"Tell me the story of God" she said, looking me square in the eyes.
This wasn't a challenge or a test, it was a simple request. She wanted to hear the story of God and I was the one she was asking.
Looking at the hand-carved nativity set before me, I figured I had better oblige. This set is a constant presence in Room 105. Unlike the nativity set of my youth that appeared at the beginning of Advent and then disappear in a flurry of tissue paper right around the time that the glass balls from our Christmas tree went into hibernation, the nativity set in the Montessori classroom I minister in one day a week as a novice is a mainstay. Its tiny figures are just the right size for little hands to play with and they occupy their own space in the classroom, complete with a place mat "stage," where they must stay put. Looking down upon the play space is a smiling picture of Pope Francis that hangs overhead.
I had knelt down to see what Laurel was doing with the set, hoping that I might be able to just observe. Laurel is about five years old; she has an active imagination and loves to play. This coupled with the fact that she was a latecomer to the class meaning that while she is social, she isn't bound to any particular group of peers. In the few weeks I've worked with Laurel I've been challenged to use my imagination more and more, to let down my guard and pretend a little bit.
Often times when I ask Laurel what work she'd like to do, she proposes a game- be it "fish match tag", "name tag motor boat", or some other whimsically crafted pass time. Sometimes we do play and other times we don't. I love watching Laurel's eyes when she realizes that this adult sitting next to her will actually play; the sparkle in that moment is a mix of delight, mischief, and sheer pleasure. At first, I think she thought I was suspect, but over time I've received many a bowl of imaginary food and felt myself moved to see what truly letting go can bring about in an educational setting.
Today was one of those days. When Laurel asked me to tell her the story of God, I knew what she was getting at but still the phrasing caught me off guard. My novice mind fluttered- the story of God? Oh, if only I could and if only you knew what you were asking!
Quickly, we gathered all the players: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, a shepherd, and a handful of barnyard animals. The story began with the Annunciation and Joseph's dream. A silhouette cruciform (a la Rio's Christ the Savior) stood in as the angel. Laurel stopped me there. "You know that's a cross" she stated plainly. Yes, I knew that but I needed an angel and so the somewhat amorphous form would have to do. Laurel acquiesced, getting my reasoning and so we carried on.
From the foreshadowing of Jesus' birth, we moved to the actual story of searching for a room in Bethlehem during the census. A little boy in the crowd that had now gathered around the play space kept on trying to jump to the Jesus part, inserting the manger and baby into the center of the place mat over and over again. Once Mary and Joseph had finally settled in, we got to that part and then the shepherds, followed by the three kings and the star. The kids hung onto every word, even the stuff they didn't quite understand. "What is gold?" I asked and to which I was met with blank stares.
Finally a little girl piped up, "Like the gold star you get for good work."
"Exactly." I replied.
Then the Holy Family headed off to Egypt because Joseph had promised to keep the family safe. They were a very good family I explained to the group. They listened to God and helped one another. And, into all of that Jesus was born and he was human just like us and he was also God, sent to be among us. They knew this. The story was a story about love we concluded- a family's love and God's love. Everyone seemed satisfied with this story of God.
"What was your favorite part of the story?" I asked Laurel when we were finished.
"I liked the part where they couldn't find a room" she gleefully responded.
As I asked why this was her favorite part, we talked about what Joseph must have felt in that situation and what it means to make room for God. Of course, this had been her favorite part though- this was the part of the story where I let the kids be the people on the other side of the door.
The little couple would walk up to them, knock on the door, and ask if they had any room. Each child would open an imaginary door and emphatically respond "No!” swinging the imaginary door they'd just opened shut. When we got to Laurel it was difficult to convince her she had to say yes to letting them use her stable or the story wouldn't continue. With this understanding, she allowed it. If you want the story of God after all, you have to let God in.
Rearranging the pieces of the set, Laurel turned to me with another pressing question: "Can we play hotel with them now?" I smiled. "Not right now" I said, there was other work to be done. I literally had beans to count with children and other understandings about the concept of numbers to explore on a 1,000 bead chain. Our religion lesson had taken place in the midst of the story, complete with voices, actions, wooden figures, and handmade stars. I can hope the kids took something from it all, and even if not the whole nativity story- at least a piece of the story of God. A story filled with delight, joy, mystery, and the littlest amount of imagination... that is, of letting go...a story full of what we might call faith.