Church Story & The Children’s Talk

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I’m going to be honest: I have mixed feelings about the Sunday morning children’s talk. On the one hand, I have low hopes for it as a significant formational moment for either children or adults. On the other, I value the place of children in worship, and support the notion of creating identifiable space and time for our little ones in gathered worship.

So how do you make the most of the children’s talk as a teaching opportunity?

Story and the Children’s Talk

Ivy Beckwith’s book, Formational Children’s Ministry, is one that has helped me with creative and research-based approaches to the children’s talk. One of Beckwith’s emphases is the importance of story in the spiritual formation of children, an insight that research in the field of psychology confirms.

Now, when we think of “story” and “children’s talk”, our minds go immediately to the biblical narrative, which is right and appropriate. Connecting children with God’s story is most important. But sometimes the gospel reading doesn’t lend itself to a simple children’s talk. Or maybe there is a special feast day being celebrated in worship – All Saints, say – and you want to somehow draw the children into conversation with that communal moment.

This is an opportunity to draw children into the Church’s Story.

Beckwith writes:

“Knowing the stories from church history is an important piece of the positive spiritual formation of our children. Helping children understand they are part of a movement that has been alive for more than two thousand years in places all around the world is an important part of their spiritual development and spiritual memory. Helping children meet and know the characters from church history who have followed Jesus in harrowing, life-threatening, and life-ending situations is a way to begin to capture their imagination for what it means to be a person who loves God and follow Jesus no matter what the cost. These brave and faithful men and women are great models for our children of what living according to Kingdom values looks like.” (41)

In my own ministry, I tell the Church’s Story during the Children’s Talk about once every four to six weeks. So for example, in January, I told the story of Martin Luther King Jr. on MLK Sunday. In February, we celebrated Black History month, and I told the story of Harriet Tubman. This coming Sunday, with St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, I will talk about St. Patrick and his desire for people to learn about Jesus. In June, when we mark the National Aboriginal Day of prayer, I may talk about St. Kateri. And so on.

There is some work involved in incorporating the Church’s Story into your children’s talk.

First, I do a bit of research about the person I am presenting, and ask myself: What good example of the life of faith does this person offer, in particular?  Next, I sort out what part of their story I will tell, in a way that is brief and simple enough for children to understand. Then, I look for photos or portraits so that the children can capture of visual image of the person being discussed. I’m lucky to be in a context with screens, so I can easily project the photos so everyone in the congregation can see. (For those without screens, another possibility is to print an image, although I realize that introduces additional cost and hassles. Posting the image somewhere in the entrance to the church means that adults will have a chance to at least glance at the image, before and after service.)

At the end of the Children’s Talk, I give thanks to God for the life of the person we have remembered, and ask God to help us, like them, grow in… [insert the commendable quality being held up.]

How is it working in my parish? Honestly, I haven’t heard any feedback on these Church Story moments, either positive or negative. But I keep plugging away at it, because I know that the witness of the lives of fellow believers is a source of encouragement and hope to children and adults alike. As Beckwith says: “Familiarity with the history of the church helps [us] to see that the work of God in the world did not end with the last page of the Bible. Having an understanding of the history of the church…helps [us] see the continued work of God over the centuries and assures [us] that God’s will continue through [us] as well.”

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee

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This book came recommended to me by my friend Tiffany Robinson, and it has in turn become one of my top suggestions to mums and dads looking for parenting books and for colleagues looking for resources for parenting small groups.

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The author, Dr. Wendy Mogel, is an American clinical psychologist and internationally renowned writer and speaker on parenting. She also has an interesting story of faith.

Although Mogel’s parents were Jewish, they did not raise her in the tradition. Mogel discovered Judaism later in adulthood, when a friend invited her to a children’s Rosh Hashanah service. She went to the service thinking of herself as a cultural anthropologist, but left with “something stirred inside me.” That brief outing marked the first step in a journey that eventually led to her embrace of the Jewish faith.

The book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, is the product of her experience as a clinical psychologist and her discovery of the wisdom of the Jewish tradition, with much of the content drawn from years of teaching a Jewish parenting class at her Temple.

Mogel believes that the Torah speaks powerfully into a milieu where parents wrestle against a consumeristic and individualistic culture,  and where children are reared in a performance-oriented and anxiety-producing environment. She writes:

Judaism provides a very different kind of perspective on parenting. By sanctifying the most mundane aspects of the here and now, it teaches us that there is greatness not just in grand and glorious achievements but in our small, everyday efforts and deeds. Judaism shows us that we don’t have to be swallowed up by our frenzied, materialistic world – we can take what is valuable from it without being wholly consumed.

Three cornerstone principles of Jewish living are moderation, celebration and sanctification Through these principles we can achieve a balanced life, no matter what culture we happen to inhabit…By applying them to our family life, my husband, my children, and I have found some mooring and meaning in an unsteady world. In my professional life, I’ve seen families transformed by this new perspective on their problem in living. (34)

That quote is from the opening chapter, and in the rest of the book she delivers on her promise of a parenting approach that is both liberating and commonsense.

The table of contents offers a good picture of the kind of topics she tackles:

Capture

She touches on everything from picky-eaters to chores to discipline problems to the futility of pious lectures, to teaching children to manage boring or frightening conversations with adults, to helping your child manage their yetzer hara.  [I know.  I had never heard of yetzer hara, either. You’ll have to read the book to find out.]

As a parent, I loved this book. (I say this as the kind of person who reads a book every time she faces a parenting dilemma she has no idea how to handle. So, I’ve read a lot of parenting books.) This is one of the few parenting resources I’ve read that didn’t make me feel more inadequate or more burdened than when I started it. Hopeful, is how I would describe my mood when I finished the final chapter.

As a pastor, you can see the possibilities.  Mogel not only offers excellent clinical advice, she ties it with the Torah, modeling a way of applying the wisdom of holy scriptures to daily living. For pastors wanting a resource for a parenting small group, this book helps lay people connect their parenting with their faith.

The other bonus: the book comes with a parents’ discussion guide.  As a pastor, you don’t even have to build the questions.

My only caveat, as a pastor: not everyone loves to read.  In a large church, this is no big-deal, since if you advertise a book study, people will self select. But in a small or mid-size church, you may not have tons of families. Your small group may well be all the families in your church!  Odds are, not all those parents will love to read, or have time to read.

I have gotten around this in the past by going through a summary each week of the content of the chapter, so that people get the nuts and bolts of what Mogel discussed. The discussion questions are broad enough that everyone can still participate, but…it’s imperfect.

I had summary notes on my old laptop that died; sometime in the next year I will take time to dig around for them, and if I find them, I will post them here.

Helping families celebrate Lent: Ready resources for busy pastors

celebratingseasons2We’re heading into the season of Lent. In the Church world, this usually means a menu of adult education options and special preaching series.

But what about families?  How do we encourage parents to keep a holy Lent in their homes?

When I worked as associate in Family Ministries, I always made sure we had special seasonal events for families. We gathered over a meal – usually on a Sunday – bringing all the generations together. After a short time of teaching, families then worked together on assembling a take-home project. The idea was they would work on the devotional or service project as a family during the Holy Season. The projects weren’t wildly original (think Advent Wreaths, Lenten Trees, Prayer projects and so on) but they did offer a resource and a reminder to parents that hey, we should be doing this seasonal journey with our kids, too.  

But maybe you are not on a multi-staff team, or you serve in a small church. Your volunteers are few, your time limited.

You can still do something.

Creative Communications is my go-to resource for affordable take-home activities for families when a special seasonal family event just isn’t in the cards. It does take planning as you have to order far enough in advance to ensure the resources arrive at your doorstep in time. Nevertheless it is a do-able undertaking for the pastor of a small parish.

We have a good amount of kids in our little church, but my portfolio is large and our volunteers stretched thin. We can’t do it all, but we are doing this much: tomorrow, every family is looking forward to receiving a take-home resource for Lent.

You can find them here:  http://www.creativecommunications.com/

(And no, I didn’t get paid to write this recommendation!)

EDITED TO ADD: shipping costs add up.  I tend to order Advent, Lent and any other resources for feast days at the same time.  If you only have a a couple of families in your church, it may be worth doing a joint order with other local churches to spread the pain of shipping expenses.

In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice

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About eight years ago, I began seeing a Franciscan monk for spiritual direction.

At the time I was stretched in every direction by the demands of ministry and family life and feeling increasingly spiritually beige. My former go-to tools for spiritual care, learned in the days when I was single and silence was as abundant as oxygen, now felt oppressive.

“I need to meet Jesus in my daily life,” I told my director. “I need to have my spiritual life grounded in the life I’m living – my work, my parenting,  my marriage.” I was looking for a kind of spirituality that was at home with deafening noise and dirty dishware. And Brother David helped me find it.

If you resonate with my struggles (but do not have a Franciscan monk handy), do I have just the book for you:

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(Look at that tidy shoe rack!)

The author, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, is professor of religion, psychology and culture at Vanderbilt University. She and her husband raised three boys, both while working full-time. This book is the product of Miller-McLemore’s own dissatisfaction with traditional modes of spirituality where retreat, leisurely times of prayer and a non-screaming environment were deemed key for drawing near to God.

Miller-McLemore argues that parents do not have to wait until their children are gone and the house is quiet to tend to their spiritual lives. She argues for parenting itself to be seen as spiritual practice. “What I am trying to describe, instead, is a wisdom that somehow emerges in the chaos itself, stops us dead in our tracks and heightens our awareness. I am talking about a way of life that embraces the whole of family living in all its beauty and misery rather than individual acts of devotion, as important as they are to sustaining the whole. In other words, I am not trying to recommend a better way to pray. I am suggesting that faith takes shape in the concrete activities of the day-to-day.” (20) She calls this approach the sanctifying of “ordinary family drudgery.” (24)

The rest of the book is spent working out the how of such a spirituality. Miller-McLemore talks about how parents’ faith is shaped and grown through the discipline of parenting. She talks about “ordinary awe” as a kind of attentiveness to one’s children, as a way of helping us recognize the holy in the mundane. In later chapters, she looks at what spiritual practices might be, in mothering and fathering: reading, playing, blessing, dealing with chores, and engaging with faith practices.

In addition to the insights, I appreciate the way Miller-McLemore writes with compassion for parents, a compassion that comes from “I’ve been there” experience. Nor is the writing dense or academic, which is a mercy for sleep-deprived parents.

Since reading this book, I have recommended it to two new parents – one a newly-minted father, and another a-soon-to-be mum. And I’m recommending it now to you, with confidence that you will find at least a handful of gems to enrich your spiritual life.

Reading this book has been, in so many ways, a re-affirmation of many of the conclusions I reached during my time under Father David’s spiritual care. I only wish I had discovered it sooner.

Conversation Cards: Review of the Day

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When our children were very young – babies and toddlers – I was very attuned to their emotional state and the goings-on in their day. This was because I had witnessed all of it. (The gift of maternity leaves and part-time work!)

But when they began school, much of their day happened away from me. So we began practicing a “review of the day” at suppertime.

This is much easier an exercise than it looks. Our introvert would summarize her day thusly: “It was good.” With probing, she would expand: “I don’t remember.” Our little extrovert offered an unstoppable flood of words, not touching her food, not pausing to catch her breath lest someone interrupt her.

So I went out to our local teacher’s supply store and bought a poster depicting different human emotions.  Something like this (only ours had triple the photos):

emotionsposter

Then I cut all the squares into individual cards and put them in a basket.

Here’s how it works. At supper, each child chooses 3 cards to describe the different emotions they felt during the day. If they want the same card, they share it (yeah, when they were little it sometimes took some parental direction). When it comes to their turn to review their day, they show us their cards and then explain why they felt shy, or tired, or proud etc. Mike and I participate as well. I used to pull out these cards about once a week, although it’s become less frequent of late.

This is a very simple idea that has worked well in our family. It has given our introvert a structure to encourage conversation and it has provided boundaries for our extrovert. When our kids were little, it had the added benefit of teaching them to name emotions, an important life skill in learning to respond to and manage feelings. As a mother, it gives me insight into my children’s general emotional state,  for me an invaluable gift. And as the research talks about the importance of warm, parent-child relationships in the inter-generational transmission of faith, this is easy way to nurture those kind of connected conversations.

This is a tool that is attractive to children, not tweens or teens. I would recommend it for children around the ages of 2-11. (Our twelve year old still participates, but that is most likely because she grew up with the tool and is a cooperative kind of kid.)

You don’t have to buy a poster board either. If you google “emotion for kids” and then click the Images tool, lots of printable resources turn up.  I do recommend having concrete images to work with, because the process of sorting through the pictures helps kids in reviewing their day, and readies them to share.

Christmas Day Breakfast

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My sister and her family are visiting this weekend, and I introduced her to our family’s breakfast casserole, which we call Christmas Casserole.

I find Christmas tricky to navigate as a pastor who is also a parent. There is no leisurely family time on Christmas Eve, because I’m at the church at 3:30 p.m. and not home until sometime after 9 p.m., by which time the children are all in bed. Unable to sleep, of course, but still in bed.

On Christmas Day, however, we do manage to carve out at least an hour or sometimes two together before I am out the door. (I realize this will all change when we have a house full of teenagers, but for the moment our gang are still early risers on Christmas morning.)

This is our routine: Mike gets the kids up who are not already up, while I get the coffee going and turn the oven on. Mike turns on Christmas carols, lights the tree and finds his cell phone for photos, while I pull out the make-ahead Christmas casserole from the fridge and slip it into the heated oven.  When we’re ready, we give the okay to the kids waiting impatiently at the top of the stairs, and the chaos of gift-opening begins.

When the unwrapping is over: Ta-Da!  The casserole is ready to come out of the oven. We have a hot meal and I get some protein to keep me going through the service.  As a pastor, I get the *feeling* of having a leisurely Christmas morning with my family and a feast for breakfast, without much extra effort.

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This looks just like our Christmas casserole (minus the tomatoes and parsley)

It takes me about 10-15 minutes to ready the casserole the day before. It’s filling enough to keep everyone satisfied until after I am home from church, by which time Mike, or members of the extended family are on Kitchen Patrol.

Google recipes for make-ahead breakfast casseroles. I use ones with frozen hash browns or tater tots because: easier.