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. 

Immediately after the miscarriage, I sent her a note which included the words of a hymn written by Colin Gibson in 1994 - Nothing Is Lost on the Breath of God. Once they had made plans for the memorial, I asked if she would be interested in my son singing that hymn as part of the memorial service. 

Nothing is lost on the breath of God,
nothing is lost forever;

God's breath is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world forever.
No feather too light, no hair too fine,
no flower too brief in its glory;
no drop in the ocean, no dust in the air,
but is counted and told in God's story.

Nothing is lost to the eyes of God,
nothing is lost forever;
God sees with love and that love will remain,
holding the world forever.
No journey too far, no distance too great,
no valley of darkness too blinding;
no creature too humble, no child too small
for God to be seeking, and finding.
Nothing is lost to the heart of God,
nothing is lost forever;
God's heart is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world forever.
No impulse of love, no office of care,
no moment of life in its fulness;
no beginning too late, no ending too soon,
but is gathered and known in God's goodness.

So we started practicing every day for a week to get ready. Typically he is pretty excited to sing in church, but he told me that he wanted me to sing some of the verses with him - to be his backup singer for a little support. 
It was a precious week of practicing together: hearing these words of grace and love in his sweet little boy soprano voice; listening to his comments every so often about how sad the song was and us talking about what the words meant.
The night of the memorial he was more nervous than usual, and he kept telling me that he was worried that people wouldn’t like the song. He seemed to really understand the importance of this moment and the honor of being allowed to be a part of it.
He sat in the front row with me snuggled up close as we sat next to our friends. He sang his little heart out on all of the hymns for the service - Amazing Grace; Canticle of the Turning (which I have since decided needs to be sung at my own funeral) and others. 
It wasn’t until Kirsten got up to share her own brief homily and eulogy for her son that the sadness of their loss really struck him. She shared what will probably be one of the most remarkable sermons I have ever heard in my life as she wove the Old Testament stories of Joseph and his dreams as well as the New Testament stories of Jesus’ father Joseph’s dreams into the dreams that she had had for her own son Joseph. 
I looked down at my son hunched over in the pew, and I leaned in to ask him if he was okay. I am sure he was shocked when he looked up and saw my own eyes full of tears, and he said, “this is just so sad.” I told him it is very sad and we are here to be sad together. 
He sang at the end of the service, and it was indeed lovely and a touching way for him to learn how to give thanks for God’s presence with us in the most desperately sad moments of our lives. 
I vaguely remember when I was a girl that my mom’s friend also suffered a miscarriage. I don’t remember us talking about it all that much, and I know for sure we did not gather as a community to give thanks for God’s presence with us through that tragedy of life lost. I hope that my son will remember his part in grieving this lost child’s life. 
In the fleeting moments when I wondered whether or not experiencing and sitting in the middle of this kind of sadness would be helpful for my son in his understanding of grief and loss, I was reminded that it was also an opportunity to witness the embrace of community, the strength of our friends through their grief, and my trust and confidence in him to be a part of such an important moment. 

May all of these experiences serve him well.

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.

Too often children don’t count, or rather we don’t take children into account, when we do many things in our churches: when we plan our worship services, when we schedule events too late in the evening for young children, when we don’t provide child care for parents, when we organize community meals that will not be appetizing to children, even when we plan new buildings or renovations that ignore the needs of children. 

In my experience, every time we took the time to think about how full inclusion of children and youth would impact a particular event, worship service, change in the structure of our community life/building, or even our overall vision as a community, all generations benefited.

The thing is, while the ushers were not counting the children in the sanctuary all those years, we were counting the children in every other place - counting them when they came to their fellowship and snack time, counting them in choir, counting them in Sunday school and counting them at youth group. 

Yes, there was the counting that takes place to help us know how to plan ahead...and to make sure that all children were safe and accounted for. But mostly the counting was about measuring the success of our ministry. 

Sundays when we were bursting at the seams were labeled a success. Sundays with low attendance or participation made me question almost anything and everything that we were doing as a church. 

Even though children were not included in the “official” worship numbers that the church kept, I know that most of the adults in worship were indeed counting the children each week, because it was how we all measured the growth and the vitality of our congregation. People would mention to me how proud and optimistic they were when the numbers were high and how anxious they were when the stairs to the chancel during the children’s sermon were empty.

I hate to admit that I was also so easily discouraged by small numbers. Obviously, with some perspective I can see that numbers, trends, and an obsession with definitive measures of success were not the healthiest way to think about ministry with any number of children and youth. 

What I really hate to admit is that in the midst of all of this counting, I sometimes short-changed the children who were there, the ones who made up that small number who actually showed up. My mind was the on the ones who had made a different choice that day, instead of on the ones who gave me the privilege of being a part of their life and their education that day. 

Looking back now, I absolutely cherish the Sunday mornings or youth group evenings when I just had two or three students and we each had one another’s undivided attention. That is when the kind of effective ministry was done that I could feel in my heart rather than count on my fingers. Now I actually wish there had been more of those opportunities.

The only number that truly counts is ONE - 
one child who needs a community to provide hospitality and safety; 
one child who needs adults who listen and mentor; 
one child who needs help finding their place in the hymnal so their voice can be heard amongst the congregation; 
one child who needs to be asked to contribute out of their gifts and energy; 
one child who needs help pouring a drink at a community meal; 
one child who needs to know that they are expected, that someone is counting on them and looking for them each week. 

This is why the children count and how we should be counting our children.

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. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Life of the Early Church: The Final 5 Things (out of 100) That Your Child Should Know Before Confirmation Class

After two years of blogging through this list of the 100 Things That Your Child Should Know BEFORE Confirmation Class, I find myself here at the end with the topics that I always cover at the very beginning of this year of preparation for students choosing to become adult members of the church.

While an important part of being Confirmed is making a declaration of faith in Jesus Christ, just as important is making a choice to live out that faith in the context of a particular Christian community. 

Two weeks ago, I shared some of the questions that students are asked to answer in my Presbyterian tradition related to their declaration of faith. Here is the final question they are asked:

Will you be a faithful member of this congregation, share in its worship and ministry through your prayers and gifts, your study and service and so fulfill your calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?

While it may sound heretical, this question is just as important to me as all of the others. 

The Christian experience is rooted in community from its very start. To be a Christian outside of community means losing an essential part of how the Bible models faith expression and the practices of faith. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Parable of the Sower Explained: helping children recover from a bad Bible study experience

Last weekend our son attended a family church retreat with friends, and he had a great time. Leading up to it, I had mentioned to him that the children’s Bible study sessions were going to focus on the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9). His response: “Great! I like that parable.” I am not sure when he first learned it or made it a favorite, but it was a good sign that he was going to have a positive attitude about the experience.

When he came home, we spent so much time listening to stories about swimming, playing, talent shows, and exploring on the beach that I almost forgot to ask how the Bible study went. His response: “Actually, it made me feel really bad. I didn’t like it.”

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Moments in the Life of Jesus: 5 Things (out of 100) That Your Child Should Know Before Confirmation Class

In Confirmation Class a primary objective is for students to affirm their faith in Jesus Christ. The liturgy that we use on Confirmation Sunday reflects just that.
Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
I do.

Who is your Lord and Savior?
Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple obeying his word and showing his love?
I will.

Will you be a faithful member of this congregation, share in its worship and ministry through your prayers and gifts, your study and service and so fulfill your calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
I will.

It took me a couple of years to figure out that I needed to do a better job prepping students as they prepared to answer these questions - certainly they are nervous standing in front of the entire congregation. There is also some kind of weird thing that happens when you expect 10 teenagers to respond spontaneously and in unison. Everyone expects the other to be the loudest voice, I think. 

And so as we prepared and practiced for worship, we went over the questions and answers and in particular their answer to “Who is your Lord and Savior?” For some reason it took a few tries for the answer to just roll off their tongues. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Five Steps to Choosing and Using a Child’s Study Bible

This fall as my son entered the third grade, we started to transition him from a children’s picture Bible to a children’s study Bible. 

A couple of weeks ago, I shared some reflections on the characteristics of a typical picture Bible and its limitations as children get older. This is a transitional phase for us, because there are some moments when it is helpful to have on hand a paraphrased child friendly version of a particular story and some other moments when it is still nice to have illustrations to help illuminate the story for my son.

But now he knows that when I ask him to go and get his Bible to either read together or to get ready to take to church, that I am asking him to get what I would call his children’s study Bible. 

A children’s study Bible is essentially a modern translation of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) that also includes study guides, in text notes, child friendly maps, and even some limited illustrations throughout. Often a church will give children this style of Bible when they enter a certain grade, but there is no reason why you as a parent can’t take the initiative and make this same transition together as a family. 

Maybe there is one reason - choosing which particular Bible is right for your child can be a little overwhelming. So here are five pointers for choosing the right Bible and how each of these elements figures into how you and your child will use this Bible together and how they can use it on their own.