As this is the December issue, I thought I ought to talk about Christmas. It does seem to have become a significant occasion over the years, but to be honest I’ve not got much to say. How about I quickly run through some of the stuff I’m supposed to talk about, then we can move on to what I really want to talk about?
- Father Christmas is OK. He won’t harm your child’s faith. Your children will only stop believing in Jesus when they give up on Santa if they also think of Jesus as a remote character who only cares if you’ve been good, and is then available to grant requests (see page 30). That Jesus they will give up on, whether they believe in Santa or not. There is a lot more depth, challenge, mystery and wonder to Jesus to keep children going.
- I was in the school Nativity. I played the part of the Chinese Singing Wind (I believe this character only appears in certain translations) and was very cold in December dressed as a Chinese rice farmer complete with conical hat.
- I don’t really have any reflections on my Christmas experiences as a child, as I grew up in a church that didn’t really do much to celebrate it. It was a charismatic house church, whose main aim, looking back, was to do the opposite of anything the Anglican Church did. So for us, Christmas isn’t really a thing.
What I want to talk about is something that has been really challenging me in my work with children but isn’t really Christmassy, so we’ll have to park the festive stuff and move on if that’s OK. If it’s not OK you’re going to have to stop reading, as I’ve already written this and can’t really change it. Sorry.
What I want to talk about is why I find it so hard to trust God with the children in my group. That’s a big opening gambit, I grant you, so let me explain. One of the things I passionately believe is that the children who are part of the groups I lead need to encounter God as part of that time. It’s crucial - the most important part - but it’s always the bit that I’m most concerned about, and if the session is wobbling - normally because behaviour is wobbling - it’s the bit I’m most likely to drop. I tend to fall back on something that feels safer, like a game. So why, if I think it’s so important, am I so quick to drop it?
I got some insight into this from reading Mark Yaconelli’s book Contemplative Youth Ministry. He says that in the world of youth work there has been a focus on helping young people make good moral choices because we have lost our confidence that they can meet with Jesus. I suppose I shared that feeling, although in children’s work we hide it in different ways. We hide it behind education; so our session has gone well if the young people remember the story and entertainment. That may be because giving children space to encounter God is risky, and they might go crazy and mess about.
God was calling me to spend more time seeking him to build that depth of trust I need to lead my children’s groups well
This doesn’t mean that everyone who does a puppet show is using it to avoid praying with the kids, but sometimes we pack our sessions with loads of stuff to engage them, but crowd out God’s space. If I do that, it seems to reflect a lack of confidence that God will meet the children, and this of course begs the question of why I lack that confidence. Here it gets a bit painful.
The reason Mark Yaconelli seems to outline is that, if we don’t give time to encounter the presence of Jesus ourselves, we lose our confidence that the children can. This is challenging stuff, and it’s easy to get defensive about: “He would say that. If he’d met the kids I work with, he might think of some other reasons!”
But if we do that, we miss the chance to learn and change. How often do we encounter God ourselves? Because if we don’t, why would we think our kids would? As I read the book, I realised that I needed to change. God was calling me to spend more time seeking him to build that depth of trust I need to lead my children’s groups well.
The danger here, of course, is to react as though we are standing on the scales in January and seeing what Christmas has done to our weight (excellent Christmas reference here, I think). We massively overcommit to a huge programme of retreats, fasting, early morning prayer (ideally outside in the dark and the cold) and extra service attendance only to fail spectacularly. Then we get fed up. So what I am doing is just trying to find two points in my week when I am quiet and still, and see how I get on. This is highly unlikely to win me the ‘Spiritual of the Year’ award, but it’s a start and it feels like something I can do. I have a long and impressive track record of failing at this stuff, so I need to be careful!
So as Christmas fast approaches and the New Year looms, please hear this one thing: find some time to encounter Jesus. It is at the heart of our ministry, and we need to do it more. Also, if anyone actually knows what the Chinese Singing Wind is, please get in touch because I have literally no idea!