Did you go to Sunday School? If so, what do you remember from it?
I have some early impressions. I remember the smell and taste of rich butter cookies–the kind in the shape of daisies–which were the snack most Sundays. I remember the smooth, pretty pastel wooden chairs that were just the right size for pint-sized bodies. The next distinct memory I have from Sunday School is later in 4th grade, I think, when we learned about the Christian martyrs who ate live coals instead of denying that Jesus was Lord. “Lordy,” to quote the former FBI Director this week, I could never have been a Christian then!
And finally, I remember Mrs. Dearborn, one of my Sunday School teachers, who I thought was just the coolest lady. She was a social worker, the only one of my friends’ moms who worked outside the home, back in the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s. Their house was a jumble of books and magazines and who knows what else, with a carton full of kittens born to one of their cats. We got our cat Misty from them. Virginia Dearborn was probably the only Democrat I knew then, and I thought she was awesome.
Research into how we learn to be Christian, into “Christian Education,” if you will, reveals that children remember relationships and feelings from early Christian Education experiences, and precious little “content.” That was certainly true in my experience. It is only as we get older that we can begin to explore specific content, by studying the Bible in groups or reading or listening to sermons. AND by participating in intentional Christian community and engaging in service to others.
So, I thought we might take this opportunity today to just get a glimpse of what we offer to the children in our midst through the curriculum A Joyful Path. I invite you to think about what difference it might have made if your introduction to Christianity were more like this, as well as how we might reinforce and affirm for our children what it means to be on this Joyful Path.
This curriculum comes out of the Center for Progressive Christianity and is described as “behavior over belief curriculum [that] is non-dogmatic, inter-spiritual, and heart centered. The stories it uses are derived from the Bible, legends of Christian saints, adapted from folktales, from biographies, and a few original tales. It takes seriously recent Biblical and archaelogical research, as well as recent studies in psychology, particularly Positive Psychology. It also takes seriously the world in which our children are growing up, one full of diversity and pluralism, that is interconnected through social and other media, where both beauty and horror are readily available, where science is seen as a partner in dialogue, on a planet that is increasingly endangered. It’s not your mother or father’s – or even your– Sunday School curriculum.
Psalm 8, which Scott just read for us, is a hymn of praise to God, who is sovereign over and in all things and who “created” human beings in God’s image, wondrous and remarkable. The ending of Matthew’s gospel, which was our gospel lesson, includes Jesus’ commandment to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, teaching them all I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you always.” It is around these two great ideas–who is God and who are we in relationship to God, and what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus–that A Joyful Path is organized. Along the way, affirmations help kids and adults remember important truths.
So, behavior over belief. How does a disciple of Jesus act? What do they do? A fundamental affirmation here is “The light that was in Jesus shines in me and around me.” Others include, “I find my true self when I put others first.” “My heart and hands are willing and ready to try.” Through service I can share my love and energy and feel connected to all.” “In stillness, I experience the peace of spirit and know my true self.” “I am patient and calm in all I do.” “I feel for inner guidance before I act.” “I choose to fill my heart and mind with goodness.” “My success is measured in happiness and peace within.” “I meet life’s challenges with inner strength and courage.” “I wish only blessings for all.” “I am a part of all creation.” “I know that the universe can do great and small things through me.” “My true self is deathless and changeless. I am secure in unconditional love, light, and joy.”
All of these are taught with stories, role plays, open-ended questions, and games. Imagine if all the children, youth, and adults in our community acted this way, putting all these affirmations into practice. Imagine the light radiating from this community on Hillside St.!
This is possible because it flows out of our understanding of God. “God is everywhere, within me and around me.” Remember that from Rally Day last September? Right from the get-go, God is not a separate being, far off, “up there,” male, utterly apart from me. God is beyond names or images. What difference might that have made in your life? “God is everywhere, within me and around me.”
God is divine energy. It took me 50 years to get to that point. “Divine energy flows through me,” the Joyful Path affirms. “I will remember God is within me and all others”– sometimes we need reminders of that, don’t we? So we can post notes or program alerts on our computers or cell phones–”God is within me and all others.” “My heart is connected to spirit through prayer”–not an addressing of a far-off, controlling deity, but immersing oneself in the presence of the Divine. “All of nature holds the beauty and presence of Spirit.” “The whole world is home, and we are a divine family.”
“O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!…When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”
A Joyful Path does not set our children up to believe they are the most important creatures in the universe, nor does it ignore the difficulties and challenges of life. It affirms that our true selves are part of something greater; that we can learn from our mistakes–”I can grow and learn through all experience”; and that our true selves are “deathless and changeless.” As the adults who have vowed in the baptism of our children to support and teach them on their journeys, we would do well to take in and learn these signposts along the way. I’ve imagined actual signs or markers posted around our church building with these affirmations written on them, to remind not only ourselves and our children, but also the many visitors who use our building, what it means to be on the Joyful Path which Jesus taught.
We know the journey is not always joyful, or at least it does not always feel good. We know that suffering, hardship, failure, disappointment, sorrow, and death are also parts of the journey. But we also know that we do not have to make the journey alone; that we are connected to one another, to the whole human family, to all of nature, and to God through Spirit and energy, light and love; that God has in fact walked this journey before and continues to walk beside us. “Lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age.” The joy of that knowledge and the abundance of that life are deeper than any sorrow or deprivation. So may we walk the Joyful Path together, with our children and with each other, with the whole world. So may God’s kingdom come.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark