18 March 2016

Lessons Learned from Godly Play: The Holy Family

As I've stated in a few earlier posts, my experience with Godly Play, a Montessori-inspired method for teaching kids about Christianity, has been primarily positive. It's been a way to re-experience stories from the Bible in a positive light and to embrace that, whatever I think or feel about religion, there are parts of that I don't experience as damaging. However, during the certification process, I had a negative reaction to a Godly Play story. This was primarily because of one of the props and the angle at which I saw it, but it's worth exploring the what happened, in part because the negative experience had positive aspects to it. (I did start writing this earlier but then had to let it sit for a while, which is why I'm writing about something that happened months ago now).

I finished my certification for Godly Play back in September, last fall, and we currently have a once-a-month program with it at church. During the last training workshop, we went through some of the liturgical stories, the ones that help teach kids what the heck is going on with the church year (there's a fabulous one with all the Sundays represented by little coloured blocks using the altar cloth colours; mostly it's green, but the one red Sunday really stands out). Most of the liturgical action stories are very well thought-out and are very interesting. I did the Epiphany one back in January with the kids and the process of lighting incense and candles went over very well with the kids (anything with fire, apparently).

One of the liturgical stories for the Christmas season got to me, though. One of the people in the training class performed the one about the Holy Family. The story involves a Nativity scene, and focuses on the roles of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. One of the points of the story is that the baby Jesus grows up to be the risen Christ. This is illustrated by holding up the baby in the manager against the figure of the risen Christ, an angelic-looking figure with its arms outstretched. From my angle, it looked like a cross. My brain jumped to "baby Jesus on the cross" to "holy shit, child torture and death" to "oh dear god, that's basically what we claim God did to their child" to "I think I may need to vomit or have an anxiety attack quietly in the bathroom."

I mentioned this line of thought during the debriefing session. The "baby Jesus on the cross" imagery had a couple of the priests going, "Oh, crap, there goes Easter! Can't go to Easter services anymore!" They were joking, a bit, but they took my response seriously and didn't ignore that this is part and parcel of this religion. My feelings of being disturbed at this imagery were acknowledged as valid. I was in a place where I could admit my upset, and I wouldn't be shut down. This is a startling difference from the last church we attended, where I was so upset by a sermon on Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac that I had to leave the room, but I didn't feel like I could openly state why I was unhappy.

Over the last while, I've wandered over into alternate views of the Incarnation and the Atonement. I grew up with the general penal substitutionary view of the Atonement and it was a revelation to discover that there are other ways to see it. It doesn't have to be that "Jesus died so God could forgive our sins." Other views involve the idea that Christ died because we humans have this sacrificial idea that we've developed and that if forgiveness needs to happen, God already forgave us. Christ came to change our minds about who and what God is, rather than coming to change God's mind about us. This concept resonated with me when I first heard it. 

To be fair, I'm vaguely agnostic these days. I have had some experiences that make me think there's some kind of god (or gods) out there, but I'm not really sure. I'm not interested in constantly trying to talk myself into believing on the days when I don't. Faith is or it isn't, and I think it's more important to spend my time trying to love others and do right by them rather than expending effort on mental gymnastics trying to force every little point of Christian doctrine to make sense. I've let go of a lot of things in the religion already - hell, for example - and settled in to admit that I just don't know. I'll do the best I can, and try not to worry too much about the rest of it.

So why am I part of the church if I don't exactly believe? Well, I do get something out of being there. If it was an empty experience, I don't think I could go. The rituals of the church make me feel centred, grounded. I feel at home there. I've deliberately chosen to be part of a church where I can acknowledge my doubts, my lack of belief, and my frustration with various points of doctrine without being censured. It's the sort of place where one week we have a guest speaker come to educate us on what we can do to help with the Syrian refugees, and another week a speaker is there to talk about First Nations spirituality and how she's rediscovering her heritage after what her parents and grandparents lost because of the residential schools. It's a place where we do our best to acknowledge where we have hurt others, and try to make amends in whatever ways we can. And it's not perfect, and we make mistakes, and yet...I feel more whole for being part of the community.

So there I am, for now. My faith, like my sexuality, is caught in the middle. I can't land on one side or the other. I stand in the middle, with the tension that creates, and yet, feel more whole, and less likely to break, for standing there rather than retreating to the edges.

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