For the first time, I have uploaded some audio files to the blog!  You can find them here, or by clicking on the link at the top labelled “Sarah’s other writing.”  Check them out!  The shortest is under five and a half minutes – the longest just over eight minutes.

I recorded these memories of my father for the Connections segment of Trinity Voices: a weekly radio broadcast recorded and produced by Jim Ayres for Trinity United Methodist Church in Durham, NC.  They aired on 4 consecutive Sunday mornings in December 2010.

On every other occasion when I had worked with Jim, I had written full manuscripts, barely deviating from them in the recording process.  But having just returned from a week with my dying father – knowing that I would not see him alive again (this side of the kingdom), I was too emotional to prepare anything.

Usually, Jim recorded in a classroom in the basement of the church, but it was a Sunday evening – the basement was being used by several other groups.  The quietest place in which to record was the sanctuary.  I arrived early and wrote a few notes – planned how the four recordings would work together as a series.  Jim wanted me to do something about gifts; all I could think about was my father.  We were not entirely sure how or why he was holding on to life.  I knew that Dad was going to die sometime before the recordings aired.  I sat alone in the darkening sanctuary, redolent with lingering prayers and dusty paraments, and I meditated on my father – on the gifts that he had given me, and on what that might reveal to listeners about God’s gifts to them.  Looking back, I was composing a hagiography – selecting out the saintly bits from my Dad’s relationship with me.  Nestled between the Feast of All Saints and my father’s own impending saint day, it was a season for selective re-membering:  for reassessing and reassembling my father’s life in a way that helped me make sense of my love for him, and the depth of my disorientation as he lingered on the threshold of earthly life.

I had preached or spoken from notes many times before that Sunday night, but never before had I spoken for so long with no more than a sentence fragment or two to guide me.  As far as I remember, Jim recorded these one after the other, in a continuous take.  It was the eulogy before the funeral – a better eulogy than the one that spilled out of me from the pulpit of Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church in Midlothian, Virginia less than a week later.

Jim had never given me a copy of a radio segment I had composed for him before – but without being asked he handed me two CDs with these recordings on it at the Thanksgiving Eve service that year – one for me and one for my mother.  I don’t know if she has ever listened to hers.  I only felt ready to listen to it for the first time today.  Today was the first day that I felt certain that listening to them would make my day better instead of worse.

I hope that in re-membering my father in this way – in piecing this collage portrait out of the best bits of him – that I did not commit an act of violence against those who remember him differently.  My Dad could be a difficult guy.  To say the least.  I was on the receiving end of some of that myself.  A lot of that, actually.

Instead it is my hope and prayer that in the last day, as we stand before Jesus our judge, that each one of us will be re-membered, re-assembled from all that was good and loving and true, and that all that was false and empty and fearful and underhanded will be swept away – tossed like chaff into an unquenchable fire.  Out of the best of who we were, so we will be.  My father as revealed in and through these four stories – this is how I will recognize him when we meet again in that kingdom which is coming.

Jesus who died will be satisfied

Today, I am publishing a (slightly revised version of a) post that I originally wrote almost two years ago for a youth Sunday School class at Trinity UMC in Durham, NC.  The book we were working with had a journalling component – and other activities for us to do on our own or in small groups during the week and then to discuss together in class on Sunday.

Yesterday, we were asked to select a favorite worship song to work with as part of our prayer time.   This is a nearly impossible task for me.   I love to sing, and I have been singing in worship since I was a preschooler with an unusually long attention span.  My Dad was a preacher, and I was a preacher, and for the past three years, my husband has been playing hymns on the piano at home almost every night.   I cannot count how many hymns about which I have excitedly whispered, “This is one of my favorites!” as the introduction was played – to the point that it became a running joke with my husband.

Very often, when I find myself unable to settle on a topic, I end up not doing the assignment at all. Guided meditations are the same way – “Think about one of your favorite places…”   By the time my mind has settled on something, the facilitator is 3 steps ahead of me, and I have no idea what I am supposed to be thinking about next!  Yesterday was no different.  I was so frustrated by the first step that I just set the assignment aside.

But today in the car, driving around with Hannah and feeling the need for some God centered time in the midst of a hectic week, I popped in Amy Grant’s Legacy…Hymns and Faith.  And I found myself right away singing along to “This is My Father’s World.”

I could spend a whole blog just talking about the many memories I have associated with this particular hymn, but I will restrict myself to one – to the day when the Twin Towers crumbled, and I walked with more than 100 other dazed first semester seminarians into Dr. Warren Smith’s introductory Church history class, and he opened class with this prayer:

This is My Father’s World, Oh let me never forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet.

The words were just what I needed to hear – and I could almost hear the collective exhale of myself and my classmates as we remembered where the real power in the world lies.  (Thanks, Dr. Smith, for being a pastor to your students – in that moment and in many others!)

The “assignment” in our book asks us to consider a particular portion of the song, and while you might expect me to chose those lines, I instead want to focus on the lines that follow it in the old Cokesbury hymnal:

This is my Father’s world, the battle is not done; Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one.

When I chose the hymn to sing with the congregations I was serving in southeastern Virginia, I used this version, because I preferred those last lines to the ones that are more familiar to most folks – the last lines that are in the United Methodist Hymnal, the last lines that I sang along with Amy Grant this morning.

{As an aside – I decided to investigate which lines were the more authentic, and it turns out that the author didn’t write them as a hymn at all, but as a 16 stanza poem, with each stanza beginning with the words “This is my Father’s world” – so each verse of the 3 verse hymn we sing today is actually 2 stanzas of the original poem.  The lines I quoted above are the next to the last stanza of  the poem.  The lines that replace them in the UMHymnal are found in the last stanza.}

So – to get back to the curriculum – we were asked to consider what the words we chose teach us about God’s love.  It certainly helps me to consider that the world as it is is not what God intended for us.  Heaven and earth are not yet one – they will be one.  We are in the midst of a battle that is not done.  But Jesus’ love for us points towards the inevitable end that is a new beginning – heaven and earth will be one!  This is profoundly good news, and indicates how much God loves us and all creation!

What is one of your favorite hymns?  What does it say to you about God’s love?  Does it help you imagine how you might share the joy of that love with others?

The Six Essentials for Preaching to Children – If you must do children’s sermons, here’s how

A few entries back, I mentioned that there were certain parameters within which a children’s sermon might operate – and outside of which it might do real harm.  These are the essentials of a grace-infused children’s sermon, from my point of view.  If you want to proclaim the good news to children, whether through a children’s sermon or in other ways, these six points need to be considered.  I would welcome discussion of these points – or your own additional points! – in the comments.

1) Love the children
This sounds obvious, but it gets overlooked too often. This is the starting place. God loves children. As Christians, we are called to love all who God loves, and that includes children. We are not to fetishize them or worship them or relegate them to the front or the back – we are to love them. And to love someone, we must first see them – we must desire to understand them. We must listen. Loving children means paying attention to children. Loving children means devoting time to thinking through how we minister to children. Engaging children ought not be an afterthought, nor ought it be a means towards reeling in their parents (the ones with the money to fix our roof and pay the salaries!) Children are not the future of the church – they are within the body of Christ NOW, and are within God’s providential care as they are NOW – penniless and vulnerable.

2) Think: Why do you want to do children’s sermons anyway?
“Because the congregation expects it” or “Because the pastor before me did them” is not an adequate answer. The parents are looking to you for guidance on how to teach their children about God’s love. The children are looking to you as an agent of God’s love. How you go about your children’s ministry will demonstrate for the congregation how God intends for children to be a part of the life of the church. There is a tremendous risk of false witness in this area – we do not want to suggest that children are a hassle to God, are not welcome by God, are less interesting to God, are interesting to God only as entertainment for adults, are interesting to God only as future adults, are endearingly wrong-headed about God (unlike adults, who are wise in the ways of God), etc.
So ask yourself – are children’s sermons the best fit for my pastoral gifts and the particular personality and needs of this congregation? Are they the best choice in this place and time as a vehicle for welcoming children, for teaching them about God’s love, and for teaching adults how to love children well?

3) Engage the children on their own terms / on their own level
There are a few universals here – engage children’s senses – not just the visual, but all of their senses. Use different types of lessons to reach children with different learning styles – use math, use storytelling, use participation, be whimsical, be practical – mix it up from week to week! Remember yourself as a child, and the questions you had about worship, and set out to answer those questions. Try to remember that very few of your children’s sermons should be rooted in a metaphor – generally the younger kids are not developmentally capable of understanding them, and a few of the older kids will not make the connection either.
But there are also some particulars. Get to know the kids – and what works well for them. Get to know their personalities and strengths, so that you can engage different ones of them in different ways. Pay attention to the age range, the number of children, the sibling relationships (if any), etc. If you are pastor to more than one congregation, your children’s sermons will end up being a little bit different at each congregation if you pay attention to the particular children you are serving.

4) Do not put the children on display
Begin by finding ways to position the children so that they are not “on stage” for the adults.  This time is about you and the children – by taking time out for them, you are demonstrating to the children that they are important to God – that God loves them, and wants them to understand what is going on in worship.  If this is for the adults in any measure, it is in order to model for them how to interact with the children in a life-giving way.  Which in the end is just another way of this time being for the children.  The grown-ups need to be made to understand that they are not the audience.
Nobody likes to be laughed at when they make a mistake. Most people clam up in front of a crowd of people, and children are no exception – especially if they are likely to be laughed at, or have been laughed at before. Many children will feel that they are being made fun of, and it will hurt their feelings, and perhaps even discourage them from sharing – or even coming forward for children’s time! – in the future.  Find ways to train the congregation to restrain themselves – the children are not on television – they are right there, and they can hear the adults laughing, and often they do not understand why.  Demonstrate to the children that you are their advocate with the congregation, and help interpret the laughter of the congregation for them (or, when appropriate, chide the congregation for treating the children as entertainment – but in a gentle way that will not embarrass the children, or confuse them.)
Rev. Taylor Mills, pastor of Trinity UMC in Durham, NC, has reminded me that there are other children who seek the laughter of the congregation, and that is also something that we need to account for / channel in proper directions. This is a different sort of problem that results from putting the children on display (the child who desires to be on display,)  that illustrates the general rule that we must avoid the actor/audience dynamic that often develops between the children and the congregation.
The conventional wisdom among educators has been to redirect that need for attention, giving the child opportunities to get attention for positive behavior (eg. – pre-emptively asking for their help with a task at the outset of the children’s sermon, or even enlisting them as a co-conspirator in advance of the children’s sermon.)  Of course, this will only work well if, at the same time, the congregation is no longer re-enforcing bad behavior (i.e. – laughing at the young comedian’s antics.)  And it is important to take care that the other children are also given opportunities to help / serve as volunteers – or else we are sending the message to the children that public misbehavior is the only way to receive the pastor’s attention – instead of the message we want the children to receive: no matter whether you can’t sit still or are silent and attentive, whether you intentionally cut-up in worship or always try to do the right thing, God loves you, and the church loves and needs you.

5) Be relevant
Be relevant to worship. If there is going to be a baptism, talk to the children about baptism. If there is something else special going on in worship, talk to them about that. Give them things to listen for / look for later in the service. This will not work, of course, if the practice is to usher them all out after the children’s sermon.
Be relevant to children. Think about their experiences, and what they are likely to understand. For instance, when talking about sin and forgiveness one time, I shared a story about having borrowed something of my sister’s WITHOUT ASKING. And then, even worse, drawing on it. Even the children without siblings knew how wrong that was, but the children with siblings were astounded – truly shocked that their pastor had ever done anything that wrong. One of them got the courage to ask if my sister had forgiven me for it, and I admitted that it took months before she did – and that I was still really sorry about it. But that God forgave me right away, even before I understood that what I did was so wrong. That story stuck with them, and gave them a sense of the immensity of God’s grace – taking something of a sibling’s without asking and then vandalizing it – that is the kind of sin a child understands.  It also showed them that nothing they could do was so wrong that God couldn’t change their hearts – that with God’s help, even such a sinner as myself had grown up to become a thoughtful and trustworthy pastor person.

6) Be authentic
Never pretend to be stupider than you are, or to not know the meanings of words – never ever lie to the children. You can be silly, but be silly in the sly way that a grown-up is silly. Less than a week ago, I heard Rabbi Daniel Greyber of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, NC ask the children of the preschool there if they thought the preschool director was in the suitcase on his lap. They all laughed and squealed and shouted out, “No!” They knew that the rabbi was just being silly. He never did suggest that he actually thought she was in there.  And he didn’t have to in order to get their attention or their laughter.  I have seen him be silly with the children, but I have never seen him be dishonest.
There are lots of books and websites and subscription services for children’s stories. It is okay to use these, but never pretend that the experience of another pastor is your own experience. Tailor the stories of others to your own experience / gifts / understanding of the scriptures. When you make it your own, you make it convincing – you make it true.

The bottom line is that the children are your parishioners. Use the same wisdom that I pray you use in the pulpit: prepare, and choose your words carefully. Speak out of the depth of your own faith and experience. Speak the truth in love. Remember that your role within the congregation is chiefly to proclaim the truth that God is Love, and that God’s Love is unending and unstoppable and for everyone. Proclaim it like you mean it, because you believe it – because your very being is rooted in it. And never be afraid to model repentance when you get it wrong.

I neglected to mention when first publishing this blog entry that I owe to my Mom, Dr. Clair Cosby, the insight about young children not being capable of understanding metaphors. It is a great gift to have a developmental psychologist in the family!