OK, Moms & Dads–Ready to Go 15 Rounds with Your Toddlers?

silenceI’ve really been thinking about you young families in worship, both with Holy Week advancing and because of a couple of articles and blogs that grabbed me recently. (Here’s one that I really liked. This is another one.)

Sometimes, I think, it’s just enough for parents with young kids to know, “It’s OK that your kids are squirmy and noisy;” “We’re glad you’re here;” and “We want you to be as comfortable as you can be.” What the kids themselves learn and receive will come. An atmosphere of welcome, comfort, and safety is probably enough for the prereader crowd.

That being said, here are 7 suggestions to think about as we anticipate Maundy Thursday and the story of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples (April 2, 7 PM) and Good Friday and the story of Jesus’ last hours on earth (April 3, 7 PM).

  1. Children learn to worship by watching the adults they love worship. When you fold your hands and bow your head and close your eyes for prayer, guess what? Your children catch a glimpse of what prayer looks like. When you sing, they will be encouraged to sing. Research tells us that the two most important factors in determining whether our children will have faith are #1 what dad does and says and #2 what mom does and says. That includes not only attendance but also the signals you send when you are able to attend.
  2. Be patient and grace-filled. Even as much of a wrestling match as you might feel it may be to have your kids in worship, they will learn and grow through the repetition of worship. (Frequency does matter.) But take in stride wherever it may be that your children are in their worship life. Be patient with them. Try to be patient with yourself. And know that there are a whole bunch of adults in our congregation who are THRILLED that you are there!
  3. When the nursery is staffed, don’t hesitate to use that as an “escape pod.” Perhaps even taking the little ones to the nursery during the sermon time will give you and him/her enough of a break to regroup and start again after the sermon. Take a breather. Worship and preaching are for YOU too. You might find as you try to engage these other suggestions that your child might come to a point of preferring to be in worship with you! And remember, be patient and grace-filled.
  4. The stories of this week are as important stories as there are in our book. We usually think of Christmas as THE holiday for kids, for obvious reasons. But the events of this week, from Palm Sunday to Easter, really are at the heart of Christianity. Familiarizing your children with those stories at home and reminding them that they will hear this story at worship might help them tune in. “Remember the story about the special supper Jesus had with his friends?”, might be all it takes to get your older pre-readers to cue their ears up to hear the story again in worship. And that might be as fruitful as it gets on Thursday night, or whichever service may be in question. (Remember what I said about being patient above?)(By the way, the weekly bulletin insert Sharing God’s Story @ Home not only includes some suggested daily Bible stories but also provides a preview of next Sunday’s reading. You can find those downloadable from our website at www.sslcmn.org. Here is that resource for this week, beginning with Palm Sunday and going through Easter. You could use that resource for strategizing about how you might prepare your children for the worship service(s) coming up.)No matter what, be patient and grace-filled.
  5. If your kids are particularly young–say, 3 or younger–maybe both Maundy Thursday AND Good Friday simply isn’t in the cards. The additional worship services can feel overwhelming for your pastor and worship volunteers, not to mention a family with a wound-up 2-year old. Maybe Maundy Thursday might be best to attend and to point out the young people who are being blessed and receiving their first communion. Or maybe the somber spectacle of Good Friday is more engaging.But then read the Good Friday story (or whichever you didn’t attend) on your own at home. Martin Luther once wrote about parents as the “apostles, priests, and bishops to their children.” Don’t underestimate that impact you might have by allowing your home to become church. Read the story in a darkened room, lit only by a candle. Blow the candle out when Jesus dies in the story. And use that same candle on Easter morning with the exclamation, “Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!!” This is just a suggestion. Play with what might work for your children and your household.You might find it refreshing to be patient and grace-filled.
  6. With what kinds of pew resources can we help equip you? Let us know about the children’s activity pages we hand out during the children’s sermon. How are the activity bags? Is there enough in there to keep little eyes and busy hands occupied? Let us know how we can help. Or…help us help you to help other parents and households in the same boat as you.
  7. Volunteer to serve with your kids. Kids will find any activity that much more engaging in which they are directly involved. Even if you haven’t signed-up to serve in worship with your kids, check the board when you first arrive. There is almost always something to do. If he/she is shy at first, stand up there with him/her and hold the communion cup basket WITH THEM. Your kids will LOVE serving with you, and that’s a great example to other parents, as well. Plus, it’s active. It gets them out of the pew for a few minutes. It kills time. And above all else, it helps them feel as if this is THEIR church. Because it is.  There is NOTHING that is off limits to you and your children in serving together–ushering; serving communion; handing out bulletins. Nothing is off limits. 

Look, I know even how this list may strike some of you: “Great. More to do.” And if that’s the cord I’ve struck, please forgive me. Above all, I want you to receive when you are in worship the grace and mercy that Jesus offers, especially when you are there with your children.

Angels, Demons, and Me

Dan Brown’s novel Angels & Demons was a great read. But that’s not what this is about, at all. It just seemed to be a catchy way to start.

Especially as I try to get back into blogging as a spiritual discipline this Lent.

And since the first devotional reading to which this blog entry is tied is one that makes a connection between the physical and spiritual world, or more specifically, between the physical world and demonic activity. In Matthew 17:14-21, a man comes to Jesus, pleading on behalf of his son. “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly” (v. 15). In addition, the man had taken his son to the disciples for healing. (Jesus had, after all, given the disciples the power and authority to “cure the sick…and cast out demons” in Matthew 10:5-15.) Unfortunately, due to their “little faith”–Jesus’ own description–they had been impotent in their attempts to heal the boy. And, of course, with a word, “Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly” (v. 18). The boy’s father describes him as “an epileptic.” But Jesus casts out a demon. 
I understand very little about the actual connection between the demonic and our daily human life and would just as soon keep it that way. It’s not a subject matter in which I want particularly to be an expert. I’m hesitant, to say the least, to draw a line between the events of my life or the circumstances in others’ and say, “That’s demonic.” I’m satisfied to let Jesus draw those battle lines and to cross them. 
When I first read this story, looking of course for some relevant connection to my 21st century-technologically-oriented-daily life, I bumped into some familiar feelings. The boy’s father describes the seizure-like activity of his son by saying, “He often falls into the fire and often into the water” (v. 15). I know NOTHING of the demonic, per se–I’ve said this already. But I DO  know what it feels like to be burned. And I DO know what it feels like to be under water. Emotionally. Spiritually. A Bible verse that has traveled with me virtually my whole life comes from Isaiah 43:1-3, a verse in which God assures me that God has called me BY NAME and that “by name” means, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. …when you walk through fire you shall not be burned…”. So while I know nothing of the direct connection between the demonic and our physical world, I think I recognize some of “the symptoms.”
 This past week, I got a note passed to me through the offering plate. It read: “Pastor–People aren’t coming to church because you’re sermons feel like religion class. Can’t understand it. Not inspiring. Throw some real life in there once in a while. Stop lecturing. Tried Wednesday is it was a lecture too. Dumb it down?” [sic]. 
It has been a while since I’ve received a nicety like this, and normally I round file anonymous notes like this. Ironically, that morning’s sermon came from the Matthew 16 text about taking up one’s cross to follow Jesus. One of the illustrations came from a real-life conversation that took place between me and another follower of Jesus who found himself OVERJOYED with being able to use his everyday work skills to address some profound needs for a family he previously did not know. The other illustration drew from a story about a marriage in trouble in which both partners were able to discover some deep, deep ways of bearing the cross together in their marriage. I’m not sure how much more “real life” I could throw in there! But at the same time, as a church leader, I do well not to merely blow people off because I don’t like their critiques. 
But for whatever reason, this note hit a bulls eye within me. Maybe it is because it has been a while that I’ve had to field this kind of anonymous cry of pain. Maybe it was energy levels at the end of a jam-packed week of ministry. Whatever it was, there were those familiar burning symptoms of self-doubt, those overwhelming waves of disappointment, those familiar voices from within: “See? You really do suck at this, and you pretty much always have over the last 20 years.” I had been discovered and called out! 
I’m not saying tDemonshe poor soul who wrote the note is demonic or possessed or anything like that. (I’ve said already that I just don’t know anything about such things.) I can’t even say without a doubt what it was that prevented that person from hearing “real life” that day, or the redeeming presence of the cross in that real life. All I am saying is that I felt burned and drowned. And it hurt me, especially after a month of busting my ass to help be a part of a particularly meaningful, “real life” Stewardship Emphasis.
One of the faith practices I also fail at frequently is that of Devotion & Prayer. But. Thanks be to God, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, the God that puts to death all of our human and demonic failings and flailings that we too may be raised to new life, I know the presence of my Lord is always waiting for me in the Word and in the spirit of prayer. And. I know what works for me in terms of a renewal of heart and mind. And what worked for me this past Sunday evening was music.
Now I wish I could say–because I suppose that someone will take issue with my choice of music–that the music to which I turned was some pious music of our faith. But it wasn’t. Neither a Bach motet, nor a Casting Crowns praise song. Instead, I turned to my favorite band Rush, and rocked out. Even if it was a simple distraction, it stemmed the bleeding. I don’t know where he wrote this or said it, but there is a Luther quote floating around cyberspace that goes like this: “Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us.” Rush does this for me, even if their words and music aren’t particularly sacred. It is devotional to me, even if it isn’t “the Word of God.” 
What tied it all together, though, was this morning’s text FROM THE SCRIPTURES about Jesus’ mastery over the demonic and its way of throwing us in the fire and holding us beneath the surface of the water. “Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly” (v. 18). In a manner of speaking, that is what this morning’s word did to me and for me, as well. The boy’s father came to Jesus, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy…”, and Jesus healed the boy. Devotion and prayer has a funny way of doing that. And that’s “real life.” 

Grandma’s Hands

I have an eclectic collection of music, which is pointless to this blog except to explain how it is that I came across a song by Bill Withers (“Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” “Just the Two of Us,” etc.) called “Grandma’s Hands.”  (It’s been covered since its 1971 release by everyone from Streisand to Keb’ Mo’.)  The song, which Withers wrote about his grandmother, doesn’t just describe her hands.  More profoundly, Withers describes the way that his grandmother’s hands touched his own life in deeply, spiritual ways:

Grandma’s hands

Clapped in church on Sunday morning

Grandma’s hands

Played a tambourine so well

Grandma’s hands

Used to issue out a warning

She’d say, “Billy don’t you run so fast,

Might fall on a piece of glass,

Might be snakes there in that grass.”

Grandma’s hands

Grandma’s hands

Soothed a local unwed mother

Grandma’s hands

Used to ache sometimes and swell

Grandma’s hands

Used to lift her face and tell her

She’d say,

“Baby, Grandma understands,

That you really love that man,

Put yourself in Jesus hands.”

Grandma’s hands

Grandma’s hands

Used to hand me piece of candy

Grandma’s hands

Picked me up each time I fell

Grandma’s hands

Boy, they really came in handy

She’d say, “Matty don’ you whip that boy

What you want to spank him for?

He didn’t drop no apple core.”

But I don’t have Grandma anymore

If I get to Heaven I’ll look for

Grandma’s hands.

If my mentor and friend David Anderson from Vibrant Faith Ministries is right–and I believe he is, that the single most prayed prayer in the church these days is, “Lord, please get my grandchildren to church”–this song in some way, shape, or form could be a prescription to turn that prayer into transformed, incarnational, cross-generational flesh and blood.  In the Vibrant Faith framework, there are 5 Principles for Passing on Faith that guide and describe relationships that become the incubators for faith formation.  Could it be that “Grandma’s Hands” describes ALL FIVE?

  1. Faith is formed by the power of the Holy Spirit through personal, trusted relationships, often in our own homes.  Isn’t that EXACTLY what Bill Withers describes in his song?
  2. The church is a living partnership between the ministry of the congregation and the ministry of the home; and…
  3. Where Christ is present in faith, the home is church also.  It seems clear to me that Grandma has identified her ministry at home that takes place in partnership with her congregation:  “Grandma’s hands / Soothed a local, unwed mother … Used to lift her face and tell her, / She’d say, ‘Baby, Grandma understands / That you really love that man. / Put yourself in Jesus’ hands.”  Her care for that local, unwed mother is nothing more and nothing less than the very presence of Christ between those women.  AND.  This ministry at home becomes enfleshed through Caring Conversation and Service–2 of the Four Key Faith Practices.  (The whole Vibrant Faith Frame can be found at http://www.vibrantfaith.org/vibrant_faith_frame.html.)
  4. Faith is caught more than it’s taught.  Withers is describing a particularly tender expression of life and faith that he has picked up simply by observing and living with his grandmother.  There is a curriculum to be sure.  But it is a curriculum written and guided by the Holy Spirit itself, engaged by both young and old.
  5. If we want Christian children and young people, we need Christian adults.  This relationship embodied by Bill Withers’ grandmother’s hands IS exactly what this principle is all about:  a vibrant, daily faith…connected to a congregation where she “clapped in church on Sunday morning” and “played a tambourine so well” that CLEARLY made an impact from one generation to the next.

Dr. Diane Jacobson, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary (and my advisor when I was in sem!) and a buddy sharing a connection at Holden Village.

It’s more than interesting to me in this day and age when congregations struggle and wrestle with “how to attract and keep our families and young people,” that the default position for almost every single congregational gathering is to persist in age-old demographic cells.  The church very well may be the last place in our culture where we are apt to have gathered every possible generational slice in any given community.  And in a culture where the challenge, breakdown and separation of our family units has been well cataloged, the church might very well offer families what they, for a number of reasons, do not or can not have.  It is more and more likely that a larger number of our kids might rarely if not ever witness their “Grandma’s Hands” in ways that Withers’ song describes.  Yet, for many of us, as soon as we have these generations together in one building, we separate them all again into their “appropriate spaces,” (worship included).

What’s worse, though, than just congregational bad habits that die hard are the both spoken and unspoken expressions of resistance to this vital, cross-generational vision for mission and ministry that I believe holds out a great deal of hope for the congregational malaise of our age.  There are some of our folks who will make no bones about NOT wanting to have to deal with the children of our congregations.  There are a variety of conclusions drawn and commentaries made from the refrain, “I’ve done my time,” when it comes even just to the suggestion of figuring out ways for the elders in our congregations to meet our children and their families.

And there are simply some of our elders I don’t want anywhere near our young people and their families.  I recently had a story recounted to me about a youth from a congregation, who was asked by an older woman, when the girl took a water break at a Saturday event for which she had willingly volunteered even though she had far surpassed her confirmation “service credits” weeks ago, “What, did you quit?”  Fortunately (?), this youth had tasted her elder’s bile before, and so the girl does what she can to avoid the elder.  Far from being the Triple A adults described by the Vibrant Faith Frame, (Authentic, Available, and Affirming), there are simply some adults who are like DDT to the spirit of life-giving, cross generational ministry–Death-Dealing and Toxic.  Without excusing bad behavior, we need also to recognize differing gifts of the Spirit.

But these obstacles far outweigh the transformational benefits that beautiful cross-generational ministry holds.  And is often the case with the in-breaking of the Kingdom, my experience is that it is usually mustard-seed in origin.  My sense is that whatever “country-club” mentality or grumpy, DDT adults hold sway in congregations there are just as many who long for something better, something deeper in their congregation.  And then there are those who have simply been so captivated by the default institutional congregational model that they can’t imagine anything else.

So the beginning starts with shuffle steps…itty-bitty opportunities to gather and to mix the generations, to celebrate those successes–and when and where it’s possible, to give the congregation the opportunity to see itself in a different light.  Literally.  Technology can be a vital tool in capturing even “accidental” glimpses of the Kingdom.  I love that picture here of Dr. Jacobson, my advisor from back in the day, for all the reasons stated.  I don’t think anyone set up their camera and said, “Hey, I’m going to capture an image of cross-generational ministry.”  It was simply an encouraging, safe place, with an elder who loves the people of God to begin with and a child, whom I suspect has been around his elders before and this elder, in particular, over the course of their time together at Holden.  Clearly, love and encouragement and security and nurturing…all the things that we might hope might happen in Gradma’s Hands…have been taking place.

My experience has been, that when folks–on both ends of the age spectrum–are given a new picture by which to imagine what the people of God might be, as well as leadership being challenged to devise specific action steps by which to approach that vision, the mustard seed just might sprout into something in which birds of all ages find a home together.

Cleaning Airplanes with Muslims and Buddhists

I moonlight one day a week up at our local airport for a major airline doing things like loading and unloading planes, cleaning them, servicing their water tanks, etc. I do this in order to earn some flight privileges by which I and my family can “get off the island” that is the post-flood/oil boom Minot, ND.

It’s just a job. But if what we Lutherans call “Luther’s Doctrine of Vocation” is to be believed (the idea that we serve God even and especially in what we might otherwise consider our mundane, daily jobs), then a job is never a job. This occurred to me all the more the other night when I had this sudden realization that right here in the heartland of the United States of America, I was cleaning an airplane with a person who is a Muslim and a person who is a Buddhist.

Yes, I realize that these sorts of dawnings have been a long-time reality for the East and West Coasts of our country. I have always enjoyed being immersed in that in the Big Apple. In my elementary school growing up in Houston, I remember classmates who were Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, African American, and, of course, Hispanic. One of my early childhood friends was from Spain and Jehovah’s Witness–which for me back then meant he was never there for our classroom parties. He never got Valentines or Christmas presents, which I thought was unfortunately weird.

But I live in the Midwest where many of us still believe we are insulated from such realities, even though the two longest-standing mosques in the country are/were in tiny Ross, ND (just a stone’s throw west of where I live) and Cedar Rapids, IA. Ask anyone from the coasts about what they think they know about the Midwest, and you’ll probably hear something about the movie Fargo or corn or hogs or snow. But maybe things have been changing for longer than we cared to notice.

The Mother Mosque of America, once known as The Rose of Fraternity Lodge and also known as Moslem Temple, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, United States, is the longest standing mosque in North America. Built in 1934, it is the second oldest after the 1929 mosque built in tiny Ross, North Dakota, however that mosque was torn down in the 1970s and later rebuilt in 2005, leaving the Mother Mosque as the oldest standing. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Mosque_of_America)

I especially think about what both these broad changes and individual revelations mean for me both as a pastor and a father called to tend to raising a crop of Christians.

In the “good old days” we could rely on “white, Christian, normal” culture around us to help teach and reinforce the Christian message. Just think about how we used to celebrate and observe Christmas. Think about the Nativity story as part of the school program, for example. Or Amahl and the Night Visitors on NBC. Or the Rankin-Bass Little Drummer Boy animated Christmas special. Those are still out there, but now they are merely a menu item on a buffet of a million different choices across the cable/dish spectrum.

Just think of the changes in TV choices themselves as indicative of what’s changing in our country and culture, not even with respect to ethnicity or faith practice. Once upon a time, you could watch anything you want, so long as it appeared on the 3 major, mainstreamed networks. (If you were lucky, you might have had access to the “alternative” VHF or UHF networks.) But those days are long, long, LONG gone. Now your family can tune in to anything from on-demand movies of their choice to so-called family networks that may or may not be all that bad. And the choice to tune in to programming that is positive, that holds people and life in high human regards, and/or that is not crass and course must be made (or not) by the individual household.

Add to all of that the diversity in country and cultural changes (i.e., cleaning airplanes in Minot with Muslims and Buddhists), and I have to ask the questions:
* Will my kids/grandkids be equipped to live out their faith in such a way that it matters to the Muslim/Buddhist?
* What exactly do I mean by “equipped” anyway? And what does that look like? And how does that happen?
* Will an hour (maybe two) per week at the church do the trick?
* If it’s true that the primary, caring adults in my children’s lives are still the most important transmitters of values (that’s the assumption from which I am operating anyway), then am I modeling a faith that matters to my kids, beyond simply transporting them to church/Sunday school?
* Does any of this even matter anymore? (Because make no bones about it, it does to the Muslim and the Buddhist.)

And let me be clear about this: this is no judgment on the Muslim and the Buddhist. (That’s not my job anyway.) The two that I work with are beautiful human beings with an integrity to their practice that I have to respect. And by that, I mean I would be a better Christian if I practiced MY faith with the discipline of my Muslim friend. I would be a better Christian if I daily lived as if there really is a intimate connection between spirit and material as my Buddhist friend believes. Such as I know (and I claim no expertise here in world religions, though I have studied and know considerably more about Islam in a general sense), these women’s faith impact their daily lives. And I know this because I have seen it. I have asked them about it.

So I can’t help but wonder–both for my own kids–as well as the kids in our communities in general: in a world, culture, country, and time of growing pluralistic ethnic and religious diversity… in a world, culture, country, and time in which the single fastest growing segment of religious practice among previously Christian self-identity is now “none”… will my kids be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or none? Will their spouses and children? A bird and a fish may love each other, but where will they build a nest?

The British theologian and apologist G.K. Chesterton once said something to the effect, “It’s not that Christianity has been tried and found lacking. It’s that it’s hardly been tried at all.”

These are the things that make me think.

Just Some Basics

A few years ago, I asked my mother if we did family devotions every night. Her response wasn’t even a word! It was more like a sound. I can’t even type it. But it was that sound one might make if one were to hear, “The Republicans and the Democrats have found new common ground from which to work…”. THAT’S IT! That’s the sound my mom made! That sound was full of grace for me, and I hope you find grace in it too.

You see, I have some fairly vivid memories of some of the family devotions we did when I was a kid. In fact, I still can remember one of the very books we used–The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes. (You can still get it on Amazon, and it’s a fine family devotion book. But the pictures aren’t NEARLY what they were when I was a kid.) There was a picture of Jonah and the Whale that depicted the panicked Jonah thrashing about in the water, the shocked sailors who tossed him overboard, and surfacing just an arm’s length away, the massive creature with this big, white, bulbous eye! It was SO COOL!!

Back to that sound my mom made: her answer to my question, “Did we do family devotions every night?” was basically, “Fat chance.” Our family was like any other–busy; distracted at times; forgetful. Sometimes it was probably just “mission accomplished”-enough to get my brother and sister and me to bed without tanning our hides…and maybe even AFTER. I’m guessing, at times, there were even several days in between when we actually didn’t even pull off ANY devotions.

But somewhere in there, we did. Somewhere in there, The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes (and apparently, especially that picture of Jonah!) got into my memory banks. Somewhere in there, somehow faith was formed through the power of the Holy Spirit through that trusted relationship with my parents.

And THAT’S the grace of my mother’s “Pshsthph.” Or however you spell it. We were FAR from perfect with our evening devotions. But it happened enough that it mattered. It happened enough for my brother and sister and me to learn the stories. It happened enough for our hearts, minds, and imaginations to be captivated by the faithful possibilities of the God of love and grace in those stories.

Sometimes Kari and I experience the same thing–busy-ness…distraction…forgetfulness and worse! But somewhere along the way, not only were we captivated by the stories we heard as children, we have also been captivated by the mission we accepted when we became parents: to be the apostles, bishops, and priests to our children, as Luther once described the mission of parents. But it’s not by our own effort or understanding. We fail. Frequently. I can’t tell you how many times our devotion time is punctuated by a sudden, “KNOCK IT OFF!!” Still we do it. Still we return to it. Again. And again. And again. For we believe the life of faith and the worldview offered by Christian faith gives our children…and us as parents…a hope for the future beyond what our world and culture offers.

Will it stick? Who knows. That is my daily prayer for my children. And it is my prayer for your family as well.