The earth we are leaving for our children…The children we are leaving for our earth…

Wilderness WayBy Solveig Nilsen-Goodin

Just a few weeks ago, the Wilderness Way Children’s School (read: Sunday School…Wilderness Way style) opened its doors to invite children whose parents are not regularly participating in the life of the community. Why?

Imagine this…

Imagine a “Sunday School” program happening mostly outside.

Imagine a Sunday School program led by two well-paid (for the few hours a week they prepare for and work with our children), highly skilled and experienced teachers of children, who view their work with children as a calling.

Imagine a Sunday School with weekly structured activities for…

  • deepening children’s connection with the sacred earth
  • practicing the community’s “skills of loving – seeing, hearing, honoring, responding to needs, having good will”
  • developmentally appropriate anti-oppression and collective liberation work
  • social-emotional support and development
  • learning biblical stories that communicate our core values of Shalom, Sabbath and Jubilee

Now picture a game in which the teachers have hidden acorns all over a big section of a park. The children pretend they are squirrels gathering nuts for the winter. But when all the acorns have been collected, the oldest has found most, and the youngest the least. How is the 2 year old squirrel going to get through the winter if the 9 year old squirrel has collected most of the acorns? asks a teacher.

The children come up with ideas: The older squirrels give the youngest ALL the acorns!

Well, a generous response, but then how are the older squirrels going to get through the winter?

Hmmm….maybe the teacher can hide the acorns at different heights so the youngest can reach some, the taller kids can reach others, and the tallest kids can reach others?

The teachers patiently let the squirrels figure out how all of them would have enough acorns for the winter. And then…

…tell the story of manna. Whether it’s manna or acorns or food or water or clothing or shelter, the lesson is the same: the gift is from God and the sacred earth, and there is enough for everyone as long as the community (squirrel or human!) ensures that no one takes too much and no one has too little.

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One more story: Several boys are playing with sticks during the intentionally unstructured play portion of the school time. They (of course!) start sword fighting. It’s starting to look a little aggressive. A battle is ensuing. A story is forming: one team has stolen food and gold from the other team! The teachers trade glances and then one intervenes. But he doesn’t intervene to stop the play. He intervenes to enter the play and the story.

The teacher joins the team who has stolen food and gold from the other team, and the other team is trying to get it back. Back and forth and back and forth they go. A tug-of-war with the gold then emerges between the teacher and one of the boys. They boy yells, “Give it back to us! It’s ours!” The teacher (still in character) yells back, “But if I let you have it, we will have nothing and we will starve!” The boy then replies, “Well, we will share it with you.” (Out of the mouths of babes!) And the struggle over food and gold ends.

Another boy, however, is still upset about the fact that the gold and food had been stolen from them in the first place! (It is a matter of justice! Also out of the mouths of babes!)

An unplanned lesson in both justice (and injustice) and mercy.

Reflecting on the experience afterwards, the teacher shares wisdom he has learned along the way: the images in children’s imaginations are alive. When we stop behavior that might appear aggressive, we may be inadvertently killing the very images that have arisen to teach an important lesson. Instead, honor the images and the play, enter into them and discover together what lessons they hold.

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There’s a reason there aren’t more children’s radical discipleship schools around. The adults are just starting to figure this stuff out! The adults are just starting to figure out how to be a “community of discontinuity” within our culture. And then we have to figure out how to teach our children???

By some miracle of grace, these beautiful teachers (none of whom use the word “Christian” to describe themselves, by the way) found their way to us and are helping us – and our children – to discover how to walk the way of radical discipleship…how to walk the Wilderness Way.

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After our opening ritual one Sunday, just before the children and teachers got their boots on to head outside, one of our members offered the prayer of blessing for our children and our teachers. “…while we often focus on the kind of earth we are leaving our children, we also must ask what kind of children we are leaving our earth. Bless the teachers and the children of Wilderness Way.” Amen!

2 thoughts on “The earth we are leaving for our children…The children we are leaving for our earth…

  1. I really struggle with this as a parent. I don’t want my kids’ faith formation to be anything like my own, but it’s hard to find alternatives. I love the idea of using unstructured teachable moments.

    1. Solveig Nilsen-Goodin

      It IS a struggle for sure. One resource we love is Manna and Mercy, a re-telling of the biblical narrative that is both whimsical and radical (I know…hard to believe it can be both, but it is!).
      It’s by Rev. Dan Erlander, a Lutheran pastor, and we have found it to be profound and accessible. It’s more for older kids and adults, but just having it as a framework is really helpful and effective. Someone also created a Sunday School curriculum based on Manna and Mercy. It’s not nearly as radical, unfortunately, but anything helps, right? I have said more than once that if my kids grow up understanding the Bible through the framework of Manna and Mercy, I will count that as a huge parental success!

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