A World on Fire: Advent Joy and Belonging
This Advent, @FirstPresHayward is delving into A World on Fire, exploring the traditional themes and stories of Christmas, but with a focus on
- hope, doubt and the housing crisis (Zechariah and Elizabeth)
- joy and belonging (Mary’s visit to Elizabeth)
- love and the refugee crisis (the Holy Refugee Family)
- peace and violence (King Herod)
Though we are using a standard Advent curriculum @firstpreskidshayward, we are overlapping it with the themes and ideas that our adult counterparts are exploring in worship in the hopes that meaningful family conversations will unfurl this season.
The FirstPres Kids Room is not a school classroom and the kids faces change week to week, but we do have some consistent guidelines. The usual: keep our hands to ourselves, respect our room/friends/selves, “if its’s not your turn to talk, it’s your turn to listen,” and my favorite, as I encourage the circle of kids around the carpet to widen:
“At FirstPresKids we make room…”
As a Christian educator, I have two objectives for the time I spend with kids. The first and foremost is that children leave knowing and feeling the unconditional love of God — that they belong to God. Not that God owns us in our capitalist understanding of the word, but that there is nothing, nothing, nothing that can separate us from God’s love. God — unlike friends and bosses and yes, our parents or caregivers try as the might — God loves us no matter what.
I know not all Christians or parents — for that matter — may agree. But I think that has more to do with our concrete and foolishly certain human ideas about love and laws that we project onto a God who is just too big, too complex and too unknowable. And often the children under our care are the recipients of this conditional love.
Parents, teachers, peers, politicians, the media will send a constant message about who is in, who is out, who is worthy, who is not — especially to the children at the margins: womxn, BIPOC, people of the global majority, LGBTQI, the poor and underemployed, those with disabilities or neurodivergence, the unsheltered, religious minorities, the list goes on. And the list goes on because the truth of it is that our Western, colonist, capitalist society gives us a very narrow definition of who is valued — everyone else is found lacking in some way or form.
And yet acceptance and belonging are such basic, if not the most basic human needs.
The second thing that I want kids to leave with is related to the first: I want them to know about the radical teachings and actions of Jesus Christ which boil down to this: love God, love your neighbor.
Again and again and again the Old and New Testaments tell us to move past the trappings of our humanness and act with Agape Love to those on the margins — to, in essence, extend the relentless grace and unconditional love that God gives us.
We belong to God and we belong to each other.
Also, I should add here that though I write as a parent and educator, I am not only writing this for parents and educators. There is truly no such thing as “other people’s children” — if you are a part of a worshiping community or any community, if you have witnessed a baptism or voted, you have already knowingly or unknowingly made a commitment to the children in your midst.
Further, if you are a member of a worshiping community, do not underestimate the importance and influence of inter-generational relationships on the faith-formation and discipleship of young people. While I’d like to believe myself to be some sort of Super Human Christian Educator Parent, it could and has been argued that you can and will have more impact on the religious life of my child than I will.
Joy and Belonging in Mary and Elizabeth’s Story
On the second Sunday of Advent, our adult counterparts dug into the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. In reality, Mary’s “visit” was not just a friendly check-in with her cousin. Mary was pregnant and unwed, she was compelled to leave her town full of whispers and sideways glances.
She went to Elizabeth. And “[w]hen Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Luke 1:41 NIV). John The Fetus literally jumped for joy and Elizabeth welcomed Mary into her arms.
Think of a time when you were afraid or ashamed. As an adult or particularly as a child. Was there someone you knew you could go to who would accept you wholeheartedly? Who would jump with you in your joy and sit with you in your pain? Are you one of those people for the children or students under your care? And if not, why?
Joy and Belonging in Joseph’s Story
At FirstPresKids we grappled with the same themes of joy and belonging as we examined Joseph’s story and his knowledge of and reaction to Mary’s pregnancy.
Joseph knew about Mary’s pregnancy. He could have reported it and have her stoned to death. But, he decided to divorce her quietly. Some may applaud him for that alone. But, truly, in the face of the uncertain and the uncomfortable, Joseph was succumbing to the human tendency of fear that leads us towards division, isolationism or individualism — a selfishness that puts our needs or egos first.
But, God intervened. The angel who appeared to Joseph in his dreams told him to not be afraid — to not give into fear and insecurity, but to celebrate all that this baby would grow to become. Joseph chose Mary and the baby —he chose to create a family founded on not fear and rejection but on joy and belonging. Some people dismiss the idea that Joseph is Jesus’ father. But, I don’t think Joseph would have.
Jesus belonged to God as much as he belonged to Mary and to Joseph. And as much the children and students under our care belong to God and to us.
How do we, like Elizabeth and Joseph, turn away from fear especially in the face of the unknown or uncomfortable and choose joy? Choose to remain present, available? How do we create an environment of belonging and acceptance not only for children, but also for all the children who grew into adults whose basic desire for belonging has been left unfulfilled? And how do we, filled with the grace and love of God — certain of or still working on feeling the certainty of our eternal belonging to God — how do we overflow our human bindings and extend that limitless grace and love to one another?