As parents do pirouettes in the aisles of the local Staples singing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” we recognize that the last few days of the summer are now upon us and soon the ‘real’ first day of the new year is about to occur. It’s ‘Back to School’ time in Canada, and students, parents and teachers are all getting ready for this event.
In the homes of our church families many annual rituals are now taking place; parents are out shopping with their kids, hunting for outfits that will fit and impress, backpacks are being dug through to establish what needs to be replaced, and what will do, and lunch box worthy foods are being assembled to ensure students are energized for their upcoming days of school. At home, children are beginning to go to bed a little earlier each evening to become acclimatized to the demands of an early morning rush to get everyone out the door on time for school buses and walks to school. Teachers are putting together lesson plans and decorating classrooms to be welcoming and educational.
Some students are looking forward to this brand new school year, while others may be worrying about what this year might bring. Will they like their new teacher(s)? Will their teacher(s) like them? Will they do well, or will the challenge of new learning feel like a constant up uphill battle? Will they get on the school team this year, or will they face disappointment. Will some of their very best friends be in their class(es), or will that person who bugged them every day be sitting in the desk next to them. For most students the first day of school is a complex mix of all of the above.
Where is the church in all of these preparations, celebrations, and anxious anticipation? As a church we are often great at marking significant religious events in people’s lives, but we sometimes forget to also offer rituals for the other significant events or milestones in the lives of our people. Back-to-School is a great opportunity for the church to mark this significant event in the lives of our children and youth and anchor this occasion in the activity of God. Rituals surrounding the special moments of our lives remind us of who we are and what God has done in our lives. As we celebrate this story with our families we place it into God’s story and our children hear that this aspect of their lives is important to God and to us. We remind our children that God goes with them as they return to school and that the church values and cares for them as they enter into this new year. Adults of the church are also reminded to care for the children and youth of the church and to be present in all of the events of their lives.
So what can we do to mark this great milestone. We begin in community worship the first Sunday after Labour Day weekend and acknowledge this event in our corporate prayers, stories, and preaching. Most importantly we must pray with and for our students as they head off to school. We need to give thanks for God’s activity in all of the events of the lives of our students and particularly for God’s care and presence as our children head off to school. Pray for growing wisdom, safe places, anxieties relieved, opportunities to care for others, fun and joy in learning vocation and for the teachers that will guide, teach and mentor our students. A file with a few samples of a few litanies for this Sunday are attached below.
In addition to prayer, many churches are beginning to add a ‘Blessing of the Backpacks’ ritual on this Sunday. Students (and even teachers) are invited to bring their packed backpacks to worship on the first Sunday of the school year and come forward to be blessed along with their backpacks. A children’s message that helps to anchor their activity in school as their vocation and remind them that God is present with them in all of the aspects of their lives helps children to see themselves as children of God in all things and to bring their faith and faithful activity to school with them. As they and their backpacks are blessed, consider also giving each child a small token reminder of this day as a gift from the church. A button or key ring that has a symbol of God’s love on it could be attached on the outside or inside of their backpack as a constant reminder that they are loved by God and their church community. A link to a blog posting on the backpack blessings can be found at the end of this article.
In addition to blessing the backpacks of the students of the church, consider also gathering good quality new school supplies and backpacks to be given to children who are unable to have these new and much-needed items as they return to school as well. These packed bags could be given to a local shelter that welcomes children or even a nearby school or teacher from your congregation to distribute as needed.
As you introduce this new ritual to your September calendar take note of what was welcomed by church and what might be improved upon for next year. Begin to think of what you might do next year, remembering that while our rituals may be tweaked each year the repetition of ritual itself is significant. Such rituals have ‘staying power’ and shape us and our experience of God’s presence in our lives.