Seasons of the Spirit ~ SeasonsFUSION

Lectionary resources for worship, faith formation, and service

Nurturing an Imaginative, Inquiring Spirit: Part 3

Swirly trees

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by Susan Burt

Excerpt from “Nurting an Imaginative, Inquiring Spirit” from  Faith Forward: Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity (2013), eds. David M. Csinos & Melvin Bray. 119.


As new Stories Take Shape

This is how narrative works. It allows us to move in and out in different roles and thereby learn what it means to walk in another’s shoes and gain perspective. However, narrative is not the only way to tell, engage, and enter a story. The Bible offers many examples of ways to enter a story of our faith imaginatively; ways we might share, tell, and embody these stories as we nurture the imaginative, enquiring spirit in young people.

Stories are observed.

In Mark 12:41–44, we read that Jesus sits down opposite the treasury box and watches. A widow comes out of the shadows and gives all she has. While her action might demonstrate sacrificial love, it also exposes the oppressive nature of a system that takes all she has to live on.The temple and scribes have abdicated their responsibilities to care for the widows and instead “devour their houses” (Mark 12:40). A story of injustice and oppression is played out right there in the temple. It reminds us that the “hidden curriculum” is our own story, how we live our faith. Children learn about faith from observing our living and lived faith. As people called to the ministry of educating in matters of faith, we are called to be advocates and prophets, challenging any behaviour that is not life-giving.

Stories are ritualized.

Jesus broke bread, shared it, and said, “Remember me.” Key faith stories are ritualized, embodied, imagined, and remembered at various times in the church year. For example: red vestments, flowers, invitations to wear red, calls to worship in many languages, bubbles and balloons on Pentecost; putting away our alleluias at the beginning of Lent and releas- ing them on Easter Day; removing elements and items from the Com- munion table and covering the worship furniture with black on Good Friday; and transforming worship space with flowers and open windows on Easter Sunday.These rituals embody the stories we hold dear.

Stories are sung and danced.

Through imagination, we hear Miriam and the women of Isra- el breaking into song after the people cross the Jordan. We see David dancing uninhibitedly as the Ark of the Covenant is brought home into the city. However, the power of liturgical song or interpretative dance to move us into a deeper experience of the story can be lim- ited by our preconceived notions that such movement is for profes- sionals or people with training in dance. Lindsay McLaughlin shares this story by way of encouraging us to move beyond this thinking:

The elderly woman in the seventh pew slowly, hesitantly, lifted her left arm.The gesture was tentative, but the expression on her face was intent. She was absorbed in the drama unfolding before her, that of the death of Lazarus and the desperate pleas from his sisters to his dear friend Jesus to come to his side.

It was Lent, and the church was making an extra effort to make the scripture readings meaningful and alive. In this instance, dancers were interpreting the words as they were read, using simple, clear movements that the congregation could “echo” (mirror, really) from their seats. Standing on the wide step before the altar, caught up in the synthesis of the gestures I was making and the anguish and fearsome joy of the story, I faced the people in the pews. It was evident that by using more than just their ears, those in the church that morning were accessing the story and its meaning at a deeper, inner level. I had only to glance at the woman in front of me to confirm this.5

Stories are painted.

It is well documented how Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodi- gal Son, impacted the life of Henri Nouwen, provoking inquiry, engaging his senses, stirring his imagination.6 He imagined himself as each of the characters in the painting, and the story was born again, and again, and again. It set him on his path toward ministry with the L’Arche communi- ty in Toronto. Nouwen calls us to stir the imagination through visual art.

We can invite reflection on an art image by saying something as sim- ple as, “I wonder why the artist chose these colours.” We can continue by asking people to place themselves in the painting and explore where they find themselves in the story it evokes. If children ask about the story of the painting, we can suggest that they make up their own story from what they see. We can encourage them to notice their inner thoughts. As the viewers think about the artwork closely, they begin to separate their personal responses to the art from the artist’s intentions. In this, they recognize many layers of the art: their personal responses, the artist’s story, and the places where the artist’s story and their stories intersect.

Stories are acted or pantomimed.

Stories are invitations to share the emotions, thoughts, feelings, and choices of the characters. They are invitations to experience where the story connects and intersects with our own lives.

Interpretive play, role-playing, and improvisation offer opportunity to include both “black fire” and “white fire” characters. They can include nonhuman characters, places, and objects (the donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem, the tree that helped Zacchaeus to see).We can begin with a question or activity that connects with our own lives, and then move into the story by setting the scene. Is it by the sea/lake, wilderness, in a home, on the road, in a garden? We might describe the view, but also the context (the community, what happened before this story), and ask what the young people see in this setting.

For example, sharing the story of Zacchaeus might begin by asking about young people’s experiences of meals. A brief conversation about meals or unexpected guests prepares them to hear the story of Zacchaeus from a point of view other than his height and enter the story from an identified life experience. Having set a focus, the story from the Gospel of Luke might then be introduced as a story about a meal that changed relationships and the way people saw things. We might say something about the gospel storyteller wanting to give an “orderly account” about Jesus of Nazareth, a devout Jewish man, an itinerant preacher, a teacher who welcomed the outcast and marginalized, bringing them from the periphery to the centre.

Setting the scene/context might include a comment about the gos- pel’s theme of journey, with Jesus teaching and healing as he travels with his disciples toward Jerusalem. In this story, we join Jesus and the disciples as they enter Jericho, the last town before Jerusalem. We might offer words about tax collectors and what it meant to be a chief tax collec- tor, providing background that does not have people assume Zacchaeus was a deceitful thief. As we read Luke 19:1–4, we might invite people to imagine they are Zacchaeus and ask them to consider why they want to see Jesus. As we move to Luke 19:5, we might invite them to imagine they are Jesus and ask them to wonder why they must stay at Zacchaeus’ house. We might invite young people to imagine they are Zaccheaus again and to reflect on what is he thinking and feeling. Moving forward to verse 6, we might invite them to imagine they are a person in the crowd – what are they thinking and feeling? Reading verses 7 and 8, we might ask what the young people are thinking and feeling now and what they would want to say to Zacchaeus. And the list of characters in whose sandals we can imagine ourselves goes on and on – Zacchaeus’ fam- ily, servants, friends… After imagining the scene, the characters, and the conversation, the interpretative play or role-play might end with verses 9 and 10 read in unison.

Another practice is to invite a child to sit in a “character” chair within the circle. He or she then role-plays the story character as the group asks questions like,”What would you (in your role) like to say about the situ- ation?” Alternatively, the young people might ask questions of a charac- ter. Or children can divide into pairs and choose to be two characters of a story and engage in dialogue in their roles.

After an interpretative role-play or meditation, it is important to have a way for children to step out of their roles and become themselves again. This can be done by debriefing and inviting their thoughts about the story and what the community might have learned that day.We may ask the group to imagine Zacchaeus meeting with the other tax collectors later that week and wonder what they may have talked about.

Stories are poetic.

Stories engage all our senses. Consider how the unspoken action of a woman pouring out perfumed oil enlivens senses. As one teacher was discussing the anointing at Bethany (Mark 14:3–9) with a group of which I was part, he brought a small bottle of pure nard, opened it, and handed it around. The aroma filled the room, overwhelmed us, jolted awake our senses. We experienced and truly sensed the extravagance of a gift that filled the room and touched everyone. While senses can be engaged by introducing aromas, tastes, sights, and sounds, we can also describe the environment and setting of the story and help the listener engage all senses as he or she imagines the scene. We can describe some sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures, or ask children to imagine what they see, hear, smell, taste, and touch in this story.

Stories are imagined.

Prophets imagined a highway through the wilderness, predator and prey together, and a child leading the parade toward God’s reign of justice, peace, and love. Sometimes we need do no more than present a story to young people and invite them to imagine it into being.What do they see, hear, and feel? What do they smell and taste? When we imagine in this way, we begin to live the vision. God-given, Christ-motivated imagina- tion catapults us into practices and creative acts that transform and build the world. Imagination, as displayed in the prophetic vision of Isaiah, will

lead to acts of peace, justice, and mutual respect.

One more part to follow (Monday,  April 4th)

Susan Burt is Managing Editor of Seasons of the Spirit, an international, ecumenical, and lectionary-based Christian education and worship resource. She has served as the Australian editor of The Whole People of God and has worked in children’s ministry for the Uniting Church in Australia. Susan lives in Adelaide, South Australia, where she is a member of the Christ Church Uniting Church, a theologically progressive community that seeks to celebrate the best of the old with the possibility of the new.

About Wood Lake Publishing

At Wood Lake Publishing we are passionate about supporting and encouraging an emerging form of Christianity, which is rooted in ancient wisdom and attentive to the movement of spirit in our day. Visit us online at

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This entry was posted on March 29, 2016 by in 2016, Author, Featured, SeasonsFUSION, spiritual, Susan Burt and tagged , , , , .

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