Thursday, February 20, 2020

Fertile Soil and Growing Light

In these clear, bright days I have been extra attuned to the beauty of the growing light. We're about to enter the season of Lent. Like Advent it's a season of anticipation. But unlike Advent which heads steadily into darkness, Lent anticipates new life and the light grows. It is also a time of waiting readiness. Under the dark soil, seeds are being germinated and prepared, inside the buds, trees ready themselves to bloom.

In worship this season, we're using the theme "I want to see," acknowledging the difficulty in following through on Jesus' message and the gap in our understanding of what we're really supposed to do as disciples. As the adults in the lives of young people we're not only trying to be disciples ourselves, we have this extra responsibility (if we take it on) of bringing the kids in our lives along on the Jesus road. During the time of growing light, we're praying that the light may grow in us too. During this time of fertile germination, we pray that moments of clarity might bloom.

I wonder Lent gives us some opportunities for introducing faith formation practices into our homes and to our children. Seasonal practices can be times to say, "Let's try this thing for a few weeks as we wait for Easter." I know lots of adults who give something up for Lent - the practice of fasting intended to make space in our spirit for a depth of connection with our Creator. But giving up food isn't necessarily going to be a fruitful practice for a little one - or for a family to practice together.

Last year for a time I tried prayer cards with dinner prayers and psalms. It worked for awhile until the cards became a source of conflict - who gets to pick the card, which color we'd read, etc. This year I'm going to try again with beloved Bible texts - especially prophetic and hope-filled verses that have helped me to remember the coming newness of life, and which I hope my children will also learn to know.

Here are a few other suggestions for practices for Lent. Maybe some of them will resonate or be adaptable for your family.

Reading together: In her book Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents, Wendy Claire Barrie suggests a family read-aloud, choosing a book with spiritual resonance like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or A Wrinkle in Time. I remember my mind being blown as a pre-teen when I began to see the Biblical story in the story of Aslan and the Pevensies in C.S. Lewis's book.

Planting Seeds: If you're a gardener who starts their own seeds, now is a great time to start plants and to use that opportunity to talk about new life. Lacy Finn Borgo and Ben Barczi in Good Dirt: Lent, Holy Week and Eastertide suggest planting a seed next to the side of a clear cup, so that you can see the roots grow and change. Each time the seeds is watered and observed is a time to remember the way we are 'watered' and nurtured through a relationship with God.

Grow a Butterfly: Borgo and Barczi also suggest ordering a butterfly kit to see the growth and transformation of caterpillar to butterfly in real time. A butterfly emerging from a cocoon is a beautiful way to draw a parallel to the coming story of Easter and resurrection. This seems like a very cool project and I think I'm going to try it! The authors suggest Carolina Biological Supply but I'm sure there are plenty of other suppliers if you Google.

Collecting an offering: Almsgiving (along with fasting and prayer) is one of the 'Three Pillars of Lent' A Catholic family I know keeps a collection box on their table which they fill through the season for a church relief organization. As a family you could choose either a local organization or food bank or an international organization like Mennonite Central Committee to collect for. Keep talking about why you're collecting and include them in your prayer if you pray together at meals.

I hope that whatever you decide to do (or not do!) during this coming season, you and your family will be filled with God's Spirit.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Trans-ness of God

Every year as I prepare for Transfiguration Sunday I remember a couple of conversations that I had with then 3-year-old Naomi about the identity of God.  At the time, she told me she didn't like God because God is a boy.  But also that when she pictured God, she imagined a cloud.  I still sigh at how insidious the notion of maleness is to God's identity that even when you grow up in a home and attend a church that's pretty intentional about being neutral with names and pronouns, you get the picture that God is a "boy."  

I think of those conversations because they happened right around this time of year - Transfiguration Sunday - and because of how the vision of God as a cloud was so surprisingly right on the nose to the story of God's appearance to Jesus and the disciples, though Naomi had not heard the story before.  She came up with that on her own.

A decade ago, I explained God to Naomi as both boy and girl.  In my evolving understanding of gender I think I would shake the binary or either or and now say God is all and neither.  Or at least try to be a little more expansive. No one's gender needs to be one or the other and can even change.  Theresa Thorn does a great job of explaining the gender identity and fluidity in her picture book for children called It Feels Good To Be Yourself.  I wish I'd had her book when my child was making determinations about gender categories.

The Transfiguration is perfect story in which to dwell on the trans-ness of the Divine.  Not only does Jesus transfigure to a different and mysterious and brilliant form (maybe his true form?), even in his ministry writ large, he transgresses gender norms.  He is a tender healer, compassionate companion.  He is very close with women who are not his family members.  And in the Transfiguration story God's appearance is as a-gender light and cloud.

Not too long ago I prefaced a sermon by saying that I'd be using 'they/them' pronouns for God throughout.  Even though it still takes some practice, I feel pretty comfortable with using they and them as gender-neutral pronouns for people. But I am for some reason still having trouble in my own head with they and them for God.  Even though it makes so much sense biblically and theologically (God is one but also three, God's names imply an identity that is many-gendered and multi-faceted, God identifies themself as 'we' in Genesis 1).  I am chagrined to say that as much as I try to be intentional when I speak, 'He' still rolls off my brain more easily.

This passage calls on me - and all of us - to be trans-formed, transfigured, trans-aware.  Calls on me to be more active in the way I engage conversations about gender and pronouns for people and for God, so that we aren't left with the impression, by cultural default that God is a "boy". The transfiguration story is an opening.  Jesus' disciples are opened to a vision of the Divine.  Our eyes can be opened too.  Our image of the Divine surely informs our image of people, who are the carriers and reflection of God themself.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Faithful Parenting: Hopeful or Terrifying?

As I'm thinking about family faith formation, and meeting with many of you who live in households with children, I've been casting back to the work of Christian Smith, who's research over a decade ago showed that adolescents overwhelmingly mirror the religiosity of their parents. At that time he coined the term "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" (MTD) to describe what he saw as a kind of functional religion he saw in many of the teens that he interviewed. It can be briefly summed up as a belief that a creator God exists who wants people to be good and nice and good people will go to heaven. There's no need for God to be involved in one’s life except if there's a particular problem. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. Smith reflects in an interview at Crux, "there is obviously no Jesus here, no Gospel here, no transformation here. It is all about behaving well and feeling happy." He comes from a Catholic background but from a Mennonite perspective, there's also no discipleship, no justice, no servanthood. 

Recently Smith's current research and his book, Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America has shifted away from the teens, who are absorbing MTD from what they observe in their parents, to the parents themselves. In the short interview with Smith, he talks about the just how parents can effectively create an environment and relationship that fosters faith formation in their children. I was particularly struck by this:
"Absolutely essential [is that] parents need to talk with their children about religion, not just once a week but regularly, during the week. Talking or not talking with children about religious matters during the week is one of the most powerful mechanisms for the success or failure of religious transmission to children. When parents never or rarely talk about their religion in personal terms, that sends a strong message to their kids that it’s really not that important."
I think this was especially resonant because I talked last week about modeling a life of faith and discipleship. Smith notes that practices alone are not enough. We also need to talk about the whys and hows of what we do when we go to church, pray, read scripture, gather in community, serve our neighbours and seek equity and justice. This, of course means figuring out for ourselves why we do it!

It is both terrifying and comforting to realize that our kids' formation is in our hands. I'm looking forward to reading Smith's book and (hopefully) feeling empowered to faith formation in my own family, and to pass along tools and information to y'all.

Walking in the Way of Jesus...Together

A number of years ago Discipleship Council discerned priorities for ministry with children and youth and their families, inspired by the pledge that we as a congregation make to parents when families welcome children into their homes and into the church. I know not all of you parents or caregivers we here in our congregation when your child came into the world, but the promise extends to all children in our congregation. We covenant and pledge with their families “to walking in the Way of Jesus; living lives of justice, peace, and loving these children as beloveds of God, and prayerfully supporting these parents." Not just the kids, YOU, the ones who care for them.

Priorities two and three are about calling out the gifts off young people and building intergenerational connections. But priority number one is Christ-centered spiritual formation for children, youth and their families. I'm interested in learning more about how the congregation - and I as a leader - can be a resource. I'd like to learn what's already going well, and where you need support. What are the questions you have for your own spiritual life that would help you feel more confident as a role model and teacher in disciple-ing your children.

Children learn both by what we tell them and because they notice and mirror the adults in their lives. It's why we try to have healthy eating habits, model the behavior want our kids to learn, keep our potty mouths shut (just me?). Kids of people who read tend to be readers. Parents who are physically active have kids who move their bodies more. Developing a life of faith is no different. Kids pick up the habits and learn from what we do and say individually and together as a family.

In the next few weeks I will be contacting families to set up conversations about your own priorities and hopes for your children. Through these conversation I hope to learn how to best be a resource for developing language and the practices for kids and their adults as we seek together to follow the way of Jesus. I look forward to talking to you!

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash