Sunday, August 22, 2010
One of the effects of being off meds, as I think I've mentioned here before, is that I'm finally grieving Mom instead of being numb about it. Yesterday I had a weeping fit when I realized that this is the first school year when I won't get a phone call from her asking how the first day of classes went.
Gary and I have been watching the final season of Saving Grace. Last night we saw the episode where Geepaw dies. The hospice details were accurate enough that they sent me flashing back to the deaths of both of my parents, which in turn reduced me to a sobbing mess in Gary's lap.
This morning, our parish visited another one (this had been arranged even before our parish was slated for closure). I was sitting next to the widow of the guy who died of brain cancer a few weeks ago. Behind me, I heard our parish deacon mention the name of a deacon at yet another church; this is a woman who's consistently been very kind and loving to me, and who was a reliable source of support during my own ill-fated (and abortive) ordination process.
Then I heard the word "funeral."
What? Was she doing a funeral? But deacons don't usually do that; that's a priest's job. So I turned around to ask our deacon, who said matter-of-factly, "Her funeral's tomorrow."
She died two weeks ago, he told me. Apparently she'd had pancreatic cancer and hadn't told anyone but close family. I was badly thrown by the news, but didn't have time to process it, because the service was starting.
It was a children's service. If I'd known it was a children's service, I'd have gone to the later one for adults instead, even though we weren't formally invited to that (I'm sure I wouldn't have been kicked out!). I'm glad there are people who do children's services, but I like muscular engagement with the Gospel, which doesn't tend to happen during services for kids.
Turned out this one didn't deal with the Gospel at all. This parish uses their children's service as a way to do Sunday School, so instead of using the lectionary, they work their way through a series of Bible stories. Today's Bible story was a pint-sized version of the Exodus narrative. As the kids gathered around the altar, the family-ministry priest told them a cheery little tale about how God freed the Isrealites (happy happy joy joy!), complete with the tenth plague -- the death of the firstborn (happy happy joy joy!) -- and the destruction of the Egyptian cavalry and their horses (happy happy joy joy!).
I don't think I'd have been comfortable with this presentation even if I weren't immersed in grief. As it was, the story was almost intolerable.
During the peace, I snagged the family-ninistry priest and said, "Okay, what's up with telling kids that story?"
"What should we do? Censor it?"
"No," I said. "But give it some context, or reflect on it -- say something like, 'This is a really hard, scary story, and grown-ups have trouble with it too.'"
"We're moving towards Easter," the priest said briskly. "It will make sense to them then."
It will, will it? It doesn't make sense to me, and it's supposed to make sense to a bunch of kids ranging from two to ten? You expect them to remember it at Easter? You expect them to connect the dots?
I'm being deeply unfair here: I'm sure the parish works on connecting the dots, and there was a discussion of the curriculum after the service that we were all invited to, but that I didn't attend because I could no longer stand to be in the building. And this priest has been trained to work with kids. I'm not trained to work with kids. I'm pretty clueless around kids, largely because I didn't enjoy being a kid and didn't like other kids when I was a kid (they didn't like me, either; with a few very honorable exceptions, they either ignored me or beat me up). So maybe I have no right even to lodge a protest here.
But -- but, but. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that if I were a kid and heard that story told in that fashion, I'd have one of two reactions:
1) Oh, goody! God killed the bad guys and their babies, and if God kills the people I don't like, that means God's on my side! Cool! God kicks ass, just like in the movies!
2) The adults are telling me a scary story in syrupy voices, and the story doesn't make sense, but that's okay because I'm in church, where nothing makes sense and I'm not supposed to ask questions, so I'll just smile at the nice people with the syrupy voices who are telling me that God loves everybody even though God killed all those babies.
Complacent triumphalism or polite disengagement: aren't both of these responses way, way too common already? Are these the modes of thinking we want to encourage in our kids?
Q. And what would you do instead, Susan?
A. I honestly don't know. I agree with the priest that censoring the Bible doesn't help kids, who are going to hear the scary stories at some point anyway. I also think that telling kids, "this is a hard story for grownups too" -- my first response -- may be too big a burden for them. But more and more, my instinct with any story (Scriptural or otherwise) is to "go to the pain," as we're told during chaplaincy training.
When I go to the pain in this story, I see a young Egyptian woman weeping in an empty bed. Her first child, the sweet baby who was the light of her life and who never did anything worse than spit up on her best tunic, died along with all those other babies. She and her husband sobbed together, holding each other and howling. They didn't know how they'd survive the loss. And then her husband rode out with the army, doing his job, following his orders. He's washed ashore with all the others, all those men and horses: they're lying rotting and stinking and bloated in the sun. She hasn't had the strength to go look at it for herself. She'd know that her husband was there even if a neighbor hadn't reported seeing him among the corpses. All she can think about is how proud her husband was when she had their son, how he cradled the baby, rocked him, sang him to sleep. She doesn't understand politics, and she doesn't know why her family's being punished this way, and she doesn't know how she's going to wake up every morning and keep breathing.
No, I wouldn't say that to the kids, either. But I might say something like, "Who's happy in this story? Who isn't happy? Let's look at the unhappy people: how would you feel if you were one of them? What would you say to them? Do you think God wants us to be happy that they're so sad?"