Sunday, August 26, 2007

Loving the Unlovely

A week ago, I attended a “high tea,” a program two ladies of our church put together for our ladies’ group at my church. It was an exquisite evening. The meal portion of the tea was served in three courses, each course served with several different kinds of tea. As we ate and drank, JoAnne, one of the hostesses, explained the history and etiquette behind the tea ceremony.

Afterwards, JoAnne explained the source of her interest and expertise in the tea ceremony. JoAnne taught high school English for twenty years before retiring. As part of her curriculum on British and colonial literature, she would hold a tea ceremony each year. She bought a set of plain white china plates and tea cups and brought in her British grandmother’s antique china tea pot. Before the scheduled class, she locked the door and put a shade over the class window so no one could see the transformation of the classroom. She set a paper doily, a china plate and tea cup on each desk. As the class went through the ceremony, she served the dainty food and several blends of tea.

Sound a little frumpy for high school kids? Not at all. After kids had experienced it in her class, they would come to her the next year. “Are you doing that tea thing again? Can I help?” they would ask. Years later, her students still remembered the tea ceremony.

“You know who appreciated the tea ceremony the most?” she asked us. “It was the worst kids in my classes. They were so surprised that anyone would do something that nice for them.”

As a fellow teacher, I was inspired in my own teaching. It made me think of something that happened a month ago in junior church. One of my worst kids was being his normally worst self. An elder came down to serve Communion to me and any other baptized children as is our custom. I wondered how I could get this child to stand still long enough to be respectfully quiet. I called him to stand beside me and put my arm around him, expecting him to squirm away. Instead, he nestled into the crook of my arm and stayed there quietly, pressing his little head against my side. Was he surprised that someone would hug him?

Our human nature wants to lash out to these worst kids. We find ourselves instinctively raising our voices, adding a hard edge to our tone, rationalizing that that’s all they understand. They’re the hardest ones of all to show love and kindness to. Yet, when we do, those are the ones who will appreciate it the most. Why? Because they need it the most.

It makes me think of Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek, loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:38-43). Why did Jesus say this? Because Jesus knew. The ones who are the worst are the ones who need the love the most and they’re not going to get it from anywhere else. The light of love shines most brightly in the greatest darkness.

Who needs the light of Christ’s love this week in your life? What special kindness can you do that will surprise them that someone would do something that nice for them?

Friday, August 24, 2007

What's On Your Reading List?

As a teacher, my goal is to teach and influence the children I serve. I don’t know how much I have accomplished over the years in influencing the lives of my students, but I know that they have influenced and taught me perhaps far more than I have ever given to them. Just in the area of good literature, my own two children have spurred me to go far beyond what I normally would read.

Recently my reading habits have been reduced to email, internet blurbs, and the occasional John Grisham novel. Yet this summer, my younger daughter had to read three books of classic literature to prepare for her senior AP English class. We agreed we would read several of the books together so she would have someone to talk to about them. So this summer, I have read, “Pride and Prejudice: by Jane Austin, “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw. My, oh my! For someone used to writing and reading tight, fast paced articles, the long descriptions and introspective morality and social climate discussions have been quite a stretch. I thought I would get bored or have trouble focusing on the page long paragraphs that, according to modern publishing circles, didn’t move the plot along. Frankly, I’ve enjoyed this slower pace of literature. It’s literature you want to ponder, not rush through to see “who done it?” It poses great thoughts. And best of all, it shows that human nature and society of yesterday and today are still very similar. It’s been a stretching experience and I wouldn’t have done it without the challenge of my daughter. I will admit, I’m very glad someone made a musical out of “Pygmalion.” Much improved!

The influence of their reading habits is nothing new. When they were in elementary school, I was introduced to the whimsy of “Good Night Moon” and “The Very Quiet Caterpillar.” We read together the Little House on the Prairie books, the Chronicles of Narnia, Anne of Green Gables, and Tom Sawyer. Their middle school had a Battle of the Books program with quiz bowl type teams who answered questions on twelve different books. They brought home lists of some of the top Newberry and Caldecott book winners. And so I was introduced to “Holes,” “Bogart,” and “The Midwife’s Apprentice.”

One of their reading habits has pricked my conscience over and over, and inspired me to get back on track. Both of them read their Bibles daily. While we’ve emphasized the importance of Bible study in our house, I’m not sure they got this habit from me. I used to read my Bible shortly after they left for school, so they never really saw me establishing a devotional time of my own. I admit, I’ve let it slip over the years. Too often, my devotional time ends up as studying for a Sunday School lesson. As we started the new school year, I got up the first morning to find my high school senior daughter had not changed. Her light was on and she was quietly reading. I’m inspired to follow her lead and this final year of school, make Bible reading an everyday part of my day.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ingredients for a Successful VBS

As I mentioned in my last post, our church is holding VBS this week. In my role as storyteller, I’ve been impressed with the behavior of the children this year. In previous years, I went home discouraged and dismayed. Children talked while I was talking. They would punch each other, play with each other, act inattentive, stare at me and do nothing if I asked them a question or asked them to do something. There’s been hardly any of that this year. Why?

We’ve done some things differently this year and my suspicions say that this is why we are having such an attentive group of children. Here’s what I see.

1. Organization. The organization and structure this year is tight. Our directors have been holding meetings for two months. Every worker knows what they are supposed to be doing and when they are supposed to be doing it. I think children sense when the adults are insecure about what they are doing and the kids subconsciously act out because they are pushing the boundaries and the boundaries move. If you want well behaved kids, know what you are doing and make sure all your helpers know what you are doing as well.

2. Vision. Our directors took time to teach every worker, even the “snack ladies” about the theme, the major point for each day and the songs. We were encouraged to make sure that everything we did reflected the theme of the day. Every single worker was encouraged to keep emphasizing the theme throughout each evning. During this week, I’ve heard workers doing that, even the snack ladies.

3. Volunteers. I’ve noticed a wide variety of staff workers this year. In years past, we’ve had a lot of teenagers take key positions. This year, there are more adults. If teens are doing a key leadership role, there are plenty of adults around to support them. We’ve also had more men around. Several men are just “drifting through” helping when necessary and interacting with the kids. While I totally believe in helping our teens gain leadership skills by working in VBS, we need to remember that they are still inexperienced and they need support and training. We can’t back off and let them do all by themselves. In today’s society, our kids need male figures in their lives. I think the presence of both men and women have made this group of kids feel secure.

4. An engaging program. Our curriculum this year has been wonderful. The entire church has been turned into a water park with blue tarps, wading pools, beach towels and ice chests strewn around the church. As soon as the children walk into the auditorium, the power point projector is showing a slide show of pictures from the previous day. This is engaging their attention and drawing them into the program as soon as they arrive. They don’t have time to get bored!

5. The Power of God. We can do all we can do, but we still have to rely on God’s Holy Spirit to make sure His message connects with these precious children. I know people have been praying. A great prayer to pray during VBS is that children will listen and that they will not distract others from listening as well. Now our task is to pray that the message we’ve proclaimed this week will take root in these young lives and they will remember the God of Power they’ve met this week.


My next column will appear two weeks from now since my family will head to some quiet countryside for a long needed break. In the meantime, may the Lord bless your work with children, so that they will continue to grow in the knowledge, wisdom and grace of God.

Need Some Help?

Thank you so much for the good feedback I’ve been receiving from some of you, both in the comments section and at my private email. Some time back, a friend wrote in response to my blog entry on seeking help in the classroom. She wrote, “I really, really agree that it's nice to have people helping each other in different tasks, rather than one person taking the whole load on themselves. Most of the time, that's why I say "no" to doing things, because I'd have to be doing "whatever" all by myself, and it just seems too much. So I turn it down. Whereas if I could be working with someone, it would make all the difference. Even just "presence" and "moral support" can help.”

Many children’s ministry leaders would groan at Rhonda’s comments. It’s hard enough finding one teacher for a class, much less two for every class. Some teachers would rebel at having a helper. They feel threatened and intimidated by someone else in the room, especially if it’s another adult. Having a helper is too much work because you can’t fly by the seat of your pants if you have a helper. Instead of throwing a lesson together Sunday morning, you have to plan and provide ways for the helper to actually be a helper. And some people don’t like being helpers, especially if the very competent teacher has nothing for them to do. Why should they be standing around doing nothing?

Our church is holding VBS this week. I am the storyteller in our site rotation styled VBS. I have three different age groups of children coming through my door. For each group, I’ve had to prepare an introduction activity, a story, an application activity and a challenge. Basically three lesson plans for five nights in a row. I knew there was not way I could all this, but everyone, from the directors down, told me I was so good at storytelling, that I was the best one for the job. I still knew there was no way I could do it. I might be a great storyteller but my health is not good enough to handle that kind of punishing schedule.

I made it clear to the planning committee that I was no artist and there was no way I could begin to create the “environment” and backdrops for the story. No problem, they said. We’ll find others to do that. A man volunteered and we discovered Dale had undiscovered artistic ability

My next step was organizing the lessons. Each group travels with “park guides,” volunteers who take the children from station to station. So I got them involved. I gave them copies of the lesson plans and asked them to gather and prepare any materials needed for each of the activities. I gave them the option of leading some of the activities. I also found other people to help me do the dramatic storytelling. Sometimes they performed the skit; other times they pantomimed actions while I told the story. During the sessions, I’ve been the bridge from activity to story to activity.

At one point, I apologized to one of the park guides for “taking over” and asked her if she wanted to lead the next day’s beginning activity. “Are you kidding?” she said. “You do such a good job. You are the one to do it.” I told her that I’m not a good detail person and there was a lot to keep track of, so it meant a great deal to me for her to collect and prepare the materials. She dismissed my praise with a wave of her hand. “And that is absolutely fine with me,” she said.

It took a lot of coordination on my part to involve these different groups of people. But I’m so glad I did. They have relieved me to do what I do best and I know this week has been so smooth because I’ve had that cadre of helpers.

In America, we tend to think independently and give the wrong idea that everything is on our shoulders. I understand in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world, people have a different mindset. They tend to think as a collective, that it’s not one person making the work happen, but the entire team. Perhaps when it comes to children’s ministry, we need to have more of that collective mindset. It might take more work initially, but when we follow the biblical example of working as a cooperative team, we’ll find our children’s programs become far more effective.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Your Kids and Evolution

I’ve continued to receive interesting feedback on some of my columns recently. I want to comment on those to keep up the dialogue and I will do so in my next post later this week. After that, my family and I will be on a much needed vacation for ten days.

My latest “read” is Chuck Colson’s, “How Now Shall We Live?” an apologetic book that shows how Christians can stand up against opposing worldviews. In one of the early chapters, Colson uses a fictional story to tell how a daughter of church going parents has strayed from God, particularly because her head has been filled in school with the philosophy of naturalism, that the earth just happened, that nature has always been around and that humans are relegated to the level of animals because of evolutionary processes. Colson points out that this belief in evolution is all around us and begins its indoctrination process to even our smallest of children through displays at Disney World, science museums, movies, children’s books, and of course, the public school classroom starting, in my children’s experience, in third grade.

As I’m reading this chapter, my daughters are both at our church building preparing for their major roles in Vacation Bible School this week. They are young ladies who not only believe in Christ but contend for their faith. When they got home, I asked them to read this particular chapter, then I asked, “You’ve been exposed to this stuff too. What made you come out on the other side?” I guess I was fishing for, “What else besides your parents blowing gaskets on a regular basis about telltale lines in “Land Before Time” and in children’s museums influenced you to stick with a Christian worldview?”

One daughter’s answer hit me hard with its powerful message. “Before we were ever exposed to teaching about evolution, we were taught thoroughly that God and His creation are absolutely true.”

Her comment made me think of something I’d read years ago about how Christian parents in Communist Russia had to thoroughly ground their children in the foundations of Christianity before they ever hit first grade so that they could survive the indoctrination of the Communist run public schools. This is the tactic that we now must use in our postmodern society that espouses a hostile worldview to Christianity.

(Forgive me, I’m about to get strong here!) This is exactly why it is so utterly important for us to not lag in our Christian preschool programs. Preschool programs are not a babysitting time. We also need to be careful to not overbalance the life application section of the lesson as is the current trend. It’s not a waste to spend our teaching time telling children those bible stories over and over again about “God made the world” and “Jesus loves you.” When we do this we are laying down that critical foundation of truth that our kids will need to have before they are ever exposed to evolution thought in the elementary school.

And it can’t happen just in the Sunday School classroom once a week. Parents need to tell those bible stories over and over. Why? Not because they are stories of faith only. It is because they are truth and they establish God as the author of absolute truth.