European Conference on Christian Education, Helsinki 2013:- Talk 1
It is genuinely a huge delight to be sharing with you on this Conference. I greatly valued being part of the Conference in Paris three years ago. To be asked to open up the Scriptures with you again is a deep privilege.
It also set me an interesting challenge. You are all leading experts in your own nations, and in this wonderful calling of children’s ministry and spiritual nurture. You know the core biblical material so well. You study it, and teach it to others regularly. So where might I turn for something fresh? Or do I seek a fresh look at well known material? Plus I am privileged to be working once again with Anita; but this time with knowledge of her gifts in creative worship and response – in Paris we were strangers. Now we are friends.
Well I decided, eventually, to go the first route – look for something fresh, a little different. It also offered an interesting challenge for Anita. In the scriptures on a number of occasions how animals and birds behave with their young is used both to reflect something of how God behaves with us; and by implication how we should consider our response to the young. There are too many to cover in three short reflections but so you have an idea where we will go here is my outline.
1. Swallows, sparrows, hens and nurturing love
2. Eagles and tough love
3. She-bear and fierce love
So to hens, swallows and sparrows and nurturing love. We read two passages:- Psalm 84, notably verses 1-4 and Luke 13:34
B. SPARROWS, SWALLOWS AND THE PRESENCE OF GOD
Birds flying in and out of church buildings tend to be seen as a problem rather than a welcome addition. Pigeons, along with bats, are particularly unhelpful in the UK. Apparently not for the Psalmist reflecting on his love for the Temple. The way the swallows and sparrows felt at home, even comfortable enough to build nests, lay eggs, hatch and nurture their young was a cause of delight and joy.
Even a cause for some envy that they could be permanently resident in God’s presence whilst the Psalmist had to make pilgrimage to it on a regular basis. For these birds the place where God ‘resided’ on earth was the place of safety and security. It was a good place in which to raise the young.
For ourselves this image acts as a reminder to dwell in the presence of God. This is where we find our home, our rest. Very interestingly in her excellent book ‘How Survivors of Abuse Relate to God’, Susan Shooter notes that one of the key themes for survivors that helped them through it all was a sense and awareness of the timeless presence of God.
In our work of encouraging others to develop excellent work with children we should continually be reflecting on how we help parents help their children live with a sense of living in the presence of God.
The longing must be that home can, in this sense, be God’s temple, a place where every child is at ease being nurtured in their earliest days, and as they grow and develop.
In our work with ministers, children’s leaders etc., we need to be encouraging and helping them to ensure the places where worship, learning, activities take place are places of security and ease; places where the presence of God is welcomed, experienced and known – even if often subconsciously.
Simply being in the presence of the Living God should be a place of safety, security, warmth, welcome and thus a place of nurture and growth.
The swallows and sparrows nurturing their young in the presence of the Almighty remind us of the importance simply of every child being in God’s presence.
C. HENS AND THE PROTECTION OF GOD
The hen illustration of Jesus is less homely once we start reflecting on it. A mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings in the very earliest hours of life to offer them warmth and protection. Slowly the chicks have to be allowed out from under the hen’s wings to go and gather food, to explore their territory. The mother hen will keep a watchful eye on her chicks to ensure they do not wander off too far; to make sure they are feeding. If danger emerges the hen will quickly gather her chicks together back under her wings. Once gathered she will nestle down gently over the chicks who will be completely unseen by any predator.
There are case histories of fires taking place in a barn or house. After the fire has subsided the burnt remains of a hen are seen; out from under the hen have emerged small chicks, kept safe and preserved by their mother, dying to protect them.
It is this Jesus has in mind when he speaks of being like a mother hen. He would bear the fury of a predator; the destruction of the fire when he hung on the cross. He died that we might live. In his death he protected and rescued us. This is nurturing love; it protects and cares in a costly way.
So too we are called to care for the young in a way that costs us. We have a protective role to play in the nurture of the young. There are dangers from which we, along with parents and other leaders, have a responsibility to protect the young.
Nurturing love is found by simply dwelling in the presence of the Living God and allowing children to grow and develop in that presence. It is warm, welcoming, safe. Yet alongside this there is a call to act to protect from dangers when they arise; and gathering back into the safe, warm presence of God is one way that protection is effected.