by Rev. Joseph Connolly
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“But take care and be diligent in guarding yourselves closely, so as neither to forget those things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days you live; make them known, teach them to your children and your children’s children—…” — Deuteronomy 4:9.
I believe this is a given. We all have specific ways of learning things. In the field of education these are commonly called learning styles.
And, depending on the research you look at, learning styles can be broken down into at least seven or eight ways of learning. I, myself, would argue there are about one hundred seven or one hundred eight learning styles because, for the most part, we each have different ways of learning and it’s likely each of us learns using a broad range of styles.
Now, one of those seven or eight officially certified styles is labeled as visual learning. I am not a visual learner.
However, research says about 65 percent of the population are visual learners. Perhaps that explains why movies and television are popular. They are visual mediums.
These mediums are new but please do not delude yourselves by thinking visual learning is new. The ancient Egyptians wrote in hieroglyphics, a writing system recorded in pictures. There are over 1,000 distinct pictographs, characters, in Egyptian writing.
And the Cathedrals of Europe had stained glass windows and statuary. Even the buildings, themselves, are full of visual cues. These ancient shrines are very old examples of how people learned about faith in visual ways.
Now, a couple of moments ago I said I am not a visual learner. Here’s a true story about how non-visual I am.
I am sure you have all seen the international symbol which means “fragile” on some box. The symbol has a circle with a line through it. And behind that circle with a line is what looks like a broken Champagne glass.
I remember when I was a kid looking at boxes with that symbol and thinking, “Does that mean broken glasses are in the box?” No— it means fragile; handle with care. Since I am not visual, the symbol made no sense to me.
I, myself, tend to learn by listening. Bonnie has accused me of having a photographic memory but, since I am not at all visual, maybe what I have a phono-graphic memory for those of you who remember what phonographs are. If I hear something I remember it.
Also, and I’ve said this here before, I’m dyslexic. I think I cultivated listening as a learning style so I could process first through hearing, through sound, not sight.
One other thing on that count. In my profession being dyslexic could have been devastating. After all, is the word “angel” or is it “angle?”
Well, the letters “e” and “l”— el— are one of the root words for God in Hebrew. The word ang-el means a messenger from God. So, once I learned Hebrew and understood God is a part of the word, I got a lot better at spotting the difference between “angel” and “angle.”
Over time I have described another way I learn as being “logical, linear.” Again, since I am not visual and despite being dyslexic, if it’s written— especially if I write it down rather than read it— I remember it.
One more interesting personal footnote on this: despite my protestations about not being visual, in my work as a writer for the theater I cannot begin to count the number of times actors and directors have said to me I write in a very visual way. I’ve been told the way I lay out a scene and its dialogue helps them visualize the action even before they start to rehearse. Go figure. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the Fourth Chapter of Deuteronomy. “But take care and be diligent in guarding yourselves closely, so as neither to forget those things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days you live; make them known, teach them to your children and your children’s children—…” (Slight pause.)
In some ways this is a problem of the lectionary. Right after the reading we heard today leaves off, verse 13 uses the word ‘covenant.’ It is the first time it’s used in Deuteronomy. You have heard me speak many times about the importance of covenant.
And the words heard in today’s reading are meant to prepare the reader, the listener, for the very idea of covenant. God, through Moses, instructs the people of Israel to not (quote:) “…forget those things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days you live;…”
And then God, through Moses, says, “teach them to your children and your children’s children—…” What is being taught? (Quote:) “…the commandments of your God…”
To be clear, we need to remember in Hebrew the word is not interpreted as commandments. The word means teachings— plural— teachings. And what is being taught? Covenant. (Slight pause.)
So, how do children learn, really? I’m not talking about learning styles here. It matters not if there are seven or eight or one hundred seven or one hundred eight ways of learning. What I’m addressing here is how we live our lives and how share our lives with our children. (Slight pause.)
Sometimes, especially in private situations, people introduce me as the Reverend Joe. And sometimes, especially in private situations, I correct them and say, “People usually call me the Irreverent Joe.” That is not meant to be irreverent. That is meant to be realistic. It is meant to be real.
Indeed, if you look at my business card, if you look in the bulletin it says my title is the Reverend Mr. Joseph Connolly. That is not simply an affectation.
In the Congregational tradition it was said we understand only God should be revered. Hence, only God, not any member of the clergy, no matter how exalted we might think we are, should be revered, to be primarily reverend.
So, what’s my point about trying to be real? We need to be real with our children. Let me try to unpack that with something I said just last week. I mentioned I grew up in the Roman tradition.
In fact, my father was a teacher at a Jesuit High School his entire working career. My mother entered the convent at a very young age, dropped out before taking her final vows and then married my father.
Their background with and in the church had a real impact on me. That impact brings me back to exactly what God said through Moses.
“…teach them,” that is teach the commandments, teach this learning, teach this covenant, teach this way of life— “…teach them to your children and your children’s children…” (Slight pause.) And how do children learn, really? (Slight pause.)
Children learn from their parents and the adults around them. Children learn by example. I want to suggest the first way children learn is parents and all the adults around children— we all have to be real with children.
Yes, age appropriate is good, necessary. But age appropriate also needs to be real. Real is necessary. And how do children learn— from their elders.
And yes, my parents taught by example. But there were others— family friends. This probably won’t surprise you. Many family friends of my parents were clergy— priests, nuns. I saw them at parties. I saw them on vacation. I, therefore, saw them as real people, not icons.
And I learned. I learned what? I learned this God stuff was something with which everyone grappled as they lived their real lives. I learned this God stuff is not something to be placed on a shelf and taken down and dusted off every Sunday. (Slight pause.)
So I guess what I am really saying is in teaching (quote:) “…your children and your children’s children…” the first thing we need to be is real. Age appropriate, yes— but first real, genuine, thoughtful, truthful, lived.
And how do children learn, really? Children learn from the adults who surround them. And if children see things are not real, they catch on pretty quick. And, if our life with God is not something with which we grapple, something lived, if our life with God is something we place on a shelf and take down and dust off every Sunday, children get it.
So please remember the words from Deuteronomy that say this: “…take care and be diligent in guarding yourselves closely, so as neither to forget those things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days you live…” And these words are followed with this instruction: “make them known, teach them to your children and your children’s children—…” Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Here’s a comment I’ve made multiple times before about teaching children. These are the words of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II: ‘You’ve got to be taught / To hate and fear, / You’ve got to be taught / From year to year, / It’s got to be drummed / In your dear little ear / You’ve got to be carefully taught. / You’ve got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made, / And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade, / You’ve got to be carefully taught. / You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, / Before you are six or seven or eight, / To hate all the people your relatives hate, / You’ve got to be carefully taught! That lyric, you know, is about seventy years old. Yes, we need to be careful about what we teach and, to use another song idea, we need to teach our children well.”
BENEDICTION: God’s Word lights our path. The risen Christ dwells among us. The Holy Spirit, guides, protects and sustains us. Let us go forth from this service of worship and offer service to the world in the name of Christ, for the grace of God is deeper than our imagination, the strength of Christ is stronger than our need, the communion of the Holy Spirit is richer than our togetherness. May God guide and sustain us today and in all our tomorrows. Amen.