Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Sour Grapes

One of the things that I pride myself on as a pastor/parent is that I take the time to prepare my son for worship - pointing out to him changes or additions in the sanctuary that indicate something new or different will be happening in worship, making sure that he has his own bulletin and hymnal so that he can fully participate in worship with his father and I, even pointing out to him things that I think are strange or weird in worship, helping him recognize our worship habits or by noticing when we stray from them.

Preparing children for special worship and for the sacraments is something that I have written about before, and I have an especially favorite and popular post encouraging parents to prepare their children to participate in Ash Wednesday worship services. But sometimes I worry that my selective sharing of the benefits of worshipping with children, and my thoughtful essays on children in worship, might give the impression that our worship life as a family is full of success and only the rare frustration. 

This is not the case. at. all. 

So in the spirit of Lent, I thought I would share a story of our epic Ash Wednesday fail from just a few weeks ago. 

First, a little background. When we celebrate the sacrament of Communion at our church we use sacramental wine, not the Welchs grape juice that I grew up with and that my son was raised drinking. It only took one swig from the tiny little glass cup the first time we received communion here for my son to swear off the cup. 

We walk forward to receive the elements in one of the most unusual Communion traditions I have ever experienced. A tray of empty glass cups sits in the center of the aisle, and as you pass it you pick one up. The pastor breaks of piece of bread and gives it to you to eat immediately. Then you take your tiny cup and hold it out for the Communion assistant to fill from a silver chalice that is notched on one side for pouring. Then you drink from your little cup and leave it empty on a tray next to the baptismal font. Having both been the one pouring from the chalice and the one holding the cup, I can attest to the stressful nature of this method of sharing in the cup as a community. 

My son swearing off Communion wine means that I never have to worry about him holding his cup still enough to be poured into. But it also means that I am always a little sad to watch him pass the cup by. 

I will admit that the wine is sour enough that almost every time we share the sacrament I think of the wine mixed with vinegar that the soldiers offered Jesus on the cross - certainly a far cry from the joyful feast of the people of God, which we are invited to at the table. 

My son walking past the cup has become a habit for us, and I hardly think about it any more.

So now to Ash Wednesday 2015. Our church comes together with a local Anglican church for Ash Wednesday, and this year it was our turn to meet in their sanctuary for worship. 

My son has been to his fair share of Ash Wednesday services, so I actually spent more time before the service talking with my parents (who were visiting us), who would actually be receiving ashes for the first time at that service. 

We arrived a little early, and I walked my son around the sanctuary to look together at the icons, beautiful frescos, and one of the largest baptismal fonts I have ever seen in my life. We picked up our bulletins, found our seats, and looked at the order of worship service together to orient ourselves for worship. 

I did all of the things I would encourage parents to do. 

I hadnt thought about the fact that we would share the sacrament together, but once we saw the table set for Communion, I realized that we would. It wasnt until the end of the Communion liturgy that it crossed my mind that I might need to give my son some instructions about how we would receive the bread and the cup. 

Fortunately we were sitting in the back (like good Presbyterians) and I could see that people were coming forward to kneel at the rail to receive the elements, and that while some people were drinking directly from the cup, others were dipping their bread into the cup - a practice called intinction. 

My son had never knelt for Communion at a rail and, I figured, had probably never seen people share a common cup. So I kicked it into gear and made sure he could see that people were coming up and kneeling at the rail, reminding him that I would be there next to him. Then without really thinking I said, some people are drinking from the cup, but you can just dip your bread in and eat that.” 

I think that I realized at some point during our walk to the rail that the Anglicans were likely to also use sacramental wine, and I swear I mentioned this to my son. But the damage was already done. He heard me clearly say you can just dip your bread in and eat that.

As the priest made his way down our rail, I demonstrated for my son how to hold his hands out to receive the bread. Right on the heels of the priest was our pastor with the cup. 

You will remember from my description above that each week at church our pastor gives my son his bread and he walks past her beyond the cup and sits down. While she totally knows that he doesnt take the wine at our church, she had never had the experience of not offering him the sacrament.

At this point everything shifted into slow motion as she offers the cup to him, and I watch him dip his bread deep in the wine and, without thinking, put it in his mouth. 

By the time his lips closed his eyes were as big as they can possibly get (which is pretty big), and I could actually see the tears springing from the corners of his eyes. 

I myself had already eaten my wine infused bread and knew exactly what he was tasting - sour wine. 

My son has a pretty sensitive gag reflex, and so I know that both of us at this point were just hoping that he could get it down without losing his dinner. As he began to silently weep, I wrapped my arm around him (still at the rail by the way) and could feel his little shoulders shaking. 

Remember that we were seated in the back, which means that we were the last to be served. I am sure that to the rest of the congregation it looked like my son was having a deeply moving and devout moment of worship as he encountered both the reality of his mortality in the ashes and the gift of grace and redemption in the blood of Christ, when really he was just trying not to throw up. 

Once we finally made it back to our seats, he and I had some difficult words with each other as he accused me of making him take the wine, and I accused him of not paying attention to me when I told him not to take it. Later, when he told the story to his father, who had been teaching a class that evening, he kept saying She offered it to me; what was I supposed to do?!

My son does not think the story is as funny as the rest of us do, and likely he will store it away in his memory as one of the times that I was at fault for a bad experience. It wont be the first or the last. 

Truth be told, he has been at fault for plenty of my bad worship experiences - complaining, whining, kicking, sighing, talking, refusing to sing, refusing to stand, refusing to pay attention. I just try to not let them build up or color my ability to return to the pew with him each week. 

I just hope that the next time he returns to a rail (probably when he is much older), whether in prayer or to receive the sacrament, he wont just remember that sour wine and his salty tears, but he will remember that also that his mother was kneeling there next to him. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

How Can I Keep From Singing: Five Hymns from "Glory to God" to Use with Children

When I was a young child, I was part of a very small choir at our church called the Seraph choir. Four little girls with older siblings who were a part of the regular children and youth choir. Both choirs met on Saturday mornings (those were the days), and we would learn new music and generally work on our music skills. 

At one point our choir director (the assistant organist at our church) told us that she noticed on Sunday mornings, as she processed into the sanctuary with the choir, that we (us four little girls) were not singing along with the congregational hymns.

To encourage us to sing with the congregation, she started teaching us every Saturday morning the hymns that we would sing the next morning in worship. I am pretty sure that this one simple addition to our very simple children’s choir experience deeply affected my life. It developed my love not just for hymns but for congregational singing. It exposed me to some of the classic melodies of the Christian tradition as well as some of the most essential theological vocabulary of the faith. All starting at 6 years old. 

We didn’t just sing the Sunday hymns, though; we also learned simple anthems and other fun pieces of music (including my favorite, the Chattanooga Choo Choo). One piece was Natalie Sleeth’s “God of Great and God of Small,” a beautiful description of the vastness and yet the attentiveness of God. Years later I still remember all of the words:

God of great and God of small, God of one and God of all, God of weak and God of strong, God to whom all things belong…God of silence God of sound, God in whom the lost are found, God of day and darkest night, God whose love turns wrong to right.

Just as much as any Sunday school lesson, this piece of music gave me language to describe the paradoxical nature of a God both all-powerful and all-loving. I loved and remembered this anthem so well that I used it a few times when I was serving in my congregation and we needed a simple but significant piece of music for young voices in worship.

While I was anxious about letting the old “blue” hymnal go, I was pleasantly (and honestly deeply) surprised to see that the committee, who spent years working to assemble this hymnal, had chosen the hymn setting of “God of Great, God of Small” to be included in the volume (it is #19).

Hymnals are wonderful resources to use with children. Now that this particular song is readily available to pastors and teachers, it can be used even more widely to help children understand the nature of God. It was only on my second and third times through the new hymnal that I realized that several of the newly included hymns and songs in Glory to God are perfect for use not just in the sanctuary, but with children in the classroom and music rehearsal room. 

Here are four more of my favorites:

#462 I Love to Tell the Story: This is an oldie but goodie that could be found in the old red Presbyterian hymnal, but was not included in the now old blue Presbyterian hymnal.  But in the church where I grew up, they used the blue hymnal in the sanctuary and the red hymnal in the chapel, where we had Easter Sunrise services and other special events throughout the year. I don’t know why exactly, but I loved this song as a child. Maybe it was the catchy melody, maybe the chorus, maybe the earnestness of the lyrics. 

Glory to God includes several hymns like this - oldies that many folks were sad to see not included in the blue hymnal. There are not too many hymns generally about evangelism, and when I was a child I didn’t really understand that this is what the hymn describes. 

What I did understand was that when I sang it I was one of the people telling this Jesus story, and it seemed like a lot of people needed to hear it. What I absolutely love now as an adult is the third verse:

I love to tell the story, for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting, to hear it like the rest. And when in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song, ’twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long. 

I loved singing this in the chapel next to old women who had probably been singing this song and telling this story their whole lives, and now were really starting to think about what song they would be singing in their next life.

This hymn can provide a starting or an ending point to a conversation with children about how we talk about Jesus in our lives. How do they tell the story? What does it mean not just to tell the story of Jesus’ death, but to really tell the story of Jesus’ love, as the song describes?

#205 Ubi Caritas (Live in Charity): Glory to God includes several pieces from the ecumenical monastic community of Taize, located in the French countryside. The Taize community developed a specific worship style many years ago that consists mostly of repetitive sung prayers and song. Ubi Caritas is one of the most well known of the pieces that they have written. 

Truth be told, some people love Taize worship and some people really don’t get much out of it, but almost all of the children that I have experienced Taize worship with typically find it more engaging than traditional worship. Unlike traditional hymns, Taize pieces are usually just two lines long, which makes them very easy to pick up. Obviously, then, repeating them several times makes it even easier for children to be able to fully participate in the congregational singing. By the third time through, the children’s voices are just as strong as the adults.

But Taize pieces can also be used as prayers in the classroom. What better way to end a class than to sing through this simple piece together with children:

Live in charity and steadfast love, live in charity; God will be with you.

Isn’t this a great benediction for our children as we send them out into the world each week? 

#851 Come Bring Your Burdens to God: Another category of music that was both included in the previous blue hymnal and in Glory to God is what I might describe as world music. I am not sure when I first learned this South African chorus, but a few years ago I started including it in our Wednesday evening contemplative worship during Lent. 

Come bring your burdens to God. Come bring your burdens to God. Come bring your burdens to God, for Jesus will never say no. 

Something about this song really stuck with my son. He loved the idea of separate chorus and leader parts. We would find ourselves singing it all of the time: in the car, getting ready for school, at bedtime. One night after singing it over and over again together in his bed, I asked him what he thought the song meant by “Jesus will never say no.” Is that true? Didn’t Jesus say no all of the time? Does it mean that Jesus will never say he has no time for us? It was a fascinating conversation. 

Again, this is a short song with simple lyrics that would be great to warm up a children’s choir, giving children turns at the leader part.

Here is just a hint of how into this song my son is: 

#340 This Is My Song: I actually wrote about this “national” hymn a couple of years ago when I was reflecting on how to talk to my then 7 year old son about September 11th. 

This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my homes, my dreams, my sacred shrine; but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine. 

Ever since I was a teenager I have struggled with singing national songs in worship. Now married to a Mennonite, I am even more conflicted. I love that Glory to God includes this song that feels so much like the rousing anthems that we sing on national holidays, but that speaks a hope and truth that we all know we should be teaching our children to value in an increasingly shrinking world. 

While I was always a fan of including this hymn in worship on national holidays to supplement other hymns that might give the impression that we believed that God favors our nation over another, this new hymn can also be used as a beautiful poem and prayer in the classroom any time you are talking or teaching about children and cultures from around the world. 

My only complaint in this hymn is the third verse, which was not written by the original writer. This is very typical for older hymns, and I am by no means a purist. But I want to offer here, for use in the classroom, an alternative third verse (which is sometimes included in the hymn) that continues the theme of peace and unity more than the current third verse does:

May truth and freedom come to every nation; may peace abound where strife has raged so long; that each may seek to love and build together, a world united, righting every wrong; a world united in its love for freedom, proclaiming peace together in one song.

These are just a few of the new hymns in Glory to God that I am excited to be singing regularly in worship. Most importantly, now that these hymns are included in this ubiquitous resource, they are easily integrated in the whole life of our children’s church experience. 

Since many of you have probably been using Glory to God for several months now, which hymns have you started using with children in your congregation? 
...And because I can’t help myself, here is my list of honorable mentions: #100 Canticle of the Turning; #377 I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light; #488 I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry; #773 Heaven Shall Not Wait; & #821 My Life Flows On.

(Glory to God: Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Songs. Westminster John Knox Press. 2013.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Attachment Worshiping: sharing the pew with one another

It has been two years now since I left my work in congregational ministry— which means that for the past two years I have been able to consistently worship with my family instead of sitting in the “pastor’s” seat in the sanctuary. We have gotten into a particular habit lately, where my son sits in between my husband and I in the historic and weathered pews of our small congregation.

Frequently during worship I will feel my son grab my hand and wrap my arm around his shoulders. He is still about a head shorter than me, so often during the standing portions of the service he will slip in front of me with his back resting on my front so we can share a bulletin. Regularly he needs a simple reminder in the form of a firm squeeze on his knee to help him be still so as to not distract the kind people who worship behind us every week.

I have not gotten too caught up in the attachment parenting pros and cons as a variety of people debate the benefits of baby-wearing, bed-sharing and other attachment practices. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Broadening the Sunday School Canon: Ten Texts for Teenagers

Much of the time and energy I spent this past year working on my forthcoming book was devoted to revisiting the items I had chosen to be on my list of 100 things a student should know before Confirmation class. 

Most of my choices for the list were inspired by years of teaching Confirmation classes and working closely with Sunday school curriculum curricula. But the final list came together one snowy winter night during our 2011/2012 holiday vacation. In that moment the list was one part brainstorming, one part venting, and one part pipe-dreaming. 

Even though I spent two years blogging through this list, I didn't sit down to look at it as a whole until I started working on the book. With each chapter I wrote, I struggled with all of the things that were not included in the list:

Why am I including all three parables from the 15th chapter of Luke (the lost sheep, coin, and son) instead of including the parable of the Unforgiving Servant?

Do I include the story of Zacchaeus instead of the raising of Jairus’ daughter? An iconic passage from Isaiah, but not one of my favorites from Micah?

How do we put limits on what we read or know or explore in the Bible?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Reading the Bible at Home: 5 suggestions to help you fulfill that New Year Resolution

Recently our family took on the task of reading the Bible together every day for the first time ever. At breakfast each morning of Advent, we read a story or short passage from the New Testament. I used a list of suggested readings from the back of my son’s Bible and put a slip of paper with each reference into our Advent calendar. 

Nothing miraculous happened. We didn’t change into a different family. My son didn’t suddenly start begging for more church or even more Bible reading. We didn’t discover some previously hidden truth. 

But what we did do was have 24 conversations that we otherwise wouldn’t have had. Sometimes they were about the nature and character of Jesus. Sometimes they were about where the Bible comes from and how it is translated. Sometimes they were about faith and faith expression. One time they were about where to find the part of the Bible that talks about the mark of the beast. 

A couple of weeks later our breakfasts have returned to their previous rhythm and conversations, and I am still thinking about how we might find a way to integrate daily Bible reading into our family routine. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Nothing is Lost

Several weeks ago our friend and pastor lost her first pregnancy to a miscarriage. It had been a difficult pregnancy up to that point already, and so the entire community was walking closely with her and her husband expectantly towards the birth of their son. 

It obviously continues to be incredibly sad for them and their family as they grieve not just for the life of the child, but for all of the potential and promise that the child held within him. 

When I told my son what had happened, he was sad and yet relieved when he found out that Kirsten was okay. He told me that he was actually thankful when I explained what had happened, since he knew that sometimes when bad things happen to babies the mother also dies. Of course, it is his pastor whom he has the relationship with, and so she was his greatest concern. Even though he had been excited to welcome this new baby (who was potentially going to share his birthday), it was never really all that real for him. 

After a few weeks, Kirsten and her husband Justin decided to hold a simple memorial service for their son - Joseph Michael - so that they could recognize his very brief life and God’s love and care for him in his death. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Counting the Children

Several years ago I remember very off-handedly asking one of the ushers in my congregation how, if they take the attendance count when they are collecting the offering, do they count the children who have left before the sermon?

The answer was simple. “We don’t count the children.”

I gently suggested that the ushers might try to find a way to change the point in the service at which they take the count, so that the children could be included in the numbers.

This time the answer was a little different in a big way: “The children don’t count.”

I asked for him to explain to me why the children shouldn’t count in the statistics that we keep about how many people were in worship on any given Sunday. 

“They are not members.”

I explained to him that they actually are what in our tradition we call “baptized” members of the congregation, even if they are not “adult” members. Then I asked him if when counting adults they are careful not to count any visiting or guest adults who could also be given the label of not a member. Of course he counts them...but it did make him pause.

We actually talked quite a while about it, with him repeating to me that same phrase, “the children don’t count,” far too often for my comfort. 

After a few more conversations together, we did start including children in that worship count.