A Breathtaking Year of Children’s Formation  

This past Sunday was our first children’s sermon of the summer, and I had prepared a light offering of song and fellowship. I did so out of a sense that – having doubled the amount of time our parish children participate in religious formation this year – they deserved and would be ready for more playful and informal worship. I was wrong.

As I wrapped up the short words I had prepared about Sarah, her laughter, and the closeness God shares with her, I got questions. Questions from an eight-year-old about how many of our stories are about men and not women. About how even when they’re about women, they’re often about mothers. Questions from a ten-year-old about the Gospel reading, which we hadn’t even explored: how Jesus tells his disciples about the suffering they will endure – “he pretty much seems to say, ‘you will die for me’” she said – and whether or not our faith offers us enough to make that bearable. Real questions. Meaningful ones.

Their questions were a great privilege to encounter, and I answered them as thoughtfully as I could, making space both for the ways in which our scriptures do speak to their doubts, and the ways in which we’re left to wonder. More importantly, I promised them that I would take their questions seriously. That we would wrestle with them – those questions and the ones to come – in the months and years ahead. That I would be beside them as we took up this beautiful and challenging lifelong work of following Christ.

And I thanked them.

Though I had anticipated a lighter worship service, I wasn’t at all surprised to find them reaching for more. This past year has been a deep dive into gorgeous material, and our children soaked it all up. But rather than tell you about that myself, I’d like to offer you insights from this year’s generous team of children’s formation guides.

In the year’s first series, “Understanding The Book of Common Prayer,” the wise and thoughtful Dr. Elizabeth Kraatz introduced the book and its history; guided our youngest parishioners through the daily offices; taught them the structure of a Collect and helped them write their own; explored how our sacraments are outlined there; and moved through our Holy Eucharist, taking the time to dwell in the language that helps us remember those four holy actions: took, blessed, broke, gave.

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This led beautifully into our second series: Brian Lonberg’s rich and moving exploration of the Holy Eucharist. Of that series, Brian offers the following insights:

In the fall the wonderful children of St. Luke’s and I came together to talk about the Eucharist. We focused on three aspects of the sacrament: Community, God, and Forgiveness. In the first week we talked about what makes a community: who gets to be in, and who is excluded; what rules we place on membership; why community is important; and how the Eucharist creates and sustains our community. We each took a turn waiting to be invited to the table, being welcomed to the table, and inviting others. I saw the stress, joy, and generosity in turn from each of the kids, and it really opened them up to thinking about what limits we can place on things – especially precious things like a favorite group, toy, or the Eucharist itself – and where we have to let limits go for the sake of others.

The second week was spent looking around the back of the church, touching and seeing up-close the liturgical tools we use to, as Fr. Randall would say, “Make Eucharist.” We talked about sacramentals like incense and stained glass, and how we use those to heighten our senses and our experience sharing a space with God. And we talked about Covenants with God, as with the Eucharist – places we know God is, and where we can experience God. Our final week together we talked about forgiveness. We read the story “What if Nobody Forgave?” and talked about what forgiveness is, what it means, and how it felt both to forgive and to be forgiven. And we talked about forgiveness in conjunction with Jesus giving up His life, and by giving us this Sacrament. Then we spent time as our small community making the bread that we as a whole community would use for communion on the following Sunday.

I was amazed by the depth of our children. Growing up in the Roman church, I was used to the standard 2nd grade first communion. The idea that you had to “understand” what you were partaking in. After spending time with these kids – all but one of whom wouldn’t have been allowed to stand with the adults at communion in the Roman church – I could see that even when they lacked facts or history, they felt and understood the Eucharist in a place deep within their bones that not all adults can access. It showed me the importance of having this open table, and the importance of having all of our community welcomed.

The third series, “Home as a Family’s Spiritual Center,” was led by warm and gifted teacher-parishioner Amy Hanson. Amy writes:

It was my great privilege to work in children’s formation this past year. I loved sharing with the children how our family made our home a spiritual center in November. We talked about how home devotions can start when children are small and then change as children get older, incorporating bible reading and prayer. We made our own “prayer books.”

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This brought us to Advent, and many of you saw the fruits of Becky Edmonds’ work with the children that season. Having completed three rich fields of study, these weeks gave kids the space to use their hands, to make tiny nativities, to offer God their love by imagining and then recreating the Holy Family.

During Epiphanytide, Amy Hanson once again graced us with her kind and loving guidance, returning to teach the “The Story of Joseph,” the fruits of which have been visible all year in their new and clear understanding of the book of Genesis. Of this unit, Amy offers these words.

In January, I was happy to be invited back to delve into the story of Joseph. Renee provided wonderful materials: a beautiful robe, gorgeous story books, and other meaningful objects. We read the story, acted out the story, and talked about it. Joseph’s story is such a rich trove of biblical learning. Writing the Hebrew word for “dream” in clay as part of our response was a huge hit!

Dr. Fritz MacDonald led our next series: “Matthew & First-Century Nazareth Context.” Fritz is, of course, a life-force in the classroom. He writes,

It was fun for all of us and most enjoyable for me to work with the children.  Renee was always available for guidance and inspiration. Thank you Carrie for helping us learn the Hebrew song, “Shalom Chavarim.” The kids were quite curious when I brought my Euphonium to class to accompany them in song and dance. The “Beatitudes” are not simple to comprehend and our discussion with children and parents was very stimulating. Thank you everyone for your support.

We then carved out space, once more, for acts of creation, as Madeleine Roberts joined us to lead the Lenten Series:Exodus, Art, & Music.” We all saw the fruits of that series on display in the chapel for Eastertide.

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Of the work itself, Madeleine writes:

The story of Exodus in its dramatic telling of the power of God is arguably the most important to Jewish people, is remarkably easy to read, and children enjoy the dynamic storytelling. In Exodus, Art, & Music, the story was taught first, using a beautifully illustrated children’s book, then moving to the Bible. Painting five Chagall inspired canvases showcasing five scenes from Exodus allowed the children to interact with the story, solidify the plot to memory, and a chance to show creative prowess.

Comparisons were drawn between Moses as “The New King” and Jesus as the “New Moses.” For this lesson, only the second week of the unit, I fully expected the children to need some refreshing on the details of the story and of what they learned about Jesus in Matthew, so I made the activity a Bible scavenger hunt, marking helpful pages in a Bible and coming prepared to prompt their memories. To my surprise, the children remembered details from the week before (only having learned them once) and from other units to reach the ultimate comparison completely on their own.

After underscoring the importance of Moses to the Jewish people by comparing him to Jesus, we moved on to the story of the first Passover. We discussed traditions as taught in the Bible that are maybe not practiced today, such as the household slaughtering of the perfect lamb, and others that are, such as ridding the house of unleavened bread. Finally, we told the story of the Last Supper, one that they recognized from church, connecting our entire unit back to Lent.

In a special moment together, we recited the Shema prayer in English (and to my surprise, heard it in Hebrew from memory from two children). As the first prayer many Jewish children learn, this allowed our children to learn more about the traditions of their Jewish brothers and sisters, and fostered a sense of same-ness with the community outside our church walls.

I had the privilege of leading our penultimate field of study, which was an in-depth look at the Acts of the Apostles. Together we explored what that book tells us about being the church: the model it offers for following the apostles’ teachings, leaning in to fellowship, continuing in the practice of breaking bread, and committing to a life of communal prayer. For the final week, we gathered costumes and performed six Acts scenes, from Peter healing a disabled homeless man to the apostles’ persecution, arrest, and release; the conversion of Saul; and Paul’s dramatic shipwreck. Watching them perform these stories was joyful and heartening. They were silly and playful, all while engaging with reverence these accounts of our earliest Christian brothers and sisters. I wish you all could have seen them.

Finally, Dr. Jeremy Sabella led our last series, which mirrored the adult form series of “Ecclesiology, or ‘What is Church?’” Jeremy brought studious wonder to the program year, taking our children seriously and offering them whole new depths of knowledge. Of this final series, Jeremy writes the following.

I led the ecclesiology unit. I’ve long believed that, as complicated as the finer points of theology can get, virtually everyone is able to grasp the essential points of the Gospel. Figuring out how to explain the concept of the church to children as young as three years old certainly put this to the test!

The three sections took the form of an extended meditation on the Body of Christ.

For the opening section, we talked about the human body and how necessary every part of the body is. When we hurt even a small part of the body, like a finger or a toe, doing everyday things becomes a lot more difficult. We then talked about how groups of people function like a body and how Christians are Christ’s body on earth.  We thought through all the things that people needed to do to keep St. Luke’s running week in and week out (somebody needs to change the lightbulbs, buy the donuts, do Scripture readings, etc.). We also emphasized how children are an important part of the body. Jesus tells us that to enter the Kingdom of heaven, we must become as children. Children remind the adults of how to be childlike before God.

For section two, we examined how the “body of Christ” metaphor applies, not just to individual churches, but to the worldwide network of churches. We used photos of amazing churches on every continent, from underground, medieval-era churches in Ethiopia to a spectacularly colorful earthquake-resistant cardboard church in New Zealand.  The children would locate each church that we looked at on a giant inflatable globe.

For section three, we talked about what the Body of Christ looked like in action. Jesus’s ministry emphasized the importance of healing the body. We examined how early Christians followed in Jesus’s footsteps by starting the first hospitals, and how Christians have continued Jesus’s work by caring after the sickest and most vulnerable people in society. We also talked about how ministries such as soup kitchens, diaper drives, and shelters allow Christians showing the love of Jesus to others by caring for their practical needs.

Thank you all for the support you showed this program year. It was an enormous undertaking to move from holding children’s formation during church to keeping children in church, offering a sermon just for them, and then guiding them through an entirely new educational program during forum hour. Though the creation of such a year was challenging, it was likewise an incomparable joy.

My enormous gratitude, too, for the whole team of wise and generous guides. It was a pleasure to plan, research, write, and teach alongside you. The conversations that emerged have fed this parish in ways I cannot even begin to describe.

Finally, my love to all our parish children, who again and again brought their curiosity, growing knowledge, faith, doubts, insights, instincts, and wonder to the shared work of understanding our faith tradition, our history, our God, our community, and ourselves. It is a great privilege to do this work alongside each and every one of them.

Yours in Christ,
Renee

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