by Margaret Treadwell
“Church is what you do” was the family mantra in my small hometown where the Episcopal Church became my spiritual, intellectual, emotional and social stronghold from an early age. My teenage involvement and service with the Diocese of Alabama jump-started my adventuresome life. Grace Church was a lifesaver for my mother when she suffered from depression following a car accident, which left her with significant injuries and almost took my father’s life.
So I fret when I read the statistics about young adults, and consequently their children moving away from spiritual communities. True, there are plausible distractions – busy family down time on Sunday, homework, sports – that erase “ church is what you do.”’ Where will these folks find a caring, generous, spiritual community in our materialistic world? How will their children make informed faithful decisions when they have only Christmas and Easter experiences?
All four of our grandchildren are un-Sunday-schooled despite – or perhaps because of -our two children’s church involvement until they flew the nest. Respecting their parents’ message for the grandparents to “zip it” on this matter, I broke my resolve on Palm Sunday to timidly ask our New York City son if we could take John, 7, and Katja, 3 ½ to the children’s passion play at an Episcopal church we’d never attended down the street from their apartment. His quick acquiescence surprised me.
We were the first to arrive, so John and Katja had free run of the Sunday school classroom. Tables were set up with crayons for coloring paper palm leaves which kept them busy until other children began drifting in all spit polished and dressed in Upper East Side finery featuring big bows in little girls’ hair and bow ties on small boys.
A vivacious young woman soon arrived, introduced herself as Claire and immediately took charge of the Passover story by coaching the kids to act out scenes from that time and place. John’s jeans and Katja’s tights proved ideal attire for reclining on the oriental rug provided for their Passover bread and water “meal” and for falling asleep on the brown rug representing the dirt in the Garden of Gethsemane where the children turned disciples had promised to stay awake.
But then the tenor shifted to the Holy Week story complete with vivid pictures of the 12 Stations of the Cross. Parents looked anxious as Claire moved toward the crucifixion.
No worries. Their Sunday schooled kids began fidgeting, punching each other or simply glazing over. Perhaps sensing their parents’ discomfort, the teacher quickly passed over the 6th picture of Jesus nailed to the cross represented by his nail punctured hand with blood streaming from the wound and moved to the 7th station showing Mary kneeling at the foot of the cross.
“ Wait! “ Katja called out. “What about that one?” She pointed to the bloody hand. “ Did it hurt?”
“Yes, it hurt, “ Claire responded turning back to Mary with Jesus already dead upon the cross.
“No! Wait! That one!” Katja persisted. “ Did it really hurt?” The youngest child present was truly present, leaning forward, straining to see and understand.
Once again, Claire patiently said, “Yes it did hurt.”
But having found her voice, Katja asked a third time, “Did it really REALLY hurt?”
Most every child and adult in the room stopped their drifting away from the story to listen to this tiny girl persist and Claire’s affirmation.” Yes, and that’s a very important question,” she said.
Then she managed to end the painful part by suggesting that all of us move to the columbarium, which she explained was like the empty tomb where Jesus was buried and rose from the dead. Before we could follow her directive, John asked in his outdoor voice, “How come there’re 12 stations and 14 pictures?” Claire did her best but, face it, seven year olds can’t inspire the patience three year olds require. Time was running out as she ushered us like a good shepherd down the stairs to the basement.
The tomb was indeed dark and empty. While kids wandered around searching for Jesus or perhaps just something interesting to do in the bare tomb, John stood riveted in solemn thought listening to Claire explain resurrection in sixty seconds. When it was clear the teacher had nothing else to say, he raised his hand and asked, “If God did that for Jesus, why couldn’t he do that for us?”
The other children ignored him but the teacher and parents shook their heads in amazement that this unknown child had so completely gotten the crux of the story. I wondered if it was easier to see and hear with an open heart because John was experiencing the story with no preconceptions from former Sunday school lessons.
Palm Sunday morning filled me with awe and wonder such that all anxiety over no grandchildren in church dissipated to be left in the tomb. It felt like rolling my own stone away for a journey through Holy Week to an Easter Resurrection where my focus shifted from changing my family to changing myself.
Margaret M. “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice. She can be contacted at Peggy McDT@gmail.com