Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Sower, the Seed & the Sustainer of Kingdom Growth

A child's representation of the parable (9
years old). The rather diminished sower
in the bottom left-hand corner exclaims:
"Wow, that was my seed!"
When I did the 3-day Godly Play core training back in 2003, the Parable of the Mustard Seed was the very first story that I learnt and presented to the rest of the group at the retreat near Evesham, in England. Since then I have always felt a close affinity with that particular parable, and I have often drawn comfort from the belief that it is ultimately God who plants the true seed which in time will grow in surprising and unexpected ways. This belief has sustained me as I have travelled thousands of miles over the last 9 years, introducing Godly Play to churches and groups here in Spain, and indeed further afield. To be honest, travelling all that distance in order to sit down on the floor and mysteriously move little painted figures made of plywood over a piece of felt underlay, hardly appears on the surface to be high impact ministry, and it's easy to wonder what the point of it all might be... if in fact there is one!

At the moment my local church situation does not offer a great deal of encouragement. Because of major division in the congregation and property dispute (yes, it sounds awful and the situation is very sad), the trustees of the chapel temporarily closed it back in April, including the two beautiful Godly Play classrooms that had been prepared so lovingly and prayerfully. These classrooms, although small, were rapidly becoming a national focal point, as people visited from different parts of Spain (our local area is a summer holiday resort) to see what a model Godly Play environment was like. So, without further access to these rooms, for the last three months before the summer recess I was setting up a Godly Play space in a hired hall each Sunday and storing all the teaching materials in my shed at home. But now at the beginning of the new school year, it seems that even this hired space is no longer available to us and the future of Godly Play here in Galicia is looking more and more precarious. It would be a great pity if we were not able to continue delivering this imaginative method of engaging children with Bible stories. After 2 years, the children were responding wonderfully and there have also been recent signs of interest in Godly Play from members of other churches in the area, including our local Catholic parish.

So, I wonder how fast the mustard seed is really growing. How long before the invisible growth beneath the surface of our perceptions becomes evident and palpable? How long before the shrub grows up so big as to turn into a little tree? When will the birds of the air come to make their nests in its branches?

Yesterday, someone from Uruguay wrote to let me know about her own recent adventures with Godly Play. Toni and her husband Matt have been serving as missionaries in Montevideo for 15 years, chiefly with an international agency called Christian Associates. We also have missionaries linked to the same organisation in Spain. When we ran our very first official Godly Play introduction in Madrid back in 2004, Sarah and April, two ladies from Mountainview, a Christian Associate church plant in the western suburbs of the city, came and were immediately 'sold' on Godly Play. They invited me to repeat the presentation at a house belonging to one of their missionary families, and to go on to train the whole team in the method. This led to several weekend events in 2005.

Shortly after that, Sarah and April were invited to share about Godly Play and to demonstrate a story at one of Christian Associate's annual international team conferences held in Europe. Toni was there and immediately caught the vision for Godly Play. "I was fascinated and told God I would be honoured if He would let me take this to Uruguay", she wrote to me yesterday in an email.

Toni's dream came true and she began doing Godly Play at Christ Church, the international English-speaking Protestant community in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. A Godly Play environment was established by a team of artisans who, she says, "used heart and hand to develop the materials". Toni also received help from Caryl Menkhus, a Spanish-speaking trainer from the States.

Seven years later, they are still deepening their own understanding of the method. However, an exciting development has been that Toni has been asked to share Godly Play beyond the Protestant community in Montevideo. "I have been blessed to share this precious way of mentoring children with several of the Catholic churches in the area", she writes.

However, the most surprising of these recent developments is that the Colegio Seminario, the biggest Jesuit church school in the city, with close to 1,000 students in primary alone, asked Toni to train all their teachers in Godly Play. As Toni explains in her blog, the rationale of the Jesuits who run the school is that, although each teacher is responsible for teaching catechism to his or her class, "they doubt that some of them even know Jesus. Godly Play not only seemed like the best way of leading kids into God's presence, but it also gave them hope that their teachers might experience Christ and find faith in Him as well!"

So, on the 8th and 9th of June this year, Toni and her friend, María, led a weekend Godly Play retreat together in Spanish, using the facilities at Christ Church, with the first group of 23 teachers from the school as well as other pastoral care workers. Just last week, the school's official website reported that "we are thrilled to have begun bringing Godly Play stories to our students, confident that it will prove to be an instrument that will help them deepen their relationship with God and grow in the faith".

Another representation of the parable by a younger
child (7 years old)... a multi-textured collage which
in itself is a parable of the connected international
growth that I am referring to in this post!
Now I'm sure that stories like this are happening all around us. But much is taking place below the radar of our awareness. Thanks largely to social networking I have been able to trace this particular example of 'mustard seed' growth with its various connections and chain of events. From Madrid to Montevideo! It's really amazing how a single seed planted in the Spanish capital in April 2004 is now potentially allowing hundreds of children to join the Godly Play circle in the capital of Uruguay.

Well, that story stirred up in me again the deep belief that growth is ultimately in God's hands. In fact, the 'three-in-one' God is the Sower, the Seed and the Sustainer of kingdom growth.

It is certainly encouraging to know that and to hold on to that belief when at times the local circumstances appear rather bleak!