Puppets

It is a sunny day in August, many years ago, and I have been helping out with the church’s annual Teddy Bears Picnic.

The children, who are almost all under 7, have listened to a Bible story, engaged in craft, played parachute games and sung along to “If you go down to the woods today…” They have eaten their picnics and have now come into the church for the day’s highlight: the puppet show.

The leader’s puppet pops up onto the makeshift stage and starts to interact with the children.  He introduces himself as Jerry and asks the children to shout “halloo”, wave their teddies and clap.  The children join in enthusiastically.

So far so ok…

“Baa! Baa! Baaaa!”

The assistant’s puppet is clearly going to be a sheep and I relax slightly, thinking that we are going to be watching a retelling of the story of the lost sheep.

“Baa! Baa! Baaaaaaa!”

The assistant’s puppet appears. She is not a sheep.

Jerry introduces her as Sally and asks why she keeps going: “Baa!”

Sally replies that she wants to be close to Jesus.

So why is she going: “Baa”?

Sally has heard that sheep are close to Jesus. If she pretends to be a sheep she will be able to come close to Jesus.

Kindly, Jerry explains that you don’t need to be a sheep to be close to Jesus.

I set my face in lines of polite interest while I wonder frantically where this is going and what the children and their parents/carers are making of it.

Three year old Libby, sitting beside me at the back, tugs at my sleeve.  She has lost interest in puppet theology and has turned her attention to the church’s nativity display.  Why are the animals so close to the baby?  Will the baby be frightened?  Why did the shepherd bring the sheep?  Why did they come to the stable?

In low tones, I fill Libby in on the nativity story.

“Boo hoo! Boo hoo! Boo hoooooo!” cries Sally the puppet.

“What’s the matter?” asks Jerry.

“I don’t want to be a hippy chick.  I don’t want to be a hippy chick,” wails Sally.

“What’s a hippy chick?” asks Jerry, apparently as baffled as the audience.  

(But what about all the other sheep? whispers Libby. Won’t they be frightened all alone on the dark hillside?)

“You mean a hypocrite,” says Jerry in patronising tones, after Sally explains where she came across the word. “You don’t want to be a hypocrite.”

And for those at the back, he explains that a hypocrite is someone who thinks they are close to Jesus but aren’t really.

(But the other sheep might have wanted to see the baby Jesus too, says Libby.  Why didn’t the shepherd bring them all? They could have taken turns.)

Jerry and Sally have moved onto singing a song in which the lyrics are mercifully indistinct.

And I wonder now, as I did then, what was the purpose of this puppet show?  Was it to tell the audience that anyone can come close to Jesus? If so, why introduce the word “hypocrite”?  It is not a concept that is familiar to children under 7. 

On reflection, I think the purpose was much simpler: Children love puppets.  Children love puppets so much that the content does not matter. However as we have a captive audience, we might as well take the opportunity to slip in a few theological truths in a “fun” way.

The hypocrite definition left me feeling chilled.  The puppet interchange went completely over the heads of the younger children but there were adults and a few older children present as well. No mention was made of the idea that a hypocrite is someone whose words and action do not match their principles. Instead it was framed as “someone who thinks they are close to Jesus but aren’t really.”  How can you tell if you really are close to Jesus?  What can you do to be closer to Jesus? How much do your failures matter? What if the relationship you have believed to be true, just isn’t?


A few years ago Alan became vicar of St Brandon’s and found he had inherited a somewhat tired and dull family service.  After a few weeks he decided to liven it up by introducing Walter the Wombat, a puppet from Australia.

The children loved Walter!  Alan used to begin the service with some banter between him and Walter, who turned out to be very good at one line jokes, delivered in a fake Australian accent.  Walter was also useful for explaining the day’s reading in a fun fashion before the children went out to their groups. Once a month, at the all age service when the children stayed in, Walter acted as compere.  He rapidly became Alan’s right hand wombat and something of an alter ego. 

But as time went on there were problems. After the first few weeks, Alan started to run out of material.  Some weeks he spent more time thinking up Walter’s jokes than writing his sermon.  He tried leaving Walter at home one week, but the children were so disappointed.  Rather than ditch the puppet he had to invent a heavy cold that made Walter too ill to go out.  Every child he met during the next week asked after Walter’s health; three children made him Get Well Soon cards.

Alan invested in “Cheeky Chatter for Popular Puppets” which gave him 52 weeks’ worth of material.  But much of the material was on themes that he hadn’t planned to use, some of it was theologically dodgy and none of it had any connection to the lectionary.  

While the current five year olds still loved Walter, the original five year olds were now eight and starting to turn their noses up at Walter’s jokes.  Alan felt that he needed to up his game. But “Marvellous Magic for Popular Puppets”, the sequel to “Cheeky Chatter” filled him with horror. He had always failed to achieve the desired result in school science experiments; however would he cope with magic tricks – especially with one hand in a puppet?

But worst of all Alan had started reading some books about children’s spirituality and worshipping with children.

Was it possible that Walter was actually getting in the way of the children worshipping rather than enabling them?  Were there Bible stories where Walter’s jokes were inappropriate and detracted from the narrative?  Were Walter’s constant interruptions during the all age service a distraction rather than a help? Was the focus of the service on Walter, rather than on God?  

The two stories above might make you think that I disapprove of puppets in church. I don’t.

What I do disapprove of, is puppets being used as a gimmick to make church “fun” with no regard for the content and structure of the worship or for the quality of the material that is being used.  

So how could puppets be used?

The under 5s service (if you have one) is a good place for the welcoming puppet.  I didn’t have a puppet as such but each week our under 5s service began with a hunt for Bobby Bear around the church.  Once found he was passed around the circle to welcome everyone individually.  We then placed him on a table so that he could “see what’s happening.”  (I should have brought him back to the circle at the end to say goodbye, but I always forgot.)  Puppets would work well in this context and could take part in any introductory discussion as a prelude to the story or theme.  Children this age really enjoy puppets and as there is a natural end to their time in an under 5s service, they won’t outgrow them in the same way.

Puppets can be used for storytelling – but not every week as a varied approach works better.  While many churches use them as a “fun” and superficial way to share the Christian message, this is a recent development.  Of course, there is a place for comedy, but giving children and adults a diet of continuous comedy does not help them with the lives they are actually living and offers a distorted view of the Christian story.

Puppetry has been around for over 4000 years and has been used to tell stories that are dark and serious as well as those that are comic.  (It is believed that the word marionette comes from the Italian word for Mary doll that was used in Christian morality plays.)  Punch and Judy shares with pantomime the slapstick humour that can be taken at many different levels – for example there is an anarchic strand in which it is those in authority who are hit over the head or plastered with custard pies.  

But the best place for puppets is probably in the children’s corner. Provide a selection – people, Bible characters, animals – and allow children to use them in response to what is going on in the worship.  Some children may use them to create their own stories or re-enact the ones they have heard or read.  Others may use them as confidantes and mouthpieces.  And some may use them to ask anarchic questions about the status quo. Encourage them…

Analysing elections: an exercise with Year 6

I once did an “election” with a Year 6 class during General Election week.  (It was part of “How can we keep the children engaged in learning after SATs?”)  

I divided the class into four parties who chose colours to define themselves: Blue, Silver, Purple and Green.

They spent a week writing manifestos, designing posters, making ballot boxes and preparing speeches.  Each party could make school based promises though they had to be somewhere in the realms of deliverability: no uniform, pony riding as part of P.E. and ice cream on Fridays were all allowed but not weekly trips to Legoland or your own flying horse.  The promises were drawn up independently but inevitably there was some overlap: no homework was popular! (We did make it clear to the younger children that this was “all pretend”!)

On Thursday morning each team member had to make a speech on behalf of their party in one of the other classes.  (“Think about your audience,” I told them, looking at the Literacy tick boxes.  “There’s no point in making a really complicated speech to the children in Reception.”)

In the afternoon, the school secretly voted with election officers, counters, and specially painted black boxes and at lunchtime I took the Year 6 children in small groups to look through the door of the real polling station next door. The returning officers went round to each class to declare the result and the winning team went on a victory tour to thank their voters.

On Friday we analysed the results: why did the children in the other classes vote the way they did – and why do adults vote the way they do?

One team hit the ground running.  It was the team with the most obviously charismatic leader and by break time on Monday his team were out in the playground asking the younger children to vote for them (bribes were strictly forbidden). 

“It’s not fair,” cried the others (no surprises there!)  

In the end I had to put some restrictions in place as the other teachers reported that the younger children wanted to be able to play, without being pressured for their vote. Interestingly, this team was starting to run out of energy by Thursday; there is a limit to how often you can talk about voting during break.  (They did not win.)

Another team took the entire first session to choose their colour.  This team had no obvious leader; the child I had expected to take the lead was not feeling well and did not take much part in the discussions.  There were no personality clashes (I had arranged the teams very carefully!) but there was no one prepared to make decisions and little enthusiasm, and this was reflected at the ballot box.

The winning team (Purple) trailed in three classes but won because of the overwhelming vote in the Year 1/Year 2 class (six and seven year olds).

On Friday we discussed why people voted the way they did (children in this election, adults in the General Election). 

As this was the first election there were no historical reasons for voting – no one voted Silver because their grandfathers and grandmothers had voted Silver. (We did not think to look at how siblings voted but we should have done – if your sister was the leader of the Green party did this make you more or less likely to vote Green?)  

But we did identify other emotional reasons for voting: perhaps some children liked the colour (voters who identify with a party but have no real idea what they stand for), or one of the team had been especially kind to them (things had changed for the voter because of action taken by the party either on their behalf or generally.)

We looked at the role of the charismatic leader (without getting too personal!) Did some children vote Blue because they knew who Andy actually was (football Captain, leading role in the school play, prepared to speak up in assembly)?

One thing quickly became very obvious: The length of the manifesto made no difference – or if it did it was a negative one.  The teams that had written ten promises did no better than the ones who had written five – and generally worse. 

I confessed to the children that I had not read the entire manifesto for any of the political parties.  I was pretty sure, I told them, that the number of people who read the entire manifesto was very small and the ones who used the entire manifesto in deciding how to vote even smaller.  The number of things that even adults can think deeply about at any one time is very small – four or five at the most.  Often there is one key issue that stands out.  (At that time, twenty years ago, I used to focus mostly on education as this was the issue I knew most about.  Now, I look first to a party’s stand on the climate emergency).

None of the promises related to the world outside school.  Several children in the class were involved in raising money for charities, often on their own initiative but this did not figure in any of the manifestos.  Most of the promises would have benefited the children in the short term rather than the long term.  I think this was due more to the way in which I had set the parameters, rather than the way in which the children viewed the world.  Children’s prayers often reflect a real concern for those who are hungry, refugees or are affected by natural disasters and many look for ways to help. (Recently, for example several children have grown their hair for the Little Princess Trust for cancer sufferers.)

So why did Purple win and why did they win because of this one particular class?  Thomas, the child who gave the manifesto speech, was a quiet boy, not at all charismatic and did not usually have much to do with the younger children. We were all surprised at the impact he had made.

Thomas kept his speech brief and to the point.  I think he focussed on only one election promise (free ice creams on Fridays) but he had made a poster with a picture of an ice cream which he held up at the crucial moment to add emphasis to his speech.  Perhaps when the children voted they remembered the ice cream, when they had forgotten the more abstract promises of the other teams.   

The analysis was fascinating, the class often giving me suggestions for things that I had not thought about.  I think now, looking at Thomas’s success that he was simply the right person at the right time. (Would his ice cream promise have been so successful in the winter term?) 

Interestingly, of all the promises made that long ago summer this is the one that was actually delivered. Before the pandemic the PTFA (who knew nothing of Thomas, the Purple team and their promises) used to give out ice pops to every child on Fridays at the end of school…             

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…

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…