When my daughter was little, she would say the cutest things. One time we were driving on a dirt road. She saw a lizard-like creature cross in front of us. She shouted, “Stop! It’s a fig newton in the road!”
Or how she told everyone, after standing with me and my Ralph Nader sign outside a voting precinct, that I was voting for “Darth Vader.”
(Yes, I know many of you will find no distinction between the two, but I still maintain that there is one, and I live in Massachusetts, so my vote did not do anything except help drive the tiniest wedge into our narrow two-party system, thank you very much.)
There are a host of other Mariah-isms. At the time, everyone said I should write them down. Did I? Nope. Hard to do when you are an only parent raising two adopted kids, village or no village.
This past Sunday I led worship as a guest preacher. It was at a small UU congregation where there was a small smattering of children. “Story for All Ages” is how my home congregation calls it, but I’ve heard it called other things: “Children’s Church,” “For the Young at Heart,” or just story time. It’s a time when the focus of the worship service is for the under 13, though the over 13 can benefit if their hearts and minds are open enough.
I love this part of worship. I love sitting on the ground with a gaggle of kiddles. I especially like doing it with kids I know, but it works just fine if they are kids I just met. Often, I can barely make my way in social situations with adults, but give me some kids under the age of ten and I’m in heaven (unless it’s a classroom).
Sometimes I read a story. Sometimes I tell a story. Sometimes I have props – well, I always try to have props.
One of the more glamorous times was when I was conducting worship with sixty or so teenagers in the congregation, making up about half of the souls in the room. I was nervous at the prospect of being relevant to people that age. I really wanted to impress them so I pulled out all the stops. So even though they were all over the age of 13, I still chose a story for them: Moody Cow Meditates by Kerry Lee MacLean.
I invited all – even the adults in the sanctuary – after the story, to come forward and add some of their angry dust (glitter) to a clear glass container full of water, which was then shaken and rattled, that we might collectively witness it settle to the bottom, allowing the water, and our minds, to clear.
An experienced, ordained UU minister once warned me against opening up to the floor during story time. She suggested that asking kids questions is like opening Pandora’s box, while doing so in front of the whole congregation. Maybe one of them will say something profound. Maybe one of them will say something that evokes laughter with.
But maybe that laughter will have a tinge of laughter at, or laughter down. Or maybe, just maybe, some child will say something that isn’t what wants to be heard.
This past Sunday I shared a story that I know from a Carter Heyward book, but likely has an earlier source. In the story, there is an old wise woman whom the little children call a “witch” and whom they want to tricktest. One of the children captures a bird, places it in his hands, and asks the woman whether it is dead or alive.
The thing is that if she says it’s dead, he will open his hands and let it go free. But if she says it’s alive, he will crush it.
Remember, the woman is wise and not so easily sucked into false dilemma. She studies the boy’s hands, then looks deeply into his eyes and responds, “It’s in your hands.”
Not the sterile observational, “the fact is that the bird is currently located inside the clutch of your two hands,” but the profound, mesmerizing statement, “not only do you have the power in this situation, you get to decide what to do with it.”
So last Sunday, as I finish the story, I ask each of the kids to cup their hands together and to imagine a bird in there. I ask each of the kids what they would do: open their hands or crush the bird? Of course, we UUs who believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, including innocent children supposedly as-of-yet unscathed by the horrors of the world and who from their originally blessed birth believe in the liberty of all creatures, expect (or at least hope) that all the children are going to dramatically raise their hands in a gesture of liberation and freedom.
Yeah, not so much: a boy of about four years, sitting on his mother’s lap, said loudly and with gusto, “I’d crush it!”
Hello, Pandora’s box!
From the rest of the congregation there was no laughter or shared intake of breath indicating disapproval. Thankfully, there was no evident embarrassed mother who felt she had to quash the authenticity of her son’s response, though I think there was probably a moment of parental paralysis, wondering what next and how skillful is this minister.
Certainly, that’s what I was wondering: how to skillfully engage this moment. I think I did something like this, which is to say that what I am about to describe is most likely a combination of what I actually did and what I wish I had done. Somewhat reflexively, I repeated what the child said. “Oh, so you would crush the bird. Okay.” Then I breathed.
Then I said (something like), “Yeah, I kinda get that. Some of you would let the bird go free. And some of you would crush it. You know what? I like the part that each of you thought about it and made a decision for yourself.”
Another breath, which was really a silent “o.m.g. what do I do now?” whispered to my own personal god who doesn’t exist because I don’t believe in personal gods.
And then somehow, some version of the following gets spoken by me: “Hmmmm. This is what I think. I kinda think that the bird would want to fly free and not get crushed. So even though it’s in my hands and I am curious about what it would feel like to squeeze my hands together, I’m going to listen to what the bird wants. And that’s what I hope you would do, too. Listen to what the bird wants and let it go free. Can we practice that? Everybody, can you put your two hands together, then fly them open to free the bird?”
It would be great if that’s where it actually stopped because that’s just kinda perfect. (But it didn’t because a child said the word “gross”and I took the bait, but eventually we did sing them to their religious ed class…)
Not only did it become a lesson about the power to decide, it became a lesson to decide meeting not your needs or impulses, but that of the creature with lesser power. A lesson about listening to the other. It is a lesson about what to do with privilege. Which is a very important lesson for all of us.
It is a lesson that I think the theologian Pippi Longstocking sums up best: De som är stark måste vara snäll.
“Those who are strong must be kind.”