God’s Garden, God’s City

If you are a user of The Sunday Paper’s Beulah Land feltboard, this review may particularly interest you, since (not by accident) this Vacation Bible School curriculum works especially well with Beulah Land tableaus accompanying its Bible storytelling. All the stories in the 5-day curriculum are rooted in or adapted from the “Salvation Story” script that is part of the Beulah 2 set of felt materials. This means that if you have the Beulah Land Starter Set and the Salvation Story set, you have everything you need to add a visual dimension to the storytelling portion of this VBS curriculum!

Beulah Land at NEWS

A review of the VBS curriculum, “God’s Garden, God’s City,” developed by Grace Pritchard Burson

Almost four years ago, in this space, I reviewed my daughter Margaret’s book, There Is a Season: Celebrating the Church Year with Children. Now I have the pleasure and privilege of shamelessly promoting the work of another of my daughters, the Rev. Grace Pritchard Burson.

Vacation Bible School, like the Christmas pageant, is the subject of a great deal of both nostalgia and amused contempt. Many of us look back on the fun we had there, the corny songs we sang, the snacks and crafts and water play and dirt and sweat, with that particular fondness reserved for memories of middle childhood. We may remember the songs (music sticks in the memory)—doing hand movements to “Noah, he built him, he built him an arky, arky … ” or bouncing up and down to “Hallelu, hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah, Praise ye the Lord!” If we are lucky, we will remember how we truly experienced God’s love from the hard-working teenagers and mom volunteers who ran the program every summer. Perhaps that was even what brought us into a relationship with the church.

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AND THAT’S OUR STORY

The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns. HarperOne, 2014. Paperback, 267 pages, $15.99.

BibleRecent years have seen a sizeable number of spiritual autobiographies by evangelicals who have made the journey from fundamentalism to the kind of church communities usually described as “mainline” or “liberal.” For them, despite their gratitude for the gospel they had received as children, and their fondness for the church community that had nurtured them, it was no longer possible to maintain allegiance to the evangelical-fundamentalist subculture, with its fixed focus on personal salvation and the avoidance of personal sin; its adherence to certain key doctrinal and moral (and, increasingly, political) identity markers, especially the doctrine that the Bible is verbally inerrant; and its anxious fear and suspicion of secular learning, secular culture, and even of any doubt, questioning, or alternative interpretations of the Christian tradition itself.

American evangelical fundamentalism arose in the late 19th century as a reaction to modernity. One way to think of it is to say that it imposes a halt in the process of faith development at what James Fowler calls the “synthetic-conventional stage”—the stage when the individual, while capable of self-differentiation and abstract thought, continues to draw on a group and its authority figures as the arbiters of belief and behavior, and (consciously or unconsciously) suppresses doubt and questioning, both because they are explicitly frowned on by the group and because they represent a threat to the sense of security, identity, purpose and certainty that the group imparts.

A church culture founded on deeply sectarian absolutism and intolerant of doubt or dissent offers members only two choices at a moment of spiritual crisis: continue to grimly tamp down—or deny—all doubt and dissent … or acknowledge them, and leave the church.

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FAITH IN ACTION

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In his open letter to the Church the week after the election, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry reiterated our commitment, as “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement today,” to living out in full the motto on our signage: “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”

The remainder of Bishop Curry’s statement addresses, primarily, the role of the church in society, in the light of the political sea change that our nation has now brought on itself. In a nation torn by competing visions of how we should live, and fed by competing versions of facts and policy and competing interpretations of history and of sacred texts both religious and civic, Bishop Curry issues a call to the Church for a proactive witness on behalf of the marginalized, the scapegoated, and the demonized.

For those of us now in our sixties—the infamous Baby Boomer generation—this document evokes memories, not only of the political activism that engulfed us in our young adulthood, but also of the dramas of conscience from World War 2 and the Cold War whose retelling colored so much of our childhood. And if the divisions in our society continue to harden, as the new president—so unprepared, so vindictive, and so recklessly infatuated with power—begins to flex his muscles, it is not inconceivable that the witness Bishop Curry calls for might lead to actual risk: risk to livelihood, even to personal safety.

And this in turn leads me to ask a related, but different question: If the vocation of the Church (Episcopal or otherwise) is to convey a holy welcome to all in the context of society as a whole, then what does it mean to welcome people into the church itself? What is the Church’s vocation in dangerous and unbalanced times? Does Jesus offer us safety? Can we offer it to others? Or is the Church a community defined by its embrace of risk and danger in the service of its witness?

I went to high school in the late sixties, that long-ago age of idealism and activism, of the civil rights movement and the peace movement, when the Baby Boom was coming of age and beginning its God-given mission of proving to our parents how small-minded and conformist they were, and how much better we would be at running the world once we got the chance. We saw our parents’ generation as fearful and calculating—more concerned to protect their material comforts and security than to live by the very ideals they had taught us. The struggles that had so shaped their world were ancient history to us. Deep down inside, we thought everything bad was as unreal as the Depression and War were to us—as easily mastered as the small challenges of our own sheltered lives. Unlike our parents, we would not compromise our principles in any way. We would be courageous and pure, and we would change the world in ways they never had.

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THE MORAL OF THE STORY

Some thoughts for those who wish to teach kindness (and other values) to children through books.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow do we help our children understand what we mean when we say, “Be kind,” or “Be a good friend”? Parents and teachers often turn to books to teach concepts and values such as kindness, sharing, forgiveness and so on, or to help children through all kinds of experiences, ranging from the trivial common milestones of childhood—starting school, losing a tooth—to life-changing traumas like the death of a parent.

Reading together adds a third voice to the adult-child dialogue, freeing their conversation and discussion from dependency on the parent or teacher to introduce all the thoughts and ideas: instead, adult and child together can consider, question, debate and wonder. Reading together allows pictures as well as words to come into play, helping small children confront feelings and ideas that are hard to capture in words. Most important of all, reading allows the issue at hand to be couched not as exhortation but as a story. The neutral space between adult and child is filled not only by another adult voice—the author or narrator—but also by one or more additional “child” voice, the character(s) in the story.

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“O MAY THY SOLDIERS, FAITHFUL, TRUE AND BOLD”

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This essay begins with a rant against the clumsy, tin-eared redaction of beloved hymns. But I also want to ask, Why does this matter? And because our ministry is to children, what does it say about how we tell our story to children?

I’m an English major and a choral singer, so let’s get to the strictly aesthetic questions first.

“For All the Saints,” written in 1864 by Bishop William Walsham How, praises Christ for all those who have gone before us, confessing his name, and who now rest from their labors. Its second stanza sets the frame for the entire rest of this long hymn: the saints who are now at rest have served honorably in a long and fearsome battle against evil, in which Christ himself was their champion and protector.

Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might,
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou in the darkness drear their one true light,
          Alleluia! Alleluia!

The stirring tune, “Sine Nomine” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, was written for Bishop How’s words. Vaughan Williams was a consummate hymn-tune writer, and his tune is tailored to this stanza above all others, and particularly to the crucial second line of the stanza. In melody as in words, that second line lingers lovingly on “Thou, Lord,” then picks up forward momentum to end with a robustly punctuated cadence—the vigorously percussive words, “well-fought fight” set to three falling blows down to the dominant tonality.

Here’s what one committee of hymn revisers has done with this stanza:

You were their rock, their refuge, and their might:
You, Christ, the hope that put their fears to flight;
’Mid gloom and doubt, you were their one true light.
          Alleluia! Alleluia! Continue reading ““O MAY THY SOLDIERS, FAITHFUL, TRUE AND BOLD””

“People, Look East”

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“People, Look East” at Grace & St. Peter’s, Hamden, CT. The pageant was presented on the Sunday after Christmas after having been snowed out on Advent IV.

A new, revised, expanded edition of “Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” The Sunday Paper’s collection of Christmas pageants, will be available as soon as I can get all the necessary renewals of the copyright permissions for the lyrics and music of the carols that are included in the scripts. Meanwhile, at this writing, there are still 6 copies left of the previous edition, at $22.95.  (The new edition will cost $30.00.)

The book’s Pageant #3, “People, Look East,” is the one that became an annual tradition in the parish where I worked for nearly thirty years. After my retirement from that position, my family and I joined a different congregation, and (after waiting a decent interval to get to know the parish) we introduced “People, Look East” there, and the good folks of this congregation have totally taken it into their hearts. In revising, updating and expanding my collection of pageant scripts, I am trying not to allow “People, Look East” to be The Tail That Wags the Dog, but it’s no secret that it’s the special one among the various scripts in the book. Here are some excerpts from the introductory notes to “People, Look East” in the forthcoming revised edition.

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Services of Lessons and Carols at Christmas date back to Victorian times, and have experienced a worldwide surge of popularity via the annual broadcasts of the Christmas Eve celebration at King’s College Chapel in England. In the Episcopal Church in the US, the Book of Occasional Services provides two outlines for lessons and carols—one for Christmas and one for Advent—which have had wide and increasing use on the parish level, often in combination with the Eucharist.

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PHARAOH’S DAUGHTER

Moses in the Bulrushes

As a White woman working in urban mission with children of color from 1994 to 2008, with a volunteer staff consisting overwhelmingly of White women, I struggled for images of liberation and leadership that fit our experience. The archetypal Bible story of liberation from oppression is, of course, the Exodus. But White people of privilege cannot be Moses to the children we work with: we do not come from their own community, and we cannot wish or will that difference away. As I wrestled with the scriptural story, I found an archetype that powerfully spoke to me, in the person of Pharaoh’s daughter.

Many times during the years I was Children’s Missioner at our downtown parish, I found myself telling her story, and last night, at the Faith Study Group I now lead in a different parish, I found myself telling it again, in light of the urgent concern over racial polarization that now grips our nation. It’s a troubling and deeply ambiguous story; because Pharaoh’s daughter was one of the oppressors, but moved with pity for baby Moses, she brought him into her own privileged world. And instead of being grateful, he ran away, and then he and his God came back and wreaked terrible vengeance on the oppressors.

Is there another way? Can we break the endless cycle of oppression and revenge? Can we help in a way that leads to reconciliation, and not to more domination and resentment? Can we find the humility to serve as Jesus does, with no agenda at all, except to honor what is in each of God’s children?

PHARAOH’S DAUGHTER

Once upon a time, there was a princess.

She was the daughter of a king—a great and terrible king, who ruled over the mighty kingdom of Egypt—and his name was Pharaoh.

And Pharaoh king of Egypt went up and down throughout his kingdom, to see if all was well in the land, and the people orderly and obedient.

And in the kingdom of Egypt, in the land of Goshen, there lived a people who were different from the Egyptians: the people of the Hebrews. For many years they had lived in the land of Goshen, and now they had become very numerous, and filled the land of Goshen. Continue reading “PHARAOH’S DAUGHTER”