Author Archives: Traci Smith

“Blink and she’ll be 24….” Thoughts on how fleeting it all is + a free practice from #FaithfulFamilies

not little for long!

This morning I was at a cafe getting some work done while my four-month-old daughter Marina Lynn was sitting beside me in her stroller. When her smiling and cooing turned to fidgeting and crying, I picked her up out of the stroller and started to pace around in the cafe. Two women caught our attention. “We’re grandmothers” one said.
“She’s gorgeous!” exclaimed the other  “I don’t suppose you’d let us hold her while you finish up your work.”
“Actually,” I said, “I would love it,” and I plopped Marina into their laps and hurried back to what I was doing.
I listened with one ear as they doted over her, and I finished up my emails as quickly as I could. When it was time to go, one of the grandmothers looked at me, teary eyed and said “I know old people say this all the time, but enjoy every minute. It goes by so, so fast.”
I recognize there are problems with that statement. One does not enjoy every moment of parenting. I did not enjoy it when one of my older children learned to remove his diaper and “made a mess” in his room (I promise you, whatever “mess” you are imagining, the reality was worse). I did not enjoy the dry heaves and vomiting when I was pregnant with Marina Lynn. I do not enjoy trying to balance the pressures of work and writing and parenting. I do not enjoy having to apologize when my child causes someone to trip in the grocery store because he’s not watching where he’s going. And so when these two grandmothers told me to “enjoy every minute,” it would have been tempting to say, “Yeah right! You forgot how it really is!” but instead I said, “You’re right,” because they are.
Whether we enjoy it or not, these years will fly by. Our children are four months old. We blink and they are four years old. We blink again and they’re fourteen. Blink one more time, and our children are having their own children. I know this is true because I have experienced it myself, and because my elders have told me it is so.
So how will we live out these precious few years we’ve been given? I’m a strong believer in tradition and ceremony. We ought to try and make these days count. My book Faithful Families is an attempt to create sacred moments at home. In between the chaos of daily living we can carve out moments of connection. A prayer here, a ceremony there.  Mother’s Day is coming up soon, and many of us will shower our mothers with candy and cards. There’s nothing wrong with that. And yet, my suspicion is that many of the mothers you know are longing for something deeper than this. We’re longing for connection. We want our days to count. We know they’ll be gone too soon.
Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments at Home is a book of simple practices designed for mothers (and fathers) who want to create meaningful connections with their children. On this Mother’s Day our gift to you is the gift of gratitude. Download the free gratitude practice, and enjoy these moments, fleeting though they may be.

Church “Pray-grounds:” Eight Stories and Inspiring Examples #kidmin

I first learned of the concept of a “pray-ground” in the sanctuary from the beautiful one built by Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, Minnesota.   It’s the first pray-ground I know of to get broad media attention and coverage. We’ll get back to Grace’s Pray-Ground, in just a minute, but first:

What’s a pray-ground? 

The name “prayground” comes from Rev. Catherine Renken, pastor of Kirkwood Presbyterian Church in Kennesaw, GA who brainstormed with others when the prayground at Grace in Apple Valley, MN was being built. The name has caught on!

Though different churches have put it in to practice in different ways, a prayground is a place in the front of the sanctuary where young children can experience worship through age-appropriate worship materials and tools that will help keep them engaged in worship. My own congregation doesn’t have a pray-ground, but it’s a concept I’m interested in and so I set out to hear the stories and collect photos from some churches who do. Read on for eight different stories and photos as well as tips for getting going and links to products you might find useful.

  1. Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Houston, TX

Submitted by Elizabeth Grasham, Solo Pastor

 
  • How long has your prayground been in your sanctuary? 1 year.

 

  •  Tell us a little about your prayground. Where is it located in the sanctuary? What types of activities does it have? What ages use it? It is located on the left of the sanctuary (sanctuary is shaped like a cross).

 

  • What process did you go through to decide whether or not to have a prayground in your sanctuary? I talked about it with church leaders for over a year; discussed with elders the details; got approval from the worship committee; purchased all items with Board Chair
  • What things have you learned in the process of developing or maintaining your prayground that you think might be useful to others who are considering the same thing? Make sure kids know what behavioral expectations are; Ask parents what they need or don’t need; take away any toy that might click or clack.

2. First Presbyterian Church, Hays, KS

Submitted by Becky Rogowski, Coordinator of Faith Development

  • How long has your prayground been in your sanctuary? Since September 2016
  • Tell us a little about your prayground. Where is it located in the sanctuary? What types of activities does it have? What ages use it? Front of sanctuary to the side. It has soft toys and two tables and chairs. Bumbo seats and baby “rugs”. Baby “cradle”. Puzzles, books, crayons, paper. Ages infant – kindergarten was the intent.
  • What process did you go through to decide whether or not to have a prayground in your sanctuary? Research, presented to session, approved and put in. We wanted to be intentional about including young worshippers and their families.

 

  • What things have you learned in the process of developing or maintaining your prayground that you think might be useful to others who are considering the same thing? Sometimes people sneak loud toys from the nursery in. Our elderly and hearing impaired members have been very resistant to it and that’s an issue we are currently working on.

3. Kingo Lutheran Church (ELCA), Shorewood, WI

Submitted by Carolyn Karl, Director of Cross+Generational Ministry

  • How long has your prayground been in your sanctuary? Since November 2016
 
  • Tell us a little about your prayground. Where is it located in the sanctuary? What types of activities does it have? What ages use it? We removed two pews in the front of the sanctuary and put a throw rug, kids table and chairs, paper and crayons, and soft containers with soft toys. Generally, kids under 5 use it.
 
  • What process did you go through to decide whether or not to have a prayground in your sanctuary?  The staff, Pastor and Council worked together to come up with different options that were presented to the congregation. The congregation was asked to contact the pastor with questions, and a few concerns were raised. After people saw it in practice, the response and support has been overwhelming.
 
  • What things have you learned in the process of developing or maintaining your prayground that you think might be useful to others who are considering the same thing? When considering where to put it, we spent time sitting on the ground and looking at the view from each location. We moved two pews and moved the very large communion font to provide a clear view of what is going on during worship. (The communion font blocked the view of the altar for the kids but we didn’t realize it until we got to their level). We also chose the location so it is close to the musicians, which the kids love to look at and interact with during worship.

Submitted by Suzy Hutchison, Pastor

  • How long has your prayground been in your sanctuary? 2.5 years
  • Tell us a little about your prayground. Where is it located in the sanctuary? What types of activities does it have? What ages use it? The playground is in a clear area at rear, that would be a narthex if doors closed. Activities: books, coloring, cardboard blocks, magnetic boards, toy animals, dolls, farm set and a rocking chair. Children from 2-8 years use it.
 
  • What process did you go through to decide whether or not to have a prayground in your sanctuary? My first church council meeting they asked me to name one thing I would change. I said add space in sanctuaryfor kids to participate in child-like ways. They council got up from the table immediately and helped me carry things into sanctuary.
 
  • What things have you learned in the process of developing or maintaining your prayground that you think might be useful to others who are considering the same thing? In our set up, it has to be moved for coffee hour and because it is in the back, there needs to be an adult who keeps an eye on the door, so no one leaves unaccompanied.

Submitted by Karen Ware Jackson, Pastor

  • How long has your prayground been in your sanctuary? Almost 3 years.
 
  • Tell us a little about your prayground. Where is it located in the sanctuary? What types of activities does it have? What ages use it? It’s at the front of the church for a variety of reasons. First of all, because I want kids to be able to see and to feel engaged and I think that’s harder to do when they are hidden at the back, balcony, alcove, etc. Secondly, it’s there because that’s where the space was. If the space has to be in the back (or elsewhere) you just have different challenges to make sure the kids stay engaged. I have books, coloring, whiteboard, and various seasonal activities. I always have an activity that connects with the text which I introduce during the “Word and Wonder with All Ages” and then give the kids the materials to work on during the sermon.
 
  • What process did you go through to decide whether or not to have a prayground in your sanctuary? The Worship elder and I dreamed it up. Check out the video where I tell the story.
 
  • What things have you learned in the process of developing or maintaining your prayground that you think might be useful to others who are considering the same thing? You’ve got to keep people engaged. There will be challenges, but you have to keep talking about it. Keep trying. Keep lifting up the blessings. Keep writing. Keep having the pastoral conversations. t was the focus of my ministry for about a year. Now, it’s this lovely thing that everyone understands and supports. But it wasn’t always that way. It’s a constantly growing and evolving experience. I’ve come to believe that there is no “wrong way” to engage all ages in worship. Our PrayGround works for us, but I don’t think it’s the only way to do it and I don’t even think a “PrayGround” is the right thing for every church. You will make mistakes. Some things don’t work. But the effort will take you where the Spirit is leading. There are blessings and challenges about every set-up. Just don’t let the challenges win.

Submitted by Alina Gayeuski, Pastor

  • How long has your prayground been in your sanctuary? About 2 years.
 
  • Tell us a little about your prayground. Where is it located in the sanctuary? What types of activities does it have? What ages use it? It is in the back of the sanctuary, in a converted space for coats. It has books, coloring books, Melissa and Doug toys (some put out seasonally – like their Nativity set), soft blocks, stuffed animals, activity bags to take back to the seats – including Autism friendly bags. The age range of children that use this space is from a few months to about 4th grade.
 
  • What process did you go through to decide whether or not to have a prayground in your sanctuary? There was conversation among the pastoral staff team.
  • What things have you learned in the process of developing or maintaining your prayground that you think might be useful to others who are considering the same thingI think an important part for me has been to include seasonal toys and special need friendly toys as well. The first helps to keep that space changing with the rest of the worship space. The other helps us to be welcoming and inclusive of all people at all ages. We have had a good amount of positive feedback from parents who can be in that space with their children during some harder to focus times of worship (like the sermon). We have had a few noise complaints, but we simply suggested that they sit farther towards the front and that has alleviated the issues mostly. An advertisement for the space is a standard part of the inside bulletin cover welcome page.

7. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Peoria, IL

Submitted by Jenny Replogle, Co-Rector

  • How long has your prayground been in your sanctuary? 9 Months
 
  • Tell us a little about your prayground. Where is it located in the sanctuary? What types of activities does it have? What ages use it? The prayground is located where 2 front pews used to be located. Our sanctuary has a central altar (pews front and back), with a middle aisle on each side. The soft space is located in the 2 pews closest to the altar and pulpit. There are children’s tables and chairs, foam blocks, stuffed toys, and books. We always have coloring pages and sometimes a coloring poster. Ages 3-10 primarily use it.
 
  • What process did you go through to decide whether or not to have a prayground in your sanctuary? The church profile stated that the new rector should ‘make the changes necessary to attract young families’ and we have been working on that since we arrived. After being in the parish for a year, we realized that a lot of young parents sat in back pews and tried to keep their kids entertained and quiet, rather than feeling comfortable in the service. We talked to the vestry about the idea of a soft space, showing pictures of another prayground (that was presented in TYCWP) and explaining that kids were more likely to take in and be part of the liturgy if they were close to it. Vestry was very supportive of the idea, so we took out pews, ordered rugs and tables, and implemented the space.
 
  • What things have you learned in the process of developing or maintaining your prayground that you think might be useful to others who are considering the same thing? We learned that this was needed and longed for far more than was ever articulated, and people of all ages were very happy about it. We also learned that although we had a great deal of support from congregation and vestry, it would have been helpful to communicate to the whole congregation that this was going to happen prior to making the change. We haven’t had too much pushback, but that would have been helpful with the pushback we did receive.

8. Grace Lutheran Church, Apple Valley, MN
Submitted by Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, associate pastor

 As I mentioned at the beginning, Grace’s prayground is one of the first and most widely covered praygrounds I know of. Their website has an entire FAQ section where you can go and get answers to anything you want to know about it! Find it HERE.
What do you think? Would you like to have a prayground in your church? Let us know your thoughts or ideas in the comments. Let’s talk about praygrounds!
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For more on faith with children and families, check out my book Faithful Families. 

Guest Post: Jessica Vaughan Lower #whomademyclothes

I have never been the girl who lives to shop. Where I come from, the mall was appreciated just as much for being an oasis of air conditioning during the hot summers as it was for anything else.

But all the same, I have always worn clothes that reflected how I wanted to be seen by the world around me.

When I was in high school, I wore a self-imposed uniform of hoodies and maybe-too-tight Levi’s with a slit cut up the bottom hems of the legs so that the jeans (did I mention that they may have been too tight?) would cover the tops of my gleaming white Adidas shoes. Sometimes I wore other things, but hoodies and Levi’s were my favorite. They went with my black eyeliner perfectly. And they let me blend in with my friends.

A blast from the past

In college, perhaps in response to the Freshman Fifteen Twenty Five and perhaps in response to the early 2000’s, I traded in the hoodies and tight jeans for baggy jeans, flip flops, and maybe-too-tight t-shirts that had quippy little sayings on them. My favorite shirt said “New Jersey: Only The Strong Survive.” I wore it as often as I could once I was accepted to grad school in New Jersey. Not only did this outfit also compliment my black eyeliner, but it made me feel brave and independent in the sea of women on campus who were on the cusp of the emerging “short shorts” trend.

Favorite tee!

Perhaps it was following a year spent in the UK, coupled with the realization that flip flops and t-shirts wouldn’t work well during east coast winters, but I trashed the jeans completely in grad school and replaced them only with tailored tuxedo style slacks. I would pair them with patent red leather loafers, socks with crazy prints on them, layers of thermals under t-shirts with a blazer and, inexplicably, a tie loosely strung around my neck. While I still own those loafers, I have no explanation for this choice in style. All I can say is, I felt like me.

My style has continued to change over the course of my life to reflect how I saw me and how I wanted others to see me: those red loafers became the stilettos of a young professional; stilettos were traded in for the running shoes of a stay at home mom. Button down collars were traded for nursing tanks, which were then traded for exercise wear as I chased toddlers around the park following my morning work-out. When I returned to work four years ago, after five years at home, it was looking at my closet that induced anxiety about my future. For some reason, it was easier to declare “I have nothing to wear!” than it was to admit that I was suffering from imposter syndrome as I returned to work.

Clothes have always reflected who I am into the world.

When Rana Plaza fell in Bangladesh in 2013, I have to say, I was not deeply affected. It’s not that I was cold hearted to it—factory workers shouldn’t have to make the non-sensical choice between death or “keeping their jobs”—it’s just that traumatic stories around sweat shops had been common place to me since Kathy Lee Gifford’s gaffe circa 1996. By 2013, I had accepted disasters like this to be a necessary evil if I wanted to stay clothed. I didn’t like it, I didn’t think it was right, but there was nothing I could do about it if I didn’t want to be publicly nude.

My husband, on the other hand, was mortified. In 2013, he was the chair of the board of the first fair trade clothing company in Africa. And he couldn’t stop talking about Rana Plaza. By December 31st of that same year, he had rid his closet of all of his clothes and replaced them only with clothing that he could guarantee, to the best of his ability, that the workers were treated both fairly and ethically. But because ethical clothing is more expensive than fast fashion, that meant that he could afford less: one pair of jeans, one pair of shorts, two t-shirts, one zip-up sweater, four pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, and one pair of ethically made flip flops.

To be this close to someone making this much of a change with this much passion was really inspiring. I wanted to make a difference too. So I went online and searched for ethically made clothes for women.

And I searched. And I searched. And I searched.

It’s not that there wasn’t anything out there for women—there was plenty. It’s just that there wasn’t anything out there for me. I didn’t want to look like a hippie. I didn’t want to look like a girlie-girl. I didn’t want to look basic. I wanted to look like me.

Even more disappointing, there wasn’t anything that I could find in early 2014 that I could wear in a professional context. I had spent years finding business blazers of varying lengths and styles to wear for any occasion, but in the ethical space, I couldn’t even find one blazer. I was disappointed. And rather than feeling the freedom my husband felt, I returned to that feeling that I had before Rana Plaza collapsed—buying slave made clothes was a necessary evil if I wanted to be taken seriously as a professional woman in a man’s profession.

But for my birthday that year, my husband gifted me with a t-shirt from an ethical women’s brand. It was plain, but I liked the cut. It fit me well, and it felt good on my skin. I could wear it under a cute jacket. Then for Christmas, I was gifted another shirt. It was silk, sleeveless, with a collar. Great for work, great with jeans. I wore it twice a week.

Every now and then, I would go to the Nordstrom’s Rack and look for something new to refresh my wardrobe. But as the new year went on, it became difficult for me to look at the racks and racks of clothes and not imagine the hands that stitched them. I guess that, before now, I had imagined that clothes were stitched together by faceless machines—there is just too much merchandise to believe that individual human hands had put them together. What massive amounts of people must be needed to stitch together all the clothes in Nordstrom Rack, let along all the clothes in the mall, let alone all the clothes throughout all the malls in the city, and the country, and the world? It started to become overwhelming, and by fall of 2015, I stopped going into fast fashion stores completely.

I continued to wear the clothes I had, and when I could afford it, I would buy a piece from the ethical market to update my wardrobe. Every morning when I looked in my closet to choose an outfit, I found myself choosing the ethically made clothes over the fast fashion attire more and more. It felt good to put them on. When people complimented me on my outfit, it felt good to say, “Thanks! And it wasn’t made by slaves!” I found that, as time went on, dressing like me started to mean dressing ethically.

In late April 2017, coincidently the day before the fourth anniversary of the collapse of Rana Plaza and three years after the start of my own journey, I found I had enough essentials to have an largely ethical wardrobe. And so I pulled all of my clothes out of my closet, sifted through them, and gave nearly all of my once-beloved pieces of fast fashion away. My husband saw a shirt on top of a pile that I had worn quite regularly once-upon-a-time and lamented over it, wondering aloud if I should keep it for nostalgia. But I didn’t feel the same. I didn’t want it anymore. It wasn’t me anymore.

If you’re a person who likes stats and figures, like I am, then here are some of the stats I have. In 2013, following the Rana Plaza disaster, the Bangladesh government raised the minimum wage from $38/month to $68/month. This raise still keeps workers below the poverty line, eating fewer calories than they would need to get through a day of work at the factory. In Sri Lanka, 66% of women garment workers have anemia. In Cambodia, 1/3 of garment workers are underweight, which means fainting is common in the factory. And even in these countries where standard minimum wage is enshrined by law, there is no guarantee to workers that they will actually receive it on time, or receive it at all.

Also, check out these numbers: standard mark-ups on clothing by companies ranges from 60-70%. So let’s do the math on that H&M top that is advertised for $5: three dollars is 60% mark-up, leaving two dollars for fabric, buttons/zippers, elastic, thread, as well as to pay the  laborer who put it together. And buying clothes on the higher end doesn’t actually mean that workers are being paid better, or that better quality materials are being used—it often just means that the mark up is higher. The truth is that many of numbers in fashion are impossible to know, because fast fashion companies do not share their financial or production figures to anyone.

Clothes made by someone who is paid a fair wage for her work.

Most of the time when people talk to me about ethical clothing, they tell me that they can not afford ethical clothes. And this is painful for two reasons: 1) it shows how much of our economy is dependent upon fast fashion practices and the subsequent oppression of workers overseas and 2) it’s just not true. The relative cost of clothing has gone down substantially over the last four decades while the relative amount of disposable income has gone up. This means that where $100 may have afforded your parents two outfits decades ago, $100 affords us upwards of four outfits today. We’ve changed the way we prioritize budgets, justifying paying more on one thing because we pay less on clothes. But that is a direct result of unscrupulous practices that have been rampant and unchecked in the garment industry for generations.

You may have noticed that I said that I gave nearly all my clothes away. Let me be clear: I still have some fast fashion pieces in my closet. For instance, I still can’t find a blazer that is ethically made, so I’ve kept my old ones. I’m required to wear a white dress for a sorority event once every few years and it seems silly to spend money on any level to replace it. While exercise clothes are some of the biggest offenders in the garment industry, I teach cardio-kickboxing four times a week and can’t exchange out all my exercise clothes at once because my budget won’t allow it. But this isn’t an all or nothing game. I’ve committee to a one in/one out policy—for each piece of ethical clothing I buy, I get rid of one piece of fast fashion. And while that might take me many more years in this already-three-year journey, I’m okay with that. Because now, with each garment I buy, I am buying in line with my values.

I am becoming more of me in what I wear.

To contact Jessica, email hello@visible.clothing

Note from Traci:  I was so touched by Jessica’s story, and my favorite part of it is this line: this isn’t an all or nothing game. So often I feel that way. I know my clothes and my children’s clothes are often made by slaves and trafficking victims. I know that the fact that our clothes are “cheap” means that there’s a very high human cost behind them, yet doing something about it feels overwhelming, and like it won’t do any good. This post is a great reminder that doing something is better than nothing. Last week I decided to support visible clothing’s Kickstarter by getting an ethically made tie for Elias. Though it’s the first item of clothes I’ve ever bought that I know for certain is ethically made, I have to start somewhere, and I can’t wait to give it as a gift. What do you know about ethically made clothes? Leave a comment. Let’s have a conversation.

Sermon Remix: Abundance and the Feeding of the 5,000

Today begins a sermon series on the book More than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess by Lee Hull Moses. We’re doing an online book study (through a closed Facebook group) and I’m using the free worship planning guide to give sermon starters and some interactive station ideas.

Today’s theme is abundance. As folks walked in to worship this morning, they were greeted with these opportunities for engagement:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was great to see everyone’s ideas and thoughts.

Of the three scripture suggestions listed, I elected to focus on the feeding of the five thousand. Though it’s Mark’s version that’s suggested in the worship guide, I went with John’s version. I drew out three details that are unique to John’s version.

  1. “There was a great deal of grass in that place” (verse 10). We don’t often think about the grass in the feeding of the 5,000 story. It’s more of a minor character. Yet, without the grass, there’d be no place to gather and sit. There was grass, in abundance. I likened the grass to our pews. We have abundant pews at NPC. What if, just like the green grass, we’re waiting for God to make use of them?
  2. “So that nothing may be lost.” (verse 12). As I said this morning, in all the times I’ve read this passage, I’ve never considered that it might have something to say about waste. We talked a little about how it’s easier to waste when we have abundance. I referenced this modern day feeding of the 5,000 experiment that made use of fresh, delicious food that would have been wasted otherwise. (Side note: THIS is also a great lecture about food waste.)
  3. There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” (verse 9) The child in this story is the one who gets the whole miracle started. We talked a little about the importance of children and youth in our community. I shared that it’s a major pet peeve of mine when folks talk about children and youth being “the future of the church.” Children and youth aren’t the future of the church. They are the church right now.

I ended the message by giving folks some questions to reflect on for the week:

What do you have in abundance in your life? What is like the grass, or our pews, space waiting to be filled by a miracle? What do you have in your life that should not be wasted? What do we have here at the church that we should be careful not to waste? And what children are in your life that are ready to show you you the way to an abundant life?

 

 

Sermon Remix: Resurrection || Easter 2017

Christ is Risen! 

He is Risen, Indeed! 

This morning’s message is not one I want to reprint or excerpt. Instead I’ll give a summary of some of the things discussed and link to some things I found interesting as I prepared the sermon.

I started out by borrowing a little bit of the intrigue from Rob Bell’s Resurrection, and the story about Jesus and the Temple. That video is simultaneously profound and straightforward to me. As he would say: so. good.

The rest of the message was centered around this one verse from Matthew:

“And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.”

A couple of things stood out to me. First, the earthquake. Thanks to the Sermon Brainwave and Karoline Lewis, I was inspired to take the metaphor of the earthquake as far as I could. I talked a little about how the death of my good friend earlier this year shook me to the core. I quoted this from my journal:

All throughout our friendship, Kelly was more than just Kelly. The things that I loved in her are all the things that I aspire to be… a respected pastor, a competent preacher who preaches what she truly believes, an organizer, a leader in the community. She was a force.  I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that her death feels so cosmic in its significance, as if I have to now wrestle with every single tenet of my faith right now, at this moment. Cruelly, I have to do it by myself, without her, my biggest theological guide.

I talked about the phrase cosmic in its significance and compared it to an earthquake. It is really true that along with resurrection we find tremendous upheaval and shaking. Nothing is the same in resurrection. Everything changes.

I mentioned organ donation this morning and talked a little about the process, and what it has meant to me over the past year.

In addition to the detail about the earthquake, I also expanded a little on the detail of who removes the stone from the tomb in the resurrection story:

In Mark’s version the women came to the tomb and they ask each other “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

Luke says “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb.”

In John, it’s Mary Magdalene who comes to the tomb, and she finds it already removed as well.

But Matthew is the only one who has this detail of who removed the stone. An angel. An angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 

What does it mean to embrace this detail? The stone wasn’t just passively moved. An angel moved it. 

I closed the sermon by offering my very best version of a Presbyterian-style altar call. If there’s any day to call folks to choose resurrection, to choose (or re-choose) Christ, today is that day.

He is Risen, y’all!

The Sermon Remix is a series on this blog where I take a portion of my Sunday sermon and add in relevant links for further investigation and study.

Sermon Remix: Why did Christ Die on the Cross?

This is the week when we come face to face with the dark details of crucifixion. I have to admit how incredibly uncomfortable I am with this story. I think most people are, if we stop long enough to think about it. It’s incredibly violent. Senseless. Painful. We are confronted not just with what happened, though that’s painful enough, but why it happened.

Why did Christ die on the cross?

Those who grew up in the church were often given very simple answers to this “To save us from our sins.” or “To set us free” or “To pay our debts” or “To bring new life.” On the one hand, these answers are simple enough, and an accurate summary of our Christian faith. On the other hand, these answers are completely unsatisfactory. How does the violent death of our savior save us? How?

The work of Christ on the cross is called the atonement in Christian Theology. There are many different theories about what the atonement is and what it means. Certain scripture verses go better with certain theories and no one theory on its own seems to explain the atonement in a full and a complete way. Theories include the Christus Victor theory, where Christ defeats the powers of evil and death, the Satisfaction theory, where Christ’s crucifixion is a substitution for human sin,  and the Moral Influence theory where Christ’s crucifixion brings positive change to humanity. Though it’s interesting to study atonement theory, my own personal view is that work of Christ on the cross is a what? It’s a mystery. One of the deepest mysteries of our faith, in fact.

As Christians we sense deep within us that the death of Christ on the cross means something deeply profound, but when we peel back the layers, we find it’s difficult to explain. Like a masterful work of art, the atonement means something different every time we look at it again. It looks different in different types of light, and it takes on different meaning as the years go by.

I came across this story from the book In the Grip of Grace by Bryan Chapell. He writes

“On August 16, 1987, Northwest Airlines flight 225 crashed just after taking off from the Detroit airport, killing 155 people. One survived: a four-year-old from Tempe, Arizona, named Cecelia.

News accounts say when rescuers found Cecelia they did not believe she had been on the plane. Investigators first assumed Cecelia had been a passenger in one of the cars on the highway onto which the airliner crashed. But when the passenger register for the flight was checked, there was Cecelia’s name.

Cecelia survived because, even as the plane was falling, Cecelia’s mother, Paula Chican, unbuckled her own seat belt, got down on her knees in front of her daughter, wrapped her arms and body around Cecelia, and then would not let her go.

Nothing could separate that child from her parent’s love—neither tragedy nor disaster, neither the fall nor the flames that followed, neither height nor depth, neither life nor death.

Such is the love of our Savior for us. He left heaven, lowered himself to us, and covered us with the sacrifice of his own body to save us.”

I researched that story a little further this week and read this from a news article in the Baltimore Sun from 1993:

“Using the primitive material of her own body, she in effect strapped herself as a living, human safety device over the 35-pound, four-foot form of her child. And it worked. In one of those successes that make human action and chance look divine, the child survived — with a broken leg and collarbone and burns over 30 percent of her body, breathing through a respirator in the hospital — but breathing.”

I learned in another ABC news article from 2013 that Cecelia survived to adulthood, raised by her aunt and uncle, and that her story was featured in a documentary called Sole Survivor about those who were the only survivor of a plane crash. Fascinating. 

This story about Cecelia and her mother Paula who saved her with her child with her own body is, like the story of Jesus on the cross, a story with multiple meanings. It’s a tragedy.

It’s a story about love.

It’s a story about sacrifice

It’s a story about death.

It’s a story about life.

What does it mean?

Rather than trying to distill that question down to a manageable one sentence theology of the atonement, may we train ourselves to say “It means so many things.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of us all, Amen.

The Sermon Remix is a series on this blog where I take a portion of my Sunday sermon and add in relevant links for further investigation and study.

Should We Protect Our Children From the Violence of the Cross?

Ges crocifisso

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for some time now but haven’t felt brave enough. By writing what I really think, I know that I break from a lot of conventional wisdom and tradition when it comes to children’s ministry. At the same time, I feel strongly about this and I’ve thought about it and researched it a lot, so here goes…

I believe Christian Educators, parents and pastors should shield children from the details of the passion narrative/crucifixion story during Holy Week, if they address it at all with them.

I’ll lay out my reasons for having this opinion and then conclude with some ideas for how to address the passion narrative in worship and children’s messages. Certainly I see this as the beginning of a conversation, not a definitive guide.

To clarify, when I say “young” children in this post, I’m referring to children who are about ten years old or younger. Beginning in middle school and through High School, I think we can and should start discussing the crucifixion with children and strive to explain the details, as scripture presents them, without glorifying the violence or glossing over it. For younger children though, I think it’s appropriate, and even necessary, to shield children from the violence of the story and to offer age appropriate lessons that focus on other important aspects of our theology. Why do I think this? Here are the three main reasons:

  1. When we boil the crucifixion story down to a simple soundbite for children, we are actually presenting complex atonement theories that will shape their theologies their whole lives long. “Jesus paid the price for our sin.” (ransom) “Jesus saved us because we couldn’t save ourselves.” (penal substitution). “Jesus conquered death to set us free” (christus victor). I could go on, but you get the idea.  When we look closely at each of these theories, however, we realize that it’s not as simple as a soundbite. Did God really send God’s only son to be tortured and killed because God demands payment for sin? That does not sound loving. Did God simply not have the ability to rescue Jesus and spare him from all of that pain? If so, God must be very weak. Unless we’re willing to truly get in to all of these details, (and they aren’t appropriate for a young child, in my opinion) we shouldn’t try to boil the work of Christ on the cross down to one simple and easy-to-remember phrase for children on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We might think we’re being faithful in telling the story, but what we’re really doing is letting ourselves off the hook when it comes to wrestling with the atonement ourselves.
  2. It’s incredibly violent. Many Christian parents I know are exceptionally cautious about shielding their children from violence in video games, movies, TV, books, and toys. Yet these same parents have no problem being very explicit with the violence of the passion story. We have to ask ourselves why this is. Do we think there is some value in exposing a young child to gruesome (and very memorable) details of the nails, whips, spears, and thorns? The logic I often hear is some variation of “without those details, children will miss something and not fully understand the Christian faith.” Do we really believe that? Do we really believe that by sparing them the gory details of Christ’s crucifixion we are denying them something? If we do, I would argue we need to take a good hard look at what our faith is and what it’s based on. Children are only children for the blink of an eye. They have their entire lives to be burdened with the violence of the world. We should spare them for as long as we can, even (or perhaps especially) the violence we find in the pages of the Bible.
  3. Children’s faith is developing just like their bodies and their brains, and because of this we have the responsibility to explain our faith with this in mind.  Theologian and author James Fowler did a lot of work and research on stages of faith development that was published in the early 1980s. I think it’s on to something, for sure, though I would love to see much more research on children and faith development. Children’s brains simply aren’t equipped to understand some of the nuances of faith in the same way adults do. School aged children are often extremely literal and anthropomorphic in their understanding of God. This doesn’t mean that their faith is “lesser” or a “baby faith” but it does mean that we should take care to explain things in ways they can grasp.  Let me be clear: children are tough, and they’re capable of a lot of things we don’t give them credit for. I believe children can eat “grownup” foods with a variety of spices. I believe they can take on chores and responsibility. I don’t believe children need to listen only to children’s music or live in plastic bubbles their whole childhoods. Children face hurt and disappointment, and we should not try to protect them from every wound. (Side note: I think the book How to Raise an Adult is great for this.) That said, the story of the crucifixion is a story of state sanctioned torture of a human being. Let’s hold off for a few years while our children are very young. They will get a complete picture soon enough.

How to involve children in Maundy Thursday and Good Friday worship and protect them from the details of the crucifixion: 

Many may rightly ask: if we don’t share the details of the crucifixion with children, how should we handle it in worship or in conversations at home? Unfortunately there aren’t many children’s books that take on the crucifixion in ways I think are appropriate for children. Most children’s books and Bibles I’ve seen aren’t well done in this regard. Many contain cartoonish pictures of Christ being beaten and crucified. It’s confusing and jarring. (By the way, if anyone has an excellent resource, I’d love to see it!) Here are some ways I think parents and Christian educators can handle the passion narrative with young children:

  • Stick to simple facts when telling the story: Jesus died on a cross and was laid in a dark tomb. Everyone was sad and missed him. Three days later, the dark tomb was open and empty and there was light and joy. The resurrection is a mystery of our faith.
  • Avoid violent images and symbols in coloring pages and other children’s Easter materials. In my opinion, a great majority of the materials marketed to churches for children’s use during Lent and Easter is poorly done and developmentally inappropriate. Resurrection eggs, coloring books and children’s books often focus on thorns, crosses, nails and whips. It baffles me. Under no other circumstance would we give five year olds a coloring page with a man whipping another man, yet when it’s Jesus we make it ok. It’s not somehow appropriate or holy to hold up nails during a children’s message and talk about how they were driven in to the hands and feet of Jesus. There is no need for children to create a tiny crown of thorns, in my opinion.
  • Be at peace with “not telling the whole story.” As parents and pastors we do this all the time. In our house we have a number chart that has the numbers 1-100. Our children refer to it all the time when talking about addition and subtraction and counting by fives and tens. Next, I’m sure, will come multiplication and division and fractions. At some point they’ll have a greater consciousness that there are numbers that are far outside the range of 1-100 and that numbers go to thousands and ten thousands and millions, but right now we’re focusing on the basics. “The basics” when it comes to Christian faith do not include the violent details of the cross. (Perhaps this is where I part ways with other Christian educators when I say this.) The basics of the Christian faith are these: Jesus is alive. God made the world and everything in it. God’s love is powerful. God is with us all the time, even when we are sad and lonely. God is gracious and slow to anger, rich in love and good to all. Perhaps a good focus for a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday children’s lesson is something about God being with us when we are sad and lonely. Perhaps a good message is that God’s love is powerful.
  • Focus on faith practices rather than narrative. If you’re at home, you could focus on any one of the 50+ practices in Faithful Families. My favorite for this year is having an Easter Sunrise Breakfast. It starts out in the dark to give an age appropriate way to begin to experience the power of new life and resurrection. Many of the practices in Faithful Families also work in church or group settings. Coloring mandalas, walking the labyrinth, practicing breath prayers, all of these are useful ways to try and experience Maundy Thursday and Good Friday without focusing on the violent details of the narrative.
  • Re-evaluate your own theology of atonement – When I’ve shared my opinion on the necessity to shield young children from the violent details of the crucifixion the response is often “You can’t get to the resurrection without the cross.” To that I have two responses: 1. This is a very adult lesson that children don’t need to take on. 2. What do you mean? Christ was crucified and God used that tragedy to bring about resurrection and new life. Christians have found this to be meaningful and mysterious for over two thousand years. But did God kill Jesus? I don’t think so. (See an excellent book by this same name for more.) The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is central to our faith, yes, but I would argue that our presentation to children is weak because our own theology is weak. When we don’t critically engage the question “What is the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross?” our children get caught in the crossfire.

What do you think? How will you present the crucifixion of Jesus to children this Holy Week? Let’s have a discussion about this in the comments. Share your ideas and techniques as well as resources you’ve found to be valuable.

 

 

Sermon Remix : Some Thoughts about Baptism and the Book of Order

A few weeks ago I was talking to my sons Clayton and Samuel about baptism.  “It’s when you put water on the baby’s head and the baby officially becomes part of God’s family,” I said. Clayton furrowed his brow and said “But the baby is always a part of God’s family, even before you put the water on her head.”

Smart kid. He speaks the truth. Our scripture reading for this morning is one of the stops on the way to Jerusalem that we’ve been taking this Lenten season. The text tells us that Jesus, when he blesses children, says “People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them.”

When Jesus is challenged by the disciples on this he says “It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

As Presbyterians we baptize babies for this very reason. We remember that we don’t choose God but rather God chooses us, through the mystery of faith. Our book of common worship says 

“Through baptism we enter the covenant God has established. Within this covenant God gives us new life, guards us from evil, and nurtures us in love. In embracing that covenant, we choose whom we will serve by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ.”

Clearly a baby can not yet do this, but we choose to bring babies before our congregation as a reminder that God has chosen them. We make promises to one another as a community of faith to do our very best to bring the children we baptize up in the church, that they might come to make their own profession of faith one day.  The community is important. How is a child supposed to come back and make his or her own profession of faith if he or she isn’t a part of the community?

This is why our work is only just beginning after the baby is baptized. After baptism we have the hard work of Sunday School training, and Vacation Bible School, we have to get our children involved in faith formation at home and be willing to show our children, by example, what it means to follow Jesus. We don’t simply have a baptism ceremony and walk away. It’s the beginning of a life-long process.

It’s for this reason that our Book of Order requires that at least one parent be a member of our congregation or another congregation for a child to be baptized. The reason is important, and I understand it. Yet I am challenged by how strong our Book of Order is on this. It uses the word “shall” which means it’s a requirement.

A stranger on an airplane once dramatically challenged my view on this requirement. I’m not much of a chatty person on airplanes. I like to put on headphones and listen to music or podcasts. This one particular flight, though, I got to talking with the person next to me. When she learned I was a minister she said, 

“I never went to church, ever, growing up. When my daughter was born, I wanted to have her baptized, but nobody would do it. I called every church in town but they all said no because we didn’t belong. After that I decided we didn’t need the church.”

Those words “we didn’t belong” really stuck with me. It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? To think of a mother who wanted to explore this mystery of faith for her newborn child and was constantly told “no.”

If she called a Presbyterian Church, I imagine that the pastors she talked to were thinking of our Book of Order that requires a parent to be a member in order for a child to be baptized. And yet, strict adherence to that requirement ensured that a woman and her daughter never ever set foot in a church again because they didn’t belong. How tragic. How unlike Jesus.

Jesus said “Let the little children come to me and do not stop them.”

What might have happened if just one of those churches my seat mate called had said “yes”? What if this woman and her daughter received such a warm welcome in to God’s family that they decided to stay and learn more and be transformed by God’s love? I think the church messed up when we said no to that woman and her daughter, when we said they didn’t belong. It’s not actually true, in my opinion. They do belong. Jesus says so. 

Our own Book of Order says

“When a child is being presented for Baptism, ordinarily the parent(s) or one(s) rightly exercising parental responsibility shall be an active member of the congregation.” 

I’m grateful for that word “ordinarily” because I think it provides some room, perhaps, to say “yes” to someone like that seat mate of mine who came searching for her daughter, some room to say “This whole thing isn’t about us anyway, it’s about God who chooses us even when we don’t choose God.” Ordinarily, yes, we bring our children to baptism out of a community, to stay in that community and grow up in faith. But there may be times, I think, when God uses the sacrament of baptism to actually bring people to faith.  Who are we to stop them?

“The baby is always a part of God’s family, even before you put water on her head.”

Truer words were never spoken.

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says.

“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Art Class at Home & Church: Bubble Wrap Prints

One of the things I’ve been trying to do as we continue on with our brief “art class at home” lessons is to keep them fairly simple and short. In fact, I’d say I spend about as much time setting them up as the boys do “executing” them. Still, it’s paid off. The short time and the “burst” of fun has keep them interested and engaged.

This lesson was a lesson in making prints and also turned in to a lesson in color mixing (they *love* mixing colors, more on that another time.)

Materials:

Bubble Wrap

Acrylic Paints + Brushes

Procedure:

Simple! 1. Paint directly on the bubble wrap

2. Press to paper

3. Reveal your glorious design!

Can’t wait to see what’s next!