Narrating Grace


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Prayers for the World

On my second day in Scotland, after I’d slept off some of the jet lag, I ventured onto a tour bus that took me to the Glasgow Cathedral. In the bright sunshine, the cathedral stood as a dark example of Gothic architecture, built before the Reformation, older than Lutheranism and anything I’d experienced since my college trip to Europe almost 20 years ago.

Sabbatical 001 A tour guide told of how the cathedral used to be called “The Pink Church” because its stones had a pink hue, but with the Industrial Revolution came soot and grime. Cleaning it would damage the exterior, yet the shaded stone holds a beauty of its own.

It was a warm afternoon yet once I stepped into the church it was dark and cool, with tourists milling around quietly. I first noticed signs of church life in the main area, including a sign-up for coffee following worship services on Sundays. The cathedral is still an active Christian congregation and part of the Church of Scotland.

The main worship area is surrounded by stained glass windows, including one portraying the beauty of creation with a river running through the trees:

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My next steps led me to a small table with candles, blank note cards, pencils and a box that said this:

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In that moment, so far from home, I felt the common bond of prayer, a bond that surpasses distance, time, language and even death itself. As I wrote my prayer and tucked it into the box, I was grateful for those who would share in my prayer, experiencing a vision of congregation members in Glasgow praying for the people of my church in White Bear Lake. I thought of the stream of tourists flowing through the cathedral all year round and the people who prayed for them all.

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Prayers with the Brothers

“One monk, when asked about diversity in his small community, said that there were people who can meditate all day and others who can’t sit still for five minutes…”
-Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk

The St. John’s Abbey Prayer Schedule is this:

7am Morning Prayer
Noon Prayer
5pm Eucharist
7pm Vespers

In my stretch of silent days at St. John’s in August, the brother who filled the role of spiritual director for me suggested I join the brothers and community in prayer. He was careful to say it wasn’t a requirement, but an opportunity if I chose to take it. I felt pulled toward liturgy, toward a prayer setting where I wouldn’t have to think, but only follow and listen. When I finally decided to head to the Abbey Church for prayer, I delighted in the stained glass windows, especially the water details:

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It wasn’t my first time praying with the monks. For two previous summers, I’d been part of the Collegeville Institute Summer Writing Workshops which involved residency at the Institute for a week. My first summer, many of the writers in my group went faithfully to prayer services at least once a day (my roommate went every morning at 7–I did not). My second summer, the writing group (made up of different people) wasn’t drawn to be with the monks. I was ambivalent, though I did go a few times.

Praying with the brothers last August felt odd and unfamiliar, as I hadn’t been there for a couple of years, and I spent my first experience shuffling books, craning my neck to peer at other’s pages in order to find my place. The chanting of psalms follows a different speech pattern than I’m used to, with long pauses between phrases, little vocal inflection and strange-to-me tone patterns. I kept peeking at the brothers, wondering at their traditional garb and scrutinizing whether they had the psalms memorized (some did). The pews are hard and cramped and it was a relief to stretch after we finished. Yet the Scripture for the prayers spoke to me.

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I gazed at the monks as they stood up to leave, knowing they would be back again at the next prayer time. I pondered their feet treading back and forth to the chapel four times a day, many of them for years and years, over and over again, cycling through the Psalms every day until the words nestled in their memories and hearts. Many of them appeared to sleep during the prayers, closing their eyes and rocking forward, mouths moving seemingly without effort or thought. Scripture was a part of them. I marveled at how prayer became sleep, a deep rest many lack. How often do we fall asleep during prayer, our bodies finally letting go of the day, the moment, the weight of expectations, the rushed pace of life? Some may say it’s boredom that leads to sleep in prayer. But again–how often do we sit still long enough to let ourselves be bored?

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Silence

Last August, as part of my sabbatical, I drove to Collegeville to stay in the St. John’s Abbey Guesthouse on silent retreat. I had originally planned to stay for a week, though my plans were changed due to different family events including tonsil removal recovery for my son and a nephew’s baptism that I didn’t want to miss. My retreat shortened to just four days, though I still slogged my way through preparations to leave.

When I left for Collegeville, I was crabby and tired, having recently returned home from seven weeks of travel and a weekend trip for the baptism, and was reticent to leave my still-healing son for several days. The thought of packing my suitcase one more time was almost more than I could bear. In the midst of everything else, I was preparing to return to work in a mere seven days. My sabbatical was about to end and I was both excited and anxious to return to church. My energy was officially sapped and I arrived at Collegeville fully overwhelmed.

In addition, the prospect of days of intense introspection dragged me down. I like being alone; I like quiet. Yet I also enjoy being distracted. I have a tendency to run a bit anxious and that along with a great imagination makes it hard for me to sit still with my thoughts. Knowing my personality and quiet nature, one would assume I’m great at mediation and silent prayer. The opposite is true.

Each morning in Collegeville I met with a brother and spiritual director for an hour to talk through my experiences on retreat and to process my relationship with God. At first I pushed against any expectations for my time. He suggested Scripture for me to mediate on; I refused. He gently offered prayers for me to pray; I shook my head. Finally, he told me that a spiritual retreat is about health, and he asked me to go for a long walk each day; I felt like I could breathe again. We agreed I would try a walk and no more. It was enough for that day.

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It turns out that if my body is moving and occupied my mind is much easier to settle. Praying doesn’t have to involve sitting for me. It flows when I walk, when my body is moving and stretching and busy. After a couple days of releasing myself from expectations of how I would pray, of accepting what I needed during those moments, I was able to relax, read a book, enjoy a cup of tea, watch a far-off thunderstorm crack the sky with lightening on the edge of the horizon where I had walked along the lake only hours before.

On the last sticky evening of my retreat, I strolled down to the campus beach with my towel, swam out to the floating dock and dove off, just as I had a million times on a million docks as a kid. I broke the still surface of the lake again and again, the cool water washing over me, wrapping me like a blanket. A full baptismal immersion. God’s love come to me, no questions asked, the silence interrupted only by the rush of water past my ears.

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Children’s Message for Luke 10:25-42

Check my blog each Wednesday for a children’s message idea for the Narrative Lectionary readings for the following Sunday, brought to you by my husband (a pastor and elementary teacher) and me.

This week’s reading includes 2 stories: The Good Samaritan and the story of Mary and Martha. I’d suggest focusing on one of them for a children’s message.

The Good Samaritan story is all about help from unexpected places. It’s tactile, physical help: The Good Samaritan uses his own hands to care for the injured man’s body, bandaging his wounds and pouring oil on his sores. He then brings him to an inn and stays with him overnight; I imagine The Good Samaritan tucking the man’s body into bed and sitting vigil by him until dawn, comforting him and changing dressings as necessary. It’s care taking at its most earthy and involves helping with someone’s basic needs using your own body.

This would be a good week to lift up the work of Thistle Farms, a residential program for women who are survivors of trafficking, addiction, and prostitution. Women whose bodies have been violated and hurt are given a safe space to heal. Current and graduate residents are employed in its social enterprise, which provides natural bath and body products for purchase. Women who have known bodily suffering find life and work for a new future by providing products that care for and heal others’ bodies. I can vouch for their products, as I mixed their Exodus Oil with the ashes for worship yesterday.

Or, if your congregation has a history of supporting refugee resettlement, this would be a good week to share stories about people and families your congregation has helped. Is there someone involved with this ministry who would be willing to share? How did this ministry change the lives of people they supported? How was your congregation changed by this experience? What did they learn?

This is also a fun week to encourage random acts of kindness (RAKs). Have the kids come up with random acts of kindness they can do throughout the week to surprise others with help. Have the congregation participate too. They can report back next Sunday!

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The story of Mary and Martha provides the opportunity to talk about Sabbath. Kids’ lives are often full and busy, which can be wonderful, but can also leave little time for Sabbath. Sabbath is not simply rest; it’s rejuvenation. Mary set down her tasks in order to listen to Jesus. When do we take the time to do this in our own lives?

A fun activity for this story is creating a Sabbath basket. Write down simple ideas for Sabbath for the next week:

Pray for 5 minutes, take a walk and pay attention to the sounds you hear, lay down and pay attention to your breathing, listen to a Christian radio station/favorite Christian song, read the words of a favorite hymn, etc.

Put these ideas into a basket and pass it around the worship space, having both kids and adults take one. Ask them to do their Sabbath activity sometime during the next week. Rather than giving them more tasks to do, you’re giving them homework to rest and refresh!

Alternatively, you could hand out blank sheets of paper and have people come up with their own Sabbath activity. What kinds of activities do they find uplifting and rejuvenating? How could they incorporate them into their daily lives this week?


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Prayer Habits and a Challenge

I’m a fan of Gretchen Rubin‘s work on happiness and habits, including her book Better Then Before, which is part memoir, part practical suggestions about forming good habits. As my congregation approaches the Lenten season (Ash Wednesday is only 2 days away), I’m doing something I haven’t done in a while: issuing a challenge during Lent. Last fall at our congregational retreat, I introduced the book Learning to Pray Again by Michael Rinehart and it was well-received. This Lent, I’m encouraging the congregation to read a chapter a day (the book is 40 short chapters)–and I’ll be reading it right along with them.

As I thought about ways to support myself and others in this endeavor, I went straight to Rubin’s work and started thinking about the connection between a fruitful prayer life and the ability to form and maintain good habits–because aren’t spiritual practices just that–daily, weekly, monthly practices? Rubin suggests that forming good habits is all about knowing yourself and setting up your life to support your desired habits…and I would include prayer in the list of desired habits.

Rubin writes in Better Than Before, “What I do most days matters more than what I do once in a while.” That’s why I’m offering a daily prayer challenge during Lent, and kick-starting a daily habit for 40 days may help all of us keep the habit after Easter.

Rubin came up with a 4 tendencies framework (you can take the quiz to discover your tendency) that puts people into 4 categories of habit-forming styles: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels.

Upholders are able to meet inner and outer expectations. These are people who can hold themselves to a regular prayer and devotional life. It may not be easy for them, but it’s probably easier than it is for other people.

Questioners question all expectations. They’ll stick to a habit or rule, but only if it makes sense to them. These are people who will consistently question if prayer is worthwhile, and if it’s effective to do it daily–or while sitting down, or with a devotional, or quietly, or   in a group, etc.–for it to be effective. Their prayer habits may change often according to what’s working for them in the current moment.

Obligers need outer accountability to keep habits. These are people who need a prayer group, or friend, or a goal–some external reason–to develop and keep a regular prayer habit (which is why I’m offering weekly book group opportunities during Lent).

Rebels resist all expectations. These are people who will develop a prayer life on their terms. They may NOT read the book daily just because they were asked to read it, but this doesn’t mean they have to write off a regular prayer life. In fact, Rubin was surprised to find a high percentage of rebels in a group of Christian ministers! Rebels will pray if they can choose to do it each day: I’ll pray because it works for me today. Tomorrow I may not. 

Which one of the Four Tendencies are you? How can knowing your tendency help you to form a regular prayer habit that works for you?


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Children’s Sermon Idea for Luke 9:28-45

The temptation when creating a children’s message for the transfiguration story is to explain or interpret the supernatural aspects of Jesus’ transformation on the mountain. An important reminder: kids aren’t developmentally ready to comprehend the theological aspects of the transfiguration. But–are any of us ready? Kids may help the congregation to embrace the mystery of the story without trying to explain it away.

It’s a story full of exciting details and drama. This would be a great Sunday to simply read it from a children’s Bible. A tip (this can also be used for other Scripture readings in worship, or for the regular sermon): have the kids (and the congregation) listen for a repeated word in the story. Each time they hear the word, have them do an action: repeat the word aloud, raise their hand, say “Amen,” etc. For this Sunday, handing out glow sticks for them to lift up when they hear a word would connect to the story. (Though I acknowledge these are wasteful–maybe flameless reusable tea lights would be a better option.)

Remember: kids are very used to sitting and listening to stories. They’re good at it and practice it every day in school. Don’t underestimate the power of storytelling, or feel like you’re shirking your children’s message by “only” reading it from a Bible. Scripture stands on its own!

Optional sensory activities:

*This is a great story to act out. Include an adult or two if you’re able. You could plan ahead and practice, but that’s not a requirement. A spontaneous acting out can be fun–where else in worship do we see spontaneity? Consider using simple props (pull out those Christmas program costumes!). Shining a flashlight under the chin of the person playing Jesus could represent the transfiguration.

*If you’d like to talk about the reaction of the disciples, set up a tent in the worship space and discuss how Peter wanted to stay on the mountain.  He wanted to contain Jesus’ power and keep it in one place. But Jesus doesn’t work that way. It’s fun to be in a tent for a while, but a tent is meant to be taken down and moved. Jesus wants his love to be shown everywhere. How are some ways kids can show Jesus’ love in and outside of the church building–at home, at school, with their friends?