Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Big Spiritual Moments.

On Good Friday, a parent handed me a sealed envelope, on which was written, in their six-year-old son's handwriting, the words "To God."

"I've sat on this since Boxing Day," she said.  "I honestly had no idea what to do with it.  I think it's probably a thank-you letter for Christmas.  Can I give it to you?"

There are very few opportunities when you really know, in children's work, that if you get this particular thing wrong, it could seriously screw up a child.  A kid disclosing abuse is one of them.  There are a few others, mostly based around big spiritual questions, where your openness, or lack thereof, can give kids a huge clue about whether questioning and discernment are the way God works, or whether he's all about rigid dogma.  But a kid's private letter to God, and what sort of response they get, is probably on that list.  Big Spiritual Moments Where Kids Are Very Vulnerable.

The letter simply said, "Dear God, I would like to be invited on a trip to heaven. You can write back through the post box to _______, at ________, London, ____."

There were some illustrations, as well, including a cross crowned with an arrow-pierced heart, backed by a rising sun, as well as what appeared to be a griffin in flight.

Obviously, writing back as God is out.  You do NOT want to give children the idea that God will actually write back, a la Father Christmas.  Nor should any of us presume to speak in the voice of God.

So, remembering a letter I saw once written by Rowan Williams, in response to a child whose parents had posted her letter to God to Lambeth Palace, I used the "this is X, and this is what God might say in response to your letter" format.

And this is what I came up with.  I can always follow it up with more, so if you have any other ideas, please leave them in the comments!

Dear _______,

This is Margaret, from church.  Your letter to God made its way to my desk.  I don’t know how God would answer your letter, but this might be what he’d say:

I’m really glad you want to be invited on a trip to heaven.  Heaven is an amazing, astonishing place.  It’s better than anything in people’s imaginations.  People think it might be like a city made of gold, as beautiful as a bride on her wedding day, like a wedding party for a King’s son, or like a beautiful pearl.  But it’s even better than that.  And most importantly, it’s where I am.  And I am so full of love and joy that sadness and hurting go away when you're near me.  I have promised that in heaven, I will wipe every tear away from your eyes, and there will be no crying or sadness or pain.  It’s a place where everyone is happy, safe, and loved, all the time, and forever.

But it’s in a different kind of world from the one you live in now.  It’s not a place you can visit on an aeroplane.  Even if you got in a spaceship and travelled forever, you would never come to heaven.  It’s in a different universe.  It’s a place you come to live at the end of your whole long life.  And you have a lot of living still to do before you come to stay in heaven with me – a lot of learning, playing, making friends, helping people, coming to church to pray and hear stories about me, growing up, having jobs, having a family (if you want one), and getting old.

And while you’re doing all of that, there are ways you can make  earth a bit more like heaven.  Remember how I said that heaven is like a city made of gold, as beautiful as a bride on her wedding day?  You can use art and music and drama and dance to make beautiful things on earth, to help show people what heaven is like.  And remember how I said that it’s a place so full of love and happiness that nobody is ever sad or hurt?  You can show love to people, and give them hugs when they’re sad, to help show people what heaven is like.  And remember how I said that heaven is a place where you’re near me all the time?  You can pray to me, and come to church to hear stories about me, and go for walks to look at the beautiful world that I made, to help yourself feel close to me.

______, I made you and I love you.  Someday you will be invited to come live in heaven, forever.  But until then, I will be with you always, in your heart, in the stories people tell about me, and everywhere around you.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Random theological musings on this week's lesson

It's occurred to me for the first time, in preparing Sunday School on Matthew 26, that Jesus' response is not so much one of principle but of pastoral care. Judas says, "you could have taken all that money this woman wasted on perfume for you, and given it to the poor." Jesus' response is "the poor will be with you always, but I will not be. She has anointed me with oil as for my burial." The anointing was an act of love - possibly misguided, possibly OTT and a bit embarrassing for Jesus, possibly not the most effective use of 300 denarii. But it was an act of love, and standing there vulnerable in front of her Lord, the woman needed that love acknowledged. Judas is practical, and he may be right in that Christians should care more about the poor than about how expensive our worship materials are. But that woman needed Jesus to publicly recognize that her intention - love - was what mattered to him. And he did.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Things I'm Working On Learning

There have been a few occasions over the last few months when a parishioner has come to me with an idea that's so obviously fabulous that I've metaphorically kicked myself for not thinking of it.

I think each of us have one or two pet theories, ideas, projects, etc., and use those as the basis for all our thinking and planning.  Sometimes we can forget there are whole other categories of things to do.

So here's a little checklist to help us remember to break outside our own mental boxes sometimes.  Some of these may be more relevant for older children and youth groups than for nursery and primary-aged children.

What opportunities are there for children and young people in your church to do the following? 

1. Have quality Sunday School time, including stories, worship, and a non-proscriptive activity?

2. Learn about and celebrate the festivals of the Christian year?

3. Engage in All-Age worship that includes them in meaningful ways?

4. Take a role as a leader of worship?

5. Assist in worship in other ways, e.g. as a sidesperson or greeter?

6. To be involved with decision-making in the church, e.g. as a youth rep on the PCC?

7. To have their thoughts and opinions shared with the church as a whole?  (note: I'm not talking about putting a child on the spot during a sermon and asking them to come up with something cute and/or profound in the moment.  I'm talking more about a process - talking with the children and young people over time about prayer, or about Jesus' life, or about what the church should be doing better - and then sharing the results of their thoughts with the congregation or PCC.)

8. To teach others?  (i.e., give a presentation about Fairtrade issues in place of the sermon during Fairtrade fortnight)

9. To have their artistic achievements seen by the wider congregation?  This can include visual art as well as drama and music.  One youth group I know prepared a modern dramatic re-telling of The Prodigal Son and did it in place of the Gospel on Sunday (you can see it here.)  Children's banners can be used in worship, children's work displayed in your church hall, children can sing and dance in worship, and so on.

10. To become involved in charitable projects?

     10a. To plan and research their own charitable projects.
     10b. To get involved in large national charitable projects, e.g. Run for Life, Circle the City with Christian Aid, etc.

11. To be involved in cultural events that may have some resonance with the Christian faith, e.g. trips to see films, plays or exhibits that can spur discussion.  Our youth group had a movie night with The Hunger Games and then used this study guide to talk about its relevance to Christianity.

12. To be seen in a positive light by the congregation as a whole?

13. To get involved in Diocesan or national events, meeting Christians their own age fro

Monday, 4 March 2013

Mothering Sunday Prayers

I'm really proud of our youth group.  At our meeting yesterday, we wrote the prayers for next week's All-Age Eucharist for Mothering Sunday.

I asked "when we pray, what do we pray for?" and provided very little input beyond that.  Here's what they came up with - the compassion, thoughtfulness, and awareness these preteens display is wonderful to see.


Loving God, we pray to you so we can talk to you and feel secure and safe.  We pray to tell you our fears and thoughts.  We pray for your trust and love.  We pray for help and guidance over obstacles.  We pray to relax our bodies and help us get calm.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We begin by saying thank you for all that you have done for us.
That we may realize and be grateful for how much we have.
In thanks for the community of people who love us.
For giving human beings the gift of language, so we can read and communicate.
For scientists who make amazing discoveries that save lives and make our lives easier, like Gregor Mendel, Marie Curie, and Albert Einstein.
We thank you for people who make the world better, like Gandhi.
We thank you that there are good people in the world, because sometimes it seems like there are so many bad people in the world, it is easy to lose hope.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We pray for ourselves.
For guidance when we ask the big questions about life.
And we pray for people close to us who are sick.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We pray for people and animals who need help.
For places like Syria, where there are wars.
For people who live in refugee camps, or people trying to get into refugee camps.
We pray for poor people in London.  That we may remember that there are poor people in our own communities, and not just remember stereotypical pictures of poor people in other countries.
We pray that we may be moved to action, instead of just listening and forgetting.
We pray for animals who die in experiments.
And we pray for people who have addictions, like smoking.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

Because it is Mother’s Day, today we pray for mothers.
We are thankful for mothers who are always there when you need them.
We are thankful for the organizational skills of mothers.
We are thankful for the joy that mothers receive in watching their children grow up.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We pray also for the hardships of mothers.
For children whose mothers have died or abandoned them.
For children and mothers who live in war zones.
For children who are separated from their parents.
For children who have been abused by their parents.
For mothers of missing children.
For people who are forced into becoming mothers.
For women who would like to have children but are unable to.
For mothers whose children have died.
For mothers who are driven to do painful things for the sake of their children, like Fantine in Les Miserables.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

And we pray for people and pets we love who have died,
That they may receive new life in your kingdom,
Where you have promised to wipe away all tears from our eyes.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

This year's big Sunday School project.

The older Sunday School group started building a church today.

We'll do different projects over several weeks, all of which create a part of our church.

Today, having heard and wondered about some of the parables of the Kingdom, we made mosaic tiles for the floor.  Each child had an A5 sheet of heavy yellow paper, and we had stone mosaic tiles from Baker Ross.  The children made patterns and used ordinary PVA glue to attach their mosaic tiles.  These finished tiles will now be glued to a cross-shaped cardboard base to create our church's footprint.

The walls will be made of cardboard - each wall cut separately to size, with gothic arched window shapes cut out of it.  I'll do this before our next session, with a Stanley knife.  We will then make stained glass windows by drawing on clear plastic with glass pens.  The windows will then be stuck to the outside of the walls.

During our third session, we will paint the walls with pictures from our favourite Bible stories.

In the fourth session, we will make the pulpit, lectern, altar, altar hangings, and pews.  I haven't QUITE figured out how we're going to do this, but it will probably be with some kind of clay.

In the final session, we will make figures of people to be ourselves, our families, and the priest, as well as sculpting crosses and candles, and making an altar book out of coloured paper.  We'll also decide on a name for our church.

When we're done, the church will be on display in the Sunday School room, and the children will be allowed to play with it.  We may make sets of different coloured altar hangings, so we can change them with the seasons.

The first three projects - mosaics, stained glass, and paintings - allow children to creatively express Biblical imagery, and to look for the Biblical imagery in our church.  We have a great collection of photos of our church building, which I'll print out and ask them to look at, trying to guess what Bible stories they can see.

This is a good way of connecting story with liturgy - we hear the Bible story and then we are encouraged to use the imagery not only from that story but from other stories in decorating a worship space.

The fourth and fifth sessions have less scope for this sort of creativity - they are more focused on getting the children used to the objects in the church, and to understand what they're there for.  This helps them feel more at home in the church building.  I will have paper and markers available for children who want to do something more creative with this time.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Rites of passage

I'm writing a Ministry Matters post about rites of passage, which reminded me of our end-of-year blessing for the children.  It includes a section for children moving from Sunday School to Youth Group.

The children gather around the altar, with the Sunday School teachers, holding examples of their work from the past year.

President: Almighty Father, you came among us as a small child.  As a child, you spoke the wisdom of God in the temple.  We bring you the work these children have done this year, and we ask that it may bring them to know and to love you.

Making the sign of the cross over the work.

Now bless this work, we pray you.  Keep safe the little ones who have created it.  Make it an offering in your church.  Show your favour upon these children as they complete another year, and bring them safely again to us in the new season.

People: Amen.

The President invites all children who are moving from the Sunday School to the Youth Group to come forward to the centre.

President: Saint Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became an adult, I put away childish things.”  You stand on the line between childhood and adulthood.  As you move from the Sunday School to the Youth Group, are you prepared to come to know Christ in new ways?

Children: With the help of God, I am.

President: Are you prepared to take on more responsibility for your own life and for your own faith?

Children: With the help of God, I am.

President: Will you continue to pray, to serve God in all people, and to follow Christ wherever he may lead you in your adolescence and adulthood?

Children: With the help of God, I will.

President: Almighty God, be with these young people as they begin to put away childish things.  Let their faith be a staff to lean upon, a light in the darkness, a mantle about their shoulders.  Give them wisdom and compassion as they grows into from childhood to manhood and womanhood.

People: Amen!

The President addresses the Sunday School teachers.
President: Jesus said, “whoever welcomes one child in my name welcomes me.”  Lord, we ask your blessing upon these teachers, who have welcomed the children into your house.  We thank you for their faith, their love, and their wisdom.  Bless them and keep them close to you, that they may be faithful ministers of your word and that their own faith may grow as they share your love with others.
People: Amen.
Continue with the blessing and dismissal

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

A brief introduction to power politics, through the Gospel.

In youth group last week, we got sidetracked into a discussion on why the wealthy and powerful people were out to get Jesus.

This was happening in the Sunday School room after church, and the feltboard pieces from Sunday School were still on the board.  We'd done the story of the Sermon on the Mount, so Jesus was in the centre, surrounded by Disciples and the Crowd, and with the devil in the upper right-hand corner.

"Well," I said, "look at all those people around him.  The people were following him and listening to what he said.  And the wealthy and powerful people were afraid he was going to take away their power."

"So," said Ted, "if all those people were around him, and supporting him ... how come the soldiers were able to arrest him?  Couldn't he have just raised an army and fought back?"

"Well," I replied, "two things.  One, that's not the type of power he was talking about - if he'd done that, he might have killed a few Romans, might have ended up as a footnote in a history book.  But the power of dying and rising again defeated death itself.  Two -" and here I swept all the figures off the board except for Jesus, the devil, Mary Magdalene, and John the Evangelist, "when it got tough, and really dangerous, most of these people abandoned him.  Yeah, it's easy to follow a person, to listen to what they're saying ... but if you had to DIE for it ... well, that's a harder thing to ask, isn't it?"

Earlier, most of these kids had been in Sunday School, where the Sermon on the Mount, with some prodding from me, had turned into a discussion of when it is and isn't acceptable to meet force with force.  The kids generally agreed that in the case of Hitler, force was necessary but weren't sure about other times.  They wanted to know how Hitler had become bad, and why he did what he did.  One said it was because he wanted money and power.  One said it was because Germany had been so humiliated in the Treaty of Versailles it made him mad.  One said that part of him was good because he was so talented and charismatic at leading people - I asked "what would have happened if he'd used those talents for good instead of evil?"

Then the 5-year-olds started getting bored, and we were running out of time, so I'd had to cut the conversation short.  But it was clear in youth group later, they were still thinking of these sorts of questions.