Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Getting Creative with Bedtime Prayers

When I was a growing up, we had a rote prayer that we learned for mealtimes and a rote prayer that we learned for bedtimes.  These were both rattled off as quickly as possible, so much so that the meal-time prayer lost whole phrases over the course of time.  The bedtime prayer was a variation of the 'now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep' prayer but ours didn't include dying before we wake:
Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
And when I've slept all through the night,
To wake me with the morning light.
I haven't wanted to do that with Naomi.  She has ideas and thoughts of her own and actually seems eager - sometimes, anyway - to let God know what those are.  Although we've been nothing like consistent, we have tried various prayer practices at meals and bedtime.  Those have included reading (but not memorizing) short prayers like the one above from prayer books for children, sung prayers and graces, and praying aloud with Naomi to model what it means to pray extemporaneously.  

To help Naomi begin to do that, a couple years ago I started with a simple version of the prayer of examine: looking back through the day and thinking of the things to be thankful for and on the other side, for those things that we needed God for.  We've done something similar with what are our hopes and what are our fears.  Sometimes Naomi has the words to say those things and sometimes she can names things and I'll pray for her and with her.  This has been especially important when she does feel scared or worried about something.

Lately, at her initiation, we have been praying silently together and then we'll tell each other what we prayed for.  I kind of like this format of prayer because it allows me to pray intentionally for her and then tell her about it.  There are times, even though this was her suggested method, that she can't settle down enough to be quiet or she gets distracted by the book beside her or just can't think of anything.

This was the case last night.  In the past I've just said, 'If you don't know what to pray for or you don't have words, it's okay.  God knows our hearts and the Bible says that even when we don't have words, the Spirit prays inside us and for us.' (Rms 8:26ff)  I stand by that.  But we all have times when we can't settle down and having a tool to pray helps us.  For me that has been journalling, writing down in whatever fragments and pieces, longhand or point form, the things I'm feeling and longing for. 

Naomi is five and like any other average five-year-old still doesn't write beyond the letters of the alphabet and some basic words.  But she loves drawing.  So I had a brainwave.  I said, 'Why don't you draw what you're praying for and thankful for?'  This got her very excited.  She first drew a detailed picture of Jesus, complete with ten toes, arms wide open and the traditional sash. She then followed that with an image of me and her dad and a flower (but she explained that the flower was just a decoration, not a part of her prayer).  This may not be a new idea to anyone else, but to me it seemed like a revelation.

Being a very visual person myself, prayer is often easier to practice in imagery.  Although for me this is most often internal and imaginative, I was pleased that Naomi is embracing this method of expressing her prayers.  I'm curious to see where else it can take her, and I'm wishing I'd thought of it sooner.  Haven't psychologists have been using this method of communicating with children for ages?  It's in every crime drama featuring a victimized child.  Why not prayer?  It seems to me that in the same why that using sign language to ask for milk was a revelation for our non-verbal one-year-old, being able to communicate to and about God with images - even colors and shapes and scribbles - could be a really fun and meaningful way for non-writing or speaking children to connect to the Divine.

I pray that it may be so!

Here's the picture of Jesus that Naomi drew in her prayer

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Did Jesus Sin? A response to a question about Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman

Br. Robert Lentz, Iconographer
This past Sunday I told the story from Mark 7 about Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman who asked him to heal her disturbed daughter. One of the reasons that I love this story so much is that it defies expectations and I love it when the Bible does that. Jesus is caught with his guard down.

In my reflection on this text on Sunday I noted that Jesus is unkind and offensive to the woman who approaches him out of concern for his daughter. I was challenged afterward by a family who took my reflections on the story and Jesus’ interaction with the woman home with them and responded to me with their own reflections and a question:
“We go around saying that Jesus was without sin, but in this…it seems like he at the very least made a serious mistake and in my mind calling someone a dog is pretty close to sin. Do you have a way to reconcile this?” 
This is not the first time in history this question has been asked! Sharon Ringe writes about this story and she says that “It is hard to imagine why the church in any stage of its development would want to present the Christ it confesses in such a light!”*

Indeed, why did this story end up in the Bible at all? Along with others who have thought about this text, I think that the reason that this text made it into the cannon was not in Jesus’ initial retort, but in his response after he is challenged. In Jesus’ the context, the epithet ‘dog’ was common in Jewish circles with reference to Gentiles. A foreign, single, low-status woman would have had to have had quite a bit of chutzpah to approach a Jewish, male rabbi, even privately as she did. The last person we hear of who intercedes Jesus him on behalf of a child is Jairus, a high-stature religious leader who could make his request openly and in public and who could not be further from the opposite of this woman in position and stature. Jesus' retort calling the woman a ‘little dog’ could have simply a knee-jerk one based on his cultural and religious immersion. So in that case, no, to Jesus what he did was not sinful, it was in fact appropriate.

Another possibility is that Jesus was quoting that common knowledge to the woman – a test to see how she would respond. In a way saying, this is what people say about you ‘little dogs’ (wink, wink) which then allowed her the opportunity to empower herself. Based on my reading,that doesn’t fly with me. And neither these nor any other explanations of why he said what he did get around the fact that it was insulting and belittling. In Jesus’ context it may have been appropriate but even to Mark’s first readers it must have been unsettling. To us – to me – it is deeply so.

Blogger David Henson writes a powerful article about this text and racism. In our context, what Jesus says to the woman reeks of both racism and sexism. At this point in our history, I think that we would label both of those sinful both at a systematic and at a personal level. But when the woman takes what Jesus says she turns it on its head and she is also taking a common form in the gospel and turning that on its head. And in doing so she blows this whole thing wide open! Usually – in fact in every other case – when there is an argument or controversy, it is Jesus who is the challenger, responding to a hostile question or statement, it is Jesus who corrects and puts into place an opponent. Here, the woman gives Jesus pause. And in his response he does an amazing thing and escapes those cultural and religious biases and listened to her. Henson says, 
“Jesus is astounded, the holy wind knocked out of him. A moment before, she was but a dog to him. In the next, the scales fall from his eyes as he listens to her and sees her for what she truly is, a woman of great faith, a moral exemplar, his teacher.

Jesus does the most difficult thing for those of us born into the unfortunate privilege of dominance or prejudice. He listens. And allows himself to be fundamentally changed.” 
Sin or no, Jesus does what is so hard for all of us sinners. He opens himself to the other and to the Spirit’s work in him and through her. That is the miracle and the example Jesus offers to us, his followers. Jesus the human transcends his nature (our nature!) and the boundaries that humans create between each other.
*Sharon H Ringe, “A Gentile Woman’s Story” in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Letty Russell, ed. 1985: Westminster Press,Philadelphia PA, pp 65-72.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

God Loves People with Guns

The current issue of Geez magazine is all about stereotypes.  What kinds of assumptions do we make about people based on gender, skin tone, age, country of origin, religious affiliation?  The magazine examines all these and more.  The first piece in the magazine is a list of 'Contradictions: 10 stereotypes held by one of more Geez editors.'  Number 4 reads as follows, "People who regularly read the Bible are unredemptively lost to a conservative worldview that oppresses everybody, including themselves. Of course, Jesus loves them anyway." This made me chuckle and Naomi asked me what I was laughing at so I read it out loud.  

I’m sure she didn’t even understand half of those words, but she said, “Really?” 

So, I answered in all seriousness, “Yes, of course.  Jesus loves everyone.”

She looked at me skeptically.  “Does Jesus even love people with guns?” 

Busted.  We’ve worked pretty intentionally at talking about how guns hurt people, about how Jesus wants us to be peacemakers, about being a family that doesn't even play at or pretend to hurt or kill.  I thought that we’d also talked about God’s love for everyone, even the person who hurts others or does bad things.  But it seems that in all our intentionality with teaching peace, we neglected to teach about God’s forgiveness and expansive grace.

“You know that song we sing sometimes, ‘God’s love is for everybody?’” I sang the chorus.  Naomi nodded.  “Well, that’s what it’s about.  God loves people everywhere, all over the world, no matter what they’re like.  Even if they do bad things.  Even people with guns.  Doing a bad thing doesn’t make you a bad person – you’re still God’s child.”

Naomi was making an assumption – one that we had taught her – that people with guns are unlovable and that Jesus wants nothing to do with them.  The Gospel is different than that.  Peacemakers are indeed blessed, but Jesus doesn’t turn anyone away – his healing is for the daughter of a soldier as much as for the child of a temple leader.  Not to say he doesn't have critiques and biases himself (see Mark 7) but his arms are open to for everyone, 'Atheist and charlatans and communists and lesbians and even old Pat Robertson, God loves us all.  Catholic or Protestant, terrorist or president, everybody!'  God is love.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Detectives of Divinity Easter 6 - John 15:13-17

Props: Detective gear, picture of sculpture of a heart, a picture of friends and/or a friendship bracelet, a couple of kinds of fruit.

·         Remind the children that when we don’t have Jesus with us, we need to look for clues about God in other places – today I’m looking at clues from something Jesus said
·         John 15 gives us clues about what our relationship to God is like
·         Put on detective gear and look at clues together:
o   the first clue: friendship bracelet and picture of friends – Ask the kids if they know what kind of bracelet this is?  Has anyone made one?  Jesus said that he doesn’t call us servants.  Instead he calls us friends.  Can you think of someone who is your friend?  You tell each other everything.  You love each other.  You spend lots of time together.  You pick your friends – it’s not like family where you have no choice.  Jesus chose us to be his friends.
o   the second clue: fruit – Jesus said that when he chose us, and when we become friends with him, we will bear fruit.  Do you think he means fruit like this apple?  Or this orange?  Do you remember the song you learned from Bryan about the fruit of the Spirit?  (sing) “The fruit of the spirit is love… joy…peace” (patience, kindness, generosity,faithfulness, gentleness, self-control)That is the kind of fruit that we can learn when we practice being friends with Jesus and with each other.
o   the third clue: heart – what do hearts usually mean?  LOVE.  One of the most important fruits of the Spirit is love.  If we keep choosing to be friends with each other, and with other people, we will keep practicing love.  And love isn’t always just a feeling, it’s doing all the hard things, like being patient, and kind and generous and faithful…all those other fruits that we sing about .  It’s a choice.  But even when we don’t do it so well, Jesus loves us so much and we can count on that always. 
·         This week’s clues are hard…it’s hard to know how to act, or be or what to do when Jesus isn’t right here telling us.  So, just like always we need to look to each other and count on our friends to help us.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Detective of Divinity - Easter 4 Children's Story – The Good Shepherd

John 10:11-18 – The Good Shepherd
Props: Detective Gear, sheep, staff and shepherd for evidence box

·         Recall with the children the ways that we’ve looked for clues about Jesus in past weeks – we’ve always had Jesus right there as the biggest clue
·         Today we’re looking for clues about Jesus and what he’s like – and about what God is like – in a story that Jesus tells (these clues might be very familiar if you’ve spent time in the Atrium)
·         Put on detective gear and look at the clues together:
o   the first clue: sheep – what do we know about sheep?  They really need someone to take care of them.  They’re not very smart.  They run around in packs – herds – with other sheep.  They’re vulnerable – that means they can’t protect themselves.
o   the second clue: shepherd’s staff – one way to protect them.  Hook them out of the way, scare away mean animals like the big bad wolf, guide them all together
o   the third clue: shepherd – biggest clue – the one who cares for all the sheep, keeps them safe, knows each of their names and calls to them, they all know his name too and know to follow
·         The story about the Good Shepherd was Jesus’ clue to how much he loves and wants to protect us and care for us.  A clue to how special we each are to God.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Detective of Divinity: Easter 3 Children's Story

This story is actually the one that directly precedes this weeks lectionary reading. But we've had one Jesus-revealed-in-a-locked-room story already, I thought I'd do a prequel of sorts. In our service we'll do the children's story right before the Gospel reading.
Luke 24:13-35 – On the Emmaus Road
props: detective hat, coat and magnifying glass, evidence box, Jesus figure, Bible or scroll, bread
· remind the children of the story of Jesus appearing Mary and then to the disciples – Mary didn’t recognize him right away and his friend Thomas needed to touch him before he believed that Jesus was alive
· recap or read the story of the Emmaus road from Luke 24:35
· Put on the detective gear and tell the children: Now it’s time to look at the clues! Let’s be witnesses!
· Look at the clues in the evidence box
o the first clue: Jesus himself – but the disciples didn’t recognize him – just like Mary didn’t recognize him at first – they weren’t expecting to see him – sometimes we don’t recognize people out of context, like when we see our teacher at the supermarket
o the second clue: scripture – Jesus talked with the disciples about how scriptures told of God’s love for the whole world and about how he – Jesus would die but be alive again (they still didn’t get it)
o the third clue: bread – break the bread as for Communion and ask the children where they’ve seen that gesture before. The disciples had seen Jesus do that too. They might have eaten with him many times, finally they recognized him.
· Say: Even though we don’t see Jesus with us, the way the disciples did, one of the ways we experience God’s love is through eating together, through caring for people who don’t have enough to eat and accepting the good food that people offer us – in each other’s homes, here at church, on picnics.
· Say: When the disciples finally recognized Jesus, he disappeared, but that didn’t stop them from running all the way back to Jerusalem to tell all of their friends, Jesus is alive!!
· Say: If you listen carefully to the next story when it’s read, you’ll hear about Jesus eating with his friends again. (Luke 24:36-48, the scripture reading for this Sunday)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Detective of Divinity: Easter 2 Children's Story (Lectionary Year B)

John 20:19-31

trench coat, detective hat, magnifying glass, box for evidence, small model or picture of a door, empty jar for ‘breath’, figure of Jesus with marked hands and feet or picture of hand and feet or picture of Thomas touching Jesus like the one above

  • Ask children if they remember the story from last week. Remind children about what it means to be a witness and about how Mary was a witness to Jesus.
  • Put on costume props and invite the children again to be witnesses and look at the clues together.
  • Talk about the disciples who were not yet witnesses.
  • Look at the clues in the evidence box:
  1. the first clue: a door – the door was locked because the disciples were afraid that they would be associated with Jesus. Jesus was killed and maybe they would be in danger too. But Jesus got into the room even though the door was locked tight
  2. the second clue – Jesus! The hand and feet of Jesus were scarred. The disciples could see that it was him, the man who had been badly hurt and killed – he’s alive!
  3. the breath in a jar – Jesus breathed on them – a dead person can’t breathe! And he told them that it was his Spirit
  • Say: “Thomas had to see all of these things to believe that Jesus was alive. Just like Mary didn’t believe it until she heard Jesus say her name.”
  • Say: “Jesus told Thomas that his disciples might need to believe even though they don’t see – which means we need to look for clues to Jesus in the stories we hear, in the way we see people acting, in the love we feel”
  • Pray: “God, help me to see the way you and your Spirit are with me always. Amen.”

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Detective of Divinity: Easter Sunday Children's Story (Lectionary Year B)

Through this season of Easter, our congregation is worshiping with the theme "Witness to the Light" based on the numbers of times in Acts and John people are named as witnesses to Christ's ministry, his death and his resurrection. They see and tell. Usually we have the benefit of using Leader magazine's resources but since this year they didn't publish Easter materials, I was tasked with coming up with my own Children's Story for the worship series.

I was somewhat inspired by Bryan Moyer Suderman's newest album Detectives of Divinity to think about the ways that the biblical witnesses have the clues set before them...and how we do too. So the first Sunday of Easter, I'm starting with Mary Magdalene, witness to the risen Jesus, and having the kids help me look for the clues she found that he was alive.

I'll post the story every week until Pentecost.

Easter Sunday – John 20:1-18

props: trench coat, detective hat, magnifying glass, box for evidence, stone, bandages, figure of Jesus

· Ask if children know what it means to be a witness

o meaning one: to see something with your own eyes

o meaning two: to tell about what you’ve seen

· Often the word ‘witness’ in association with police or detective or the courtroom – like being on the ‘witness stand’ when a witness tells about the crime that they saw.

· Put on costume props and say “Today I’m going to be a detective and you are going to be the witnesses and together we’re going to look for the clues that Jesus is alive – just like in the story from John 20”

o the first clue: a rock – Mary saw the rock rolled away and that was her first clue that Jesus was missing. Talk about where there was a stone out of place in the story.

o the second clue: the cloths that wrapped Jesus’ head and hands – these were left in the tomb but the body wasn’t there. Talk about what the cloths were for and the disciples who saw them.

o the third clue: Jesus himself – Mary thought he was the gardener but she learned that it was Jesus himself. Talk about Jesus’ conversation with Mary.

· Ask: “What did Mary do when she figured out all the clues?” She was a witness who witnessed; she went and told her friends what she had seen: ‘Jesus is alive!’

· Say: “Even though we don’t see Jesus, we do have clues that God is at work in our lives: in the Bible, in the love we feel and receive from our friends and family, in the stories we hear at church and in Sunday school, and in many other way. We just need to keep looking.”

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Illness and Wholeness and Jesus

I've been reading a lot about Jesus healing people this week, as I prepare for a sermon on Mark 1:29-39. This is the story of Jesus healing Simon's mother-in-law, falls directly on the heels of the story of how he cast an evil spirit from a man in the synagogue and in the same day at sunset healed crowds of people who gathered at his door after hearing about the two miracles above.

I have heard many commentators talk about how healing people of their diseases not only healed their physical ailments but also restored them to their place within family and society. No longer are they outcasts, but whole members of society. I myself have preached something similar - I remember a particular sermon about the woman with the hemorrhage in Mark 5:25-34 which had those kinds of overtones.

A preaching blogger, Sarah Heinrich said this:

...illness bore a heavy social cost: not only would a person be unable to earn a living or contribute to the well-being of a household, but their ability to take their proper role in the community, to be honored as a valuable member of a household, town, or village, would be taken from them. Peter's mother-in-law is an excellent case in point. It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home. Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world. Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever. It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.

I suppose all of this is true, but these days there is something about that which does not sit quite right, especially as I consider preaching this message in a contemporary context. It is equally true now as then that illness and disease cuts people off from their callings and roles. it is equally true that people with illnesses - whether they be mental or physical - struggle with questions of identity, self and relationship to community, when they are unable to fulfill what has been set before them because of their illnesses.

Another blogger, Brian Stoffregen, asked this question:
How do we proclaim Jesus' power to heal that takes seriously both these biblical passages of healing and the present reality that mental and physical ailments are not usually instantly removed through prayer and evoking Jesus' name and power over the ailments?
Exactly! We do not (usually) have the miracle of healing available to us and yet I believe that the text still has power because of how Jesus responded to people who came to him in their illness. It is important that he did respond. Although in their communities, these individuals may not have had value, may have been untouchable, to Jesus their value was still clear and obvious. Simon's mother may not have been able to serve and care for her family and guests, as previously had been her role and perhaps even her calling. But she was still of immeasurable value, perhaps of even more value, as Jesus attended to her in a special way.

In life and ministry I have encountered or been in relationship with several individuals who have seen terminal illnesses or mental illness interfere with their ability to fulfill their passions and callings. These same illnesses often are isolating, cutting off persons who struggle with them from their communities and friends, making them unable to reach or or take initiative. It is incredibly painful to live with a longing for relationship and the living out of calling and to be trapped in a body that prevents it.

Fortunately we have the clear perspective of history. We, who are Jesus disciples now, are called to restore or maintain the ill person’s role in community. Unlike the crowds and the families of lepers and diseased persons in Jesus' milieu, we can see the value in friend and stranger whose illness can be a dividing wall. We are not able to perform miracles, but we can offer the gift of time and presence. We can offer the intentionality of looking through the eyes of Christ instead of the eyes of the crowd.