Monday, May 23, 2016

Worshiping Alone: a milestone in the journey

I have written and written and written about sharing worship with my son - the frustrations and the triumphs, the whys and the hows, the values and the hopes. I wrote a piece about a year ago that was especially meaningful to me about what it means to share space in the pew with my son week after week, while we were living overseas. 

All of that work and reflecting, hoping and teaching, has culminated in this new moment in our worshiping life as a family. 

The day has come that my son worships alone. 

He is not really alone. He is surrounded by my new congregation. He is often sitting with friends. But he is not with me, because I sit in the front, or with my husband, because he has been traveling a lot over the past several months since we moved back to the U.S.

At 11 years old, my son has to get himself dressed on most Sunday mornings and get his butt in a pew without anyone hustling or hurrying him out the door. It is true that we live close to the church and that even though I walk out the door on Sunday mornings about three hours before he does, he still gets up early enough for me to “style” his hair. But once we are gone he is on his own. 

I am usually seated in the chancel a few minutes before worship begins when I see him walking down that long center aisle looking for an empty seat or a friend. Bulletin in hand, he finds a place and gets ready for church. 

I often loose sight of him once the service has started. It is a big sanctuary, and faces tend to blend in. But every so often I catch a glimpse of him in worship. Fascinatingly, he is not leaning on the adult sitting next to him. Neither is he laying down on the pew. He is not whispering too loudly “how much longer?” to whoever might be willing to listen. He is standing for the hymns, and singing them with joy. He is participating in the liturgy and, as far as I can tell, listening to the sermon. 

Even when I watch him sitting with his friends in the choir on those Sundays that the 5th graders stay in worship, I see him participating. Yes, there is shuffling. Yes, there is whispering and giggling. But there is also participating, and singing, and listening. 

A few weeks or so ago I wasn’t helping to lead worship, so we sat together in the sanctuary for the first time in months. He met me in my office and quickly grabbed “A Wrinkle in Time” off a bookshelf to take with him to worship. Bringing a book to read during the sermon was one of our compromises for the two years that we were a part of a church with no Sunday school. 

But that book just sat next to him in the pew the whole service. There was no whining. There was no laying of heads on laps. There was minimal fidgeting from a child who for a period of his life could hardly talk without jumping up and down. 

Yet when the time came for the prayers of intercession towards the end of the service, he did scoot over closer to me, wrapping his arm around my shoulder, as I had often done to him. 

For a brief moment, I saw the teenager and young man he is becoming. 

I am sure that all those moments together in the pew had a part in making this particular moment happen. But I also believe that being given the opportunity to rise to the occasion, to work this out on his own, and to show up as a part of the community of faith on his own also played a significant role. 

I know his worship life, and our worship life together, will continue to morph and grow. I am sure there are many bumps yet to come along this road. But for now I am celebrating this particular stop along the way. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Time Traveling

In the summer of 2013, our family moved to Cairo, Egypt to serve as Mission Co-Workers for the Presbyterian Church (USA) living and working with the 150-year-old Presbyterian seminary there. Because of the sensitivity of our work and the moment in the life of Egypt, we didn’t share much online of our work and experiences while we were there. 
Now we are living and working back in the United States and are still trying to process all that we experienced those two years: church life, politics, culture, and of course the hundreds of windows we walked through into another time. 

Part of our calling to Egypt came in the form of our then eight-year-old son’s obsession with all things Egyptian. You can read more about that here. He was ready to spend lazy afternoons regularly wandering through the Egyptian Antiquities Museum off Tahrir Square. He assumed that trips to the Pyramids would be as regular as trips to the grocery store. He planned for Egyptian tchotchkes to fill his new Egyptian bedroom. 

Of course, none of those things exactly happened. He did collect many different trinkets throughout our stay, which now decorate his new bedroom in Pennsylvania. He did get to the point where taking a book on a visit to the Pyramids was a good idea since big stones are really only impressive the first time you see them. He did spend enough time in the Egyptian museum that we no longer needed a guide to appreciate what we were seeing. But life in modern Egypt often gets in the way of immersing oneself in the ancient. 

There were moments, though, that were nothing short of magical. Moments when I felt the impulse to pinch myself - or maybe him - just to make sure we all knew it was real. 

Now that we are living thousands miles and thousands of years away from all of the spectacular things we saw and did over the course of two years, I am finally able to wrap my head around what made it so magical. 

First there is something to be said for the scale of the ancient world - both the immensity and the minuteness. We walked through temples towering with columns covered in hieroglyphs…row after row - spaces built not just for worship but to hold a god in all its glory. We stood next to monuments so large that it is hard to imagine they were built by mere mortals, let alone by people who lived thousands of years before modern industry. We were in the presence of some of the most intricate and precise art I have ever seen made by human hands. The devotion it took to create such beauty and grandeur is hard to fathom. I suspect that when my son walks into our new church here in the US - grand in many of the same ways - that he remembers - as I do - what it was like to walk through some of the greatest temples of this world. 

On top of all the remains of ancient Egyptian culture and monuments (literally) are layer upon layer of other ancient cultures that came and went as the greatest powers of the world ebbed and flowed through northern Africa. Layers of Greek tombs and remnants of amphitheaters, ancient cave libraries, Roman baths and roads fill the city of Alexandria. There is no better place to be in order to grasp the cosmopolitan nature of the ancient world. 

Stepping back in time again and again brought reminders of how much of the Old Testament is rooted in ancient Egypt. Though there weren’t biblical sites in particular to be visited, we walked through mud brick storehouses likely similar to those described in the stories of Joseph as he led the Egyptians through a season of famine. We saw depictions carved in stone of women dancing, tambourine in hand, just as Miriam did after the Israelites made their way through the Red Sea. And as we wonder what it really meant for the people of Israel to be enslaved in Egypt, we could see ancient straw encased in mud brick reminding us of the cruelty of the Egyptian task masters.

But to my own amazement, our son wound up being most fascinated by the ancient Christian relics and remnants that are also all over the country. At one point in time, Egypt was the most Christian nation in the world, and throughout one can find places where pagan temples were converted into Christian places of worship, or even where Christian temples were built nearby in hopes of calling upon the longstanding sacredness of the place. Hieroglyphs are defaced so that Coptic crosses could sanctify temples. And deep in the desert, one can walk in the footsteps of the earliest Christian monks, whose devotees still live, work and pray in those same places.  

We lived in Egypt in the midst of some of the most pressing events of the modern Middle East, and yet time and again we glimpsed memories and moments of the past. I continue to ponder how our son will will be impacted by those years living in a different place (and will write more about that soon), but I especially hope he will carry with him the memory of stepping into a different time as well. 

More to come...

Images (top to bottom and right to left)

  • The Pyramids of Giza
  • An uncompleted colossus of Ramses II unearthed in the city of Memphis
  • Capitals in the Ramesseum, on the west bank of Luxor
  • Roman capitals in Alexandria
  • Statue of Alexander the Great given to the Egyptian people on the reopening of the modern library of Alexandria
  • Roman forum in Alexandria
  • Mud-brick storehouses behind the Ramesseum, on the west bank of Luxor
  • Mud-brick from a mortuary temple next to the Bent Pyramid, south of Memphis
  • Hieroglyphs at the Temple of Edfu
  • Mosaic of the Holy Family in Coptic Cairo
  • Remnant of a Christian temple next to Dandera
  • Outside the cave of St. Anthony in the desert near the Red Sea 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Feeding the Soil

A few months after I compiled my list of 100 Things Every Child Should Know Before Confirmation, I brought it to my Christian Education Committee. I was nervous. I had already been serving there for several years, and had grown to value the way they shaped and built their Sunday School curriculum for children.  Was it possible that it wasn’t working?

We sat at that meeting and compared my list to the three year curriculum cycle we they had been using for almost nine years at that point. If the goal of our children’s Sunday school classes was to nurture them in preparation for Confirmation, then it looked like we were doing that. If a child attended EVERY Sunday over our 36 week program for three years, they would have mastered all of the items on my list. 

Well, we all knew that wasn’t happening. 

So began two conversations. One - how can we better equip parents to be their own child’s Christian Educator? Two - how can we shape our classroom curriculum and experiences to be more mindful of how we use each moment that we do have children at church to shape their experience and formation? 

When I originally blogged through this list, I didn’t spend a lot of time reflecting on this second question. My aim was to help parents feel equipped for this work. Equipping my congregation was a natural offshoot of the ongoing conversations and adjustments that we made together. But when I sat down to collect this list and these ideas together in a book, it seemed appropriate for each item to give tips on how we can use the classroom to teach these topics, to reinforce concepts, and even, in subtle ways, to prepare children to progress on their faith journey. 

For each item in the book there is a section labeled Feeding the Soil, continuing with the image of helping our children grow in their faith. These sections are primarily targeted  to Sunday school teachers, volunteers, Christian Education committees and Christian Educators. I will be the very first to say that there is nothing earth-shatteringly innovative in these sections. Mostly they are commonsense solutions and suggestions born out of ten years experimenting in the classroom. These sections don’t present a lot of theory, but more straightforward and simple practice. For example:

  • Children learn how to use the Bible by actually using the Bible in the classroom. So resist the temptation to always ask ONE volunteer to look up and read that day’s story. They should all use a Bible every time they are learning about the Bible.
  • Children learn the iconic pieces of scripture by hearing and reading them often. Choose which Psalms you want to make sure children know, and use them as opening and closing prayers in the classroom.
  • Most parents do feel equipped to teach their children some of the most basic stories of the Bible (Noah’s Ark, Moses in the Bullrushes, etc.). So use children’s time in the classroom to dig more deeply into those stories or to encounter the stories surrounding them.

A couple of months ago I participated in a large conversation with  local faith leaders on how to develop resources to work with children on interfaith relationships and education. After the gathering one of the Christian Educators from another local Presbyterian Church approached me to talk about how she was using my book to help her Christian Education committee rethink their curriculum and Sunday school programs. They weren’t creating curriculum based on the book, but rather were using the book as a tool to think about what they want their programs to look like and how they are connecting the pieces in all the work that they do. 

It was exciting to hear about the book being used in that way. Here are some other specific ways the book could be a helpful tool in your congregation: 

  • Use the list (summarized in the appendix) to identify what your congregation’s essentials are. This is my list. It is not perfect, and there are many, many more things that I would want children to learn and know over the course of their Sunday school experience. Brainstorm together what YOUR list would be. 
  • The list is also a great way to talk with Sunday school teachers and volunteers about how the work that they do even on ONE Sunday morning impacts the larger picture of a child’s Christian education and journey. In a moment when we no longer have teachers in our congregations committing to a full year of teaching week after week, it is essential that teachers understand how they are connected to what is happening EACH Sunday in the classroom.
  • The book can also serve as the framework for the resources and educational opportunities that you create for parents. While it can feel overwhelming to think of all of the things that go into a well-rounded and holistic Christian education plan, walking through this book with parents is a great way to show them how equipped they already are to do this work. 

It has been fun hearing how folks have begun to use the book in their congregations. I would love to hear from more of you, especially if you have found interesting ways to use the suggestions in the book to impact the shape of your Sunday school curriculum. 

If you haven’t gotten your copy yet, or if you want to know more about the book and how it came to be, click here. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Planting the Seed

During the past two years, as our family has lived overseas working on behalf of Presbyterian World Mission, we attended a small congregation with very few children. You can read about our choice to join that church here. 

There were many great benefits to being a part of this diverse and eclectic community of faith - and the only drawback was that there was no Sunday school for our son to attend. He was in Egypt for his 3rd and 4th grade years - formative years when children in thoughtfully designed Christian education programs are exposed to some of the great stories of the Bible. 

Of course, he was not leaving worship to attend Sunday school, and this meant that during our time in Egypt he likely heard over 150 readings from scripture (both the Old and New Testaments) as well as close to 80 sermons on those texts which in many other congregations he would have missed because of our collective tendency to remove children from worship about halfway through.  It means he recited the Apostles’ Creed the same number of times, watched me put our family offering in the plate the same number of times, and prayed the Lord’s Prayer just as many times.

It also meant that for the first time I felt a personal obligation to be his primary Christian educator. Granted, in our previous congregation I was his pastor and helped to shape the curriculum that was used in his Sunday school classes, but with the hectic schedule of a pastor on any given Sunday morning, I relied heavily on my colleagues and the volunteers in our classrooms to mentor my child in the faith. 

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. 

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. 

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.