I’ve written several posts about the Upper Room, the kid-friendly space in our sanctuary balcony where school-age children go during the worship service. There they take part in quiet crafts, books, and other activities, all the while listening and participating in the worship service in their own way. It’s always gratifying to hear about a child asking her parent about something she heard while puttering around the Upper Room. Children listen.
You can read about some of our new challenges and growing pains here. It’s all good and natural stuff as we seek to be hospitable to our young friends upstairs in the balcony and our young-at-heart friends downstairs in the pews.
But I wanted to share a BIG cause of joy—the Upper Room is getting a mural! One of our folks has contacted an artist, Kate Cosgrove, who generously and graciously allowed us to use her work to adorn our walls. Nancy, the mother of two of your little ones, did the outlining based on Kate’s work, and the kids are filling in the color.
The idea is that the children would work at various times before and after worship, but last Sunday there was so much joy and momentum that, well, they kept going during church itself. Yes, things got a bit boisterous. But the photos of this masterpiece-in-progress speak for themselves:
This year I’m trying to see as many of the big Oscar nominees as possible. Last Friday I checked off my first film: Philomena, which is about an Irish woman’s search for her son, who was adopted by American parents some 50 years before. Philomena was one of the Magdalene girls, unwed mothers who were essentially incarcerated in various Catholic institutions and forced into unpaid labor as payment for their shameful mistakes.
It’s an excellent movie, though devastating to watch. It brings up any number of issues related to faith. Here are a couple:
The importance of forgiveness. I wished for a more nuanced portrayal of the topic, however. Near the end of the movie, there’s a scene in which a roomful of religious people practically cluck in disdain at the character of Martin Sixsmith (the journalist who’s been helping Philomena), who is livid at the injustice and secrecy that has persisted for decades. The implication in their response (including Philomena’s) is that he needs to let go of his anger and forgive because such negative feelings serve no purpose.
Forgiveness is indeed a gift of grace. And simmering resentments can corrode our lives. But Martin’s anger in that moment was appropriate. Given the magnitude of the injustice, it was more than that. It was righteous.
I’d wager that any anger the real Martin felt provided motivation for the writing of the book, which after all, served to bring this important story to light. Anger, properly harnessed, is a powerful fuel, and it bothers me when religious people are portrayed in such a milquetoast manner in popular culture.
But pop culture didn’t invent that image out of whole cloth. The Church, if I may be so monolithic, has offered plenty of inspiration for such a portrayal.
But it’s not just the anger and forgiveness thing…
Issues of the body and sexuality. We are still so primitive when it comes to talking about sex and our bodies. The young Philomena is doubly disadvantaged: she was not taught enough basic anatomy to understand how to prevent pregnancy. But she wasn’t taught anything about her body and its own pleasures, either—she admits with some chagrin that she enjoyed her “sin,” and exclaims to Martin Sixsmith, I never even knew what a clitoris was!
We in the Church are still dealing with the aftermath of that old Greek dualism in which the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writers were steeped: spirit good, body bad.But as Martin’s character asks Philomena, what kind of God would create us with these natural sexual urges and then saddle us with such screwed-up, shame-filled religious baggage at the same time? How can something that feels so good be so very very bad? (Secular culture is not much better. Yes, the contours are different. But body image issues, self-punishment to fit an unattainable ideal, the rise of cosmetic surgery in the age of Photoshop—it’s not like the Church is a lone dysfunctional voice.)
We can rejoice that the Magdalene laundries are a memory (though not a distant enough one; the last one closed in the ’90s). But it’s still hard for us to talk about the body in a mature and meaningful way. The spiritual resources are there; we just have to embrace them.
Last week I wrote an endorsement for a book of spiritual practices for families. It’s a wonderful resource, full of ideas for parents to bring their faith into everyday life, whether it’s offering blessings at bedtime or welcoming a new pet to the family. It was one of the easiest endorsements I’ve written, and you’ll be hearing more from me about the book when it’s released.
But as I reflected on the legacy of Philomena, I realized with a start that there’s nothing in the book about children’s physical and sexual development. And I’m not saying this to knock the book at all—I myselfdidn’t see a thing missing until the movie prompted me to think about these things.
An obvious one: there must be a way for families (or at least mothers) to mark the occasion of a girl’s first period from a spiritual/faith perspective. My eldest daughter is excited because I’ve promised to take her to Spa World to celebrate this milestone. But there must be more that could be said or done. I’m not talking about a big show or an embarrassing display. I’m talking about some language celebrating God’s good gift of creation and the beauty of our bodies, fearfully and wonderfully made.
How about a teen’s first date? Or a first breakup? Surely the Christian tradition can offer more than a pint of Ben and Jerry’s…
What about a young person’s coming out?
And the real kicker. According to Wikipedia, the average age for a young person to have sex for the first time is 17. That means they’re living under our roofs when it happens. How do we respond to this from a faith perspective?
Can I envision what a faith-filled ritual would look like between parent and young person after she loses her virginity? No, I really can’t. Does such a thing sound easy? Do we need to consider the young person’s privacy and autonomy? No and yes. But that’s all the more reason for the church to be a resource for parents. Don’t we want the kind of relationships with our children such that they could share news of that milestone with us? If so, then we should be ready, with the best our tradition can offer them. (See Tami Taylor’s conversations with Julie on Friday Night Lights—some great stuff to build on there. So simple and authentic.)
I’m not talking about a lecture on abstinence. Parents should communicate their own values, though lectures aren’t terribly effective in my experience. I’m also not talking about the contraception/condoms discussion, though such a conversation is essential; it’s borderline parental malpractice not to have it.
No, I’m talking about making it clear to our kids that their sexual lives are not divorced from their faith, but an essential part of it. I’m talking about repairing the body/spirit duality such that our lives are one integrated whole.
Does a resource containing such rituals exist? If so, I hope my readers will alert me. If not, maybe my friend will write a sequel.
Hey, I’d love for you to join my email list for further inspiration and content. And if you haven’t already checked out Sabbath in the Suburbs, the price has dropped on Amazon! And of course it’s available from Chalice Press, my publisher.
Image: The Dench and Steve Coogan in a still from the movie. If you’re interested in discerning fact from dramatic license in the film, here’s a place to start.
The Spirit descended from heaven like a dove… or from the balcony like a piece of paper.
I wrote several months ago that Tiny Church has done away with Sunday School as we know it. Many of you were interested in our Upper Room ministry, so much so that the post went viral… as much as a post about churchy stuff can go viral.
So how’s it been going? I wanted to check in about this, since I know others (especially those in small congregations) are considering alternatives to Sunday School. As we think about “what’s next” in our churches, we need to share not only the ideas, but the successes and failures of those ideas, and they ways they get tweaked. Tangent: check out the Paracletos Project through NEXT Church, in which two congregations engaged in revitalization will work with a coach and share their learnings.
Well, it’s been mixed. Regarding the Upper Room: We are very fortunate to have a member of the church who’s offered to come up with a simple craft option most Sundays, but coordinating that is a challenge—ideally the activity would tie in to the sermon or theme for worship. And it also has to be as silent as possible! (Check out my Upper Room Pinterest board.)
The Upper Room is also a victim of its own success: a few Sundays ago we had 11 children up there. Wow! How wonderful… but that’s really too many with only one adult, especially considering that some of them are on the young side. We need a backup adult there too.
We also have a few new extroverts in the mix. What to do with them? We’re trying to educate parents and kids that this is not communal time—that children are there to listen to the Spirit through the worship and through “their own work”—but it’s not easy.
My original post also mentioned a few other ideas. We’re trying to figure out how to equip parents as faith educators. I’ve been previewing the Vibrant Faith materials; I get the weekly email and wonder whether it would be something we could share with families. I absolutely love the stuff at the Practicing Families website.
My time with the children during Sunday worship has been more thematic. In September I was guiding the kids through the different parts of the sanctuary and what they mean. Next I think I will try a stewardship theme (including stewardship of creation and the body), then it’s time for Advent and Christmas.
In our meeting with the parents last spring, we talked about having “pullouts” from time to time. Instead of Sunday School every week, which has been hard for a church our size to sustain, we’re looking at, say, four to six weeks in the fall and again in the spring for a specific purpose. Our choir director has offered to prepare a choir piece with any children who are interested. I’d like to give that a look in November and/or early December, so the kids can present something in worship during Advent. This also gives children a break from the Upper Room, which keeps it from getting stale.
We’re still feeling our way. The day we had 11 kids in the Upper Room was a little rowdy. As I preached I would would hear these random sounds and shushes from up there and think, Maybe this is a crazy idea.
I wondered again during the sharing of joys and concerns, when one of our folks who works at the Navy Yard was sharing a prayer request about that situation. As he spoke I saw one of the younger children come to the balcony rail and drop a piece of paper over the side. I watched as it fluttered down and landed directly behind the man, in the lap of a quiet older woman whose husband we’d just buried a few weeks before. The horror.
I’m sure my facial expressions were a complete non-sequitur to this poor guy, who had no clue what kind of “death from above” antics were going on behind him. I braced myself for a backlash after worship along the lines of kids today need to learn how to behave.
Instead, later in the service the woman raised her hand, held up the paper and said, “I just have to tell you all. This landed in my lap a moment ago. It’s a picture of Jonah and the whale, and here’s what that means to me today.” She concluded, “‘A child shall lead them’ after all!”
We’re continuing our journey around the world through our running, walking, biking and swimming. We have been plotting our course to Democratic Republic of Congo, where we will hear from a woman in our church who works for USAID. She will talk about her work and a ministry she interfaces with in the DRC. The service will have a special focus on that region of the world.
You may know Flat Stanley, the guy from the children’s books who shows up all over the world as people take pictures of him in various locales.
Well, First Presbyterian—and Tiny Church—are adapting this practice as Flat Jesus:
This Sunday in the UpperRoom we will have the kids decorate this image, printed on a bunch of cardstock. Following the service we will hand him out and encourage people to photograph him on their vacations and business trips. These photos will go up on our map.
Why? Because it’s fun. Because it’s summer and people are traveling.
A short follow-up to yesterday’s post about bidding farewell to children’s Sunday School at Tiny Church, in favor of the Upper Room and other activities.
For several weeks in late April/early May we adapted the “ribbon ritual” that took place at the NEXT Conference in Charlotte in March. At Tiny Church, the ritual built over a series of weeks and ended on Pentecost. The previous week, people had written their names on ribbons with different prayer words they selected. Then on Pentecost, we handed out the ribbons and folks were invited to take those home and pray for that person over the coming weeks.
We had the children hand out the ribbons before going to the Upper Room. One of the children spent the rest of the service creating a sort of “cocoon” in which to put the prayer ribbon she received. This was not an assignment. This was her own initiative, using nothing but paper and tape.
I especially love the lid that tapes shut for safekeeping. And of course, the heart.
Children do listen, process and respond.
Speaking of heart, I am off this afternoon to one of my heart places, Mo-Ranch in the Texas Hill Country, where I will lead the good folks of St. Philip Presbyterian Church in a Sabbath retreat. My piece is minimal: a few presentations and a sermon on Sunday. The real Sabbath comes from walks under the grape arbor and across the catwalk, BBQ by the river, and long hours in God’s hot tub, the rapids of the Guadalupe River.
St. Philip is where Robert and I married almost 19 years ago, where I first felt called to ministry, and where I was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament 10 years ago. It will be lovely to go home to those great folks, many of whom I remember, some of whom are friends I haven’t met yet.