Faith Formation with Children

Last week was Pentecost, that time each year when we remember the Holy Spirit coming upon those first believers with a rush of wind and “tongues, as of fire.”

Talking with a three-year-old about the Holy Spirit and Pentecost when she doesn’t fully understand the time-space continuum is tricky, let me tell you. We talked earlier in the week about the Holy Spirit is like the wind, and we made a fan using paper to feel the wind.

And then on Pentecost Sunday we went to church at Mennonite Community Church in Fresno, California. It’s my husband’s home congregation, and my mother-in-law gave the children’s story. She talked about using our five senses as a means to experience the Holy Spirit, and she read the book Sensing Peace, by Suzana E. Yoder, published in 2010 by Herald Press.

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This was one of the first children’s books I edited during my time here at Herald Press, and I continue to marvel at this gem of a book. The gentle cadence of the words, and the lovely illustrations make this a perfect book to talk with children about peace.

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What does peace smell like? What does it taste like? Feel, sound or look like? Through Sensing Peace, children ages 4 to 7 are encouraged to see what peace looks, sounds, feels, tastes and smells like in their everyday moments—things like laughing, cooking, gardening, singing or sharing ice cream.

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While I hadn’t thought of the book before in relation to the Holy Spirit, it’s very appropriate because, just like experiencing peace, we can experience the Holy Spirit through our five senses.

In May I attended an excellent conference in Nashville called Faith Forward. There the plenary speakers—including Bonnie Miller-McLemore, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, Brian McLaren, and Ivy Beckwith—talked about making faith part of everyday life for children. They talked about the importance of connecting with children, about the importance of relationship.

I saw the evidence of Sunday school teachers connecting with children this weekend at First Mennonite Church of Reedley, California, and seeing first-hand how they put many MennoMedia resources into use for the children of their congregation.

The lovely prayer tree below, explained Barbara Ewy, was built over several weeks using boxes and paint. The children kept adding leaves as the weeks went on, with their prayers for global and local concerns. She said the idea was a hit with the children, and they continued the activity far beyond the scope of the session. They got the idea from Kids Can Live Upside Down, part of the Kids Can series for midweek or club settings that MennoMedia produces.  IMG_2639[1] And MennoMedia’s Wee Wonder material, Barbara explained, has worked well for their congregation during the children’s time in their second worship service. Below is a bulletin board with the story cards from Wee Wonder.

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This summer it’s my goal to work more faith practices into everyday learning with my own children. I’m trying to keep it simple, both in terms of supplies and time. Today our faith practice was blowing prayer bubbles. Each time we dipped the bubble wand into the solution, we named someone we wanted to thank God for.

At Faith Forward, I learned of a variety of websites with great ideas to help with this. Here are some sites that I’ve been perusing lately:

  • Building Faith: Part of the Mennonite Early Childhood Network, the site includes a weekly faith practice for families.
  • Picture Book Theology: This website makes theological connections by using secular picture books. With each daily post, there are all sorts of book details, topics the book connects with, Scripture connections, and at least one possible application.
  • Storypath: Like Picture Book Theology, this website connects children’s literature with the faith story. This one has a story for each week of lectionary, plus indexes for Scripture and theme.
  • Flame: Creative Children’s Ministry: This site is full of tactile and hands-on ways of learning.
  • Practicing Families: The tagline is “real life, real faith, real grace.” There are ideas for parents, children, and families and the posts are written by a bevy of different contributors.

What are you doing to build faith at home or in your church? What ideas do you have to share?

Amy Gingerich, editorial director

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Scripture. (Almost) Daily. For a Year.

I’m one of those people who never make New Year’s resolutions. Except when we do.

Last year, at the invitation of one of our pastors, Joy Fasick, I and about 120 other people at Slate Hill Mennonite Church resolved to read Scripture every day during 2013. Joy called it Challenge 2013, and she told us that reading from the biblical text each day would indeed be a challenge. She said we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over missing a day here and there, and she assured us that there would be many days when we definitely didn’t feel like reading the Bible. She cautioned us not to think that reading our Bibles would somehow miraculously transform us into better people or remove all our selfishness or insecurities or meanness. But she did tell us that slowly, over the course of our daily devotion, God would shape our lives, remake our affections, and renew our spirits.

Joy suggested lots of ideas that would help to give our daily reading some form and structure, including MennoMedia resources like Rejoice!, daily Bible reading plans, and electronic devotionals. She encouraged us to find our own devotional resources as well. The only parameters were that our devotionals be designed to occur daily and that they include the actual biblical text itself, not a contemporary writer’s reflections on the biblical text.

Like most other years when I’ve made New Year’s resolutions, I failed. Quite miserably. I haven’t tallied up the days I actually read Scripture—I like to think I have left behind the obsessive-compulsive faith of my adolescence—but I know that many days I didn’t get around to opening up my Bible. Like Joy suggested, however, I haven’t beaten myself up about it. Plus, failure is a relative term; I know that I read more Scripture than I would have had I not made that resolution. And Challenge 2013 affected not only my private devotional life but our family’s devotional life as well. Granted, it usually meant whipping open the Bible right before dinnertime prayer and reading whatever Psalm my eyes fell upon, wondering how many verses I could get through before some boy began to whine about how hungry he was. But again, we likely read more Scripture in 2013 than we did in 2012.

I can’t say that this year’s Scripture-reading discipline has noticeably changed me. This past year I still yelled at my kids, and still got captivated by my own ego, and still been plain-down petty more frequently than I like to admit. Then again, maybe I would have been even more angry, egoistic, and petty had I not done it. I wasn’t looking at this year’s discipline as some bargain or exchange of goods anyway, and I’m wary enough of how Scripture has been misused and privatized and extracted from that I hesitate to position it as some snazzy weight-loss program for one’s emotional life. Yet I do know that, at times, those sacred words from ancient writers slipped into my dim, distracted little brain and moved it a little closer to the Light of the World. One might be taken down a necessary notch in the morning when reading, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27).  And evenings can’t be quite as full of despair when one ends them with the lovely words of the Psalmist, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13).

So while I’m sure that I’ll again fail—whatever that means—I am going to go with the same New Year’s resolution for 2014. I will try to read Scripture daily again in 2014, and for at least part of the year I’m going to use a MennoMedia resource to do it. Take Our Moments and Our Days, volume 1 and volume 2, are Anabaptist prayer books that can be used individually or in groups. I’ve seen these books around for years, and I’ve decided that 2014 is the year I’m actually going to use them. Volume 1 is designed for Ordinary Time, and volume 2 goes from Advent through Pentecost.

Here is what some readers have to say about these books:

“It helps me to pray even when I have times when I don’t want to pray.”
—Eric, Australia

“I’ve been loving the prayer book. I have used it in our peace prayers group, in small group, in a group retreat, and mostly in my daily prayers as an individual. Every time I have opened the book, I have loved it.”
—Tina, Pennsylvania, USA

“I appreciate the repetition and find that some of the repeated phrases are really sticking with me and coming to me at other times of the day. The structure of the intercessions reminds me to broaden my prayers from just the nearest or most urgent.”
—Brenda, Indiana, USA

Another great MennoMedia resource for reading Scripture, this one designed for congregational use, is Dig In: Thirteen Scriptures to Help Us Know the Way. The thirteen Scriptures have special meaning to Mennonites and help readers engage with both the text and with each other.

One of the gifts of Anabaptism is that we believe that Scripture is best interpreted within the community of faith. I continue to believe that, and heartily. Yet as a result, in the past I have sometimes ceded personal spirituality to evangelical Christianity. This discipline of reading Scripture, no matter how poorly I do it, reminds me that Christ came to groups but also to individuals, one by one by one. It reminds me, almost daily, that I am more than just a body, and that life is more than the pursuit of whatever desire tries to rule that particular day.

So anyone want to join me in 2014? I promise I won’t make you check in with a count of how many days you faithfully read Scripture. I won’t be reporting back, either. Accountability is good, but I’d encourage you to find it in your local congregation, not here online.

In any event, the important thing here is not perfection but practice. The important thing is regularly placing ourselves in the company of ancient writers of faith, who tell the story of a God who hovers around the edge of our consciousness and occasionally, when we allow it, breaks the whole way through.

ValerieWeaverZercherValerie Weaver-Zercher is managing editor of trade books at Herald Press.

Thank a Sunday School Teacher

By Mary Ann Weber

When teaching middler Sunday school a few years ago, I decided to have the class do a few activities to give them an idea of how Abraham and Sarah lived. First, we made fry bread. We mixed flour and water and a few other ingredients and made dough that we flattened and fried. It was a hit because the children were learning to cook simple meals at home, plus they wanted to eat the fry bread.

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Second, we used blankets and chairs and made a tent. It was a sorry-looking tent and I’m sure it was nothing like the tent in which Abraham and Sarah lived. But when we got inside the tent it gave the children a good idea that Abraham and Sarah did not live in houses made of wood and stone.

Third, we built an altar. I gathered field stones that surround the flower gardens at my house, placed them into buckets, and hauled them to church. It was heavy work but I knew the children would enjoy building with the stones. I was right. They crafted a lovely and sturdy altar next to the tent.

I left the altar and began walking to the next activity but soon noticed that I was alone. I looked behind me and, to my surprise, the children were kneeling around the altar! Their eyes were closed, their lips were moving, and their hands were folded in prayer.

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My preparation for that Sunday school session included retelling a story about familiar Old Testament characters and preparing activities to go along with the story. I informed the children, but I forgot about faith forming in their lives. Fortunately, the Sunday school class hadn’t forgotten—they knew what an altar was and they wanted their moment with God.

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Teaching Sunday school takes dedication. Finding resources that take information to the next level and allow formation are key. So are finding resources that fit the theological framework of the congregation and denomination. Other considerations include the right mix of learning and fun, the learning styles of the class members, how easy the materials are to use, among other things.

Two evaluation tools, MennoLens http://www.faithandliferesources.org/Curriculum/MennoLens1.pdf  and MennoLens2 http://www.faithandliferesources.org/Curriculum/MennoLens2.pdf,  help congregations choose materials based on Anabaptist Mennonite perspectives.

Teaching Sunday school is no small task. Find a Sunday school teacher this week and give the teacher a big thank-you. Hats off to Sunday school teachers everywhere!

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The main Sunday school materials we have for children are published with Church of the Brethren and are called Gather ‘Round. A new curriculum to follow Gather ‘Round is Shine, well into planning and writing,  to launch fall of 2014.

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Mary Ann Weber
Curriculum editor