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Sermons

Putty Training Our Children

February 09, 2014

Bible Readings

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children, may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

(Deuteronomy 6:1-12)


Train children in the right way,
and when old, they will not stray

(Proverbs 22:6)

Reading from Swedenborg

As children, we take in all kinds of ideas about life, and we take them on trust. They go into our memory, but they get lodged more on the sidelines, because this first type of learning is more conditioned and hardly understood. As we grow older, though, and we start to think for ourselves and not just the way we’ve been conditioned to, we bring back to mind and, as it were, chew over these things that we took on trust, and then we endorse them, doubt them, or refuse to accept them. If we endorse them, it’s some indication that somewhere something good is beginning to lead us.

The kind of ideas that we may take in during our first few years are that there is a God who made everything, who rewards those who do good and punishes those who do wrong, that life goes on for ever, that it is good to pray, that it is right to keep God’s commands and honour our parents and not kill or steal or lie, and many other ideas as well. They’re taken on trust, but later on, when we start to think about them and begin to lead our own life, we think them through. If we go with them and add further ideas of our own to them and then live the kind of life they suggest, it augurs well. If we go against them, it suggests we’re being led very much by ourself.

(Arcana Coelestia 5135.2, 3)

Sermon

I’m taking it you know the story Sleeping Beauty— and of course boys as well as girls can be sleeping beauties. In fact, they can be just as beautiful, even when they’re wide awake. What happens in Sleeping Beauty is that the king and queen have a child, and at the christening ten good fairies come along and give their various blessings, and then the eleventh fairy (who hadn’t been invited) turns up—and because she hadn’t been invited, she spitefully curses the child to eventually prick her finger and die.

And then, thank goodness, the twelfth fairy, who was late, came in, heard the curse, and said, “No, she shall not die, she shall sleep for a hundred years.” The rest of the story, which you know, is all about the fulfillment of the curse and Sleeping Beauty’s final redemption when she’s kissed.

Obviously it’s a parable in its own right—we are the story—and we could spend ages interpreting it and thinking about things like pricking our fingers and sleeping for a hundred years and handsome princes, but that could become boring. What concerns me about the story is that after such a great start, all the attention gets focused on the intrusive bad fairy (who, note, wasn’t invited), on her curse, and on its outcome, and the rest of the story deals with coping with and sorting out the damage she has inflicted. It’s a bit of an indictment on human nature, perhaps—on how much we prick up our ears when there’s some scandal or gossip going around. Why on earth don’t we ever do that with the good stuff, the achievements, the loveliness?

But of course, because this is a parable, the storyline has to be like it is, because we are all incomplete people who need to be reconfigured over a lifetime (that’s the story length) from being people who are self-centered to being people of God—or, as someone said to me, being people of God and yet, if we’re honest, still being rather self-centered as well.

What intrigues me is what those ten good fairies bestowed on the royal baby at the christening. I think the Brothers Grimm story says that one by one they came forward and said, “You shall be pretty,” “You shall be healthy,” “You shall be happy,” “You shall be clever,” and then it peters out and you have to fill in the blessings for yourself. But there are ten fairies! That’s six things left.

What would you wish for a baby? What would you wish for Joshua today, at his christening? Well, of course we would wish for all the best possible things: security and safety and a caring family to grow up in; for friends, of course; for that crucial self-esteem and self-worth (that’s a huge one, isn’t it?); and how about one day having a really loving relationship? Excellent. But the twelfth fairy (the late one after the curse) has the best line. “You shall not die, but you shall sleep for a hundred years.” How would we possibly interpret that?

“Mate, you have got off to a good start in life. But in time you will go through various ordeals. Your first girlfriend will drop you, and you will think the world has ended. It hasn’t, but you won’t know that at the time. It’s actually an ideal opportunity to learn a lot about girls. And other things will come along, some hard things which will knock you down, but also some really alluring things which will take you over and make you think they can make you finally happy. And so you will go to sleep, like it’s a hundred years, chasing butterflies. And then one day, there’ll be a wake-up call which may feel cataclysmic, but actually it is a kiss. And then, for the first time, you’ll begin to understand.”

In the Bible, where there are exactly the same realities as in all fairy stories, the same idea is given.

The Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve. The serpent (that’s the bad fairy). They eat, and “then their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked”—they feel they’ve woken up, but really they’ve gone to sleep!

Or what about the story of the Wise Men, with their gold, frankincense, and myrrh—all blessings, of course, but then Herod methodically seeks to kill this new king by killing all children under two, so they flee, and, so to speak, fall asleep. And later, Jesus talks about this very sequence: The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares— weeds—among the wheat and went his way.

Well, it is not as easy as Sleeping Beauty, but it is virtually the same idea: ten fairies giving blessings which are going to equip that young child to come through the curse of falling asleep and out on the other side of it; good seed sown before the enemy comes and sows tares. We should not race on into stories and their problems too quickly but appreciate what has been given first, without which no one will ever live happily ever after, in the real sense.

Parents of children stand, as it were, in the place of God. They don’t replace God, of course, but they are vital to the process. They are fairies giving blessings, agents sowing good seed in the field of a child’s mind. They are instrumental. God never hands everything over to parents, thank goodness; he never lets our soul level, our deepest level, out of his grasp, which is powerfully illustrated in the Sleeping Beauty story. The whole story, from beginning to end, takes place right there inside the castle. Sleeping Beauty never leaves. That’s God’s handling of our eternal souls.

But parents provide. They nurture our nature, shaping us, a bit like putty. And if I can be terribly idealistic (because every parent is only human), everything you ever do as a parent should in some way keep an eye on the future, should anticipate this child—your child—God’s child—growing up and going it on their own.

That is a hard task. We have our knee-jerk reactions, we show our frustration and irritability and exhaustion, and children cop it and absorb the shock, and while we say they are amazingly resilient, we don’t get what it must be doing to them. I have learned a lot through being a parent. I’ve learned that breakfast cereal adverts on TV are total fantasy. No families are that good looking or that nice to each other at seven in the morning. I’ve learned that in the way children are made, one cross word can be like a sledgehammer. I’ve learned that a lot of parents seem to let their children do what they want because they are scared their own children won’t love them! Last week, one busy parent said to me, “Julian, you’re coming out on the far side of it all. What’s it like?”

So I said, “Well, the house rattles, and you look at each other like it’s really strange. Don’t go there yet. It’s not your time.”

And he said, “But, is there a reward?”

And I said, “Yes, it’s like getting emotional superannuation.” But I should have said, “Yes, just having done it is the reward. You do it, they get it, and then they do it. Who could ask for anything more?”

There’s a verse in Proverbs which says, “Train a child in the way he is to be, and even when he is old he won’t depart from it.” That virtually says it, I guess, so long as the training is based on the child and not the parent, and so long as the training is done from love and the right kind of freedom. One day, think through why we use the same word for bringing up children and for engines pulling carriages behind them, and you might get something helpful.

I want to give you my own version of what those ten good fairies wished for Sleeping Beauty.

If I were a fairy, I would wish for you, little one, to feel right in the world and very connected with it—the plants, the soil, the butterflies, the blue sky—and feel the wonder.

I would wish you lots of playtime.

I would wish you mystery, so that when you read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, you know exactly what it’s about before you spoil it trying to explain it.

I would wish you such a fantastic memory that when you’re older, every time you see a rusty bucket, it takes you right back to the one at the bottom of the garden.

I would wish you to be so tender that when you see someone sad or suffering you feel for them, but strong enough to do something for them when you can.

I would wish you never to take anything or anyone for granted.

I would wish you never to take anything too personally.

I would wish you good manners.

I would wish you the courage to get back up and keep going.

And I would wish you the feeling of God. If you become religious, that’s fine, but the real thing is even better. You start knowing where you come from, why you’re here, and where you’re going. It’s the kiss that wakes you up after a hundred years of chasing after happiness, and suddenly you realize that you are here at home, inside the palace. Same place—different feel. Amen.

Rev. Julian Duckworth