Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Theological Themes in Children's Literature: The Hundred Dresses

I read Eleanor Estes' book The Hundred Dresses for the first time just a couple of years ago.  I had read all of the Moffat books as a young girl and saw this one in the bookstore one day, attracted by the lovely cover art by Louis Slobodkin.  I took the book into the bookstore's cafe, read it in about thirty minutes, and then bought the copy.

The story is about a little girl named Wanda Petronski.  She wears the same faded blue dress to school every day, but she claims that she has a hundred beautiful dresses at home -- all lined up in the closet.   Of course the other students don't believe her, and even make fun of her.  Wanda Petronski doesn't have any friends.  She lives with her father and her brother in a part of town that the other students are afraid to go.

The Hundred Dresses is about Wanda, but it is also about two little girls:  Maddie and Peggy.  Maddie and Peggy are best friends.  Peggy is one who teases Wanda about her hundred dresses.  Maddie does not join in but feels guilty because she doesn't stand up for Wanda.  In part, she is afraid because she is poor, too.  She wears hand-me-down clothes, and she fears that if she says anything, Peggy will begin to tease her as well.

The story is told from Maddie's point of view, and, at least in part, backwards, beginning from the day that Maddie and Peggy first notice that Wanda has not been coming to school.   There is something gentle and truthful and simple about the way the story unfolds, the expected cruelties and the unexpected kindness.

In the end we find out that Wanda is not just a poor girl with one faded blue dress.  There is more to her than meets the eye, and in the course of the small book her true worth is revealed.

Maddie struggles with knowing what is right and not doing it, with not standing up for Wanda, and later with feeling that she will not have the opportunity to make it right between herself and Wanda, never be able to do something good to make up for her misdeeds, never be able to say she's sorry, because Wanda has moved away and she will never be reconciled.  But as it turns out, it is Wanda who makes it right -- in a small, poignant act of grace.

The mystery of each person, the repentant heart, and the free gift of grace -- all these themes are effortlessly present in Eleanor Estes' graceful story.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Questions without Answers

Every Wednesday morning, our congregation holds a small Matins service in our small chapel.  We pray, we sing, we hear the scriptures.  There is a short homily.

This week it was my turn, and, as I had Sunday School and Faith Formation on my mind, I decided to ask the worshippers about their experiences and memories of Sunday School.  What did they learn?  What did they remember?  Several people remembered the songs that they learned, or a favorite Sunday School teacher.  One woman offered that she learned in Sunday School that "The adults in the congregation cared about me."  Others remembered memorizing Bible verses or the catechism.

One woman shared that one of her Sunday School teachers had posed the question, "Is it better to be in church, but thinking about being out in your fields, or out in the fields, but thinking about God?"

"And you still remember that, even all these years later," I said.

"Well, I'm still not sure I know the answer," she replied.

I thought that Sunday School teacher was awesome.  I've been thinking about it all week.  This woman was given a question that has haunted her for her whole life, something she has been mulling over and considering.  She doesn't know the answer, and yet she keeps coming back, keeps digging deeper into faith and life and doubt and hope.

When we think about Christian education curriculum, what do we think about?  Songs?  Stories?  Prayers?  I do believe that the foundations of faith are the stories of scripture, the songs and prayers we learn, the prayers we make out of our hearts.  But then again,  what if a large part of the curriculum is questions?  And what if some of the questions don't have answers, except for the answers that you live every day of your life as a disciple of Jesus?

I can't help noticing that Jesus asked a lot of questions.  It's true, he also prayed and he told stories too (although a lot of those stories held a lot of questions as well).  In fact, when people asked him a question, he almost always answered them with another question.  He gave them not just something simple that they could hold in their hands, but something they could mull over, consider, and live with for the rest of their lives.  He gave the something they could return to at different ages and at different stages of their lives.

"What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?"

"Who do you say that I am?"

"Do you love me?"

"What do you want me to do for you?"

We have often thought of the value of faith formation for the answers it provides, and for simple foundational statements we can cling too.  But what if the value of faith formation also lies in the questions that don't let us go, but that haunt us, and keep us coming back, digging deeper into the resources of scripture, song, lived experience and prayer?

A friend called me once because her three-year-old daughter was asking, "Where is God?  and she wasn't sure how to answer.  I searched and searched around and finally found a wonderful little book for three-year-olds and I sent it to her in the mail.  But it occurs to me now that "Where is God?" is not just a question for three-year-olds.  It is a question you can ask at three and at thirty-three, and at one hundred and three.  It is a question we can spend our whole lives asking, and answering, and asking again.

Is it better to be out in the fields, but thinking about God, or in church, but thinking about being out in the fields?

What do you think?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Courage to Sing

Tomorrow it is what is known as "Rally Sunday" in our congregation.  It's not in the liturgical calendar, but it's a sort of "unveil-the-education-year" and "have-a-party" sort of day, particularly in our denomination.

For part of the "party" tomorrow, we will have a dunk tank.  The Senior Pastor is one of the people who will sit in the dunk tank.  I am not going to sit in the dunk tank.  There is something about a dunk tank that makes my inner shy person kick in.

A couple of people tried to tease me into doing it, and part of me wonders why I am so reticent.  The Senior Pastor is really looking forward to it.  I have always called myself 'courage-impaired'; perhaps that is it.  I don't downhill ski, hang-glide or jump out of airplanes.  I have been on roller coasters, but they are not my favorite thing.  I have a not-so-irrational fear of falling down, as I actually have fallen down a lot.  So, perhaps, 'courage-impaired' is the right diagnosis.

This is not a good trait for a pastor, because it takes courage to lead.  It takes courage to tell the truth, make a decision, put yourself out there, set a course of action.  It is not good for a pastor to be 'courage-impaired.'

However, I do sing.

I chant the liturgy, when called upon, and I sing sometimes in nursing homes, and at gravesides.  I will sing a snatch or two in the pulpit, on occasion.  One summer I ran a summer program for children in a local church.  Every day I led a time of singing.   A capella.    I didn't think about it at the time, but it occurs to me that this was a courageous act.  Why I would rather lead a bunch of 2nd graders in a capella singing than sit in a dunk tank is beyond me.

I do not have an incredible voice, although I did take some piano lessons, and I sang in the choir some, too.  But not everyone who sings in a choir is willing to stick their voice out, solo.  It takes courage.

I have always thought of courage as an innate trait.  You are either courageous or you are not.  But maybe, just maybe, I am wrong.  Courage is not innate.  I learned a little about singing:  how to breathe, the sound of some notes, a few tunes (okay, actually a lot of tunes).

Courage has something to do with trust, it turns out.  You open your mouth, and you trust that the notes will come out.  You trust the lilt of the tune, the meaning of the words.  You open your mouth and you trust that people will sing along when you invite them.  And that even if it is wrong, it will be all right, in the end.

Leadership and singing have something in common, too:  You have to put your voice out there, sing a line, and ask people to follow you.  It's good to learn a few tunes, so you can know the moves, and have an idea where the song will go.  And sometimes the people follow you, and sometimes the people sing with you, a song you have all learned to sing together.

As it turns out, leaders are not the only ones who have to have courage.  And trust.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Whole Experience

Every year, in spring, a youth-oriented mission organization hosts training events in our church.  For a week, they train the young adults who will serve as leaders for the high school youth who will be traveling all over the country learning what it means to serve in mission as followers of Jesus.  They sleep in our building, take over all of our classrooms, and sit in corners studying.  They have animated one to one conversations in the chapel.

And they come to worship on Sunday.  At our 8:45 traditional service.

Now I am not sure about this, but I suspect that most of the young people who come to our church for training are not Lutheran.  I suspect that most of them come from somewhat less liturgical traditions than our own.  And our 8:45 traditional service does follow the Lutheran liturgy.  We have chanting.  We sing the Kyrie  and the Sanctus.  We kneel for prayer.  We have communion every Sunday.  We don't offer Sunday School during this service, and it is fair to admit that the participants (with a couple of exceptions) skew toward the older members of the congregation.

So every year we have this invasion of twenty-two and twenty-three year olds at this early service where there are a lot of retired people.  And I will admit that, for me, at least, it suddenly makes liturgy seem a lot different.

Don't get me wrong:  I love liturgy:  the chanting, the prayers, the symbols, the flow of it all.  However, I have also enjoyed a good charismatic prayer service on occasion.  They each have their own integrity.

So this year, the young people worshipped with us again.  During the communion, we offer both individual cups and the common cup.  People were beginning to be ushered forward.  After one young man received the bread, I heard him say to the woman next to me (serving wine), "I want the cup.  I want the whole experience."

The Whole Experience.  Have you ever thought of liturgical worship in this way?

I can't read this young man's mind, of course, but I considered that he was basking in what was, to him, a strange and mysterious form of worship.  But instead of being suspicious and thinking, "These people, with their written prayers and chants and vestments, can't be real Christians," he was open to the Holy Spirit teaching him what it might be about.  He was sure that something or other was there for him, in the words, the gestures, the sounds, the cup.

It made me think that perhaps the problem of liturgy is that we take it for granted.  For those of us who know it, there are comforting words we know by heart.  We have heard so often that liturgy is a barrier to people that we have (perhaps) come to be a little sensitive and defensive about it.  We may even be so comfortable that we don't realize that there are depths here that we have never plumbed, things that we have not yet learned, much less learned to share.  And it certainly is true that we need to re-interpret and re-imagine liturgy for every age and era where we live.  There are new tunes, new rhythms,  to which we will set the ancient story.  But the strangeness and mystery of liturgy can be a gift, not a barrier, if we welcome the stranger, if we have eyes to see, if we too are open to The Whole Experience.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

"Always Follow the Cross"

It was a hectic morning at church, what with the Boy Scouts hosting a pancake breakfast, and the service projects after church, and the communion ministers going out to the shut-ins.  This was the last weekend for the 9:00 a.m. service.  All summer we have had families, of one sort or another, be the assisting ministers.  Family members ring the bell to begin the service, process in with the cross, read the lessons, assist with the prayers of the church, and help with communion.  This has been such a blessing to our summer worship, with all kinds of families and all ages a part of worship every week.  (Today, a three year old helped us with the prayer responses, saying, "Hear us O God...." so that we could respond, "Your mercy is great.")  Sometimes, though, right before worship, there is a flurry of activity, while assistants check in with us about the prayers and ask us last-minute questions about the service.

This morning I had just finished the Call to Worship, and we were beginning the opening hymn.  The young woman who was processing with the cross stood in the back of the church, waiting for a cue.  Another assistant whispered, "Do we follow you?"  "No," I whispered back.  "The cross goes first.  Always follow the cross."

"Always follow the cross."  This is good liturgical order, but of course, it is more than that.  It is how we live our whole lives.  We always follow the cross.  The cross always goes first.  Jesus always goes ahead of us.  And when I say that "Jesus always goes ahead of us," I mean, specifically, the One who was crucified but lives.  I don't mean the God who 'is there for you when you need him,'  but specifically the one who healed the sick, cured lepers, made the powerful angry, and who conquered death for our sake.

"Always follow the cross."

There are times, I suppose, when I wonder why we keep going to worship, week after week, kneeling and praying, raising our voices in songs of praise and lament.  In the busy-ness of modern life, worship has often become the most expendable thing.  But I have often thought that, at its best, worship is practice:  ritual practice for a life of faith.  So we practice kneeling and go out to serve; we practice singing together in unison or harmony, and we go out to live together with our neighbors, creating unison and harmony where there is discord; we practice praise and lament and bringing the cares of our lives and the world before God.  And we follow the cross.  Always.

I don't know if worship really functions this way for most people, but I'm sure that is one of the things worship is for.  Practice.  It is time to practice what we will live all week.  Lord, have mercy.... Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy praise.... In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread...Send me, Jesus.....

.Always follow the cross.

Jesus always goes ahead of us.

I don't know about you, but I need help remembering that.  And I need help practicing that.  Every Sunday.  And every day.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

There's Nothing Like a Fresh Tomato from the Garden

I'm not much of a gardener.  But I try, a little.  Mostly, I try tomatoes.

This may be because my mom always planted tomatoes.  She didn't plant anything else.  She grew up on a farm, and her own mother had a huge and impressive garden.  My mom wasn't in favor of the time a large garden would involve.  But she did always plant one tomato plant.

Because, you know, there's nothing like a fresh tomato from the garden.

This was a truth that my mother impressed upon me at a young age.  There is nothing like a fresh tomato from the garden.  So I try to plant a tomato plant or two.

I have tried a few other crops.  My dad and I planted a few hills of cucumbers one summer many years ago.  We were surprisingly successful.  I tried it in my large backyard in rural South Dakota on summer and all of the cucumbers were misshapen.  They were not too tasty either.  My one successful crop in South Dakota was carrots.  I planted peas and got a few good ones.  I planted three times as many the next year; rabbits ate them all.  I judged the success of my carrot crop by the fact that my niece and nephew (about four and five at the time) ate them.  Whenever they had carrots, they would ask my mom, "Are these Diane's carrots?"  If the answer was yes, they would eat them.

So, since returning to the Big City, my gardening goals are much lower.  I plant basil, not because I know too much what to do about it, but because anyone can grow basil, and it makes me feel good about myself.  And, on occasion, I try to plant a tomato plant.  Not every year.

This year I felt especially ambitious, and I planted two plants:  one cherry tomato bush, and the other a larger variety.  I did not pay much attention at the time.  And in our rainy spring and early summer, the bushes exploded.  They were bigger than any tomato plant I had ever seen in recent memory!  They took over the back yard and covered up a beautiful, new rose bush we had planted last fall.  One of the plants, I thought, was almost as tall as I was.

I had mixed feelings about this.  I wanted good fruit, but I also wanted something manageable, not so wild-looking.

Then it was August, and everyone was talking about harvesting tomatoes.  And my tomatoes, on those huge, impressive plants, my tomatoes were the deepest of deep green.  Some of my friends comforted me, saying, "Our tomatoes are still green too," and that worked for awhile, until they started saying, "um, sorry, now our tomatoes are nice and red."

But every day I would go out and take a look.  And very early every morning I would go out and water those tomatoes.  I desperately wanted them to turn red, so I could taste them.

Because, you know, there's nothing like a fresh tomato from the garden.

In the meantime,  a couple of people shared their harvest with me.  They knew how much I wanted to taste that goodness.  They knew I was waiting.

There's nothing like a fresh tomato from the garden.

In John 15, Jesus says to his disciples,  "You did not choose me, but I chose you.  And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last."

Imagine that.  What God wants from us is to bear fruit.  The work of discipleship is the work of bearing fruit.  Go and bear fruit, Jesus says to us, while our lives are still green, but we hope they will turn red.  Go and bear fruit, he says, when the snow is late in leaving, or the heat is overwhelming, or it is too cool to grow things, or when it is dry.

God wants our lives to bear fruit.  And not only that, God promises that our lives will be fruit.  Standing out there, watering those gosh-darned tomatoes, I think about that.  Most of us are an ordinary people, and God promises that somehow our lives will bear fruit, that something will last.

So finally, and finally, the cherry tomatoes and the large tomatoes are beginning to turn red.  And what I'm realizing is that even though there are only two tomato plants, it's a pretty good bet that I will have more tomatoes than I really need.  I will have tomatoes to share.

Because, you know, there's nothing like a fresh tomato from the garden.

"You did not choose me, but I chose you.  And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last."

Peace, justice, mercy.

The love of God in Christ.