Saturday, June 30, 2012

Lessons from a Week of Vacation Bible School: the Arts and Crafts Edition

While it's fresh in my brain, let me capture some thoughts about Vacation Bible School.  Today I'll focus on the Arts and Crafts Director angle, and tomorrow, I'll think about other lessons.  Still to come:  photos!

--A week ago, I was shopping for supplies.  The most important item:  paper plates.  The humble paper plate can be so many things:  a mask, a palette, a canvas, a place to let your wet clay dry.

--Pipe cleaners also have a multitude of uses.

--The worst thing I bought?  Feathers.  Fun to use for decorations, but they flew everywhere.  What a mess.  A sneezy mess.

--There's a difference between fabric markers and permanent markers.  Permanent markers will fade after many washes.  Fabric markers should not.

--The flattened tops of the cardboard boxes that hold 10 reams of copy paper make the perfect t-shirt form to keep the colors from bleeding through.  Slide the t-shirt over it as if the flattened top is the body.  Plan to only paint one side.

--Not all paint is washable.  Unless you're making t-shirts, make sure the paint is washable.

--Fabric paint will not wash out of fabric.  It will also not wash out of yoga mats.

--Air dry clay will be ready for painting in a day or two.  You do not need the 3-4 days that the package dictates.

--It's sometimes hard for me to know when a project is done.  I let the child tell me.  You only wanted to paint part of that clay object?  Cool with me.

--Teenage helpers have not always learned the lessons of Kristin's Arts and Crafts room:  no judgment!  Only encouragement.  Actually, teenage helpers were very good at encouraging the children.  They were often scathing with each other.

--I chose projects that had ties to Bible stories.  I spent so much time trying to get children settled, organized, and focused that I never mentioned the Bible stories and the significance of our crafts.  Ah well, next year!

--My sister said she's never met a child yet who didn't like to paint.  I, too, have never met a child who hates to paint.

--The problem with paint is that it needs time to dry.  At some point, these projects need to go home.  That point is different with each child, as they don't all come every night.

--The easiest project was the air dry clay, the one I thought would be the messiest and most chaotic.  The children entered into a meditative state.

--Decorating t-shirts took up a lot of room on the table.  And a lot of space as they dried.

--Making noisemakers was perhaps the most chaotic:  grains and beans everywhere!  And one bag of beans had bugs in it, which made for an interesting nuance to the chaos.

--The most important lesson:  children are adventurous.  They all entered into the spirit of the project with great abandon.  Or maybe I mean they are forgiving souls.  If a project didn't go quite how I envisioned, they didn't seem to care or hold it against me.  Or maybe I mean that they were open-minded.  Not a one said, "That's crazy.  This idea will never work and here are the 15 reasons why.  And one more."

--We can learn a lot from children.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Word Snapshots from Vacation Bible School Day 3

At some point, I'll have a photo essay about Vacation Bible School.  But for now, here are some word snapshots from last night, when we decorated t-shirts with fabric paint.

--On Wednesday, we decorated t-shirts with fabric paint and markers.  I worried that the children might not be inspired.  I needn't have worried.

--One older girl (rising 6th grader) wrote 2 names on her t-shirt.  One was Wolfgang Amadeus.  The other was Phoenix, the name of a modern band.

--Decorating t-shirts with 2 and 3 year olds gives me insight to Jackson Pollack's creative process:  drip, dribble, squirt!  Great fun.

--Both boys and girls like paint with glitter.

--The kind of stamps that work with paper and ink also work with fabric and paint.  And they're easy for the smallest of hands to operate.  And even if the stamps don't get completely covered with paint, and thus leave only a partial image, it's still a cool look.

--Kids of all ages and genders seemed to love to make dots of all sizes.

--Sure we could have done iron ons or other less creative approaches to having VBS t-shirts.  We could have insisted on uniformity and conformity.  We could have avoided the mess and stress that comes with permanent paint and clothing.  But we wouldn't have had as much fun, and we probably wouldn't have sparked much creativity.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July1, 2012:

First Reading: Lamentations 3:22-33

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24

Psalm: Psalm 30

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 130

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Gospel: Mark 5:21-43

Notice how rooted in physicality is our Gospel for Sunday. We've got a bleeding woman and a dying girl. At the end of the Gospel, Jesus orders food for the no longer dead girl. The Gospel practically oozes on the page.

Notice too how we've got a variety of people--all they have in common is their fierce belief and their willingness to do whatever it takes for healing. They will ignore all the years of ill health. They will ignore their rational voices that say that one man can't bring health. Even when they're surrounded by naysayers, they believe. They will ignore death, so powerful is their hope.

And how odd that the Gospel ends with Jesus telling them to say nothing. Of course, this is the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus often tells people not to tell what they've seen. Why does he do that? Does he know the human impulse to tell things they've been told not to tell? Is Jesus scared of attracting the wrong kind of attention too early? Does Jesus know what he's doing? The Gospel of Mark is the one where Jesus seems least to resemble the great and glorious Savior whom so many of us would swear that we know. He's secretive in Mark, and mean to his mom, and he often acts like he's making it all up as he goes along. By the time we get to the Gospel of John, which was probably written last of the four, Jesus has changed radically.

But I digress.

Notice that in this passage Jesus focuses his attention on some of the most outcast of his society: a little girl and a bleeding woman. If you've studied the Old Testament, you understand how outcast a woman who never stopped bleeding would be. Ancient purity codes were quite strict about body fluids, particularly when they came from women. And a female child would have also been seen as expendable, at least in the larger society. Yet Jesus doesn't withhold his power from them, even if they're not important to the larger society.

This Gospel echoes the story we heard last week. Here is Jesus again, talking to his disciples about their fears. Here is Jesus, doing what should be impossible for humans to do. Last week he's controlling nature. This week, we seem him controlling the human body. We even see him overcome death.

These stories make me think about my own faith, particularly during these hot, hazy days of summer, when it seems impossible to get off the couch. What would inspire me to go to Jesus in a similar way? I try to imagine Jesus saying to me "Daughter, your faith has made you well." I think of all the ways that my faith can--and does--fall short.

This Gospel is instructive, in that it shows what it might take to get our attention focused on what's important. If my little nephew lay dying, I would move Heaven and Earth to find a cure.  If anyone whom I loved lay dying, I would move Heaven and Earth to find a cure. If I had a disease that no one could cure, I might be moved to try things my rational brain wouldn't accept. Over and over again, in many a disease narrative, we hear people tell us that their disease redirected their attention and turned out to be a strange blessing.

I'm always wary of this approach--I don't want to glorify suffering and disease. I don't mean to imply that the sick ones are lucky, and the healthy ones are ill.

But with this Gospel, it wouldn't hurt to take a look at our own faith lives. Where is God trying to get our attention? How strong is our faith? What would it take to make us yearn for Christ, to search so fervently for our Savior?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

VBS Day One: Scattering Grains of Wheat

It wasn't exactly tied to the lesson for the day, but we had several kinds of beans and grains to make noisemakers last night.  And sure enough, they scattered in all sorts of directions. 

I thought of that Marty Haugen song that many congregations sing around Communion time that has this verse:  "As the grains of wheat once scattered on the hill were gathered into one to become our bread."

Our seeds were falling on bad soil, the linoleum of the church hall.  I thought of those parables, the ones that talk about good soil and rocky soil and thorny soil.

I didn't mention these things to the children who trooped through my room for Arts and Crafts.  I was too busy trying to keep everyone on task so that they could make a noisemaker in 20 minutes.

I'm so glad I decided not to do the seed planting experiment (real seeds and soil) that I had planned to do.  We had enough chaos.

I didn't anticipate chaos.  We had a table full of empty containers and coffee filter containers full of grains and seeds to make noise.  We had magazines, stickers, and construction paper to decorate the outside.  I thought we'd have a smooth process.

Some children focused and finished their noisemaker efficiently.  They had plenty of time to decorate the outside of the container they had chosen.

Other children got distracted by the stickers.  They stuck them everywhere.

The process of pouring grains and beans into the container fascinated other children.  They sacrificed decorating time for the joy of plunging their hands into grains and beans and listening/watching them fall into the container.

Throughout the evening, more beans ended up on the floor than in the noisemakers.  Eventually, the rice and cous cous followed.

Everyone went home with one or two noisemakers.  Everyone seemed happy.  I probably should have taped all the lids.  Hopefully there was no catastrophe with the noisemakers.

I didn't think that last night would be the messy night.  But the clean up was fairly intense.  Luckily, I had lots of helpers.

In the abstract, I've thought of being the Arts and Crafts teacher at some school with bright, creative kids.  It's the dream of art students everywhere!  OK, a few arts students who need health insurance.

But last night reminded me of how exhausting that life would be.  And I had very small groups of children with lots of teen and adult helpers.

Tonight it's on to air dry clay!

Monday, June 25, 2012

My John the Baptist Post at the Living Lutheran Site

I am awash in getting ready for Vacation Bible School, which starts tonight.  Luckily, my work is appearing elsewhere, so you won't be short of something to read:

My piece on John the Baptist is up at the Living Lutheran site--go here to read it.

I plan to return tomorrow with an initial VBS report.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

In Praise of Various St. Johns

Today is the birthday of St. John of the Cross, born in 1542.  We celebrate his feast day on the day that he died, December 14.  I wrote a blog post about St. John of the Cross and dark nights of the soul over at my creativity blog.  You may think you don't know the work of St. John of the Cross, but he coined the phrase "the dark night of the soul," and he explored this concept over several works.

It's the feast day of John the Baptist.  I wrote a blog post for the Living Lutheran site which will likely post tomorrow.

Here are some quotes from that blog post to whet your appetite:

John warns us again and again of the dangers of letting our attention wander. In our time of increasingly fragmented attention spans, the central message remains: John tells us to keep the focus on the Messiah not the messenger.  If John appeared in our modern wildernesses, he’d tell us to concentrate on Christ, not on our computers, our smart phones, our e-mail accounts, our televisions, all the screens which rule our lives.

It’s comforting to say, “I am not the Messiah,” as John the Baptist does. In our daily lives, we’re confronted with scores of problems that we can’t solve, from the disastrous choices made by friends and families, to the work issues, to the larger state and national issues which bedevil us. We can only do so much. We are not the Christ for whom the world waits.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

VBS Arts and Crafts Decisions and Plans

I've been zeroing in on what we'll be doing for Arts and Crafts during Vacation Bible School next week (for those of you who have lost this thread, I am the Arts and Crafts director).  I've been running ideas by people, but I've been astounded to realize how few people I know who have young children these days.

I was missing the obvious person:  my sister!

So yesterday I called her, and she gave me great tips I wouldn't have thought of on my own--until it was much too late.

For example, she reminded me that the paint needs to be washable.  My acrylic paint washes off hands and brushes, but not out of clothes.  I will buy washable paint.

I had remembered to check the toxicity of everything.

I worried that clay would be too messy.  She says no.  So I will buy air-dry clay and we will shape it one day--the next day, we will paint.

My sister says she has yet to meet a kid who doesn't love to paint.  Cool!

I talked about making big dish gardens with an empty tomb, as in this picture:

The problem with this plan:  it would be a group project.  My sister reminded me that little children don't always do well with group projects.  I had worried about finding enough plants, about the dirt, about having a large group of people trying to make one dish garden.  So we won't do that.

However, on the first day, we'll plant seeds (probably mustard seeds, since I know they sprout and because I have plenty) in Dixie cups and hopefully they'll sprout visibly by the last day (life coming out of tomb-like darkness).  We'll also make noisemakers so that they have instruments for the coming week of drumming, music, and movement.

On the second day, we'll paint t-shirts.

On the third day, we'll play with clay.  We'll talk about God as the potter, and humans as the clay.

On the 4th day, we'll paint clay and pictures.

On the 5th day, we'll make masks and remind ourselves that God loves us, and we don't have to wear a mask.

On the 6th day, we will rest.

On the 7th day, we'll do VBS worship service.

I alternate between states of terror and states of thinking, "Well, how hard can this be?"

Stay tuned!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Paul and Hostile Climates

Our Church Council sometimes spends more time in Bible study than in dealing with business issues.  Last night was one of those times.  We read Acts 14:  8-18, the passage where Paul heals a man who can't walk, and the local people decide he and Barnabus are Hermes and Zeus, and Paul must dissuade them.  We asked ourselves questions about Paul's ministry, specifically about how clear he was about his ministry. 

We then asked about the ministry of our church and our own ministry in the world.  Some retired folks talked about how they try to be a good model in the world and a good model to other church people.  I talked about being in the work world which is often hostile to Christian ideals and ethical behavior of any kind.

We talked a bit about the questions that my brain often circles:  can we be in a climate where we are surrounded by unChristian behavior and emerge unscathed?  Can we keep our principles?  Can we resist the antiChristian values of the larger culture?

We talked a bit more about Acts and the ministry of Paul.  Paul often travelled to hostile places, and throughout his life, it wasn't clear that he was winning many converts.  Now, from the distance of thousands of years, it's clear what Paul accomplished.  If we had lived during that time period, we might not have been so sure.

We talked about our plans for next year's Vacation Bible School; our pastor knows of a VBS based on Acts, which boggled my brain at first.  But I forget what rollicking good stories the book of Acts contains.

It's been a long time since I read the whole book, and it's probably time to return to it.  I think of myself as much more a Gospel girl, and I wouldn't mind reading whole Gospels at one sitting either.

Why choose?  I can do it all.  I think that we sometimes forget how short these texts are.  We get little pieces in our church services, if we get them at all there, and even smaller pieces in many devotional texts.  It doesn't take that much more time to read the whole book.

When I just read/hear the small pieces, I forget the larger picture.  I forget that Paul was not triumphant all the time.  I forget about the hostile climate that often greeted Christ.  And in my forgetting, I progress into my own future a bit more blind than I need to be.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Negative People and Speaking No Evil

I suffered through much of Tuesday with a headache that would not go away.  I took more aspirin than is healthy, and it still hovered around the edges of my skull.  I drank coffee, even though I was sure I'd gotten enough caffeine early in the morning enough to ward off headaches.

It could have been caused by any number of things, but the chief suspect:  a colleague at work that spends the first twenty or so minutes after I arrive spewing negativity.  It's not about me personally.  She'll rage at great lengths about politics.  She'll go on and on about how contemporary people are living their lives all wrong.  She has very strong opinions about how the people above us in our organization should be making different decisions.  Frankly, some days, it can be exhausting.

My approach to her negativity dump is usually to just listen while praying for her.  Yesterday, I tried a different approach.

I arrived, and she said, "This weather is so horrible."

I said, "I kind of like it.  The rain keeps it from getting so hot."

And then we went to our work.  Throughout the afternoon, when I heard her discussing the weather with others on the phone, she said, "At least the rain keeps our temperatures down.  Do you know how hot it's supposed to be in New York City?  In the high 90's!"  On and on she would natter.  And then she'd circle back to being thankful for the rain.  Yes, the same rain she had called "horrible" earlier.

I have pondered the value of silence as an approach to negative talk and gossip.  Back in December, when I had a severe cold and had to evaluate whether what I was about to say would be worth the agony to my throat and the coughing fit it was likely to trigger.  So, I stayed silent.

Quiet doesn't work with this colleague.  She's happy to fill the silence with more negativity.

Positive energy--maybe that will be the ticket!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, June 24, 2012:

First Reading: Job 38:1-11

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 17:[1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49

First Reading (Alt.): 1 Samuel 17:57--18:5, 10-16 (Semi-continuous)

Psalm: Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 9:9-20

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 133 (Semi-continuous)

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Gospel: Mark 4:35-41

We live in storm-tossed times. I wrote that sentence three years ago, and frankly, it doesn’t seem like much has changed, except that I know more unemployed people this year than I did three years ago, and I have less hope that we will collectively find our way to better times. In these early days of hurricane season, in the 20th anniversary year of Hurricane Andrew, I feel haunted by the idea that a big storm will come along and finish us off.

Maybe we can relate to those disciples in this week's Gospel. The boat is taking on water. We're sinking. We'll die out here in the middle of this lake. It was bad back there with the crowds, but we don't want to perish this way.

And so, like the disciples, we call out: "Where are you God? Don't you care about us, Jesus?"

Look at the response of Jesus in this passage. Many theologians have noted that he doesn't mock them for their fears. Their fears are real and valid. But he asks them why they're letting their fears get the best of them. It's as if he's saying, "I'm right here. I'm with you. Have you forgotten what is possible when I'm in your boat?"

And then, he calms the storm.

Today is also the feast day when we celebrate the life of John the Baptist, someone who knew first-hand what it was like to live in storm-tossed times. John the Baptist reminded people to stay alert, that someone greater was coming. John warned about a winnowing time, a time when dead branches would be pruned away. John was not afraid to speak the truth, even to the powerful, and John lost his life in part because of his witness.

John had a firm grip on who he was and where he fit in the narrative of the life of Jesus. I am most fond of his saying, “I am not the Messiah.”

All too often, we try to be the Messiah. We hesitate to bother God with our little lives. We try to handle storms on our own. John reminds us that we’re not that powerful.

Just because we're believers, that doesn't mean that we will never experience storms. We will, and we will likely be afraid. But Jesus assures us that even though we might feel alone, we are not alone. The storms will come, and storms will go. But God is always there, with us, in our boats.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Theology for Children

I am the godmother to my nephew, or as the Catholic church would call me, the Christian Monitor, since I can't be his godmother unless I convert to Catholicism.  Long time readers of this blog know that I have wrestled with the best way to be a godparent.  It's a delicate situation:  I don't want to tread on anyone's toes, but I did make some serious promises at my nephew's baptism.

I've done the typical things.  I'm always on the lookout for good books, for example.  Occasionally I write letters.  Sometimes they can be somewhat serious.  Sometimes, I'm just reminding my nephew of the ways I see God at work in the world, lighthearted ways usually, as in nods from a creator who loves us.

Yesterday I set about creating a children's sermon in an envelope.  I tried to figure out a way to combine my children's sermon and my blog post into something new.  Not quite a letter, but more than a set of science project instructions.  He'll get mustard seeds and my writing and a photo and the cover from the church bulletin that he can color.

I loved writing it so much that I started a computer file called Theology for Children.  My mom and I have long talked about this kind of project.  She'd love to create some kind of worship aid that parents and children can use when they can't get to church.  I'd love to create writing that helps children come to know the Triune God who loves them so much and in so many ways.  What does the Holy Spirit look like to a child?  Which of Christ's parables would speak most eloquently to children?  Could I create parables that would help children understand the Kingdom of God?  Could I mention the mothering aspects of God and still get published?

Of course, one of the drawbacks I face is that I have no children of my own.  But that wouldn't have to be a dealbreaker, would it?

I'd love to hear from anyone with ideas on this subject.  Are there examples of good theology for children?  Are there stories you wish were out there for children, but who need some artists to come along and do them well?  What's most important for children to know?

Theology for children--yes, I will give it a whirl. Who knows where this may lead?  At the very least, I'll have some interesting creations to send to my nephew.  

Monday, June 18, 2012

Seeds, Sprouts, and Seedlings: A Children's Sermon Photoessay

Yesterday's children's sermon went very well.  The children came up just after the Gospel reading, Mark 4:  26-34.  Much of the text revolved around mustard seeds.  A few weeks ago, I found a cheap jar of mustard seeds and snatched it up.  I made baggies of mustard seeds, which I gave the children.  We talked about seeds and mustard and spicing up our hot dogs.  We talked about what Jesus means when he uses the phrase "Kingdom of God," that it's more than just Heaven.

We also talked about faith, and I mentioned a different passage that talks about faith as small as a mustard seed.  We peered at the bags and talked about how small the seeds are.
Below is a photo of seeds with a pencil, so you get a sense of perspective:

We talked about how large a seed can grow, that a mustard seed can grow into a five foot shrub.  I had one of the nursery helpers, a teenager, stand up to demonstrate how tall 5 feet is.  Small seed --  5 foot teen.  It was a great visual.

On Thursday, I started sprouting some mustard seeds.  I laid out two paper towels, spread out the seeds, folded the paper towels and wet them.  I kept them wet and moved them in and out of light.  I thought I might have started too late, but no, we had sprouts!

When I unwrapped them, the children's eyes got wide and they oohed and aahed. I reminded them that they had a bag of seeds, and they could do the same thing. I cautioned them not to plant them in the yard. I reminded them that mustard has a reputation of taking over everything. A small seed can take over a space as big as the church!

And then I tied it back to the Kingdom of God and the wonderful things that happen when God is set loose in the world.

I wanted them to have seedlings too, so my spouse planted some Salvia sprouts for anyone who wanted them.  I said that my spouse was like the man in the first part of the Gospel, the one surprised by the seed growing into a plant.

I thought the children's sermon went really well.  Of course, I was blessed with an easy text.  Fun with seeds--maybe we'll do some more with that for Vacation Bible School!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Seedlings and Sprouts

You may remember the post that I wrote about trying to sprout mustard seeds in time for today's children.  They have sprouted--hurrah!

Today is Father's Day, a great day for thinking about sprouts and seedlings and all the ways we can support sturdy growth.  It's a great day for thinking about what's helping us to grow into the plants we want to become and what's holding us back.

Where do our lives need more fertilizer?  Where do we need more sun?  Are we getting enough water?

It's also good to return to that parable of the mustard seed and remind ourselves that we have yet to realize our full potential.  For most of us, there is still time.

But for all of us, we don't have endless amounts of time, at least not in our current physical incarnations.

It's also a good day to think about future generations.  How can we nurture them?  We're not all called to be fathers, but Father's Day is a good day for us to think about how we can be shepherds nonetheless.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Sprouting Mustard Seeds

On Sunday, my pastor is away.  My spouse will preach a sermon my spouse has written.  I'll have the children's sermon.  A few weeks ago, I found a fairly cheap jar of mustard seeds.  So each child will get a baggy of mustard seeds.  We'll talk about the miraculous nature of plants:  from such a tiny pod, a big plant can grow.

My spouse has been tending some seedlings for several weeks.  They're not mustard plants, but they'll help with the message.

This week I decided it would be cool if we had something in between seed and seedling.  So I'm trying to sprout some of the mustard seeds.  I've spread some seeds between layers of damp paper towels.  We'll see what happens.  I may have waited until too late in the week.  It may not be possible to sprout seeds that one finds in the spice rack.

I plan to talk about Christians as seeds that can grow into sturdy plants.  I plan to talk about the things that support that growth.  We'll have seeds in a baggy--will they grow like that?  No.  They need soil, water, and sun.  I expect that thinking about how plants grow will be news to some of them, while some of them will have watched this process in family gardens.  I'm fairly sure that few of them will have been to a farm or any other large-size operation--there aren't many left in our area.

In the meantime, I'm feeling a bit of that feeling of wonder that comes from planting seeds.  I move my plate of damp paper towel layers from the table that gets a slant of the morning light to the shady counter because a website said that the mustard seeds won't sprout with very much direct light.  I wonder what's going on down there in those damp paper towels.  I feel a strange urge to sing to these seeds.

Yesterday as I moved the plate, I took a look out of my kitchen window.  I saw a backyard full of butterflies framed by my small window over the sink.  My spouse has planted all sort of butterfly attracting plants, so it's not quite the miracle it may sound.  Still, I saw several colors of butterflies, a yellow hibiscus plant, the blazing glory of the dwarf Poinciana tree, and some pale pink Bougainvillea flowers.  Breathtaking.

Or, as my friend's children used to exclaim, "Great show, God!"

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Washing Dishes With Monks

No, I haven't really washed dishes with monks, although I would be willing.  I make pilgrimages to Mepkin Abbey, where the monks do their own dishes, and visitors aren't allowed in the kitchen.  And the kitchen has all of the modern conveniences, like industrial strength dishwashers.

I remember visiting a friend once near the end of my Senior year of college.  She and her brother shared a small, two bedroom duplex.  Their kitchen had a stove and a refrigerator, but no other modern conveniences.  After meals, we washed dishes by hand.  I talked about how much I loved washing the dishes.

My friend said, "It's because it's homey and you don't have to do it multiple times a day."

Later, my friend and I would share a small cottage of a house, where again, our kitchen had a refrigerator and a very small stove, but no other modern conveniences.  I continued to love washing dishes by hand, but now, I am grateful for my dishwasher, especially after I've had people over.

I remind myself of my friend's dishwashing comments every time I glamorize monastic life.  When I despair over my inability to carry on the most mundane of monastic tasks (why can't I pray a minimum of three times a day?  Why is it so hard?), I remind myself that the monks probably don't see themselves as doing anything extraordinary.

No, they'd probably remind me that their entire schedule is set up to make sure that the community prays at regular time.  Mine is not.  I'm a visitor to their lives, just like I was to my friend's cozy domesticity when I washed dishes.  I can plunge myself into their community, but it's not realistic to think that my own community will comply with my monastic yearnings upon my return.

I do wonder if my monastic yearnings should be pointing me to a different life.  I know that joining a monastic community is not realistic for me right now.  I have a house that I'm unlikely to be able to sell and a husband.  I have a job.  There aren't any Protestant monastic communities within commuting distance.

So, for now, I will continue my lonely monasticism.  I will try to forgive myself for my lapses.  I will remind myself that even the monks must occasionally feel a hollowness to their practices and wonder if they're living the lives God intended for them. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 17, 2012:

First Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 15:34--16:13

Psalm: Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14 (Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 20

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17

Gospel: Mark 4:26-34

In the Gospel for Sunday, we bump against an agricultural metaphor that makes me wonder, as I always do, how well these metaphors work as we move away from being a culture that grows plants.  If we've never planted a seed and tended the sprouts, is the parable lost on us?

What might a modern parable teller use?  Mold?  A virus that overtakes a human or a computer system?  A bit of code that destroys a computer program?

We might object to those ideas.  We might say, "Those metaphors are so destructive--surely Jesus didn't have that in mind?"

Many scholars, however, would point out that mustard seeds left untended do grow into plants that can be terribly destructive, even as they provide shelter for birds.  It's great for birds, but not so great for anything else that a farmer wanted to grow.  The mustard seed would grow into a plant that had the potential to strangle everything else.

The Kingdom of God is a weed that strangles the plants we intended to grow to become a huge tree that shelters birds--yes, we can see how the earliest audiences of Jesus might go away confused.

Return to that idea of a seed, something tiny that can grow into something huge.  Think about the self-contained nature of the seed.  This part of the metaphor might provide comfort.

The Kingdom of God doesn't start out huge.  It begins as a tiny seed that just needs some water, some soil, and some light--nothing revolutionary, but from humble beginnings, a revolution begins.

In these post-Pentecost times, it's good to remember that we're not required to arrive on the scene full-grown.  Often in the post-Pentecost narratives and in the letters of Paul, I come away feeling inadequate, as I look at what those early believers managed to accomplish with such few resources.

And here I am, with all sorts of technological advances, only to spend so much time stumbling and beginning again.

Yet the parables remind me that even small seeds can become fields of wheat that feed a nation or giant trees that shelter wildlife.

What do we need to sprout?  What soil and spiritual manure would help us become more firmly rooted?  Summer might be a great time to try a new spiritual practice or to return to a practice that fell away in the hectic pace of Lent and Easter.  More prayer?  More journaling?  A book and/or study group?  A service project?

What water would refresh us and encourage us to sprout?  A different kind of worship experience?  A retreat at a church camp or a monastery?  An online learning community?

How can we get the balance of enough sunshine and shade?  For all the time we plan to spend in spiritual activity, we should plan for Sabbath time too, a time to stay still and unplug/unwind.

You may feel like a dried out husk that has no hope of sprouting.  The Gospels assure us that we are little pods of potential waiting to bloom.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening?

In these days after Pentecost, we might find our thoughts turning towards the future of the Church.  On Pentecost, we may think, it all started so well, with such enthusiasm--what's happened?

Well, if we're part of mainline Protestant religions we might.  We might find ourselves despairing over how many people claim that they're spiritual but not religious.  What does that mean?  That they enjoy yoga classes?  That they go to both a Hindu temple and an Episcopal church?  That they pray to an unknown divinity?  Are we talking to Buddhitarians?  Some other amalgamation? 

Of course, the meaning of that phrase, "spiritual but not religious," has as many meanings as there are humans.  What's a poor Protestant to do?

Diana Butler Bass has spent at least a decade thinking about these issues and offering comfort to those of us still going to church.  Her new book, Christianity After Religion:  The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, may be more discomfiting than previous books have been, but in the end, I found it hopeful.

Bass does a great job in outlining spiritual awakenings throughout past cycles as she seeks to establish that we're in the middle of another Great Awakening.  She points out that some of the backlash we're experiencing is completely normal:  "Awakenings can be slowed by fear, but if enough people experience, understand, and practice a new way of the spirit, they cannot be stopped" (page 236).  On my good days, I cheer.  On my bad days, I worry that we don't have enough people experiencing, understanding, and practicing a new way of the spirit.

She devotes the middle part of the book to talking about believing, behaving, and belonging.  She says that the Great Awakening that we're experiencing now is about "reclaiming a faith where belief is not quite the same thing as an answer, where behavior is not following a list of dos and don'ts, and where belonging to Christian community is less like joining an exclusive club and more of a relationship with God and others" (page 99).  And then she goes on to talk about what she sees going on around her and around the world.

She says, "Accordingly, Christianity is moving from being a religion about God to being an experience of God" (page 110).  She notes that this new Awakening will be less Creed-based and more behavior based.  Like many modern theologians, she posits that we come to our beliefs by behaving our way towards where/who we want to be.

She talks about some of the issues bedeviling the modern Church, quoting one of her Facebook correspondents:  "Why is it that the choice among churches always seems to be the choice between intelligence on ice and ignorance on fire?" (page 121).  She points out that believers and atheists alike are often asking the wrong questions:  "'Do you trust in the resurrection?' is a much harder question than 'Do you believe that Jesus was historically and scientifically raised from the dead?'"

She also talks about some of the practices that people are exploring and concludes:  "Practices are not merely spiritual activities we do to entertain ourselves.  Practices enliven and awaken us to the work of God in the world" (page 160). 

This book may frustrate those who came to it looking for ways to appeal to the unchurched.  This book may frustrate those who are used to spiritual books that give a specific program (often in a number of steps) for us all to follow. 

Near the end, she offers this nugget:  "There is no specific technique that can be employed, no set program to follow to start a great awakening.  If you want it to happen, you just have to do it.  You have to perform its wisdom, live into its hope, and 'act as if' the awakening is fully realized.  And you have to do it with others in actions of mutual creation" (page 263).  Again and again, she reminds us that we are not alone and encourages us to get out in the world to find like-minded people.

Now those readers who are longing for a time when everyone went to church, those readers may not find this book as inspiring as I did.  But for those of us who want reassurance that a Great Awakening may be underway and that it may lead us to a better place than we thought possible--this is a book to keep close beside you.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Walkers on a Close Enough Path

"Just now, people are realizing that there are walkers

on another nearby path

heading in the same direction.

Not the same path,

but a close enough path

that travelers can make friends with others on a similar

(but not identical)


that will eventually bring new life,

new hope,

and new possibilities

to the larger culture." (page 244-245)

quote from Christianity After Religion:  The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening by Diana Butler Bass.  Here it is without any breaks:

"Just now, people are realizing that there are walkers on another nearby path heading in the same direction. Not the same path, but a close enough path that travelers can make friends with others on a similar (but not identical) journey that will eventually bring new life, new hope, and new possibilities to the larger culture." (page 244-245)

Coming on Monday:  a full review of Christianity After Religion:  The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening by Diana Butler Bass

Friday, June 8, 2012

Prayer Practices and Possibilities

One of my friends told me about Jane E. Vennard's Praying with Body and Soul:  A Way to Intimacy with God.  I was pleased to see that it's still in print, and so I ordered a copy.

My friend plans to do one activity from the book each month with a worship group, and she's contemplating making it be part of a Taize service.  She asked me which activities I thought would work best.

So much of this book is not what you would expect--or at least I didn't.  I thought it was going to be a movement as prayer kind of book.  I was expecting a meditative yoga kind of book.  But this book is so much more.

My favorite exercise has participants think about themselves as part of the story--it asks who are you in this story?  It's a classic technique. 

But Vennard describes a different process, what she calls moving within the story or reading the Bible inside out (chapter 1).  She describes the story in Luke 13:  10-13, the story of the woman who had been bent over for 18 years.  Jesus heals her.  She describes having participants bend over and imagine what it's like not to be able to straighten.  Then she has them imagine being healed.

On page 98, she describes participants who go even deeper, thinking about characters both before and after the Bible story that's depicted.  It's not exactly movement, but certainly leads to a much deeper involvement with the text.

Other exercises that I think would work well in groups by drawing as meditation after hearing a Bible story (chapter 5).  When I think of prayer and movement, I don't think of drawing or painting, but of course, it's an action which requires movement, doesn't it?

She also talks about drawing as prayer, prayer pictures.  She talks about dreams and how we might utilize them.

She also takes us back to simple exercises, like paying attention to our breath (page 12-13).  Those of us who have done yoga or other kinds of meditative/movement exercises understand the importance of breath.  But much of the population doesn't pay much attention to breath.  I'm amazed at how many people don't really understand how to breathe deeply, how to get that oxygen deep into the body, how to release stress.  A simple group exercise could be to experiment with different kinds of breathing.

This book is full of possibilities.  On page 114, she talks about dancing for peace.  It's not the liturgical dance which might be familiar to so many of us.  It intrigued me.  I'd love to see this bit in action.  On page 124, she talks about labyrinths, a tool that's still unfamiliar to so many of us.

My favorite chapter doesn't lend itself as easily to group activity, but it would lead to great group discussion.  I loved chapter 3, Praying when Our Bodies Betray Us.  Many people might think of the ultimate kinds of betrayal, like horrifying diseases.  But we can feel betrayed by our bodies in so many ways.  A book which proposes that we pray with our bodies can't really neglect this important fact.  Vennard handles it well.

Vennard even includes a chapter on sex, something that I wouldn't want to see acted out as a church group activity.  I'm a good Lutheran girl, after all.  But she brings up important points about treating bodies with honor and about intimate relations that can lead us to a deeper intimacy with God.

If you need a book that takes your prayer journey in a different direction, this book has much to offer you.  I like that it doesn't get bogged down in theory, but gives specific activities to try.  And it's full of activities, so if one doesn't fit, you've still got plenty to try.

So, if you feel summer sluggishness threatening to swamp your spiritual life, fight back!  Start with this book, and choose an activity a week or one a month.  By the end of the summer, you might find yourself in a fitter spiritual shape.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 10, 2012:

First Reading: Genesis 3:8-15

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 8:4-11 [12-15] 16-20; [11:14-15]

Psalm: Psalm 130

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 138

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:13--5:1

Gospel: Mark 3:20-35

We are used to the picture of the family of Jesus that we see at Christmas time:  the brave, young Mary, ready for whatever God has in mind for her.  Kind Joseph, who plans to leave pregnant Mary, but is convinced to stay beside her.  The couple fleeing the murderous Herod. 

And then, perhaps, a few weeks later, we might see the young Jesus who stays behind to learn a bit more in the Temple in Jerusalem.  In some lectionary years, we see Mary imploring Jesus to save a wedding where the wine has run out; Jesus says he's not ready, Mary persists, and Jesus puts aside his own plans and transforms water into wine.

Or maybe we're used to the Mary that we see around Easter, particularly the weeping mother at the foot of the cross.

We're likely not familiar with the Mary that we see in today's Gospel, the Mary who hears the rumors of her son's madness and comes to try to get him to change course.

What's going on here?  Is she embarrassed?  Did she not know that being the mother of the Messiah might mean some embarrassment when the neighbors started talking?

Those of us who have ever loved someone who took a different path may feel some sympathy for Mary.  Those of us who have watched children grow up and go their own way may feel sympathy too. 

When Gabriel appeared to Mary and gave her an outline of the plan that God had for her, she probably didn't envision the Jesus that appeared some thirty years later.  Her whole culture trained her to look for a different Messiah, perhaps a Messiah who cleansed the Jewish homeland.  She probably thought of that cleansing in military terms, the ejection of the Romans, perhaps.

She likely wasn't thinking of a spiritual revolution.

After all, there were plenty of people running around Palestine leading spiritual revolutions, all sorts of people, some legitimate, some deranged, who were happy to tell first century people how to cleanse themselves and purify their religions and make God happy.  I've read one scholar who posits that the family of Jesus was upset because he could be using his powers to make money and instead he was giving away his miracles for free.  In these early chapters of Mark, Jesus does a lot of healing which attracts much attention.

Or perhaps Mary was upset because she saw her son was on a collision course with any number of authorities.  Maybe she wanted him to fly under the radar more.

We might argue that she has no right to feel that way, because, after all, Jesus came precisely to be on that collision course--that's what he had to do to create the salvation that he came to bring.

Even if Mary understood God's plan thoroughly, she still might want to protect her child.  That's what good parents want, to save their children from harm and destruction.  She still might protest the fact that the salvation of the world required the precious life of her beloved child.

For those of us struggling to chart our own course, we might take comfort from today's Gospel.  If even the family of Jesus didn't fully embrace his path, we, too, can expect a bit of resistance.

For those of us struggling to live an integrated life, where our weekday selves don't contradict our Christian values, we can take courage from today's Gospel.  It's not an easy task, this living an authentic life.

Of course, the Gospels don't promise us a happy ending.  Even if we live honestly, we may find ourselves on a collision course with the larger world, with the forces of empire, with the culture that shoots other messages at us and infuses our surroundings with poisonous values.  Even authentic people can end up martyred.

In fact, authentic people are more likely to end up martyred.  But throughout the Gospels, Jesus promises that the life we achieve through our integrity will be worth the price.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Meet Your New VBS Arts and Crafts Director

I've been involved with Vacation Bible School for several years now.  The first year, I assisted the arts and crafts director.  The second year, I assisted the dinner coordinator.  Last year, I was out of town.  This year, I'm the arts and crafts director.  I'm both excited and terrified.

I waited a long time before volunteering for the position.  Our pastor kept sending out lists of available positions.  I wanted the arts and crafts director position, but I thought that surely someone else would want it, and I didn't want to be too greedy.

Finally, after several weeks I volunteered, but offered to step aside if anyone else really wanted it.  We are in one of those VBS years where we barely have enough people to do everything, so my volunteering was greeted with relief.

We buy one of those pre-packaged VBS kits, and this year, we're not using the one from our own publishing house.  It was chosen by the woman who was going to be the VBS director before life intervened and she had to let go of that responsibility.  The kit that we bought doesn't come with very much--oh no, they want you to buy more, more, more.

We will not be doing that.  I looked at the projects that they offer, and they baffle me.  They're more science fair than glue and glitter.

We will be making noisemakers, because my husband will be doing fun things with drums and noisemakers, and we don't already have enough of those.  We will decorate t-shirts.  We will make butterflies or empty tomb gardens or other things to remind us of Christ's resurrections.  We will do things with paper mosaics, perhaps.  Maybe we'll collage if I get enough old magazines.

My fear is that I have twenty minutes--what if the projects take too much time?  What if they don't take enough time?

And then there's the fear that lurks beneath:  what if the kids think the projects are stupid?  And by extension, what if they think I'm stupid?

Creative folks everywhere are probably familiar with fears that run along these lines:  what if I can't pull off what I'm attempting to do?  What if I'm just stupid?  What if I never have a good idea?  What if I think I'm brilliant but everyone else knows I'm not?

I'm hoping that if I approach each night with joy and enthusiasm, it will all be just fine.

One of my spin class buddies advised me to give them what they don't get at home:  glue and glitter.  They get crayons, but not glitter.

I joked that if I give them glitter, I'll never be allowed to be arts and crafts director again.

I am always amazed at how much I like being part of Vacation Bible School.  And in terms of outreach, it's one of the more important things we do.  Kids like VBS too.  They bring their friends.  Their parents love the experience.  We have hopes that this positive experience will be enough to counteract the negative Church messages that the larger culture might give them later on.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Isaiah for Holy Trinity Sunday

Yesterday our pastor preached on Isaiah 6: 1-8, which may be the first time I've heard Isaiah preached on Holy Trinity Sunday.  But it worked.

Our pastor talked about institutional churches which mainly do what they do for the sake of the members.  He reminded us that this kind of thinking is a danger for all churches.

But we must resist.  After all, at the beginning, Christianity was an evangelical movement.  People were consecrated in baptism not to stay in their churches and care for members, but to go out and spread the good word.

In fact, our pastor reminded us that evangelists, the ones who went out, had higher status than preachers.

I'm not sure what time period he referenced, but it's good to be reminded that Christianity began as a movement led by lay people.  We see too many churches where members are content to let the pastor do everything--after all, they'll say, "That's what we pay him for."

Our pastor encouraged us to go out and chat about the Gospel.  And then, because he began life as an English major, he created a slogan that has a lovely alliteration:  Go gossip the Gospel.

May our lips be purified for this purpose!

Yes, an unusual Holy Trinity Sunday--but much better than arguing about Trinitarian theories and bringing up Trinitarian controversies that have split the church in the past.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Transforming a Congregation into Poets and Theologians

My church has often left families with impossible choices on Easter Sunday morning.  There's the sunrise service, of course.  But families with children often find it hard to get to a 10:00 a.m. service on time.  Sunrise service is not an option for many.

We also often have a cantata service, which requires sitting and listening for at least 20 minutes--also not a great option for children.

This year, my pastor tried something different, and we were all astounded at how many people came.  It was a more interactive service.

Our "children's sermon" time is traditional in that it has part of the church population come forward. It's non-traditional in that parents often come up, as do adolescents of all ages.

For Easter, our pastor had a basket of everyday objects. Each participant chose an object and went back to the pew to discuss what this object could teach us about God and about the Easter message. Then 10 minutes later, the participants came forward to report.

For those of you who are having trouble picturing this, here's an example: one child took a roll of tape back to the pew. What does tape have to do with God or Easter? Easter is the event that sticks us to God. That's one possibility.

I loved this idea because it involved the people in the pews:  nobody got to be a passive observer.  It forced people to think imaginatively and make connections they might have never made otherwise.  In other words, it forces us to use figurative thinking, the tool of poets.

It helps us do theology in a different way, an interactive way.

We've had similar success with our improv Sunday School.  The learning moves quickly out of the passive realm.

Now for the larger question:  can we sustain this kind of service, week after week?  We live in hope that we can.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A New Approach to Worship

At the end of this month, our church is going to experiment once again with our approach to worship and Sunday School:  what will happen when we mix them into one, hour-long event?

Long-time readers of this blog will know that we've experimented before.  Long ago, we experimented with intergenerational Sunday School (go here and here to read more).  It was wildly successful for the first year, less so in later years.  We experimented with Sunday School Improv, using drama to teach (go here for links to these entries).  We've done a lot with puppets.

We've also experimented on the worship side.  We tried to infuse each Sunday in Advent with a creative project for the youth to do (go here for more).  We had a family service for Easter that our pastor tried to make more interactive.

I think our pastor had been having thoughts of trying something new for a long time.  We have noticed that our Sunday School programs go great guns for the first few months, and then attendance drops radically.  We have decided to stop fighting a battle we won't win:  most people are not going to spend 3 hours in church on a Sunday (Sunday School, church, coffee time).  If people only have an hour on a Sunday morning, then how much can we pack into that hour?

Of course, I will be documenting this process.  We hope to combine some of the best elements of what's worked in both worship and the Sunday School side, along with some elements from Vacation Bible School.  We have a huge contingent of former drama geeks for such a small church, so there will be drama of all sorts.  We have music folks.  We have people like me, who want to do more to infuse creative arts beyond music into both worship, Sunday School, and daily lives.

And of course, there will be Communion, both of the Eucharist kind and the fellowshipping kind.

It will be an interesting hybrid.  It will likely be messy at times.  We will create our own resources, but because we know from past Sunday School experiences of the kind of time this takes, we will also use resources that already exist.

Tomorrow I'll write a bit more about the Easter family worship service and what worked in that service.

Friday, June 1, 2012

My Essay on "A Wrinkle in Time" in "Her Circle"

Instead of writing a post here today, I'm going to refer you to Her Circle, where I have an essay appearing on Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.

My essay focuses on what the book teaches us as individuals, artists, and activists--the magazine focuses on those areas.  Careful readers will be able to draw some spiritual connections too.

I hope you'll go here to read my essay.