Active Participants or Passive Recipients: Re-Imagining Discipleship in the Missional Church
Article Review: ‘I saw the universe and I saw the world’: Exploring Spiritual Literacy with Young Children in a Primary Classroom by Marni J. Binder
Over the last two quarters in various classes, I have been exploring the idea of holistic education and how to broaden our understanding of education to engage the inner life of students. While there are a lot of great books providing the philosophies that may guide such an approach, it is difficult to know how to follow that philosophy with good practice. In this article Marni J. Binder writes the story about how she promotes spiritual literacy in her classroom.
Binder begins by exploring what she means by spiritual literacy and why it is important. She relies on research in children’s spirituality coupled with the concept of holistic education. In the introduction Binder provides a comprehensive theoretical framework to guide the remainder of the paper, which focuses on spiritual literacy practices she uses in the classroom. In her classroom each week the children engage in a visualization session. The children are given something to focus on and then provided the space to reflect on it through journaling, drawing, and silence. They then dialogue about the session. She tells fascinating stories of how the children respond to these visualization sessions. Binder then goes on to describe the concept of mindful spaces, and how mindful spaces are interwoven into various aspects of the daily curriculum.
The examples Binder shares about how to use spiritual literacy are valuable. Even more valuable is the narrative she provides about experiences she has with children through visualization sessions and mindful spaces, and the way she approaches children with a level of respect and dignity that honors the work they do in those spaces.
This article is great for teachers, particularly teachers of primary grades, who are interested in providing a space in the classroom and curriculum to engage the inner lives of children. Those interested in knowing more about how children respond to practices like visualization sessions and mindful spaces, like parents, grandparents, caregivers, children’s ministry directors, can really learn a lot from this article.
Binder, M. J. (2011). ‘I saw the universe and I saw the world’: exploring spiritual literacy with young children in a primary classroom. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality,16(1), 19-35.
I was first introduced to Parker Palmer when The Courage to Teach was assigned in one of my classes at Trinity Lutheran College. I don’t think I was in the right place in life to be able to truly appreciate his work. Now over eight years later, I am continually inspired when I read his writing. To Know as We Are Known does not disappoint.
Palmer begins the book with a call to see the world through two-eyed lenses. We often live one-eyed lives or lives seen primarily through the mind’s eye. He writes the mind’s eye sees a world that is a “cold and mechanical place” (p. xxviii). But when we open the second eye, the eye of the heart we see a “world warmed and transformed by the power of love” (p. xxvii). The book is designed to help readers broaden their perspective from the one-eyed view that pervades education to a two-eyed vision of the world.
Palmer uses various analogies to describe what he means by the term “spirituality.” He challenges conventional process of education and contemporary views of knowing and truth. In developing the ideas of truth and knowledge he brings in scripture, words from Jesus, dessert fathers and mothers, and other spiritual and theological leaders from different faith traditions.
He presents three characteristics that create a learning space; openness, boundaries, and an air of hospitality. He defines obedience as being able to “listen with a discerning ear and respond faithfully to the personal implications of what one has heard” (p. 89) Through obedience one is responsible for listening to one another and to the subject. The seeking of truth is a communal process. Palmer advocates for a classroom where learning happens by “interacting with the world, not by viewing it from afar” (p. 35). In this model, learners are responsible for critically thinking about their own learning and understanding of the world, but also accountable to the community of learners and the subject. He gives several examples including adding silence to the classroom, inviting students to introduce themselves and collectively evaluate the class, requiring groups to work together and collaborate, contemplative reading, and lectures designed to make students think versus just absorb information.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in education. As a children’s ministry director the book challenged me to think deeply about how the current paradigm in children’s ministry that is focused on fact and a way of knowing that enables us to control the world can shift toward a paradigm of knowing that empowers us to be co-creators in the world. I plan on encouraging my Sunday school teachers next year to read and discuss this book throughout the year. I believe it provides a level of depth into the subject of holistic education , that goes beyond many typical books on children’s ministry, but can provide important insight.
As Steven Glazer describes, The Heart of Learning shows us how education can “serve as the core for a lifelong journey towards wholeness, rather than merely an accumulation of facts, figures, or skills” (p. 1) The book is written to challenge current educational trends that ignore the spirituality of students, and offer insight on why and how to incorporate practices that support the inner development of students. The four objectives for the book are to: “1) establish the understanding that true learning requires openness to the unknown, to mystery; 2) establish awareness and wholeness as important, necessary goals of education; 3) help people understand learning as a process of transformational growth that requires…dynamic interpersonal (and interactive) work; and 4) offer tools, information, and resources to make spirituality in education a viable, rewarding approach” (pp. 4-5).
The book is divided into four sections Sacredness, Identity, Relationship and Community, and Tradition and Innovation. Each section is divided into several chapters written by teachers and spiritual leaders.
While the introduction from Glazer is inspiring, the book as a whole didn’t rise to the same level of inspiration. In the midst of articles charged with political or religious rhetoric, there were some gems. The first two chapters were among my favorites. One chapter worth noting is written by Parker Palmer. He provides guidance for reclaiming the sacred in education. He offers the simple definition that “The sacred is that which is worthy of respect” (p. 17). Through examples of his own experience in academia Palmer provides an invitation to journey toward reclaiming the sacred in education. I feel as thought every time I read something new from Parker Palmer, I think it is my favorite. It might be that this chapter was particularly fitting in my life because of my experience the world of academia, but I think if anything, this chapter is worth reading.
Other notable chapters include Rachel Naomi Remen’s “Educating for Mission” where she discusses her quest to bring spirituality into the School of Medicine at the University of California. David Orr writes about bringing the sacred into education through environment and buildings that promote wholeness and shares a story of working with a group of students in developing a sustainable learning environment.
If your particular focus is working with children in a Christian church, I don’t recommend this as a book to run out and buy. If you are an educator interested in diving deeper into topics around spirituality in education and how to foster spirituality apart from religion, this is a book worth picking up. Due to the wide range of opinions and ideas expressed in the book, I imagine you will have a similar reaction to the chapters that I did; some will resonate with you while others may frustrate you. However, in general the authors combined provide a thought-provoking look at spirituality in education.
I am finishing up a class “Readings in Spirituality and Education” and instead of writing a paper about my reading, I opted to write book reviews. First of all this helps me remember what I read. Secondly, I am often have asked about recommendations for good books to read about children’s spirituality, so I hope to continue to write reviews on resources I encounter and provide a place for people to learn more about what I am reading. That said, I will be uploading several review this weekend as I post about the books and articles I read for this class.
The Spiritual Life of Children
By Robert Coles
Robert Coles and his work with children, particularly in the realm of spirituality is often quoted in books about children’s ministry. However, it wasn’t until recently that I decided to pick up the book and actually read the research directly from his book. I am so glad I finally did. It was well worth the read and a book I should have read long ago.
Cole’s research with 500 children, ages six through twelve, from all over the world is a seminal study in the field of spirituality and children. It is clear that his work has been influential on subsequent studies addressing children and spirituality.
Cole’s calls this book “my stories of the stories [the children] kindly gave me” (p. 39). He explains that his research is all about learning from the children. “Each child becomes an authority, and all the meetings become occasions for a teacher- the child- to offer, gradually, a lesson” (p. 27).
Throughout this book the reader is taken on a journey through a beautifully written narrative where children express their joys, concerns, questions, struggles and ideas around issues of faith, religion, God, and morality. He divides the book into chapters that represent overarching themes that came through in his conversations with the children. Some of them are broad categories like “philosophical reflections” and “visionary moments” while others are from a particular religious background including “Christian salvation”, “Islamic surrender” and “secular soul-searching”.
While the intimate glimpse into the spiritual lives of the children Coles’writes about is certainly an important part of the book, I think an underrepresented gem of the work is the commentary Coles provides about his personal thoughts and feelings as he sits with these children. What is unique to Coles’ writing is that not only does he document dialogue he has with and among children, but we get to hear his own thoughts. He provides the reader with insight into his own personal struggling and wrestling. He offers an inspiriting yet humble approach to the delicate task of bringing out the inner lives of children without influencing the conversation too much. It is also clear that the children cause him to recall and revisit times in his own life where he wrestled with issues of faith, religion, morality, and God.
If you are looking for a list of qualities that make of children’s spirituality or a practical guide to nurturing children’s spirituality, this isn’t the book for you. However, I think this is an important foundational book for anyone interested in to the topic of children’s spirituality. It will help inform and guide the way you read other books on the subject, and the way you approach spirituality with children.
I am not a poet, but sometimes I wish I was. I often find myself wanting but unable to use words to describe my emotions or reactions to a situation. Throughout the day last Friday, as the tragic story from Sandy Hook Elementary unfolded, I found myself filled with grief and disbelief. Such tragic stories often spring in us a yearning to do something to help. Yet, thousands of miles and hearts away, we are limited in our options for immediate action. Wishing I had words to put to my emotions, I turned to tears and something that is almost as natural to me as tears, words I have repeated hundreds of times throughout my life growing up in a Lutheran church, “Lord, we commend all for whom we pray, trusting in your mercy…” These words, so simple, yet so profound connect me to a larger narrative, the narrative that is our story here on earth, a story in which pages and pages are filled with unspeakable tragedy, insurmountable grief, and unimaginable pain.
So what do we do when something like this wakes us up to the reality of that narrative? When problems like where to get last-minute Christmas gifts and what to serve on Christmas dinner, go from heavy on our mind to trivial? When fear, grief, and sadness break into our everyday lives in a shocking way?
People have many different opinions on how we should react and many are more than willing to share those opinions in blunt ways through any outlet possible. I am not here to dismiss or embrace any of those opinions, and I realize the importance of taking this time to reevaluate and ultimately look for actions to prevent such occurrences. Though, I sometimes wonder if quick and mighty reactions to promote a platform or a sweeping social change have behind them some motivation to mask the pain, ignore the bigger story that we, as powerful and in control as we sometimes feel and want to be, are indeed powerless to stop the earthly narrative that inevitably involves despair.
The season of Advent has something to offer us in light of our stark wake up call to this reality. All too often we want to jump right past Advent to the joy of Christmas. Yet, in doing so we miss out on a deeper more complete experience of our narrative. Despair is a part of the story, but it is not the end of the story.
This Advent season we are joined to…
the Israelites who suffered in captivity in Egypt and Babylon
the parents whose young children were ordered by King Herod to be killed during the time of Jesus’ birth
the families ripped apart in war torn countries
the people who mourn the loss of loved ones
and the parents, teachers, children, and families who will never forget and will be forever marked with the tragedy from Dec. 14th 2012.
We are joined to them not because we know exactly how they feel, but because we share together in an ultimate narrative of humanity.
We join them all in longing for the day when the despair will end. On Christmas we get a glimpse of the end of that despair, knowing that one day we will be reconciled to our Father, freed from our pain. Yet we still wait and long for the day when Jesus will come again, to wipe away every last tear from our eyes. So this season we to hug our children, enjoy time with our families, celebrate the season, but with hope we also mourn, we groan, and we yearn, with all of creation for the ultimate rest from it all.
Overall thoughts on Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity
When the conference ended Thursday afternoon I headed to the National Mall to do some sightseeing, and debrief from the long week.
I was struck with the various conversations I had throughout the week; many of the comments were from different people were similar. Most people did not have a negative critique about the conference, but there was a general sense that it was lacking something they were hoping to find. I felt the same way. While there were many great speakers and a wonderful variety of topics, I was hoping for more.
I did take away some good nuggets. The opportunity to hear from many people in the field who have shaped the way I look at children’s ministry was a gift. Unlike other conference experience, I left feeling like I was not alone in the way I think about children and faith. I was among a wonderful group of people from around the country and world asking the similar questions and wrestling with similar themes. I came away with a lot of great quotes and one-liners. The major themes key guests presented on provided me with a good framework from which to wrestle with where to go from here.
The majority of the presentations that lasted from 18 minutes to 1.5 hours turned into inspirational speeches using statistics and research reports to help us all gain a similar understanding. This was not new information or new sentiments for many of us. If the conference was shaped around the understanding that most participants were already in that place, we could have moved the conversation to a deeper level. What I felt many people were wanting was a space to dialogue with one another about how to take the research, statistics, and philosophies to transform the way children and youth experience church of today. A “where do we go from here” opportunity. This came out it statements like “I was hoping for something more radical” and “We know all the statistics, but what do we do from here?”
That is much harder said than done. One struggle in ministry with young people right now is that we know the statistics about how they are leaving the church, we know overall negative sentiments towards Christians in the United States today, we know that church has become like the new country club which feeds into the culture, instead of a community of faith that challenges, impacts, and questions the culture. We know all these things, but we don’t know what to do about it.
This is reflected in the way the conference was put together. I was struck as I sat through the first worship service, and then the first day of presentations. The planning team was made up of incredibly creative people doing new great things in ministry, and yet the actually planning around worship and the structure of the conference lacked the same creativity. We talked all week about experiential worship and yet didn’t experience much. We talked about the importance of sharing story, and there was no formal space for the participants to share and hear other participant’s stories. The need for this was evident when the question time after the keynote presentations, turned into a sharing time. It was designed for us to gleam inspiration from these big names in the field, but people used it as a platform to share their stories, which indicated to me, a need for a space within the conference for that to happen. I found myself blessed to hear from the few who did take the microphone as an opportunity to tell the group something they did or experienced.
The very conference where we were talking about doing something new, was done in a very old way. If it had been shaped around the values that were being preached, it would have looked a lot different.
I walk away somewhat sad, thinking about what could have been. It could have been a place for us to live out among people who think the same way as us, the very things we all dream about. It could have been a place to practice and experiment in an encouraging environment.
And yet, I think this experience defines the struggle of where we are at in the church. We believe in a God that is bigger than the box we have put him in. We believe in a way of life that does not play into our individualism and consumerism. We believe that the church in the United States is broken. We believe that our young people deserve more. And yet here is a disconnect between what we believe and what we do. We are so socialized into the culture we live in, it is hard to turn our beliefs into our reality.
Ff those of us who have dedicated our careers and lives to young people in the church, who read books by Ivy Beckwith for the joy of it, who fly to DC for a conference like this, struggle on where to go from here, it is that much harder for the people sitting in the pews.
While I leave longing for what could have been in the four long days spent in DC with an incredible group of people, I leave with hope and excitement for what can be. While we aren’t there yet, God is working and I am excited to be a part of that work alongside a great fellowship of faithful people.
Day 3 was filled was an inspiring day for me at the conference. Though I am going on little sleep and a brain full of mush, I left filled with energy and excitement. That said, I resoluted to sit down and write a summary of the various things I heard today and as I tried to put words down, I couldn’t think of any. My brain is working a little slower than my heart, so I hope to summarize more clearly when I have had time to process the vast amounts of information.
I do want to briefly touch on the panel discussion that ended our night. The discussion included Almeda Wright, John Westerhoff, Brian McClaren, Ivy Beckwith, and Melvin Bray. The topic was violence. The panelists shared with us their various opinions primarily focused on how we deal with violence in the Bible as well as the concept of redemptive violence.
Brian McClaren helped to put a framework for understanding violence and peace in the Bible. He stressed the danger in picking Bible verses and using them as “loaded guns” and the fact that interpretation of the Biblical text shapes how we understand violence and peacemaking in the light of Jesus. He talked about desire leading to violence using text from James 4.
Almeda Wright explained her uncomfortability with our focus on redemptive violence and elevating suffering at the hands of violence as a means for redemption.
Brian followed that up with the theory of penal substitutionary atonement and how that plays into what Almeda was describing as a negative connotation of redemptive violence.
John Westerhoff reminded us that the language we use is important to describe. What one person means when they say violence or peace making, is different than another.
All of this brought up some really good thoughts and questions from participants. Unfortunately, time was short and there was not a lot of time to discuss what this all means when we talk about the faith formation of children and youth. One important sentiment held by many is that we must talk about it more.
I left with a lot of questions. My questions mainly stem from violence in the Bible and how we create dialogue with children in an age appropriate way to address issues of violence. As I said in an earlier post, kids are not sheltered from a world of violence, even ones living in middle class suburbia. Whether it is from the news, from video games, from cartoons, and from eye witness accounts, kids are faced with violence. It comes out in the art I see them do in Sunday school. So we can address it or ignore it. We tend to lean on the side of ignoring it.
I think that can start with engaging a conversation when we see the violence come out in what children draw, say our write. Ask questions. Invite them to think about where God is in the midst of it.
When and where do we teach Bible stories and at what age? I wonder if we do things a backwards. Often the primary experience children have in the faith community is in a classroom learning Bible stories. The stories are presented in different ways utilizing reading, teacher lecture, storytelling, drama, music and more. Whatever way it is packaged, they are learning the story. Rarely do kids engage in practices of the faith, rarely are those practices modeled. Rarely do they experience the narrative of the faith community in which they are part of, losing out on the chance to somewhat intrinsically understand the rituals and rhythms that make up that community and the lives of the members of that community. And many of them come from homes where church is compartmentalized, it is just another activity on the calendar filled with sports and extra curricular activities, a full schedule gearing that child up for “success.”
Without the framework of a community of faith in which children are immersed in the God’s story, not only as we know it in the Bible, but also God’s story unfolding today, are the Bible stories left stagnate? In order to meet our need to teach Bible stories, we turn stories like Noah’s Ark, which begins as a story of the destruction of humans, into a story appropriate for preschoolers with cute animals and silly songs.
So maybe that works when they are young, but when those kids grow up, they haven’t had the chance to wrestle with a God that wipes out almost the entire human race and later says things like “love your enemies.” I know many adults who struggle to read the Bible because when they read stories like I read this morning in Acts 5 about about Ananias and Saphria dropping dead and there is a disconnect between what their Sunday school teachers told them to believe about God and what they read in the scripture. They are missing the bigger narrative in which to interpret and wrestle with those stories.
That leaves many people with a few options…stop reading the Bible, only read Biblical passages that “fit” what we want to hear or that are easy, or stop believing in this God that is supposed to be good, but is the main character in a book that is filled with violence.
And so I wonder….
What if we started children out not with just learning Biblical stories, but by being immersed into a faith community that offers a framework for wrestling with those stories? What if the primary focus wasn’t on kids “knowing” God’s story, but “being” part of God’s story?
It has been a long day so I will end the night with a few quotes and themes from the day, and hopefully expound on my thoughts later.
My interpretations from inside the walls of Calvary Baptist Church today:
Themes that came up several times today:
-The power of story and rituals for shaping a community as well as individuals of faith
-The value of pan-generational worship
-We don’t play enough
Quotes or key points:
From Catherine Marseca
“Children have a faith in God that we can nurture, but must not control.”
From Christopher Rodkey
Does religious education invite our youth to leave church? Have taught them the sanctuary is an adult space?
The church is one particular place in our society when generations come together and experience empathy building between one another. Children have an innate sense of empathy that we essentially unteach them. Pan generational opportunities allow us all the space to experience and practice that empathy.
From Cathy Ode:
Play is: inviting, engaging, creative, memory making, safe, and community enhancing.
Play is stifled by: Being too serious, a happy clappy approach, shame, and entertainment.
Enthusiasm translated means “Full of God” or “God within”
From Dr. John Westerhoff
We need communities of faith in place of institutions of religions.
Communities have: a common story, a common authority, common ritual and common life.