One of my favourite movies has a segment of dialogue where the two main characters speculate about how often people say “childhood is the happiest time of your life”. Not feeling that sentiment to be true, the one character laughs and says that in actuality, “Childhood is what you spend the rest of your life trying to overcome!”
I have thought of that line a lot in recent years. Funny how raising small people brings you face to face with yourself as a child, in ways that you wouldn’t be otherwise. As you visit with children and listen to their questions and explore life with them, you can’t help but revisit your own perceptions and experiences of the world when you were their age. And all too often you are painfully aware of the woundedness & brokenness of the perceptions you adopted as a child. And yet, here before you is a young child! Here before you is a beautiful opportunity to nurture their faith in a life-giving way! How can it be done? How can we avoid repeating frail and wounded Spiritual messages? How can we help children avoid the faulty messages we ourselves may have once adopted? How can we create space for God to write on their hearts a the story of Grace, Freedom, and Love?
All too often as we parent, lead, teach we replay the broken scripts that maybe we were given as children.
For example, I am aware that I often resort to emphasizing good behaviour for the kids at church (put away your toys, lets pray, don’t hit, lets share, please and Thank you…). And I maybe emphasize “good behaviour” with kids over authentic encounters with Jesus because its hard wired in my Spiritual DNA.
And when something is so deeply embedded in your own story, its quite easy to replay that out in new experiences.
So as I have reflected on this tendency, I have thought over different encounters I had in my developmental years that contributed to this.
One of the scenes I have replayed is from when I was in grade 3 Sunday school.
For weeks (months! Years!) I was given the instructions that a life of faith consisted of:
A. Ask Jesus into my heart and then,
B. Go home and read my bible and pray every day (And “you’ll grow grow grow 🙂“)
Wanting to get this faith thing right, I completed A. (Actually, I completed A. quite a few times… wanting to make sure I had thoroughly gotten Jesus in there).
And then I did my best as an 8 year old to sit down diligently and complete B.
One Sunday after class I eagerly went up to me teacher and informed her that I had read my bible and prayed “everyday that week!” Perhaps, I caught this poor woman in a moment of exhaustion, or maybe she thought I was being an arrogant kid, but her response seemed an attempt to cut me down to size.
“Hmph. Well did you understand all that you were reading?” She challenged.
Not sure what the right answer was, I timidly answered “yes?”
“HMPH. Well I sure don’t understand everything I read in the Bible”.
With that, she then turned away from me and continued cleaning up the craft supplies from the morning.
Confused I walked away and wondered if I had done something wrong.
Was I not supposed to be reading it everyday? Or wait, I was supposed to read it but I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about it? Or I was supposed to read but not understand what I was reading?
I thought God just wanted me to complete A & B to be a good christian, but it was looking to be a lot more complicated than that..
What did God want from me?
Surely, I needed to take better notes and see what else I seemed to be missing.
As an adult I can now see how I have used the approval of human teachers, camp counsellors, VBS leaders as my litmus test on whether God was pleased with me.
A keen Pastor’s kid, I began at an early age to vigilantly take mental notes.
Note to self: People seem to be really pleased when I stay after class and put away chairs.
[This is what God must be pleased with] Note to self: People are really pleased when I work hard/learn my verses/invite friends to Sunday school/Remember my toonies of offering/ etc etc [This must be what God is pleased with] In other words, Wow- Good behaviour really leads to God’s approval and acceptance!
But as I think of the countless hours spent in church, (with people who truly did love me and want the best for me on many levels!) I see now how I may have absorbed some of their own striving and woundedness into my pursuit of God. I transferred broken human expressions of love over to my understanding of God’s love. With the combination of my childhood glasses interpreting the world, and the human efforts to teach me what faith was about, things got very muddled along the way. Suddenly I found myself in adulthood with a Spirituality that I now refer to as the” Try Hard Life.”
It has been incredibly healing to sit down with my own script and re-write those small encounters that shaped my “try hard life” Spirituality. To take situations like the one I just shared (myself seeking approval from my grade 3 Sunday School teacher…) and to ask God how he would have responded to that 8 year old me. Suddenly there is a third voice in the conversation and it says something like:
“I am so pleased that you want to spend time with Me! Do you know how deeply pleased I am with you on both the days that you read and study, and on the days that you rest and play? You are my Beloved child!”
And as I start to Hear his voice in my story, it opens up my imagination for how His voice might speak to our children today. And I wonder, how can we give better space in our interactions with children for them to encounter the voice of Jesus in their lives? I suppose this is why I really like referring to what we do with kids and youth as Faith formation as opposed to “Christian Education” or “Sunday School”. When I picture education, I picture excellent students wondering if Jesus is pleased with them only for their gold stars? When I think of formation, I think of open spaces for God to work by his Spirit. God wants to meet with each of these little ones and whisper to them his love. He wants to shape them in His Being. He wants their story of faith to be one about His unconditional grace and love.
That movie quote I mentioned about Childhood being that ‘thing that we spend the rest of our lives trying to overcome’? Well, perhaps, there are ways to prevent that from being especially true for kids growing up in church. Perhaps there are better (more life giving ways) to raise this generation. In the meantime though, as we the adult teachers, parents and small group leaders engage spaces of faith formation as well, we give space for our scripts to be re-written. When we open ourselves up to new understanding, He will bring new life on many levels. We will come to face to face with our own Belovedness. We will recognize for our own story, there never was an amount of memory verses, word searches, sword drill wins that could have made Him love us any more. And we know this to be true for ourselves?
Our children will experience it to be true for them as well.
And with that, He will continue to make all things new.
For refreshment in God’s grace if you too suffer from a “try hard life”:
“When we believe that God expects us to try hard to become who Jesus wants us to be, we will live in that blurry, frustrating land of ‘Should Be‘, rather than trust in The One Who Is.”
Grace for the Good Girl- Emily Freeman
“A little child cannot do a bad coloring; nor can a child of God do bad in prayer.”
Raggamuffin Gospel- Brennan Manning