Where Jesus Would Put the Kids in Worship

Learning about worship in the pray ground

Last weekend, I posted a picture on instagram of my husband with our two youngest children, playing in the child-friendly “prayground” space at my sister in law’s church. (Shout out to Shepherd of the Valley for general awesomeness.)

I snapped the picture because the light was good, and, in the interest of truth telling, I find my husband doing his amazing work of parenting really sexy, so I wanted a pictorial record of the moment.

I also mentioned that the play space in the sanctuary is a hill I’m willing to die on in future pastoral positions. (Take note, search committees of the future who may be reading my blog posts: if this sounds like a bad idea to you, we’re probably not a good fit.)

The photo was a hit with friends and several have asked me for my input on these sorts of spaces.

Here’s the thing: I can mostly comment as a parent of three kids who has spent a good deal of time sitting in the pews with my kids in last 6 years. Though, I bring a bit of expertise since I happen to have background and training in church ministry with children and families.

But, I have yet to successfully pull off the concept of kids truly having their own space to play in the church, particularly in a place that is sort of up close to the front and visible.

Had I been in full time ministry for the last few years, leaving the Sunday morning pew parenting solely in the (more than capable) hands of my husband, I honestly do not think I would be as adamant about the need for these spaces. I didn’t fully realize, in my first five years of parenting, how difficult it is to parent kids in a way allows them participate and be present in the faith community, because I was up front leading worship, or in the back greasing the gears of programmatic ministry: my husband was the one doing the hard work in the pews.

There are churches that have been doing things to encourage children’s presence in worship for years, and even some that have done so in similar ways to the prayground. As far as I can tell, the prayground concept came to full fruition (or at least got national attention) under the leadership of the Reverend Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, who pastors at Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, MN. Last year, she told fellow members of Young Clergy Women International (at that time, the organization was called the Young Clergy Women Project) that she was developing this space in her sanctuary where kids could play during worship. She asked for help in brainstorming names. Someone suggested “prayground.” Andrea ran with it, got it running in her church, and it was soon featured in an ABC news segment.

Other churches have adopted the concept and the name, including my sister-in-law’s congregation.

To me, the things that qualify something as this prayground concept are: Read more

Vulnerable

A word
about vulnerability:
This morning, I revisited my first love–
ballet class.
I haven’t danced in years.
I have lacked the courage to step
into dance studio space
for a while now,
because
I’m overweight,
and society says:
Shame on you.
I’m out of shape,
and the dance world says:
Shame on you.
I am carrying many burdens right now
emotionally and physically.
Society says:
Keep that to yourself.
So I did what I used to tell my students to do.
I took it to the studio
and

danced

it

out.

I lacked strength,
endurance,
balance.
I struggled to learn and remember combinations.
I lagged behind everyone else in the class
and made a lot of mistakes.
I was dancing alongside Juilliard graduates.
People could say
I made a fool of myself.

But I held my own.

Alongside some of the best dancers in the world.
And when I thanked the teacher afterward,
she said,
“You looked really beautiful.
You really must have danced pretty seriously before.”
I don’t know
what made the nourishment of dance
finally outweigh the starvation
of fear,
shame,
and insecurity.
But it was helpful to be reminded
that vulnerability
is a risk
worth taking.

book of common prayer

One Book, Many Cultures

book of common prayerHidden away on our bookshelves is a little black book dating from the 1930s. When I hold it, my hand feels the imprints of my grandfather’s fingers on the cover. My thumb rests effortlessly at the end of the title: “Common Prayer – Hymns A & M.” Eight years ago, I brought this book with me from England to America to remind me of my grandparents. It never occurred to me that it would be a way of connecting with a congregation here, but that is exactly what has happened at my new parish.

Anglicans around the world would understand the shorthand in that title. “Common Prayer” refers to the 1662 revision of The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, while “A & M” means “Ancient and Modern.” The Book of Common Prayer was an attempt by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to bring unity to the English church following the Reformation by mandating one form of worship for everyone. Hymns Ancient and Modern was an attempt to consolidate the most popular Anglican hymns of the late 1800s into a single volume. It was this little black book that British missionaries took with them as they went out around the world to spread the good news – and to reinforce the power structures of the British Empire.

I am keenly aware that what joins me as a white priest to my mainly black congregation is the colonial past, which includes the shared heritage of The Book of Common Prayer and the hymnal that went with it. My parish is around forty percent West African and thirty percent Caribbean, while the remaining thirty percent is made up of North Americans (both white and African-American) with a splattering of Europeans. There is also an emerging Central American congregation that worships separately in Spanish, led by another priest.

Ministering into this tension that is the shared heritage of the Anglican Communion means being aware of the privileges that I have as the priest and as a white person, and at the same time acknowledging the shared experience of being an immigrant. Almost everyone in the English-speaking congregation comes from a country that is a former British colony or still belongs to the British Commonwealth. A number of the Caribbean parishioners have told me that they remember being sent “the latest young priest from England” when they were growing up, and so there is something familiar about having a young, white English person pastoring their congregation. Although they have shared this a positive memory, I cannot ignore that our present reality together comes with a colonial power dynamic based in both culture and race.

Almost all of the members were also raised as Anglicans. Like me, they came to the Episcopal Church because it is part of the Anglican Communion. Read more

Handmade soap

Beautiful and Useful

Handmade soap

Handmade soap

“It’s part chemistry, part magic, part artistry,” I tell my four year old loftily. He nods like he cares, as we plunge the stick blender into the bowl of water, lye, and oils. Carefully, we readjust our safety goggles as the mixture emulsifies, beginning to turn into soap. This is the second batch we’ve made today, the fifth this week. It’s much more than we need (though I do sell about two-thirds of what I make), and I can tell I’ve hit my threshold for stress when I deep dive into crafting. One summer in high school I made fifteen pairs of shorts in two weeks when my boyfriend was out of town. Moody teenager in my household always translated into new craft projects.

My professional work these days is as a pastoral counselor. I absolutely love working full-time in a group non-profit counseling center. I have a diverse client base, and I specialize in counseling children and helping people who have survived trauma. It’s interesting, and each day has something new in store for me to learn, experience, or help someone process.

But being the holding vessel for people’s hardships also takes its toll. I have a long history of eating my feelings, and have to be careful not to eat my clients’ feelings, too. Crafting helps with that, which is why I sew, knit, and make soap from scratch. Sometimes when I guest preach, I even manage to work a few crafting references or stories into the sermon.

Crafting shows up in many Bible stories, though for most of those folks, it was less a hobby and more a survival skill. Yet even so, there’s still a beauty to crafting for survival: people have always wanted to create things that are beautiful and useful. Beautiful and useful is what I’m aiming for with the soap.

If you’re going to be successful at making soap from scratch, there are a few important terms you must remember. They all relate to the fragrance or essential oils that are part of the soaping process. The terms are: performs normally, accelerates trace, and will discolor. Read more

Faithful Families: An Interview with Traci Marie Smith

Faithful Families has new material, expanding on Seamless Faith. Which faith practice were you most excited to add?

Though it is a sad practice, I was grateful to write a practice for pregnancy loss. It’s something that was requested in more than one workshop and small group discussion. Losing a child before birth is heart wrenching and awful and it’s hard to know how to talk about with other children. Also, the church hasn’t done a great job of opening up opportunities for families to grieve and remember together. ​I was also excited to add a practice on tolerance and the golden rule for families that are interested in raising children to be kind and knowledgable about religions other than their own. ​

As you’ve shared your books with parents, churches, pastors, and Christian educators, what has surprised you? What stories have you heard of how faith practices have helped children and families to learn and grow? Read more

Ask a YCW: Baptism Edition

Dear Askie,

Six months ago, my wife and I were blessed with our first child, a beautiful baby boy. We want to have our son baptized at our church, but our pastor is making things difficult. She keeps saying that the baptism needs to be on Sunday morning during the regular service, but that doesn’t really work well with our family. We wanted to have the baptism on a Saturday afternoon, so that we could have just family and a few invited friends there, and take them all to a celebratory dinner afterwards. Our pastor says she won’t do a private baptism, only one during Sunday church. How do I explain to her that it would be so much nicer and more intimate for our family to have a private ceremony? We’ve offered to let her pick the time on Saturday, and we’re more than happy to pay any costs, but she still won’t agree. How do I get her to stop being so unreasonable?

Sincerely,
Frustrated Dad

Read more

Just Ask A Hillbilly

It’s nothing special. Just an old photograph—the focus is a little fuzzy and it’s certainly not the best angle. There are eleven of us gathered around a Sunday school table, and if I had to guess, the oldest is no more than five. I am the youngest. It might seem like nothing, really, but for me, it is a portal into another time—1988, another life ago when I was a little girl in a small town in the mountains.

I don’t live there anymore, but when I visit my parents, I still run into the oldest two children in that photo. Out of the five children that I still recognize in the photo, three are married. Two of them have kids. When I see her, the mother of the one who doesn’t is happy to complain about the fact she has grand-dogs instead of grandchildren. My own father loves telling stories about the kids of one of the others.

And then there’s the fourth child in that old photograph. She died in a car wreck after our freshman year of college. The roads of eastern Kentucky are unforgiving, so it took a long time to find her car. She had left her boyfriend’s house in anger, and, in these hills, running off the road meant that her car ended up down, down, down—all the way down to where the creek runs. The road she was riding on bears the same name as the creek where her car was found: Crane Creek. It’s the same road the school bus travelled as it wound its way between our homes and the little school I attended as a child.

I’ve been reflecting a lot about my early years in eastern Kentucky lately. I recently read Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir, set in Breathitt County, Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio, not far from Greenup County where I grew up. I know the world he writes of, which is why I also know that the beauty of that world has been nearly erased from his story.

I think of this as I look at that old photograph. The death of the young woman from that photo was my first encounter with the death of someone my own age. And it has never fully left me. Read more

What Language Shall I Borrow?

I can still feel a bit of burning embarrassment from the conversation that happened nearly 12 years ago. My dad, a pastor and theologian, helped me pack up and move all of my belongings from Massachusetts down to Louisville, where I was about to begin seminary. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, we somehow got on the subject of hot button issues at seminaries, and he mentioned the use of gendered language for God.

Many students came from traditions that held firmly to male images and language for God. Some prayers always began, “Father God…” My seminary, along with others, encouraged a more expansive use of language for God, engaging images that were more traditionally masculine and feminine or gender-neutral. Students would be encouraged to recognize and draw from the rich and expansive store of such language in the Bible. And for some students, that bordered on blasphemous – or even crossed the line.

The sting of embarrassment came for me as I remembered the application essays I had so carefully written and edited. My internal debate wasn’t whether or not I could use “he” to refer to God; it was whether the “h” should be capitalized. I had come from more conservative theological traditions, and most of what I had seen was God as He. At the same time, that capital letter seemed to thrust a masculine God at me in a way that just didn’t seem right. If asked, I would have said in a heartbeat that I didn’t believe that God is male. And yet, there it was, burned in my memory – repeated references to God with male pronouns in my first introduction to my future professors.

The conversation on language for God was not a new one, just one to which I had not yet been exposed. Beyond seminary, many students who learned to exercise care in their language went right back to the familiar and comfortable pronouns upon graduation. Others of us were serving in church contexts where throwing in feminine pronouns might have gotten us run out of the pulpit, so we at least avoided using masculine language. Given my own commitments, and recognizing the constraints of my context, that was my practice, though I occasionally and intentionally used female imagery with some gentle education. Read more

A Liturgy for Leaving

Like many 21st-century churches, the church I serve is a “nested” congregation: it has no building of its own, and rents space from another congregation. Some churches arrive at this kind of arrangement after selling their existing buildings. Others are new church starts, building a congregation from scratch.

Worshiping communities sharing space can be a wonderful thing. It can also be complicated. And, sometimes, it just doesn’t work. My congregation recently ended its relationship with its host congregation, and transitioned to a different space. The transition was challenging, marked with conflict, grief, and resentment. Although “the church is not the building… the church is the people,” as the old Sunday school song goes, it is difficult for the people to say goodbye to the place where their children were baptized, where they were married, where they grew in faith and discipleship.

This liturgy concluded our final worship service in our old space. It would be appropriate for congregations in a similar situation, and also can be adapted for other situations, such as moving out of a house or decommissioning a ministry.

One: God said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
All: May we go with the God who calls us to new adventures!
One: When Rachel departed from her home and family to make her home with Jacob, she took with her the teraphim, the household gods of her childhood.
All: May we carry with us what has been good, holy, and true from our time in this place.
One: God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt and toward the promised land.
All: May we go with the God of liberation!
One: The Israelites were taken from their homes into exile.
All: May we go with the God who consoles the displaced.
One: Jesus sent the disciples out to preach the Good News to all creation.
All: May we be inspired and imbued with purpose and joy.
One: Jesus told the disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you, shake off the dust from your feet.
All: May we leave behind us all bitterness and disillusionment.
One: Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you.”
All: May we thank God every time we remember this place.
One: Go forth to be God’s church in this time and place, as the Holy Spirit may direct.
All: In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; one God, Mother of us all. Amen.

I Need a Hero: A Review of Wonder Woman

The author and fellow YCW The Rev. MaryCat Young, post-Wonder Woman.

After seeing Wonder Woman, I nearly got a tattoo. I imagined a WW, the size of a postage stamp, on my left shoulder. But I had an infant to feed, a babysitter to pay, and no time for the tattoo parlor. I left that theater, though, a changed woman – tattoo or not. If you read no further: go see Wonder Woman. Here’s why.

I never realized I needed a hero. Or, rather, this kind of hero. I have Elizabeth Warren, my grandma the WWII nurse, and Jo March. I’ve never felt that my vision for myself was restricted by all of the Batmen and Supermen out there. (Michael Keaton was my first Batman, which may explain my heretofore complete lack of interest in superheroes.)

More to the point, as a Christian, I never realized I needed a hero, because I have Jesus. In dozens of children’s sermons, I have lifted Jesus up as the superhero-par-excellence, emphasizing miracle stories and Jesus’ secret weapon (spoiler alert: it’s LOVE, guys). I have encouraged boys and girls alike to direct their admiration to the hero of the Gospels.

And yet, my thirty-four-year-old self wept in awe in a dark theater in Manhattan as I watched Wonder Woman, and saw myself in her.

I saw myself in the little girl, Diana (Wonder Girl?), watching the Amazonian women train for battle. These women were FIERCE, their thighs the size of fire hydrants. These women were LOUD – no meek sexy-cries for these ladies. They sounded like athletes. They WERE athletes. And, they were dressed appropriately! I almost walked out of a theater a couple of years ago when I saw the newest Jurassic Park, where some director made poor Bryce Dallas Howard – ostensibly a research scientist – run in high heels from ferocious mutant dinosaurs for two hours. No. Just no.

Wonder Woman wears appropriate footwear. We watch as she grows up on the island of Themyscira, training with her mother and aunts. We also learn the backstory of the Amazons: that they were placed on the island by Zeus to prepare for a future time of war brought about by Ares, when the Amazons would be called upon to destroy Ares and restore peace to the world.

War, in the form of handsome pilot Steve Trevor, crash-lands near the island. Diana hauls Steve out of the ocean, in a scene that nicely reverses some childhood imagery from The Little Mermaid. Unfortunately, he is followed by the Germans, whom the Amazons engage in fierce battle on the beach. Read more