God Listens to Lists

On February 1st, my daughter called to tell me she was thinking about transferring schools. She’s a freshman in college. The news did not come as a surprise to me so I encouraged her to apply.  “Wait,” she said. “First I have to make a list of pros and cons.  I’ll text it to you in a few hours.” “Emily, the application is due tomorrow,” I yelled. “Forget the list- just do it!” We hung up on each other.

I have little patience for the thoughtful planning process. I prefer acting, often reacting. For instance, as strict and formal as my upbringing was at home, in school and at church, my daughter’s was intentionally informal.  I refused to push manners or dress. I wanted my daughter to understand that it’s not about appearances but what’s on the inside. I didn’t care about her grades. I wanted her to value and love learning.  But, most of all, I wanted Emily to know God, God’s unconditional love and grace. I wanted her to have a personal relationship with God. I wanted her to turn to God in times of trouble, in times of joy. I hoped she would get there through prayer; not the rote memorized prayers of my childhood but individual, spontaneous, relevant, daily prayer and I encouraged her as best I could.

I am not good at praying.  We’ve been working on prayer in Sunday School.  After modeling closing prayers, I started asking for volunteers.  Initially, the same child raised his hand every week.  He was a natural- a hard act to follow.  Finally, in his absence, a different child raised his hand, only to promptly lower it and avert his eyes.  “Think of prayer as a sandwich,” I encouraged him.  “Dear God” and “Amen” are the bread.  All you need is the middle and as long as it’s from your heart, it’s fine.” He still wouldn’t look at me.  Thankfully, another child gave it a shot: Dear God, thank you for today.  Amen. Short and sweet.  Easy and inspirational.

I was certain this would encourage others- and it did!  I had to wait a few weeks for my initially frozen second volunteer to raise his hand again, but it was worth the wait.  Two weeks ago, he closed our discussion with: Dear God thank you for letting children have Sunday School.  Amen.  I was so proud and happy.  This week, a once reserved girl ended class with: Dear God, thank you for your son, Jesus.  Help us listen better to you and Jesus.  Amen.

On February 2nd, I texted my daughter asking if she had submitted her transfer applications.  Yes, she replied, because unlike you God was willing to listen to my lists.  I probably should have felt hurt or guilty, but I didn’t.  I felt good.



Children are Miracles

Years ago a Sunday school student asked me for examples of modern day miracles. It was before Google. I was stumped, but managed to remember a few medical miracles I’d heard and read about. The student was clearly not satisfied with my answer. When I asked him what he thought, he quickly responded, “My mother says children are a miracle.” I wondered if she hadn’t been talking about the miracle of childbirth, but let it go.

These times beg for a miracle. Good news has been sparse as one disaster follows another. It’s hard to keep up with the hurricanes, floods and fires; earthquakes no longer make the front pages. The death toll of a mass shooting is as unnerving as the looming threats of war.

It’s hard not to feel guilty when reading the headlines, when looking at the pictures of people suffering on the front pages. It’s hard not to feel distraught, overwhelmed and helpless only to feel guilty again when we’re not directly impacted.

Around three o’clock, the local schools get out. Daily now, I find myself opening my office window a bit more to soak in the laughter, the audible excitement of catching up with friends, heading to the playground, a favorite after school activity or soccer game. Yesterday it struck me that I not only know some of these children, but that they were in Sunday School with me this past week as we tackled some tough subjects. I remember the girl who observed that with each disaster, we seem to forget the victims of the last disaster still struggling to recover. I recall the concern for the helpless animals in the voice of one child and the heartfelt confusion of another who asked what we are all wondering, why do bad things happen?

Then I think of the boy who approached his principal to start a drive to benefit the victims of Hurricane Maria. The girl whose science club is holding bake sales to raise money for climate change awareness. The girl’s friend who wants to learn how to build houses for those who lost theirs and the boy who now wants to become a traveling doctor. And that’s when I feel some glimmer of hope, that’s when I’m reminded that God speaks to us through others and that’s when I realize that Gabo was correct. Children are miracles, each and every one. We need to listen to them.



Movie Nights Aren’t Really About Movies

fullsizerenderMovie Night has become a tradition of children’s programming at Plymouth. On the second
Friday of every month anywhere from 5 to 25 children are dropped off in the gym. The tricycles
come out of the closet. Goldfish crackers are upgraded to pizza and then there’s a movie-
Moana, Frozen, Zootopia to name a few of the favorite blockbusters.

It’s rare to find a movie that every child hasn’t seen. It’s hard to find a movie appropriate for a
three year old who engages her seven year old sister. That’s when I remind myself that it’s really
not about the movie. It’s about so much more.

One Friday there were only five of us.  Reverend Brett stopped by and tried on silly hats
and a clip on tie. He had dinner plans, we had ordered too much pizza and so went from floor to
floor delivering slices to staff members. Most of us had never been to the fourth floor teen room.
Exhausted from our mission, we lay down under the skylight, pretended we were camping and
talked about our dreams. We never got to the movie.

The Friday we showed Frozen, the gym was packed. Every chair was taken. Some kids arrived
in costume. We started the movie almost immediately- the anticipation was so great. Within 15
minutes, kids started to ask if they could play with their friends. They promised to play quiet
basketball, silent soccer….the movie stayed on but no one noticed when it was over.

This past Friday it was so unusually hot in the gym that we decided to show the movie in air
conditioned Storr’s Library. The cool air and comfy couch were not enough though. Most of us spent the evening playing
cars on the wooden floor of the hot hallway. We’d found a box of seven matchbox cars and
there were nine of us. “My car” quickly became “our cars.”

While building a road out of cardboard pieces I studied each child’s face, the soft features, the
sweet expressions not yet scarred by the harsh reality of life. I wondered, as I often do, who
they will be in ten, twenty years and I hoped that when they remember their childhood, they will
remember growing up as part of a church family, as loved and cherished as God wants every
child to be.



Face Time

I rely on my phone a bit too much. It’s my personal assistant, reminding me of appointments I’m prone to forget and birthdays I don’t want to miss. My phone gives me access to the latest news and weather updates- however unpleasant at times. It lifts my spirits. Songs I waited hours to hear on the radio, photos of my family and favorite spots in Brooklyn are a thumb tap or two away.

My phone makes communicating easy and efficient. I can text everything.  Information- on my way- have entire conversations. I can check my work email and gmail and share a moment with friends via Instagram.  Occasionally I’ll even talk to someone, the old fashioned way; but I refuse to face time.

A child whose family had moved came to visit his former Sunday School class a few weeks ago. Every other boy focused on retaining his popularity in the classroom. Bad jokes were made and the laughter was louder than usual. Goldfish crackers and Lego pieces were “accidentally” thrown.

I started the lesson about temptation with a question: “What are you sometimes tempted to do even though you know you shouldn’t?” Not an easy answer to share but a number of hands went up. A number of children were willing to reveal themselves, to take a risk, to trust that their audience would be kind.

The first child cautiously admitted that she wanted to be a couch potato, to watch movies and read all day long. A clever, honest answer.  Well, some of the boys thought that was just too funny. As their laughter took over the room, the child’s tears took over her face.

But they weren’t looking at her face, they were looking at each other for approval. When they did look at her face, when they saw her trembling lips and eyes,  they were horrified. Their intentions had not been bad, but the outcome was.

It’s easy to forget the power of our words and the fragility of others. We need to be reminded that those close to us need to be cared for, need love.  “If we love one another, God lives in us. God’s love is made complete in us.”  (1 John 4:12)

While I will never agree to face time on my phone, I will remember to do face time in life.


Life is so daily

Pete Valentine has held court on her Willow Street stoop for years.  She tells about her encounter with Cher during the filming of Moonstruck on Cranberry Street with delighted tourists.  Tales of her magical childhood in Brooklyn Heights- roller skating to school and being given a horse by her God father- resonate with locals old and new.  Neighborhood dogs pull their owners to her stoop for a treat.  Every time I see Pete, she reminds me “Life is so daily.” Every time I hear it, I think I get it, maybe.

This past Sunday, I benefited from false advertising.  Crafting for a Cause was meeting for the first time.  Based on past classes, I prepared for a handful of older children, many of them girls.  The class started at 1; by 1:10, there were fifteen six and seven year olds in the room, all but two of them boys!  Odd, I thought as I scrambled to come up with more age appropriate activities.  Rolling pins and paint brushes replaced sewing needles and weaving looms.  I was a bit disappointed.

My announcement that we would begin crafting was met with an unexpected cheer.  Several children shouted “I love Mine Craft!” Mystery solved.  Mine Craft is a popular video game, not the activity I had planned.  I started to explain what we were doing and why, when a fight over a sword and some small animal figures- three raccoons and two mice- ensued.  Feeling more and more defeated, I began negotiations.  Mid-negotiation, one of the children asked, “Will we be painting?”  He had noticed the brushes. “Yes” derailed the negotiations (which were at a pathetic stalemate.) Everyone charged to the tables.  Crafting began.

fullsizerender1While our creations will not be sold on Etsy or displayed on Pinterest, I could not have felt happier.  For almost an hour, we worked diligently on bird houses and Easter bunnies.  Most of us used too much paint.  Many of the Easter bunnies heads are bigger than their bodies.  Everyone was happy.  As the kids talked and laughed while they worked, I finally allowed myself to enjoy the moment.  It was not about the end product but the process that included new friendships being formed and old ones being strengthened.

At pick up, two of the fathers peered into the Bowling Alley and reminisced about their childhoods at Plymouth.  It struck me that as parents, they had returned to Plymouth.  I hoped their children would one day do the same.

If the day had turned out as I had planned it, none of this would have happened.  We try so hard to control our lives but we are not in charge.  God gives us small reminders of who is and why.  Pete is right, “Life is so daily.”



Wonderful Chaos – Bible, Building and Baking

Bible Building and Baking is celebrating its seventh year. For all that time Sunday School children ranging in age from two to ten have been gathering weekly after school, most recently on Mondays. Theoretically we meet to build and bake; what actually happens though during this hour and a half- two if the oven is not cooperating- is much less tangible and far more magical. What happens has also changed a bit over the years as the participants have.

In the early days, we focused on the task and the product- the baking and of course, the eating. Yeast dough was transformed into everything from pizza to stollen. There were field trips to a local bakery and chocolate factory. We learned about ingredients, measurements and baking tools. We created a small cookbook and my mother complained that I had gained too much weight.

Gradually, as the class got bigger and the children younger, things loosened up. They just had to. Sometimes there were over twenty children. Older kids started bringing their younger sibling or two. The field trips were to the bathroom to wash hands, the ingredients became fewer and the knives plastic . I lost some of the weight because there were no longer any leftovers.

Sometimes, I feel guilty that the yeast dough we now use is made by Trader Joe’s; then, I remind myself that the class is about so much more. It’s about learning to love Plymouth as part of our daily lives. It’s about wanting to come to church, befriending other church kids. It’s about making memories.

Here are just some recent highlights: Two weeks ago a child lost his first tooth while eating an apple he had sliced and dipped in caramel. At the same time, one of the lovely caregivers who stays in class because of a younger sibling was photographing the younger sibling’s first steps to send to her mother, away on a business trip. That day, our weekly Bible story was read by a nine year old and a five year old said the closing prayer.

This week, the older kids were eager to help out in any way that they could. They were bathroom- runners, they supervised the hot glue gun, they drew hearts for the younger kids to fill in and they tirelessly filled the water pitcher. The rewards? Admiration, hugs and a long pink beaded necklace from the younger ones.

So, please, if you are ever available on a Monday afternoon, feel free to join us for some of the wonderful chaos!