I didn’t post here in October …

My usual reason for posting is to put up The Sunday Paper’s “Editorial Page” for the season, and in October I took the Editorial Page (with her permission of course) off my daughter Margaret’s blog, “Living in God’s Love,” that she writes as part of her work as children’s ministries staffer for the Diocese of St. Albans in the Church of England.

I did, in fact, intend to write a nice little piece linking to Margaret’s blog, rather than pasting her post here, complete with the illustrations that are integral to it.  And then I got entangled in another project with a deadline, and it got away from me.

Here, then, is a link to her piece, and it is, in fact, quite timely, since it describes a classroom technique (which could be used for any scriptural story or faith concept) using the Annunciation story as an example.

Using works of art as a way of helping children enter imaginatively into the story

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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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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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“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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