MARCHING TO ZION

Last spring in this space I described a new Vacation Bible School curriculum compiled by my daughter Grace Pritchard Burson, a priest currently living in New Hampshire.   A few months later, when our parish’s Sunday school director approached me with the idea of doing a VBS, we got the chance to field-test Grace’s program.  Here’s a report.

The parish where I am a member is currently in transition, awaiting a priest-in-charge and managing with Sunday-only supply clergy. Our vestry and other lay leaders are heavily committed to day-to-day management of parish affairs, and to frequent committee meetings of a task force for discerning our ministry and mission and planning for financial sustainability. It was from this task force that the initial impulse arose: Let’s do a Vacation Bible School. And let’s not wait till things settle down; let’s do it now.

Since we were doing something new, we didn’t want to get in over our heads. Despite the many demands on parishioners’ time, we found we had no shortage of adult and teen volunteers, but still, we intentionally did very little publicity, because we wanted to be sure not to overreach. . On Monday morning we found ourselves with fifteen children between 5 and 11 years old. Half of them were Sunday school kids, and the rest consisted of a family of siblings and cousins who have been coming regularly with their grandmother to our parish’s weekly community meal, Dinner for a Dollar. They in turn brought along a couple of friends.

By the end of the week, they had all blended into a single community of children, who were as eager to play hide-and-seek in the undercroft as to do the structured activities we had planned for them. And that was fine. Building community—making friends—breaking down barriers between “parish” activities and “outreach” activities—is integral to being the church. Next year (yes, we’ll definitely do it again next year!) with the benefit of experience, we will build in more structured activity early in the week, when the kids are shy and hesitant, and leave more time in the last few days for free play.

Breakfast

We had no desire to use one of the packaged curriculums from Group Publishing, with their typical core of one simplistic moral or doctrine per day, each one embedded in an isolated Bible story, and the whole works wrapped up in a packaging deliberately designed to resemble a TV show or a theme park. Full disclosure: we used a program developed by the Rev. Grace Pritchard Burson, who happens to be my daughter. The curriculum is called “God’s Garden, God’s City,” and the main thing about it is that instead of using Bible stories as packaging for “Single-Point Bible Learning,” and “Easy Bible Reinforcement,” it trusts the stories to stand on their own and stir the children’s hearts and imaginations. And it tells the them in sequence, making the week into a single story, stretching from the opening of the Bible to its last chapter, to convey a sense of the whole narrative arc of scripture.

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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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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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“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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NUGGETS

… on the ministry of faith formation with children

THE SUNDAY PAPERs Editorial for the Fall 1 season

The Sunday Paper’s Editorial Page began, decades ago, as a hand-typed paper document, photocopied and enclosed with the paper copies of The Sunday Paper and/or The Sunday Paper Junior issues sent out seasonally by mail. When we added electronic distribution of our Sunday issues, as .pdf files sent seasonally by email, the Editorial Page also transformed into that format, except for the small minority of subscribers who have chosen to continue getting their materials by mail.

Last spring I announced that the document format of the Editorial Page would be retired, and replaced by a blog and Facebook, to foster dialogue and to link up with the many conversations going on digitally among church educators, parents, clergy and others. For the time being at least, subscribers will continue to receive the Editorial in document format, by email or as hard copy. But in recognition of the ways we now communicate and share ideas, Editorials will also be posted here, for subscribers and non-subscribers alike. In recognition of this new level of interactivity and connection, this initial blog post is a miscellany of teasers and starters, gleaned from some of the most fruitful online sources for thoughts about faith formation.

Rebecca Nye on children’s spirituality

A first hallmark [of children’s spirituality] is its tendency to be hidden, or between the lines. … It’s often about a kind of deep knowing which is not rational, visible, measurable or even explicable – the exact opposite of the education system’s values that have such a shaped impact on their lives. And yet, when felt, it can be full of meaning, powerful and intensely real. … For example, in response to many Bible stories, children will often draw or play out their favourite superhero’s battle with some kind of baddie or monster, often to the dismay of the adults who assume that ‘nothing has gone in today’, especially compared to the child who dutifully reproduces a nice picture of the actual Bible story.

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