Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What Do We Believe This July 4?

As we approach July 4, one of the “holy” days of American civil religion, some random comments on where we are in this ever unfolding contemporary religious dimension to the American society:

As noted before in this blog, I deeply care about and am thankful for the United States of America and believe we should dedicate ourselves once again to vigorous participatory democracy. In order to do so as members of various faith communities in this pluralistic society, it is important to understand that as Robert Bellah wrote in his groundbreaking article in Daedalus in 1967, “while some have argued that Christianity is the national faith…few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-instituted civil religion in America…[that]requires the same care in understanding that any other religion does”

I have been studying American civil religion (ACR) for well over 30 years now and have written extensively on the subject. But it keeps changing! It is not a dead religion. Lately I have wondered if we in the United States do not rather have an American corporate religion, as the power struggles between the U.S. government and BP would attest.

Each time I work with groups of people, whether students or congregational adult forums, I use a discovery method so that people are engaged in their own learning. We list the various elements of a religion listed around the room on chalk board or paper: Holy Days, Shrines, Holy Writ, Hymns, Symbols, Saints, Martyrs, Priests, Prophets, Rituals, Creeds, Gods. Participants fill in what they have seen in the world around them. ACR is indeed our “other faith” which shapes and forms what we believe every day. Over the years participants have suggested I add the categories of “Missions” and “Ecclesiology/Church”

Two weeks ago in Wartburg Seminary’s one-week intensive course, “The Church as Learning Community,” students, added some of their own ideas from summer of 2010 (By the way, the views in this post are my own. The class was a wonderful group of people with diverse views...I simply wanted to share some of their ideas and show you their picture!):
Mission: To spread our form of democracy
God: “happiness” (there are a lot of books, videos, etc out of happiness right now, perhaps because this is time of fear and uncertainty)
Creed: The Creed, “In Debt We Trust” has been shaken to the core
Ecclesiology/Church: Cell phones and Face Book
Shrines: Malls, banks, Arlington National Cemetery
Prophets: Sarah Palin (the list is usually all male) and Sarah Palin wannabes

Actually Sarah Palin was shown on the cover of Newsweek as “Saint Sarah” last week theorizing that the Christian right, long a group that confuses its brand of civil religion with its brand of Christianity, melding them together in a religious patriotism, is poised to become a women’s movement. By “feminist,” however, these women do not mean a movement of liberation and shared partnership of women and men working for global peace and justice, but a “kind of submissive, pretty, aw-shucks demeanor with a fiery power, a spiritual warfare.” (Newsweek, p.37)

Is there room for “Repentance” in American civil religion? Shame? Jonathan Kozol‘s recent book The Same of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, chronicles the educational gap in educational opportunities among rich and poor, black and white. But repentance?

Shame? The misnaming and missing of bodies at the holy “shrine” of Arlington National has been called a shame.

Where are we this July 4th? Where are you? These are random thoughts, hardly comprehensive of all the news, all the beliefs, all the "holy" shrines and hymns. Do we believe in "Freedom" as an icon? Is it "my" own independence that I worship? But don't we really need to be interdependent? And surely our belief in the corporate world to take complete care of our needs, particularly the needs of the poor has been shaken. In fact globally, decisions are usually not made on the basis of what is good for the needs of most of the poor of the world, but what is good for the corporation.
So, where are our gods? What do we hold dear? What beliefs and creeds hold us? What holds us together as a nation? What holds our attention?

And, in the midst of it all, what do the radical creeds of a radical Gospel of cross and resurrection empower us to do as we seek to serve all people in God’s created and hurting world?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It's Not That I Don't Like Children's Sermons...

A friend recently asked what I might recommend on children's sermons from a theological perspective and how to engage children in worship more as opposed to the three minute stint up front.

I responded: First of all, I'm glad you are asking and not just making assumptions that: l) Of course we should have children’s sermons; 2) The goal is to have "our" cute kids in front of the church; or even 3) It's the only way to keep kids interested in going to church.

I would begin by asking about the nature of the worshipping community. And I would also ask, as I do in the book, The Ministry of Children's Education, "Who is the child?" and "Whose is the child?" The first question would move you to a conversation about God and the body of Christ and how all members, small and large, are active participants and not mere spectator or audience. (As you know, many adults "enjoy" the children's sermon because they like the amusement factor when a child answers an abstract question in a concrete way.)

Thinking positively, beginning with the nature of the worshipping community opens the doors wide to creatively thinking about the ways people of all ages and abilities can be involved in praying, praising, hearing and speaking the Word of God, and serving and being empowered for ministry in daily life. I have seen congregations--maybe your own--do that. Like the young girls who play chimes beautifully at Bethel Lutheran Church in Aurora, CO, here having fun on the sanctuary steps before the service. I have seen children and adults serving as ushers together. I heard the most clear and moving proclamation of the Word when a 12-year-old, with good preparation, read the lessons. I have worshipped from folders with colorful covers individually designed by the young children. I have seen a child in a wheel chair bring forth the bread for communion. I have been fed by my own sons at the altar on their confirmation day years ago.

And, coming from the other direction, I would love to talk with an education committee about how the pastor(s) can be engaged with children around the Bible at other times than on the altar steps on Sunday morning. I know, I know, they are busy. But, too busy to teach the children the Bible? "Let the little children come to me" and I'm too busy? Recently, on my way home from Colorado, I was with Pastor Randy Fett in Grand Island, Nebraska. He serves a 2000 member ELCA congregation. It was midweek and he spent the morning engaged with the texts for the upcoming Sunday, first with children from the day care center and pre-school.
He used not just the story from the Gospel, but also the Psalm. No story line there. But he and the children with their whole bodies lived out the praise of the Psalm. Later he and I met with some of the oldest members of the congregation and engaged the same texts. Or, more clearly, the texts engaged us. We carry the Word and the Word carries us. Here was the wisdom of the ages, the pain and joy, and the still unanswered questions, from the same text in the same church on the same morning. We are called to engage and be engaged by the scriptures by all the people all week along. That is the joyful challenge to which we as a congregation and its councils and committees are called.

Having broadened the question from both directions, I then come back to the more narrow subject. It's not that I was avoiding your question. I answer by not taking the beloved practice of children's sermons away from people, but by helping them experience that as only a small part of the potential of children's ministry, all ministry, in the church. Yes, I have seen children gathered around the pastor sharing the text for the day while the congregation listened on. It's not that I don't like children's sermons. I just don't like children's sermons done badly.

Here's where I come back to the "Who is the Child?" and "Whose is the Child?" questions and some rubrics I have for children's sermons.
1. They need to be grounded in the Word of God, not just lightly connected through some cute story. Here's where I find books on children's sermons can be counter-productive. I think it is difficult to prepare a children's sermon. One should spend a great deal of work on it. Too often it's just an afterthought. There are, of course, pastors who deeply care and carefully prepare.

2. Those who give children's sermons need to be and become theologically educated. That means pastors need ongoing growth theologically. And it certainly means that theologically trained leaders, pastors, diaconal ministers, deaconesses, associates in ministry, need to be working with any lay people who are preparing children's sermons. I believe this about ongoing theological education for and with those with teaching ministries in the congregation as well, of course.

3. The name: “Children's sermon” implies children don't listen to the "real" sermon. And there are those adults who proudly say "I got the most out of the children's sermon." "Children's time" assumes that's the only time the pastor or caring adults spend with children, or that being in front is the only place of worship. So, name? Maybe the problem with the name reveals the problem with the concept.

4. All of the above has been speaking to "Whose is the child?" Certainly the child is a person created by God, beloved by Christ and filled with the Spirit. The child does not belong to the parent. The child, all children, are children of the whole congregation. And seeing children as special enough to be seen and heard in church is very important. I do not mean to diminish that. Likewise the caring congregation needs always to be reaching out to children from the neighborhood and beyond. How does our comprehensive ministry of the Word do that? And how does the place of the child in Sunday worship do that?

5. "Who is the child" asks the very, very important developmental question. The fact that I have come to that last means it is not of least but of utmost importance. I think it would be great for those who work with education and worship to take time to learn more about child development, particularly about concrete reasoning and abstract concept. And, while you are at it, talk about the problems with asking, "Guess what I'm thinking" questions. This kind of adult education would be helpful for the whole range of ministry among children.