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Forbid Them Not Involving Children in Sunday Worship
Based on the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C
By Carolyn C. Brown
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1994 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ADVENT FROM A CHILD'S POINT OF VIEW
The church year officially begins with a very adult season—Advent. During Advent we await and get ready for One who has already come—a rather strange thing to do, from a child's point of view.
As adults we can speak of God's kingdom which came in Christ and is yet to come in its fullness. We can celebrate the coming of the Child in the manger and ask how fully we welcome Jesus and his message into our hearts today. But those who study child development tell us that until the age of eight or nine, children have great difficulty in comprehending time. So to talk about a king who came, who is coming, and who will come is talking nonsense.
It is tempting to avoid such difficulties and have the children simply count down the days until Christmas, make decorations, and prepare gifts. But this passes over the real meaning of the season, some of which can be presented to children.
Children can hear the stories of people who waited for Jesus. They can celebrate Ruth, the outsider who was an ancestor of Jesus. They can hear John's insistence that all people work together to make the world a more loving place while they wait for Jesus. They can bask in the prophetic promises that God will always love and care for them—will even come to live with them. Each of the lections for the season has a message children can appreciate when it is appropriately presented to them.
In addition, the candles, evergreens, flowers, and special music of Advent can speak to children in the language of feelings and senses. These things will speak more clearly if we shape them with the children's presence in mind.
We can include the children actively in lighting an Advent wreath during worship. In more formal churches, members of an older children's class can take turns being acolytes (complete with robes) to light the candles, while a teenager or adult reads an appropriate Scripture or meditation. Families can also light the Advent wreath, the entire family coming forward to light the candles and make the statement. (If you use families, be sure to include single-parent families and families of all shapes and sizes.) We can further increase the significance of the Advent wreath by helping families create wreaths to light in their homes. (Many religious bookstores provide orders of family worship for lighting the Advent wreath.)
We can help the children recall the story of biblical waiting and preparation by moving crêche pieces around the sanctuary toward the manger. The pieces can be moved before worship each week, and their movement mentioned in the sermon or Scriptures of the day. Or the pieces can be moved during worship—perhaps as part of a children's sermon.
We can decorate trees with Chrismons. If the congregation already has a Chrismon tree, we can help children learn the meaning of the symbols. We can use the ornaments to make points in sermons, or we can make one ornament the center of attention each week in worship. We can even hang some simple child-made Chrismons on the tree.
We can include the children in the special music of the season. Young instrumentalists can play a carol as the prelude. A children's class can become a one-Sunday choir—even if you do not usually have a children's choir. In a day when religious carols are not taught in many schools, we in the church need to make an extra effort to pass on our musical heritage. The quoting or exploring of verses of carols within the sermon, or the carefully planned introductions to hymns can make congregational singing prime teaching opportunities.
Think about each of the Advent traditions of your church. Which are child-accessible? How could they be more so? The answers to these questions can more often lead to honing what is already being done, than to adding new programming to an already hectic season.
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
From a Child's Point of View
Old Testament: Jeremiah 33:14-16. The child's cry, "But, it's not fair!" reminds us that justice and fairness are big concerns for children. They yearn for teachers, parents, and playmates who are fair. They want just rules for the groups in which they participate and the games they play. They protest vehemently when they sense injustice—especially when it affects them. Therefore Jeremiah's Advent promise—that when God's kingdom comes fully, there will be justice for everyone and a leader who deals with people fairly—is good news for children.
The words of the promise, however, need to be decoded for children. Before the passage is read, Children need to hear that "house of Judah" and "house of Israel" are names for God's people; and that when God made this promise, God's people, being ruled by cruel foreigners, felt as hopeful as an old dead stump. It also helps them to see, or hear described, the possibility of a fresh branch growing from a stump.
Psalm: 25:1-10. This passage is a personal prayer, asking God that I be treated well by others, that God teach me how to live, and that God not remember all my sins and shortcomings. It is a prayer for people of all ages.
Epistle: I Thessalonians 3:9-13. In this loving message to friends in the church at Thessalonica, Paul prays that God will help them love one another and the people beyond their church as much as Paul and God love them. To love others that much is a good Advent challenge for children.
Gospel: Luke 21:25-36. This apocalyptic passage is filled with images that are not easy for children to understand, and an idea (that we should watch and be prepared) that is hard for children to grasp. It is probably best to read the passage for the older worshipers and present the idea for the children during the sermon.
One interpretation of this passage that speaks to children is that some frightening, horrible things happen in human experience, but that God is still in control and will be there for us even after "the worst." Given this, we are called to avoid both (1) worrying too much about the awful things and (2) ignoring the awful things by partying and being self-centered. Instead, we are to remember that God is in control, and we are to live accordingly.
Warning: Do not underestimate the "horrible things" children worry about. At an early age they see television's graphic pictures of war, famine, natural disasters, and the potential for nuclear annihilation. Many see the devastation of divorce in their own families or in those of their friends. More children than we wish have been mugged by older kids and know the fear of participating in the drug culture. Children need to know that God will see them through even these "horrible things." They also need to hear that such things are the products of our imperfect age and that when God's kingdom comes in its fullness, those things will end.
Avoid tribulation, affliction, and other big words that describe suffering. They are obsolete. Instead, use specific, concrete words to describe wars, natural disasters, and personal tragedies.
Be careful about using righteousness. If children have heard the word at all, it has probably been used with a negative connotation, such as self-righteous. Instead, speak about living by God's rules, or take time to explore what righteousness means today.
Children use the word fair before they use justice. Using the words interchangeably will help make the connection between them.
Let the Children Sing
"Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" is filled with difficult, unfamiliar vocabulary. But when it is sung after a sermon about Jeremiah's promise, older children, when encouraged, can find phrases that identify Jesus as the promised "righteous branch."
The words of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" are beyond most elementary-school readers. But the sad, "stumpy" feeling of the music of the verses and the happy, hopeful music of the chorus attract them. Invite even young readers to feel the sad sound of the verses, and then sing along on the simple-to-read happy chorus.
"Song of Hope" offers a straightforward message in words that are easy to read and understand. If the Argentine folk melody is unfamiliar, ask a children's choir or class to sing the hymn at the close of the service.
The Liturgical Child
1. For your worship area, ask someone to create a banner picturing a branch growing out of a stump, with the words of Jeremiah. Or replace the usual flowers with a stump from which a branch is growing. (This may be a real stump into which a seedling or leafed branch has been drilled. Or it may be a potted seedling wrapped with brown paper or burlap to look like a stump.) Refer to this display before reading Jeremiah's promise, urging worshipers to listen for the unusual stump in the reading.
2. In the congregation's prayers, pray for fair teachers, coaches, community leaders, and government officials. Also, ask for God's wisdom to see unjust situations at home, at school, on the job, and in the community, and for God's courage to do what we can to change them. Ask the choir to sing "Lead Me, Lord, in Thy Righteousness" (a paraphrase of Psalm 25:4-5) as a choral call to this prayer.
3. Psalm 25 is best understood and claimed when it is read in its original responsive form from a translation such as Today's English Version, the Good News Bible. So invite the congregation (or half the congregation) to read verses 1-7, with the understanding that they are "I." A worship leader (or the other half of the congregation) then can assume the priest's part and read verses 8-10 to assure the worshipers that God wants the same things for them.
4. One effective use of the Epistle passage would be to recite verses 12 and 13 from the Good News Bible as the charge and benediction with which worship concludes.
1. Even if you do not use the Worship Worksheets, challenge children to draw a picture of an unjust or unfair situation and a picture of the same people in the same situation acting justly or fairly. Provide blank space on the worship bulletin or suggest using the back of a pew card. Invite them to share the pictures with you as they leave the sanctuary. Take time to learn what caused the difference in the two pictures.
2. Everyone likes stories in which seemingly hopeless situations come to a happy ending. The beast in Beauty and the Beast felt hopelessly trapped by the spell that could be broken only when a woman loved him. Kevin, accidentally left behind by his family in Home Alone, had to defend himself and his home from robbers. Jeremiah promises that one day God will bring all the unfair, seemingly hopeless situations in our world to fair, happy solutions. (Beauty and the Beast is the richer example because two people must learn to love before the situation is resolved.) Both videos are available in video rental stores and many public libraries.
Color each space that has a dot in it to fill in the missing word.
Today we begin the season of_________.
This is a season for justice.
Draw a picture of people doing something unjust or unfair.
Now change your picture to make it fair.
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
From a Child's Point of View
Old Testament: Malachi 3:1-4. Malachi spoke harshly to people who expected God to endorse whatever they were doing. He warned of the coming of a messenger who would bring "strong soap" and "refiner's fire." Today's soap (except some shampoo) seldom burns, and few children have experience with refiner's fires. But children do know that hurting is sometimes part of healing and that discipline leads to strength. Medicine that stings, painful therapy for a broken bone, and sport disciplines teach them this. Still, Malachi's idea that God may come as a demanding coach or teacher, rather than as a supportive, somewhat indulgent parent, may be new to children. So explain that Malachi's message means that to be fully God's people, they must be disciplined and obedient to God. Point out specific disciplines such as attending worship and church school, obeying God's rules, practicing peacemaking, and seeking justice every day. Challenge the children to choose an Advent discipline.
OR Baruch 5:1-9. While Malachi spoke harshly when he told people to change their ways, this poet called people to change with an offer of hope. The image of changing dresses in verses 1-4 is the easiest for children to understand. They need to hear lots of specific examples of how people feel and act when they are dressed in sorrow and distress, and how those who are wrapped in God's saving justice feel and act. The translation of the New Jerusalem Bible suggests some of these examples (e.g., the names given in verse 4).
Gospel: Luke 3:1-6. Child-development experts have found that children cannot interpret symbolic imagery until late childhood or even early adolescence. This means that calls to fill in the valleys, bring the hills low, and make crooked paths straight can sound like calls to massive construction projects. Even children who sense that these calls are not to be taken literally need help to convert them into sensible calls to repentance. One way to help is to provide parallel examples from everyday life (e.g., straighten out your life, live by God's rules, treat others more kindly).
Epistle: Philippians 1:3-11. While John the Baptist and Malachi speak harshly to people who need to repent, Paul writes to encourage people who are repenting. Paul gives repentance a good name and feel. He indicates that all Christians are always repenting, and he offers those who repent his love and support in their efforts. Use this passage to help children understand repentance as a positive, lifelong activity for Christians, as individuals and as congregations.
Today's Psalm: Luke 1:68-79: Children's interest in this prayer is based more on context than content. They are curious about the old priest who did not believe the angel who promised him and his elderly wife a baby and consequently was struck speechless until the promised child was born. They can imagine his silent excitement as he waited for the birth of the two special babies in his family and appreciate his burst of praise when John was born and his speech returned. They do have trouble following Zechariah's praises, filled with abstract words and Old Testament images. When they know Zechariah's story and are urged to listen for prayers about Jesus and about John, older children can catch occasional phrases.
They key word is repent. Be sure the children understand the difference between being sorry about something and repenting. We can be sorry about failing a spelling test because we did not study. But when we repent, we make time to study so we can pass the test next week. It is easy to be sorry we cannot get along with a difficult person at school or at work. But when we repent, we work to improve our relationship with that person.
Let the Children Sing
A good choice is "Lord, I Want to Be a Christian."
"Open My Eyes, That I May See" and "Take My Life and Let It Be Consecrated" have some difficult vocabulary. But their references to "using our bodies to repent" make them understandable to children.
Excerpted from Forbid Them Not Involving Children in Sunday Worship by Carolyn C. Brown. Copyright © 1994 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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