Waiting with the stories

My daughter and I looked at our garden each day, peering closely into the dark earth. “Do you see anything yet?” she asked, her voice hopeful. “Not yet,” I replied. “How about you?”

Each day in spring began with this ritual of staring into the ground, waiting and watching. And when it finally happened, when the first sliver of green issued from the ground, it felt like a miracle. We dance around the yard. We took pictures. We were amazed.

I didn’t help her connect this event to Advent-tide when we watch and wait for Jesus.

We didn’t discuss John 14 and how grains of wheat fall into the ground and die before emerging again.

We didn’t talk about baptism, dying to Christ like this seed and waking to new life.

My daughter is five and her world is concrete. God is a powerful man with a big beard. The Bible stories are true or false, fairytales or real. Metaphors and parables are nonsensical because a thing is what it is, nothing more or less.

It’s this way for most young children, and even some older ones. That is why this period of catechesis in the lives of children shouldn’t try to do too much. I think of the goal of religious education at this juncture as story acquisition. We are trying to tell stories that will be memorized, retold, acted out in play time, shared around the dinner table. The stories of our faith are a kind of building block. Eventually children will begin to differentiate from the faith of their parents. Eventually they will build something with those blocks. They’ll ask difficult questions, make connections to other stories, and understand how these things all fit together.

I had this brought home to me last Sunday when a seventh grader came up to Children’s Time (we do something called Pew Projects, which I’ll write about another time, and he wanted one. So did several adults in the congregation). To help them think about the kingdom of God as mentioned in the Matthew 13 parables I asked the children to show me what their faces would look like if they found treasure in their garden or a string of pearls at the playground. The response from the small children was excitement and surprise. My seventh grader, though, responded by saying that he would be skeptical. Where did they come from? Who would have left these here any why? It was a reminder of the spiritual development that happens between being six and being thirteen.

Someday our children will be able to dig deeper into these stories. Someday they will think through the complexities of hermeneutics and application. One day my daughter will connect the feeling of seeing that first whispy bean plant stretch into the light with her own baptism, her own waiting in Advent, her own experiences of seeing life emerge out of death.

But not now. Right now we are learning and wondering. And that is enough.

Augustine and “the lowliest station”

Augustine’s The First Catechetical Instruction has always been meaningful for me as a parent, a minister, and a friend of people with profound cognitive disabilities. What I love about this little instruction manual is a particular section called “The Treatment of Certain Candidates (8-9).”

Augustine was rigorous in his catechesis of soon-to-be Christians, but also aware that not everyone who wanted to become a Christian could bend their minds to the will of God in the way he could. I often wonder if this conviction came out of his years prior the bishopric when he was a local church pastor. There he likely saw all kinds of people longing to know God: the very old, the very young, the disabled, the unlearned.

So in TFCI Augustine provides a series of instructions: “How to deal with students from the schools of grammar and rhetoric”; “How to deal with the educated.” And a section called “Various causes make the catecheis feel antipathy for his task. The problem of adapting the discourse to the capacities and limitations of the audience.”

You can tell Augustine doesn’t love being “obliged to spend time uttering one slow syllable after another which is on a far lower plane.” But he is aware of how theologically important it is that among us are learners who are unable to train as scholastics. These of “the lowliest station” remind us of the great chasm of intellect between us and God. And this, in turn, points us to the true end of all our learning – love. God stooped down to us by becoming a child. He then writes,

For is it a pleasure to murmur into the ear broken and mutilated words unless love invites us? And yet men wish to have babes for whom they may do this, and sweeter is it for a mother to chew morsels small and put them into her tiny son’s mouth, than to chew and consume large morsels herself. Therefore, let not the thought of the hen leave your mind, who with her dropping feathers covers her tender brood, and with tired cry calls her peeping church to her side; while those that run away from her coaxing wings, in their pride, become the prey of hawks.” (Chapter 10:15)

It is this mothering love of God that allows us to take pleasure in both the intellect but also in its absence, because “love, the more graciously it descends to the lowliest station, the more irresistibly finds its way to the inmost recesses of the heart.” Even more wonderfully this love desires nothing from the one loved except to share that love forever.

We are in the process of recruiting Sunday school teachers for the new year. I’m aware of how hard it can be for adults to commit to this ministry. There are a number of reasons, but I wonder if one way we can transform the way we think about this ministry is to see it as an act of love that participates in God’s tender brooding over the flock. We can take great joy in learning the difficult things of adulthood, but what a joy, also, to be with those whom God reaches directly through the heart.