Encounters with Holiness
"What does it mean if God is holy and loving?" is one of the questions suggested for Years 5 and 6 by Understanding Christianity, a new approach to the teaching of Christianity in schools.
As holiness is a difficult concept for adults, even more so for 9 - 11 Year olds, it seemed a good idea to base our next school event around this theme.
After discussion we decided to focus on three aspects of holiness:
Holiness as glory (using the story of Moses and the burning bush and on Mount Sinai); holiness as goodness (Isaiah in the temple) and holiness in action (Jesus heals the woman with bleeding).
You can download a PDF of the script: here. The stories could be used alone as well as part of an event.
We wanted to create an atmosphere of "holiness" as part of the introduction.
The window blinds were pulled down to darken the classroom and the clutter was minimised by throwing coloured cloths over shelves and bookcases.
A focus table was set up with battery tealights and Christian symbols - cross, the baby in the hand, the lion and the lamb, praying hands...
The children lined up in the corridor and were sent in one at a time to sit in a half circle. While they did this we played the song "Be still for the presence of the Lord" and lit the battery tealights.
When all the children were in place the music was turned off and the leader said: "Be still for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One is here... But what is holiness?" After the children had contributed their own ideas, they were divided into three groups to rotate around the different stories.
1 The glory of holiness: Moses
At one end of the room was a picture of the burning bush and an LED tree hung about with aritifial greenery. The children started off facing this end before moving to the other end where the focus was a large poster of Mount Sinai.
The banisters of this upstairs room were draped with hessian and bare willow branches were scattered to indicate the wilderness, while the shelves on the other side were covered with backcloths of the desert that the children had painted on other occasions.
The story was told in costume by Adah, one of the people of God.
She described journeying in the wilderness and the difficulties of freedom before talking about her leader, Moses, who was hidden in the bulrushes as a baby. Turning on the tree lights, she told of his encounter with God in the burning bush: "Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground."
Moses led the people of God through the waters to freedom, to the foot of Mount Sinai. The storyteller led the children to the other end of the room to face the poster of Mount Sinai.
She explained that although it was clear to start with, it was now wreathed in cloud and described the terrifying storm that had taken place. The people of God were now waiting... waiting for Moses...
"Look! Look! He's coming. Everyone is shouting. He's bringing something with him. But look at his face. It's transfigured. It's transfigured by glory. Oh... it's too bright… it's too bright for us to look upon… we're all turning away and covering our eyes."
I wonder what is the biggest thing you have ever seen?
I wonder what is the most glorious thing you have ever seen?
The children were given the opportunity to decorate clouds of glory using paintsticks and adhesive jewels. These were made into an ongoing display on the cupboard doors.
The group were also able to play withe desert box and the people of God.
2 Holiness as goodness: Isaiah in the Temple
This story was told in the small window less library. The bookshelves were covered with white, gold, and red cloths and a brazier created using a metal container and gold and red organza.
The Godly Play temple was used as part of the storytelling and also on display were a small menorah, a shofar and a scroll.
As the children entered, they were asked to sit on two sides leaving a clear space down the middle.
"In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne..."
The storyteller went on to describe the temple using the Godly Play model and then returned to Isaiah's vision. "The hem of his robe filled the temple… Above him were seraphim, mighty six winged angels of fire."
A length of red organza was spread out between the children to represent the hem of the robe.
We used a wave drum to show the power of the shaking of the temple doorposts and then showed the group a variety of pictures of Isaiah's vision of the winged creatures and asked the children which one they liked the best.
Then I heard the Lord say, "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?"
And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"
I wonder what Christians mean by sin?
I wonder if it is possible to be sinless?
God asked Isaiah to take a message to the people. What do you think the message might have been?
Making spectacles with different coloured cellophane/acetate lenses to see things in a different kind of way.
3 Holiness in action: The woman with bleeding
The easiest way to change the feel of this room, which is used as a group room, is to put up screens. We draped the screens with green cloths and created a road by putting down hessian which led out into the corridor.
I felt the story needed a focus so placed a rainbow and a dove (both symbols of hope) on the table.
A robe was draped over one of the screens.
The story began in the corridor, beside the hessian road. The storyteller, the woman with bleeding, described how she had been bleeding for 12 years and her search for a cure. (We had wondered if the children would query this or ask for more details but none did.)
She then spoke of hearing about Jesus, the healer, and led the children along the road into the room.
Inside the room, the children were again asked to sit down by the road while the storyteller acted out of her encounter with Jesus, her healing and her return to kneel at his feet.
At the end she said: "And now? It was many years ago… but I wonder...
What was this power that he had?
Where did it come from?
What did he mean when he said my faith had healed me?
What did it mean to be healed?
The storyteller asked the children the same questions she had just asked of herself.
The children were given model magic and asked to create a symbol of power
Ending and Creative response
When the children came back together the leader said "This is the vision of St John the Divine as he wrote it down for the Book of Revelation that ends the Bible. It is a vision of the holy city, the new Jerusalem.
I wonder what you think a vision is? I wonder why Jerusalem is seen as the holy city?"
(In the light of current events we wanted to make it clear that three religions see Jersualem as a holy city.)
We read a short passage from the New Century Version of the Bible beginning "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth..."
We then asked the children what they thought the holy city would be like.
As a creative response, we set out a long strip of paper and asked the children to graffiti words, pictures and symbols to desribe the holy city.
They were also given the opportunity to do this through painting, drawing, collage or working with the three dimensional materials (blocks,wooden people, shimmer stones etc).
They then chose five little things as symbols of holiness and were offered a drink and a biscuit.
How well did it work?
The children all engaged well with the stories.
Responses included "sin is doing something wrong" and children who made connections with Zaccheus and Jonah "who ran away from God." One child described healing as a tree that has been split in two growing back together.
Children spoke of sunsets and diamonds and their new baby brother when asked about the most glorious thing they had ever seen.
One of the drawbacks to this kind of event is that there is no opportunity to practise the stories with actual children; it can take a couple of tellings to get into the swing and make adjustments.
The children enjoyed all the craft responses: making spectacles, using model magic and decorating clouds.
When it came to the holy city it took time for them to come up with ideas.
There was a focus on peace and love but only one child mentioned poverty. This may have been because it was not a theme that came up in any of the stories.
One of the leaders asked the children about the tiny symbols they had chosen to take home. Many chose hearts and doves as symbols of love and peace; the shimmer stones were also popular.
I felt that the opening, which focused more on atmosphere than on words, was a good way into the theme of holiness.
(with thanks to Clare Reed, Rowena Berridge, Ali Booth, Marie Ashman, Kathryn Smith and Steph Cole)