Kids’ Connections

Long ago I had the privilege to lead this sweet young lady in following Jesus. Truly, it was a joy to walk together and I’m sure I learned as much from her as she did from me. Now she has the privilege of leading others… I love how that works!

Guest Post: Sara Pantazes

The opportunity to run our church’s mid-week children’s program was a perfect fit for me–resume-worthy job experience I could easily fit into my already full life of grad school, homemaking, and kid-raising.

The directive, however, wasn’t as easy: “Like youth group, for kids.” As a Christian educator in training, I felt up to the challenge. By Wednesday night kids have been in school and shuttled between activities for three days. Our program was part of that hamster wheel. Kids didn’t need another classroom lesson. But I didn’t want to spend that precious hour only on games. How could I balance the kids’ need to move and play with my desire to use that time for faith formation?

Providentially, inspiration came in a book I read over Christmas break. One chapter told the story of a children’s minister who focused her Wednesday night children’s program on contemplative practices. Quotes like these lit my imagination:

Rather than mirroring the media-driven culture, might churches instead provide space for children to step out of the fast-paced world and enter into meaningful community?

…these children will be called to something that means they will have to know how to find stillness and quiet in the midst of chaos and confusion.  If we do not provide them with this, we will have failed this generation.

Reading about this program helped me narrow in on a concrete goal that felt right for my program–connection with God. That children hunger for the ability to be still caught my attention, and teaching children how to quiet themselves in order to hear and connect with God sounded like challenge worth exploring. So I created my own format loosely based on the structure described in the book. It looked like this:

Welcoming: 15-20 minutes of games, usually Legos and tag

Sharing: The kids help me lay out a blanket for us to sit around and we turn on lamps and turn off overhead lights. We share what has been good and bad about our days, giving us a chance to calm ourselves and relax together.

Worshiping: We sing a simple song, the same one each week, with words and/or signs, to remind us that we are stepping out of our everyday lives and into a special time with God.

Listening: I narrate a Bible story using Godly Play materials (simple wooden carvings of the characters and setting of a story) and the narratives from Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman’s Young Children and Worship. Once the story has been told, we discuss “I wonder…” questions to help us think about the story, what the characters might have felt or thought, and where we might find ourselves in the story.

“She describes the approach as respectful of children and trusts that God will speak to and through the children as they enter the story together. She does not feel compelled to control the process but trusts that God is at work, drawing the children into relationship with him…”

Reflecting: We end with individual reflection. I give them a question to consider on their own through writing or drawing. After a few weeks I also let some children stay on the blanket to retell the story as they move the figures around themselves.

One child’s reflection on the Last Supper

Our program year is done now and, while I appreciate summer break, I’m already excited for next year. Our time wasn’t always perfectly reverent–kids will be kids after all. But it was truly amazing to witness how quickly they settled into the rhythm, how much they wanted to help with set-up, how attentive they were to the stories, and the insights they shared.

I’m hopeful that seeds have been planted, that–in one hour in the midst of their busy week–they were able to rest in God’s presence, and that it left them hungry for more.

We can connect to lots of things in our lives to fill us, sustain us, or maybe even help us thrive. Asking children to connect with God might sound like a tall order, but I had faith it could be done. It takes some work, but the results are truly beautiful.

 

Sara is wife of Tom and mom of Ben and Matt. Their family life started in Williamsburg, VA but they now live in a beautiful rural-suburban corner of southeast Pennsylvania. A recent graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary, Sara is beginning to transition from full-time stay at home mom to part-time Director of Christian Education at First Presbyterian Church of West Chester, a transition which will fully challenge (and hopefully enrich) her own ability to stay connected with and rooted in God.

On My Mind

This weekend as I deadheaded the roses going crazy in our front yard, a woman came to mind, an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in some time. I have no idea why she popped into my head.

As I do when someone comes to mind, I prayed for her.

Thinking of the one woman brought another woman to mind. I’m not sure if they’re friends, but I met them around the same time. So I prayed for her, too.

This week our church is holding a kids’ camp, 330+ kids and 150 volunteers swarming our campus with joy, laughter, crafts, song, skits, and other shenanigans. It’s a magnificent mess and one of the best weeks of the year.

Yesterday I saw both women who’d come to mind over the weekend. I told them each, separately, that I’d thought of and prayed for her over the weekend. One had a fluke encounter with a cow while hiking with her daughter’s Girl Scout troop and has a broken shoulder; she might be facing surgery.

The other looked at me skeptically: “Well, that’s odd. Did you hear what happened to me Friday?” On the way home from setting up her camp area, she noticed two dogs loose in the road. She pulled over to help them, and one seriously attacked her; she had to call 911 and required stitches in the back of both thighs.

We looked at each other. I said, “Well, I guess you really needed some prayer…”

She said, “I sure did! Thanks for praying.”

Random, but not random at all…

Last night I had a lonely, woe-is-me moment. Then I wondered: God had put two women on my mind seemingly without occasion. Who might have me on their mind? Who might be praying for me, unbeknownst to me?

 

Milestones

Annie burst into the bar exclaiming, “What IS this place?”

“It’s the best little wine bar you’ve ever stepped foot in, but tonight it’s also a karaoke bar!” came my response.

Without a glance at the menu, she ordered a sauvignon blanc and a song list. Her two friends, obviously indulging Annie’s whim, didn’t even want water.

Annie danced in the heart of the bar. And when she sang, she did so as badly as you might imagine—off-key and off-tempo—and with so much joy we all laughed along.

She told stories, and laughed at her “L.A. friends, who think they’re really something, but they’re missing out,” danced some more, and completely whooped it up. She brought the party.

Before she left she asked for one more song, a special song she sang to her kids as they grew up: Que Será, Será. I smiled, because my mom had sung it to me, too.

I couldn’t have told you Doris Day sang it originally, but I knew the words:

When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother, what will I be
Will I be pretty
Will I be rich
Here’s what she said to me

Que será, será
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que será, será
What will be, will be

When Annie got to the third verse, tears filled my eyes:

Now I have children of my own
They ask their mother, what will I be
Will I be handsome
Will I be rich
I tell them tenderly

Que será, será
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que será, será
What will be, will be

While I haven’t sung this song to my own children, in my own way I encourage them to have faith, that God knows the plans we don’t. I regularly repeat to them another of my mother’s lessons: “You do your best and let God do the rest.”

What will be, will be…

C19 finished one year at the only college he ever wanted to attend, and it didn’t go the way any of us had hoped. He gave up what he had thought would be his dream major and came home. He’ll work and attend community college as he pursues whatever will be next for him.

Q14 graduated middle school last week. We are so proud of his tenacity, because this so-smart kid can’t seem to figure out how to “do school” well. And yet, he loves school. He enjoys his friends. He adores band. He has a curious intellect and genuinely wants to learn. And learn he does, he just doesn’t perform accordingly. Our frustration increases as no teacher or learning specialist we’ve met so far has been able to determine why, or how to help him.

And yet, these young men are all caught up in the fabulous work of becoming. C19 matured so much in his first year of college. He advocated on his own behalf in several situations. He sought healthy outlets for stress. He joined a sports club and made friends. He determined who he didn’t want to be as much as who he might like to be.

Q14 composed his first piece of music. He went on a nine-day trip to Europe with peers and teachers; and he endured a migraine in a foreign country with as much grace and peace as one could possibly have under the circumstances. And the weekend following graduation he was thrilled to go on his first backpacking trip.

So we sing: que será, será, whatever will be, will be. Because God only knows what will be. And still we trust that these kids, with their gifts and talents and challenges, with their twists and turns on life’s roads, will be just fine.

 

[photo credit: Steve Bartis]

The Sad Song

I had a rare treat last weekend: a Barnes & Noble sat across the street from the hotel where we stayed. Since most bookstores in our area have closed, I relished the opportunity to spend an hour meandering, collecting a stack of books that attracted my attention for various reasons, and sitting in a corner with them, slowly turning pages.

One book addressed our fear response to life’s hard times. The author wrote, “We habitually spin off and freak out when there’s even the merest hint of fear. We feel it coming and we check out…The most heartbreaking thing of all is how we cheat ourselves of the present moment” (Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart).

Yes, and yes. Life is hard. We feel badly. We check out and cheat ourselves.

Or we could not. Listen to my friend Mike advocate for a different approach…

re:create recess #19: Mike Loretto

I might be a little bit odd.

I had this thought recently when I was feeling the need for a break–for recreation–and my first impulse was to reach for…

…the saddest music I could put on.

I love sad songs. I love them. And I love them because–hang with me now–they make me feel sad. I actually love feeling sad. I know. It’s weird.

When I’m in the thick of the busyness of life and feel that internal prick of “I need to recreate, to play,” I have learned that some of the things that felt like recreation when I was younger don’t call to me as much. In those needful moments, I still might reach for the remote control, a tennis racket, a video game, a drink, a book, or any number of other things. Some of the time those things are the right decision; some times they’re really not. Most of them have no inherent goodness or badness. They all have the potential to be informative or celebratory or good exercise or just plain fun. They all also have the potential to be avenues for escape.

And I’m prone to escapism. Some combination of my personality, my experiences, and the myriad ways that modern culture offers us to escape our reality have, for me, led to 37 years worth of finding creative ways to escape. To not be present to what’s really going on in my life. To not be attentive. To not, in all honesty, be fully alive in many moments.

Sadness and grief can be paralyzing. Depression is no joke. I say all of this from experience. Intentionally diving into the waters of sadness isn’t always the right move, either–sometimes escape is a survival technique. Everything in its season, and everything in moderation. But I find that my default setting is one in which I’m not really letting myself grieve the big or small rips in the fabric of life that I encounter. The ways I’m broken. The ways the world is broken. The pain of people I love. The pain of people I’ll never meet. And I need regular doses of art, conversation, experiences that will prod me to do that grieving.

That’s where, for me, sad songs come in. A well-written, well-performed sad song has the capability to take me right to the core (or at least to dig into the mantle) of feelings I’ve been avoiding. When I turn on Patty Griffin’s “Rain,” or the soundtrack of the musical “The Last Five Years,” I access the pain and grief of relationships not going like we thought they would, hoped they would, needed them to. When I listen to Jason Isbell’s “Elephant,” I’m seared by the sadness of death and dying and of loving someone deeply. I remember in college listening to David Crowder’s “All I Can Say” on repeat, and feeling the desperation of spiritual longing, of the “dark night of the soul.”

Sometimes the sad song might end on a hopeful note. Many of the best don’t. The hope is found in the alchemy of turning grief into beauty, and in the “Oh, you too?” recognition that breaks us out of our isolation. There is something incredibly moving to me about a piece of art that tells the truth about the hard parts of life and somehow begins to redeem it in the beauty of the telling. The craft of the lyrics, the choices of instrumentation and rhythms and chord progressions, the sigh of a steel guitar line or the weeping of a mandolin, the voice soaked in the waters of experience–the right combination of these things cracks me open and brings me to my knees.

My faith and my experience tell me that the world is (and that I am) flawed and broken, and also that even good things must eventually burn down to let something better rise from the ashes. Being intentional about accessing sadness is, for me, a way of sifting through those ashes and finding the building blocks of new creation. As an (often frustrated) songwriter, I find that listening to a song that gets me in touch with my sadness is one of the best avenues for finding the head- and heart-space in which I do my best creative work. It’s a way of touching the live rail that energizes creativity. It hurts, but the hurt motivates and animates.

So here’s to the sad song. Turn it up and cry it out, my friends.

Mike Loretto (@mikeloretto on Twitter/IG) is a songwriter, worship leader, husband to Sarah, and feeder of dogs Bristow and Jed Bartlet. He and Sarah write and perform music under the name Truesdell and are hoping to release an album this year. (Find Truesdell on Facebook or @truesdellmusic on Twitter). Mike is passionate about the intersection of art & spirituality, contemplative prayer, good food & drink, Kansas Jayhawks basketball, and Kansas City Royals baseball. He almost never blogs at mikeloretto.tumblr.com. Email: mikeloretto at gmail dot com

The Struggle is Real

This summer our church has been doing a deep dive into the wisdom of Proverbs. Earlier this week some of us gathered to study this passage from Proverbs 30:

“Two things I ask of you, Lord;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.

When I entered the room, I thought our topic was contentment, or integrity. The more we dialed down, the more uncomfortable I became.

I have a love-hate relationship with money. Mostly hate. I don’t want to be rich. I don’t want a huge house or fancy cars. I just want enough. I want to not want.

I enjoyed a comfortable childhood. We had enough and then some. We had a swimming pool. We attended sleep-away summer camps. We could travel (my dad was a captain with Pan Am). My parents paid for my private college education.

My children don’t experience similar luxury and yet our needs are more than met. We have a comfortable home in a beautiful neighborhood near friends we love. Every time I flip through our photo albums, I feel overwhelming gratitude for God’s good provisions.

Still, money above all is the bugaboo that wakes me in the night, the hardest area of life for me to trust God.

So here’s the story:

The week Teen turned nine years old, our church held its first Mission Market, an opportunity to purchase for your loved ones non-traditional Christmas gifts (for example, socks and underwear for orphans) that benefit our mission partners. Teen wandered in on his own and found a picture of a boy his age who needed support to attend school in the Dominican Republic. Something about this boy’s face stirred Teen’s heart. They both played soccer. He said, “I found my brother.”

At the time, I couldn’t afford to buy a drugstore lipstick. But how could we deny our son a chance to learn the value of giving? He offered to take on extra chores to ‘earn’ the monthly cost of supporting this boy he’d never met. We haven’t missed a month’s support in nine years.

Six years ago we were asked to participate in a Thanksgiving trip to the DR where we could meet this boy. I thought money would be the deal breaker but, through the generosity of others, all four of us participated in a trip that forever changed our family.

This week Guy is leading a group of 20 (mostly teens) on another trip to the DR. I asked him if he’d considered inviting Teen. Both he and ‘his brother’ have now graduated high school; Teen is off to college while his brother has gone to work to support his family. This might be their last opportunity to connect. Guy responded that we didn’t have the money: end of conversation.

Of course we don’t have the money. We will soon take on a lose-my-mind loan to cover out-of-state college tuition. But something in me couldn’t let go of the idea that our kiddo needed to go on this trip. I brought it up again: “Money makes me bananas, so I shouldn’t be the one pushing this, except I can’t not… If we’re already trusting God for this massive college loan, how can we not trust God for the funds for this potentially life-changing experience?”

We asked, and Teen jumped: YES he wanted to go! Some of his best friends are on the trip. He wants to see his brother. And he wants to meet the little guy our family will support now that Teen’s brother has graduated.

We wrote a letter, inviting people to support Teen in prayer and finances. The money came in, in some cases from people we didn’t expect. And before that, in fact, the very week we made the decision in faith to register Teen for the trip, he received a small college scholarship—which felt exactly like confirmation from God that we had listened well.

Who is the Lord? The God who provides.
Lord, help me to trust…

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A Sheep’s Prayer

Hi, Jesus!

Hmm, guess I don’t have to say “Hi,” do I? The shepherd never leaves the sheep. You’re always with me. Though the sheep sometimes wander off, don’t they? Um, don’t we? (Cough) Don’t I? Even when my feet don’t wander, I take my eyes off you. I forget you’re here. I forget you’re caring for me and directing me to the best life, the one you planned for me before I was born. I have a short attention span.

Maybe I need to say “Hi” to remind myself that you’re here and in charge. So,

Hello, Jesus!

I shall not want because you’re taking care of me—food, drink, shelter, protection, all covered. Except, to be honest, I do want. It’s not like I’m a shopaholic. I’m actually pretty good at avoiding online and brick-and-mortar stores. But I want enough money not to worry. I want fame and fortune, though I truly don’t all that hassle, I do want success. I want to (metaphorically) walk the red carpet, to be recognized for doing what I do well. I want the vacation I saw on my friend’s Facebook feed and, while you’re at it, I want my body to look like my friend’s bikini body. At least sometimes I want more compliant kids, less vim and vigor. I want a husband who anticipates—and meets—my every need before I say a word. I want a stress-free life.

You know stress-free doesn’t just mean me, right? I want peace in my life, but truly I want world peace. I want politicians to step down off their soap boxes and work together in humility. I want freedom and justice for all, no more slavery of any kind. I want food sufficient to feed everyone who is hungry and opportunity for everyone to live a meaningful life. I want an end to cancer.

So there you have it: I definitely want.

Some of those desires are good and come straight from your heart. Help me to know how to live and serve toward a better world. But please, Lord, forgive me for taking for granted all the good things you have already provided. Forgive me for wanting what you know I don’t need, things that would ultimately get in the way of our time together.

Thank you, thank you, for the breath I breathe, this life you made possible. The ability to get out of bed this morning. For the rain that washed new the earth and watered our plants. For the sunshine in the blue sky. For the cozy little home that shelters our family and keeps us warm. For the family under this roof, and the unique way you made each one of us. Thank you for the gifts these people are to me and to the world. Thank you for our menagerie of pets. We are so weird it makes me laugh, but I also know that you have made us different and that’s a gift to the world, too. Help me to appreciate the overwhelming beauty and goodness of these green pastures and still waters.

Oh Lord, I blow it all the time. Why can’t I remember that you’re in charge, that you’ve got the right plan? I get distracted by worry, by busyness, by the glitter and glory the world offers. Even though I know it’s all funhouse mirrors and false promises. It’s the first lie, the trick that always works: you will live forever. I can offer you something the Lord can’t… And I fall for it.

Yet you restore my soul. You are so good, Lord! No matter how often, no matter the mess I make or how battered and bruised I get, you are always ready to forgive. You come looking for me when I wander off. You pick me up from the ravine where I’ve fallen. You put me back on your path, with you in front, leading to the right life for me, one that honors you.

Hey, Jesus, sometimes this life gets way too dark and scary. Illness, death, crisis of all sorts, suck the joy out of life. I get so mad when people I love hurt. I flail in the darkness. I cry out. But I don’t lose faith, because I know, even when life is hard—especially then—that you are with me. You love me, and you love those I love more than I ever can. I don’t need to be afraid because you will protect me. Even in those moments when I can’t feel you with me, when evil forces its ugly way in, you’re in charge. You’re ready to beat down the threats, and you’re ready to keep me in line. I trust you.

Back to my list of wants: no death and no bad guys. Why are there enemies? Why do I have enemies? I’m following you, trying to do the right thing, and still there are people who don’t like it, don’t like me. But what a remarkable God you are that you give those very people a front row seat to the good things you’re doing in my life. You mark me with your blessing, your fragrant anointing oil, and you make me sit down to feast as they watch. I guess, Lord, if I’m getting in line with what you want, so long as you’re pouring I should ask that blessings will overflow my cup so that even my enemies will get to sip of your best wine. There’s always room in the flock for a few more.

You go before me in goodness and mercy and goodness and mercy follow me. Mercy and goodness everywhere I look—open my eyes to see! Not one day of life has been untouched by your love. Your everlasting love shelters me now and will shelter me into eternity. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.

Let it be so.

 

Jesus: Our Shepherd

Connect
Whose hospitality have you enjoyed recently? What made it special?

Study
Read Psalm 23.
What does the Lord do in this Psalm and what does that tell us about Him? What do we do?
Where does the action take place, and why is that significant?
How is “the valley of the shadow of death” like/unlike “my enemies”? Why are both included?
A shepherd cares for a flock but the flock isn’t mentioned. How does that affect the tone?
How does this Psalm assure us of God’s presence and comfort in all circumstances?

Live
Which images from this Psalm most stand out to you and why?
Share examples of God providing for you, leading you, saving you and caring for you.
Does your life’s landscape currently look more like green pastures or dark valleys? Explain.
What threatens to make you afraid? How can God’s presence with you combat those fears?
Where do you sense God leading you currently?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?

Pray
Praise the Lord for His intimate love and care for us throughout life.

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Creating Trust

As we head into the holiday season, many of us anticipate time with family and extended family… Cue the emotions! While today’s post isn’t about holidays, it is about trusting God with our families in life’s everyday moments and the brutal no-one-wants-that-news time-suspending experiences. It serves as a good reminder to never take life–and the people who grace or sustain our lives–for granted. (BTW, Sarah does make darling Christmas decorations and I am proud to own an original!)

Create Challenge #39: Sarah Johnson

When I was asked to contribute to this blog and the topic was “creating” my mind immediately went to the physical sense of the word. I asked myself, what do I create? Well, I like to think I create a comfortable home that my husband and children enjoy and feel safe in. Then I thought, well, I’m creative! I like to make Christmas decorations, and was even able to sell some (for actual money)!

But God was not ready for me to “create” this story yet.in-god-we-trust-header

Then one evening in February He gave me a real story worth sharing. It was not an easy story to take in as my reality, but He gave it to me anyway.

You see, my mom had a subarachnoid brain hemorrhage. She was all the way in Dallas, Texas, while I was all the way in Northern California. The call came with this devastating news well into the evening, too late to get a flight home to be with her.

Here is where Trust comes in. I had no choice but to Trust that the Lord had my mom in His hands. And I had to Trust that He already knew the outcome to this devastating news that was my very fresh and raw reality. As I lay on the couch waiting for my 3:00am alarm to sound, so that I could fly to Dallas, I had to Trust.

I arrived into Dallas and made it to the hospital before my mom was even out of her 5 hour craniotomy. Again Trust. But I was starting to feel something totally unexpected. I was feeling the comfort of the Lord surrounding me and my family during this extremely difficult time, a time that I would have thought I would be sitting there feeling completely helpless. I felt almost empowered by the Grace of God, and I just “knew” my mom was going to be OK.

So all of a sudden I found myself in this role that I had not expected to be in, a role only the Lord would see fit for the youngest daughter of three. A role of a rock, a rock that my father was able to lean on, a rock that my sister was able to lean on, and a rock that my BIG brother was able to lean on. You see, I would have guessed that my big brother would have taken that role or even my sister; they are older and wiser, right? But God had another plan. I trusted Him in this, and ran with it.

I was able through Trust to see the Lord’s hand working in all of us. I could already see Him working through my brother, stirring emotions in him that had not been stirred in a while. I could feel His presence during different conversations I had with many different family members and close family friends. I was able to stay strong and, hopefully through this strength, show others God’s Grace. I could see and feel the Lord very clearly, and I just knew my mom was going to be okay.

We are on the other side of this horrific event, an event I would not wish on my worst enemy. But we are all stronger because of it. My mom is doing great and, to be honest, better than she was before.

God works in mysterious ways; He will go to great lengths to make things happen, and to answer our prayers. You see, my mom was not a bad person, not evil or malicious. She just was not always happy. A bit cynical at times, like you never knew what kind of mood she was going to be in. So for years my sister had been praying that the Lord would soften her heart. Well, guess what? He did! Since she had the brain injury she has laughed more than ever. She is always positive, and reminding all of us to look at life with the glass half full instead of empty.

Trust, my friend, is what the dear Lord created in me that evening in February.

sjohnson

 

 

My name is Sarah Johnson. I’m a native Texan who has been living in the beautiful state of California for the past 21 years! I met my husband 20 years ago, and we have been married for 17 years and counting. We have two beautiful daughters, a 12 year old and a 14 year old. I do miss all my family and friends in Texas (desperately!), but I do love the life I have built out here as well.