I did not make this wordsearch up!

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Dramatic experience?

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A few years back I attempted a dramatised “Noah and the Great Flood” for the Messy Church like event in our local church.

It was a failure.

Our church, which is long and thin, is not a good place to do drama. Apart from the first few rows no one can see the action.  Usually I avoided this by having the action up and down the nave but this time the action was mostly at the front.

The church had just acquired a new black backcloth which offered many possibilities.  I had planned to use this to represent the Ark, and for the animals (played by the children) and Noah to disappear behind it.  However, I failed to think through the logistics.  It took time to move the backcloth into position, especially as I hadn’t really explained to the helpers what was wanted.  The actors stood and fidgeted. The audience did not grasp the nature of the backcloth and expected it to open to reveal the Ark!

As well the children did not understand what they were expected to do, and so poor Noah had no one to act with.

“If you’re going to do drama, you need to rehearse,” said my friend, pointedly.

I refrained from saying that it was difficult enough to find a time when people would come to the event let alone ask for extra commitment for things like rehearsals.

But she was right.  As drama Noah and the Great Flood simply hadn’t worked.

It was a failure.

Or was it?

What if I was looking at it through the wrong lens?  What if there was a different way of looking at it?

Viewed as performance it was certainly a failure.  It was unrehearsed, the logistics did not work, and various small touches were simply missed out. It had little effect on the audience.

But was I aiming at performance?

Looked at differently Noah and the Great Flood had some redeeming features.  Behind the backcloth was a semi dark space.  There was an illusion of safety for the animals and me as we crowded in there together.  When Noah set the dove free, we watched from the safety of the ark while she flew down the nave and back.  This moment would have had far less impact on those simply watching from the pews.  And finally, there was the moment when the animals themselves were set free…

What if I was aiming at creating an experience rather than at performance?

I was used to working in this way with our under 5s.  The magi began their journey outside and took a winding route as they followed the star, we waved palm branches to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem and I rigged up a makeshift boat for calming the storm… Our crib services often included an element of the experiential – one year we turned off all the lights – and the heaters – to symbolise humanity being cut off from God.

If instead of aiming at performance I had aimed at the experiential, we could have made the ark into a well-defined space, dimly lit and a close fit. We could have invited all the children (not just the chosen few) to take the part of an animal if they so wished.  Once they were all safely in, the adults could have been invited to join them (though probably with less success!)  Inside, we could focus on the storm and the rising floodwaters.  The script would prepare them for the rain easing, the sending out of the dove, their own return to freedom and God’s promise, as symbolised by the rainbow.  It would be drama from within rather than from without, an active involvement rather than a passive one.

Why didn’t we do this?  At the time it never occurred to me to try.  I think this was partly to do with adult expectations, including my own.  The adults expected performance.  They expected drama to have impact, clean edges and be tightly controlled.

Creating an experience is risky.  Adults can be self-conscious when they are watching and self-conscious when they are taking part.  This can infect the children so that they too become self- conscious about what they are doing.  It is hard to get past this.  Recently we told the story of Paul’s shipwreck, and soldiers, sailors and prisoners either swam to shore or held onto pieces of wood and were helped along.  Most of the children jumped out of the boat and took part with great enthusiasm.

The adults watched.  What they saw was ragged, roughly improvised and included a lot of byplay and conversation from the children.  But even the child who usually avoids the drama leapt forward to save her brother from the wreck as he struggled to shore…

Is there a middle way that combines the impact of performance with active involvement?

I was once asked to organise an Easter event for a cub meeting (they were doing their Religion badge). We divided the cubs into soldiers (red cloaks and swords), stall holders in the temple (black cloaks, doves and money) and people of Jerusalem (multi coloured cloaks, palm branches) and gave each group about 5 minutes to practise their role.  The cubs (especially the moneylenders) stepped enthusiastically into their parts.  The drama certainly had impact… but there was no audience; everyone was involved.

Rehearsal changes things.  It becomes more about what the director thinks and less about what the children (and other adults) think.  If I want to challenge their thinking, I need to work on ways of structuring the drama so that it is open ended.  Perhaps I need to stop worrying about the raggedness, the interplay between the children and the feeling of insecurity…

Perhaps I also need to start talking to the adults…

Challenging preconceptions: The church trip

It is a sunny autumn day several years ago, and we are on our church trip to Walsingham.  This is the first time we have done this as a church and I have brought along my two sons (aged 10 and 13) and a couple of their friends.

We disembark from the coach in the car park and prepare to walk through the town to the shrine.  My younger son, who has cerebral palsy and cannot walk far because of the stiffness of his legs and the calluses on his feet, gets into his wheelchair.  His brother starts to push him down the hill.

We are used to this.  We are also used to people looking at us wherever we go.  I can almost see the thought bubbles above their heads: “Poor little boy.  I wonder what his problem is?”  “Why are they letting that other child push that heavy wheelchair?”  People look at us with a mixture of sympathy and pity, but I think they mean well…

Except that this time it is different.

Walsingham is the second stop on our church trip.  Earlier in the day we went to Castle Acre Priory.  My younger son got out of his wheelchair and ran around with the others, playing some kind of war game, chasing in and out the ruins.  On the way back to the coach we go past a shop selling wooden weapons.  As one boy, they stop, retrace their steps and go in.  As one boy, they come out, armed to the teeth with wooden swords and daggers. Or in the case of Adam, my sons’ friend, an axe.

So, when we get out the coach in Walsingham, we no longer fit the stereotype of disabled child and family.

Instead my son sits in his wheelchair with his sword across his knees.  In the less crowded parts of the town he picks it up and gives it a quick wave around.  He is accompanied by his brother and friends, weapons at the ready.

We are not inconspicuous.  People look, start to switch on their sympathy faces, and pause, baffled.

For how do you react to a child in a wheelchair who is waving a sword?

The vicar and I, several paces behind, are shaking with laughter. The boys, their minds on the possibilities that weaponry might add to their games, seem oblivious to the attention they are gathering.  They would be noticeable anywhere but seem especially so here in Walsingham where people have come on pilgrimage, to reflect, pray and make meaning.

We watch as people register in succession the wheelchair, the child, his sword, the other boys and their weapons.  Adam’s axe adds the final touch of incongruity to this procession through the town…

When we reach the shrine, our vicar gently suggests to the boys that they put their weapons away.

“Okay,” says Adam, obligingly stuffing his axe down the back of his anorak.

We go in…

How do we count?

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How do we count? Do people count or do they need to be counted?

The Diocese of Ely has a strategic plan for market towns. In many ways this is good; many (but not all) places in the north of this diocese are places of rural deprivation and poverty and the market towns are not exempt from this. The parish of St Augustine’s, Wisbech has 30% of its children living in poverty.

But in order to receive money from the Church of England’s Strategic Development Fund the application has had to list anticipated outcomes.  These include:

  • 25% of the population across market towns committed to involvement in the life of the church by 2025, involving both inherited-mode church and Fresh Expressions of church as part of a blended economy
  • 5% increase in attendance at inherited-mode churches across the towns
  • 780 new church attenders across the towns involved over the three-year period from 2018-2021. (310 in inherited mode church, including church plants, and 470 across a range of Fresh Expressions, representing 73% growth from current levels of church involvement)

(Strategic Development Funding Application Process – Second stage Diocese of Ely – Changing Market Towns, Diocese of Ely website)

This concept of measuring success by counting numbers makes me uneasy on many levels.

It seems to buy into the idea that once a church grows it will stabilise and even continue to grow.  But Jesus’ own ministry was not like this.  Five thousand men, plus women and children, sat on a hillside listening to him talk while picnicking off bread and fish.  Only a short time later he was left with the remnant, his friend John and some of the women, the only ones prepared to stand at the foot of the cross.  Which of these points would church leaders choose in order to measure the success of the Jesus Project?

The same is true for the early church.  Do you count the numbers baptised at Pentecost or the small group of people praying together in hiding?  Paul’s letters to the churches are focused on theology, Christian community and spiritual well-being. Nowhere does he ask them about the number of new church attenders in the last three years as a percentage of their population.

In some churches it can become difficult to shake off this numbers’ neurosis.  Last month’s All Age Worship had 15 children and 20 adults, and the leaders left feeling they had arrived. This month it’s down to three children and 10 adults.  It doesn’t matter that they know everyone else is throwing up/visiting Grandad/going to the circus and may well be back next time. Because of this fixation with numbers, the leaders are despondent and wonder where they are going wrong.  This is particularly true for smaller churches and can put leaders on an emotional roller coaster as the numbers fluctuate wildly.

What happens if these anticipated outcomes aren’t achieved?  Despite the evidence of changed lives, deepening faith and visionary excitement will the project be considered a failure?

But suppose the Project achieves its anticipated outcomes and 780 new people start attending these churches.  What then?  Each of these people is real.  Like the rest of us, they will have messy, often fragmented, lives.  What they need from the church is love, care, time and attention.  Giving this is essential but costly.  Most churches will try. Without it, people may be leaving as quickly as they arrived.

Is it really impossible to be given money for strategic development without delineating in figures the anticipated outcomes?  How do we get away from a mindset that reduces people to numbers? Who requires the diocese to jump through these hoops?

And finally:

“780 new church attenders?  I hope someone’s told the Holy Spirit,” says my friend Su, going straight to the point as usual.

No magic formula

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“Hazel’s been doing children’s work for 30 years.  We’ll never get change while she’s in charge.”

Mel, whom I’ve met at a training day, sounds despondent and I’m not surprised. After all the church down the road is doing Messy Church/Godly Play/Fresh Expressions.  Mel hopes that one day her church will be able to start something new.  Meanwhile they seem stuck in a backwater while everyone else is taking part in a great visionary movement…

Or are they?

Both Godly Play and Messy Church arose out of the vision of one individual (Jerome Berryman and Lucy Moore respectively).  Fresh Expressions seems more blurred at the edges as it is an umbrella term covering a variety of different expressions of church.  But it is probably true to say that a lot of fresh expressions arose in particular contexts as the vision of particular people.

But what happens next?

Looking at the pattern it seems that over time (often many years) the original vision is caught by other people.  They too want to do Cafe Church/cell church/forest church.  The idea spreads – and becomes set.  Training courses are offered, resources prepared and the institutional church backs it.

There is almost a sense that we have found a magic formula and if we put all our efforts into this, we too will get caught up in the vision and see the fantastic results of the original.

Or will we?

It seems to me that once a visionary idea has reached this stage it can go in one of three directions.

Firstly, there are those who stick to the original template, without alteration.    While the original visionaries never stopped experimenting (and still do!) these second generation people can have an almost literalist approach.  They may understand the thinking and theology but they don’t want to play with it.  Sometimes it seems to me that there is a danger of stifling the vision, but as this isn’t my own approach I don’t know.

The second direction is that of the corner cutters.  Often it seems that they haven’t quite understood the underlying principles of the original.  I have known someone tell a Godly Play story at the start of an event and then tell everyone exactly what it meant at the end, completely contrary to the idea that we all make our own meaning from the story.  I have also watched a Messy Church where the children sat and ate while the adults gathered together at a distance, effectively creating two separate communities instead of one comprising all ages.

The third way is the way of the visionary.  These people may use the original vision as a springboard for new ideas.  They understand the principles but take them in different directions. These people have let the genie out of the bottle and are not afraid to see where it might go.   They have an excitement about what they are doing, for vision is creative.  Often they receive criticism from all sides – from those who dislike any change, those who are happy with the original and see no need to do anything other than follow it implicitly and those who think they are putting in far too much work when they don’t actually need to…

Perhaps I am being too harsh.  I am sure there is a lot of excellent work going on that fits in with the original vision, and occupies the middle ground between these positions.  But I am not sure that it is visionary and without vision the people perish.  We need to encourage the creative spark that takes thing in new directions.  Vision needs the visionary to continuously reflect, inspire, create and turn things into a practical reality.

There is no magic formula…

Exploring the pearl: Theology with children 2

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“They couldn’t help themselves, they had to ask him ‘What is the kingdom of heaven like?’”

It is a summer afternoon and I am in our local primary school telling the Godly Play parable of the Great Pearl to a mixed group of 9 and 10 year olds (Year 5).  I have presented the golden parable box and taken the things out of it: the white cloth that the children tell me looks like a snowball, the brown felt strips that remind them of seaweed, the many possessions of the merchant and finally the three pearls – two lesser pearls and the great pearl.

I have laid it out as a plan of five houses: one is empty, two are empty except for a pearl, the fourth has the seller and the great pearl and the final one has the merchant and all his belongings – money bags, lamps, beds, carpets…

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant, a buyer and seller of pearls, who goes looking for the great pearl.”

The merchant sets off looking for the great pearl.  Each one is examined carefully…

“When he finds the great pearl, he goes home and takes everything…”

I start to move his possessions, one by one, across to the seller’s house.   Finally, I pack up his house and move that across too…

“He takes everything, all that he has and exchanges it for the great pearl.”

The seller is now occupying a house crammed full of possessions while the merchant stands in emptiness with the great pearl.

“I wonder how the merchant feels now that he has the great pearl?”

I have told this story many times and I usually find groups divide on this – many children (and adults) wonder how the merchant will cope without any material belongings: no money, food or shelter.  Others think that having the Great Pearl makes up for all of this.

But today is different…

“I think the merchant feels guilty.”

“Why, Madelyn?”

“Because even though he gave everything he had, it wasn’t enough.”

Before I have time to gather my thoughts, Elliott cuts in:

“Then he has to give himself.”

I thought then, as I do now, that Madelyn was articulating her culture.  Not her home culture (about which I knew very little) but her school culture. The culture of “never enough” where all peer marked work was given “two stars and a wish” and all adult marked work finished with Next Steps.  “Well done Madelyn, for beginning each sentence with a subordinate clause 🙂  Next Steps: Use some powerful adjectives.”  However hard Madelyn works, it will never be enough; she cannot escape Next Steps.

What about Elliott’s response?  Was he too articulating his culture – not so much the school culture, but the wider culture where so many companies and organisations seem to demand their employees’ souls?

It didn’t feel like it.  At some level it seemed both children were describing eternal truths. The pearl is precious beyond our resources and in the end we have to admit this.  Perhaps it is something we can never buy, but only accept as a gift.  Our response can only be to give ourselves, for this is our relationship with God.  How much of this did the children themselves recognise?  I don’t know; I never will.

At the end of the session Liz, the TA who was doorkeeping, and I went “Wow!”  It is tempting to do this and tempting to leave it there.  But doing so puts the children in one place and ourselves in another.  We can marvel at their insight but escape the touch of the living water. We need to accept their responses as catalysts for our own thinking.  Only then can we journey together…

“Then he has to give himself.”

The other children join in the discussion at this point.  How can the merchant give himself?  The group decide that he will become the servant of the seller.  The servant but not the slave.

“Will he be able to keep the pearl?” I ask. “What will happen to it?”

“If he leaves it, someone might take it,” says Daisy.

“It depends on the seller,” says Robin. “If he is kind, he will let him have time off to explore it.”

Suggestions for the journey: a way of life for the more chaotic family?

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I once forgot three of my son’s verruca appointments in a row.  After missing two appointments, I wrote myself a large note and placed it in the centre of the table.  However, someone passing by needed paper and tore it in half, reducing it to a small note.  Someone else, in an unprecedented fit of tidying, threw the small note away.  All might still have been well (I had been chanting verruca, verruca to myself throughout the day) if our youngest son had not just returned from his primary school residential. As we sat round the table, listening to the gorier details of his week away, the time slipped past…

I got a somewhat tart reply to my letter of abject apology but at least they didn’t strike us off.

We all have our ideal of parenthood and none of us, even the most organised among us, ever live up to it.  What makes it more difficult is that not only are we surrounded by people who appear to be living up to the ideal (think facebook photos of smiling children gazing at nature) but also there is a wealth of advice and ideas around that will supposedly help us get there.  There is an implicit suggestion that the ideal is achievable.

The Diocese of Ely is keen to promote a Way of Life (http://www.elydiocese.org/way-of-life) and has included resources for a Way of Life for families.   It’s well intentioned (though I am baffled as to why something entitled “a Way of Life” only includes six sessions!)  I am sure there are families that will enjoy using the materials and get a lot from it.

But it would never have worked for mine.

There is something about its approach that is just too formalised.  I could not put my finger on it until someone commented that it “sets up an ideal of what parents are supposed to be able to do with their children that for me felt like an oppressive and unachievable ideal.”  For the more chaotic family (like mine!) it would be yet another parenting failure alongside not getting out the door without shouting, allowing my daughter to live on cheese triangles and raisins, and failing to read bed time stories.

So what might have worked for us?

Prayer

We never had formal prayer sessions.  However, we did pray when the occasion arose – about people or situations we were concerned about.  We prayed in the car, the bath, walking to school. It wasn’t every day or at a particular time.  If we didn’t pray for a few days, I didn’t feel guilty. Sometimes I prayed, sometimes they did, sometimes I prayed silently.  One Lent we actually made a paper chain of our prayers, a link a day. We never managed to repeat this but now I might think about using symbols (candles, leaves etc) in prayer.

Stories

I don’t like reading aloud, I am a storyteller rather than a story reader.    I think now that I could have done more storytelling with my children, playing to my strengths rather than my weaknesses. We did have Bible story books and other books which we shared, though not on a regular, formal basis.

Inspiration

It never occurred to me to try these ideas (http://www.spiritualchild.co.uk/home1.html)   but I would now.  Victoria Goodman has suggestions for toys, symbols and puzzles that will enrich children’s play and create focus areas around the house.  I would include putting up pictures (changing them every now and then) and playing music, including Christian music and pictures.  I’m not sure it matters if the children don’t react.

Freedom

When my two older children were very small, about three and two, we let them wander around a friend’s field, while we sat in the garden and watched.  We could see them at all times, but they were free to explore by themselves.  We also let them experience “freedom” at the local recreation ground, on beaches and in the grounds of stately homes. Sometimes they came back to us with things they had found, usually a variety of sticks from smallish twigs to large logs…

Creativity

We always had art materials and dressing up clothes around… Also lego, knex,  other construction toys and the freedom to play outside. After watching the children in school creating worlds with the Godly Play stories and other three dimensional items (like felt squares, wooden rainbow and shimmer stones) I would now add these.

Talk

The ideal family sit down for all their meals and talk… They share their stories of the day, their highs and lows, in precious family time together. The less than ideal family manages this some of the time/occasionally/never.  I’m not a fan of over directed conversation with a series of themed questions so my own experience varies: monosyllabic responses, long justifications for being vegetarian, school worries, discussions of free will at 1.30 a.m… I found the car was usually a good place to talk, especially with one child at a time.

Church and community

When my children were small I took them to church. It was far from ideal – the vicar’s wife tried to offer story and colouring in the cold cramped vestries; often they had to sit through the service.  When the vicar and his wife moved on, we took the opportunity (with their blessing!) to set up the family service in a different kind of way. It is worth looking around for a church that will suit your family and accept all your children, whatever their personalities. Alternatively look for a church that is open to new ideas and ways of doing things so that you can work towards the kind of church that will include everyone…

Action

My children occasionally came up with ideas, some more sustainable than others. As a ten year old, my daughter and her friends planned to save the planet and actually held fundraising events for various causes (with significant help from the adults!)  My best suggestion for this is to encourage it if it happens and you feel that you can cope with it!  (We had ten years of three vegetarian children…)

I could have done more with my children when they were small, I’d like to start again and be more experimental!  I try (and mostly succeed) in not feeling too guilty.  Looking back, it is easy to forget the stresses we were under ourselves – the appointments for the disabled child, the aging parents, the frantic busyness of daily life…

Life is never going to let up long enough for us to achieve our ideal and now I no longer want to.  The journey is far more interesting…