Tuesday, March 11, 2008

THE CURSE - A Sunday Paper Editorial

(A sermon preached on the First Sunday of Lent, Year A. The First Lesson was extended to include the words of the curse.)

The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, you are cursed above all cattle, and above all wild animals; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

To the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The Church is a community that tells stories; part of what makes this place holy ground is that in this place, week after week, we gather to tell stories. This morning’s story has a special familiarity to this community, because it forms the opening scene of our Christmas Pageant. We can hardly listen to it, especially in this place, without our minds filling with images from our family album: pre-teens standing up here in leotards, flanking a tree; the Angel of the Lord pacing majestically in; Adam pointing accusingly at Eve; the human pair going down the steps, heads bowed, side by side, as the LORD God strips the tree and stands, arms outstretched, barring the way to the tree of life. This is the story we tell about “in the beginning”—the story that explains who we are and how we got that way ... what kind of choices we have ... what lies ahead for us.

Yesterday in this same place, some of us gathered to tell and watch another story-a puppet opera of The Wild Swans, a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. As with so many fairy tales, The Wild Swans tells of a young princess with a wicked stepmother who is jealous of her beauty and throws her out of the palace. The “in the beginning” of fairy tales looks back to a time long ago, before the good queen died and the stepmother came, when the princess was cherished and treasured and loved, and had no cares and no worries; or a time when Jack and his mother were never hungry or ragged or cold. And always, the story tells us that that time is gone.

That time is gone, but we are haunted by its memory. Stories all over the world struggle with the bitter realities of the human condition: hardship, loneliness, fear, loss, pain, anger, guilt, waste, aggression, sickness, death. And central to that struggle is our persistent conviction that it shouldn’t be like this. This is not what we were made for; this is not what the world was made for. The world is a good thing that has been spoiled. Irresistibly, the stories press forward, to imagine a long-ago time when it had not yet been spoiled.

Fairy tales are stories for children—one commentator has called fairy tales “a love gift to a child”—and they exist to give children hope, as the children struggle to cope with their own powerlessness and the work of growing and discovering who they are. So the fairy tales’ “once upon a time” is always a time long ago in the hero’s or heroine’s infancy, when the family unit was unbroken and the parents’ love for the child was complete and unclouded—before there was jealousy or worry or hard work or the need to break away from parents and make one’s own fortune and choose one’s own mate. In fairy tales, the terrible calamity that breaks up this safe world is never the hero’s or heroine’s own fault. It always just happens: the good queen dies—a wicked sorcerer casts an evil spell—a famine comes in the land. Without it, there would be no story: the hero or heroine would remain forever a baby, cocooned in a world that was completely safe but completely static.

But the Bible story is more complicated.

The Bible story is the story of a primal disaster—and unlike the fairy tales, the story tells us that the disaster didn’t just happen, we made it happen. It is our fault. We ourselves broke the love relationship between ourselves and our Creator; worse, we chose to break it, after fair warning as to what the consequences would be. We spoiled God’s plan. And the result is not just that we are no longer safe, happy, cared for and appreciated. The result is a curse.

Someone once asked me, years ago, why our Christmas Pageant begins with this story, since it so obviously blames the human condition on the woman, and isn’t that embarrassing and sexist and outdated. And even though the pageant script leaves out the gender-specific curses—the sentence of painful childbirth and sexual submissiveness for the woman, of hard labor and scarcity for the man—still, the image of Adam standing there, pointing at the woman (“it’s her fault”) may make us want to stop here for a minute and look at the part that sex has played in our understanding of this story.

The story has often been read—with satisfaction by arrogant males, with dismay by feminists—as a story about sexual temptation, in which the woman entices the man out of freedom and autonomy into sexual bondage, and in return God says to women, “From now on you’ll have to suffer in childbirth and be kept down by your man; you deserve it, it serves you right for what you did.” But this is a misreading on both counts. There is plenty of misogyny in the Bible, but it doesn’t come from this story. The woman’s sin is not that she has been a temptress; the man’s is not “uxoriousness” or failure to govern his wife rather than be governed by her (as the medievals and Milton had it). The sin itself isn’t sexual at all, and it doesn’t matter who started it; the curse extends to much more than sex and gender, and the story shows no more satisfaction at the fact that women suffer in childbirth than it does at the fact that men sweat in the fields.

The story exists to account for not just one evil but a whole complex of evils. Scarcity, hard labor, the inhospitability of nature, and the frequent dangerousness and difficulty of childbirth are obvious parts of human life, and obvious evils, that any society will have myths to account for. The story identifies these evils and associates them with sexual embarrassment, clothes, waste, and death itself, as all stemming from the alienation from God and our true selves that the Church has called the Fall. Less often noticed is the way this story, coming out of a heavily patriarchal society, also associates patriarchy with the Fall. The ancient mythographers looked around them and saw a society in which women not only suffered pain and risk from giving birth; they also suffered from their own self-destructive sexual desires and the abusive sexual desires of men who held power over them. But instead of saying, “This is how God made the world to be,” the ancient writer said, “This too has come about because of our abuse of our freedom, our spoiling of God’s plan.”

“In pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Only after the human pair have made outlaws of themselves by reaching for knowledge before God’s appointed time does God pronounce that the man will rule over the woman and the woman be captive to her desire for him. She can’t live without him and she can’t live with him. The sin itself is not sexual, but its results have massive implications for sexuality.

From it, the myth says (with enormous intuitive insight), come rape, sexual abuse, sexual manipulativeness, machismo, sadism, masochism, you name it-but most typically, most often, heterosexual bondage where the woman “needs” and wants the man, and he uses that to put her down, representing her as a temptress and a whore (“the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit, and I ate”) or merely as a something-different-from-human who is all very well in her place but certainly not his equal in competence and value.

And from this, Christ came to set us free.

No wonder, as Dorothy Sayers remarks, “no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there has never been such another. ... There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything funny about woman’s nature.” Nor would they guess that there is anything corrupt or dangerous about woman’s nature: in marked contrast to the old prophets, Jesus never uses the imagery of harlotry or female uncleanness when he is denouncing sin of any kind.

For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

The story tells us what we already know: that we are tied and bound with the chain of our sins. But the story is able to help us believe that God did not create us for such bondage, and to grasp the hope that in God’s own coming to enter our pain and humiliation, we may even now begin to see the chains grow loose and fall from us. With the story’s help, we can envision a world where our response to seductive temptation is not to lie and sneak and hide, to turn each other into objects for manipulation and power plays and blame, but to hold up our own freedom and the freedom and goodness of all other selves, and to stand joyfully and without shame before our Creator.

We are embarking today on the Lenten journey whose goal is no less than complete liberation from sin and death. The stories that we will hear on our journey leave no doubt as to the cost of that liberation: to us, and also to God. It is a tremendous business we are about in this holy place: there is no more important work to be done anywhere, by any of us, than what we do here each time we gather to hear the story. At the end of this year’s Lenten journey, we will assemble here on the eve of Easter, in the dark, to enter the heart of our story, and we will bring forward three of our own number—a baby, a child, and an adult—to be baptized into the death and new life of Jesus. They and their sponsors will renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God. They will renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. They will turn to Jesus Christ as their Saviour, put their whole trust in his grace and love, and promise to follow and obey him as their Lord. Can we even begin to realize how the world will be changed if we really believe these promises—if we really act, day by day, as if this is what is happening in our lives and in the life of this community?

The devil took Jesus to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.

The curse that binds us is lifted; the chains are loosed; we are free. We have only to believe it, and claim it, and live it.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

PLAYING CHURCH: A Sunday Paper Editorial

For a couple of years now, one of the professors at Yale Divinity School, as part of her class on “Teaching the Bible in the Congregation,” has used my book Offering the Gospel to Children, and then, in late October, brought her students down to the parish where I work, for a conversation and workshop. The workshop consists of a walk through our All Saints’ Halloween funhouse (described in Offering the Gospel to Children), and this requires a little bit of introduction, especially for the students from non-liturgical traditions who have little or no context for an exercise that retells the salvation story in the light of the Communion of Saints and the baptismal mystery.

My introductory material includes not only a broad sketch of the whole idea of All Saints’ Day as a celebration of the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, but also a fairly passionate presentation on the importance of giving children the opportunity to play with the scriptural story.

“What do children do with stories that, for whatever reason, captivate them and speak to them?” I ask. “They demand to hear or see them over and over again. They ask questions. They depict the story in art. And most of all, they process the story through dramatic play.” Choosing a costume for Halloween or a theme for a birthday party, dragooning a friend into dramatizing the Cinderella story, playing pirates all afternoon: this is how children explore the many possibilities offered by their growing world, safely practice a whole gamut of roles (good guy or bad guy, hero or victim, leader or follower) and constantly test and stretch their sense of self.

Parents watch with pleasure or amazement, or boredom or dismay, as our children enter with all their might into their imaginative worlds. We roll our eyes as our four-year-old demands to watch the same video five times in a row, or sings the awful songs from a favorite TV show. We see how earnestly they grasp at whatever our culture offers them, from classic fairy tales to the most crassly exploitative branded items where the fast food sells the movies and the movies sell the books and the books sell the toys and the toys sell the fast food. Thoughtful and conscientious parents work hard to provide rich and deep imaginative worlds for our children. We read them good books. We go to the toy store and come out with a dollhouse, a fire station, a hospital, a battleship, a space station, an enchanted palace, a prehistoric world full of dinosaurs.

The church is the inheritor of the deepest, richest story of them all: the Mother of All Stories. It begins in the garden of our people’s infancy and turns to bitter exile. Then, over many generations, we are called to hear God’s voice and bear God’s Name. Out of apparent abandonment, we become a people: delivered at the Red Sea, fed in the desert, entrusted with a Law, and blessed with a Land of Promise, a city, and a temple. And yet we break the covenant, abuse each other, pollute the land, and fill it with blood. Once more we are sent into exile, and even the Holy of Holies, the Temple on Mount Zion, is destroyed. Yet God gives us hope, and a new promise; and in God’s good time, God does the unimaginable, taking on our flesh and coming to be with us in our exile. God-With-Us shares our weakness and our temptations, and offers us a new vision of freedom, peace, and sacrificial love. Even when we turn on him, he is not defeated: he dies for us, plumbs the depths of our exile, and returns victorious, with new life to share with anyone who comes to him in openness and faith.

I talk about how ironic it is that the church, in our protectiveness of this story--our privileging of it as a body of doctrine--unwittingly boxes off this narrative and makes it far harder for children to tap into than any other story they encounter at home, school or in the wider culture. We reduce it to a series of lessons, placing layer after layer of didactic barriers between the story and our children’s imaginations. Having struggled with the story ourselves, on a very adult level, we bring enormous anxiety to it: we want to guarantee that our children don’t misunderstand it, reject it, or draw the wrong conclusions from it. So we serve it up in chopped-up little Bible stories, each with a bottom line: “God made the world.” “Jesus loves you.” “Love your neighbor.” “Be nice to your friends.” “We come to church to worship God.”

Now and then, church people have tried to do more than this, and “bring the scriptural story alive” in various creative ways. The evangelical subculture, with its belief that explicitly “Bible” themes should occupy every corner of Christians’ consciousness, has moved into the toy market by manufacturing muscular Biblical action figures (“The Almighty Heroes Action Figures are fully poseable action figures styled to look like modern superheroes. They also come with play accessories important to the character, and an easy-to-read adventure comic book with full color illustrations”). The main line, also buying into the “Bible can be fun” concept, has Veggie Tales. At the extreme end of the spectrum, the many commercial Vacation Bible School curriculums make everything in scripture “fun,” blending highly processed material extracted from Bible stories into synthetic “themes” like “Power Lab” or “Rainforest Adventure” or “Dino Detectives.” In the process, the real content and flavor of the Bible itself is utterly jettisoned: ironically, for all the “fun,” the lesson has taken over completely.

One of the students raised his hand. “I’m realizing as I listen to you,” he said, “that I’ve been making this mistake in my weekly children’s sermon. I have three to four minutes, and I’ve been doing little object lessons. But how can I do the story justice in only three or four minutes?”

“You can’t,” I said. “It’s a set-up. Suppose you wanted your kids to know and love The Lion King: would you sit them down for three or four minutes, and give a quick talk, about the Circle of Life with the help of (say) a package of seeds? Of course not! It’s absurd! They need the story. They want the story. They have a far longer attention span than we give them credit for, if what we are doing is telling the story.”

In spite of it all, I said, children find ways to play with the story. Often, it takes the form of “playing church.” Until we make radical changes in how we present the Bible to children, the enacted rituals of church are far more accessible to their imaginations than the stories of scripture. Almost any churchgoing child, I said, will at some point scrounge around for a plate and a cup and pretend to be the priest, serving communion to dolls and stuffed animals. A wave of energy rippled through the classroom as the students began to remember their own childhood selves, baptizing their dolls or lining up stuffed animals--or siblings or friends--for a sermon or a pretend eucharist. And I was amazed when several Pentecostal students suddenly became very animated, and told how, when they had “played church” as children--singing, moving in rhythm, and “preaching”--they had been scolded for being disrespectful, and sternly warned never to do that again. Another example of how, in our well-meaning protectiveness of the sacred, we render it inaccessible to the actual processes by which children take ownership of images, concepts, and ideas.

Last week, a friend--my children’s godmother--sent me a link to a blog (www.weirdbirdinlove.net) maintained by one of her other godchildren, an Episcopal seminarian and mother of a toddler boy. There I found this story, which I give you with her permission.

(Her nom de blog is WeirdBird; her child goes by “Zagazoo,” presumably from the Quentin Blake book of the same name. “Tilt” is her husband, Zag’s dad.)


My son gave me Communion today.

We spent much of yesterday at this special workshop on including children in worship, featuring Children at Worship, Congregations in Bloom (www.childrenatworship.org) and Fiona Vidal-White leading music. … This morning the Children at Worship folks had some role in the Sunday liturgy at the church that had hosted the workshop. After fulfilling my responsibilities at the church where I work part-time, we zipped up to this church, arriving only a little late for the main service. It was a nice enough service, but nothing terribly new and exciting. … Anyway, Zag was restless--it was getting on towards his lunch- and naptime--and the service was nowhere near child-friendly enough to hold his interest. So I eventually let him escape from the pew and followed him out of the nave … .

Exploring a little, we discovered a small chapel a few rooms away. I found some paper and crayons in a corner, but Zag had other ideas. The room had chairs arranged in a circle around a small table, on which there was a large white candle and a large footed glass bowl. Zag went right to the bowl, picked it up by the foot (with some difficulty; it was heavy), and told me, “Jesus took some wine.” I came over to him, and he gave me some “wine” from the cup. I asked him what comes next in that story. He said, “Jesus lights candle,” but that obviously didn’t seem right to him. So I suggested we could go try and find some bread, to finish the story with.

So we stopped by the fellowship hall, where some refreshments were laid out. Zag selected a muffin. Now, I figured the Eucharist game was over; he would eat the muffin and perk up a little, we would sit in our pew and draw some pictures, we’d take Communion, we’d head home. Zag had other ideas. When I tried to take him back into the nave, he burst into tears, telling me angrily that he wanted to go back to his church. Finally this got through to me, and we went back to the chapel. Zag immediately took the muffin over to the little table and announced, “Jesus took some bread.” I went to kneel opposite him, and reminded him what Jesus says about the bread--“This is my body.” (Zag likes that part and often remarks, “Body!” while the Eucharistic prayer is going on.)

Zag said, “This my body,” broke the bread and gave me some. Then he decided to try it at the little altar rail surrounding the small altar at one end of the room, so we went up there, and he practiced distributing Communion some more. Tilt came in at about this time, to check on us, and Zag gave him Communion too. He gave him some muffin and said, “Bread of heaven.” Then he got me to help with the wine bowl, since it was so heavy, and said, “Cup salvation.”

After that, we pretty much decided we were ready to go. Eucharist in the main church couldn’t add to what Zag had offered us.

It’s going to take me a while to unpack this. Here we have a church full of people trying to be inclusive of children and invite them into participation in the church’s worship--but there’s still nothing for our kid to do, or look at, or engage with. And here we have a two-year-old who knows perfectly well how to do church and is ready to administer Communion. Where do we go from here?

A comment, posted by WeirdBird’s mom:

I have been slow to comment on this blog entry
because I am awed by the holiness
of the experience you describe
and because I did not have an answer ready to hand.
Here’s what I think today.
If Zag has this story, the bread and wine story,
written on his heart,
maybe it’s time for the next story.
We have a batch of good stories.
All I remember of church from my childhood
is generous food, strange, wonderful stories,
and helping with things. Helping is big.

Helping is indeed big. But the stories are biggest of all. If we take their holiness seriously enough, we will not wall them off from children, but, precisely because they are holy, we will invite them in, to play with the story.

© 2007 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

HELL ON EARTH: A Sunday Paper Editorial

One of my favorite books on children and religion is Do Children Need Religion? by Martha Fay (Pantheon Books, 1993; paperback edition re-titled Children and Religion: Making Choices in a Secular Age). The book includes a chapter on holidays, ritual, and tradition.

Approaching the six or seven weeks between Thanksgiving and
New Year’s that has come to be called “the holiday season,” …
a friend invited me to attend a session of a support group of
corporate women who meet periodically to discuss the difficulties
of combining motherhood with full-time work outside the home.
The subject for this meeting, which took place in mid-autumn,
was “How Important Is a Spiritual Life?” but … as one woman
after another spoke, it became obvious that what they really
wanted to talk about was Halloween, which had just passed a few
days before.

Far from being a minor event, the children’s holiday appeared
to have taken on enormous significance in the lives of these
mothers, and their descriptions of the preparations and the
actual event were delivered with the sort of animation and
detail women traditionally reserve for tales of love or child-
birth. One after another, they told how their children had
decided what they were going to “be” for Halloween, how they,
the mothers, had then assembled or sewn the appropriate
costumes, how they had left work early or made special
arrangements with the baby-sitter to take the child trick-
or-treating. It was clear that this holiday satisfied these
women in a way no other celebration did and eventually the
conversation shifted toward why that should be. One
woman suggested that it was because Halloween was what
she called a “true children’s day”; second, that the element
of make-believe made it especially fun; and a third, that,
unlike Thanksgiving, for example, it did not entail messy
involvement with one’s troublesome extended family. …
And finally, one woman said that what she liked about it was
that it was a purely secular holiday—that, unlike Easter or
Christmas or Passover, it did not make you feel uncomfortable
about choices not made.

Everyone around the table nodded in agreement. Then I
noticed a few faces registering confusion as their owners
struggled to recall just where this wonderful holiday did
come from. Feeling something of a pedant, … I volunteered
that while it was technically not a religious feast itself,
Halloween did derive from one, being the even of All Saints’
(or All Hallows’) Day in the Christian calendar … . The
goblins and ghosts, devils and broom-riding witches, now
rapidly being displaced by fairy princesses, astronauts, and
Ninja Turtles, refer to a long tradition of caricature of the
unholy dead, as well as to Celtic pagan traditions that
antedate Christianity and have to do with the onset of winter’s
darkness and the unleashing of emotions customarily
repressed. This bit of information was politely received, but
generated no further discussion. Not only were these women
not much interested in Halloween’s religious antecedents;
there could be little doubt but that their sense of the holiday
as a thoroughly secular one was both an active preference
and a proper gauge of general sentiment. (pp. 137-139)

Fay adds in a footnote, “Ironically, while the majority of Christians celebrate Halloween without a thought to its once considerable religious significance, the Jewish day school one of my friends’ children attends sends a note home every October to remind parents that it is a Christian holiday and that their children should not be participating in it.”

There are, of course, other groups besides Jews who object to Halloween. Many conservative Christians who may never have heard of All Saints’ Day see in Halloween an orgiastic celebration of death, evil, perversion, witchcraft and Satanism, and take a firm stand with their children: no Halloween.

In my book Offering the Gospel to Children (Cowley Publications, 1992), I mentioned this attitude:

There are Christian bodies and Christian families that will not
allow their children to participate in Halloween at all, because
of its ancient connections with paganism and its continuing
association with devils, witches, and monsters. These Christians
are frightened of letting their children participate in such
traditions, in the same way some other parents are afraid of
letting the children play with toy guns. They fear that permitting
children to play with a symbol of evil—the gun or the devil
mask—signals to them that we approve of the evil itself, and
removes all restraints on its seductive powers.

But by censoring children’s imaginative lives, by modeling fear
and denial instead of an imaginative approach to our own
destructive impulses, we fail to help our children. We are
warning them that we ourselves are so frightened of our own
aggression that we cannot face it or offer hope that it can be
tamed. This realization may be more frightening to children
than the fear they certainly feel as they themselves play with
and test these symbols of evil, and find their own response.
Censorship may also, of course, have the opposite effect of
endowing these ideas and figures with the fascination of
forbidden fruit.

I know several evangelical churches in New Haven that bypass Halloween in this way, substituting a harvest festival (or in one case a “Hallelujah party!”) with entirely wholesome and happy themes.

In my book, I suggest we can do something much more nuanced, and invite children into a dramatized confrontation with evil, via a “Bible Halloween funhouse” in which we dramatically retell our story, including the very real Biblical element of the Evil One, who dogs us on our journey, meddles with God’s plan, and attempts to seduce us with lies and false promises. Some parts of the story are scary (pitch darkness in a church stairwell at the beginning of the journey, for the telling of the creation story); some are exciting (crossing the Red Sea and slamming the door (draped with plastic sheeting to resemble the “walls of water”) on Satan as he attempts to follow; some are inspiring (standing at the font to renounce Satan, and watching him fall helpless to the floor); some are solemn and serious (anticipating our own death, by adding a cross to a graveyard scene and passing behind a curtain). At the end, we bind Satan and cast him away,[1] each child adds a “saint” figure to a feltboard scene of the New Jerusalem, and we march away singing.

Well, I’m not alone. The Bible Halloween funhouse is an idea whose time has come.

“Shake your city with the most ‘in-your-face, high-flyin’, no denyin’, death-defyin’, Satan-be-cryin’, keep-ya-from-fryin’, theatrical stylin’, no holds barred, cutting-edge’ evangelism tool of the new millennium!” shouts the web site of Colorado’s New Destiny Christian Center, whose pastor, the Rev. Keenan Roberts, invented the Hell House around ten years ago and now markets it online for $299.00. “Piece by piece, prop by prop, costume by costume—the master plan is organized in a comprehensive manual. A video of what Hell House in action looks like and a special-effects compact disc audio master are also included. This sizzling evangelism event is designed to capture the attention of our sight and sound culture!”

Costumed demons guide visitors through five scenes: “the funeral of a young homosexual male who believed the born gay lie and died of AIDS;” “a riveting reenactment of a clinical abortion;” “a satanic ritual involving a human sacrifice;” “a drunk-driving accident where a father realizes he has just killed his own family;” and a teen suicide. Then, in scene six, “the tour experiences the agony of the sights, sounds and smells of hell as well as Satan himself declaring that all of what the tour has seen in Hell House is his handiwork. They are rescued out of hell by heaven’s angels who escort them to scene seven which is heaven.” There, “the tour meets Jesus, sees the glory and splendor of heaven and is given the opportunity to pray the prayer of salvation.”

Additional scenes, available separately, include “Date Rape,” “Gay Wedding,” “Rave” (“underground world of rave clubs and drug usage”) another drunk driving scene—this time the guilty parties are teens, “buzzed after the prom”—domestic abuse, and a school shooting.

Even allowing for the predictable obsession of the right-wing churches with sexuality and abortion, the scenes seem to be picked as much for their capacity to shock as for their moral seriousness. I doubt, for example, that Satanism and human sacrifice are a real temptation for American teens; meanwhile there is no mention of such real-life issues as competitiveness, jealousy, cheating, lying, and character assassination, that can be truly poisonous in the worlds of school, sports, and social relationships. I would be interested to find out if the “school shooting” scene raises the issues of bullying as a common, and serious, occasion of sin, or whether the shooters are merely depicted as devils incarnate and the innocent victims as Christian martyrs, as in the (apparently inaccurate) story of one of the victims of the Columbine tragedy.

Hell House is a high-tech version of the hellfire-and-damnation preaching that has long characterized certain branches of Christianity. True to that tradition, it reduces the Good News of Jesus Christ to the message that the meaning of salvation is to avoid, or be rescued from, horrifying, disgusting, and frightening experiences, and from the bad and evil spirits (and their human minions) who would try to harm us outright, or entice us into harm under the guise of fun or thrills or self-fulfillment or whatever. It does not appear as if any moral distinction is even made between those horrifying experiences that just happen to us (domestic violence of which we are the victims); those which we choose, knowing they are wrong (drunk driving); those into which we fall in desperation (suicide); and those into which we (supposedly) might be tempted through our own ignorance and the evil designs of others (homosexuality, in their view). All of it is just bad: horrifying, frightening, disgusting.

The most horrifying, frightening and disgusting prospect of all is eternal damnation, and that is the one thing we can surely avoid, by accepting Jesus.

And this, it seems, is Jesus’ only purpose, and his only achievement. Apparently he did not preach, or teach, or heal; he did not call disciples, rebuke the religious establishment, or feed the five thousand; he did not wash his disciples’ feet, touch lepers, or eat with the outcast; he may as well not have risen from the dead: all he did was reveal to us the magic words that will infallibly rescue us from horrors beyond our imagining. Some day he will, with triumphant glee, send all the bad guys to suffer the revolting and terrifying punishments that they had tried to visit on us, the saved.

How much of scripture—how much of the riches of the faith given to the saints—these people seem to be missing: how narrow (and ultimately uninteresting!) their Good News, so that the way to make it appealing is to contrast it so vividly to the Bad News, to scare people into church, and then to package church as entertainment, hardly distinguishable (with its amplified music and electronic special effects and its microphone-clutching worship leaders) from the malls and rock concerts and raves that are portrayed as the source of so much evil.

Make no mistake: this is now what many intelligent secular people imagine when they hear the words “Christian,” “salvation,” “faith,” “Bible,” and “evangelism.”

When does a distorted and debased version of the Gospel, and of church, become so problematic that we must flat-out denounce it, even though it claims the name of Jesus Christ? Do we just loftily ignore it, and hope it somehow goes away; or do we confront it—and if so, how? My daughter (a candidate for ordination) recently said to me, “If I couldn’t be in an Episcopal church, I would be much more comfortable in an egalitarian conservative Jewish synagogue than in a fundamentalist Christian church, in spite of the fact that the most important article of my faith is one that I supposedly share with the fundamentalist Christians and not with the Jews.” I heartily agreed with her. Some of this is a matter of culture, class and education. But not all. I really believe they are preaching a different Jesus than the one I find in the Bible. When does the time come to say so—publicly, loudly, and often?

(c) 2007 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.

[1] This is not in the book; we added it some years after the book was published. For more information about the Bible Halloween funhouse, feel free to give me a call.

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Excerpted from the Beulah Land curriculum, available from Beulah Enterprises.

Gathering and greeting

If your children arrive over an extended period of time, it helps to have a simple gathering activity waiting for them, such as coloring or joining in informal singing.

Early arrivers often want to help set up, and it’s nice if you can accommodate that wish—but be sure that the space is already orderly and peaceful, and the leader calm and ready, by the time you expect a significant number of children to be there.

If the children all enter the worship space together (for instance if they are in church for the opening hymn and then come to a children’s chapel), a formal procession with a crucifer will help to establish a reverent and prayerful atmosphere.

If you use candles in worship, you can appoint an “acolyte” to light the candles (under close supervision), using a proper acolyte’s candle-lighting wand. Children adore doing this. There may be other ceremonial roles you can distribute among the children, such as ringing a bell to mark the start of worship.

Learning to make silence

Communal, reflective ritual has few models in our culture. Today’s children are used to being entertained.

  • Most of what children think of as “fun” involves either passive entertainment or frenetic activity.
  • Many of the things children do together (with other children or with adults) are highly stimulating, with bright, fast-moving visual images, constant background noise, hurry, and multi-tasking.

Children are also used to being told to “be quiet.”

  • “Being quiet” is typically negative: it means not bothering the adults: it translates into “being bored.”
  • Or it means paying attention to academic instruc-tion or doing academic tasks.
  • At best, it means quiet solitude with a book or an absorbing activity.
But the words, singing, story and silence of liturgical worship are neither entertainment, nor passive inertness, nor academic instruction, nor even solitary absorption in thought.

  • We want to open to children a world of joy that is not the same thing as “fun.”
  • And we urgently want to avoid giving them the idea that God wants them to “be quiet” in the way adults are always telling them to “be quiet.”

Children may have difficulty realizing that quiet can be truly communal, and may be desired for its own sake, as attentive, reflective stillness. It helps to give this kind of being quiet a distinct name, such as “making silence,” or “finding your center” or “finding your peaceful place.”

An atmosphere of peace and attentiveness grows out of the leader’s calm, friendly sense of his or her own confidence and authority. Establish a few simple rules, positively stated:

  • Raise your hand and wait your turn
  • Stay in your seat
  • Respect your neighbor
  • Keep your hands to yourself

Write out the rules at the beginning of the order of worship, make sure the children know them, and apply them consistently. Be sure to restate your rules frequently, so that infrequent attenders are not embarrassed by being reprimanded for behaviors that they did not realize were out of bounds. It may be helpful to repeat the rules out loud, together, before the opening of every week’s worship.

NOTE: Make sure your worship order is short enough so that, except for children with special needs, bathroom trips during worship should be unnecessary.

Worship, singing and story

Because liturgy is not academic instruction, there is no need to insist that all the children “pay attention” at all times, in the sense of sitting up straight, eyes forward, repeating the responses at the correct times. As long as a child is quiet and not distracting others, withdrawal into the self during singing and scripted responses may open the way for meditation and even prayer.

During the story, however, the leader should expect, and encourage, a higher level of focused attentiveness. Usually, this is not difficult: the children want to listen and participate. But children are distractible, and distraction is contagious, so if one or a few children begin to whisper, invade each other’s space, or compete for the leader’s attention, it’s important to intervene quickly—not with a scolding, but with a reminder to pay attention and listen “so you don’t miss the story.”

NOTE: Be sure to allow the children space to experience their own reactions to the story. When they make comments or ask questions, try to refrain from labeling any of their res-ponses as “wrong” or “right” (unless it is a simple matter of facts, such the identity of a character or an element of the plot). And never instruct or exhort a child or a group of children to feel a certain way about the story.

The storyteller will need to find his or her own level of interactivity together with the children:

  • You may wish to establish at the outset that the children are to allow the storyteller to complete the story without interruptions, and that “the time for questions is after we have all heard the story.”
  • Or you may let the children’s own response guide you from week to week. Sometimes they will have a lot of questions, or simply be more restless than usual; the story then may be allowed to become a dialogue, with the storyteller asking a lot of leading questions to keep the kids engaged, or allowing them time to ask their questions and contribute their ideas (but “raise your hand and wait your turn!”), even if this forces the storyteller to abridge the story in order not to have the worship run overtime.
  • At other times, the children will be happy to allow the storyteller to deliver the story almost like a performance.

Wondering about the story

After the story, the children may be raising their hands with more questions, or you may wish to introduce some transitional time for conversation before the remainder of the liturgy. This can vary greatly from week to week depending on the children’s mood and behavior, the length of the story, and so on. At the beginning of the year, all such transitional time should be kept very short and simple.

You may choose to introduce the conversation time with specific “wondering questions.” Suggested wondering questions are provided for all the stories in the curriculum.[1] Often, however, wondering questions supplied by the adult leader are of no interest to the children, who have their own questions about the story.

There is no need to press specific questions on the children. Wondering questions should not be used as leading questions to elicit certain responses from the children, or to quiz them to see if they have been listening or have understood the story.

Let the children’s questions lead the way. A child with a simple factual question (such as “What is that thing in the tent?”) can, of course, be answered simply and straightforwardly (“Remember? That’s the ark of the covenant, the golden box with the commandments inside.”)

Open-ended questions are best returned to the children as wondering questions:

Child Why didn’t the king let the people go?
Leader Nicole is wondering why Pharaoh, the King of Egypt,
didn’t want to let the people go. I wonder, why didn’t
Pharaoh want to let them go?

This response to one child’s question invites other children to offer their thoughts to the question itself, not to the teacher. Each response can simply be restated by the leader: “Zach is thinking that Pharaoh liked having them there to boss around.”

The leader’s own thoughts on the subject can be included among the responses, without invalidating any of the children’s responses, which may make more sense to them:

Leader I wonder if he might have been worried that the other
people in Egypt would laugh at him if he let them go.

Again, you should resist the temptation to answer questions that the children have not asked, or to quiz them on the story.

Praying together

If time allows and your group is not too large, you may wish to ask the children if they have prayer requests. Once invited and given, such requests must be acknowledged in some way during the prayer time that follows.

This does not mean that you need to remember exactly all of the children’s concerns—the names of family members or pets, for example—but simply that in any extemporaneous prayer that comes after the requests, the leader must be sure to incorporate at least the general kinds of concerns brought up by the children, such as “all the people we love and are worried about” or “our grandparents who are sick” or “our schools where there has been bullying” or “our pets who have died.”

Don’t forget to invite children into thanksgiving as well as petition and intercession.

If your prayer time is simply silence, you can acknowledge prayer requests as you invite the children into the silence, using words such as these: “Now let’s remember the people [and animals] who need our prayers, especially the ones that have just been mentioned here; and all of us can pray in our hearts for anything or anybody that we want to hold up before God, and we can thank God for all the good things in our lives.”

Try to achieve at least a moment of real silence before concluding the prayer time. Generally, the formal closing prayer should be said by the worship leader alone, at least for the first half of the year. As the children become more familiar with the worship order, the leader can invite “anybody who is old enough to read, or has learned the words” to join in the prayer.

Offertory, announcements, and dismissal

If the children will not be in church for the offertory, it is entirely appropriate to pass an offertory basket. This offering may be designated for some purpose such as an outreach ministry. If the children are in church for the offertory, this part of the liturgy may be omitted.

The announcement time is an opportunity to remind the children of what is expected of them at the close of worship—how they are to line up, where they are to go, and what they will be doing in their activity time. If there are any new children, make sure they are familiarized not only with the procedures but also with their group leader’s name and face. The worship leader, or whoever is responsible for organizing the art projects, can also point out any ground rules for using the art materials—for the benefit of the groups leaders as much as the children, especially if the group leaders have not had a large part in preparing the project.

[1] For more on “wondering questions” see Young Children and Worship by Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman (Westminster John Knox, 1989), p. 31.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007


My daughter Grace was a toddler when The Sunday Paper began life. She’s now a seminary graduate and in line for ordination in the Diocese of Connecticut when her class of ordinands catches up with her (she did things in the wrong order, attending seminary first and then entering the ordination process). This year she is working as a youth minister in a suburban parish. She asked if I would let her write this season’s Editorial Page, and of course I was delighted. The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. For a parent (or teacher, or other form of mentor) this is a wonderful affirmation, and also a reminder of how much responsibility we bear: we do have an impact; we do, in actual fact, engage in “formation” of those we rear and those we teach.


by Grace Pritchard Burson

As parent volunteers tossed salad and cut up bread in the church kitchen, the rector and I went over last-minute details of the evening’s Youth Program Dinner.

“I’ve got five or ten minutes of announcements and thanks to give before we serve,” I said. “Then I’ll hand it to you to say grace.”

“We should sing the Doxology,” he replied. “Except these kids probably don’t know the Doxology. We learned it growing up. They didn’t.”

“You know,” I said, “I frequently think that until at least fourth or fifth grade, church school should involve nothing but learning hymns. OK, stories too, and artwork in response to both. But no discussion, at least none that isn’t initiated by the kids. No moral lessons. No abstract teaching. Just learning the songs and stories that are the building blocks of our faith.”

The rector was intrigued by the idea, though he knew (and I readily admitted) that it was essentially nothing more than the philosophy of Christian education my mother has been promoting since I was born, and which is encapsulated in the Beulah Land curriculum. We discussed it energetically—though briefly, since people were beginning to arrive. I was intrigued to notice that what I was advocating bore a remarkable similarity to the philosophy of secular education outlined in 1947 by the great Anglican writer Dorothy L. Sayers (better known as the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels), in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning.” [The essay is out of print, and I have used a copy available online at http://www.brccs.org/sayers_tools.html.]

Sayers proposes a return to the Trivium—the curriculum of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric that was the method of the medieval Schools. She identifies three stages of development that she names, with her usual élan, the “Poll-Parrot”, the “Pert” and the “Poetic”.

The Poll-Parrot stage is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished. At this age, one readily memorizes the shapes and appearances of things; one likes to recite the number-plates of cars; one rejoices in the chanting of rhymes and the rumble and thunder of unintelligible polysyllables; one enjoys the mere accumulation of things. The Pert age, which follows upon this (and, naturally, overlaps it to some extent), is characterized by contradicting, answering back, liking to “catch people out” (especially one’s elders); and by the propounding of conundrums. Its nuisance-value is extremely high. ... The Poetic age is popularly known as the “difficult” age. It is self-centered; it yearns to express itself; it rather specializes in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness; a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others. Now it seems to me that the layout of the Trivium adapts itself with a singular appropriateness to these three ages: Grammar to the Poll-Parrot, Dialectic to the Pert, and Rhetoric to the Poetic age.

Sayers goes on to lay out her ideas about how the business of education should proceed—first accumulating facts, dates, multiplication tables, and so on, to provide material for the mind to work on; then learning to debate, to apply logic and reason, and to spot flaws in arguments; and finally going on to interpretation and creative work.

So when I said to the rector that the earlier years of Christian education (certainly in Episcopal churches, and arguably in all churches) should consist of nothing but stocking the children’s minds with the concrete building blocks of the Christian (and, in Episcopal churches, Anglican) traditions—what I was saying was, in essence, that we should use Sayers’ method in Sunday school. For the first eight or ten years of their lives, children memorize easily, and are happy to parrot back what they have memorized ad infinitum—as any parent subjected to endless repetitions of the latest Disney song or cookie commercial is well aware. We should take advantage of this facility, and simply give them the lore—songs, stories, and images—without demanding that they analyze it or answer questions about it. It is enough that the stories of the Bible, and translations of texts by Hilary of Poitiers, Adam of St. Victor, Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and John Keble, are competing for disk space in their heads with the effluvia of consumer culture. It wouldn’t matter whether they understood the hymns or not; they would know them, and they could come to understanding as they got older. (It would, of course, be a huge help in learning the hymns to have at least one teacher who was a confident a cappella singer, so that the tunes could be well learned alongside the words before the children become cripplingly shy about singing in public.)

Of course, many fine curricula—among them Godly Play and, of course, Beulah Land—already do this, in essence; though I think the potential for hymn learning is greater than currently realized. What is particularly interesting to me—since I’m the youth minister, and responsible for sixth grade and up—is how Sayers’ method would map onto our approach to the older grades.

If the “Grammar” stage of our Christian education system was firmly in place—if children emerged from fourth or fifth grade with a thorough knowledge of the whole sweep of Bible story and with their memories stocked with the classic hymns of our tradition—the possibilities for youth ministry would be astonishing.

I sat in on a Rite-13 class on All Saints’ Sunday that involved an energetic discussion of what does and does not constitute a saint. Photocopies of “I Sing A Song of the Saints of God” and “For All the Saints” were passed around and commented on. But we ran out of time before we even got through “For All the Saints”; in the slim time we have for church school, the discussion could have been even more fruitful if all the kids had simply known those hymns already and been able to call upon them out of a common stock of lore, learned as small children and retained as they grew older. And when we did get into church, the singing of the hymn would have been that much more meaningful.

I know a DRE whose church implemented Godly Play a few years ago, and also does Journey to Adulthood. The first crop of Godly Play graduates recently passed into the J2A Rite-13 group, and my colleague says the difference is striking. They are calmer, more open to wonder and questioning, and they really know their stuff.

With the basics well in hand as the children emerge from the elementary grades, the youth minister would be able to draw on the tools of Dialectic and Rhetoric to encourage the young people to make the tradition their own.

Sayers’ “Pert” stage, corresponding roughly to middle school, would be a natural time to inquire, debate and pull apart the whole structure of Christian theology, encouraging questioning about God, humanity, free will, sin, salvation, ethics, and theodicy. And with a vast common store of raw theological data to draw on, in the form of stories, images and hymns, the teacher would feel less nervous about the choppier waters into which these discussions frequently steer. Instead of relying solely on his or her own experience and imagination to respond to—for example—a young person who is arguing stoutly that the Cross is disgusting and horrible and something no God worthy of worship would perpetrate on his Son, the teacher could point the inquirer to any number of texts to wrestle with, from the Sacrifice of Isaac to the Vexilla Regis and the Passion Chorale. No laborious reading of texts in class would be required; the stories and hymns would be well-known to all.

Then, as the young people progressed into high school and the “Poetic” stage, and began striving for originality and differentiation from their parents, the emphasis would shift to Rhetoric—approaching the tradition creatively rather than dialectically, and making it one’s own through interpretation. Some of the teenage energy frequently directed into wearing black, starting rock bands, and writing poetry, could be aimed instead at coming to one’s own theological insights and expressing them in verse, music, drama, or whatever other form came to hand. Sayers’ idea of bringing back the “thesis”—the independent presentation of work that provides the capstone to the Trivium—might manifest itself in an individual presentation before Confirmation (at a fairly late age--16 or 17).

In fact, the Journey to Adulthood curriculum, as it currently stands, is fairly well suited to this approach; it encourages questioning and debate at every stage, it acknowledges the teenager’s search for a sense of self and for separation from the family, and it lays an emphasis in the last (“YAC”) segment on coming up with one’s own statement of purpose and vocation. What it cannot provide, and strives valiantly to make up for, is the assumption that the young people come into the program with any kind of basic literacy in the stories and songs of our faith. And that assumption is legitimate—in most churches, it would be audacious to assume that sixth-graders have a working knowledge of the Bible and hymnal, and so one goal of the Rite-13 years is to provide basic Biblical and Prayer Book literacy. But by sixth and seventh grade, young people don’t want to be learning Bible stories; they want to be figuring out the adult world they are gradually awakening to.

Thus, shifting our early Sunday School instruction to a model which focused exclusively on the transmission of stories, songs and other lore, would take burdens off both the Sunday School teachers and the youth leaders. In the primary classrooms, it would remove the burden of “lesson plans” and didactic instruction; the teacher would only be responsible for knowing and passing on the content and for being willing to follow the children’s occasional inquiries wherever they might go, with no expectation that anyone will emerge with “answers” or moral lessons. The children would happily soak up the stories, characters, songs and images, take them into their artwork and imaginative play, and be enriched.

The youth leaders, in turn, would be freed of the burden of trying to impart the content at a late date and in a haphazard manner, at an age when young people want activities, discussion, and fellowship, not Bible lessons. Building on that firm foundation, they would be able to have a much richer, more nuanced and theologically informed conversation with the young people as they grappled with their faith, the world, and their place in it.

Again, the equipment to do all of this already exists, or at least is implicit, in the curricula I have mentioned, which are widely used--Godly Play, Beulah Land and Journey to Adulthood. It is merely a matter of adjusting one’s focus, away from the didactic educational model of both Sunday school and youth programs, and toward the idea that we are imparting the tradition to those whose heritage it is. With that insight, and with the unorthodox but developmentally sound ideas of a great Anglican thinker, everything else falls into place.

I spent much of my childhood sitting in Sunday school, and then in church, memorizing hymns. More than fifteen years later, those hymns are the center of my spirituality. Granted, I was an odd and cerebral child, and I’m Gretchen’s daughter. But if few of my fellow Episcopalians of my generation and younger share my experience, I think that is chiefly because it was not offered to them. I wanted the lore, and I sought it out. But our children should not have to seek it out. It is their heritage, and we should make sure they make it their own.

© 2006 by Grace Pritchard Burson. All rights reserved.

NOTES: This article refers to several curriculums which may not be familiar to all of you. Of course you could just google them, but for the record:

Godly Play developed out of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the work of Sofia Cavalletti, an Italian educator who applied Montessori techniques to religious education. Her approach is described in The Religious Potential of the Child (2nd edition, Liturgy Training Publications, 1992) and emphasizes parables, liturgy and sacraments. She pioneered the use of manipulables (wooden, clay, or laminated-paper figures) in presenting sacred stories to children, and emphasized “helping them discover God for themselves.” Godly Play is the work of Jerome Berryman, an American who began as a Presbyterian layperson doing clinical psychological work with young children and later studied with Cavalletti. On returning to the US, he was ordained as an Episcopal priest and began adapting Cavalletti’s methods to a fuller Biblical canon. Along the way, he partnered with Sonja Stewart, a Christian Reformed religious educator who (independently, I believe) had had some of the same insights as Cavalletti, and they published Young Children and Worship (Westminster John Knox) in 1989. It is a curriculum, with story scripts, an order of worship, and patterns to make the story figures, and it allowed church educators, for the first time, to adapt Montessori techniques in the parish without attending a formal training institute. Later, Stewart and Berryman went their separate ways. Berryman brought out his own complete set of curricular materials under the name Godly Play. Young Children and Worship now has a sequel, Following Jesus, by Stewart alone. Her materials are used in many reformed churches under names such as “Children Worship and Wonder,” or “The Worship Center.” All these methodologies now operate training institutes, etc. Godly Play seems to be the one best known in Episcopal churches. See Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and Godly Play. Beulah Land grew out of The Sunday Paper, cross-fertilized by Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Young Children and Worship, and Godly Play. It uses a feltboard rather than three-dimensional manipulables.

Journey to Adulthood (“Rite 13,” “J2A” and “YAC” [“Young Adults in the Church”]) is a comprehensive model of youth ministry originally developed in an Episcopal parish setting. Grace’s article gives a general sense of its developmental and theological underpinnings.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006


The stream of books issuing from the impetus of Dorothy Bass’ Practicing Our Faith (Jossey-Bass, 1997) has continued unabated, and includes a good many focusing on children. Here’s a look at two of them.

Let the Children Come: Reimaging Childhood from a Christian Perspective by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003. Hardbound, 219 pp. including a study guide for parish use.

Welcoming Children: A Practical Theology of Childhood by Joyce Ann Mercer (foreword by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore). St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995. Paperback, 291 pp. including bibliography and notes.

The first of these books is designed for parish study and use; the second is academic in orientation—for use in seminary classes and to advance the dialogue among professional theologians. The very fact that professional theologians are writing about children—that they can frame such a thing as a “practical theology of childhood”—is a sign of progress in the academy that is greatly to be welcomed. I can remember when a search for “children” in the catalog of the Yale Divinity School library came up virtually blank.

Neither book is an easy read. To begin with, neither book is about children; they are both about childhood. As Bonnie Miller-McLemore explains in her introduction to Let the Children Come:

It is important to clarify that this is not a book about how children think in general or about how children think about God. Nor is it a book on how to raise children in Christian faith. When I first received a grant for this research and news reached the general public, this was the general assumption of newspersons, my neighbors, and my kids’ teachers. … These are indeed important subjects, and the book’s reflections certainly have implications for those other three tasks. It even took me a while to become clear, however, that this is a book about how adults think about children (a descriptive task) and about how adults should think about children (a prescriptive or normative task). (p. xxv)

Miller-McLemore goes on to comment that before she could begin to write about “raising children from a Christian perspective” she had to address, and critique, “dominant cultural views of children.”

Both books are cultural studies first and foremost, and both place themselves firmly in a liberal, Reformed, feminist context. Both authors are painfully aware that one aspect of feminism—and of feminist theology, especially in the popular mind—has appeared to be the denigration of family life and children, the pitting of the interests, freedom and self-realization of women against the needs of their own children and of children in general. The addressing of this apparent paradox takes up a large part of both books.

Reasonably enough, the bulk of the authors’ critique is addressed to the all-pervasive commercial, consumerist culture that has commodified both children and faith. For parish clergy and educators who are trying to help parents find a Christian voice in the midst of what everybody already feels is a toxic culture, Miller-McLemore and Mercer provide a wealth of documentation and language that could bear fruit in preaching and newsletter articles. They also provide cultural history exploding the popular myth that the 1950’s style nuclear family, with father as commuting breadwinner and mother as homebound nurturer, represents in any way either a historical or a Christian norm; and they strongly critique the “family values” patriarchy of the religious right, on scriptural as well as historical-cultural grounds. Miller-McLemore, in addition, takes on the child psychologists, especially Alice Miller (The Drama of the Gifted Child, For Your Own Good, and a half dozen other books tracing adult unhappiness to profound childhood trauma at the hands of even “normal” or “good” parents).

Both books are fairly abstract and theoretical. They are not strong on vivid anecdotes, they contain no “case” stories; and the “practical” in Mercer’s title does not translate, as the lay reader might think, into concrete suggestions for parish liturgy or program until the last couple of chapters. Even then its readability for a general audience is hampered by the standard academic machinery of lengthy critiques of the work of previous scholars, hair-splitting about definitions, and a sometimes almost laughable postmodern bogging down in contextualization, politically correct circumlocution, and questioning of the validity of the simplest categories (including the category “child” itself).

For a parish with a critical mass of educated parents who would like some help in seeing their parenthood as a Christian vocation and practice, Let the Children Come could make a good jumping-off point for an adult discussion group. The discussion questions that accompany the book are excellent, and the book design is attractive, with wide margins that invite annotation (and, therefore, relatively short text lines that are forgiving of hasty readers who are just skimming, half an hour before class). Unfortunately, even with relatively few words per page, the six chapters are fairly long (25 to 30 pages) and do not readily subdivide into sections that could be assigned and discussed independently of each other.

My suspicion is that participants in an adult class using this book would be all too likely to come to class unprepared, or (unfortunately) to drop out because they hadn’t done the reading. If the parish culture made it clear that people are welcome in class even if they didn’t get around to the week’s reading assignment, I’m guessing that such a group could have a fruitful dialogue based on Let the Children Come if the leader him- or herself had read the book thoughtfully, used the discussion questions skillfully, and was open to letting the participants take their conversation where it actually led them. Heaven knows, such a dialogue is sorely needed.

For a parents’ discussion group about the specific issues of children’s faith, of how to organize parish and family life so that children are welcomed in the Sunday morning worship, and of how to institute and sustain specific Christian practices in the home (family prayer, holiday celebrations, and so on), you’ll want to look elsewhere. The best books for these purposes still seem to be the following, all from the 80s and 90s:

• Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, Something More: Nurturing Your Child’s Spiritual Growth (Penguin, 1991);
• Joan Halmo, Celebrating the Church Year with Young Children (Liturgical Press, 1988);
• Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration (Paulist, 1986);
• David Ng and Virginia Thomas, Children in the Worshiping Community (Westminster John Knox, 1981).

© 2006 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

FAMILY VALUES: A Sunday Paper Editorial

The other day I spoke with a pillar of the Episcopal Church who is thinking of leaving the church in the wake of the General Convention actions on issues concerning human sexuality. This person’s deeply felt conviction is that while it is our Christian duty to welcome gay and lesbian persons as fellow citizens and fellow church members, it is simply not appropriate for them to be ordained clergy, “role models for children.” The same week, I was told of someone leaving the church in despair because the church was not moving far enough, fast enough, to fully affirm equal access to ordination at all levels and to blessing for committed relationships.

Jesus’s only recorded words on what we now call “family values” are found in Mark 10—and its parallels in the other synoptic Gospels—where he tells the Pharisees that the law of Moses allowed divorce because of human “hardness of heart,” but “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.’ … What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” This paragraph is followed by a brief discussion with the disciples, and then by the little episode where parents bring their children to Jesus for blessing and Jesus welcomes them over the objections of his followers. Perhaps Mark placed these two pericopes side by side intentionally, implicitly connecting the importance of committed relationships to the care and protection of children.

This chapter is read in Year B, as Proper 22. In the Episcopal lectionary, it is paired with the reading from Genesis that Jesus quotes, allowing the preacher (and the cartoonist) to struggle with the Genesis myth, if desired, instead of Jesus’s words. In the Revised Common Lectionary, however, the Old Testament reading is from Job (“Then Job’s wife said to him, ‘Why do you still hold to your integrity? Curse God, and die’”) so the preacher (and again, the cartoonist), perhaps wishing he or she could follow this advice, has little choice but to tackle the Gospel. What follows below is a considerable expansion of the “Note to Parents” on this issue of THE SUNDAY PAPER JUNIOR.

Mark, Chapter 10, strikes to the heart of the “family values” debate that is tearing apart our civil society and our churches. Asked his opinion of divorce, Jesus reminds us of God’s design in creation: we are made male and female in the image of God. We are to form lifelong bonds of love. And in the next paragraph, Mark describes Jesus welcoming and blessing children.

In the patriarchal culture in which Jesus lived, divorce could be initiated only by the husband, and it left the wife without status, social protection, or economic support. This grave injustice toward women, Jesus points out, reflects “hardness of heart,” and deserves condemnation. In a different culture, the justice equation may compute differently. Most Christians in our culture now believe that there are circumstances where divorce, however sad, is better—more just—than remaining in an abusive relationship or one in which caring and trust have been violated or lost.

What of “God made them male and female”—the issue that now consumes so much ink, and so much time and energy? What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say?

There are honest and wrenching differences of opinion here, as well as much shallow prejudice on both sides, and much cynical manipulation of the issue for the sake of power and political gain, both within the church and within the wider society.

What we do know, if we read the Gospels with an open mind and an open heart, is that Jesus consistently took the part of the powerless, the outcast, the marginalized, the “unclean.” He set far more store on justice than on purity, and more store on love than on justice. We who, in baptism, have turned to him as our savior, put our whole trust in his grace and love, and promised to obey and follow him as our Lord, would do well to bear this well in mind.

The social structures through which we enact our response to Jesus’ love may change. What does not change is Jesus’ love itself. As I have struggled with my own prejudices and the rapid speed of social change, I’ve tried to come to a nuanced response to this issue, and one that I hope addresses some of the real causes of people’s powerful feelings in ways that have perhaps not been articulated before.

I want to begin with one of the arguments raised a generation ago in the controversy over the ordination of women. It has to do with the fact that most people think in pictures. Everybody knows how hard the media work to exploit this simple fact. Until we have enough pictures in our heads of a new idea or social trend, we are likely to find it alien and threatening. This is, of course, doubly and triply so when the picture involves something so basic and primal as human sexuality or religion—let alone the areas where the two overlap. When all the pictures for “priest” in our heads involve a male figure, the idea of a female priest will be felt by many as profoundly bizarre. When the word “marriage” conjures up primarily “wedding,” and “wedding” means “bride and groom”—she, blushing and radiant in gauzy white, he tall and strong and ruggedly handsome—then there is no room in our heads for an alternative image.

And we must tread carefully here, because Scripture is a tissue of images. So is liturgy. Our faith is incarnational and sacramental, and depends on the primal power of images to stir our hearts and inspire longing and hope. We should not want to empty language and images of their traditional meanings in order to replace them with images that are less concrete, less highly flavored. We must not lose the language of “Father” and “bride” that, along with so many other ancient, specific and sensory images—garden, desert, city, mountain, fortress, well, king, sword, shield, shepherd, lamb, vineyard, winepress, bread, wine, oil, salt, water, blood—give us a rich and fertile vocabulary for faith, hope, and love.

What we need instead is to be open to allowing our images of our daily life to be changed and augmented even as the ancient archetypes retain their power. So our image of “mother” or “bride” or “priest” must mean much, much more than (say) June Cleaver or the model on the cover of Bride magazine or kindly old Father Fluster. We need to relearn the difference between archetype and cliché. Archetypes are deep and wide and flexible; they bend and stretch and can absorb new elements while bringing their ancient richness to bear on new circumstances. Clichés are thin and shoddy, easily rendered worthless but hard to discard, and ultimately damaging to the flesh and blood realities that try to adopt them or accommodate to them.

We need to travel more widely in time and space to enrich our vocabulary of images. It is a pure shame, for example, when an eight-year-old girl has only an image of Barbie with fairy wings to draw on if she tries to paint a picture of an angel. We need to tell and see and read many more different myths and folk tales and great works of art, to enrich our imaginations and make us more discerning, less provincial and defensive, about our mental images.

And we need to meet and know real individuals from that category of people we now think of as alien and scary. Thirty years after the first women priests, most Episcopalians have come to know enough ordained women that their image of “priest” has stretched to include a female figure in a clerical collar or eucharistic robes, and have found that their imaginations are no longer challenged, but rather enriched, by that stretching. Incidentally, they are no longer socially or politically prejudiced against women in the priesthood. We may find that “bride,” “groom,” “husband,” “wife,” “marriage” and “wedding” can stretch in the same way, or we may need to call on new words. But we will, inevitably come to know committed same-sex couples as neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances, and friends, out of the church if not in it. Our categories for “couple,” “household,” and “family” are going to change, broaden, and become richer and more complex. To think that they will not is an illusion. Even if we managed to insulate the church from such images, they are everywhere in our culture. And, if Jesus places justice above “purity,” and love above all, we are bound to welcome this change.

Like it or not, we live in a post-Freudian, therapeutic culture, that places supremely high value on individual self-realization and self-expression, and that expects individuals to achieve that self-realization and self-expression first and foremost through intimate (for which read sexual) relationships. Such a culture was bound to give rise to the un-closeting of gays and lesbians, who would demand, in the interest of justice, that in such a culture, this form of personal fulfillment be made available to them in a way that did not deny who and what they most deeply felt themselves to be.

Scripture speaks of “God’s right hand” and we know what it means. We speak of “left-handed compliments” and we know that gauche and sinister, with their obviously negative meanings, are the French and Latin words for “left.” Our archetype of “right” and “left” is alive and well, and very useful; but we no longer feel threatened by actual left-handed people—about ten percent of the population, approximately the same percentage as homosexuals. We long ago gave up trying to make left-handed children change, to do it “right,” to become “normal” like the rest of us. Perhaps some day we will look back and be able to see that our images for human sexual intimacy have also stretched to include those who are sexually “left-handed;” that we can reject the shallow clichés, and respect the real flesh-and-blood people who actually live with us and interact with us in our actual contemporary culture, without our world of archetypes falling into chaos around us.

© 2006 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006


In children’s ministries here at St. Paul and St. James, the annual Christmas pageant tends to bring children out of the woodwork and, at least for a while, back into the orbit of the church—or, sometimes, into the church’s orbit for the first time. It’s fitting that this annual “teachable moment” leads directly into the season of Epiphany, which encourages us to focus on spreading the Good News that God has come into the world to be with us, to share our life and our death, and to offer us new life.

Children who come to us without much church background typically enjoy Sunday School a great deal and are then confused by what happens when they get into church. There, up front, they see a table set with a white tablecloth and candles, and a brightly robed adult setting out bread and wine. All the people, including kids, come forward and are given a morsel of bread and a sip of wine. What is this all about?

Even if they have had some experience with churchgoing, they are likely to be puzzled. If their earlier experience was in an evangelical, Pentecostal, or African-American church, the focus on the Lord’s Table—as opposed to prayer, praise, preaching and witness—will be unfamiliar. If their background is Roman Catholic, the altar will be familiar, but not the fact that children under 8 are receiving bread and wine.

Often, children who are visiting our Sunday school have tagged along with a friend who is a member of our church. Typically, their parents are not with them. When we line up after our Sunday school project to join the congregation at the Offertory, what is the right thing to say to them, to orient them to what is coming next?

Usually, when a visiting child tells me that he or she has no experience of church, or no experience of sharing bread and wine in church, I will say something like this: “When we go into church there will be bread and wine on the altar—the table at the front. It’s special bread and wine and it has special meaning. In a little while, people will come up to the front. You can come to the front too. Because it’s your first time here, and you haven’t learned yet about the bread and wine, you should hold your hands like this—” I cross my arms over my chest— “and the priest will give you a blessing. If you keep on coming, we can talk with your Mom about what we should do so that you can get the bread and wine too.”

What we hope will happen, of course, is that the kids will come back ... and that they will learn the story of Jesus, and begin to be stirred by his invitation to come to him, to be part of his Body, to be fed with his special food. We will tell them that they need to spend some time learning and praying, and then they can be baptized. We will need to talk to their parent or parents. Our parish baptismal process will include enrollment, the assignment of at least one “parish sponsor” along with any godparents the family may choose, then several sessions of preparation, and finally, baptism on one of the major baptismal feasts. Once baptized, they will begin to receive communion. This has been the traditional sequence in the Christian church throughout its long history.

St. PJ’s is “centered in the eucharist and grounded in baptism.” We refer constantly to baptism as a powerfully formative experience. We have a baptismal process that involves enrollment, preparation, and the involvement of parish sponsors. Normally, we see baptism as the sacrament of entrance, and the eucharist as the sacrament of sustenance. Normally, you get born and named and welcomed, and then you get fed. And once you are born, you are a member of the family: baptized children receive communion from the day of their baptism. There is no “first communion;” no confirmation requirement, before a child is welcomed to the table. Normally, there is a pattern and a process, that provide order and structure for the life of faith.

Sometimes this scenario works just fine. Just as often, however, we hit a snag.

Families with a Roman Catholic background may have one or more children who were baptized some time ago, as infants; then, as the family drifted away from church attendance and practice, the younger children were never baptized. Should the baptized child be encouraged to receive communion as soon as the family begins attending, while the younger siblings are asked to wait?

Families with an evangelical background may feel strongly that their children need to show signs of a true “born again” conversion before they are allowed to be baptized. They may withhold permission for a child to be baptized because they do not see signs of a radical life change in their child.

Families experiencing stresses, disruption, and economic difficulties may begin planning for children’s baptism, and then change their plans, because they no longer feel ready for a big celebration. An eagerly anticipated, already scheduled, baptism may be put on hold indefinitely as the parents struggle through a family crisis, or hope for better times when they can afford new clothes or a party worthy of this important event in their child’s life.

For any of these reasons, unbaptized children attending St. PJ’s may remain in an extended limbo, where it is unclear whether or when they will go through the full baptismal process that is supposed to be the prerequisite to receiving communion.

This is hard for kids. Sometimes they take matters (literally) into their own hands. They simply stick out their hands like the people around them, asking for the bread and wine. If the priest administering communion knows that a child is unbaptized, he or she may gently remind the child that it’s not yet time for them to receive … or may decide to dispense with the standard process and respond to the child’s desire. Sometimes the kids may quite intentionally choose the side of the altar where the minister of communion does not know them, and will serve them with no questions asked—or even leave the altar rail where the priest has just given them a blessing and come back and try again on the other side.

Our parish prides itself on its diversity and inclusiveness. We have a very high level of discomfort with anything that appears unwelcoming or judgmental, or places “hoops” in front of people. When adult newcomers participate in communion, nobody examines them on the question of whether they are baptized. Even once an adult has informed the clergy that he or she is unbaptized, nobody will refuse outright to give communion to that person if he or she continues to come to the altar with hands outstretched.

In the name of welcoming and including, we may look the other way when adults take it upon themselves to follow a different order. But what about kids?

If baptism and eucharist are as powerful as we say they are, then presumably we have no right to administer them to children without the full cooperation, or at least the full consent, of their parents. But (in my experience at least) parents express much more hesitation about baptism than about the eucharist. Baptism is seen (rightly) as a once-and-once-only commitment of faith; as an occasion of public and family celebration. Communion is seen (wrongly?) as a much less momentous business--a matter of fairly casual personal weekly practice, about which parents are relatively indifferent. The kids, however, are not indifferent.

Would baptism lose some of its power if it were no longer seen as the gateway to the eucharist? Would “the baptized” become an elite minority of the super-committed, instead of the whole community of faith? What are the implications of allowing the eucharist to be seen increasingly as a fellowship meal, from which none should be turned away, rather than a holy mystery reserved for the initiated? Is it more important pastorally to show children from at-risk families a clear, orderly pattern of boundaries and process, requiring effort and patience; to affirm their parents’ right to choose for them; or to address their hunger right now?

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