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.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

100 Things Your Child Should Know Before Confirmation - The Book

I am delighted to announce officially today that I am working with SPCK Publishing on a new resource based on two years of writing about the basic information students should grasp about the Bible and the church BEFORE they start their time of preparation to be Confirmed as adult members of the church. 

Confirmation is a rite of passage in which students take the identity and knowledge that has been shaped in them for (in most cases) thirteen years of their life and do intentional work to transform that into a growing adult faith and an identity as an adult member of the faith community. 

In many cases, Confirmation has instead become a chance to teach all of the foundational biblical and theological material that students have not previously been exposed to or intentionally taught.