Several years ago, when my boys were much younger, I awoke one morning to go for an early walk, went downstairs after getting dressed, got a drink of water and as I stood at the counter I noticed an assignment one of our boys had at school. It showed a drawing of a town from a bird’s-eye-view. There were buildings and stores and houses and streets and playgrounds—your average sort of town. The assignment was to circle in different colors, different types of locations: Circle in blue a place where people work; circle in green a place where people live; circle in red a place where people have fun. I looked to see what one of my sons had circled for each: Red circle around a park; green circle around a house; blue circle around…a church! I smiled and looked to see what else he could have circled. There was a city hall, an office building, gas station, a library. And my son circled a church!
As I was walking I began to think, however, that might not be so great. Not because he faces what a lot of preacher’s kids face: the dilemma of the absent mother or father who is almost entirely focused on other people’s lives—to the neglect of her or his own family. Rather I thought it wasn’t so great because of what the lesson was implicitly teaching our children: there are places where we work exclusively; places where we live exclusively; and places where we have fun exclusively. Frankly, that’s a sad and violent paradigm. It dehumanizes us, steals from us the splendor of life that is fluid. We compartmentalize our lives and our work and our faith in ways that may make some things a little easier, but in the big picture does not help us live balanced lives
Why can’t work be fun? Anyone, whether you live alone or are married or have a dozen children, ought to be offended by the implication that there’s no work going on under the roof! And every armchair psychologist knows that for children play is their work. While we may segment life in these ways, it’s not as simple as changing hats—one for work, one for home and one for play. We have so divide faith and life and work and play, there’s no wonder we’re weary and stressed and fatigued and depressed!
I thought about the discussion it might have created if this assignment had been given to high school or college students, or what about an adult Sunday School? What if my son had circled the whole picture in each of the colors in order to say that we work and live and play everywhere? Would the teacher give him a passing or failing mark for understanding and following the instructions or would he, in her estimation, have missed the point of the exercise?
Which brings me to the insidious lie for us who might see the church and circle it in blue: Is the church building really the place where the work of the church takes place? Is it just the work of “professionals,” the clergy and staff? Just how much of Jesus’ work took place in the places of worship? If you read through the Gospels, you’ll find that very little says anything about the synagogues or the Temple. Most of the “work” took place out in the streets and where people were living and making a living. And though I certainly have found the “work” of living faithfully is sometimes challenging and difficult, I have also found it joy-filled and fun.
I got home—and this is the really amusing thing—and started to tell my son how proud I was that he recognized the church and circled it as a place where work is done. He looked at the picture and said “that isn’t a church, that’s a fire station.”
My son hadn’t circled a church, but a fire station! Talk about popping my bubble!
I decided to do what I hadn’t done earlier and put on my reading glasses and take a closer look. Sure enough, it is a fire station. I looked around the picture and realized there wasn’t a church at all, or synagogue or temple, nothing—no buildings that might give the idea that people had religious or spiritual lives. Sure, this is a public school assignment, but shouldn’t children be educated about the reality of belief systems and religious traditions—at least as a cultural reality?
Okay, that’s an argument that doesn’t need to be made again. So instead I got to thinking about my mistake of thinking the fire station was a church. I looked closer and, besides the large garage door on the side of the building, it actually did look like a church building. It had a steeple-like top, complete with a something I mistook as a cross, large windows that could have been stained glass and a long section that could have been the nave of a sanctuary. I pointed this out in order to justify my mistake rather than accept that my eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be. But then I thought “that’s a great metaphor for the church—a fire station.” It is a unique community whose purpose is serving and protecting the community around it. That’s the same point I had come to earlier when I thought it had been a church. The work of the church is out in the streets and other buildings and homes and parks.
Okay, so I over-thought an early elementary classroom assignment.
But then again, maybe not.
© Stephen R. Carl