Category: Church Leadership

Stop Giving Parents the Stink Eye In Church

 

Recently I had the opportunity to hear from a young mom who had grown up in the church, spent some time away after she got married, and was now looking to bring her children back to faith in the church. Among many valid critiques about why church was becoming a frustrating experience for her as she tried week after week to find a place that would be good for her children was something that’s so easy for congregations to fix: the stink eye. Ah the “stink eye.” You know what that is, right? It’s that look of disapproval that comes darting over the glasses or sideways. It’s a look that says “shape up” or “shhhhhhhhh” or “those children are too wiggly.”

The stink eye is subtle and obvious all at the same time. You know it when you see it.

The stink eye is one reason young families don’t come to your church anymore. (Note: I didn’t say it’s the reason, there are lots of reasons for this, but I promise you, the stink eye is on the list.) Families who get the stink eye in a church don’t just get turned off from a church, they get turned off from church in general. Even if your church isn’t a stink eye church, you need to be aware of it, because you’ll have to work that much harder to compensate for all the stinky eyed churches out there. Trust me. The woman I heard from a few weeks ago was not the only one who has told me about the stink eye. It’s pervasive. The bad news about the stink eye is that it’s contagious: if your church has a (spoken or unspoken) rule that it’s okay to tell young families to “shape up” or “shhhhhhh” or “those children are too wiggly,” this rule will be enforced by the stink eye. The good news is that the stink eye is easily counterbalanced and shut down by easy ways to help young families feel welcome.

  • Offer a reassuring comment that lets the parents and the children know they’re welcome just as they are. My favorite is “We just love noisy and wiggly children in our sanctuary. It helps us all to hear their lively energy and to know they are present!” or “It’s hard to be still and quiet for a long time in church. You’re doing a great job.” If you are old enough to have raised children in the church you know it can be a challenge. A simple smile with the words “I remember what it was like when my children were small” says more than enough.

 

  • Smile. A warm genuine smile that says “No worries. We’ve got your back here.”

 

  • Engage the family or children. Some churches have worship bags or coloring sheets or even a Prayground for children to enjoy. If you’ve got these resources… show them off!

 

  • Resist the urge to correct or judge. Parenting styles range from very strict to very free range and every parent I know is just doing the best they can with the resources they have. What is appropriate guidance to one is “helicopter parenting” to another. What is helping a child develop independence to one is “laissez faire” to another. Parents are bombarded all the time by people telling us what to do and how to do it. What would it look like if churches were free of this type of judgment?

 

What would happen if your sanctuary was known for being a stink eye free zone? What if, instead of the stink eye, parents received smiles, reassuring comments, and full acceptance when they visited your church? I’ll tell you what would happen: they’d come back.

Sutherland Springs, One Week Later // Moving Beyond Thoughts and Prayers

 

Last Sunday, November 5th, was my 39th birthday. As I sat around a table with my family and a few friends, the news of the Sutherland Springs massacre started to come in on our phones. When we were cleaning up the plates of cake and ice cream I glanced at my phone. Tags on Social Media: “I think Traci Smith is nearby” and BREAKING NEWS texts from KSAT. It took no more than a quick scan to realize that this was wide ranging, devastating. Another mass shooting in a church.

another mass shooting in a church.

another mass shooting in a church.

another mass shooting in a church. 

I sent a quick text to the Executive Presbyter saying “If pastoral care is needed in Sutherland Springs, I am willing.” I didn’t expect to hear back from her until the next day at the earliest, but she called 20 minutes later. She told me that a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance representative had told her about a vigil in LaVernia, TX, nearby and asked if I would go with her.

This morning in my sermon, I told the congregation about the fear I had as we drove there, with my 10 month old baby sitting next to me in the backseat. I worried we wouldn’t be safe. A church vigil should be safe, right? That’s exactly the point. A church should be safe.

I told the rest of that personal story from the pulpit this morning, including the question I was asked by the pastor there: “What kind of evil is this?”

Deliver us from evil.

We talked this morning about the evil of what happened this week and how we have a responsibility to do something about it. Thoughts and prayers are important, but they’re not enough.

I’m grateful to my fearless colleague Rev. Krin Van Tatenhove and the Mission Elders of my congregation, Patty and Robert, for designing four action stations:

First, a station where folks could write cards and expressions of sympathy to members of the church.

Second, a station where they pick up information on how to talk to children about a tragedy like this. I also included the same practices I recommended to folks wanting to help children after hurricane Harvey.

Third, a station that details the PC(USA) work to prevent gun violence and

Finally, a letter writing station. Our friends at Texas Impact helped us draft the following letter that parishioners could send to Speaker Joe Straus and Governor Abbott:

 

Dear Governor Abbott:

The recent tragic shooting at a place of worship in Sutherland Springs has once again highlighted policy issues related to the availability of firearms. Specifically, the interplay of Texas and Federal firearms laws, administrative procedures related to those laws, and the special circumstances of domestic violence and mental health woven into this tragedy mandate that Texas continue its ongoing efforts to improve public policy and reduce the chance of the next terrible event. None of these issues is new to the legislature. In fact, we have shown strong willingness to discuss these issues both individually and in relationship to one another. Specifically, we applaud the legislature’s commitment to mental health over the past several sessions. However, we are sadly reminded that there is much more work to do.

We request that you direct the appropriate committees in your houses to conduct a comprehensive review of policy issues potentially related to this tragedy, including:

  • The interplay of, and confusion between, various state and federal gun laws related to possession, transport, and licensure;
  • The communication between local, state, and federal authorities (including military authorities) of information pertinent to an application to obtain a firearm;
  • The communication of aggregated authority to sellers of firearms, and actions taken by sellers to deny a sale; and
  • Current laws related to disqualification for firearm purchase as a result of domestic violence and mental health records.

We believe that such an interdisciplinary review will be valuable to our communities, to Texans in general, and to policymakers as they grapple with the policy issues that such tragedies illuminate.

After the service, I was overwhelmed by the number of connections my San Antonio had to Sutherland Springs. I knew some of the stories, but not all of them. I walked away from service reminded again just how much this tragedy was  in our own back yard, but it’s always in somebody’s backyard…

 

Resources:

  1. The letter: please feel free to copy and paste the letter and send to your own representatives. We have no ownership over it and are deeply grateful to Texas Impact for their support.
  2. Resources for children. We provided THIS and THIS today.
  3. PCUSA Resources on Gun Violence
  4. Why Christians Must Support Gun Control 

 

Taking a Spiritual Inventory (with printable worksheet!)

 

The older I get, the more convinced I am that our spiritual health and wellness is vital to our physical, emotional, and psychological health and wellness as well. (I guess I’m in the right profession!) In other areas of wellness I see a lot of resources for assessment. There are lots of ways to evaluate one’s physical health or psychological health, but how do I know if I’m spiritually healthy? How can I identify areas of spiritual health and wellness? I spent some time thinking about this and made a spiritual inventory for myself and others. If it sounds like something you might be interested in using, take a look! I would love to know if you have any questions or thoughts. Peace, and enjoy!

Evaluating Spiritual Wellness: A Guide

NOTE: To download a the questions in one easy worksheet, click  HERE for a DOCX version and HERE for a PDF

At the end of this, the goal is to feel more hopeful and inspired for future growth. If this isn’t the case, you did it wrong. (I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course!) It’s important to approach this exercise with that outset “I’d like to continue to grow spiritually, and I want to take look at where things are. The goal is not to give myself a grade or to feel poorly about how things are going.”

Spiritual health is intimately connected to physical, emotional, financial, and psychological heath. It’s hard to write about “spiritual health” divorced from these things. Often a detailed look into of all of life will yield interesting results or connections, and often one life change can show results in all of these areas. For example, taking up a practice of walking could lead to health in all sorts of areas, not just physical health. These are your questions, so it’s fine to go off on a “tangent.” If reflecting for a bit on spiritual health leads to some changes in the way you manage your money or cook your food, go with it. Maybe the Holy Spirit is up to something!

How to use these questions: Sky’s the limit! Some may choose to write down their answers all in one swoop, on a 1/2 or day long silent retreat. Others may choose to do them in a group, with trusted friends or mentors. Pastors and ministry leaders might want to use them as a “jumping off point” for a retreat or workshop on faith development. Work through them in a language that works for you, whether it’s long form writing or journaling, or painting, or conversation. Return to them as often as is necessary. I ordered these questions with a specific progression in mind. I believe you will get the most value from this exercise if you work through them in order and challenge yourself to complete every question. Enjoy!

1. What do I believe? (Crafting a personal faith statement)

There are no “right” answers here, and honesty is key. What do you believe about the world? About human nature? About God? Which beliefs are central to your sense of identity? For many of us, (pastors too!) we don’t often take the time to look at our beliefs closely, under a microscope. Sometimes, when we do, what we find surprises or even scares us. Consider how you want to write your personal faith statement. Do you want to write it out in narrative form? As a list of beliefs? Do you want to paint it? Make a poem? Tell a story? Select a series of photographs that illustrate your beliefs? Whatever you choose, make it something natural for you. Dig in deeply, here. What do I believe, for real? Nobody will be checking over your shoulder.

2. What are my biggest doubts and questions?

Doubts and questions are great teachers and an important part of mature faith. The purpose of writing these down is not to identify weakness or problems. Quite the opposite, identifying doubts and questions help make space for us to understand how the spirit is at work and where our faith is growing. What haunts you? What is bothering you? What can’t you reconcile? Put these things down on paper.  Sometimes just naming these things and writing them down can do remarkable things.

3. When do I hear God’s voice* most clearly now or in the past?

Perhaps there is a certain place you go where you hear God’s voice most clearly, or a certain state of being you are in when you feel the most connected to God.

I used the words “God’s voice” because it makes sense to me and it’s how I describe a feeling of spiritual connectedness to God and to others. There might be another way that works better for you. Perhaps “when do I feel most spiritually connected?” or “When am I most at peace with myself and others?”

4. How have my beliefs changed over time? How are they in the process of changing? What season or shape is my faith and spirituality taking right now?

Faith and spiritual wellness seems to change with seasons. Some describe “dry” or “dark” times of the soul when things are challenging or difficult. Others talk about “mountaintop” experiences when things seem to be going really well. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what season one is in at any particular time, but it’s helpful, I think, to take a look behind and consider how beliefs have changed over time, or are in the process of changing.

5. What spiritual practices are nurturing to me?

For this question, it might be helpful to think in terms of past spiritual practices, present ones and those that we’d like to try in the future. For this, it’s helpful to think of spiritual practices folks might label as “traditional” (such as prayer, meditation, fasting or acts of service) as well as those that might be unique to you: silence, poetry, art, walking, gardening, journaling, running. Whatever practice helps you to feel most spiritually alive and connected and able to hear God’s voice. Perhaps there is a practice that was valuable to you in the past which has somehow faded away, Write down those that were valuable in the past as well as those in the present. If there is no spiritual practice currently alive and active in your life, note that as well.

6. What goals would I like to implement in order to be more spiritually healthy?

By now, you have laid out a clear foundation of what you believe, what doubts and questions are brewing in you and what season of life you might be in. You’ve also taken the time to think about what spiritual practices are nurturing to you. Now is the time to think about some goals for spiritual wellness. I would caution against jumping straight to this question without doing the reflection that comes beforehand. Though it takes some time, it will put things into sharper focus and help refine what kind of spiritual practice you might want to embark on. A few “refresher course” words about goals. Goals should be as specific as possible and as quantifiable as possible. So saying “I’d like to meditate more” is far less effective than “I’d like to do ten minutes of meditation from Headspace per day for ten days in a row to see how it works for me.” When goals have specificity and can be measured, it’s much easier to see if you’re on track and, if not, to make a course correction. One helpful tip for goals is to make sure not to pile on too many. One or two is a great place to start, you can always add more, change or refine as time goes on.

7. What steps do I need to take in order to make my goals a reality?

Perhaps something needs to be moved off of your schedule in order to have the space and time to focus on a new goal. Perhaps you need to enlist the help of another person to encourage or help you stay focused. A word of caution here: be wary of thinking that your spiritual goals can only be reached by investing a lot of money. Particularly in North American culture, we’re trained to believe that if we just purchase the “right” (fill in the blank) we’ll have what we need. This is a lesson I feel like I’m still learning. Whenever I want to tackle the clutter in my house, I am tempted to buy more baskets or boxes or clutter busting devices when, in reality, what I need to do is this: get rid of the stuff that’s creating the clutter in the first place. There are so many great products, tools, services and “gadgets” to help with spiritual heath and wellness. Over time you may find a natural way to incorporate some of them into your life. At the same time, when you’re laying out your goals and vision, try to resist adding a long list of things to buy.

8. What resources do I have that will help me with my goal?

Here you can list personal resources (motivation, strength, kindness, attention), people resources (friends, spiritual mentors or leaders, family members.) and stuff resources (supplies, books, videos, songs.)

9. When will I begin?

The sooner the better!

10. When will I re-evaluate?

I think it’s a great idea to give yourself a relatively short timeframe (say 6-12 weeks) in which to try a new practice and then re-evaluate with a mini version of this inventory to see how things are going and try something new!

There you have it! My attempt at a spiritual inventory. I’ve done variations of this myself and found it very helpful. If you try it either on your own, or with a group, let me know how it goes in the comments. 

Don’t forget to snag your printable worksheet!  Click  HERE for a DOCX version and HERE for a PDF!

I would love to know your thoughts! Comment below and let me know what you’re thinking!

 

Doubts and Questions as Teachers of the Faith #KidMin

I went to seminary to get the tools and training to help teach people faith, never expecting my own faith would be challenged nearly to the point of breaking. And yet, like so many others, that’s exactly what happened. The story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho snuck up on me out of nowhere. Though it was more than 10 years ago now, I remember it like it was yesterday.

I was in the basement of the Princeton Theological Seminary Library during my first year of studies, and the article I was reading was discussing how the walls of Jericho might not have existed at all in a literal sense. I don’t remember the details, but I remember the article presenting a case for there being no archeological evidence for those walls. The premise was mind-blowing to me. “Not literal walls? What?” My mind flashed back to being a small child in Sunday School, marching around in a circle, singing “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho. Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and the walls came a-tumbling down.”

As I replayed that scene of that little girl, marching around the (actual, literal, real) walls the idea that there were no such walls was unbearable to me, and I started to cry big sloppy tears right there in the library. (Lots of people cry in seminary and university libraries, but it’s usually because papers are due the next day, not because crises of faith are commencing.)  The article about the walls stuck with me for weeks. “If the walls weren’t real, what else isn’t real? Have I been sold a bill of goods? What am I doing here?” The walls started to feel like a metaphor. My faith was crumbling, just like those walls, which (by the way) weren’t even real! I kept my thoughts mostly to myself as I trudged on from class to class, learning and reading and turning in assignments. There’s not an end to this faith crisis I can point to as easily as I can the beginning, but it did go away, eventually.

Eventually I came to a place where I was able to say, truthfully, that it didn’t matter to me whether the walls of Jericho were actual, literal walls or whether the story about them in the Bible points to a deeper truth about who God is. By the end of seminary I was able to distinguish a theological truth from a scientific truth in a way that made my faith infinitely stronger. For me, the story turned out just fine, and the wrestling I did in seminary turned out to be an experience I would not trade for anything. I think I’m a better minister because of it. And yet, as I reflect on the my season of doubts and questions in seminary now as an adult, I wonder how it might have been different if I were better prepared for it.

When we think of the most helpful tools for children’s ministry and faith development we often talk about age appropriate lessons, craft projects, or creative ways of telling the stories of our faith. But what about doubt? Doubt rarely makes it on any list of appropriate “tools” of the faith. And yet, we as Christian Educators and Pastors might actually serve our congregations well if we talk about doubt a bit more than we do. So often, doubt is talked about as something to get through or leave behind, rather than something to sit with for awhile as it marinates in us and transforms us. I agree wholeheartedly with theologian Paul Tillich:

Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. 

It makes good sense to think about faith and doubt as two sides of the same coin. Wrestling with doubt, asking questions about our faith, and teaching children to embrace doubts is a way to strengthen faith, not tear it down. Doubt is like a mysterious muscle. The more we exercise it, the stronger our faith can become. How can we flex our doubt muscles and teach children to do the same?

Doubters and Questioners in Scripture

Scripture is full of great figures who doubted and wrestled with their faith. In these cases, the doubts and questions end up leading to a more mature faith that can withstand storms and trials. When we teach children about these figures, we would do well to emphasize their doubts and questions, not downplay them. Here are five stories of doubters that  can be woven in to discussions about doubt. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a great place to start:

Abraham and Sarah: God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. When Sarah learns of this promise, her response is to doubt by laughing. “Yeah right,” she says in so many words, “I’m way too old!” But the prophesy comes true and Abraham and Sarah do become parents. When do we say “Yeah, right!” to God? When do God’s promises seem ridiculous to us?

Gideon: Gideon is one of the judges in the book of Judges who God chooses to deliver the people of Israel. Gideon can’t believe it, and puts God to the test by using fleece. One night he asks God to make the fleece wet and the surrounding ground dry. In the morning, there is so much water in the fleece he has to wring it out. But this miracle isn’t enough for Gideon. The next night he reverses the test, asking God to make the fleece dry but the ground surrounding it wet. Again, God answers the miracle. How do we test God? What does it mean when God answers us in the same way God answered Gideon? Even more challenging: What does it mean when God doesn’t answer us?

Thomas: Thomas is the quintessential doubter in the New Testament. When Jesus is raised from the dead he wants proof. He won’t believe it, he says, unless he can actually see Jesus and touch him. For Thomas seeing is believing and he will accept nothing less. We ought to raise Thomas up, not put him down. “Do you have questions? Would you like proof? You’re just like Thomas, he wanted those things too, and he was one of the disciples.”

Jesus: In Jesus’ darkest hour he doubted God and felt abandoned by God. From the cross he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When children or young people express doubts we can remind them that nobody, not even Jesus, has a faith that can withstand every trial or every question.

Do’s and Don’ts for Handling Doubts and Questions in Children’s Ministry

  • DO: Encourage questions and doubts. “Tell me more about that” or “Oh that’s interesting, I never thought about it that way,” or “Thank you for sharing that” are all affirming ways of hearing children and young people expressing their thoughts. Use them liberally. Don’t be afraid to follow conversations where children want to take them. I also love the idea of having a question box in the classroom where children can anonymously write down their thoughts and questions.
  • DON’T: Teach that faith is not an “all or nothing” game. Some faith systems are so rigid and so fragile that questioning just one tiny premise makes the whole thing fall down like a house of cards. Remind children that just because they question or disbelieve in one area doesn’t mean they have to give up all of their beliefs. There are many different types of faithfulness. My faith doesn’t have to look exactly like yours. The pastor’s faith doesn’t have to look exactly like yours.
  • DON’T: Give answers when you don’t have them. As I say in Faithful Families, the word “mystery” is a great one. I think the word mystery allows for room for a not knowing that has confidence. “That is such a mystery, isn’t it?” is a way that I answer a whole variety of questions. Another answer that inspires confidence and trust is this one: “Nobody knows.” Somewhere along the line, particularly in Western culture, we’ve gotten the idea that teachers know the answers and students are the ones who are there to receive them. Remind the children in your care that you’re there to learn together, and talk about mysteries together.
  • DO: Lift up stories of those who had questions and doubts, including your own story (as you are comfortable.) The stories listed earlier in this article are a great place to start, but there are dozens of characters in the Bible and throughout church history who wrestle and doubt. Explore them together, and lift up their struggles and challenges as well as their virtues. Our heroes are complex. It makes them more interesting.
  • DO: Maintain a sense of humor, joy, and curiosity when teaching. This is good advice all the time, not just when working with doubts and questions. Faith is playful, joyful and fun. There are so many lighthearted ways to approach ministry together with children and young people. Enjoy!

So what about you? How do you handle doubts and questions in children’s ministry? Do they seem like challenges to overcome, or a wonderful and necessary part of faith development?

The Power of Storytelling || Some Thoughts

 

Author Philip Pullman said, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

The human ability to tell stories to one another in order communicate deep truths is a feature of every human culture and civilization “Once upon a time, our ancestors…” or “In the beginning, God.” It is because of compelling stories we have heard or learned that we choose what to believe or disbelieve. I remember hearing Andrew Root say one time at a conference that parents should be saying to their children at the dinner table, “Tell me a story” not “What did you do today?” or “What did you learn at school, today?” Try it sometime with children of any age. I bet you’ll be surprised. Storytelling is an art, a craft, a gift. It’s the ability to frame reality and distill it into something true for your listener. Storytellers know the difference between truth and fact. Storytellers know which details to emphasize and build up and which ones to tone down or ignore completely. We are endlessly enamored with (or disgusted by!) the stories we tell ourselves everyday, as well as the stories others tell us. Stories can heal and connect.

The Positive Power of Storytelling

Last June I had the opportunity to attend a storytelling workshop/lecture/experience (I don’t even know what to call it!) led by Mark Yaconelli of The Hearth. I showed up to the lecture exhausted and not sure what to expect. Thirty minutes into the lecture and I was completely captivated and energized. The ideas from that one workshop have been marinating in my brain all summer. Mark led us through a few short opportunities to tell stories to one another and to reflect on their power. The prompts were simple, but each one was different, and Mark drew something different out of each one.  In just a few minutes, through the power of storytelling, he helped our Presbytery community bond, and laugh, and hold sacred space for one another. It was, hands down, the most powerful use of time at a Presbytery Meeting I’ve ever experienced. (For those who don’t know, a Presbytery meeting is a business meeting for church people). I walked away from that meeting convinced that there was something I would do to begin using stories with my congregation. I am really looking forward to Mark’s future work on this, hopefully including a more in depth “how to” manual or book. If/when such a book comes in to being, I’ll be first in line to buy and read it. For now, though, I’ll be putting in to practice some of the things I learned that day.

Using Storytelling in a Church Setting (aka “Mini Storytelling”)

One of the things Mark suggested was that we have people share stories with each other every week, either as a part of the sermon or a reflection on it. At my church this summer, we’ve not done this every week, but we’ve tried it a few of times, and it’s been great. Here’s how it worked: after the sermon I asked folks to gather around in groups of two or three to answer a question together. The first time the question was about calling “Tell about a time when you felt called by God to do something.” The second time was after a sermon on Deborah and the prompt was “Tell a story about an important woman of faith in your life and what she meant to you.”  The third time we tried storytelling in my congregation was yesterday, and the question was “Tell a story about a time you learned something from someone who was different than you in some significant way.” 

In each case, folks came up to me afterward and talked about how meaningful the moment had been for them. One of the most valuable parts of the exercise was the fact that it allowed people who didn’t know each other very well to talk about something at a deeper level. I intend to continue with this practice from time to time, mixing up the questions. I think the questions will sometimes flow from the sermon topic, but other times might just be a way of building community and friendship among the congregation. Some of the prompts I’m thinking about:

  • Share the story of your name, or something about your name (either first or last)
  • Tell about a favorite worship hymn or song and why you like it
  • Pick one moment from the past day (or week) for which you are grateful and share
  • Share a favorite vacation spot from childhood

Using Storytelling to Build Community in Small Groups

Another time I used the lessons learned in this storytelling workshop was in training some Bible Study leaders who were preparing to teach a year long study on the book of Hebrews. I broke them up into groups and asked them to tell stories to each other. The first was a story about a place from childhood where they felt safe and happy. The second was a story about their first childhood crush. The third was a longer storytelling exercise about their faith journey. The first two came directly from the experience I had at the workshop with Mark Yaconelli. The third was more related to the study we were discussing. After each time of storytelling we reflected a little bit about what the experience of both telling the story and hearing the stories was like. I gave no guidelines for the storytellers other than to try and help the listeners feel very engaged in the story through description and detail. The guidelines for the listeners were also simple: Listen fully. Don’t check your phone or doodle on the page. Don’t ask questions or add to the story or comment in any way. Just accept the story and say “thank you.” The leaders walked away from the experience inspired to do more storytelling with their Bible Study groups and to encourage the groups to tell stories in this very simple way. One person came up to me after the  training and said she’d be using the storytelling in her classroom.

Larger Storytelling Events

One of the things that I heard about at the workshop was the idea of holding larger storytelling “events” centered around a theme. This is not something I’ve ever done, but I am very curious about it. If your church has ever done this, or if you’ve been a part of one in your community, I’d love to learn more. The idea is a lot like The Moth podcast, I think, where folks come forward to tell a story related to a theme. The stories, as Mark described, are carefully practiced and rehearsed so they have a strong beginning, middle and end. The stories are designed to impact the listener in a specific way both individually and collectively. I’ve put out some feelers about this in my congregation, and folks seem interested. I think the process of putting the event together as well as the actual event itself would be very powerful. I thought it was interesting that Mark described the process of helping participants craft their stories as being similar to the process of spiritual direction.

Intergenerational Storytelling

Another thing I think would be very powerful would be to incorporate intergenerational elements to this storytelling focus in the congregation. What would it look like to have little conversation starters at the table at fellowship events, or questions that are focused on a particular universal age and stage in life. What about asking children and adults alike to share the story of losing their first tooth or a favorite experience around the Christmas tree? What if we asked older and younger members to talk about their favorite parts of the worship service? The power of storytelling for both younger and older members is invaluable, I think, and learning from those who are in different life stages is a great way to build bridges, understanding and mentorship.

So what about you? What experiences of storytelling do you have in the church or outside the church? What ideas can you add to this conversation? I’d love to hear more from churches who have put some of these ideas in to practice! Please comment here and share your thoughts!

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.

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.

Princeton Theological Seminary, Rev. Dr. Tim Keller, and the Abraham Kuyper Lecture

When I was in my early 20s, I was unclear about whether or not I was “allowed” to be a minister. By “allowed” I mean if it was something that I thought the Bible permitted. Even though I grew up in a denomination that ordained women, I went to a college that was a part of a denomination that did not, and so I was confused.

See, I loved (and still love) my faith and I took (and still take) the Bible very seriously. Some Christians said I could be a minister, and some said I could not. At the time I was working as a youth director at a great church. The pastor of the congregation listened to my struggle and said something to the effect of “I respect your high view of Scripture, it’s the same as mine.  I want you to know our denomination allows for the ordination of women from a reformed perspective.” He went on to tell me about that reformed perspective and how it included women in ordained ministry. He even told me about all the women he met in seminary and how gifted they are. He further went on to tell me about the gifts he saw in me. He challenged me to rethink my views and consider whether or not the Spirit was leading me to ordained ministry. He is a graduate of Princeton Seminary. Without his influence in my life, I would have neither attended Princeton Seminary nor become a Minister of Word and Sacrament (Teaching Elder) in the PC(USA).

I’m thinking about that story this evening because I did a double take (ok, a TRIPLE TAKE) when I read that The Reverend Dr. Tim Keller is Princeton Theological Seminary’s choice of speaker for the Abraham Kuyper Lecture. He will also be awarded a prize for excellence in Reformed Theology and Public life.  Spoiler alert: Rev. Keller is arguably the most influential pastor of a denomination that is very clear in its assertion that women should not be ordained to ministry. He (and the denomination he serves) is also very clear in its exclusion of LGBT people.

I’ll let others argue finer points of Rev. Keller’s theology (hello, this is Princeton Theological Seminary here, arguing finer points is what we do.).  My personal soapbox is much less refined. It boils down to this: an institution designed to train men and women for ministry shouldn’t be awarding fancy prizes to someone who believes half the student body (or is it more than half?) has no business leading churches. It’s offensive and, as I have taught my four and five year olds to express, it hurts my feelings. 

But he’s not even talking about “women’s issues” or “LGBT issues,” some will argue. The lecture is on church planting. Who can argue with church planting? Can’t we look past what divides us find common ground? Of course we can find common ground. Let me state clearly and without equivocation: I believe Rev. Keller loves Jesus. I believe he is a man of faith. I believe he works hard and has a respectable career. I would happily go to the church he pastors and listen to him preach. He’s absolutely invited to come to the church I pastor and listen to me preach. We can totally hold hands during the hymn sing.  The reason that’s not enough in this case (and the reason he shouldn’t have been invited to give this lecture and receive this prize) is that this isn’t some minor thing. This is a giant lecture with a giant whoop-de-doo factor.  There’s a place for common ground, but unless Rev. Dr. Tim Keller is prepared to argue for the ordination of all the women students of Princeton Theological Seminary, the The Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life is not that place in my opinion.

I would love to talk to the people from Princeton Theological Seminary who made this decision to better understand their position. Give me a call. Let’s chat.

UPDATE: The Seminary responded by referencing this email to the seminary community:

Dear Members of the Seminary Community,

I am aware that many in our community are deeply concerned by the invitation of the Kuyper Center at our seminary to have the Reverend Tim Keller come to campus next month. He will speak on the work of the theologian Lesslie Newbigin, and receive their annual prize as one who embodies their aspirations for extending the mission of the church in society. The focus of the concerns that have come to me is that Rev. Keller is a leader of the Presbyterian Church in America, which prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained ministry to Word and Sacrament.

Our seminary embraces full inclusion for ordained leadership of the church. We clearly stand in prophetic opposition to the PCA and many other Christian denominations that do not extend the full exercise of Spirit filled gifts for women or those of various sexual orientations. We know that many have been hurt by being excluded from ministry, and we have worked hard to be an affirming place of preparation for service to the church.

The seminary has many student organizations and several theological centers that bring speakers to campus. While my office issues the official invitations to campus, I don’t practice censorship over the choices of these organizations, even when I or the seminary disagree with some of the convictions of these speakers. It is also a core conviction of our seminary to be a serious academic institution that will sometimes bring controversial speakers to campus because we refuse to exclude voices within the church. Diversity of theological thought and practice has long been a hallmark of our school. And so we have had a wide variety of featured speakers on campus including others who come from traditions that do not ordain women or LGBTQ+ individuals, such as many wings of the Protestant church, and bishops of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions.

So my hope is that we will receive Rev. Keller in a spirit of grace and academic freedom, realizing we can listen to someone with whom many, including me, strongly disagree about this critical issue of justice.

Sincerely,

Craig Barnes

If President Barnes and I were chatting over coffee or margaritas, I’d gently challenge some of these assertions and we’d probably have to agree to disagree on what his role is or should be in this. I admire many of the things he’s done for the Seminary, and I also appreciate that his job is unimaginably difficult in so many ways. It’s also worth mentioning that, though the buck stops with President Barnes and though he had (and still has) the option to be much stronger in his response, he’s not the one who extended this invitation. Those who still feel compelled to respond ought to write, not only to President Barnes, but also to the Kuyper Center who can be reached here: http://kcpt.ptsem.edu/contact-us-2/

Onward.

UPDATE #2 on this. From President Barnes:

Dear Members of the Seminary Community,

On March 10 I sent a letter to the seminary community addressing the emerging objections to the Kuyper Center’s invitation to the Reverend Timothy Keller to speak at their annual conference and receive the Kuyper Prize. Those who are concerned point to Reverend Keller’s leadership role in the Presbyterian Church in America, a denomination which prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained Ministry of Word and Sacrament.

As I indicated in my previous letter, it is not my practice to censor the invitations to campus from any of our theological centers or student organizations. This commitment to academic freedom is vital to the critical inquiry and theological diversity of our community. In talking with those who are deeply concerned about Reverend Keller’s visit to campus, I find that most share this commitment to academic freedom.  Yet many regard awarding the Kuyper Prize as an affirmation of Reverend Keller’s belief that women and LGBTQ+ persons should not be ordained. This conflicts with the stance of the Presbyterian Church (USA). And it is an important issue among the divided Reformed communions.

I have also had helpful conversations about this with the Chair of the Kuyper Committee, the Chair of the Board of Trustees, and Reverend Keller. In order to communicate that the invitation to speak at the upcoming conference does not imply an endorsement of the Presbyterian Church in America’s views about ordination, we have agreed not to award the Kuyper Prize this year.

However, the Kuyper Center’s invitation to Reverend Keller simply to lecture at their conference will stand, and he has graciously agreed to keep the commitment.  We are a community that does not silence voices in the church. In this spirit we are a school that can welcome a church leader to address one of its centers about his subject, even if we strongly disagree with his theology on ordination to ministry.  Reverend Keller will be lecturing on Lesslie Newbigin and the mission of the church – not on ordination.

I want to thank all who have communicated with the administration of the seminary as this important conversation has unfolded on campus. We have heard many heartfelt perspectives from both sides of the debate. It has been a hard conversation, but one that a theologically diverse community can handle.

In the grace and love of Jesus Christ, we strive to be a community that can engage with generosity and respect those with whom we disagree about important issues.

Sincerely,

Craig Barnes

Well done, President Barnes. I appreciate this response, and you. This is the right move. Yes to academic freedom. Yes to listening to others whose opinions are different from our own (no matter how distasteful they may be.) No to giving large fancy prizes that can be confused with endorsement. Some may not be satisfied with this response. I think it’s a great compromise. Yes to this! -T