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.”

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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?

 

 

 

The Penelope principle: worship is for all

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“I’ve spoken to the baptism family” says our new vicar at coffee time, “and I’ve told them all about your service for toddlers.  I suggested that once Danielle is three they might like to bring her along.”

And she goes cheerfully on her way, completely unaware that I am standing there open mouthed.

Three? Three?  What can I have said that has given her the impression that a child needs to be three to come along to the toddler service?

Or perhaps it isn’t anything I’ve said.  Perhaps it is the idea that Christianity needs cognition; that there is no point in introducing faith or worship to someone who cannot understand it?

Several years back now I wrote a guest post on the blog “Explore and Express” called “A Year with Penelope”: https://exploreandexpress-sheila.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/guest-post-babys-first-year-in-church.html

In it I wrote about baby Penelope’s first experiences of church – from starring as baby Samuel at 8 weeks old to watching Godly Play stories intently at 12 months.

Looking back at it now, it seems to me that this sentence is key: “We can never tell how close a person is to God, but it seems unlikely that the God we worship does not come close to small, wordless children simply because they cannot speak.”

If God indeed comes close to small children and babies, then they should be with us as part of the worshipping community from birth.   No one is too young.

Recently Mary Hawes (the Church of England’s national children and youth adviser) asked a follow up question:  “I’d love to know the next part of the story – is Penelope still part of the worshiping community? Was she welcomed with 2 year old tantrums, 3 year old determination…”

The simple answer to this question is that sadly this particular worshipping community no longer exists but while it did exist (in various formats) there was never a time when Penelope was not welcomed.

But there is a further aspect to this.  Even as a nine month old baby, Penelope was someone who loved to be involved, and this continued during her toddler and pre-school years.  This made it easy for her to be part of this small worshiping community, where there were many opportunities for her to take an active role.

But what about the other small children?  The wandering toddler, the two year old in a temper, the independent three year old?

When we first began (before Penelope was born), the time before the service was spent with us rushing round trying to get everything sorted while our two and three year olds rolled over and over each other in a heap on the floor.  The service usually began with us separating out the children and restoring them to their families while the leader began, “Welcome to our all age service.”

For despite the chaos, they were welcome. We might have envisaged a service where the children sat quietly beside their parents, waiting patiently for us to begin; it wasn’t what we got.  We worked at it. We put down toys to engage the children before the service began and looked for ways (such as taking a prayer leaf or a candle to a chosen place in the church) to involve them in getting ready for worship.

And somehow an ethos of welcome developed at this service.  It extended not just to the babies and the tricky two year olds but also to the adult with dementia, the person with learning difficulties, the autistic older child…

If we believe that no one is too young to take part in worship, then it follows that no one is too different or too difficult either…   Worship is for all…

More than fun

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In my last post I wrote about churches where the emphasis is on having “fun”- especially in outreach to the community and in working with children.  It is easy to see the problems with this approach and criticise; it is far harder to write about what to do instead.

This is not because I have no idea what to do, but because it is difficult to avoid writing as if I have reached a point of arrival.

Experience has taught me that every time I think I have arrived, God sweeps me on somewhere else. I have only just started to realise that I will never actually arrive. While there may be a few rest stops in calm pools along the way, I am unlikely to stay there long.  In a few months’ time I may look back on what I have written and wonder how I could ever have thought that.

But for now, for me, everything depends on context.  I am called to this place, this time, these people.  At this brief staging post on the journey, what can I offer that is more than fun?

Currently, working mostly with children and families who are not church goers, I have found that it is story that is central to everything I do.  Children and adults can engage with stories without having to believe them. Stories can work with all ages and are fundamental to who we are.

Reynold Price wrote:  “A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives.”

Stories work in ways that explanation and exposition do not, for they give people space to make their own meaning.

After story, I prioritise prayer.  Sometimes we sit in the circle and ask if anyone would like to pray aloud or in their head.  We try to include a time of silence.  Usually what is offered is a prayer station to do with the story.  Some people, both adults and children, take part in this, some don’t.  I’m not sure it matters.

Creativity is my third strand.  Although we include some “fun” activities what the children (and adults!) do is very much a choice.  Some of the craft activities are a choice within the activity – a collage using particular colours, scratch art crosses, building a model hut.  A completely free choice using the materials available is always an option.

Community?  In some ways this would be my fourth strand. But while I am intentional about story, prayer and creativity I am less so about this.   In some ways I don’t want to tie us down, give us a label or put up walls enclosing those who fit the criteria for belonging. For now, it feels more like journeying together; children and adults are free to drop in and out. I suspect a more intentional community might look like something different.

In other contexts, and in the past, I have focused on different things – experimenting with worship, working with under 5s, creating sacred space…  But for now, story, prayer, creativity and possibly community underpin all I do to offer something that is more than fun…

Jesus is fun?

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The church I grew up in was dull.

I used to go to Matins (morning prayer) which followed the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.  I found the canticles dreary and the hymns chosen from Ancient and Modern almost indistinguishable.  The Rector, a quiet introverted man who didn’t much care for people, preached every week on the state of the world. Fifty years later his sermons could have been preached almost unaltered; only the details have changed.  I used to while away the time gazing at the stained glass window opposite (the miraculous catch of fish) and reading the memorial tablet to an only son killed on the Somme.  I would also choose a page of the hymnbook and see if I could find all the letters of the alphabet in order.  (There were only about three pages where this worked; most pages stopped short in the search for a “q”).

Many people of my generation and after grew up in similar churches; it is not surprising that there has been a reaction.  It is also not surprising that for some churches the reaction has tended towards the idea that “Jesus is fun and loved a party.”

For a time, this was particularly noticeable in children’s work, where games and gimmicks became the typical way to do things.  “We try to wear them out with games and then we slip in a story,” said one children’s worker, talking about her junior church group.  The message was clear: if it wasn’t fun, it wouldn’t engage the children and we would lose the next generation.

But for some churches this also applied to other aspects of church life: they were determined to prove that Christians were not boring.  If people outside the church came along to fun church events – harvest suppers, duck races, Easter egg hunts – they would see that Christians were fun people who did fun things.  Perhaps this would encourage them to join in… Perhaps they would start coming along on Sundays…

The problem is that “Jesus is fun and liked a party” is not the Gospel.

I am sure Jesus was fun in many ways; he certainly wasn’t dull.  He also liked a party – we see him at the wedding at Cana, feeding five thousand people, enjoying himself with his friends…

But the Gospel is much more than this.  It occupies a far deeper space, one that makes meaning of our lives, our deaths and the whole of creation.  “Fun” barely scratches the surface.

We live in a culture, which like all cultures, is searching for meaning.  But our personal lives can be so busy that it is possible for both Christians and non Christians to avoid doing this. The default seems to be that if this life is all there is, time is short, and we need to have as much fun as we can.  Fun becomes the goal… and some churches seem to have accepted this, not necessarily for themselves, but in their approach to those who are not Christians.

This approach demeans non Christians who are just as much people as we are.  If all we are offering them is “fun” there is far more fun to be had elsewhere.  It is particularly demeaning to children who are not afraid to look at life afresh and make meaning.

Why offer them just the froth on the top?

As Rachel Nicholls put it, when commenting on poor all age talks:  “Yes – they can be the direst of the dire – but isn’t that when they operate out of a weird anthropology (children are from a different planet called kiddy widdy land) and a weird theology (God is essentially boring, so rather than enter his presence together, let’s muck around instead).”

Knowing with our minds, feeling with our hearts

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“What is sin?  Is it possible for anyone to be sinless?”

I had just told the story of Isaiah’s vision in the temple to a group of Year 6 children.  The other groups had talked about sin as doing bad things and then moved on to talking about intentions.  Were terrorists sinful if they acted as they did because otherwise bad things would happen to their family?  Were they sinful if they had been forced into believing that what they did was right?   No, it wasn’t possible for anyone to be sinless, everyone did wrong things.

This group began in the same way but then went in a different direction.  Sin was doing bad things, but it wasn’t possible for anyone to be sinless.  Not even God.  After all they said, God created the world but what about wars and terrorists?

These comments threw me completely, and it was only later that I worked out why.  “What is sin?” and “Is it possible for anyone to be sinless?”  are closed questions.  I have my own answers to both – hopefully in line with Christian theology!

But these children, in this context, were not used to closed questions.  They treated them as open.  Instead of telling me what they knew with their minds, they told me what they felt in their hearts.

And what they felt was that as God had created the world, he ought to take responsibility for it.

How can a good God allow suffering, is a question that has been asked throughout history.  But even the answers we think that we know with our minds do not necessarily express what we feel in our hearts:

“You have created oceans of pain… and I cannot see how they were necessary to preserve your world…” wrote Peter Lippert, the Jesuit theologian.

The children’s discussion continued, they talked about the idea of people “who can make their own decisions.”  Some of them seemed to be moving towards the idea of a good God who allows people to choose.  I don’t think they were all convinced.

I came out of the session, thinking that I should have done it differently.  Was it possible to have asked the question as an open question rather than as closed?  I didn’t know.

The children heard two other stories that afternoon, all connected with the theme of holiness.  “What is the most glorious thing that you have ever seen?” is clearly an open question and the children responded with descriptions of tiny diamonds, magnificent sunsets and the first time they held their baby brother.

But what about the question “What is healing”? The storyteller and I had had a a brief discussion and our ideas were broadly in line with each other.   But two of the children responded to this question symbolically: healing is when a tree that has been split in two grows back together; healing is a maggoty apple having the maggot removed.

This has left me thinking: these children did not seem to mind sharing what they felt in their hearts even if it did not fit with what they had been told or with what they knew with their minds.  But what about adults?   Are adults really better at integrating what we know with our minds and what we feel in our hearts?  Or are we only prepared to share what we know with our minds, hiding away what we feel in our hearts?

A few days later I told the same story to a group of slightly younger children, but allowed the question “What is sin?” to be an open one. In response one child linked the story to “the little man up a tree” (Zaccheus) and another child spoke of Jonah “running away from God.”