A Messy team from five churches put on Messy activities at the Ageas Bowl Christmas Festival, with the brief of making sure the real meaning of Christmas was a prominent part of the festival. Phenomenal amounts of gingerbread Marys (with marshmallow bumps) were created, ride-on donkeys made even the most cynical materialistic families giggle, and well over 150 Advent candles and candle holders have gone back into homes with Jesus evident either in sticker form or as 'light of the world'. Helen and I were in charge of Advent Prayer Boxes: a simple cube net to make into a box, decorate with colouring, add glitter and fill with little prayer cards to pray in the run-up to Christmas. If you're from that tradition, the four sides were based on the Advent 'O' Antiphons, but funnily, none of the families commented on this fascinating fact.
I crouched beside literally hundreds of adults, teenagers and children, and explained each time, 'This is a Prayer Box so that we can remember Jesus at Christmastime as well as all the other exciting stuff like presents and Santa... At bedtime you can pull out a card and say the prayer on it for the person you've chosen to pray for.'
What did I learn?
1) Without false humility, almost anybody is better at talking about God than I am. I find it very hard to ask questions about people's faith without feeling I'm being intrusive. I'm sure I missed loads of opportunities to dig deeper into what prayer is all about. One Y3 boy was busy writing his prayers industriously and asked, 'So will these come true?' One mum was helping her daughter with the card that said 'Set ... free', and looked at me aghast, saying, 'That's a hard concept for a 9-year-old'. One father was reading his son's prayers and chuckled delightedly: 'Set Daddy free.' So many opportunities for conversation way beyond how chilly it was outside. I just wasn't very good at it.
2) So much is communicated by the way we do things as well as what we actually say. Lots of the families coming to us had a slightly world-weary, negative look to them; conversations veered towards 'having a good moan' about teachers / husbands / Christmas festivals and more. But something of the enthusiasm of the team members made smiles break out and a 'have a go' attitude take the place of the jaded exhaustion and tendency towards cynicism. The self-giving love that those team members exhibited, the patience and warmth with which every person was greeted, was a language in itself.
3) That children's prayers in their sheer enthusiasm must be a total delight to God, their heavenly father. One boy wrote the name 'Lola' in every one of the ten prayer cards: 'Bless Lola', 'Shine on Lola', Set Lola free' and so on. 'Can I ask, who's Lola?' 'She's my girlfriend and I love her. I've loved her since reception... no! Since preschool!' 'What do you love about her?' 'She's got a lovely smile.' Not a comment on her looks, just an appreciation of Lola's smile. My prayer for him is that he carries on seeing beauty in women's real selves, not their outward appearances, all through his life.
4) Families are delighted to be reminded of the way Jesus is at the centre of Christmas, and long for the Church's support to help their children remember the story, move away from greed and celebrate what matters.
5) Glitter is a bad idea. Even in conjunction with a supposedly foolproof glitter box, a heavy duty tarpaulin and a very responsible adult leader in charge. But, happily, as long as you make a quick getaway at the end, nobody will ever know it's you...