Exploring the pearl: Theology with children 2


“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.”

Jesus is fun?


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


“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.”

Heaven’s gate: Theology with children

Heaven's gate

“This is heaven’s gate.  You go through it to get to heaven. There is earth, air, fire and water the four elements. There’s a gate for each of them – inside a volcano, under the sea, up in the air and here on earth,” says the ten year old, explaining the painting above.

“The gods are in heaven,” he goes on.  He pauses to think. “There’s one God… but lots of gods. As you go through the gate that way you become a god and if you go through the other way the gods become human…”

At the same event, three girls sit with me by the sand, talking about Joseph and his brothers.  “Do you think Joseph will forgive his brothers and let them have corn?” I ask.

“Yes,” replies one.  “He needs to.  God tells us to forgive people… Joseph wants to do what God wants.”

“So you think he needs to forgive because this is what God wants?” I say, before adding: “I wonder what it means to forgive someone?”

Although I think she understands, this question takes her on the hop and she can’t find the words.

“I think it means you don’t hold things against people,” says one of the other girls, who has had more time to think. “If someone does something that hurts you, you don’t hold it against them. You let it go.”

“I think it’s giving people a second chance,” says the seven year old.

What is theology?  The dictionary describes it as the coming together of two words “theos” (God) and “logos” (word) to mean the study of God. Elsewhere there is “thinking about God” and a more explicit “the study of God and his relationship to the world”.  A quick internet search reveals several talks and essays by academic theologians attempting to define what they are doing.

From this perspective these three girls are doing theology.  In their comments about forgiveness they are “thinking about God” and how he relates to us.  If forgiveness is part of the nature of God and he asks us to forgive others what does this mean?

But what about the first child, the painter?  Is he doing theology?

It is possible to dismiss his thinking as too many fantasy books…  Or to worry about his beliefs – surely he knows that there is only one God not many gods?  Doesn’t this need instant correction?

But it seems to me that he is exploring many theological questions:

What does it mean for the divine to enter this world? What does it mean for the divine to become human? What does it mean for humans to become divine? What is it like at the boundary?

Or to put it in more Christian terms:

What changed for God at the incarnation? What is it like for people to enter the kingdom of heaven?

Several years ago, I belonged to a study group who decided to spend eight sessions looking at one of Eddie Askew’s books.  Each session we would read the Bible passage and then take it in turns to read aloud Eddie’s reflections and prayers.  After each extract, we would pause and comment on how wonderful Eddie was and how well he had expressed what we thought.

But insightful and inspiring though Eddie Askew is, it did not work in this context; I took nothing away. Theology needs to be an ongoing work for all of us; there is no point of arrival, no definitive answer.  In these sessions, we allowed Eddie to do the work for us and did none ourselves.

By contrast I have spent the last three days thinking about the painting.  In my own experiences of encountering God and the kingdom of heaven what was the point at which I crossed the boundary?  What was different? What was it like at the boundary?

Theology with children can take you anywhere: even to heaven’s gate.