Friday, May 29, 2015

Last Day of School

Today was the last day of school in my town. The last day is always an exciting one for children, and a day often filled with many emotions for parents. Parents may be anticipating summer adventures with their kids but they may also be feeling the stress of full-time childcare expenses. Some will feel sadness that another chapter in a child's life is finished or a sense of loss if there was a close partnership with a teacher. There can be waves of nostalgia if the child will be attending another school in the fall. A parent might be dreading the late nights, messy bathrooms and depleted larders that are the earmarks of summers in households with teens. And the last day of high school carries a deep bittersweet feeling all its own.

Whatever you're feeling, one parenting practice that serves well in times of transition is the "marking of days." A wise friend initiated my family marking of the last day of school.
It was not unusual, simply a backyard gathering where we stopped and talked over the highlights of the year just ended. The older kids told the younger ones about their 2nd (or 3rd or 4th) grade memories and everyone shared plans and wishes for the summer and the next school year over burgers and chips. It was informal, and familiar (we frequently gathered in that backyard) but it sealed the year somehow, and created a bridge we crossed into summer.

In Old Testament times significant events were marked by building an altar. The books of Genesis through Judges contain at least 14 stories of building altars. The stories featured famous Biblical
characters: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Gideon, Saul, David, Solomon, and Elijah. These stories provide us with a simple formula for the marking of days:
  • Stop.
  • Remember.
  • Then build something
  • Out of natural or readily available materials.

Like our informal backyard gathering where we built burgers and remembered, most families probably have some type of ritual that has evolved over the years: going camping, putting the dock in the water, visiting Grandma, or moving seedlings from indoors to the garden. The stopping and doing are important. Adding the remembering and familiar, tangible materials makes it a full-blown marking of the day. It adds meaning and intention to a day already filled with feeling. Marking days builds bridges between times and places.

You can plan for many important/transitional days throughout the year, creating personal family markings. In doing so you also indirectly prepare for the unexpected days. The Old Testament characters who were building altars were marking the times and places where God "showed up." That was what made the remembering so important. Remember the days that God "showed up" during the school year just ended: the answered prayers, the unexpected perfect response on your tongue to the difficult question asked, the miraculous encounter in nature or with another being. God is still showing up. Mark those days too, and revisit them often.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Holy Week & Children

It starts tomorrow, stretching ahead of us like a long and empty road, with obstacles hidden around each curve. For those of us who work in the church, and those of us who grew up in a liturgical tradition, Holy Week is our marathon:

  • Services on Palm Sunday - complete with palms and perhaps blessing of quilts created for the needy at home and abroad or Passion Sunday - cramming all the week's events into one service. 
  • Then, on Thursday, Maundy (Servant) Thursday, we unpack the Jewishness of Jesus as he celebrates Passover with his friends, the Institution of Holy Communion by Jesus during the Last Supper, and the Servant Leadership of Jesus as he washes the feet of his disciples. All of this concludes with stripping the church of all ornamentation so that on
  • Good Friday it will be stark and dark and sad as we re-tell the story of Jesus' excruciating death on the cross. In many churches Jesus' Seven Last Wordswill be solemnly read, followed by the toll of a bell and the extinguishing of candles to symbolize the departure of the Light of the World.
  • In some congregations, there will be an Easter Vigil on Saturday night, replete with fire and drums and darkness followed by light and noise and shouting. Then comes
  • Sunrise Service which, thanks to Daylight Savings Time regularly occurs in the dark and cold, and additional services attended by infrequently seen people and trumpets flourishes and devoted choir members singing their hearts out.
It. Is. Exhausting. 
It. Is, Amazing.

It is church at its best, and at its worst. And these days, it is often ignored by families with children because it is generally ignored by the rest of society. So the kids, if they are regular worship attenders, go from the high of Palm Sunday to the exultation of Easter Resurrection without ever passing through the valley of the shadow of death. And frankly, that's often more comfortable for us as parents. We don't have to answer difficult questions about death or face emotional responses from our children as they put it all together and realize that we, their most important people, will die. We don't like looking at our own mortality either.

I've been thinking about how parents and Sunday School Teachers should best approach this week. In the midst of my thinking,  I stopped and watched a Veggie Tales video called the Easter Carol. It was a droll parody of Dicken's Christmas Carol and most of its delightful humor would be entirely wasted on children BUT, as the Veggie folks so often do, they found a way to summarize the core message for children. And the message of Easter is HOPE.

And giving our children hope is one of our parenting tasks.
Giving people the sure and certain hope of the resurrection is one of the church's central tasks.

Hope is difficult to describe, but easy to recognize. Hope is the lengthening of daylight hours, the rising sap in the trees, the shoots pushing forth from the ground and the fruit trees blooming. It is watching our children grow, and the promise of things to come.

Easter brings the promise of our own resurrection. It seems to me that this is easier to understand in the full context of the week than as a stand-alone event. It seems easier to bring my children to church and let the leaders there help me and them to unpack these deep and difficult concepts. However, whether you go to church this week or not,  mark these days by speaking with your children (regardless of their ages) of fear and suffering and injustice and despair and death, and then remind them, and yourself, of the hope of resurrection. Hosanna & Alleluia!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Do Not Be Afraid

Children of all ages are no strangers to being afraid, and neither are parents. Children are afraid of the dark, big dogs, the possibility of divorce, monsters under the bed, getting their faces wet, and a myriad of other things. Adolescents are afraid that they will always be tallest or shortest or fattest or thinnest, of being rejected when asking someone out on a date, that no one will stop them from their out of control behavior, and that they will have to leave the nest before they are done growing up. Parents are afraid of car accidents, child molesters, bicycles, drugs and death. Being afraid is part of the human condition.

Into this arena of fear comes the message "Do not be afraid."

God speaks these words to Abraham, to Hagar, to Isaac, to Jacob. Moses is reminded, Joshua is instructed, and Elijah is commanded. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah brought messages from the Lord saying "Do not be afraid." Usually the message is accompanied by "for I am with you."

I imagine few who heard those words were completely relieved of their fear, but again and again God showed up and proved there was nothing beyond the scope of God's power.

As we move toward Christmas we will hear these words again. Angels, messengers from God, speaking to Mary, and Joseph, and nameless shepherds on a hillside. The same message, with a twist. "Do not be afraid; I bring you good news!"

And so as December flies by and Christmas approaches I say to you parents - Do Not Be Afraid!

Do Not Be Afraid . . .

  • To be your child's parent. You were not given this child to befriend, you are Mom or Dad!
  • To let traditions from your childhood that no longer hold meaning die. You can lose all of Christmas suffering through traditions that no one enjoys any longer.
  • To kill Santa. Or the Elf on the shelf. 
  • To help your child have realistic expectations.
  • To reach out to others who may be lonely.
  • To simpllify what you need to for the sake of the Christmas your family wants.
  • To make your kids wait. . .
There's a lot of pressure on us this time of the year. Pressure to be more, do more, spend more. And the season that should evoke joy can, instead, evoke fear. Fear of not being enough, not decorating (cleaning/baking/wrapping enough) not spending enough. . . 

Do not be afraid Mom and Dad. The Lord has found favor with you and entrusted His beautiful children into your care. Do not be afraid - just love them and glorify God for them! Let them and yourselves know they have nothing to fear for God is with them. 

I Bring You Good News. . .
  • You are enough
  • You do enough
  • Your gifts show your love
  • It's all about the baby - 
  • The rest is just for fun, and if it's not fun for anyone in your family, don't do it!
Merry Christmas (it's ok to say - don't be afraid!). May the good news of the Christ child eradicate the fears that creep upon us so stealthily.

Friday, November 14, 2014

In All Circumstances

'Tis the season to be THANKFUL, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

There's not much going on to support that idea! Thanksgiving, if mentioned at all, is all about stuffing your face and getting ready to consume bargains on Black Friday. People are keeping scorecards: Who's opening? What time? What's on sale there? Two women in Beaumont, CA set up camp in front of their local Best Buy on November 5, more than three weeks ahead of the big sale. They don't even know specifically what will be on sale, they just want to be first in line.

In the face of such relentless attempts to stoke our appetites it becomes important to cultivate a grateful heart, first in ourselves, and then in our children. Gratitude is the only antidote to greed. Since there are very few media invitations to gratitude, it's up to us to practice and model gratitude. And practicing gratitude has a huge payoff - peace!

I live in a small town without even a Walmart to call our own so I was curious to see if the youth of this community, who shop far less than their suburban counterparts, might be more steeped in gratitude. I had a good sample of 20 or so 7th and 8th graders as a captive audience this week. We handed around index cards and asked them to write down something they were thankful for on one side of the card. Then we talked about Paul's injunction to be thankful in all circumstances and  asked them to flip their cards over and think about a circumstance where they couldn't imagine being thankful. Then they were asked them to "Stump the Chumps" (me and their pastor) and we looked for ways to be thankful in the scenarios they had dreamed up: someone you love is murdered, a car accident, a bad diagnosis, being bullied, etc. It didn't take long for them to catch on and start finding something to be grateful for in each circumstance, making the "Chumps" unnecessary. At the end, we gave thanks for the things they had initially written down on their cards. Each of the 20 had chosen one of three things: parents, families, and friends.

I was discouraged that they had come to the table with so little gratitude no apparent awareness of the gifts of shelter, education, food, health, or a host of other possible choices, Still, I was very glad that they appreciated their relationships more than their cell phones. And I was encouraged that after our exercise I detected a note of embarrassment as student after student said family or friends or parents.

Gratitude, for most of us, is more an ingrained habit than an inborn talent. Family is a perfect context for learning to be grateful. The old-fashioned practice of saying grace before meals is a gratitude practice. Simply reciting "God is great. God is good. And we thank God for our food." creates an awareness that food is something to be appreciated. Stopping to pray before meals and freely expressing specific gratitudes for specific circumstances is also a good way to teach/learn/practice gratitude.

Other natural contexts within the family might include:

  • Requiring good manners: saying thank you when receiving a gift (whether that gift is a birthday celebration, a basket of clean laundry, a warm drink on a cold day, or a ride to a friend's house.)
  • Raising awareness using natural triggers: giving thanks for first responders when hearing sirens, speaking thankfully of income sources when getting cash at the ATM, appreciating good service when it happens, good health when engaging in active recreation
  • Focusing awareness: simply asking familiy members to think of one thing they are grateful for each day and to share it, or put up a white board for keeping track of blessings

I have kept a gratitude journal off and on for many years. Though I haven't been consistent, it is fun to look back and see what inspired my gratitude in other stages of life: a child's long nap, a windy day for drying beach towels, prepared food in the freezer, an accident avoided, good medical care, helpful friends, wisdom from my mother or father or child, a good book, an inspiring sermon, a reminder, no cavities, a telephone call, a day without driving, and so on.

Though it may be obvious, the biggest gift of the gratitude practice is that is cultivates an awareness of God, and of God's goodness. It is hard to comprehend the immensity of God's goodness, but itemizing our daily gifts helps us see God at work in our lives - and in that grateful state be immunized from the germs of greed that draw us away from God. In the language of bumper stickers:

May you know gratitude and peace this season!

Saturday, October 11, 2014


I have been thinking about the theme of accompaniment for a few weeks now - inspired by journey stories of the Old Testament and God's accompaniment on those journeys, and my own reflections on reaching the milestone of living a year in a new place and God's accompaniment in transition.

Accompaniment is a word that has musical connotations for me. One who provides musical accompaniment has a complex role, being present in the background, sometimes supporting or enhancing, sometimes leading, and sometimes building a bridge from one section to another. If you have been to a silent movie where the piano player sets the tone of the scene through the musical score, or listened to a soloist sing a song with significant changes in tempo or key, supported through them by the instrumental accompaniment, you can recognize the work and artistry of accompaniment.

Many times the role of accompanist is deemed subordinate to the role of soloist. After all, at the end of the song, it's the soloist who takes the bow. The most gracious stars will acknowledge their accompanist but the applause is still mostly for the star - isn't he or she great for acknowledging the piano player or the chorus?

As you read the epic stories of the Old Testament, you can see God's accompaniment supporting, leading and building bridges for the main characters: going with Adam and Eve as they are banished from the garden, leading Joseph to plan and prepare for a time of famine and allowing Moses to part the waters and create a bridge of dry land to the wilderness on the way to freedom.

God has been the accompanist to my personal "Life Song" as well - supporting, leading, and providing the bridge from one section to another. And what a great accompanist: supporting me with food, shelter, relationships, work and meaning - the essentials of life. God continues to be the heartbeat that keeps me moving, leading me forward when I would linger too long or holding me back when I would rush forward too soon. God has bridged the segments of my life: from married to single, from mother to empy-nester, from a city in Texas to a small town in Minnesota. God has accompanied me, in the fullest sense of the word.

Am I, created in the image of God, supposed to provide accompaniment as well? Am I supposed to support, lead, and bridge for others? What does it look like to accompany children, spouses, siblings, parents or friends on their journeys the way that God accompanies me? I believe this may be a skill and an attitude to be cultivated in a culture that teaches us to look out for #1. While many of you may already do this as naturally as breathing (I will be watching and learning!) the rest of us will need to learn to accompany. As we seek to accompany one another, what will result? I'm thinking it may be a orchestra!

Friday, October 3, 2014


It's homecoming week in my little town. I don't know how many people actually come home for it, or how many people ever left but it has a lovely ring to it: homecoming. In the midst of our local celebrations I've been thinking a lot about "homecoming":

This month marks the anniversary of the death of a friend who introduced me to another use of the word homecoming: the day they brought their adopted child home. Their family celebrated Homecoming Day with all the excitement most birthdays garner.

Another homecoming happened this week: a child of my former church, now 17, abducted by her non-custodial mother 12 years ago was found in Mexico and returned to Texas. It felt like a homecoming to all of us who have waited and prayed these last 12 years, but to her it must feel as if she has been torn from her home.

Resurrection returned from its summer break and the haunting melody of its theme song adds a bit of melancholy background music to my week. Searching for the source of the theme song I found this video of the song. It's called Coming Home, Part 2, which led me to another kind of homecoming: the soldiers.

The homecoming experiences of returning soldiers must be as myriad as their service experiences; none of them are coming home unchanged. Is it still home when you are different?

Just over a week ago I "virtually" celebrated the homecoming of a friend who had a brain tumor removed. She's not home free, but she's home from the hospital and healing.

When I went to my high school class reunion this summer another reality set in - most of us had no home there any longer. Parents had moved away, passed away, or were infirm and cared for at the "nursing home". The houses we lived in back then were occupied by others, or standing empty.

Though it clearly dates me, and kind of embarrasses me, I have always resonated with the poetry of John Denver's Rocky Mountain High: 
"He was born in the summer of his twenty-seventh year,
Coming home, to a place he'd never been before.
Left yesterday behind him,
You might say he was born again.
Might say he'd found the key to every door."
Home is the place where we have the keys. The place where we know the rules, and where things are kept, and what the idioms and the silences mean; a place where we understand the values and the context. Sometimes home is a place we recognize, even if it's a place we've never been before.

Throughout my life, church has been home. Though my childhood was spent moving from place to place, church remained familiar. Though the buildings, the liturgies, the preachers and the hymns changed, God the source of all that is home remains. Wherever I find myself, church is coming home to a place I've never been before, and one I've never left.

I no longer live where my children grew up, but they have homes of their own, and church homes where they belong. My mother hasn't lived anywhere that I ever lived for over 35 years. When my daughters visit me, or I visit my mother, we are not coming home, but when we worship together we are at home, with God: our true home.

Where is your homecoming?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Blind Spots

This past Sunday the children at my church learned the story of Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors. One part of this story has always left me perplexed: what was Jacob thinking, giving a fancy coat to one and not to the others?! What an extraordinary parenting gaffe! Especially given that Jacob himself was so beset by sibling rivalry that he stole his twin brother's birthright when they were young.

Unfortunately, even the best parents have blind spots. As a parent who is mostly looking in the rear view mirror these days, I can see that I probably over-shared with my children. I probably caused them to worry about things that I should have worried about alone, or with other adults. I was probably too straightforward in shooting down some of their dreams. I am also pretty sure that they told me about it while it was happening but I couldn't always see their point of view. I had parenting blind spots.

It's always easier to see other people's blind spots. I have watched parents do the same thing over and over, expecting it to work "this time." I have seen parents favoring one child, or one gender of child over the other, or conversely expecting more of one than the other.  I have seen parents live vicariously through their kids by pushing them into sports or music or even careers they wish they had had. I wonder what other people have watched me do.

I suspect that Reuben, or Dan, or one of the mothers told Jacob he was making a mistake by favoring Joseph over the others. Did they point out to the patriarch that he wasn't being fair? And did that parenting mistake imbue Joseph with the confidence he needed for the rest of his journey? Did that extra bit of love fill up his self-worth so that when his brothers later came to him in need he was able to be gracious and merciful? Jacob's blind spot caused his favorite son to be sold into slavery but it seems it may also have formed Joseph's character for a particular future.

Which brings me back to a familiar theme in my thinking: God can use evil (or failure or shortcoming or disappointment or mistakes) for good. I am not the final form-er of my child's character, an important one to be sure, but God is always present, with me and with my children.

So I can float on God's abiding presence for another day. I may have blind spots but God sees all. I can do my best, and leave the rest to God. What a wonderful way to travel through this river of parenthood!