27 May 2012

preparation through celebration

The Godly Play lesson of the Circle of the Church Year presents a concept which I had never heard before - that just as Advent helps us get ready for Christmas and Lent for Easter, so Eastertide helps us get ready for Pentecost. Eastertide is simultaneously a time of celebration and a time of preparation.

Preparation through celebration - what a gorgeous thought.

I have heard people puzzle or even fret over the fact that Advent is not a season of fasting nowadays. But the folks at Busted Halo revel in the richness of the differences between Advent and Lent: Advent is about Hope, not Repentance, they sayAnd how delicious it is to think that we prepare for Pentecost with celebration.

Sheila (of Explore and Express) and I have celebrated Eastertide this year with a series of guest posts. Our final one is coming soon, but in the meantime I'd like to share a photograph from my friend, "see-through faith". In addition to her regular blog she has a photo blog, where her goal is to post a photo a day and to "find God" in it. One recent photo was of a seasonal table display, which instantly made me think of  seasonal displays that my blogging friends have created - including Sheila's nature tables and Emily's displays marking the church year (such as this wonderful Ordinary Time collection of everyday green objects). Can you guess what the difference is between their displays and this one?

photo by see-through faith - a larger version can be seen here

This one wasn't in a private home but in a church building! Isn't it sweet? It's "homely" in the British sense ("homey" for Americans). Charming! It's from the Bakewell Methodist Church, home to  Matthew Loader, who wrote a series of guest posts for me last month.

My friends, whether your Eastertide celebration has been simple and sweet, solemn and grand, or felt cursory, dry, or difficult, I pray for you a joyful Pentecost.

Here's Busted Halo's Pentecost in two minutes video. 
[I posted about their Advent one here and their Lenten one here.]

26 May 2012

doing fine

Thanks to the several of you who have commented on my post-about-not-doing-any-more-Godly-Play-for-the-foreseeable-future, or written emails. I am fine. In fact, writing that post really seemed to help me process my feelings (as did packing the room up so slowly and then walking home). I want to reiterate that I was as much to blame as anyone else for the lack of communication involved. And I alone was to blame for not anticipating  (the extent of) the emotional impact that our plans (to be away for the coming year) would have on me. And I am solely, exclusively, and certainly to blame for the way in which I seem to be unable to write about this without using really convoluted syntax and roundabout phrasings!

I'm very grateful for the support of commenters, emailers, and lurkers alike (since you lurkers are not completely hidden - I can see reports of the number of hits my site has received). I have no immediate plans for much topical shift in this blog. The pace of my blogging may slow. But there are so many half-finished draft posts in my blogger account that I'm sure I should be able to carry on posting for some time even though I won't be leading Godly Play in the weeks and months ahead.

Telling the story of the Holy Family.

20 May 2012

Eastertide guest post - Beulah Land Bible Stories

This post's author is Margaret Pritchard Houston, Families Pastor for St. George's Church, Campden Hill (in Kensington, in London). As well as writing about children's ministry for the Church of England and Diocese of London, she maintains a blog about her work at St. George's: For All the Saints. If you follow that blog already, you'll have seen her photo of the St. George's Play and Pray area on Easter Sunday this year (I've reproduced it here, on the right.)

Is your eye, like mine, immediately drawn to that Easter image of Christ victorious standing before Martha at the empty tomb?

These are not the flannel-graph materials from the Sunday School of my childhood. So I asked Margaret to introduce them and give us a feel for what it's like to work with them.

I need to begin with a confession.  This is not an entirely objective review – my mother developed the Beulah Land storytelling materials, and I grew up using them, travelling with her to workshops and handing her the pieces she needed to tell the stories.

But this post is based not on childhood memories but on my own experiences using them in my own ministry at St. George’s Church, Campden Hill, in London.

What is Beulah Land?

Beulah Land are storytelling kits made out of felt pieces.  They are similar to the “Fuzzy Felt” toys popular in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  The full Beulah Land range consists of five different sets, which together contain everything you need for the Old and New Testament stories.  Our church owns sets 1 and 2 – these have, with the addition of a few pieces I made myself, been sufficient for a full year’s worth of storytelling, both Old Testament and New, but not as good as if I had all five sets.  I hope to buy sets 3 and 4 in the next few years.

The sets require self-assembly.  They come with all the pieces marked out on felt, and assembly instructions.  They also come with storytelling scripts and extensive notes on children’s understanding of Bible stories, which helps in guiding lesson planning.  The patterns of the pieces are also sent with your kit, so that if you lose a piece, you can remake it.

There is a full Beulah Land Curriculum handbook available, which contains worship outlines and activities for each story.  This is available separately.

What are the pros of using Beulah Land?

The first, and most important, positive aspect of Beulah Land is that the children respond to it with depth and imagination.  I leave the Beulah Land feltboard up after I finish telling the story each week, and the children have the option of playing with it.  I’ve seen children from toddlers to early teenagers engage with it, using the pieces to create their own landscapes and narratives, engaging with Biblical symbolism and imagery in a hands-on, child-led way.  Also, it provides a powerful visual vocabulary of Bible stories, which the children then use in their own artwork.  The library of images is broader and richer than the standard trinity of “heart, cross, Christmas scene” which is the limit of much of the popular imagination of Christian imagery.  Beulah contains a two-dimensional, easily replicated series of symbols for children to draw on in expressing their own spirituality and their own understanding of the Bible – altar and flame, dove, fruit trees, river, snake, desert, mountain, city, stars, moon, boats, pillar of cloud, storm clouds and lightning, fish, birds, water, and much more.  This is not to say that children slavishly copy the pictures they have been presented with – rather, Beulah Land gives them a wealth of Biblical imagery to play with in developing their own understanding of the stories, and it gives them ideas on how to portray these images in their own work.  How often has a child in your group come to you and said “I want to draw X but I don’t know how”?  Beulah Land gives them a starting point, freeing them to express their own creativity.  When I use Beulah Land with a group of ten children, I still have ten individual artistic styles.  What I don’t have are ten children coming to me saying “help me draw X, Y or Z.”  (I may still have one or two, but only occasionally – many fewer than I did two years ago when I began.)

Crossing of the Red Sea banner (made independently by a group of children)

Secondly, the scripts accompanying the materials are wonderfully written.  They contain Biblical language that is full of awe and wonder but not inaccessible even to young children.  They are easy to use, with the words and the actions (which pieces to put up and where) next to each other, so there is no flipping between pages while telling the stories.  (Of course, it is best if you memorise the scripts, but that’s not always possible.)  Each script contains a recap of what went before – often starting with “do you remember ...” before filling in the context in which the story occurs.  This can be helpful for children who may have missed the previous week or two, and grounds the story firmly as part of a whole.  The concept of Beulah Land is one of “metanarrative” – the Bible is not a collection of disjointed anecdotes, but a unified whole that begins with “once upon a time” and ends, after great trials and danger, with “happily ever after.”   The stories do not leave out the painful and difficult parts of the Bible, but nor do they linger (as is the unfortunate trend among some Fundamentalist materials, most notably the hideous “Left Behind” books) on gruesomeness for gruesomeness’s sake.

The pieces provide great openings for theological discussions with children.  “Why is God made of two hands and a heart, when nobody really knows what God looks like?” is one question I’ve been asked – leading to a discussion of what God might look like, why hands and a heart might be symbols of the nature of God, the nature of the Incarnation (this started when I said “when God became human in Jesus, he did look a particular way”), and so on.  My mother has reported children wrestling with the concepts of good and evil insisting on the Satan figure staying up through all of Jesus’ ministry – “because he never really went all the way away.”  I’ve overheard children playing with the figures independently placing the prison piece over Adam and Eve, and then Jacob’s ladder above them, explaining “they’re in prison because they’ve been bad, but they’re climbing to heaven.”

Beulah Land can be incorporated with some elements of Godly Play.  The stories leave themselves open for wondering questions, and are told with language that is rich and liturgical.  The storytelling materials are child-friendly.

Beulah Land materials are durable.  Occasionally the glue holding a tree trunk and tree top will fail and you’ll need to make minor repairs, but generally, once you have them, you have them for life.  They are not bulky to store, and they are lightweight.

What are the cons of using Beulah Land?

Unfortunately, at the moment, Beulah Land is only available from the US.  This means that you will need to pay a value-based import tax on them, which necessitates dealing with Parcelforce’s labyrinthine telephone system and spending a few days with your materials held hostage by HMRC before they can be delivered to you.  However, the extra cost is balanced out by the fact that since the dollar to pound exchange rate is favourable at the moment, you’ll make a substantial savings on the materials themselves.

Also, because for some reason, the US and UK use different standard paper sizes, and different numbers of holes in their binders, the storytelling scripts and assembly instructions do not easily fit inside a two-ring binder.  This can be got around by photocopying the materials onto A4 paper and then punching holes in the photocopied sheets.

The pieces do take quite a while, and occasionally some frustration, to assemble.  You can get around this by having a “Beulah Assembly Party” with your Sunday School volunteers, if they’re amenable, or if you have helpful children of your own, you can use unpaid child labour to help you assemble them.

Some of the pieces are quite small, and can get lost.

You have to provide your own feltboard.  These can just be ordinary felt display boards available from any office supply store.  Ours cost approximately £30. 

Cleaning up after a session in which children have played freely with the materials can be time-consuming.  Each tiny fish, every star, each small person, has to be individually taken off the feltboard and put back in its correct place.

What should I do if I want to try it out? 

You can start with the Starter Set, which is $175 (approximately £105).  This will give you four stories – Creation, Noah, Christmas and Easter.  See whether the assembly is easy enough, try out storytelling, and see how your children respond, both in their artwork and in independent play.  If you live in London, you’re welcome to come by St. George’s and visit our Sunday School to see Beulah Land in action.  You can also get in touch if you’re interested in having me come and do a training session with your staff and volunteers.

Thank you so much, Margaret. I had no idea when I suggested this topic what a close connection you had with these materials!   

saying Goodbye

A couple of days ago, one of the others who leads Junior Church texted me to ask if I'd be able to lead this week (I was away last week because of a funeral). I said yes. After church we held an informal "Gathering" at which we discussed upcoming plans, including the future of Junior Church. [Vandriver and I expect to be abroad during the upcoming academic year, and I am the only [adult] Godly Play enthusiast in our congregation (Seethroughfaith being in England at present).]

photo from Beulah Enterprises
I suggested that the others consider two solutions (or a third option, which would be a combination of the first two). One is the Beulah Land curriculum (the subject of our next guest post). The other is to not have any separate Junior Church program, but to set up a "Play and Pray" area during our regular services (here's a good description of the sort of thing I have in mind, and here's my account of the one time we've tried something like this before). We have never managed to continue Junior Church through the summer, and so last year we ended at Pentecost (which came quite late in the calendar then). So I think the congregation will introduce "Play and Pray" across the summer, and order the Beulah Land materials to consider using for autumn.

(last year)
Today's lesson had been the story of the Ascension. The Gospel of Luke closes with this, and has Jesus blessing his disciples as he is taken up into heaven, after which they return to Jerusalem with great joy. But in the opening of Acts, the story is more poignant. They're discussing the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, and just minutes later Jesus is taken up into a cloud. I picture the disciples just staring into the sky in shock, mouths hanging open. Literally. God has to send messengers: Nothing more to see here, folks. Move along now.

I mention this because it suddenly became clear at our Gathering that the consensus was that we'll have no Junior Church after Pentecost this year either. Since next Sunday, Pentecost, will be a Family Service... that meant I had just led the last Junior Church for this year, my last one for at least a year, and possibly the last Godly Play session we'll have. I'm sure it's due to poor communication on my part, but I was caught completely off-guard. I went off to put things away and realized I might as well go ahead and take them home! [Most of the art materials and cleaning materials belong to the church, but I've assembled and paid for all the Godly Play materials myself.]

It was a terribly sad feeling, and all the more difficult because I had been quite unprepared. I obviously hadn't warned the children at all, hadn't explained anything, hadn't said, This may be your last time to work with these materials.

working with Advent materials today

I'll continue to blog. I'll continue to interact with the children at our church whenever I see them, and I'll continue to look for opportunities to lead Godly Play.

But I was glad of the chance to clear the room slowly and then to walk home (leaving Vandriver to follow with the car) - as my time and space in which to say Goodbye to this stage of things and grieve a bit.

(Update: a follow-up post is here)

16 May 2012

guest post postponed

This week I've attended the funeral of the man I wrote about in this post. Like Sarah and then Abraham, he died old and full of years, with family to remember him with stories and love while committing his body back to the dust.

Sheila and I have agreed to delay this week's guest post until Sunday. See you then!

13 May 2012

the feast

I have deliberately scheduled this post to be published some time after it was written, to give it more anonymity. 

(preparing the Communion Elements on the Focal Shelf)

We always have two adults present at our Godly Play sessions, usually only two but always at least two. And usually between two and six children. Together we form the circle, have a lesson and Response Time, then clean up and have our feast. It is usually sometime during the feast that the priest arrives, and when we have finished eating the Godly Play feast the priest gives communion to the adults and individual blessings to the children. Then we sing a song of blessing and the children leave to join their parents at Church Coffee.

This week my adult helper asked the priest if it would be all right to receive a blessing rather than the wafer and wine. The helper explained to me afterwards, It felt wrong to take it again. Because for me today our feast WAS communion!

(napkins for a feast during the Great Green Growing Season)

10 May 2012

Eastertide Guest Post: on the Emmaus Road

Featherglen came up trumps for our (Sheila's and my) Eastertide Guest Post series with not one but two blog posts. I introduced her in yesterday's post, about her Eastertide garden. Today she shares several ways of telling and remembering the story of the Emmaus Road. I appreciate how sensitive she is to the context of worship - the community, the physical location, the resources available. It's wonderful that she's included so many photos (please honor her request, "If you want to use any of them, please be lovely enough to ask me first."). I took the liberty of re-arranging them slightly, dividing the post into an introduction and then three sections.

Although all the accounts of the Resurrection are amazing, one that I particularly love is the appearance of Jesus to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Yes, it is strange that they don't recognise Him - but then they aren't expecting him either - somehow He is the same but different - that's certainly what I'm hoping for myself anyway! What I love is that He doesn't just jump in and shock them and say 'I'm back!' but takes the time to walk with two grieving, wondering men. He walks alongside them, listens to them and then starts to help them put the pieces together. It is only in the breaking of the bread that finally they see Him. It certainly reminds me of my own encounters with Jesus.

For us in L'Arche, it has been a powerful theme, that God walks with us. We have used it on L'Arche retreats, with large wooden figures. When I encountered Godly Play, it seemed like a natural extension of what we do in many ways already.

Also, in L'Arche, every Easter Sunday, we read the story and it is mimed by our core members ( the adults with learning disabilities that form the centre of our Community). We use our long driveway and over the years we have even made a quite permanent looking signpost. I enjoy seeing it when I arrive at L'Arche in the morning, it reminds me of my continuing walk with Christ. I think it could be a great story to do with children, outdoors, along a quiet road.

Earlier this year I also got hold of the book 'Young Children and Worship' by Sonja M. Stewart and Jerome Berryman. It is the forerunner to Godly Play. I was thrilled to discover it has an Emmaus Road story in it. However, being too busy I haven't had the time to really learn it - but after a quick look and drawing on elements of the story I have heard and participated in in so many ways each year - I told it to our family. We just did it after dinner one evening, at the table, which felt appropriate. We did  a quick raid of my son's wooden castle blocks, then used some wooden figures, a bit of bread and a candle (our Christ candle). At the end of the story, instead of wondering, we broke and shared some bread together. And in that simple moment, Jesus walked among us anew. Amen...

09 May 2012

Eastertide guest post - An Eastertide Garden

This week's guest is "Featherglen", one of the early participants in our Lenten link-up. She and her husband both work as members of the L'Arche community in Inverness. Her sidebar list of topics shows her major concerns to be her faith, her family, handicrafts, and the L'Arche Community. Featherglen's life sounds very romantic - living in the Scottish Highlands, married to a French jeweller and gardener, members of an international movement building faith-based communities with people with learning disabilities, supporting them to reach their full potential... yet her writing is honest and down-to-earth.

As a mother, member of a L'Arche Community and a church, Lent can, ironically, turn into a very full time. Although this is usually in a good way, by the time Easter has arrived and been celebrated in various ways, I'm ready for a break. However, despite not growing up in a liturgical tradition, I have grown to appreciate many aspects of such a way of worship, Bible reading, and the sense of celebrations in their appropriate times. This is sometimes also very helpful for the adults with learning disabilities that  are at the heart of L'Arche. Advent and Lent are two very important times of the year for us and we take time to deepen our relationship with God during them. I came across Godly Play when looking for ways to share the biblical story creatively, and it seemed to be instinctively right for us. One story I love in Godly Play is the Circle of the Church Year and as a family we have been very struck that 'You can't keep Easter to just one Sunday, so it keeps on for six more weeks'. I find it very liberating knowing that there's no hurry to celebrate Easter - we have all the time we need!

all photos by Featherglen, please do not re-use without her permission

 In our family we made a 'Lent garden' - a large plate filled with sand and a bare branch, along with a wooden figure of Jesus, representing his time in the wilderness. It sat on our kitchen table and we added a stone each day at dinner time. By Palm Sunday we lifted out the stones, added some soil, then replaced the stones into a path to the bare branch. We sowed some wheatgrass seeds and made a tomb from clay, giving it time to dry out. A cross was added on Good Friday.

On Easter Saturday we added in a another tray of soil for the tomb to sit on, along with a big rock (the wooden figure was placed inside). We sowed some more seeds and added jars and vases of green branches and flowers, as well as Easter candles and some animal figures.

It was all ready and beautiful for Easter Sunday breakfast, with the stone rolled away, the candles lit and Jesus was once more in the beauty of the garden, now transformed from rock and soil, a living image that 'a grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies'.

But this year, instead of keeping it for a week or so as usual, I decided we should try keeping it for the whole of Eastertide. It seems like a simple focus, without too much extra effort, to remind us of the Resurrection. We moved onto a table in our living room, covered with oilcloth. Each week we water it, snip the grass (my son likes this bit) - and feed it to the guinea pig (who is very appreciative!). We gather fresh flowers and leaves. It has been lovely to see a whole range of spring flowers this way and I have been surprised by how well my two boys arrange them. I have a book ( The story of Jesus by Andrea Skevington - I recommend it!) with some good artwork, propped up behind it. From time to time we read the stories of the resurrection, and we have added another figure to the garden - perhaps it is Mary?

I have made Easter gardens before, but this year, having one that stretches all the way from Lent through to the end of Eastertide, is a new expression of our journey with Jesus, that has a nod to Godly Play and a connection with the spring world around us.

Featherglen's written a second post for Sheila and me as well, which will be posted tomorrow. This next post is about the Road to Emmaus.  

02 May 2012

Eastertide guest post: "Baptism"

photo by Markus
This week's guest post is in German! Fortunately, Sheila has translated it into English for us. The writer is Markus, of the Gott im Spiel - Godly Play blog. Having him as a guest blogger reminds us that there are men out there, as well as women, leading Godly Play (David Pritchard is another male writer blogging about Godly Play), and also that Godly Play crosses denominational lines (as I have said here). Markus works in the Roman Catholic church. His blog includes simply beautiful photographs, but Google's machine-translations of his posts are often tantalizingly bizarre:

  • When fathoming it was a boy, the Holy Family so on and found this: Mary and Joseph standing with his back to the crib. (from the post "Jesus in der Pubertät")
  • At the end of a picture ensteht with a steel end "sun" from the twelve brauenn felt strips (previously the house in Jerusalem was praying in the imaginary), at the ends and around which the shields and symbols of male and female disciples are. ("Das Geheimnis von Pfingsten")

What a relief to be able to read him in a proper translation for once! Thank you both, Markus & Sheila.

Die Vorbereitung meiner sechs Jungs (9 Jahre alt), die sich auf ihre erste heilige Kommunion vorbereiten, endete nun. Die letzte Stunde sollte sich mit der Taufe beschäftigen und so die Überleitung für ihr Fest, das sie jetzt in der Osterzeit feiern, sein. I have been preparing six 9-year-old boys for Holy Communion, and our time together has slowly come to an end. In our last class, we covered baptism and with it the transition that they will be celebrating during Eastertide. 

To read the rest, see Markus's baptism materials, and learn what "Holy Star Wars cards" are, click here

preamble to this week's guest blog-post

I wanted to introduce this week's guest post in part by referencing the blogger's denominational identity [Roman Catholic]. But I started including so many links that it was going to distract from the guest post!

You might remember that my guest blogger three weeks ago was a Methodist, and that my congregation is pastored by Lutherans and Anglicans. Did you also know that my sidebar includes blogs by BaptistsEpiscopalians, and the Spanish national children's ministry co-ordinator for the Scripture Union? That the Director of Training for the Godly Play Foundation was a Quaker (Society of Friends)? That before Jerome W. Berryman was ordained an Episcopal priest he was a Presbyterian minister?

We Godly Play folk are a diverse bunch!