Today, I took two assemblies in a school- one for the infants (ages 4-7) and one for the juniors (7-11). I was beginning a new theme for this term: heroes. Those of us on the assembly team from local churches had decided to eschew the word ‘saints’ in favour of something more understandable.
Not remembering that next Monday is the American public holiday in his honour I chose to speak about Martin Luther King. In preparation, I found this clip of the entire ‘I have a dream’ speech on YouTube:
I downloaded this, using the free utility YouTube Downloader. As you’ll see, it’s seventeen minutes long, so then I edited it in Windows Live Movie Maker to begin at the ‘I have a dream’ passage (at 12:29, if you’re interested).
After an introduction talking about issues of fairness based on real-life examples (Rosa Parks and tbe bus seat, water fountains, different schools, slavery in the case of the juniors and so on), I showed about one and a half minutes to the infants – up to the point where King says he wants hi four little children judged not on the colour of their skin but their character. With the juniors, I played a few seconds more – to the point where he envisions black and white children playing together and treating one another as sisters and brothers.
And that was when the Interesting Thing happened: when I paused the video for the juniors, several of them broke out in spontaneous applause. How wonderful it was to see the style and substance of King’s oratory make a connection with children in a different country, forty-seven years later.
So don’t tell me preaching is dead. We can legitimately talk about style, presentation and all the rest. But when we have a message to share and can do so with passion, surely the Holy Spirit still uses it to connect. Sure, King’s crusade was about a theme that would command common assent generally today, and when I went through the examples of ‘unfairness’ the juniors roared back their disapproval of what happened. But there is something here.
And it’s also about King’s story generally. Why did I choose King? Partly for this reason. Our chidren have been introduced to one or two famous figures at school via books recently. One was Florence Nightingale. Another was Mary Seacole. As a result, we have borrowed other books in the series from the library and read them with our two. One night I read a simple biography of King to Mark for his bedtime story. Granted, it omitted things like King’s alleged infidelities, but the impact on Mark was fascinating. The next day he told us he had changed his mind about what he wanted to do with his life. Previously he has wanted to be an English teacher or an author.
“Now I want to be a minister,” he said, “And tell people not to hate each other.”
He is only five. But I was only eight when King was murdered. There is real power here.
On Thursday, I took two assemblies at our children’s school for the first time – one with Key Stage 1 (a.k.a. ‘infants) and one with Key Stage 2 (‘juniors’ to oldies like me). I am doing this as part of a team from two or three local churches. We are taking incidents from the life of Jesus this term. Last week’s speaker, Helen, used the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. I couldn’t get anything together on the visit to Jerusalem when he was twelve. So, with the aid of Scripture Union‘s rather decent Big Bible Storybook, I looked at his baptism. I also purloined a doll of Rebekah’s, which Debbie dressed in the very christening robe she and her sister had worn as babies.
Further, I borrowed a portable font from church. It was interesting to hear the children’s answers when I asked them what I thought it was. Some thought it was an urn (wrong end of life, I guess). My favourite wrong guess was from the child who thought it contained tombola tickets.
Without going into the whole of my talk, I got to the point where Jesus asks John to baptise him and John protests, only for Jesus to say it’s what God wants. I took that as an early sign of Jesus identifying with sinful humanity (it’s OK, I didn’t use that level of language). Therefore, I said, it was a sign of what Jesus would do in his death on the Cross.
Thus I asked the children how they would feel if they had done something naughty and a friend offered to take the blame for them. In both assemblies, the answer was the same: ‘Kind.’ No worrying about whether it was just or ethical for an innocent person to be condemned in place of the guilty, they saw the heart of such an approach was love.
I couldn’t help thinking they might be further on than many of us who discuss the atonement as adults. There are crude statements of substitution that sound like Jesus was placating an angry God, that overlook the rôle of the Trinity or that forget the Resurrection. Some fail to see that the word ‘sacrifice’ is about more than a sin offering in the Old Testament. There are other images of the atonement in Scripture. (I owe use of the word ‘image’ to George Carey, who prefers it to ‘theory’.) Yet you cannot completely expunge some form of substitution.
And these primary school kids got the fact that it’s about love. Great.
For a more nuanced discussion, Tom Wright’s article for Fulcrum two years ago is always a good starting point. He is glad the church has not defined the theories of the atonement too tightly, yet he rejects both those who caricature and dismiss substitution and also those who hold onto it in a severe way.