Liliana surprises us at every turn–delightfully so. She shrieks and laughs and runs and wants to play kissy-face (where she places her palms on our cheeks and pulls us in to kiss us on the lips repeatedly). She’s impressionable and mimics everything. The astonishing thing is that sometimes she waits a day to pull a particular behavior out of her back pocket, and then we recall that we did that yesterday with her.
Naturally, when you become friends with someone, there’s a certain intimacy, and you want your other friends to know about this new friend. It’s like you want to expand the group of friends that challenge you and accept you. This is how I feel about introducing Liliana to God. Except that there’s so much that could go wrong with this one introduction.
I don’t think you need God as a child. In fact, God is a confusing thing at that age, and most likely a child will equate God with his or her mother and father (or a distant uncle or grandfather). I know I did.
The God I love today is a different God from the God I grew up with. Oh, He’s the same; it’s just that I see Him differently.
Obviously, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to represent God to Liliana, so she can make up her own mind about Him. Have you ever talked to a sibling about your parents? And isn’t it astounding how they each have such different experiences and opinions of the same two people? This is how I think it works with God. God is an individual concoction of all the ways that we’ve learned to know Him. We form opinions of Him as we do of our friends and family. [If you’re an agnostic or an atheist, the same goes for you; you’ve come to that conclusion, based on experiences--good and bad--and experiences with people and, possibly, research that convinces you one way or the other.]
I certainly don’t want to brainwash Liliana…or make her believe what I believe. [If you read Eve, you’ll know that this is a constant struggle for me. I’m fully aware that God could not force Adam and Eve to love Him; that was the beauty of it. He had to allow them the choice of rejection or love. Or, I suppose, tolerance.]
A little side note is necessary here. If you strip down the Bible to Jesus’s words in the New Testament, you’ve pretty much damned most people, meaning, I don’t personally know anyone (including myself) who is living those words literally. I know there are some; I just don’t know them. A positive example would be the author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living As An Ordinary Radical. I don’t know of anyone who’s sold all they possess and given it to the poor. I don’t know of anyone who routinely looks at the log in their own eye before they point their bony finger at someone “out there.” Remember, I’m including myself in all this.
Don’t get me wrong. I wish I were living those words. But I have to be honest. I’m not living them literally, so in essence, I don’t believe what Jesus has to say. If I did, I’d follow them without question. I feel alive, though, when I read His words. It’s as though I can glimpse, for a brief moment, how the world could be if we all did what He said. How hypocritical is that, though?
All this to say that I attended a conference this summer called Young Children and Worship, taken from the book by the same name. I had learned about the book last winter from some Montessori references. The conference outlined how a child might discover God, compared to the normal didactical Sunday School way of teaching a child about God. Of course, telling the Bible stories is easy and important (and they’re fantastically bawdy, if you read between the lines!). I’m referring to the other stuff that children rarely get–the emotional, personal side of God.
There’s a place for Bible stories and Bible memorization, certainly. Once, a friend bemoaned the fact that in the Awana program employed by many churches, children receive awards for memorizing Bible verses. I agreed at the time, but I’ve changed my opinion. Those verses don’t mean much to any child at the elementary stages in life, I’m guessing. I mean really mean something. What you’re doing is setting the stage for when they’ll need the verses later on. It’s that whole Deuteronomy message of binding the commandments to your wrists and forehead, so that it’s a part of you. Then when you need it later in life (or whenever it occurs to you), you can draw upon it. Don’t you think that’s how it works?
Anyway: back to Young Children and Worship. A normal session would go like this: the children enter the room quietly and sit on mats in a circle. First, they sing a few songs. Then the teacher introduces either a tray or a box that contains the day’s story (all the stories use 3-D figures or felt characters so the child can visualize what is happening). The story is told. Then, instead of slapping a moral on the story and putting everything back in the box, the instructor begins asking open-ended questions. Because of this, the children seem to make more connections than the instructor could give. And in this way, the children are left with questions to talk about and mull over for the week. The children are then given time to do “art”–the instructor asks, “What do you want to say to God during this time?” They can use clay or crayons…or the actual tray or figures used during the storytelling time. Then they share a small “feast” together (for instance, during Christmas, you might serve thin French shoestring potatoes to represent the hay in Jesus’s trough). [I believe this is a precursor for the Eucharist (or Communion) later in a child’s spiritual life.]
It was a delightful and exciting weekend, because I saw how a child could hook into God on an emotional level. The example used in the book (and I’m paraphrasing here because I don’t have it in front of me) was of a young boy who was playing with Play-Doh during art time. He formed two things: a stick figure and a ball. He began squishing the figure with the ball. As this was a fairly violent gesture, the teacher began to talk to him (usually the teacher sits on the side and watches). “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Killing Satan,” said the boy.
The teacher was taken aback. “You’re doing that?” she said.
“No, Jesus is,” said the boy, pointing to the ball.
The teacher thought, Well, I’m not sure where he’s going with this one, but let’s see. “How does He do that?”
The boy looked up, without much delay, and said, “Love.”
I don’t think I could have come up with such a stupendous answer.
Let me give you another example of an actual lesson: The Good Shepherd.
Some of the boxes in the program are wrapped in gold paper, like The Good Shepherd box. When the teacher takes it out and lays it next to her, she says something along the lines of, “This must be a special box. See? It’s wrapped in gold. It must be precious, like jewels. We can’t buy or borrow gifts. They are given to us. [Pause.] Once, there was a man who gave such gifts. Many people followed Him and listened to His stories. When they asked Him what they should call Him, He said, “I am the Good Shepherd. Follow Me.” And then He told them this story:
[She takes out a large circular piece of green felt.] “I wonder what this could be.” [Children say things like “grass” or “ball.” No answer is incorrect.]
[She smoothes it out with her hand. This methodical slowness is important for the mood of the story, and the children are patient.] “Let’s see what else is in the box. Oh!” [She pulls out a irregular shaped blue piece of felt and lays it on the green.] “I wonder what this could be. Could it be water or air or perhaps a bubble?”
[She continues taking out pieces and lays them on the felt, wondering out loud as she goes. Finally, when all the pieces are out, she begins telling the story. For your sake, I will list the pieces on the floor. She’s laid a large background of green. She’s “constructed” a sheepfold and placed five sheep inside. There’s a shepherd figure standing outside the pen. At one place on the green felt piece she’s set the blue piece; at another she’s set the gray circular pieces that look like boulders.]
“There was a shepherd,” she says, “who loved his sheep. He watched over them and protected them.” [She takes the sheep out of the pen one by one.] “He led them to green grass. He led them to cool waters.” [She moves the sheep to the blue piece.] “He led them through the dangerous and difficult places.” [She moves the pieces, one by one, through the gray boulders.] “And he brought them back home safely–all of them.” [She moves the sheep back into the fold and closes the gate. The following are questions she might ask, and she pauses for a long time after each one.] “I wonder if the sheep have names. I wonder if he knows them all. I wonder if the sheep love him. I wonder if he would go looking for a lost sheep. I wonder what the shepherd’s name is.” [Pause. She addresses the children.] “Do you have any wonderings?”
The children, at this point, may have heard the stories about David and Goliath, and how David was a shepherd, so a few may say, “David.” Or they might wonder more tender things, like, “I wonder if the sheep are lonely sometimes.” No question is wrong.
The Young Children and Worship instructor said that this one lesson is one of the children’s favorite, especially kids who are in a rocky home environment, or kids who are moving all the time because of a parent’s job. Those kids will get out the materials and reenact the story for themselves. They want the comfort of that Shepherd. It means something to them.
Do you see why I was excited? You’re not telling the children how to feel. They have to make their own connections, and they do this using the tools–personal, emotional, spiritual, psychological–they have at the moment. You’re tying into what they’re feeling and experiencing presently, and this is the way I think God could and should be known. It’s an emotional and personal thing.
Now, to be fair, there’s that whole other topic about whether or not God even exists. But I want her to figure that out for herself. I want to tell her the stories. I want to encourage the questions. Because some day, she’ll be able to decide for herself, but it won’t be after mindlessly following some path that her parents have laid out for her. At least I hope it will happen that way.