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. 

For the first time we read the Bible together as a family (at least during Advent). For the first time we had a chance to talk about what happened at church that morning (on our way back from church on the Cairo metro). Even the experience of choosing the church provided some good opportunities to talk as a family about what we value in a faith community. 

Fortunately, it was also during this time that I was working on my book that has been released this month from Westminster/John Knox Press - 100 Things Every Child Should Know Before Confirmation. Writing that book gave me motivation to talk one on one with our son about different parts of the Bible and the Christian faith, often using him as a guinea pig for the ideas outlined in the book. 

A significant part of the book is being thoughtful and intentional about the conversations we have with our children about the Bible and faith. When I blogged through  these 100 things over the past several years, most of my focus was in helping parents and educators understand how the basics of Christianity are expanded on and developed through the process of Confirmation. In the book, my focus is more intentionally on how parents can be primary Christian educators for their children, just through a variety of intentional conversations about the Bible and our traditions as Christians.

For each item in the list there is a section entitled Planting the Seed, in which I give simple examples of conversation starters, family practices, and even encouragement not to gloss over the more difficult parts of scripture, to show how accessible many of these topics can be. 

  • For the stories of Jacob and Esau, conversations on sibling rivalry and how we as siblings negotiate with each other and sometimes don’t treat each other as we should
  • For the Ten Commandments, encouragement not just to teach them to children but to help show children how we live them as a family
  • For the Psalms, a suggested practice of sitting together and sharing with our children the parts of scripture that are particularly meaningful to us as adults
  • For a miracle like the Feeding of the 5,000, a conversation about what it means to be generous in our daily living just like the boy who offered the disciples his lunch to share (in John’s version of the story)
  • For the importance of naming our own family’s religious background, encouragement to be honest and open in sharing our personal faith stories

There is an important conversation happening in the church in this moment about the future of Sunday school. Some argue that a child gains just as much Christian education accompanying their parents in worship (as our son did) as they do in a classroom setting. For some, there is increasing anxiety over what is expected of our children in these days and how church and Christian education falls to the bottom of the priority list for parents who want to do all they can to help their children succeed in the world. For some, there is an honest naming of the ways that Sunday school has turned into a need to entertain children, sacrificing substance in the name of being the fun church. 

An important factor in each of these conversations about the changing landscape of Christian education is how we can empower and equip parents to be active participants in their children’s Christian nurture. It is my hope that this book will be helpful in that work. 

As systematic as the book is, these conversations, and a child’s growth, are anything but. The most helpful way for parents to use this book is to encourage parents to be prepared to take advantage of the unexpected yet important moments when we have a chance to talk to our children about faith, as small and insignificant as those moments might seem.

This past vacation we found ourselves in conversation with family over lunch. I can’t even remember what the original topic was, but somehow the conversation came around to the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. (This is what happens when you belong to a family of pastors and biblical scholars.) As we made a variety of jokes or comments about the story, our son piped in, needing to repeat himself to make his still little voice heard; he said, “The worst part about that story is Isaac understands that something strange is going on and asks his father to explain what is happening. He asks about the sacrificial animal, not knowing that he is it. Abraham even makes him carry the wood that he will be burnt on. What a crazy story.” 

It was a pretty thoughtful perception of the story, especially from a child’s perspective. I looked forward to sharing the story once I got back to work with my colleague who had shaped his Sunday school experience this past fall. 

When I told her the story we had over that lunch, she thought for just a few seconds and then revealed that his class had not studied Abraham and Isaac this year. “You must have taught him the story.” Really? That wasn’t outside the realm of possibility, and most likely he and I have talked about this story, read it in a children’s Bible together or even chatted about it on a Sunday when it was read in church. But his response seemed so fresh and fully formed, it was hard for me to believe that these thoughts had simply been percolating in him since some unmemorable moment when I must have taught him this story.

So often we shape our children’s faith and experience of scripture in small moment after small moment. Sometimes it is we as parents who plant the seed that will grow into a new understanding, sometimes it is a Sunday school teacher, sometimes it is a pastor. In my own experience, I have clearly lost track of who has planted which seeds in my son's growing faith. May we as parents feel confident in our responsibilities as a part of this community that shapes our children’s faith.

For more information about 100 Things Every Child Should Know Before Confirmation check out the book page on this website. 

I am going to be posting more about the book over the next several weeks, as well as some reflections on our time living in Egypt. To be sure to keep up with new posts on Bread not Stones be sure to subscribe by email, or follow the blog on Twitter or Facebook

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. 

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.