Make-your-own prayer stations: portable version

I tried this activity with my Encounter group, who are aged 10-13 (school years 6-8) and meet once a month in church for worship (and board games and sweets!). They are a very contemplative bunch (when they’re not being incredibly noisy!) and have enjoyed trying some of the activities from The Teenage Prayer Experiment: http://teenageprayerexperiment.blogspot.co.uk/

Before the children arrived I set up three tables. One had small pieces of paper spread over it with a single word printed on each. I used gifts of the spirit and fruit of the spirit. There were also some blank pieces and pens. Another table had small pictures spread out on it. I used leaves, raindrops, falling snow, starry night sky, clouds, sunrise, etc. Again, blank paper and pens were also available. The final table contained objects. I used stones, glass beads, autumn leaves, mustard seeds and small crosses.

When we got to this activity, I gave each child (and adult) an envelope and asked them to write their name on it. I explained that we were going to each choose some words, pictures and objects to create an individual prayer station, which we could take with us and use anywhere. (This group is familiar with the concept of prayer stations. If they weren’t, I would have taken longer to explain that.)

We looked together briefly at each table. I told them they could choose whatever they wanted, and asked them to think about what would help them engage with God, but also to select what they were drawn to, without rationalising their choices too much. One child asked if they would have to explain why they chose their items. Another asked if they would have to tell the group what they had chosen. In both cases I said they would not.

The children spent around 10 minutes looking at what was available and selecting their items. They then went off to choose a quiet place in church to try out their prayer station and spent around a further 10-15 minutes praying silently with the words, pictures and objects they had chosen. This could have continued for longer if time had allowed.

While we were choosing objects, and while we were praying individually, there was a deep silence, and I had a strong sense of the Holy Spirit working in the children. This was bourne out by some of their reflections on the activity.

When we came back together, some children chose to share something about their experience. Their reflections were thoughtful, and often very personal. They listened very well to each other. One child described “knowing something new about myself”, another “feeling like I can be at peace with all of me, with God”, and another said they had found it “hard, but awesome”.

All the children took their envelopes away with them, and were talking to each other as they left about where and when they might use them.

I would be interested to try this activity with other age groups: both younger children and adults. It could also be adapted for non-readers by omitting the words table.

On being a disruptive influence

“Disruptive” is not a good label is it? How many of us have brought home school reports saying “X is a disruptive influence?” It’s not intended as a compliment.

One of the most common complaints I hear in my role as a Children’s Minister is that the children in church are disruptive. “I love having the children in church but I don’t like the noise/mess/running around. It disrupts my worship. Can’t you do something about it?”

And probably I could “do something about it” but I’m not convinced I should. To answer that question in its own terms is to accept the premise, which is this: disruption is something to be avoided. And actually, I don’t accept that.

It is also to accept that a (perhaps the) principal purpose of church is to go on providing a comfortable “worship experience” for those who already feel comfortable. And actually, I don’t accept that either.

It’s not that I don’t believe children can be disruptive in church. I absolutely do – I’ve seen it! It’s that I don’t see that disruption as the problem in this scenario. I think the problem is rather the church’s deep-seated reluctance to be disrupted.

Look at the biblical narrative. It’s full of disruption. God disrupts lives and communities and even landscapes. God sends people to disrupt and disturb others. God speaks outrageously disruptive words through the prophets. God disrupts the whole sweep of human history by the scandal of God incarnate, human, crucified, and risen.

Pentecost is perhaps the ultimate godly disruption. The disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, become so disruptive that bystanders can only assume that they’re drunk. And the early church goes on being so disruptive and threatening to the established order that successive Roman Emperors are driven to persecute Christians until they can no longer contain the disruptive influence of the gospel, and the whole world order changes.

Throughout Christian history there have been pockets of disruptive thinkers, often condemned as disgraceful at the time, only to be celebrated and even canonised when the impact of their disruptive influence was finally recognised.

But what of the disruption of children in church? Back to the bible again: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18.3) The first thing to notice is that becoming like little children, and thereby entering the kingdom of heaven, involves change. Disruptive change, I would suggest.

What does it mean to become like little children? To be sweet, innocent, loving, joyful, trusting? That’s how the church has traditionally read that verse, and yes, that’s a start. But anyone who has spent any time with children will tell you that’s not the half of it! What about curious, vulnerable, impulsive, exuberant, emotional, excited, loud, quick, careless  messy and, yes, disruptive? Jesus doesn’t say “become like a sanitised, illustrated-bible version of a child”, he says “become like children” with everything that entails.

And how does Jesus choose to teach his disciples this lesson, this hard lesson which we are still struggling to grasp two thousand years later? He places a child among them. Here’s how to do it, he says, become like this.

So what should we be learning from the children God has called to our churches? Many things, I’d say. How to love vulnerably, how to approach God in heartfelt awe and wonder, how to worship with excitement, exuberance and honest joy.

And also how to be disruptive. How to stop taking ourselves too seriously. How to let go of our preconceptions and habits and step out of our comfort zones, out of the boat. The church is very prone to slipping into unhealthy complacency, the cosiness of a club where everyone is “one of us”, to the detrement of anyone who isn’t. And when it does, the Spirit finds a way of disrupting that. In this case, through the very people Jesus holds up as a paradigm for the kingdom of God: children.

So next time someone tells me the children are disruptive, I might agree, but I won’t apologise. Instead I’ll be looking to see what God is saying through that wonderful, holy disruption. I’ll be looking to see how I, and the church, can become more like these disruptive little ones. I’ll be praying for the courage and discernment to disrupt what needs to be disrupted, in the world and in the church, in order for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven.

And I won’t be ashamed or afraid to be called, along with the children, a disruptive influence.

“Life is more” – a sermon for Harvest

During the gospel reading (Luke 12.16-23) the children will make a barn around the harvest gifts, using themselves as walls and a piece of fabric as the roof.

A barn seems a sensible enough place to store your crops, doesn’t it? But I wonder…

Let’s imagine that inside this barn we’ve made were not tins of tomatoes and packets of pasta, but instead all the riches of God’s kingdom – love, peace, joy, hope… At the moment they’re shut in, aren’t they? We can’t all get at them. They’re just for the person whose barn it is.

Now, what happens if we open the doors? That’s a bit better. Maybe a few of us could get in and see what’s inside. Perhaps the few who get in might even bring something out to share with the rest of us. But there’s not room for everyone.

What if we open the doors wider? And the windows too? Again, that’s better. More people could reach in, catch a glimpse of the treasures inside. But it’s still not for everyone.

What would happen, I wonder, if instead of opening the barn up little by little, window by window, door by door, we tore down the walls completely? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere! Everyone can see what’s inside, everyone can get to it, everyone can share in it, and take it out to share with more people too.

God’s kingdom doesn’t have any walls. God’s gifts to us can’t be fenced in. An open door or a window left ajar won’t do. God’s gifts of life and hope and joy and love aren’t only for a few people, aren’t something to be hidden away or doled out sparingly. God’s generosity to the world, to humanity, to us, is overwhelmingly abundant. God gives us, as our first reading said, “more blessings than we need”, and far, far more than we could ever deserve.

Because God’s kingdom doesn’t work on the basis of who deserves what. God’s kingdom works on the basis of relentless, undeserved grace. In God’s kingdom there are no deserving or undeserving poor.

The man in our story built a barn because he wanted to keep the good things God had given him for himself. Storing up resources might seem sensible, but God says to him “you fool!” because what is wise in the eyes of the world seems foolish to God, and God’s wisdom often seems foolish to the world. God’s kingdom is an upside-down sort of kingdom.

And what about us? Let’s not be like the man in the story, storing things up for ourselves, only to be called a fool by God. Let’s be more like the barn with its walls torn down, ready to share what God has given us with any and all who need it. Sharing our food and our money and ourselves and our faith and our love, sharing outrageously extravagantly, just as God has shared with us.

And if doing that means tearing down walls, or being called a fool, or turning the world upside down, so be it. To quote this morning’s gospel reading, “life is more”, more than food and clothing, more than what we can get for ourselves, more than the false limits we try to set on God’s limitless love. Life is more. God is ready to give us more. Are we ready to accept?