Posts Tagged ‘conversations with children’
Sunday morning was the first time (except for six weeks of maternity leave) I’ve ever been in the same town as my congregation and not been with them for worship. It’s also the first time B has ever been away from church, with the exception of attending the church of my childhood when we are home in Virginia. We were getting ready to visit a neighboring congregation, but he didn’t understand why we couldn’t go to our church, to see his friends and be a part of the family he loves. Truth be told, I was having a hard time with it myself.
Separating from my church, now that I am here in the same town, is harder than I anticipated. While I didn’t miss all the business, meetings, sermon writing, prep work, and early-morning scurry to get ready for worship, I desperately missed being there with them. I didn’t want to lead, I just wanted to come and sit in the pew and worship there. They are my home, my church, my Christian family. Going to a strange, new church is hard. You don’t know what to expect, if there will be a connection to God or others, if you will know any of the songs, if you’ll find the theology abhorrent or just feel terribly out of place. Yet part of sabbatical means being away, and there was no way for me to visit with them without being their pastor—which means being drawn into the pastoral care needs, business decisions, administrative matters and everything else that is church work. So I knew why I needed to stay away, even though I miss them.
It’s harder to explain it to B. After all, Sunday mornings are not work for him. He knows the beauty of church as his family. He has friends his own age, and teenage and adult friends that supervise him while I am leading worship and making the rounds at coffee hour. He looks forward to the routine of a Sunday morning—the pre-worship playtime, shaking hands during the passing of the peace, coming up for the children’s time, and getting too many cupcakes during fellowship time. He knows the rhythms of the church, both the liturgical seasons and the all-important monthly celebration of Birthday Sunday.
I tried to make up for all he is missing with the promise that, for once, we actually get to sit together in church. I reminded him of how frustrated he gets on Sunday mornings, when I am too busy to talk to him or play with him. I promised that during this special sabbatical time, I would be with him during church, the whole time, no distractions. I thought this would be poor consolation, but he seemed pleased.
When we arrived as guests at this new church, B decided without hesitation that he did not want to visit the children’s program—he wanted to sit with me the whole time. As soon as the opening song began, my eyes filled with tears. I was overcome by the power of simply receiving the gift of worship alongside my son. It felt like an immersion, like diving into healing waters. Without worrying about what comes next, focusing on my sermon, noticing who was missing or who looked like they weren’t feeling well, I could just open myself to worship. When someone came and sat in front of us, we could move over so B could still see. When everyone else stood, I could stay seated to remain at B’s height. During the sermon, I took notes and listened for the Word of God, which spoke deeply to my heart. When B got bored, I could fish out a pen and paper from the bottom of my purse. When I was moved, I could cry and not worry about holding it together to say the benediction. These small luxuries felt like tiny miracles, each small marvel to behold.
This has been a deep gift already for sabbatical, and there are quite a few Sundays left. While I expect I will still feel a pang of longing for my own church family on Sunday mornings, I am so grateful for the gift of worship. B seemed to appreciate it too, as he snuggled into my lap during the sermon and showed me the drawings he had made in the bulletin.
Also, I promised him that he could join in the February Birthday Sunday celebration when we get back, and we would sing to him with the others. Church folk, I know you’ll understand and welcome him with open arms, because you’re our family.
Unbinding Your Church: Pastor’s and Leaders’ Guide, by Martha Grace Reese with Dawn Darwin Weaks and Catherine Riddle Caffey, Chalice Press, 2008, 146 pp.
Unbinding Your Heart: 40 Days of Prayer and Faith Sharing, All Church-Study and Personal Prayer Journal, Chalice Press, 2008, 164 pp.
This series of books, along with the fourth volume, Unbinding Your Soul, have been all the talk in the last few years among mainline Protestants looking to learn how to do evangelism that is authentic to our identity and faithful to our mission. I purchased the original (and skimmed it) over a year ago, but I am just beginning to work with congregational leaders to make use of this program at our church. As a first step, I read all three volumes, and gave two key leaders a copy of Unbinding the Gospel to preview as well. A key component of the process seems to be the prayer and exercises, which are done in groups. I have not yet undertaken that work or level of study with these books and their program.
Martha Grace Reese’s work in these volumes is the outgrowth of the Mainline Evangelism Project, a research effort funded by the Lilly Foundation. That project identified adult baptisms as the chief sign of evangelism, since baptisms represent the entry of new Christians into the church (not just people moving around or changing churches). The study first identified the dire nature of the problem. If you eliminate churches in the South and churches that are predominately non-white, only one half of 1% of mainline churches are doing significant work reaching new people and bringing them into the faith. While they did identify some factors in this lack of evangelism, the study devoted most of its resources to studying those few churches that are successful evangelists. They chose for in-depth study the top 150 mainline churches in the country in numbers of adult baptisms. They identified what they were doing to be so successful, so other congregations might learn from their example. This book series is a program to help churches become better evangelists.
The heart of the series, of the research and of the program, is that there is no great program that will save us. The path toward becoming better evangelists involves learning to pray and ignite our relationship with God, and having the courage to invite others to know the love of God. One of the participants sums it up like this: “You can’t give what you don’t got—your relationship with God must be hot!” (Unbinding Your Heart, 53) The Unbinding Series aims to generate some heat in our relationship with God through intentional prayer and small groups, so that we can then share that passion with others. This accords with my experience—if someone’s own faith is growing and deepening, they will tell others about it and want to share it with them.
I found the books to be very insightful and stimulating for conversation, and I intend to follow through on the process for working on them with my congregation. I am excited about it, and believe it will be a great time of growing faith and prayer and evangelism in our church.
However, I do want to share my struggle with these books. I feel like I have a personality-type conflict with the author. The books are packed with detail and instruction. Reese is clearly an expert in offering step-by-step instructions, planning for stages of effort and breaking down big jobs into small tasks. However, my brain doesn’t do such a good job of putting that back together. I am a big-picture thinker and learner, and I struggled in these books to get my head around the main ideas. As a leader, I want to have a clear vision of the whole picture, and I had a difficult time working that out in these books. This was especially true in Unbinding Your Church, which is really a workbook and instruction manual for using the Unbinding Series in your church. While she offers sermons, hymn choices, liturgical resources, exercises, job descriptions, meeting outlines, handouts and more, I yearned for a more simple overview that said, “Here’s what we hope to accomplish. Here is the experience we want to create. Here are the overall things we want people to encounter and remember.” I can follow step-by-step directions, but I would much rather have a whole map to orient myself in time and space. I often found myself feeling lost in details and no longer sure where I was going. If you are a detail person, you’ll love it. If you’re not, prepare yourself to wade on through—I think it’s well worth it.
Our family drove to Florida a few months ago. If you’ve ever made that journey, you know that the highways in Georgia and Florida are lined with billboards advertising pecans. Both J and I have mild allergies to nuts, but B loves them and seems unaffected. So, to pass the time, we were pointing out the billboards and asking him, “Hey, B, they have pecans! Wanna get some pecans?” His consistent reply was “Eww, yuck! No.” We assured him they were good and he would like them, but he refused. It became a repeating pattern: “Look, B, more pecans ahead! Good stuff! Don’t you want some pecans?” followed by “eww, yuck! No.”
We finally relented in pointing out the billboards, and another hour or so passed in the car. B spontaneously said, “I can’t believe you guys wanted me to eat that pee in cans. Yuck. Pee in cans. I wouldn’t like that at all.”
As hilarious as that moment was, and as revealing as it is about how I say “pecan,” it got me thinking about vocabulary. Since the advent of Willow Creek and other “seeker churches,” there has been an ongoing conversation about how the church’s extensive insider vocabulary can be intimidating, confusing or exclusionary for newcomers. Words like narthex, doxology, anthem and chancel have been replaced in some churches with less fancy (and more secular) terms like foyer, praise song, choir song, and stage. Other churches continue to use the traditional words, but make the effort to explain their meaning on a regular basis.
We may be doing a better job of explaining those words, or putting things in terms people can understand, but what about the more important words of our faith? Are we taking the time and energy to explain what we mean when we talk about forgiveness, resurrection, disciple, Passion, trinity, sin, prophet, Kingdom of God, grace, or the Body of Christ? In my experience, many of the people in our congregations, whether newcomers or lifelong members, have only a passing familiarity with these words. For example, I recently used the word Messiah in teaching a class. While most of the class knew that referred to Jesus, that was the end of their understanding. They understood it as another name for Jesus, not a theological proclamation that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a savior for the world.
It’s easy to teach people to understand that the narthex is the foyer, but how can we teach them that disciple does not just to refer to the original twelve men, but to all who seek to follow Christ—and what that act of following means for our lives? Are we explaining that forgiveness, both human and godly, is more than saying “it’s fine, no big deal”? Do our references to the Kingdom of God include a clarification about where that kingdom resides, and our access to it? When we talk about grace, are we sure that people are hearing about the power of God’s love and forgiveness, or are they just thinking about a formulaic table prayer?
I wonder whether our preaching, teaching and evangelism sometimes resemble our car game: “Look, Jesus died on the cross! Forgiveness from sin! Grace! Want some? They’re good–you’ll like them!” It’s no wonder we hear, “eww, no, thank you,” because people don’t even understand what it is we are offering. Let’s be honest with ourselves. To those who do not know the vocabulary of our Christian faith, talk about sin and death on a cross, even with the promise of forgiveness and grace, is about as appealing as pee in a can. If we want to get past the “eww, yuck,” we need to find a way to explain what we’re talking about.
B has started saying this all the time. Usually it follows something he does wrong, or something I warn him against doing. It can be anything from spilling his Goldfish crackers to playing too rough to forgetting to put his clothes in the laundry basket. He sometimes says it in response to a reprimand, but sometimes even when no reprimand has been issued or needed. He says it whether I have given a firm warning or a mild caution.
“But it’s O.K., right?”
His tone has a mixture of breeziness (like “no big deal”), and neediness (like “you’re not mad at me are you?”). It’s this blend that I find perplexing, troubling and annoying.
The breeziness is annoying. No, it’s not alright that you spilled, or that you were careless, or that you didn’t listen to me the first time, or that you did something I told you not to do. It is not a big deal, but that doesn’t mean it’s O.K. that you did it or that you can do it again.
The neediness is perplexing and troubling. What is he worried about? Have I given some indication that my love for him is contingent upon his good behavior? B is an easy-going child that rarely provokes my temper, and I am not a yeller by nature. We use time-outs sparingly, because a cautionary word is usually sufficient. Does he think I might get angry at him for some minor infraction? Does he think I’ll stop loving him or caring for him because he’s still learning how to be a responsible member of the household? He’s three years old, and raised in a loving home. How could he be so fragile?
“But it’s O.K., right?”
I don’t know what is behind this strange new phrase. It’s probably a mix of all of the above, but I struggled mightily to find an appropriate response. Finally, one morning as we shared the job of cleaning up some spilled Cheerios, he said it again. I stopped and pulled him close to give him a deeper answer. “B,” I said, “it’s not O.K. to be careless and spill Cheerios everywhere. You have to pay attention. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do spill them. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you spill things. We’ll just clean them up and try to be more careful next time.”
As I said these words, I realized that this is God’s message to us all the time. No, it’s not O.K. that you sinned again, and again, and again. Yes, it does matter, and you need to try harder, do better, be more loving, be more compassionate, follow Christ more fully. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do sin. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you screw up the big things, not just some spilled Cheerios. I’ll forgive you, love you, help you clean up your mess and encourage you to be more careful next time.
“But it’s O.K., right?”
No, it isn’t. And yes, of course it is. If it’s true of my love for my child, how much more true is it of God’s love for us?
B begins his day curled up in bed with us. Some days, he creeps in before dawn and we snooze awhile together. Other days, he comes in ready to wake up and we cajole him into bed for a few minutes while we peel our eyes open. Almost always, the first words he utters in the morning come in the form of a question. Not the same question. Not just an ordinary question. Not, “can we get up now?”, “what are we having for breakfast today?”, or “what are we doing today?” B begins the day with some of the most random and most specific questions he asks all day. (And he averages several hundred questions a day.)
Here are the questions from this week. Remember, these are the first words he utters in the morning. All begin with the prefix, “Mommy?”
- Have astronauts ever met an alien in space?
- Do some rock stars like Corvettes?
- Do you know what “fascinating” means?
- What do you call this bone I can feel in my hand? I can see it in my skin–do you call it a skin bone?
- Do elephants live in the jungle? What about alligators?
- Does our watermelon have seeds? (The CSA one awaiting us on the kitchen table.)
- If something is alive, does that mean it has eyes?
I love his inquisitiveness, even if I find it overwhelmingly intense at 0-dark-thirty. These are always the first in a long line of questions that pour out of him in the pre-dawn hours. I wish I had thought to remember more of them, but I confess that my first thought as they pummel my sleeping brain like a shot of BBs is to just make it stop.
My second thought, however, is always: where is this question coming from? At that hour of the morning, I can only assume that each morning’s line of questioning emerges from somewhere in his dreams. And this, to use the newest word in his lexicon, fascinates me. I don’t know about you, but I am totally infatuated with the idea of peering into his dreams, his subconscious, to learn how his mind works and what worries him and what excites him and what puzzles him. These questions are a small window into his young mind.
Apparently, it is a very random and inquisitive place. I’m going to try to suppress my desire to outfit him with a snooze button and pay better attention to the questions themselves.
Hoping to get off easy, I replied: Jesus is with God.
B: “No. Where is he?”
No such luck this time.
Me: “Well, some people think that Jesus and God are in heaven, which is a place that is far away where they live. But I think Jesus and God are around us all the time, so they can help us when we need it.”
B: “Oh. So they help us?”
B: Like the guy who mows our lawn?
Me: What do you mean, like the guy who mows our lawn?
B: He helps us. Jesus helps us like the guy who mows our lawn helps us.
Me: Sure. That sounds good to me. Jesus helps us like the guy who mows our lawn.
What an image of Christ—the lanky, awkward teenager who shows up once a week and tames our wild lawn with the mower. He works quickly and silently, knocking at the door at the end for his meager $20 and barely saying a word. But his presence has put our minds at ease all summer long. We used to worry and fret and procrastinate and agonize over who would mow the lawn and when. Now, even when it starts to look overgrown, we don’t give it a second thought, because we know that our faithful teenage helper will take care of it, whenever he gets around to it. His lanky shoulders have taken a huge burden from us, and know that trusting him with our yard is one of the best things we ‘ve ever done.
Sure, Jesus is like that. Imago Dei, right?
That’s what B said to me this morning in the car on the way to preschool. “If you put down the window, then you can see God.”
He spent the last week getting his first dose of Christian education outside the home through vacation bible school, so we have been having all kinds of interesting conversations about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the love of God. I figured this would be another untwisting of something he had heard at VBS.
Baffled, I asked, “What do you mean? How can you see God by putting down the window?”
“You know,” he said. “The wind.”
This time it was my words that need untwisting. Everything is literal in his three-year-old mind. The day before, he had inquired about when and where and how he would get to see God. Having not met God in person, he had surmised that God was dead.
I marveled that his young mind could arrive so quickly and easily at one of the great arguments among atheists everywhere. Thankfully, because this is such a familiar point, it has a familiar answer: the wind.
On the way to school the day before, I had answered his question about the death of God with the analogy of the wind. We cannot see the wind, but we can see the effects of the wind on the trees and feel it on our faces. God is the same way—we cannot see God, but we can see what God does, like all the things God has made in the world and the love we feel with one another. I know young children don’t quite understand analogy, but it was the best explanation I could offer without concocting for him a heaven where God lives far, far away. He smiled and giggled and talked about the wind and generally seemed satisfied with the answer.
And then, this morning in the car, his request: “Put down the window, so I can see God. You know, in the wind.”
I realized I didn’t need to untwist his conception after all. I just rolled down the window, and glanced in the rearview mirror to see him laughing and smiling in the back seat, hair flying in the wind. Yes, that is God alright—I see the Holy One too.
This morning started out rough. B woke up early, then melted down from tiredness, then we got stuck in 45 minutes of traffic on the ride to school. To fill time in traffic, I introduced B to new music: Johnny Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book.
B loves music, and we have been intentional about teaching him our favorites. For J, that means The Beatles. For me, that means the songs of the church. The music of the church is my deepest connection to God. When I need strength or hope or intimacy with God, I start to sing. My great-grandmother taught me to love the old hymns like “Whispering Hope” and “In the Garden.” My children’s choir directors filled me with “Apple Red Happiness” and “Do Lord.” During youth group, church camp and retreat years, I learned “Sanctuary” and “Pass It On” and “It’s Amazing.” In college, we sang social justice with “City of God,” and “Lift Ev’ry Voice” and “We Shall Overcome.” In every church I’ve served, I have learned new songs as I learned more about God, and the songs hold that faith understanding for me.
Increasing my repertoire of songs increases my repertoire of faith. They are a reservoir of strength, courage, insight, hope and grace. These songs of my heart have shaped my understanding of God, and they are my testimony to God’s love. I want to pass the songs on to B as they were passed on to me, so that he too can have such a supply of faith-filled words and melodies to draw on when he needs them.
And so this challenging morning I removed The Beatles from the CD player and stuck in My Mother’s Hymn Book. With a touch of irony as we sat in traffic, the song that swept us away today was “I Shall Not Be Moved.” This is one of my heart’s songs, and it often comes to me when I am facing difficulty or conflict. I sing it as a mantra of encouragement and strength when I feel weak or afraid.
This morning we played it over and over. Johnny Cash, B and I sang our hearts out. For the first time, B continued to belt out the melody line when I switched to harmony, so we became a trio of young and old, unison and harmony, wisdom and innocence. I went from grousing to laughing, and then to crying with joy at the crazy beauty of this one moment. When we finally got to preschool, 20 minutes late, we stayed in the car together to sing it one more time. I did not want the moment to end.
B will not likely remember this moment. Perhaps, though, with enough repetition, he will learn this song by heart. Someday, when he needs it most, this song might come into his heart and bring him faith, encouragement, strength, grace, the love of God and of his mother.
The drive to preschool has become definition time. If B has heard new words he does not understand, he often asks about them during the quiet drive. I enjoy his inquiring mind, and the challenge of explaining something in terms he will understand.
Last week, though, it got complicated.
Mommy, what does “kill” mean?
As I paused to figure this one out, he went on to explain that some of the older boys (he is 3, but his class has children up to kindergarten age) pretend to be superheroes and bad guys, and they “kill” him. B said, “When Z kills me, I just say ‘puweee,’ and when N dies me, I say ‘pchoooo.’ That’s what you do when they kill you.”
I chuckled to myself at his nonsense comeback, and felt grateful that he did not yet understand what game they were playing. His question had afforded me the opportunity to give some explanation and interpretation, rather than letting him get all his information from his schoolmates. B has not had any serious exposure to death, so it was difficult to be honest and truthful in answering his question with no context at all. Even more, his simple quest for a definition raised a whole host of theological and moral issues for me.
When I explain death, do I just explain what it means, or do I offer theological perspective and insight? To be honest, I’m not even sure what theological perspective I would offer. I am confident in my faith that this world and all that is in it is not the end, that the God of Jesus Christ is a God of resurrection and new life, able to overcome even death. I do not claim to know what that means—whether heaven and hell exist, what the afterlife looks or feels like, whether our individual souls continue to exist in some form. I tend to believe that we are reunited with God and with the souls of those we have lost, but in my mind that bears absolutely no resemblance to a family reunion filled with hugs and catching up on lost time. This is barely comprehensible to me, and I can’t imagine explaining it to a three-year-old.
Add to that the questions arising from violent play. We have carefully sheltered B from violent images and realities so far in his life, but that cannot and should not last forever. The world is a violent place, and being a peaceful presence in the world requires confronting and understanding that violence. As he matures, he will come to know that reality, and we will not try to hide it from him. His question indicates, however, that he is not yet capable of comprehending anything beyond the feeling of fear that violent images might provoke.
I also understand that war play is a normal and developmentally appropriate part of children’s lives (great article on that subject here), and I do not have any need to forbid those kinds of games from his life. There is little bad and a lot of good that can come from games of cops and robbers, or superheros and villains, or my childhood favorite, Jedi Knights and Storm Troopers. I wasn’t disturbed or angered to hear that friends at school are playing these games. Still, I think it’s important to let him know that violence is dangerous and wrong, and there are better ways of solving problems.
All of those questions raced through my mind, but meanwhile I needed an answer, quickly. How I wish I could just offer a simple definition this time!
In the end, I decided to abandon theology, keep a matter-of-fact tone, and throw in a small dose of moralism. I told him something like this:
Dying means that someone is gone forever, that they are not alive anymore and we can’t see them or talk to them. Like the dinosaurs—they are all dead. When you kill someone, you make them die. Sometimes you can play pretend about killing and dying. That’s okay if you’re playing superheroes or cowboys and there are bad guys. That’s just a game. But in real life, killing is very bad, because it makes someone gone forever, and their family would be sad about that.
I’m not sure I exactly believe everything I told him, and there are things that I believe that I didn’t tell him. That answer just seemed logical and faithful. He seemed satisfied without being frightened. All the other questions and possibilities can remain unanswered for now.
B just got invited to his first birthday party. One of the girls in his preschool class is having a princess party next week, and he got an invitation. He is very excited!
Since he has never been to a birthday party before, we told him we should probably bring a birthday present for his friend, then asked him what he thought we should get for her.
“My orange car,” he responded. “I can give her my orange car, because I think she would like that.”
Suppressing a giggle, my first thought was to correct him—to tell him no, his friend did not want one of his old toys, she wanted something new. Thankfully, I paused. In that moment’s pause, I realized that he had it right and I had it wrong. Gift-giving should not be all about shopping, it should be about generosity. His instinct was to give his friend something he loved to play with, because he thought she would enjoy it too. Even if that meant he would no longer be able to play with it himself.
Isn’t that the way gift-giving should be? I am long weary of participating in the consumerist model of gift-giving, where showing someone love and affection means shopping for them, where the measure of one’s concern is found in the price tag on the gift or the fanciness of the wrappings.
We plan to encourage B in his desire to share and be generous. We will also go to the store and pick out a new toy for his friend, but we will carefully avoid any indication that his first choice for a gift might not be good enough. Whatever we bring to the party will be topped off with that orange car, wrapped up separately and placed on top, with a note explaining that it is a gift from the heart of one child to another, in the spirit of sharing.
It’s exactly the kind of gift I always want to receive. How about you?