Big Foot, Elephant and Piggy, and “Shake it Off”

Today I get to speak to you while wearing both my parent hat and my pastor hat.  I am quite excited about this prospect.

When Ashley and I were living in Winnipeg, we lived about two blocks from the church where I was working, so often I would walk to work.  And on my way to work I walked right past the local elementary school.

One day, while I work, I received a phone call.

“Hi Kyle. Can you help us lead the Lord’s Prayer before school starts? We’d love a pastor to be there.”

What was I supposed to say?

So the next week I found myself in someone’s living room, drinking weak coffee and eating dainties, coming up with a schedule to lead the local school children in the Lord’s Prayer.

Now, I’m usually quite grateful for the diversity within Christianity.  I’m quite okay with different denominations and different expressions of spirituality.  I grew up Roman Catholic in Steinbach with a brief Pentecostal stint before I found my way here to Grace Mennonite, and those are all very valid expressions of Christianity that helped shape me.  And to quote Peter Dick, my high school Sunday School teacher, in relation to all the different denominations:  “A shoe that fits one person, might pinch another.”

However, when the faithful volunteers started discussing who was going to lead the Lord’s Prayer on Halloween because they were all boycotting that day at school because it was a dark day, it became quite apparent to me that they probably didn’t yet know that they didn’t want me to lead their children in the Lord’s Prayer.

So I ended up offering to lead it twice a month.

Every other Thursday, I’d show up to the multi-purpose room, tell a story about me canoeing or when I was in Zimbabwe, and then we’d say the Lord’s Prayer.  When the weather was warm, we had about 40-50 kids, and when it was cold out, we had close to 100 (which shows that dodge ball is better than the Lord’s Prayer, but the Lord’s prayer is better than playing in -20 degrees C).

If you know me, I like kids, but I’m not that good with them.  Especially elementary school kids. I like to laugh and give high fives, but I usually talk too fast and use big words… When thinking of gifts for Arianna’s teachers, my first impulse is to buy them a gift card to the liquor store.   So, those Lord’s Prayer mornings were usually a bit of a circus with kids throwing things in one corner and other kids wrestling in the other corner.

And so, one day, I was a bit frustrated at the situation, and I said, “Alright!  I have a question to ask you!  How many of you go to church on a regular basis?  Like, Sunday School?”

I didn’t see one hand stay down.  As far as I could tell, almost every kid went to church!

And then I asked them another question:

“How many of you say the Lord’s Prayer with your families before you go to school?”

Not a single hand went up.

Now, I know that getting everyone out the door in the mornings with their clothes on and teeth brushed and lunches packed can be quite the gong show, as most of my mornings these days consist of me saying very slowly, “Arianna, please put the food in your mouth and chew it or you will miss your bus.”  Or maybe they said their prayers as a family every evening… but zero?

The thing about the Lord’s Prayer at this school was that it was a DOUBLE permission slip.  They needed to get enough parental signatures to ALLOW the Lord’s Prayer before school started, and then each and every kid had to hand in a permission slip to ATTEND Lord’s prayer.

I was/am shocked and perplexed and curious and wondering about how this was such an important ritual that parents signed two separate permission slips, but then sent their children to pray with pastor who dresses up as Big Foot and chases kids down his driveway on the dark day of Halloween (don’t worry… I only chase the teenagers who are too old to be trick or treating).

I finished that school year, and never led any Lord’s Prayers exercises at school again.  (But just this week it dawned of me that didn’t ask me to come back either, so maybe it was a mutual parting of ways.)

Because here’s the thing about kids and faith and how they grow in their faith.  The number one influence in kids and their understanding of spirituality is their parents.  Surprise, surprise, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

As parents, there is a direct correlation between nurturing our own spirituality and nurturing that of our kids.   And there is also a direct correlation between the quality of our relationships with our kids and whether or not they model their lives after us.  So every prayer we say by ourselves, every prayer we say with our kids, every candle we light, every time we ask how Jesus would respond to a global refugee crisis, every time we go swimming with our kids or cheer them on playing hockey, every time we cuddle and read stories of Jesus or stories of Elephant and Piggy, it’s all part of what it means to nurture our kids and their spirituality.

The other thing that really matters in nurturing the spirituality of our children is whether or not the adults in their church CLAIM the kids as their own, and invest in them and pray for them and give them high fives.  They’ve even found the ideal ratio:  5 adults for 1 kid.  5:1. If there are 5 adults in a community investing in each child, it means the world to them.

Years ago, some sociologists sent a young-ish looking reporter to go undercover in a high school to document life as a teenager, and what they discovered really surprised them.  They found a world where the adults weren’t nearly as present as they thought they would be.  Most schools have a ratio of 1 teacher to 20 kids, and if you include all the staff in school, it’s between 5-10 students to 1 adult.   And in the absence of an abundance of adults to model their lives on, the kids started looking to each other for guidance and support and role-models.

And while some kids can thrive under this, others of them go all “Lord of the Flies” on each other.

This was teenagers a few decades ago.

I was talking to an educator more recently, and they didn’t know about this study, but they made an observation of their elementary school.  They said “It seems to me that there are less and less adults in these kid’s lives, and the kids are turning to each other for guidance and support.”

Some of these shifts have been slow, like decades, but they’re not insignificant. Both parents often work (like Ash and I, so no judgment from us), and often longer hours, we have smaller families so there are less uncles and aunts around, we’re more mobile so we now have more families living across several provinces, we have more entertainment options so Netflix replaces crokinole and the TSN JETS four times a week replaces Hockey Night in Canada once a week, let alone how’re on our phones… And even those of us who enrol our kids in activities, while there are some great coaches and great stories out there of adults investing in kids, I am also quite realistic that many coaches are teenagers who are being paid and won’t invest in our children in the off season.  I know for myself, when Ash and I coach ultimate, I end up saying “I’m just glad that I get to teach these kids how to throw a Frisbee for two months, and that I don’t really have to care about them beyond that.”  (Although Ashley cares, since she’s a great teacher.)

So where are the adults?

I’m not going to suggest that the way forward is some idealized past, or how parents these days don’t know what they’re doing.

But what I am going to suggest is that a really big part of what we’re doing here today, of dedicating our kids, of giving them Bibles, is that we’re trying our best to create a community of adults that is looking out for our kids.  As parents, we are giving you, the congregation, permission to invest in our kids.  We are not trusting strangers leading religious exercises at schools to nurture our kids.  We’re trusting you.  That is your job. And by virtue of you being here, and participating in child dedication with us, you’re kind of stuck here doing it.  It’s like a Mennonite draft of sorts.

This is why, when we as church families go swimming or to the Moose game, you’re all invited.   We want you involved in the lives of our children.  This is why I invite so many adult to come with us to Pauingassi.  Because our teenagers need to part of a community where the adults serve.    This is why we need you to help us lead children’s church.  We want you to share with our children how the story of Jesus has changed your life.

We’re trusting you. Not strangers.  You.

Ashley came back from the women’s retreat in the fall just excited about faith and church and this great group of women, and she told me that on the way home, she and another mom were talking about role models for our children.  And Ash said “We are so grateful that our daughters have these strong women as their role models.”

We’re trusting you.  With our children.

In my house these days, we often have these epic dance parties while making and cleaning up supper.   We usually let the kids pick the music, so we often end up dancing to Shake it Off by Taylor Swift, Roar by Katy Perry, and All About that Bass by Megan Trainor.  It’s quite delightful.

But for the last month or so, we’ve been singing the soundtrack from Disney’s Moana.  (On a quick aside, we are just really thankful that Disney is finally starting to create strong, independent female characters.)

And there’s one line in that soundtrack that has actually led me to tears while dancing in my kitchen.

In a song about a bunch of South Pacific Islanders exploring the ocean and finding new islands, they sing a song called:  We Know the Way.

We read the wind and the sky when the sun is high.

We sail the length of the seas on the ocean breeze.  At night, we name every star.

We know where we are.

We know we are, who we are.

We know the way.

We know where we are.  We know who we are.

We know that we are here, in this place called Grace Mennonite.  We know that we are here, with you.  And because we know where we are, we know who we are… and whose we are.

We know that we are beloved children of God, together. We know that we are followers of Jesus, together.    We know that we are lovers of the world, together.  We know the way, together.

And with my pastor hat on, I wish you much grace and peace.

And with my parent hat on, I say “Thanks.”