Of Astronaut Princesses & Shepherd Kings
Preschoolers like playing Kings and Queens, and especially Princesses, but if there’s one thing they really like more, it’s playing sheep. They’re all about that section from Handel’s Messiah, All We Like Sheep. Well, who doesn’t?
Preschoolers are naturally gifted at imagining, understanding and internalizing the concept of being taken care of by a shepherd, who knows them and loves them and wants good things for them. The world they can inhabit inside their minds includes pasturage and sheep barns, along with the islands where the wild things are, Australia, and the moon. They can imagine themselves to be sheep, and astronauts, and cooks, and artists, and prophets. And they can do it all at once! An astronaut princess. A pirate firetruck driver. A shepherd king is not even a stretch. They are at the most observant time of their entire lives, and the most curious – their language acquisition and understanding and making sense of the world around them are taking place at the speed of light. So much to learn, and so much capacity for learning it! And if they are fortunate, so many good shepherds to help them along the way.
So why have a preschool at a church? After all, children’s families could come to church each week if church was what they were looking for, and all those little feet every day with all that sand in all those shoes wears out the carpet a lot faster than a couple of hours of genteel use on a Sunday.
But it’s a nice thing to do, and it’s good stewardship of facilities to make use of them during the week, and it’s an outreach to young families, and plenty of other reasons that are just fine. The BIG reason for having preschool in a church, though, is that preschool children have a great capacity for spirituality, and moreover, a real need to explore and express it.
Here in church we would say that this is important in the very long run for their eternal life with God, but it turns out it’s important all along the way. Columbia University psychologist Lisa Miller, in her book The Spiritual Child, compiles, quoting from one review which summarizes some of the results, “…an exhaustive and compelling compendium of recent psychological and neurological research, all of which points in the same direction: Children who are raised with a robust and well-developed spiritual life are happier, more optimistic, more thriving, more flexible, and better able to deal with life’s ordinary and even extraordinary traumas than those who are not. Teenagers in particular are exponentially better off…” -- able to make better choices, less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, better able to cope with depression, more resilient. Miller herself states emphatically, “In the entire realm of human experience, there is no single factor that will protect your adolescent like a personal sense of spirituality.” But a spiritual life doesn’t develop overnight and can’t be acquired quickly. It’s a journey.
It is not necessary in either the church or the preschool to be able to provide right answers for every question, easy, silly, or difficult – Do you think those ants wonder about us? Why is that man homeless if God knows his name? Why is there a sack on the T? What is important is that everyone should feel comfortable with wondering and asking. We don’t need to provide answers. We need to provide love, security, and truth, as best we know it.
Our preschool is an essential ministry of our church. Part of our calling is to try to see the face of Christ in every human being, and it is not hard to see the face of Christ in the faces of young children. What may be harder to remember is that they are seeing Christ in our faces, and, especially if they do not have another faith home, what they know of him is what they see in us. Do we wonder what THEY wonder when they look at us? Do they wonder if we know that they are there? “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me.” Do they wonder if we can be trusted to care for them in an emergency? “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Do they wonder if we really welcome them, including non-Christians and atheists and agnostics? “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold.”
“For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Truth telling shepherd king. Not a stretch for a preschooler, and not a stretch for Jesus. For those of us somewhere in the middle between being 5 and seeing Jesus face-to-face, maybe something to wonder about.