Lamenting to my spiritual director one day that my prayer practice lacked the discipline I would prefer -- after all, most of Sunday school teaching stems from modeling a deepening spirituality from the inside out -- she suggested I try a short prayer, a very short prayer, a simple prayer about noticing God's goodness and constancy. It goes like this: "Thank you, God."
That's it? I wondered. "Thank you, God?" I can do that -- and do it regularly, wherever I am.
In Sunday school at St. Bartholomew's Church in Manhattan thankfulness, or gratitude, is the context of all we learn and all we do. Lessons about the people of God, about spiritual practice and about Bible study and teen discussions about moral responses as they navigate this complex city all begin, end and are strengthened by the spirit of gratitude, whether conscious or not. This is the bedrock of our Sunday school agenda at St. Bart's. Sometimes it is subtle; sometimes it is expressed openly in formal and extemporaneous prayer during chapel services and in the classrooms. "Thank you, God."
In the preschool, a 15-minute brainstorming session with 4-and 5-year-olds yielded a list so spontaneous and poignant, it confirmed my belief in, behind constant requests for toys and sweets and silly bands, how much young children notice.
They filled in the blank in the sentence "I notice God when" with:
When we are on the way to Grandma's and suddenly I see her house;
When I eat sweet peaches;
When my father tucks me in with my favorite teddy bear;
When my older sister lets me play with her friends;
When I pick up my baby brother and he smiles;
When I make up with my best friend;
When I try to cheer up someone who is crying;
When I get birthday presents;
When my grandpa tickles me;
When I see the sun setting from our house;
When we go to the beach;
When my teacher helps me;
When my uncle came out of the hospital;
When my dog licks me on my face;
Ideally, the practice of noticing and thanking God engenders a desire to serve others, and it often does, as one matures and develops a special closeness with our bountiful God. The Sunday school philosophy described here connects gratitude for God's love and mercy with a natural desire to show love and mercy through service.
Noticing God on a Sunday morning is a great start, but the daily exercise of noticing and thankfulness is, for parents, an endless opportunity to bring Sunday school home. In our home, for example, my son Mark and I make a game of it. No matter how mundane (especially how mundane!) the moment may be, we see who is the first to remember to thank God.
For example, in the jarring morning rush to elementary school, as I take a deep breath and quell my desire to run and beat the bell, I stop and look when Mark says something like, "Mom, did you see that sparrow stop to look at me? It reminded me of St. Francis." Another time he noticed that the sunflowers we planted on our tiny porch had doubled in size. Thank you, God.
Parents with three and four children sometimes say, "Of course you can do this, you have only one child and you are a theologian." I tell them that anything they can do to support the growth of gratitude at home, applying the ideas the children have learned in Sunday school, is an important step toward their children's development toward a lifelong relationship with God and their recognition of the Spirit dwelling within them and the whole family.
It can be as simple as adding family prayer time before meals and talking about what it means. Or sitting down and choosing to purchase an inexpensive animal through Episcopal Relief & Development to aid families in need.
Even noticing that the train arrived just as you stepped onto the platform, while not profound, perhaps, is an occasion to thank God for the many small ways that God is present in our lives. One day you might point out that God lives inside the poor, broken-down man who sits in the subway, day after day; that he, too, is a child of God. And you might thank God for the organizations devoted to helping to fill his basic needs.
This is Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday school. It doesn't begin in the fall. It is in session year 'round.
And it is a community project. By teaching children to thank God and notice God's presence in all of life's details, teachers and parents can encourage children to become lifelong Christians, furthering the message that Sunday schools throughout the church strive to make central: that relationship with God and others gives special meaning to belonging to a community of worship.
And, one hopes, by communicating this message, Sunday school teachers and parents can prevent teens' mass exodus from church after confirmation.