I was at my mom’s one day a few autumns ago. She was busy getting things together to decorate the bulletin board at her church for Advent. Mom showed me a poster of a cute manger scene with the words “God gave us a King,” and asked me whether I thought it was an appropriate picture to use. Mom forgot that when you ask my opinion, you’re going to get it.
I told her I struggled with the words “God gave us a king.” Because in Canada, we live in a democracy, albeit one attached to a monarch.
In Jesus’ time, kings held the power of life and death over people. Jesus himself might not have lived past the age of three had his parents not been warned of the narcissistic fears of the weak King Herod. Kings are a toss-up. With no qualification but a bloodline, it’s a 50-50 chance you’ll get a tyrant.
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We don’t like tyrants, whether they be kings or otherwise. And though our government is connected to a monarchy, and we will have a king in our future, let’s be honest: no one expects the British monarchy to become an autocratic institution, nor its king a vicious murderer. Maybe that’s why the monarchy continues.
But that’s not what troubled me about my mom’s bulletin board. I was thinking about the kids who, before COVID, would gather around as I sat cross-legged on the floor during storytime on Sunday morning. It occurred to me that for at least three generations of people, certainly for me, my children and my grandchildren who grew up on Disney movies, a king is largely someone from a fairy tale. When we call Jesus “king,” in our children’s experience, he goes into the column of make-believe figures not to be taken seriously. Everything he lived and died for is made fictional. By extension, when we use language about the kingdom of God, it’s easy for kids to conclude church is not to be taken seriously either. (This doesn’t just apply to children.)
I remember one Sunday telling the kids about Noah and the ark. In the middle of the story, as Noah was gathering all the animals by twos and herding them onto the ark, one particularly precocious boy shouted out “That’s impossible!” and threw up his hands in frustration. Clearly, I was wasting his time by telling stories that made no sense in his world and expecting him to take them seriously.
As sometimes happens in the midst of worship, something cracked open in me. I realized I needed to be more honest with the kids. “This is a story.” I said. “It’s a story that teaches us the importance of caring for the earth and for each other. It teaches us that the earth is a powerful thing. We can’t control the weather. But we can control how we live with respect in Creation. That’s what our Creed tells us to do — to live with respect.”
That young boy never went back to Sunday school. From that day on he sat in the pews with his mother and listened to the sermon instead. He’s all grown up now, going to university. He admits he doesn’t believe most of what he hears in church and refuses to pretend he does. I admire him more than he knows. He takes God seriously.
As sometimes happens in the midst of worship, something cracked open in me. I realized I needed to be more honest with the kids.
When I ask myself why children leave the church as soon as parents get tired of forcing them to go, I wonder, could it be they leave at the same time they outgrow fairytales? Could it be they leave at that time in their lives when things are very black and white and they haven’t yet discovered how to think critically? Criticizing the Bible gives me more joy than I can describe. That’s where I find God: in the questions. Perhaps I can share that joy when a child asks me a question by replying, “I don’t know. What do you think?”
But back to my mother and her bulletin board. “Well,” Mom said, “what words should I put there?”
I thought for a moment, wrapping my head around all the theologically correct answers, looking for the one that says it all. And here it is: God gave us hope.
Patti Rodgers is a designated lay minister serving Tottenham Rich Hill Community of Faith, a two-point charge just north of Toronto. She is an author and musician, and is currently building an off-grid clergy-retreat cabin in Muskoka.
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