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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Family Values

I’ll post the next Sunday Paper Editorial in a few days. In the mean time, like so many others, I feel called to respond to the “Nashville Statement.” Not because I have any profound disagreements with the many other gracious and thoughtful responses out there, but because I feel my peculiar take on these issues of scriptural interpretation and enculturation may, perhaps, add something to the conversation. 

This is a piece I wrote over ten years ago.  I have made only the most minimal revisions to it. The lead-in connects it with the issue of children’s ministries, which is always my first concern.

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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?

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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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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”