Experiencing the Mystery of God

January 5th, 2012

It is an exciting thing to experience with your Sunday school class the awe and mystery of God. We have gotten quite good in our classes teaching facts. We are quite good at playing Bible games and having fun. But how do we teach about the Lord of the universe? How do we go into the presence of the Numinous, the Almighty?

To have this experience, we need to discard many of our carefully studied teacher training lessons.

Forget age-level restrictions. In spite of all our studies, children do not fit in one mold or any one age level when it comes to experiencing God’s presence.

Forget being a teacher who has all the right answers. In this kind of teaching children most often teach us. Many times the innocent, uncomplicated thinking of a child can penetrate the mysteries of God far better than adults can. And they are more at home in the land of wonder and awe than we are.

Forget being in control of the schedule. God comes in wonder and joy whenever and wherever God chooses.

I’m convinced that some children are asking deep and searching questions about God and the mysteries of life: Who is God? What is God like? What is God’s purpose? I also think children do not know what to do with these questions or where to go with them.

A friend shared with me her experience. As a nine-year-old child, she had been puzzling about the mysteries of life and death. Finally she got up courage to ask her father: “Why are we here?” “To work all our lives and then die,” he responded bitterly. She turned away confused and disappointed, and she didn’t raise the question again for many years.

I’m also convinced that some, but not all, children are having God encounters—direct experiences of spiritual reality that they do not talk about for fear of being mocked. In the intuitive way children have of reading adults, they think it is something not to be told.

This may be our fault as teachers. Most of us have been schooled and coached to believe in the rational and logical, and it is difficult to observe what we have been taught not to believe.

But clearly the feeling of being in the presence of something holy and sacred is not a rare phenomenon, and it is often experienced in childhood. This excites us with the possibility of nurturing just such an experience in our classrooms.

Our nurturing begins with the atmosphere we create in our classrooms. We welcome questions of “Why?” when they come because they eventually lead to wonder. We pay attention to these questions with our facial expressions and our verbal affirmations. We don’t rush to quickly answer with pious, correct answers. We fail our children if all we give them are the platitudes, the clichés, the slogans of our society, and keep them from thinking deeply.

How much more helpful it would have been if my friend’s father could have helped her wonder and feel amazement about her question: Why are we here?

As teachers we attempt to develop deep listening skills in order to pick up the spiritual overtones in our children’s questions. This is hard for many of us as teachers trained in giving answers. We affirm and are open to different definitions and dimensions of knowing God.

If we believe that God speaks to and through our children, can we accept their way of experiencing God even though it may be different from ours?

When we feel comfortable living with more than one construction of reality, then the children will too. An art teacher in an English-as-a-second-language class told me of a young child who painted purple trees and striped, colorful people. The teacher’s first impulse was to correct the child’s coloring until the teacher noticed the great joy on the child’s face and the happy freedom with which her arm moved across the page. Children’s perceptions are not always our perceptions, and their thoughts are not our thoughts.

Now, in such an atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement in our classrooms, we follow two very simple teaching methods.

First, we tell our Bible stories. Everyone loves a well-told story, and today many of our children have never heard our Bible stories or they have been given watered-down cartoon versions. I vividly remember a five-year-old boy after hearing a Bible story for the first time—his little face shining with wonder and saying, “Wow! That Jesus—Wow!”

Our stories are important because they provide a foundation for the God experiences and searching questions our children are asking. In the way God is revealed where and when God chooses, it is more likely God will appear to those steeped and learned in our religious traditions. We cannot call God to us on demand, but we can saturate our children with our Bible stories as preparation for God’s coming.

Our biggest temptation and greatest fault as teachers of awe and mystery is telling our stories and then quickly explaining what the stories mean. Just as Jesus left it up to his disciples and listeners to ponder his stories, we do the same. Our Bible stories, our psalms, are clues to many of the mysteries such as: “Who is God?” “Why are we here?” “How should we live?”

To prepare, we practice telling the stories to the best of our ability. Read dramatically or learn the story by heart so you can look into the eyes of the children as you tell it. Then, and this is the hard part, just let the story rest. Allow the children to ponder the story. Let the stories speak with their own power. It is also helpful with older children to have them write out the story in longhand. As computers become more and more the children’s normal way of writing, it may come as a surprise to discover new insight that jumps out as they write. Certain interpretations never thought of before may appear. There may be a connection between the movement of the arm in writing and new understandings.

If we are teaching for awe and wonder when discussing the Bible stories, we shouldn’t put so much emphasis on our children giving the correct answer or even only one answer.

We have programmed children with “correct” answers and cut off their exploring and pondering the very personal experience of God in their lives.

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