Children’s books and church: 2 Heidi

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Does our childhood reading influence our faith?

Heidi by Johanna Spyri (first published 1880) Contains spoilers 

Heidi is an intentionally Christian book, which is interesting as Johanna Spyri’s own deepest belief seems to be that only the mountains can offer healing and wholeness. By contrast the city is sickly and soul destroying.

Both the depressed doctor and the invalid Clara are cured by their visit to the mountains while Heidi’s own health becomes precarious when she is away from them.   This isn’t a Biblical view: Jesus went into the mountains to pray but he wept over Jerusalem.  Much of the gospel action takes place there and the Bible ends with the revelation of the heavenly city.

Despite this belief in the effect of the mountains, it is Grandmamma, Clara’s grandmother, who has the most thought through faith in the book and she is very much a city person.  The old blind grandmother who lives in the mountains has faith, but her worries get in the way. She is in a permanent state of panic that Heidi will be taken away from her. Heidi, rather than God, is at the centre of her world.

As a child I took Grandmamma’s instructions about faith on trust.  Now I am not so sure.  In Frankfurt she tells Heidi that God always wants the best for us and that if we wait, he will answer our prayers. We will look back and realise that his way has worked out much better for us than our own original choices.  This becomes Heidi’s own experience: an earlier return to the mountains would not have brought the same benefits (friendship and gifts for the blind grandmother) as her later return does. But this theology has its drawbacks:

“But what if God Himself has sent the sorrow?” asks the doctor, whose daughter has died.  Heidi’s response that if we have patience, “something will turn up and we will see quite clearly that all the time it was all for the best” doesn’t quite work.  I cannot believe that such things as the neonatal deaths of our twins were in my best interests all along. I can’t believe it was in their best interests either.  They were real people with real lives, not just a walk on part in mine.  Eternity may prove me wrong but until then it is in my box “awaiting further light”.

In all fairness, Johanna Spyri does acknowledge this problem:

“You see Heidi, when someone has a great grief he cannot enjoy anything lovely, and beauty, like this around us, only makes him more sad…” the doctor responds.

The author doesn’t seem to have any real answers to this (who has?) except for Heidi to recite one of the blind grandmother’s favourite hymns.  Towards the end of the book she reverts to the simple God knows best.  Heidi tells Clara:

“… we must say then (to God) ‘Now I know, dear Father, that you have something better in mind and I am glad that you will make it all right in the end.’”

Often things are not “all right in the end”.  And yet, paradoxically, I continue to pray “Thy will be done” and mean it most of the time.

Although Grandmamma never misses an opportunity to share her theology, she does understand people.  I have always felt that Peter had a raw deal.  Heidi’s attention is always centred on the person she perceives as needing her most and Peter rarely makes it to the front of the queue.  (Even when she teaches him to read it is so that he can read hymns to his blind grandmother rather than for his own benefit!)

It is not surprising that Peter is jealous of Clara and pushes her wheelchair down the mountain.  Grandmamma talks to him about his conscience, and instead of punishing him rewards him.  Even as a child, I was glad someone gave him some attention.

I first came across Heidi at about five or six years old and have re-read it many times since.  How do I discern how it shaped my faith as a child?  I think the way to do this is to look at what has stayed in my memory.

Firstly, the mountain pastures.  Once the children reach them, they stop there.  It is a place to be and to wonder, rather than a doing place.  Here there is that sense of timelessness and peace, the lack of interruption that I needed as a child and still do.

Heidi’s exile in Frankfurt also made a strong impression on me.  In the city the inner kingdom is stifled and there is nothing in the sterile streets to bring Heidi close to what she has lost. Even the wind in the trees turns out to be carriages rumbling by.  I found Clara a more interesting character than Heidi (she has far more sense of humour!) but in Frankfurt I identified with Heidi, exiled from Eden.

But more than anything else I took away the idea that sin is turning away from God and that it is possible to turn back and be welcomed.  Although the Alm Uncle’s wrongdoings are mentioned at the beginning of the book (gambling and drinking) it is the way he has chosen to live, at outs with God and people that is wrong.  It is not the counting and classifying of sins that matters but what you turn towards.

The innocent child who redeems the hardened old sinner is a recurring theme in fiction, but this passed me by.  It was the story that mattered, the story that Heidi shared with the old man that spoke to him.  Looking down on the sleeping child, the old man repeats the words of the younger son:

“Father I have sinned against Heaven and in Thy sight and am not worthy to be called Thy son.”

It is this image and these words that have stayed with me.

Children’s books and church: 1 Milly Molly Mandy

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Does our childhood reading influence our faith?

As a small child, growing up in 1950s suburbia, Milly Molly Mandy books were the first ones that become part of my internal world. There were other books I liked, but these I loved.

Written 30 years earlier by Joyce Lancaster Brisley, these books described a world I didn’t know, but one I longed for.  For Milly Molly Mandy’s world appears totally safe.  Within its boundaries she is free to explore and have adventures.  The reader knows that nothing is going to go seriously wrong.

In theory my world should have been as secure as hers.  I had two parents, four grandparents, a house and garden, friends and a school that I mostly enjoyed.  But I was an anxious child.  I had my bed pushed up against the wall so nothing could get behind me in the night and I worried endlessly about the things I wished I hadn’t done – getting told off for jumping on the chairs or saying “Hello Old Thornsy!” to the sarcastic teacher.  (My father used to call him that – what possessed me as a small mousy child to try it out on him I will never know.)

My world was based on the same premise as Milly Molly Mandy’s: “Not in front of the children.”  The adults endeavour to hide their concerns and worries from the children. Milly Molly Mandy accepts her world, as small children do, as being how the world is.  There is no need for difficult questions.

But this is a safe world without God.  As a child I knew only the first three books, and God does not appear.  Church is mentioned only once – when Milly Molly Mandy visits Mrs Hooker in town.  This safe world has been created for the child by the adults in her life and they have been completely successful.

This is unsurprising when you remember that Joyce Lancaster Brisley originally wrote these stories for the Christian Science monitor, an organisation that was unlikely to consider churchgoing desirable.

However, the church is shown on the map at the beginning of each book.  It must have dominated the view for everyone who went out of the front gate of the nice white cottage with the thatched roof. Milly Molly Mandy went past it every time she and Susan took the short cut to school.

The events that give markers to village life are not that dissimilar to the ones that take place in villages now – the fete, the concert with local talent, the flower and produce show, carol singing. But today many of those events are organised on behalf of the church.  Surely this would have been the case in the 1920s?

Re-reading these books as an adult I can see that there are hints of a much darker world than the one I longed for as a child.

Money worries are mentioned – it is clear that pennies are rare and need careful thought before spending; there is no extra money for trips to the sea or bicycles.  Milly Molly Mandy knows and understands these limitations but they do not bother her. Other families are in similar situations.

It is more striking that most of the children in the books are only children: Milly Molly Mandy, Billy Blunt, Milly next door, Jessamine, Bunchy.  Only Susan has a baby sister and even she does not arrive until halfway through Book 2.  Was it something in the water? Had Marie Stopes moved into the cottage next to Mr Critch the Thatcher?  Did none of them want more children?

Aunty and Uncle are childless.  Uncle is the adult most able to enter into the child’s world – how did he feel about not having his own child?  And what about Aunty?  What did she think about during that endless round of dusting and sewing?

Even more concerning is the number of children who lack parents.  Miss Muggins’ Jilly lives with her aunt. Bunchy lives with her grandmother, Timmy Biggs with his grandad. Jessamine from the Big House has only her mother.  We are never told what tragedies lie behind all these missing parents – though if the stories are set early in the 1920s we might guess at the first world war and Spanish influenza.  Milly Molly Mandy’s world is not as safe as it first appears.

I read Milly Molly Mandy Again (Book 4) as an adult – and found that the author’s attitude to church and God had changed dramatically.  Milly Molly Mandy goes to harvest festival and the blacksmith’s wedding in the church and “Vicar” gets a mention at harvest festival!  Milly Molly Mandy and her mother even have a conversation about God:  harvest festival is to give thanks to God.  God takes the thankfulness and the vicar gives the produce to the cottage hospital – it is a double giving.  The book ends with snowy weather; everyone except Grandma who does not like the cold (who can blame her!) goes to church just as if they have been doing so Sunday by Sunday since the books began.  This book was published in 1948, twenty years after the original.  Joyce Lancaster Brisley had lived through the depression and second world war since then – her views have had time to change and she, like us, is looking back with nostalgia.

Is it possible for my faith to have been influenced by Milly Molly Mandy when the books I knew had no references to God and only one mention of church?  A world in which adults are in control rather than God is the antithesis of Christian belief.  The Biblical story tells us what happens when adults believe themselves to be in control…  But I do not think I ever believed in adults’ ability to create a secure world for children, on their own so this passed me by.

I think I did take away the emphasis on looking carefully and appreciating the small things.  Milly Molly Mandy’s family show respect for everyone though this is most noticeable in Milly Molly Mandy Again when the village rallies around the Traveller family and bring their pots and pans to be mended.

We would be like apple trees without apples if we weren’t useful, says Mother, echoing the Protestant work ethic.  But I’m not sure I believed that either…  I certainly didn’t practice it!

Framing the nativity

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“I’ve found the children are quite confused about the nativity story and its characters,” a friend tells me, talking about her visit to a primary school. “Except for the donkey,” she adds ruefully.

This surprises me.  I have always assumed that everyone over the age of four knows the nativity story backwards.  Our Christmas nativities and crib services always worked on this assumption: the need to find a fresh approach to an over familiar story.

Were we wrong?  Perhaps children are not told the Christmas story in primary schools?  Or perhaps the story is just too complicated for them to remember?

Or perhaps this is about framing?

In primary schools the nativity story is usually framed by the school’s Christmas production. While some schools go for something completely secular (celebrating Santa, winter or a pantomime) many others opt for a “nativity play” loosely based on the Biblical narrative.

“The Lucky Owl” is about an owl in search of a home. He eventually ends up in the stable watching the nativity story unfold.  However, before this point is reached, he has visited several other woodland creatures, all singing about how glad they are to live in holes (or trees or nests or caves depending on species).

Another “nativity play” is about the Little Blue Star who was badly treated by all the other stars until the Big Gold Bethlehem Star comes along to sort everyone out.

In this context it is not surprising that the children are confused about the Christmas story.  A single retelling of the Biblical nativity story in class or assembly cannot compete with five weeks spent rehearsing and singing about being an alien or a forgetful angel.

Each year the actual story is framed by the school’s “nativity play” and becomes just one story among many.  How can we expect five and six year olds to discern that this is the story we want them to remember as “the Christmas story”?

It would be sad (if not impossible!) to ask schools to ditch their Christmas performances as they offer children so many other kinds of opportunities.

Instead I wonder if it would be possible to use the nativity story to frame the performance instead of the other way around.  Instead of waiting until Christmas to tell the story, tell it straight after the October half term.  Explain to the children that the play they are going to do includes Mary, Joseph, shepherds and wise men but that the writers have imagined all sorts of other things about the story – and that these things are just that: the writer’s imagination.

At times during the lead up to the production this could be re-emphasised, clarifying which parts belong to the original story and which parts have been added. The children could be asked what they think about the additions – do they add or take away from the original story?

But if we make the nativity story into the focus, we also need to think more deeply about the story we are telling.

Is it about the birth of a special baby or about the coming of the Messiah?  Is it a story that can be tweaked for moral purposes (stop bullying the Little Blue Star) or the mystery of God incarnate?   Are we short-changing children (who cope well with mystery) if we protect them from the dark and difficult aspects of the story?  The Godly Play story of the Holy Family finishes with the baby grown up, crucified, resurrected and “now with us in a different kind of way.”

It may be tempting to leave the baby trapped in the school nativity play; it is Christmas after all.  But some time we will have to pick up on the story and start along the road to Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter…

Playing the labyrinth

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Annie, aged 9, is walking the labyrinth.

Today’s story has been about Wangari Maathai planting trees across Kenya and everyone has been asked to take something into the labyrinth that reminds them of the natural world.  Annie has chosen a lemon and some bark.  She has placed the bark at a junction and the lemon in the centre and collected a tiny tree button to take back with her.

As an adult walking the labyrinth, I walk straight in and straight out.  I follow the rules, trying to focus on what has been asked.  It is a peaceful and reflective experience.

On her way out, Annie is stopping at every junction.

“Where am I?” she muses out loud.  “Am I going in or coming out?  Should I go this way or the other way?  I know I’ll go this way,” she adds choosing the way that leads back to the centre.

I know that she is doing this in part to wind up her friend Tom, who is waiting impatiently for his turn.  In this she is successful.

“Hurry up!” he calls to her, leaping from one foot to another. “Don’t go back again!  Oh, come on!”

I tell Tom that it is up to Annie how she walks the labyrinth and he needs to let her be.  He stops talking to her and tries to contain himself.  Annie glances at us, and continues on her way, backwards and forwards, making each junction a decision point.

And I wonder, as I frequently do in children’s ministry, how much should I intervene?

It is difficult to make the labyrinth a quiet personal experience in this room.  The children range in age from a few months to 12 years and there are too many other activities going on – planting trees, painting, craft, sand, free play. It is a noisy room acoustically; when I tell the story to those who come later it can be hard to make myself heard.  It probably doesn’t help that I frequently get up from my seat by the labyrinth to replenish craft supplies or talk to a child who has brought something to show me.

It seemed right to stop Tom interacting with Annie so that the labyrinth remains a personal experience.  But is there a right or wrong way to walk it?  Should I be insisting that the children walk slowly in silence?  Sometimes they do.  At others there seems to be an eager rush to take in whatever they have chosen.  Even the smallest children are keen to have a turn.

Did it matter that Annie seemed to be playing to the audience?  When I subdued Tom did it help her to focus on her own experience?  I don’t know.

But it seems to me now that real life is far more like Annie’s way of walking the labyrinth than mine.  Perhaps I should take more time to stop and wonder at the junctions?

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 word searches to make narrative sense.

It also does not matter that James does not properly understand several of the words: repentance, prodigal, fatted calf, 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” word searches 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, water slides, alien destroying computer games…

But perhaps I’m wrong… perhaps word searches 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!

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…

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…

Invisible children

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A couple of years back I went along to a service in a charismatic church, which was somewhat outside my usual experience of Anglican Holy Communion.

We began with a time of worship songs, accompanied by a band of guitars, drums and keyboard.  People sang, prayed (possibly in tongues), waved their arms and participated with emotion and enthusiasm for about forty five minutes.

Meanwhile what about the children?

Near the front sat three boys who spent the time in that kind of jostling, shoving, mock fighting usually reserved for long journeys in the back of the car. “He pushed me!” “He banged my elbow!” “Stop him!”

Further back a boy of about 10 or 11 spent the time on his ipad. Next to me the 12 year  old girl tried to amuse her 3 year old sister while their mother took part in the praise and prayer. A smaller child paid about six visits to the loo…

Were these children invisible to the congregation? They had been welcomed on entry but after that no one seemed to be aware they were there – until the end of the praise session when they were sent off to groups.

The previous week I had been in a community church where the praise session lasted about half an hour.  The children sat on the back row, kicking their legs, doing puzzle books and holding conversations about dinosaurs. They too appeared invisible to the worshipping congregation.

I wondered if these churches saw this time of praise as a coming together of the whole church family. But although the children were physically present they were absent in all other respects.  I saw no child taking part in these times of praise.

It would be good to be able to say that things are different in middle of the road Anglican churches. Mostly they are not.  Words to the hymns and songs are either in hymn books or projected onto screens.  They need a reading age of at least seven years old which takes out most of the younger children and any child who is dyslexic. These children stand ignored, fidgeting in boredom, while the adults sing around them.  Occasionally a token action song is included.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

The other week I saw a four year old joining in enthusiastically with the hymns, playing an assortment of musical instruments.  Although this was almost her only participation in the entire hour long service, she was recognised and visible for these brief moments of time.

If a church’s musical standard is too high for pre-schooler percussion there are the quieter options of flags, ribbons and banners to wave.  I have seen an evangelical church where four children came forward to wave long streamers during the praise time (and mini versions for all the children would have been even better).  Some songs (for example Taize) can be signed. There are art projects that could add another dimension to a time of praise.

For I just don’t get it.  If we are truly listening to God how can we be so unaware of the children in our midst, who are always visible to him?