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The value of children’s questions – The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

Sunday 10 June 2018 Matins – 2nd Sunday of Trinity

Deuteronomy 6.10-end & Acts 22.22-23.11

In the first reading from Deuteronomy the chosen people are receiving instructions from God about how they are to behave – they are reminded of God’s generosity and kindness to them, for example, God led from slavery in Egypt to a fertile land with vineyards and olive groves they did not plant. They are also told to be careful to be obedient to God’s laws, ‘You must diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees and his statute’. All very clear and all very serious. Then, towards the end of the passage, the people are told to be ready to answer their children when they ask about the meaning of the Lord’s decrees, statutes and ordinances. We all know that adults are able to play all sorts of games with each other, trying to appear to answer questions that are actually being dodged or ignored. Adults have developed all sorts of abilities to avoid answering tricky questions by producing impressive sounding words which are in fact just ‘waffle’. Such techniques are often employed on the ‘Today’ programme and on ‘Question Time’ but they cannot be brought into play when talking to children – they will not accept it. Explaining things to children is a fantastic exercise in making you think about what something actually means.

Interestingly, when the instructions for celebrating the Passover, the main religious ritual in the Jewish religion, were established one of the important features is that the youngest child present asks 4 questions about what is happening, for example, why unleavened bread and bitter herbs are being eaten. In this way the Jewish community is led to think very carefully about why they are doing what they are doing and to clarify in their minds the importance and significance of what is happening.

When I was first ordained I was full of confidence and hope – I had a degree in theology from University and had spent a further two years at Theological College learning about ministry, reflecting on matters of faith and thinking about how I was going to use all that I had been learning when sharing in leadership of the churches entrusted to me. Within 5 years of my ordination I became the chaplain of Helen House, the first ever hospice for children. Within weeks of starting this new ministry I had to begin to deconstruct all the neat and tidy theology I had learnt, I had to think deeply about doctrines concerning salvation, redemption, resurrection and forgiveness, I had to think about what we are actually doing when we pray and I had to think about where God is in a place like Helen House. I did all this, not in order to write essays or dissertations, but in order to respond to the questions of deeply traumatised parents, most with very little Christian education or biblical knowledge, and in order to respond to the questions of very sick children.

Please do not make the mistake of thinking that talking to children about profoundly important theological points of view and complex doctrinal issues, is actually all about ‘dumbing down’ because it absolutely isn’t – it is about honing down what is most important to its core truth.

For example, if a child asked me about heaven I would talk to them about what it feels like when their mum or dad gives them a cuddle, we would talk about that feeling of being comfortable and safe, that feeling of having someone caring for you, that feeling of warmth and well-being. Heaven is like that, heaven is that feeling for ever. That is not just words, that is a way of talking about and Romans 8.39 where we are told that nothing ‘can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ and 1 Corinthians 13.8, ‘Love never ends’.

I remember reading somewhere that preachers should never say anything in a sermon that they couldn’t say standing at the gates of Auschwitz. I think it is also true to say that preachers should never say anything in a sermon that they couldn’t explain or describe to an inquisitive child.

A Headteacher of a school in one of my previous parishes always wanted me to conclude any Christian teaching in assembly by telling the children what that teaching looked like in the playground. That helped to focus the mind in a similar way to thinking about answering the questions of children.

So, in the reading from Deuteronomy the people are told to respond to the questions children would ask them about the meaning of the Lord’s decrees, statutes and ordinances – the answer they are to give is that the keeping of the law is the people’s response to the great love and generosity God showed to the people in bringing them out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in their own fertile land. In other words, the laws are not to be kept for their own sake but as a loving response of the people to the loving action by God.

Think about what you believe about God and then think about how you would explain that or talk about that to a child – it is my experience that by doing this our faith doesn’t become simpler or easier but it does become deeper and much more grounded in reality.

Let us pray

Give us the eyes of a child, O God, to delight in your world. May we see your wonders anew, hear the sounds of joy and laughter, and discover as we play the majesty of your glory. Keep us from closing our hearts through arrogance and pride. Open us to the praise that excites the soul, through Jesus Christ. Amen


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