Entries with tag religious education .

Questions, Questions, Questions

“After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2:46-47)

According to this statement Gospel of Luke, the twelve-year-old Jesus asked a lot of questions.

Lately, I’ve been asking clergy to list the questions that the young people they know ask them. The responses have been all over the map, from theology to ethics, to personal matters. “Is there a God?” “Why does the Church do this or that?” Lots of questions about sex and morality. As one priest said, “They ask about everything.”

Questions are normal. Adolescents are reaching new levels of intellectual and cognitive development. As a result they are able to wrestle with many topics. They also want to think for themselves. Of course, they have a long way to go, but they are trying to make their way in the world, thinking independently of their families, as they begin to take charge of their life and take their first steps into adulthood.

The critical tasks of the adults in their lives, parents, priests, youth advisors, camp counselors, and Sunday Church school teachers are to walk with them as they ask their questions. Walking in a group, sometimes we will lead, sometimes we will push, sometimes we will be in the middle of the group.

How can we begin to deal with this?

First, rejoice. Be grateful that the young people you know are coming to you with their questions. That indicates that you have created a trustworthy environment for discussion about the weightier matters (see Matthew 23:23).

Second, listen attentively. Don’t listen only long enough to formulate your response, but listen to the entire thought. If need be, take notes.

Third, avoid “you need to know” statements. The religious educator John Westerhoff once wrote, “Few, if any, learn what someone else wants them to know, care about or do. It is somewhat like my reaction to those who come to me and say, ‘You need to know,…’ to which I have typically responded, ‘No, you are wrong. I do not need to know. You apparently need to tell me.’”

Fourth, when you do respond, respond with stories from your life, your own experience. We’re hardwired to remember stories. Share the wisdom from your life, the lessons learned.

Fifth, open the sources of our Faith for them. Knowledge is important. The Bible, our Liturgy and Sacraments, the writings of the Fathers can offer insights and guidance. These sources should be studied, questioned, and brought into a conversation with our present understanding of an issue and the implications that the sources have on our lives. Let them share their questions with you. You can then create your lessons and conversations around their questions, using the many resources that are available.

Sixth, let them figure it out. The most frequent “teaching method” of Jesus was the parable. Those who heard the story were allowed to figure it out for themselves and once they did, they were probably more convinced than if they had merely been told. Of course, if there’s danger involved, you need to step in. You are the adult.

Sixth, accept the fact that they will fail and fall. Our natural temptation is to prevent failing and falling. But we learn from our mistakes. The important dimension is communicating that we care about this person no matter what mistakes he or she makes and we will accept him or her, faults and all.

“They ask about everything.” They will ask about everything. Let them ask. Be ready!

Another Church School Year Begins

While it’s still early August, and many families are on vacation, and parishes are still on their “summer schedules” or still working on their Festivals, another Sunday Church School year is just around the corner. That means now is the time to plan and organize so that when Sunday school begins, everything is in place.

Here are some things to do. This list may look overwhelming, but by starting to work on it now, you can make steady progress to be ready for that first day of Sunday school.

First, pray for your students, teachers, and their families. Pray that God will give them a good year, inspire them to learn and deepen their knowledge of the Orthodox Christian Faith and practice it with more dedication. The Paraklesis Services through the Dormition Fast period are an excellent opportunity to bring your prayers to the Theotokos and ask her for guidance.

Second, review the calendar. Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve fall on Sundays this year. Pascha falls early in 2018, which will affect your schedule. Triodion begins January 28, 2018, Clean Monday is February 19, and Pascha falls on April 8 (one week later than the West). Once you’ve noted that, schedule events and programs, the Christmas program, the Lenten retreat, the Good Friday retreat, the parish Oratorical Festival, and all the other events and programs your parish holds (a parish calendar is a good idea too).  Create a calendar that can be shared with the parents and students and publicize it.

Third, review class assignments with teachers. Who will they be teaching this year? Who will teachers work with as assistants? What will various parents help with this year?

Fourth, review the class spaces and supplies. Make sure everything is working, in good repair, and that there are adequate materials ready for the classrooms.

Fifth, related to supplies and resources, order now! Take advantage of the “back to school sales” in your local stores. Order books and materials from the Archdiocese (OrthodoxMarketplace.com) now.

Sixth, start implementing ways to “keep kids safe” in your program. Discuss appropriate and inappropriate forms of interaction with children and youth. There are many items for consideration, too many to list here. Public school teachers, medical professionals, law enforcement professionals could be invited to offer their insights into best practices for your parish.

Seventh, schedule teacher development time. Poll the teachers for topics they want to learn about and schedule a few times through the year to meet to study together. Theological topics will be on the list and parish priest will be your primary teacher, for those, or local experts. But don’t forget educational topics and experts in your parish or neighboring parishes on those as well.

Being a Lenten Apprentice

Great Lent is often called a time to return to basics because we focus on central dimensions of our Christian faith: we read from Scripture to remind us of the need for a Savior; we become more focused on matters of prayer and worship; we increase our philanthropic and charitable efforts; and, of course, we follow the ascetic discipline of fasting from certain foods.

In some ways, we return to being novice Christians, doing things we were taught years ago. To borrow a concept, we become apprentices once again. According to the dictionary, an apprentice is someone who is “learning by practical experience from more skilled workers.” Parish life could and perhaps should be thought of as an “apprenticeship program” in Christian life.

We learn how to be an Orthodox Christian by participating in the life of the Church with more experienced teachers. The experienced share what they have learned with new generations of participants. The wisdom of experienced people is really important. They have internalized the wisdom of the community through their practice of the Faith. This is best shared in face-to-face encounters.

Who are the “more experienced” in our parishes?  First, of course, are the clergy. They have been educated in the Faith at a fairly high level and should be considered the chief teacher of the Faith in a parish (of course the bishop is the chief teacher in the Church). Second, there are the adults in the community who have years of experience living as Orthodox Christians. Don’t underestimate the influence of grandparents and senior citizens. Studies have repeatedly shown that grandparents have enormous influence on the religious lives of the young. Third, there are the teachers and youth advisors. They are a specialized group because of their focus on intentional instruction, class work, discussions, and activity.

Who are the apprentices? First, the young. They are learning and need a great deal of guidance. Second, there are the new to the Faith. They may have read about Orthodox Christianity in a book, but are now trying to apply what they’ve read to their lives. Finally, all of us are apprentices to one degree or another. We are continually learning. We are always disciples – students -- of Christ and the way of life He invites His followers to observe.


How we do this?

Work together, alongside one another. We don’t just bring prosforo to church; we can bake it together. It’s learning by doing.

Advice and guidance. There’s a great deal that is learned “on the job,” especially what’s unwritten or can’t be explained easily. Apprentices are often observed performing their jobs by more experienced teachers, and if possible, being corrected or reminded of things along the way. To continue with the prosforo baking example, someone probably has to show us when the dough has been kneaded adequately. That part of the process can’t be found in a book.

Small jobs, in time, become large jobs. Being a GOYA officer can lead to Parish Council membership. Serving on a committee leads to chairing the committee. Small liturgical roles can become larger ones in time. In this approach, the lived work of the Church is handed on to newer generations, little by little.

Classes are useful. Apprentices often take classes, to learn the theory about their job and to deepen their knowledge of an area. It’s often in preparation for performing a new task. Let’s not underestimate the power of teaching groups. Jesus often His disciples, privately, apart from the crowds. He explained his teachings to them.

Great Lent offers opportunities to place all of these qualities into practice in our parishes, teaching one another, but especially the young and new to the Faith, the way of Christian living.


The Church is a Symphony

The other evening I went to the symphony. While enjoying the music immensely (an all Beethoven program), I was also enjoying watching the conductor. He was quite animated, looking at the different sections of the orchestra, giving them their cues, leading the whole orchestra, counting the time, and of course, the stops and the starts. At one point, when the entire orchestra was playing in unison, I thought to myself, “That looks like the easiest part of his job.” Which made me think about the Church.

St. Ignatius of Antioch in the second century wrote, “For your honorable presbytery, which is worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop, even as its strings to a lyre. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung.” This line is often quoted. The next line though is more reminiscent of my experience of the symphony orchestra. Ignatius continued, “And do you, each and all, form yourselves into a chorus, that being harmonious in concord and taking the key note of God you may in unison sing with one voice through Jesus Christ…”

In many respects, the Church is more like a symphony orchestra or a chorus than a single lyre or instrument. The Church is comprised of many different members – men, women, children, clergy, teachers, missionaries, etc.; the orchestra has sections – violins, horns, percussion, etc. In the orchestra, each member of a section is are each unique and distinct. Each contributes his or her unique gifts and abilities to the whole. Within each symphony section each musician is unique. There is also a hierarchy, a “first violin,” “second violin,” and so forth. The Church is comprised of many ministries. Each ministry has its individual members, who provide their time, talents and treasure to the whole. Within each ministry there could be a hierarchy of more experienced members to the novices. Of course, within the hierarchy and clergy there is the more official hierarchy of seniority.

In the symphony orchestra, the conductor is the leader. The conductor’s job is to interpret the score (more on that below), and then lead the orchestra in such a way as to perform the piece. The conductor’s job looks the easiest when every one is playing at the same time and hardest when sections go in and out of the score (a conductor friend of mine confirmed this for me too), since the conductor must bring them in or lead them out just at the right moment. The conductor also needs to make sure that each section is playing the music according to his interpretation of the score.

In the Church, bishops and presbyters serve as the conductor, depending on whether we are talking about a diocese or a parish. For the purposes of ease of discussion, I’ll focus on the diocese level. The job of the bishop is to interpret and teach the Faith of the Church, knowing what the Church has taught through time and trying to discern what needs to be emphasized at a particular moment. The bishop tries to lead the various ministries to do their best. It appears (although I’m sure it’s not) easy when everyone is working towards the same thing or is in agreement. It’s probably most difficult when everyone is “doing their own thing” and not even observing the leader.

In the symphony, a composer has written a score for the piece to be played. The composer arranged the score for each instrument in the orchestra. The composer also left marks on the score, with the time, the speed (allegro, vivace, etc.), and the dynamics – from very soft to very loud. The composer had a vision of how the piece was to be played and what the audience would experience. But even with that, the conductor determines how to understand the composer’s instructions.

This is more complicated for the Church. In the Church, the “composer” is Christ Himself. His teachings were recorded by His first disciples. These are in the Gospels. Other early disciples, like St. Paul, left us their teachings. The Church gathered them into the Bible, determining which books hey had inherited from Judaism would be called the Old Testament and then which books would comprise the New Testament. Unlike a composer of a symphony, Jesus left no instructions about which teachings of His were more important than others, which parts to emphasize more loudly than others. The Tradition of the Church is a Tradition of interpretation of these biblically inspired writers (at least these are the ones we’ve saved) written over the centuries, with each new generation adding to what had come before. Each generation and writer has emphasized something significant. The contemporary task is to become as familiar as possible with these, knowing that each of us will still have a particular emphasis, something that “grabs us” more than something else when we read the older material. We also have our own challenges, issues that the past didn’t have to wrestle with or could not have foreseen. On these topics, we have to do what the earlier writers did: search the Scriptures. We do this so that our “symphony orchestra,” the Church can bear witness or “perform” to Christ in the world today.



Learning to Live "Synodically"

A Reflection on the Forthcoming Great and Holy Council.

A few weeks ago, at the invitation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a couple of days in Istanbul for a gathering of Orthodox scholars from around the world. The purpose of the meeting was twofold: a) an opportunity for the Ecumenical Patriarch to learn about a “younger generation” of Orthodox scholars, our areas of concern and interest, and how these areas intersect with the work of the Patriarchate; b) a meeting with His Eminence Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon to discuss the forthcoming Great and Holy Council. The news about the gathering, including the statement from His All-Holiness to the group, photos, and the list of the participants can be found on the patriarchate’s website.

The discussions about the Council were wide ranging. Over four hours, we learned how challenging it has been to develop the statements that the Council will review for final ratification and even to plan for this historic event. Others have discussed many of those challenges. A statement made by Metropolitan John to us bears repeating and reflecting upon. He said, “We are learning to live ‘synodically.’”

The word “synod” in Greek is “synodos” and combines syn- for together, odos for road. In the Synaxarion, we read of a saint and his or her “synodia,” the companions, the fellow-travelers, as it were. A synod is an experience of walking together, to be on the same road. Is this what Metropolitan John meant?

When I was in elementary school, our teachers required a class to line up straight to move from one place to another (do they still do that?). It taught us discipline and kept order in the hallways. On the way home from school, my friends and I would walk as a group (do children walk to or from school any more?), with someone leading, some lagging, some off to the side. The loudest voices often dominated any conversations, but not always. On that walk, there could be many different conversations. Sometimes everyone talked about the same thing; sometimes the conversation would be just with the person walking closest to you; and we didn’t always agree on everything. But, we walked the same path. We walked together daily.

There are instances of “walking the same road” in the Gospels. As an itinerant teacher, we see Jesus teaching in many places, including as he moved from one place to another. As a result, his followers would walk with him as he taught, including “on the road.” For example in Mark 8:27, they traveled to Caesarea Phillipi. The pericope records only one conversation—the famous, “Who do you say that I am?” discussion—but it is easy to imagine that there could have been many conversations occurring between Jesus and his disciples, or between the disciples on their journey. They probably did not walk in a line, but in a group, with some closer to Jesus than others, some in the back, lagging behind, perhaps others off to one side. Yet they still walked the same road as one group.

Rarely are groups univocal, speaking with one voice. And we can be alarmed when a group does achieve that level (have you seen the political rallies on television lately?). But we pray in the Divine Liturgy, “Let us love one another so that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Trinity, one in essence and inseparable.” The love we share as Christians unifies us and we are able to speak as one body and confess our Faith. The Holy Spirit empowers the Church to speak as one (See Acts 15:27, “it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord”. Recall how statements from the Councils are collective statements of the Church’s Faith, usually beginning “We…”). Conciliar documents direct the leaders on the path to follow in matters of doctrine and praxis. Our goal in the Church is to care and maintain for our unity through dialogue and conversation, to ask for the Holy Spirit to enable us to walk together, so that we may speak as one community and so that God speaks through the Church.

If I understood Metropolitan John correctly, the fourteen autocephalous churches—the four ancient patriarchates and the more modern nationally organized patriarchates and churches—are learning what it means to walk together as one group, as one Church. For decades and centuries, they have shared one Faith, but lived largely independently, making decisions for themselves. Now they are trying to walk together and make decisions for all. Like any group walking together, there are many voices, many conversations, many interests, making it challenging to speak as one. This Council’s great challenge will be to overcome local interest in favor of global commonality.

Two American aphorisms might be helpful to understand the challenges inherent in this forthcoming Council. As the US Congressman Tip O’Neill so famously put it, “all politics is local.” In this situation for the Council, local interests and conversations could prevail over the global. The second is “Will it play in Peoria?” refers to how any action may be received by a mainstream audience or consumer. In the case of the Council, statements and actions of any participant may be for consumption back home, rather than necessarily for the good of all. In response, perhaps the words of Augustine of Hippo are useful, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, compassion (should it be, love, since the Latin term is caritas?).”

The upcoming Council, will be a first step in learning to live synodically. Which or whose conversations will matter the most? Will it be only Constantinople and Moscow’s? Will it be possible for other voices to get a word in? Will it be possible to speak as one? Will the global needs of Orthodoxy prevail over any local or narrow parochial interests? Will the synod reach accord and agree to walk together on the same road?

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