We play “Zip, Zap, Zoop,” and we talk about conscience and the voice of God

Series of entries in my teaching diary about an experimental Sunday school class.

The children went to the first fifteen minutes of the worship service with the adults as usual. It took a long time for the worship service to get going this week. We started three minutes late, the announcements went on for four minutes, and we wound up taking about five minutes to greet the people around us and introduce newcomers, so it was 11:12 before the worship service really started. Fortunately, this week’s worship associate, Kay Brown, told a wonderfully effective children’s story. She started by saying that the story took place “far, far away, ten thousand miles away, in the land of India, where I was born.”

The story was about a man who made his living by selling caps (Kay put a baseball cap on her head to show the kind of cap she meant). He carried around some 50 caps in a big basket calling, Who wants to buy a nice cap? Red ones, green ones, all kinds of caps! Then the man walked under a tree in which some 50 monkeys lived. The monkeys saw the caps and wanted them. They climbed down out of the tree, and each took a cap. They liked the red caps best, said Kay, “because the red caps matched their red rear ends.” The man called to the monkeys to return his caps, for if he could not sell the caps, he would earn no money and his children would starve. He pleaded with the monkeys, but the monkeys just laughed. The man grew sad, and then angry, and when he realized the monkeys would not give his caps back no matter what he said, he grew disgusted and threw his own cap on the ground (Kay demonstrated this with the cap she was wearing. Lo and behold, all the monkeys imitated the man and threw their caps on the ground where he could pick them up. “The moral of the story, parents and children,” Kay said in conclusion, “is this: children will do what adults do, not what you say.” (I can’t remember the exact wording of Kay’s moral, but it was something like this.) I found it to be a very satisfying story — it was a familiar story told in a personal way, it was fun for children, and the moral was not simplistic. I liked that the moral was really two morals in one: it told adults that words are not enough; and it alerted children that they should pay more attention to what the adults in their lives actually do, as opposed to what those adults say. I thought to myself that I might want to take some time to talk about this story with the children in class.

We went off to our regular room. I was surprised to find that several of the things I had set up had been put away — the candle we were going to light was gone, the markers and crayons I had ready for the project were gone, the snack was gone. We found the candle and the markers had been put away in the closet in our room. I went off in search of matches and snack while Melissa said the opening words with the children. I grumbled a little bit, but there wasn’t much we could do. This is always one of the challenges of teaching Sunday school: things move around when you’re in shared space.

I got back to our room in time for check-in. There were just four children today: Dorit, Andrew, Perry, and Monty (attendance was light in most age groups at the first worship service as well). There were five adults today: Lee, Melissa, Lucy, Amy (our parish minister) and me. Lucy is Dorit’s and Andrew’s mom, and she said, “Is it OK if I come to class? I like it in here.” Of course we said it was OK for her to come to class. Amy has been wanting to visit the Sunday school for a while, and since we had a guest speaker today she was able to come.

After we had each checked in, Dorit asked if we could play “Zip, Zap, Zoop.” Andrew, Amy, and Lucy had not played the game before, so Dorit (with help from me and others) explained the rules. We played for a good five minutes or more, and had quite a bit of fun. Finally I said, “Last round!” We played one last round, and Dorit wound up making a mistake (she “zapped” with the wrong hand) and had to do the Funky Chicken. “Peck, peck,” she said, sitting there and rolling her eyes and smiling.

I brought out some strips of paper, each strip with a question printed on it (here’s the list of questions). With the questions face down, I asked each person present to choose one strip of paper. Monty didn’t like his question and asked if he could choose a different one; when he didn’t like that question either, I said you only got to reject one question. When everyone had a question, we went around the circle and answered the questions. Perry read the first question: “How do you feel about living forever?” and he answered it by saying, “Good. I’d like to live forever.” Andrew’s question said, “What is one thing that you could say about death?” and he said, “Sad. Death is sad.” When Melissa’s turn came, her strip of paper read “My friends and I really have fun when…” and she said, “When we sit around and talk about our children.” One of the boys — I think it was Andrew — asked if we could play “Questions” again, and I promised that we would play again next week, but right now I had a short story to read. (It was already 11:35 by this time.)

I told the children this story was written by a man named Theodore Parker. I asked Amy to tell us who Theodore Parker was, and she said he was a Unitarian minister who lived many years ago. Here is the story I read to the children:  

One fine day in spring, before I was four years old, my father led me by the hand to a distant part of the farm, but soon sent me home alone. On the way I had to pass a small pond in the field. A rhodora flower in full bloom drew me to the spot. I saw a little spotted turtle sunning himself in the water at the foot of the flower. I lifted the stick I had in my hand to strike it, but all at once something checked my arm, and a voice within me said, clear and loud, “It is wrong!”

I held my uplifted stick in wonder at the new feeling. Then I ran home, and told the story to my mother, and asked what it was that told me it was wrong. She wiped a tear from her eye with her apron, and, taking me in her arms, said, “Some people call it Conscience; but I like better to call it the Voice of God in the soul of humanity. If you listen and obey it, then it will speak clearer and clearer, and always guide you right. But if you turn a deaf ear, or disobey, then it will fade out little by little, and leave you all in the dark and without a guide. Your life depends on your heeding this little voice.”

[A version of this story may be found in the Unitarian collection The Little Child at the Breakfast Table by William Channing Gannett and Mary Thorn Lewis Gannett (Boston: Beacon, 1915), p. 16. This book is available online here.

I asked the children what happened in the story, and they remembered the most important information: a little boy, walking home, about to strike turtle, voice tells him to stop. “What did Theodore Parker’s mother say the voice was?” I said. “Anyone remember?” And the children remember that the voice could be conscience, or God. I thought I heard one child tentatively wonder aloud what “conscience” meant, but at almost the same time Dorit asked a direct question about God, and that got us talking about God. I said a little something about God, and then Dorit asked me if we believe in God (meaning whether we in our church believe in God or not). I pointed out that it depended on what we meant when we talked about God; that if God was supposed to be a man with long white hair and a beard sitting on a cloud, then I definitely did not believe in God. But if we meant something else by “God,” then maybe I believed in God. “How many of us believe in God?” I said. “Riaise your hands if you do.” Not quite half the people there raised their hands. “I’m raising my hand halfway up,” I said, “because I sort of believe in God, depending.” Amy said she felt the same way, so both of us raised our hands halfway. “Now how many of us don’t believe in God?” I said. Slightly fewer people raised their hands. “And now, how many people aren’t sure?” I said. About of third of us raised our hands. Dorit wasn’t all that happy with my answer so far. “Dorit, there’s another way to answer this question if you’re a kid,” I said. “You can ask your parents whether or not they believe in God, and then you can say, ‘I’m going to believe what you believe for now, and when I get old enough, I’ll make up my own mind.” (1)

I wanted to make sure everyone knew what “conscience” meant, so I asked if everyone knew. Not everyone was entirely sure, and I asked Amy to define conscience for us, which she did. Andrew added a nice comment: “Conscience is just plain old common sense.” I then pointed out that many people think that conscience seems to come from inside, while for some people the voice of God would come from outside you; but for some of us, conscience also comes from outside, because conscience comes from other people. The children grasped that idea: one child mentioned that we are influenced by what other people think of us, another child said we learn how to act from other people, and so on.

Somewhere in the conversation (I’m not sure I have the exact chronology), Monty asked what “Universalism” means. I think this came up because we were remembering an earlier story about John Murray, the Universalist minister. “That’s a good question,” I said. “I’m glad you asked it. Let’s ask the adults here what ‘Universalism’ means.” Melissa went back to one of our stories about John Murray, and reminded the children that John Murray preached that there was no hell, and that one of the stories about John Murray said he believed that love was the most powerful force in the universe. Lucy spoke compellingly about the seventh of the Unitarian Universalist principles, that we respect the interdpendent web of all existence, and that she thought about Universalism as reaching out to all beings. Amy and Lee added slightly different definitions of “Universalism.” “You notice that all these adults say something a little bit different,” I said to the children. “And I have still another definition.” I explained about the idea of universal salvation. It seemed that none of the children had any firm conception of what people meant by “hell,” so we adults had to explain what some Christians believe about hell: that if you’re bad when you’re alive you go to hell after you die, but if you’re good you go to heaven. “So the Universalists were going to let everyone do whatever they want and be bad?” said Monty. “Good observation!” I said. “That is exactly what other people said about the Universalists — that if you didn’t believe in hell you’d go around and do lots of bad things. But the Universalists said that the regular Christians had lots of people who did really bad things, so obviously believing in hell didn’t stop them from being bad.” Amy said that the Universalists believed that you would be punished in the here and now by doing bad things, that you feel bad when you act badly. All this was new territory to the children. (In other regions with a strong conservative or orthodox Christian presence, I have found that children are quite aware of what hell is, and have a much easier time understanding the concept of universal salvation.)

After this digression, we talked about whether any of us had had an experience like the one Theodore Parker told about. Had any of us heard a voice telling us to stop doing something bad? No one had heard an actual voice, but everyone one of us had had some kind of strong feeling that had stopped us from doing something bad. We talked a little about what those feelings felt like. We talked a little bit about whether those feeling might have come from God (as Theodore Parker’s mother said), or from other people.

By now, we had been talking for nearly 15 minutes. Both children and adults stayed thoroughly engaged with this conversation. If the whole group had been Dorit’s age, about 6 years old, the conversation would have ended quite a bit earlier, but having older and younger children together seemed to allow use to talk longer, and in more depth; it didn’t hurt that there were five adults present, adults who didn’t try to dominate the conversation, but who were also willing to participate. But finally we were ready to do something else.

We walked over to the table where I had put out paper and markers and crayons. We all sat down, and I said there were three choices: you could draw the story of Theodore Parker and the turtle, or you could draw a design for a quilt square for our quilt, or you could draw anything you liked. Three of the children and two adults chose to draw anything they liked; one adult drew a scene from the story; and two adults and one child chose not to draw at all. Monty got the pretzels that were for our class (our other snack, some grapes someone had left for us, were gone). Melissa asked us to talk about something while we were drawing: did we want to have a special design in the central square of our quilt, like maybe the date and which class made the quilt? Andrew suggested that if one quilt square was especially good, maybe we could put that in the center. Melissa asked if we wanted to sign our names to the quilt squares, and Andrew said that he was not happy with his quilt square, and did not want us to sign our names. We did not come to any firm conclusion about what we wanted in the center of the quilt, but Melissa elicited some good thoughts from the children.

At last it was time to go. We didn’t have a formal closing circle (we were all siting in a circle around the table, so I didn’t think we needed to stand up and hold hands) — I just said that it was good to see everyone, and I hoped we’d see them next week.


(a) We seem to spend a long time in conversation in this class. I’m not sure whether this is because everyone, children and adults, is simply interested in talking about the subjects we address; or because a mixed-age group is more likely to engage in conversations; or because the chemistry of this group allows us to have conversations (it’s a pretty mellow group, and small to boot); or because the deliberate attention I’ve been paying to group dynamics and building trust within the group has allowed us to talk more openly. I keep planning other non-discussion activities that we don’t have time for (today, we didn’t have time to sing, or to try some simple meditation); but we seem to keep getting caught up in good conversations that last longer than I’ve allowed for.

Query for the reader

(1) In our congregation, we sometimes get rancorous, even divisive, debate on the topic of whether or not God exists. That being the case, what would you do if a child in our Sunday school asked you what to believe about God?


Questions from the “Questions” activity

The following are the questions that I printed on the strips of paper for the “Questions” activity. Adapted from Building Community in Youth Groups by Denny Rydberg (Loveland, Colo.: Group Books, 1985), pp. 67-69.

What are three qualities that you greatly admire in one of your parents?
What is something you really want out of life?
What would a perfect day be for you? What would you do?
If the president of the United States were seated next to you right now, what three questions would you ask him?
What are three things that make you angry or frustrated?
What is one thing that makes you happy?
What is one thing that you fear?
What is one of your happiest memories?
If you could change one problem in the world today, what would you change?
Where’s one of your favorite places to go with your friends?
What are two secrets to a long-lasting friendship?
How do you feel about living forever?
What are three qualities that you want your friends to have?
What do you think life will be like in 100 years?
What is one thing that you could say about death?
What is one present you’d really like to receive?
I feel afraid when I think about . . .
I feel sad and lonely when . . .
My ideal vacation would be . . .
I love my parents, but . . .
The people I like best are . . .
In 10 years I see myself as . . .
When I have free time, I like to . . .
My friends and I really have fun when . . .
The last time I felt truly alone was when . . .


Footnote (1): This answer derived from William J. Doherty’s 2007 Fahs lecture, reprinted in the Spring, 2008 issue of UU World magazine.