Narrating Grace


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Flinging Myself Across the Ocean

A little over 8 months ago, I zipped my new backpack closed for the final time before stepping on a plane to Glasgow. I’d been scribbling lists, packing and re-packing, leaving out all but the very essentials, scrunching my forehead over seemingly endless decisions. Finally, it was time to leave for the airport.img_0031A photo right before we left to drop me at the airport. I was excited. And terrified.

Sabbaticals are a time of rest, but they are also meant to refresh and refocus. This involves purposely getting out of your comfort zone.

Sabbath involves risk, and you can’t take a risk without letting go of control, of expectations, of comfort, of where God will take you.

In the photo above, I felt like I was flinging myself into oblivion and I had no clue how I would cope with it all. I second-guessed everything from my packing to my planning to my abilities to my mental health.

*I was getting on a plane by myself for an international flight. I hadn’t been on an international flight since 1998. I had never been on an international flight alone. I don’t like to fly. (Though my hours logged on flights over the sabbatical certainly helped condition me to manage planes and airports!)

*I was leaving my husband at home for a week with our kids, trusting him to manage finishing the school year, getting them ready for time with my sister, and preparing himself for an international flight and 2 weeks in Europe with me. I hated leaving him with so much on his plate, though I knew he was more than capable of coordinating it all.

*I was leaving my kids for 3 weeks, across an ocean, the longest time I had ever been away from them, and traveling the farthest distance that had ever separated us.

*I was sending my kids to my sister’s home for 2 weeks. Before that day, I hadn’t been away from them overnight for 2 years. They had never stayed overnight, without me, at my sister’s home. I knew they would be in excellent hands. Yet I was filled with mom worries–would they eat? Would they sleep ok? Would they get sick? Would they cry for me?  (Answers: Yes. Yes. No. And not once, though my husband I shed a few, missing them!)

*I was traveling internationally all by myself for a week. I had to exchange money, find my hotel, feed myself, negotiate jet lag, and travel to a remote Scottish island–on my own. A reminder: I hadn’t traveled internationally in 18 years and I had never done it alone.

I didn’t know if I could do it.

But I did.

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Fast-forward to this photo:

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This is me, on my second day in Glasgow. I love this photo because it captures my sheer joy at accomplishing a huge feat–conquering self-doubt and fear, if only for that trip.

And remembering who I used to be, and who I am: adventurous.

A dear friend since our high school days, whom I hadn’t connected with in a while, sent me a message while I was in Glasgow. We shared trips and experiences together over the years, and she wrote to wish me well on my travels. She told me of a dream she had the night before where she was at a party and spotted me across a room–though in the dream I was a stranger to her–and thought, “I need to go over and talk to her! She’s someone I want as a friend!”

It was an acknowledgement of one of the profound gifts of my sabbatical: the gift of reawakening parts of myself I had forgotten, or pushed aside. Because life does that, doesn’t it? Years go by and we forget to do the hard things, to let go and trust ourselves, to have faith in who we are in God.

Through our risk-taking together throughout last summer, my family grew in confidence too. Blessing upon blessing, grace upon grace.

My sabbatical time was sheer grace, an opportunity many don’t get to experience. And your risk-taking may look very different than mine. (It may not be world travel.) Your adventures will be your own. Your risk-taking may be finding happiness where you are, in this moment and place. It may be mending a relationship. It may be reaching out, speaking your mind, accepting your body, admitting a truth. 

We can’t forget that part of faith–and yes, part of sabbath–is risk-taking. Spirituality involves trust and a willingness to see where God will lead you. It’s not always comfortable.

But it’s good.

What kind of risks do you need to take today? What parts of yourself do you need to reawaken? Where is God calling you?

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Children’s Message Idea for Luke 7:18-35

Check here each Wednesday for NL children’s message ideas from the brain of my husband, a pastor and elementary teacher (he comes up with the idea, I write them down).

This text tells of John’s puzzling doubts about Jesus’ identity. A barrier for John may be his inability to physically see, due to his imprisonment, Jesus claiming his identity by fulfilling the words he read from Isaiah in Luke chapter 4: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. What do we do when we lose patience and have doubts about Jesus’ presence in the world today?

Begin the message by introducing a conversation about Jesus’ physical presence in our lives. Can we see Jesus? Can we reach out and touch Jesus? Can we hear his voice? No.

So where do we find Jesus today? How do we know Jesus is with us? We see people around us helping others and sharing the love of Jesus. 

A helpful direction comes from Fred Rogers: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Where do we see helpers? When do we see them? We see them at home, at church, and throughout our everyday lives. Jesus is everywhere! Brainstorm a few examples of when we see and experience people helping and sharing Jesus’ love. How have they been helped by others?

To close, talk with the kids about how they are helpers. How do they show Jesus’ love? When do they see their friends helping? What are some new ways they can share the love of Jesus?

Close with a prayer: Jesus, thank you for being with us everyday. Remind us to watch for people showing your love, and teach us to be your helpers in our world. And all God’s children say: AMEN!

Optional sensory experiences:

Before the message, line up a few people in the congregation to be helpers and recipients of help. During the message, take the kids around the worship space to look for Jesus. Along the way, have them stop to help people–tie a shoe, pick up a toy, give a high-five to someone who looks sad, etc. Have congregation members help as well by handing you a tissue and/or pointing out those who may need help. Close by talking about how we see Jesus in each other when we help and receive help. While they looked for Jesus, everyone was sharing Jesus!

Or–instead of taking the kids around the worship space, have them help you. During your message, stop a few times to ask for help. Have the kids help you tie your shoe, bring you a Bible and/or a tissue, pick up something you drop, etc. Do some helping tasks for them as well to emphasize mutuality. Incorporate this into your discussion of their roles as helpers and recipients of help.

 


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What’s Giving Me Hope

I’ve been pondering the relationship between hope, cynicism and faith lately. In this fraught national period, it’s easy to slip into an attitude centered on the mistrust of others. While it’s necessary to hold each other accountable, cynicism is a terrible motivator. Hope is what will sustain us, and faith gives us the power to hope and actively fight against cynicism.

The apostle Paul preached hope even as he suffered for his faith: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5)

I go back to this list often and find new insights in it each time. I love how, in number ten, the author calls cynicism “inherently uncreative, unconstructive, and spiritually corrosive.”

I love this so much I included it in my sermon yesterday.

Literary heroines who inspire us to be our best selves.

The power of empathy…and Craigslist…and humor in parenting.

What would be on your More/Less List?

This is fantastic: Man knits sweaters of famous landmarks, then visits them. Be yourself! Do what you love!

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Brotherhood…and sisterhood!

Where were you at 8am yesterday morning?


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Children’s Message Idea for Luke 7:1-10

This story provides the opportunity to talk with children about authority and power. Who holds power? What kind of power does Jesus possess?

At the beginning of your message, show the children an example of power and authority. You could lift your hands (in a gesture directing the congregation to stand) and/or ask the congregation to stand. Or you could work with the musician(s) to play a verse of a hymn, which will lead the congregation to sing. Ask the kids, “Why did everyone stand when I directed them to stand (or why did they start singing when the music began)?” Lead a conversation about who holds authority in the church. Do people follow directions simply because you or other worship leaders are in charge? Or do they stand because it’s part of the liturgy and a communal show of respect for God?

The centurion is a man who is used to holding authority. He directs the people around him every day and they have to respond–but he can’t lift the grave illness from his valued servant. He recognizes the power Jesus holds, and it’s possible he sends others to make his request to Jesus out of fear and respect. He’s so confident in Jesus’ ability to heal his servant, he believes Jesus only needs to speak a word in order to make it happen. And his belief in Jesus’ power amazes Jesus.

Who holds the power in our church and in our lives? Jesus. Encourage the kids to remember they’re showing respect for Jesus every time they stand up, sing, and pray in church. We don’t stand because the pastor and/or worship leaders are powerful, but because Jesus is powerful. And Jesus, through his power, loves us and cares for us every day.


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Far Away and Familiar

Tim and I stayed two nights in the village of Balestrand, Norway during our trip through the Sognefjord in June and while there we spent a morning in the fellow village of Vik, a 15-minute ferry ride away. Vik is known for The Hopperstad Stave Church, one of the oldest stave churches still standing, which is a miracle, given that it’s probably around 1000 years old and is made out of wood.

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We took an early ferry and walked into Vik before any of the shops were open, so we had plenty of time to explore. The church is a 15-minute walk from the harbor right through the town; we enjoyed leaving the beaten path to peek into the neighborhoods and catch a glimpse of everyday life in the village. Nestled into the fjords and built on a slope, the views in Vik are stunning no matter which direction you look.

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Bicycles rest outside a school early in the morning. No bike locks required.

We were delighted to find a church that could have been lifted from Vik and placed into the rural context of our first calls in southwest Minnesota without anyone noticing.

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Everything from the peeling exterior, to the glass case with congregational information and announcements, to the rolling cemetery, to the scent of old wood felt familiar. If someone asked me in that moment to step into the pulpit, lead a service, or do an interment in the cemetery, I would have known exactly what to do. It felt like home.

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It was home, because the Norwegian immigrants who came to Minnesota modeled their churches after home–some churches that have now stood on the prairies for a hundred years or more, baptizing, breaking bread and sharing God’s Word. Churches that once served to separate the Norwegians from the Swedes and Danes and Finns (and, sometimes, the Norwegians from the Norwegians) are now opening their doors to a new generation of immigrants.

Later that day in Norway, Tim and I took a different boat to Fjaerland, an isolated village near a glacier. We skipped the glacier tour and wandered into the tiny church in town that only worships once a month. There we found a record of Confirmations on the wall. Again, something we knew and had done in our own churches over the years. Far from home, but familiar.

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“As people of faith, our values call us to welcome the stranger, love our neighbor, and stand with the vulnerable, regardless of their religion…” -part of a letter signed by Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, this past weekend.


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Singin’ in the Rain

Linda Holmes is one of my favorite writers, and has been since she wrote recaps for The Amazing Race on the now-defunct site Television Without Pity. She’s now one of the main hosts of Pop Culture Happy Hour, a podcast I make a point to listen to each week. After the dismaying news that Carrie Fischer and Debbie Reynolds died in late December within a day of each other (December 27 and 28, respectively), Ms. Holmes tweeted this:

The reactions to this tweet included many people offering their devotion to the film, which delighted me to no end. My love for Singin’ In The Rain has been my delicious secret for years, part of a quirky adoration for movie musicals I’ve indulged since I was a child. I would guess I’ve seen it far more than 30 times (at least once a year for much of my life), and each time I love it more. Debbie Reynolds’ charming, energetic performance is a big part of the movie’s success, and it launched her decades-long career in entertainment.

I would tell people it was my favorite movie if asked, but never volunteered the information as I thought I was alone in my enthusiasm; when I saw this tweet and countless others proclaiming admiration for the film I pulled back a chair and joined others at the table of musical fans. One of the reasons I relish Ms. Holmes’ writing is her unabashed appetite for pop culture, for cheesiness and dancing and reality television and, yes, musicals. She never apologizes for her opinions, but shares the ways she discovers meaning and power in what the world often passes off as silly, unnecessary, or unimportant, and she’s built a successful career around it. She reminds me to be myself, do what I enjoy, and claim it with gusto, as does the legacy of Debbie Reynolds. (Carrie Fischer deserves an entire essay herself, as the best part of When Harry Met Sally, another of my favorite films.)


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10 Tips for Children’s Messages

A children’s message is not meant to be a watered-down version of the regular sermon or a preview of the “real” message. It’s a great opportunity for everyone to experience the Scripture and/or theme of the day from a varied perspective and it’s meant to stand on its own and function as an important part of worship. Children’s messages deserve respect and careful preparation.

My husband, who is both an ordained ELCA pastor and an elementary teacher, has a knack for creating and giving children’s sermons. Here’s a bit of his wisdom. Enjoy!

1. Keep it short.

Long childen’s sermons lose both the children and adult listeners. Kids are usually excited to be up front; if you don’t hold their attention, there are many interesting people for them to engage in the congregation other than you.

2. Think missional, not moral.

It’s easy to turn children’s sermons into moral lessons–treat each other nicely, listen to your parents, clean your room, be a good person–yet kids get great moral lessons in school. What unique voice does the church have for them? Being a good person isn’t the only goal; we’re already loved wholly by God. The grace and mercy of God sends us out into the world. Kids of any age are capable of doing mission. They’re called! Tell them God loves them as they are, and give them ways to live out their identities as children of God. Obedience is not the only goal; thriving as God’s created and loved child in the world is also the goal.

3. Use metaphor carefully.

Most children who come forward for children’s sermons aren’t developmentally ready for metaphor. If you find yourself saying, “God is like..,” you may be getting too complex. Children need concrete examples. It’s difficult for them to understand that prayer is like a reliable, well-worn shoe we wear every day. Instead, tell them that prayer is how we talk to God and give them a few ways to pray, such as giving thanks and praying for others. Tell them they don’t have to write a letter or call God on a phone, but they can talk to God anytime. It may feel too simple, but these are the questions children ask. Trust it!

4. Use their senses.

Read a book. Have them eat crackers (check for allergies). Paint a picture. Give them fabric to touch. Sing a song. Do a dance. Every sensory experience you provide will draw them into the message and deepen their learning.

5. Take some risks.

They’re not always going to work. Kids are inherently unpredictable. That’s part of the fun, and gives this part of the worship service a fresh, engaging feel.

6. Make sure everyone can hear the kids.

The congregation often can’t hear what the kids are saying. Always repeat the kids’ comments and questions into your microphone before you respond. This serves a practical purpose, but it also shows everyone you’re listening to the kids, seeking to correctly understand them, and taking what they say seriously.

7. Repeat.

Children’s books often repeat words and phrases, and you can incorporate this technique into your message. Call and response is fun, such as, “God is good. All the time!” or “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” My congregation has a long history of ending every children’s message with, “All God’s children say…Amen!”

8. Engage the congregation.

If you ask the kids a question, have the congregation answer it too. If you take a poll (like asking kids to raise their hands if they pray before meals, or are excited for Christmas, or help with chores at home), have the congregation raise their hands. If you do a call and response, have the congregation participate (see above). If you ask the kids to repeat you during a prayer, have the congregation repeat the prayer as well. Send the kids into the congregation to bless them and be blessed.

9. Treat the kids with dignity.

Children’s comments and questions during the message often incite laughter from the congregation. While this may be appropriate at times, please remember to listen to kids attentively, affirm them, and avoid joking at their expense. Their thoughts, questions and ideas are important to them and help everyone learn, and they deserve respectful responses.

10. Keep it simple.

It’s hard to go too simple with a children’s message. Don’t be afraid to structure your whole message around retelling the day’s Scripture story from a children’s Bible. This gives everyone a chance to experience Scripture from another point of view, and it reinforces the idea that Scripture is relevant and important enough to stand on its own.