Monday, October 29, 2012

God is here among us

I am one of the teachers for the 3-4 year old Sunday school class at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. Sometimes this surprises people who know my theology background, and that I am also a deacon, and a preacher. Honestly though, it is ministry with children that most often reveals the limitations of my theological knowledge. The contrast between my different duties also makes plain certain assumptions people tend to make about ministry -- assumptions my church does a decent job of challenging, I think, as I've written about before.

Last year the teachers at CHMF agreed to make an effort to use gender inclusive language in class. I already use inclusive language myself, so eliminating male pronouns for God in my interactions with the children was like second nature to me. Still, when teaching I frequently come across other, less easily solved problems  of gender exclusivity. It’s one thing for me, as teacher, to refer to God only in non-gendered terms, but how do I work with a given curriculum, and somehow help the children to experience God above and beyond gendered constructs? I don’t have an answer to that question, yet, save repeated threats to write my own curriculum.

Last fall we began with a series of stories about Moses. I remember holding up the poster provided with the Sunday school materials, which showed Moses standing in front of the burning bush. Red and orange tongues of flame enveloped the bush without burning it up. My fellow teacher and I pointed to different things in the picture and asked the children to identify them. “Where is God?” I asked. One of the children pointed to the gray haired figure of Moses.

Already they’ve learned that God is a gray haired man -- a sort of cosmic grandfather.  I gently told them that no, that person was actually Moses. Then I said, “Do you know where God is in this picture? God is in the fire!”

Later on, in the spring, we heard the story of the shepherd and the lost sheep. Judy, who keeps sheep, spins, and knits, came and talked to the class about shepherding. She showed the children pictures of the animals, passed around some wool for them to touch, and answered their questions. As we transitioned to story time, and to our mostly male-centric storybook, I thought, well, the shepherd we just talked to is a woman. That day I changed all the pronouns to “she” and the children didn’t miss a beat. Of course the shepherd could be a woman. Or a man. Like Judy, or like her husband Dirk.

Children are often more receptive to this sort of thing than adults.  Our kids love to sing “Father Abraham,” and they totally get it when we say, “But some of you aren’t sons! So we’re changing the word to ‘children.’” That makes sense to them more simply than it does to adults who’ve been taught to believe that male terms apply to women, too.

Teaching children requires creativity and improvisation. I have to pay attention, and look for those little moments to tweak things, to enrich a simple message and help it stick in their minds and hearts.  And isn’t this what children require of us daily, no matter what we’re doing? Creativity, adaptability, a willingness to respond to the unexpected with loving words and actions?

I often interact with male theologians who are set in their ways, and I sometimes get in heated debates about gender language. I am tired of these arguments. I am tired of explaining myself, of trying to convince others that our words matter, that they really do in some sense create or shape the world in which we live. No matter how good my intentions, how sound my theology, I cannot simply will a mind to change. And so, I would rather create a space of love and kindness to teach children about God.

Sunday school is one of the children’s first communal experiences of God. Their tiny bodies, so full of spirit and energy, are just barely beginning to learn to quiet themselves and wonder about the divine. Mostly it’s just hard to keep their attention. Even in those moments when I think it’s impossible to get preschoolers to listen, in their joyful faces I think I can see that they are learning that God is good, and that God is here.

And every once in awhile, a silence sets in, if only for a moment. We sit criss-cross-applesauce in a circle on the floor, and I ask them to all take a deep breath, hold it, and let it out. Once more, we take a deep breath, hold it, and let it out. I ask them to close their eyes, and I say a prayer, asking God to attend to the small prayer requests they entrusted to me minutes before.  Soon we will burst out of our classroom and into the sanctuary, where they’ll wiggle and giggle next to their parents, but for a moment I believe that God really is here among us, whether the children understand that yet or not.