Praying by Name for School Teachers and Staff

On Sunday my congregation prayed for the teachers and staff of our community’s schools. We prayed for them by name – over 100 of them.

I asked each student in my church to make a list of their teachers and their school staff – office staff, cafeteria staff, maintenance staff, etc.. To help them with this task, we had an online form on our website that families could use to submit names. We also had a My School Prayer Worksheet kids could download, complete, and bring to church. We also had blank forms at church that many kids filled out that morning.

The prayer took place during the Children’s Message, and also included a Blessing of the Backpacks (a “back to school” theme for the Children’s Message). I spoke briefly with the kids about the good and holy things they are doing at school, and the people whose holy work it is to care for them and help them learn.

After thanking God for all who care for our children and help them grow and learn, I read all the names that were given to me. It was a bit ridiculous, and it took some time to read the 100+ names (which I tried to do with speed yet also with dignity), but it was so worth it. Praying by name for our teachers and school staff was a powerful experience, and a very vivid reminder of all the people in our community who are committed to the care and education of our children. One member of the church commented that it was great not only to pray for her kids’ current teachers, but to pray for teachers her children had in previous years whose names were submitted by younger children in the congregation.

At the end of the prayer the congregation cheered and let out an enthusiastic applause. It may have been a cheer of relief at the end of such a long prayer … but I’m much more inclined to think that the congregation was truly joy-filled by naming in prayer so many teachers and caregivers whose vocation it is to nurture our children in learning and growth. Such people truly merit not only our prayers but also our cheers. I’m glad we did both.

11870924_10206321051079286_7337353756989982197_nAfter the Children’s Message and prayer, I spread the prayer sheets over the altar. Those names were there as I preached (yes, I preach from the altar), led the Prayers of Intercession, and as I presided at Holy Communion. It was particularly powerful for me – and I shared this observation with the congregation – to prepare to serve the food and drink of the Lord’s Supper as the names of cafeteria workers graced the altar. Holy Food. Holy People. Holy Callings.

It was a good Sunday, and an experience I’ll certainly do again in the future.

“That was fun. Are we doing it again next week?”

This past Sunday the children of our congregation gathered toward the end of the worship service to bless the Sunday School teachers, who were being installed as part of our Rally Day celebrations. After the blessing, we gave the kids tambourines, shakers, and maracas, and they led us out of the church as the whole congregation sang, "We Are Marching in the Light of God." It was very nice way to start the Sunday School year, and a great way to celebrate the ministry of children in our congregation.

Later that evening, my 5 year-old daughter said to me, "Daddy, that was fun, playing with the maracas in church. Are we doing it again next week?" We were not planning on doing it again, of course, but her question got me thinking about consistency in worship. Kids get routine. In fact, they need routine. Preschool and elementary school teachers know that routine is essential in creating a learning and nurturing environment for children.

Many years ago I wrote about the importance of routine in worship, with a blogpost entited "Variable (or Vagarious?) Liturgical Texts." I do believe that we are formed in life and faith through repeated action. This is especially true for children. How can we offer a consistent, patterned, and participatory environment for children in worship? Children's sermons are good, but are often a passive experience for children. Assisting with communion might be appropriate for one or two children, as would be serving as a lay reader, but these are not ways to include most of the kids most of the time.

However it is done, I believe that weekly worship should include a regular element that actively includes children in doing something they are capable of doing, and which engages them in some sort of repeated, ritual action. It might be a song that is sung weekly, becoming familiar and allowing even non-reading children to fully participate. It might be a liturgical gesture or action, such as the procession we did this past Sunday, that kids can perform week after week. Whatever it is, a repeated action gives our kids something familiar to do, a chance to develop comfort and even expertise at performing an act of worship, and thus allows them to feel more "at home" and at ease with the worship life of the church.

Kneeling During Lent

On Sunday at the closing of our Sunday School ministry – a gathering of all the children's Sunday School classes we call "Closing Devotion" – I talked with the kids about bending down. It was the First Sunday in Lent, and I used this ocassion to talk about what our Lord Jesus does in relationship to us: namely, to bend down to be with us where we're at, in our struggles and our suffering, in our lonliness and our sadness. Thus, rather than use the "we journey with Jesus" metaphor for Lent, I turned it around, and shared with the kids that during Lent we remember that Jesus walks with us and comes to us.

As an example, I had all of the children gather in a large circle in our Parish Hall. I asked one of our Confirmation Ministry students to come into the middle of the circle, and to fall down, as if injured. I then ran to the other side of the room, far from the "injured" youth, and asked her, "How are you doing? Can I help you? Gosh, you look hurt!" Then I asked the children, "is this a good way to help her?" Of course, the kids responded that it was not. So I walked half the distance closer to her, but still 15 feet from her, and repeated the charade. And of course, the kids saw right through it.

Finally, I came to her and knelt down next to her, asked her how she was doing, and offered assistance. Then I turned to the kids and asked if that was a better way to help her, to which they responded enthusiastically, "Yes!"

I then explained that this is how Jesus works. He isn't far off but rather comes to us, bends down to be with us, and is alongside us in our pain and struggle. I rattled off a number of situations in which I hope the children would take comfort knowing that Jesus is near them – when they have nightmares, when they get scraed, when they get hurt, etc. etc..

Then I had them kneel, all of them. I asked them what we can do when we kneel. Several said that we can pray. A few others said that we can help people when they're down. Pray and help. Pretty good things.

We talked about all those people who were knocked down, literally, by the tsunami in Japan, and how there are rescue workers who, like Jesus, are bending down to help those who have been beaten down.

After I was done with the message the kids stood up and sang a song, and we shared some announcements. But when it was time for our prayers, I invited the kids to kneel once more. There was some groaning, of course, but I think that kneeling hightened their focus. When I asked "for what shall we pray," several hands went up with great suggestions – more than usual – from "the sick" to "the people of Japan" to "peace in the Middle East" to others.

During Lent our children will be kneeling during prayer, to remember that our Lord comes to us when we're feeling low, and to form us, through a posture of prayer, for lives of bending down to reach out to those who have been knocked down by suffering.

The Gift of Worshiping with my Family

I'm a pastor.  I wear the funny shirt, the robe, the stoles.  I say the P parts of the liturgy.  I sit up front.  And I love it.

But one thing I don't love so much is that I no longer sit alongside my wife and children in worship.  Before I was ordained, I loved worshiping with my children. Yet I no longer worship alongside them, hold worship books for them, whisper instructions to them, or help them with their Bible story coloring sheet.  I do enjoy seeing their faces as they worship from my seat up front, and I cherish the opportunity to declare the forgiveness of their sins, and to place the sacrament in their hands.  But still … I'm no longer there, by their side, holding them, whispering to them, coloring with them.

Tonight I received a special gift as I attended my wife's cousin's wedding (yes, a wedding scheduled on the Monday after Christmas!).  There we were, Mommy, Daddy, and our two daughters sitting in the pew together (Naaman, our two year-old son, was more than glad to romp around in the nursery.  We were more than glad to let him!).  I held my 3 year-old up high so she could see the pastor's gestures as he said the Words of Institution.  I took her to the bathroom during the Prayers of the Church.  I struggled to hold a hymnal as I held her in my arms.  Yes, by doing these things, I wasn't tuned into every moment of the liturgy.  But I was participating and praying with my children, gathering with them around the table and at the foot of the cross, held with them within the Body of Christ and surrounded by the sights and sounds of God's people at worship.  It was a beautiful thing.

And so tonight I am grateful for this wonderful Christmas gift – the gift to worship as a family. I wouldn't give up my job for anything.  I love what I do.  But I also love when I get the chance to worship alongside my wife and children.  Thank you, Ben and Marissa, for getting married this evening.  You've given me a wonderful gift!

Blessings to Ben and Marissa, and to all in this Christmas season.

After the Children’s Bible, what?

I love children's Bibles, particularly the Augsburg Fortress Spark Story Bible and the American Bible Society's Read and Learn Bible.  Children's Bibles put the stories of faith into words and pictures in a way that makes them accessible to children, allowing children to grow familiar with Noah and Moses, Jesus and the disciples, and the God whose love is shared through these figures.0806670495h

One of the great things about a children's Bible is that you can open it up at bedtime or story time, to any page, and can't go wrong.  The stories have been selected and presented in a way that will make sense to our children and (perhaps just as importantly) to the adult who is reading with them.

But what happens in 3rd or 4th grade, when the child is presented with a NIV or NRSV Bible?  Even if it is a "youth" Bible, complete with notes and charts and pictures geared toward the upper elementary age level, it is fundamentally different than the children's Bible in that it contains the whole Biblical text.  You can't open the Spark Story Bible and find a long passage from Numbers detailing how the Israelites are organized through their wilderness journey, but you can in the NIV.  You can't open the Read and Learn Bible and find a story detailing God's vengeance, but you can in the NRSV.  That is, what children (and the adults who read to them) learn with a children's Bible is that you can pick up the Bible and read it, and it will generally make sense, because the stories have been pre-selected.  In a full-translation Bible that is just not the case.

And besides the story-selection that takes place within the pages of a children's Bible, the stories themselves are presented in accessible language and with engaging illustrations.  But even the better "youth" Bibles are still full of pages that have nothing but columns of black text – something you don't even see in their textbooks at school!  The NRSV Bible is written at an 8th or 9th grade reading level … and we give it to 3rd graders?  But it is more than an issue of translation or graphical presentation.  Do we really expect our 3rd graders to be able to deal with Judges 19

Is the answer perhaps to create a story Bible that, like the children's Bible, is a selection of Bible stories engagingly presented in paraphrase and with illustrations?  Such a Bible (or, better put, a book of Bible stories) would include a wider selection of stories than the children's Bible, a selection that reflects the abilities of upper elementary youth to comprehend and engage the Biblical account.

And finally, when we present Bibles to our mid/upper elementary children, do we give them and their parents a way to read the Bible?  Do we help them find the passages and stories that are age-appropriate, or give them tools to work through some of the tougher passages?

These are some of the questions I'm wrestling with as I think about the faith formation of children and families, and the importance of making faith-exploration accessible in the home.  Even our most dedicated children and families will miss several Sundays per year of worship and Sunday school, ministries which at most offer about 100 contact hours per year (in comparison, our children get 100 contact hours at school every 2.5 weeks).  Because Sunday morning cannot be the only opportunity for intentional faith formation, we need to not only create ministries of fellowship and formation outside of Sunday morning, but also place in the hands of our parents and children resources they can use during the week to nurture faith and grow into the promises of the Gospel.