The Cloud of Witnesses and Children

This summer I’ve had the joyful chance to help out with the children’s ministry at our church, New Hope Covenant Oakland, and under the direction and partnership of Pastor Kara Groth to tell stories of saints’ lives to preschoolers and early elementary students.  They’re not my usual age of students, having been a high school teacher and youth group leader, so it was a learning experience from me.  Fortunately, friends at the church set an example of thoughtful teaching and storytelling for kids at that tender age, the age of my daughter, which provided a tremendous example for me.  Some of the ways they teach stories are inspired by the books and materials of Godly Play, a Montessori-based Christian education approach developed by Jerome Berryman and others.  Some of the ways they teach are also just born from experience with the groups of kids they have taught, adorable and precocious and curious and unique kids.

via Godly Play UK

via Godly Play UK

Focusing on the lives of saints has been fun and fascinating.  We’ve told them stories of St. Paul and Ruth from Scripture, Dorothy Day and Fannie Lou Hamer,  St. Clare and St. Francis, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, Bishop Efraim Tendero of the World Evangelical Alliance, Desmond Tutu and Sojourner Truth, St. Paul Miki and the 26 Companions (Japanese martyrs), and others.  Those saints that I had a chance to tell stories about, I was inspired by the process of reading and research, composing stories simple enough for five year olds but spiritually meaningful.  Or maybe spiritually meaningful precisely because they are simple enough for five year olds, and still profound enough to inspire prideful old farts.  I revisited Endo’s Silencecame to appreciate the extensive catalogue and hagiography of saints that Catholics cultivate on the internet, and repeatedly reflected on the contrast between my goals and the purposeful lives of those saints the church remembers.

Communicating this to small children has been a different thing.  Godly Play involves stories played out with figures and materials, and our Sunday School room is stocked with wooden human statues, temples that can be assembled and disassembled, sand in boxes and felt underlays.  It’s tangible, beside which the spiritual is unfolded.  Christ in the flesh, God in the world, the Spirit inhabiting human lives and the material world: these are to be seen and lived by kids.  I realize how much I rely on abstractions on one hand and images on the other, and it’s taken an adjustment to think about stories differently.  Characters moving slowly across sand, in spatial relationship to each other.  Symbols that we can hold and touch.

Appropriately, the theme that Pastor Kara introduced, aligned to the church’s discipleship model, was introducing how these saints heard God’s call and saw the world through God’s eyes.  We tried to tell stories about people being sensory and perceptive about the spiritual enfleshed in the concrete.  I found that kind of thinking really necessary for me, the kind of person who has a way of intellectualizing my faith and compartmentalizing arenas of life.  No, Paul, you can’t just rely on a bunch of rhetoric and philosophy, phrasings and stories– these stories have to get down to the visible and mundane, the grounded, the kind of stuff small kids can see and understand.  Dorothy Day’s ragged coat, Paul Miki’s long trail of snow towards crucifixion, St. Clare’s bed for the sick.  How does God’s call invite us along a story that moves our feet and hearts, and how does God’s vision recast the reality around us?

Studying and telling stories about this cloud of witnesses, I also thought a lot about the daily lives of these kids and their families.  Establishing habits and experiencing disruptions.  Forming curiosities and discovering mysteries.  Lunches and movies and tan bark and scary cars.  Unbridled joy and depths of mourning.  I thought about how these stories might re-narrate help them hear God’s call and see God’s world.  It’s hard to expect immediate evidence.  My kid didn’t go home from one of our stories and radically reinterpret her life.  I don’t think it happens quite that way, quite that fast.  But i did think a lot about the stories i regularly read with her, ones with heroes who vanquish enemies and lovable losers who navigate and negotiate their way through existence.  Yes, those are the substance of life too.  But I’m so glad that alongside those stories, she has stories of a dawning revelation of things outside the hero’s journey that matter and last, of a larger adventure that begins before and extends well beyond an individual life, of a communion of saints who, remembered or forgotten, are known and loved by God.

DGL: willful children

Inspired by Free, I’m keeping a daily gratitude log for a month.

Today I’m thankful for the fierce independence children can exhibit, which reminds us that our protective and sometimes controlling love must persist and adjust for human beings with their own wills and destinies, making it necessary to reshape our love into greater integrity and tougher, firmer stuff.

My Very Own Lighthouse, by Francisco Cunha, and strange dreams

Our city’s main public library, just down the street from our house, has a shop where they sell books, so I picked this one up for little E.  It has the feeling of a book from another place.  I think it’s from Portugal.

Lately my daughter has a strange reaction to stories with certain kinds of conflicts.  For one, she’s starting to read more books that have conflicts.  Early on, books with narrative usually just wound up toward bedtime or successful potty.  The closest was Hug by Jez Alborough, where the child gorilla noticed that every other animal hugged its parental figure but his own was missing, until they help him find her and Mommy gorilla and Bobo gorilla embrace, and all the animals join in a big hug.

My daughter has started to listen to these stories with a knitted brow.  Dotty (by Opal) has trouble crossing the little river, and when she tries to fly like a bird, she falls down.  My daughter is troubled, and frowns, and avoids the book next time until we clarify for her that everything turns out okay, and it’s okay to run into a little trouble crossing the river, if you just keep at it and find a way.

And in the stories that I tell her (they usually feature Linus from Peanuts, for some reason her favorite narrative protagonist), I’ve started having conflicts… conflicts of loss, of defeat, of loneliness, or struggle.  She knits her brow, looks up at me, wonders why I would lead Linus into this wilderness.  And she’s started to like Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go!, a gift from my professor Laura Sterponi, and she points at the creatures on the darker pages when triumph is not at hand and there are Seussian monsters and pugnacious adversaries littering the page.

Cunha’s book features a young girl, staring out the window at the boats beside her house and having nightmares about her fisherman father facing dangers at sea.  Assuaging her fears, her mother shows her a book of lighthouses, and she is inspired to make one (with the assistance of her toys) of her own.  She reaches up for the brightest star, a close personal acquaintance, to hold on her lap to light her very own lighthouse so that her father’s ship can find its way home.  No reunion completes the story, but it ends with the same waiting, the same harbor of expectation, that inspired the dreams in the first place.

The book is devastating for we fathers who throw ourselves into oceans of labor.  But it’s mostly beautiful for children’s patchwork hopes, for the reminder that they cannot imagine any real reason, not seas or the distance to stars or the darkness of waiting, why they and you cannot be together again.  It is my duty as a father sometimes to see that distance, to recognize that I have to get away to work, to fish, to provide.  It is also my duty sometimes to be just as blind, to see no other beacon lights than the one she seizes for me.

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