We are ‘Living Stones’

Posted: March 9, 2022 in Uncategorized

We are ‘Living Stones’

There was a while back a program run by the Middle East Council of Churches, and there is reported a comment made by a Palestinian Christian who said to participating churches. “Thank you for coming to visit the ‘living stones’, and not just the dead stones, the holy places, the archaeological sites. Most Christian pilgrims bypass us he said; we are invisible. We are at best dirty, dangerous Arabs. “They say ‘how wonderful it is to walk where Jesus walked’. I say it is more wonderful to walk with the people with whom Jesus walked. I have been walking where Jesus walked for the last 50 years. It’s a big deal!  But the purpose is not only to walk where he walked, if one can actually do that, but to walk how he walked.

When one thinks about that we realize that it is a huge challenge to those of us who live our comfortable complicated lives in the shadow of an institutional Christianity with all its security blankets of doctrine, belief systems and creeds that produce screeds of liturgies and words of great literary value. Even more so these days when all that seems to be failing and the people who walk the Way seem to be disappearing fast. It’s a big deal for sure to walk in his shoes but there is an even bigger deal I suspect and that is to be living stones, to walk the Jesus Way today in this time and place, or as Perry Gianzer says we are to be citizens of another Kingdom, we are to be living stones or stones that do not conform to what stones are. What appears to be stones is rather those, standing off to the side looking in, watching the decline, different, and noticeable. Let’s be fair also. They might have been called prophets in the past. But they are a bit like protesters who forget what they are protesting about or get caught up in a new interpretation of cause. They are valued for a moment but they are dead stones and we are called to be stones that live and thus living stones. It is a fine line here for sure because as Gainzer says that if faithful disciples experience life as “aliens and exiles,” then a good Christian education must include helping kids understand as well as practice what it means to be an alien. The task of a living stone is to be an outsider and different and unique but an alien. And by definition that means over and against the accepted common place culturally bound, assumptions about goodness and mercy and purpose and action. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, suggest that Christians are “resident aliens.” Of course, what it means to be a “resident alien” can be subject to some misunderstanding but I want to suggest that the term might better be living stones, Stones that are about a faith journey, rooted firmly in the humanness, and the planet always looking for the benefit of both in a symbiotic relationship where the stability, integrity, honesty and courage, vitality, innovation, creative and vibrancy are always organic living events of love.

Gainzer gives the example of when talking about the paperwork for renewing his wife’s resident alien card, their youngest son exclaimed, “Mommy, you can’t be an alien. If you’re an alien you have to be from outer space.” Gainzer chimed in that during his first Christmas in Canada (his wife’s country of citizenship), it actually felt as cold as outer space (minus twenty-five degrees Celsius for five straight days to be exact), but he did not think that his son or wife thought that comment was helpful. His wife then patiently explained that being a resident alien only means you are a citizen of another country. Whereas Paul in his letter to the Philippians reminds Christians that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Thus, good Christian education, at the very least, involves helping people understand as well as practice what it means to be resident aliens, or as I suggest Living Stones.

As with most Christian parents, we are not always sure in our culture that we know what it means to raise resident aliens or as I suggest, living stones. We enter the world as strangers not knowing who we are. According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, we should allow children to learn about themselves naturally. In fact, the best kind of education, according to Rousseau’s philosophy, involves protecting children from society’s corruption by taking them out to nature. This seems to resonate with what is meant by being a ‘Living Stone’.  

One of the interesting things I thought when hearing a couple talk about their vision and aspiration for their new Early Learning Child Centre was that spending time in nature may do many things, but neither educated human beings nor living stones are cultivated naturally. Children need help and guidance to discover who they are. In this endeavour, living stones realize they cannot depend solely on the majority political community for help. Since Gainzer’s wife remained a Canadian, their children were dual citizens (members of two kingdoms as Augustine would describe it). Gainzer does not believe his son has learned more than a few facts about Canada in the three years he attended an American public school. His Canadian identity has simply not been addressed or nurtured. Of course, this is not surprising given that American public schools seek to create productive Americans and are not designed to produce good Canadians.

The Gainzers recognized that the cultivation of their Canadian identity will take a special effort. Living Stone Christians face a similar challenge. We should also not downplay the challenge or shrug it off. Education can inform children of their identity but it can also warp their self-understanding. Without some educating from members of one’s family, children would know nothing of their previous identity, their history, or their special rituals, practices, heroes, and particular cultural achievements.

Christian living stones face a similar danger. One American study of high school texts books found, unsurprisingly that; “The underlying worldview of much modern education divorces humankind from its dependence on God and rightly so because it is not about dependence but rather about active, responsible collaboration as part of an organic whole. Some education replaces religious answers to many of the ultimate questions of human existence with secular answers as if secularism is somehow opposed to religion which it is not. It was birthed in western religion; and, to segregate the secular form religion is to compartmentalize and alienate the world from the conscious participation of the human. In its most extreme it replaces what it sees as extremism with its own most striking, secular understanding of reality as a matter of faith. In other words the secular is given the clothes of religion.

While I would affirm the need to question and even to move away from some of these traditional assumptions about God and the interpretation that has grown up over the years there is a clear challenge in the change that takes place. We may not view the secular intrusion as negatively anymore but we do lament the loss of the Christian myth upon which our faith has been sustained. It seems we have successfully demythologized Christianity but what have we put in its place? Our lament suggests not enough!

Young living stones may lose their identity unless parents and the Christian community, the Church, carefully cultivate it. One of the primary ways that children develop an understanding of themselves and their world is through narratives or stories and as Alasdair MacIntyre notes, “Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.

Gainzer notes that his son will learn what it means to be a Canadian by learning Canadian history and literature. Christians have been graced with a similar kind of orientating narrative through Scripture. Thus, just as Israelite parents were instructed to pass on God’s law, they were also told to tell the stories of God’s saving works to their children in order to orient their lives and provide context for rules. There are two key points here and the first is that the charge is to pass on by way of story, the understanding of how those that came before made sense of life and how to live it and what is perhaps more important is the use these stories are to be put. They are not to indoctrinate or impose belief but rather to enable the children to orient their own lives in their own time and place so as to provide a basis for their own law. And here the sense is not a book of rules for life but rather a way of being that is fulfilling. Not stones, but living stones. There is space for interpretation and in fact it is encouraged, and there is acknowledgement that societies need common sense. There is a purpose for this storytelling and it is to keep alive the quest for common sense. Working it out together and doing it together are what it’s about.

The question we face today is what are the values, learnings and questions that require telling and how do we tell the stories in a world of avatar, AI, Cyberspace, a Universe that is infinitely larger than our imagination can conceive. The children’s stories need to be far more relevant than they are now. The simple has shifted.

For those who want to rely upon legislation and rule of law I would suggest that rules and regulations can provide a degree of guidance for children, but children will always need to know the reasons for the rules. Its more than about consequences and rather what these consequences say about human life and how to be a living stone. These reasons are rooted in identity stories.

Before giving the Ten Commandments, the story has God reminding Israel of their redemptive story, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Similarly, Christian parents and educators need to help children to understand the moral life as well as all of knowledge education in light of the overarching story of creation, including humanity. It is an evolutionary reality, an organic expression and as I have suggested elsewhere God is not a noun but more of a verb.  These stories provide a holistic understanding of identity and who we are that our children will never receive through politically controlled forms of education that tend to downplay or avoid competing identities and allegiances and become PC driven. I am not advocating a non-thinking competitive society but rather one of living stones, one where active participating human beings are rooted in a confident, hope-filled world and this is a world beyond climate change, beyond political mess and beyond rampant individualism and a world beyond the need for fear as a motivator.

It is easy for schools to help children understand their true national identity, but they struggle to contribute to an understanding of their wider human identity and worth although they may try. For example, educators have often attempted to bolster students’ self-esteem using positive affirmation techniques such as “think happy thoughts” while some traditionalists have argued for grounding a child’s self-worth on academic competence. Be good at doing it claims and the being good at being will take care of itself. Neo liberalism perhaps. The market will provide. Either approach I think, neglects a Christian understanding that all humans have worth and dignity because they are a sacred creation. They are ‘Living Stones’ Adaptable, evolutionary and alive as well as the a very crucial participant of creation, evolution and its cyclical or spiral reality.

The mentally or physically handicapped child and the cognitively or athletically gifted student have worth, value, and dignity apart from what they can either accomplish or not accomplish. It’s about being rather than just about doing. It’s about Theopraxis, an applied theology. The child’s dignity and worth does not depend on whether they “think happy thoughts.” If we fail to impart this evolving identity story to our children, we have neglected to tell them the truth about who they and others really are as human beings. Identity-shaping stories do more than provide a sense of human worth; they also shape our affections and desires. In one’s own school experience as with Gainzer, we know one can be trained to think and desire like a citizen of this world but sadly not always as a living stone.

Educators help students cultivate and prize certain identities through their school’s curriculum and overall ethos. In fact, the integration of what we understand as democracy and learning is effective in our schools. Not surprisingly, resident aliens take different subjects and imbibe a different ethos. This is evidenced by the desire to preserve one’s language and culture. Who is Jesus for me and what words do I use to communicate his value and his example in my life’s decisions? I can’t ask these questions without being a living stone. As Christian living stones, we must recognize the need to teach our children an alternative curriculum and help them live in another ethos. One that is confident and robust to engage in the pluralistic debate, one that is intellectually authentic and understandable at all levels of engagement.

What is difficult for us is to recognize that we do not want to be elitist as a living stone but rather to be clear that our different citizenship should alter our curriculum. For Christians, the importance of this point goes even deeper if we see being in the image of God important and if Jesus’ impact in society is a value then by imitating his understanding of life, love, humility, servanthood, forgiveness of enemies, and acceptance of difference, we will learn how to be more fully human.

Stories of Christian history are important in that when students hear these stories people like Augustine, Polycarp, and John Chrysostom, as well as many others of more recent ilk have an impact, not in terms of passing on a doctrine or a particular ideal thought but as legitimization of thinking and alternative viewpoints and a contemporary understanding takes place. For Christians these characters in the Christian story of the church are just as important as a president might be in the story of the American nation-state. Much of what it means to be a citizen gets transmitted through a school’s ethos and not its formal curriculum. Living stone homes and communities need to embody a distinct ethos with different symbols, icons, and calendars. Living stone homes and communities have a whole different ethos with different symbols, icons, and calendars.

Jon Amos Comenius (1592-1670). became one of Europe’s most well-known educational reformers. His educational ideas were deemed revolutionary from the simple fact that he conceived that all education—in its purpose, structure, curriculum, and methods—should be influenced by the Christian story. For instance, with regard to the structure of education, he became one of the first educators to suggest the radical idea of “providing education to the entire human race regardless of age, class, sex, and nationality” including “young and old, rich and poor, noble and ignoble, men and women—in a word, of every human being born on earth. The basis for this amazingly progressive and humanizing vision sprang from Comenius’s view of humanity as made in God’s image. “All men are born for the same main purpose; they are to be human beings, i.e., rational creatures, masters over the other creatures and images of the Creator,” Comenius wrote. “God himself often testifies that before Him all things are equal. Therefore, if we educate only a few and exclude the rest, we act unjustly not only against our fellow men but also against God who wishes to be known, loved and praised by all. In many other ways, Comenius gave himself to developing a whole vision of Christian education from which we can learn today. In his magnum opus, The Great Didactic, it is noteworthy to observe the fundamental basis for this vision. Comenius believed “the ultimate end of man is beyond this life. He understood that Christian education begins with remembering that we are living stones, rocks upon which life can flourish. Amen.

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