Skip to main content

Teaching children and children teaching

Image from developer.mozilla.org
One of the biggest challenges in our faith community is making space for and involving our kids in spiritual formation in a meaningful and appropriate way. A lot of our activities are geared toward adults and assume a pretty advanced ability to grasp abstract ideas. Since we don't yet have the resources to offer Children's Church every week, we decided to try an experiment for a few months: every fifth Sunday we have an Inverted Meeting. The basic idea is this: the whole gathering is accessible for children and there are a few tidbits thrown in for the adults (what usually happens is the reverse, hence the name, Inverted Sunday). As well, there are also plenty of opportunities for the adults to join in and help out. Re-thinking our Sunday morning gathering this way has been and still is a bit of a learning curve, I have to admit, but we are all discovering how to be together in a more equitable way. I believe we are also becoming a better community through it.

Just over a week ago we had our second Inverted Meeting. These meetings usually involve five elements: worship (giving gifts to God), prayer (talking with God about things that are on our hearts), a Bible story (learning about God), an activity (practicing what we learned), and communion (remembering what Jesus did for us). On this particular Sunday, I was assigned the Bible story, and since I am presently doing a series on the Decalogue, the scheduled topic for that day was. "Do not murder." I was tempted to abandon the topic and pick another story, but the Children's Church coordinator told me to stick with it. Okay, then. How do you talk with 2 - 7 years-olds about the prohibition against murder?

I decided that we had to start with life, so I told a truncated version of the story of Creation, how the Eternal God scooped dirt out of the ground, shaped it into a human being, and breathed life into it, making it a living soul. This breath is what makes us alive. I blew up a balloon to illustrate the difference between being lifeless and limp and being full of life, bouncy and buoyant. I told everyone that this breath is precious and we must protect it. Then I told the story of Cain and Abel, two brothers with different jobs who made two different sacrifices (one that is not pleasing to God and one that is pleasing to God). I talked about how angry Cain was when God did not like his sacrifice, but did accept Abel's sacrifice. Cain became so jealous of Abel that he led his brother into a field and killed him.

I had two volunteers acting out the parts of Cain and Abel, and both were holding inflated balloons to represent their aliveness. I said that when Cain killed his brother, he destroyed the breath of God in Abel, something very valuable and precious. Everyone knew what was coming, but I made sure to give a warning about the loud noise we would hear when Cain destroyed Abel's balloon. "Cover your ears!" I said.  I gave a countdown. I did every thing I could to prepare the kids (and the adults) for the impending destruction. And then Cain crushed Abel's balloon with a loud bang, and Abel fell to the ground. One of the young children (a visitor named N) reacted quite strongly, disturbed and upset by the whole thing. He was in the front row, so we all noticed. I stopped and apologised. Others explained that the person wasn't really dead, it was pretend. The child's parents comforted the young boy, but he would not be easily consoled. The young boy said he wanted to go, so his dad took him in his arms and they walked away from the scene.

I stood there and wondered, "What have I done?" I have traumatized a young child, that's what I have done. I looked toward the back of the room, where the young boy was pressed against his father's chest, and felt stabbed through the heart. This sweet, innocent child, so sensitive. And I began to tear up. Something about his reaction was so honest, so real, so pure. I stammered out words to this effect: "May we all be like this child. May violence and the destruction of another human being affect all of us this way. May we not be desensitized to the taking of human life." I saw a few people wiping their eyes. I composed myself and continued on with the Cain and Abel story: God punished Cain because he was dangerous, but did not take Cain's precious breath of life away, too. Instead, God protected Cain from others who might want to kill him out of revenge.

In Exodus 20 we have the commands Yahweh gave to the people of Israel. One of them is this: Do not murder. The Hebrew word retzach (kill or murder) has a broader meaning which includes being generally destructive and breaking things. In relation to this command, Jesus said: "Anyone who is angry with his brother will be judged for his anger. Anyone who taunts his friend, speaks contemptuously toward him, or calls him, 'Loser' or 'Fool' or 'Scum' will have to answer to the judge." (adapted from Matthew 5, The Voice). So, if we not supposed to break, dash to pieces, or destroy other people with our actions and our words, how are we supposed to act? Jesus tells us what to do: "My commandment to you is this: love others as I have loved you. There is no greater way to love than to give your life for your friends." The best way to show someone that you love them is not only to protect their breath of life, but to give them something really important. And the most important thing we have is our life, the breath of God. This is what Jesus did for all of us. He gave his life, he let himself be killed, so that we could keep breathing the breath of God. He did the opposite of what Cain did.

We followed the story with an activity where we moved into a large circle and were each given a piece of paper with a chocolate taped to it. We were instructed to write encouraging words or draw encouraging pictures. We then gave these gifts to the person next to us. I received a piece of paper from a parent/child team: a young girl named L had drawn a colourful, lopsided heart and the parent had written the sentence, "You are a blessing." That crooked heart, oh my (makes me touch my heart and sigh every time I think of it). Then we ate the body and blood of Jesus in family clusters, remembering his precious, loving gift, and prayed blessings on each other. Afterwards, N invited me to toss his balloon and chase him around his mother's legs. Which I did, of course.

It was a Sunday when the children taught us as much as we taught the children.
And a little child will lead them all. (Isaiah 11:6)

(This post also appears on the Vineyard Thoughworks blog here.)

Comments

Anonymous said…
"God punished Cain because he was dangerous, but did not take Cain's precious breath of life away, too. Instead, God protected Cain from others who might want to kill him out of revenge.

And the most important thing we have is our life, the breath of God... This is what Jesus did for all of us. He gave his life, he let himself be killed, so that we could keep breathing the breath of God. He did the opposite of what Cain did."

"Cain & Abel" seems to be more about the apparent arbitrariness of God's transcendent justice than about the prohibition of murder. It repeats the symbol of the fruit from "Eve and the tree". Cain offers all that he has and as firstborn to Adam there's no apparent reason for God's displeasure. By our ethics, our knowledge of good and evil, Cain's sacrifice is righteous.

Beyond poking-fun at our ethics and attempts to please God, God baits Cain pure and simple and Cain bites:

6-7 God spoke to Cain: “Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it’s out to get you, you’ve got to master it.”

Subsequent to the baiting and the biting (Abel's murder) God punishes Cain with a fate worse than death. By all human measures God's ethics are poor.

The sacrifice of Christ on the Cross can not be reduced to an ethical message. Yes, the breath of God is good. But ultimately God is forced to offer himself up as his own sacrifice because iur sacrifices are insufficient.

To teach children to be like Jesus is, from a Christian perspective, a false teaching. We can never live like Jesus, his ethics are inaccessible except by means of revelation. Because of our limited faculties and our apparently impoverished knowledge of good and evil (from God's perspective) God offered us His law (by revelation of course), which is not complete except in the person of Christ (again, an ethic beyond our comprehension).

So what should we teach children from this story? Murder is bad. OK. The breath of God is important. Great! But beyond that there are not "good people" who follow God's law and "bad people" who don't. We all violate God's law and his will (particularly in our society where the simplest of pleasures REQUIRES murder).

Christianity is about seeking God and His truth. It is about seeking the kingdom of God. But there is no personal relationship, not in the sense that evangelicals and the Vineyard means. One of the founding principles of Judaism abd Christianity is that our God is inaccessible, yet revealed. Such are Biblical dialectics.

There are those who seek revelation & those who don't. And there are those who seek forgiveness. But we worship a God that is beyond comprehension. This is an important teaching that I have never seen presented from the pulpit, and it's one that children need to hear. Maybe instead of teaching the prohibition of murder, we need to teach what murder is. This seems to be part of the story. Murder is, it seems, natural to us.

Matte Downey said…
Thanks for your comments, K. This short blog entry is a bit of a reduction of what actually transpired in my talk. I don't think I reduced Christ's sacrifice to an ethical message, and tried really hard to get beyond what good people do versus what bad people do. Admittedly, that is a bit of a challenge when doing a series on the Decalogue, but if you read any of my other entries, I try to see all the commands in the context of God being a covenant God who invites Israel to be a covenant people. In this particular case, the whole point of the talk was to show how love subverts/is greater than murder, and how God shows us love through the life and death of his Son, Jesus. I appreciate your nod to the mystery of God. Augustine famously said that if we can comprehend it, it is not God.

Popular posts from this blog

what binds us together?

For the past few weeks, I have been reading a book by famed psychiatrist M. Scott Peck which chronicles his travels (together with his wife) through remote parts of the UK in search of prehistoric stones. The book is part travel journal, part spiritual musings, part psychology, and part personal anecdotes. A mixed bag, to be sure, and not always a winning combination. At one point, I considered putting the book aside, not finishing it, but then Peck started writing about community. He is no stranger to the concept. He has led hundreds of community-building workshops over the years, helped start a non-profit organisation dedicated to fostering community, and written a compelling book about the topic, one which greatly impacted me when I read it oh so long ago.[1]

In preparation for a course I am teaching next year, I have been doing quite a bit of study on unity and community. Once you start thinking about it, you see and hear evidence of it everywhere. (See my blog on the impact of b…

job hunting

I am on the hunt for a job. PhD in hand, I am a theologian for hire. The thing is, not a lot of places are hiring theologians these days, and if they are, they are usually looking for scholars with skills and experience outside my area of expertise. Today I found job opportunities for those knowledgeable in Religion, Race, and Colonialism, Philosophy and History of Religion, Islam and Society, Languages of Late Antiquity, Religion, Ethics, and Politics, and an ad for a Molecular Genetic Pathologist. Not one posting for a Dramatic Theologian with  a side order of Spirituality and a dash of Methodology.

I know, I know. My expectations are a bit unrealistic if I believe I will find an exact match for my particular skills. I know that job descriptions are wish lists to some extent, so no candidate is ever a perfect match. I also realize that one must adapt one's skill set according to the requirements of the job and be flexible. But there are so few jobs which come within ten or even…

building the church

Imagine two scenarios: 1) Give every person in the room a popsicle stick. Ask them to come together and put their sticks onto a table. Invariably, you end up with a random pile of sticks on a table. 2) Give every person in the room a popsicle stick. Show a picture of a popsicle stick bird feeder and ask people to come together and put their sticks on a table according to the picture. You will end up with the beginnings of a bird feeder on a table.

What is the difference between the two scenarios? In both, each person brought what they had and contributed it to the collective. However, in the first scenario, there were no guidelines, no plan, and no right or wrong way to pile the sticks. People came, placed their sticks on the table, and walked away. In the second scenario, people were given a plan to follow and as a result, something specific was built. Instead of walking away after they made their contribution, people huddled around the table to watch what was being built. Some were…