Diversities of Gifts

As the 2020-21 program year came to an end, I looked back on my unofficial role in our parish as the Bible study, arts, and liturgy person.  I got in touch with Sarah Bentley Allred of Building Faith, the Virginia Theological Seminary’s online journal for Christian formation, shared with her some of my thoughts about how we feed the flock of Christ, and asked her if she thought there was a potential article somewhere in there.  She patiently walked with me through several drafts, and the article came out the last week in August:  “Pandemic Times in a Small Church: Using Our Gifts to Celebrate Our Gifts.”

One of the “core values” of Building Faith, as Sarah explained to me, is “making sure each individual article we post offers something practical and replicable.”  This (and the guidelines for article length) meant that the personal feelings about vocation and individual gifts that had stirred me to want to write the article did not get into the final version.  Perhaps sharing them here might resonate for other people who are called to this kind of ministry.

Our parish is small, diverse, highly engaged in outreach, and its typical member is passionate about caring for people both within the parish community and beyond. Since 2018 the church has had a part-time priest-in-charge who is a very good fit for this spiritual style, has helped us become more visible and connected in the local community, and has topped it up by adding original music skills, mostly in a folk-rock vein.  He has also helped us open conversations on social and racial justice.  Our signature ministry is a weekly community supper, Dinner for a Dollar.

There’s a certain embarrassment in putting so much energy into a Christmas pageant or an Easter vigil when there are hungry people to feed.  But I keep coming back to the truth that like it or not, my gifts are for things like Christmas pageants.

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True or False

Some thoughts on the “war” between science and religion for those of us who do not think there should be any such war.

Just a year ago in this space, I noted the widespread casual ignorance and—worse—the widespread inaccurate stereotypes, about Christianity that are everywhere in American life and culture.  Specifically, there is the common assumption that the right-wing white Christians, both evangelical and Catholic, who have become so prominent in our nation’s political life are the normal or default version of Christianity. They themselves have actively encouraged these assumptions, making it easy for the so-called “mainstream media” to fall in line.  As I wrote last year,

… even a network like NPR routinely seems to accept, uncritically, the opinions of conservative evangelicals as representative of a “Christian” viewpoint, and even to seek out those organizations for a “Christian” opinion about some event or trend. 

In the same essay, I quoted Jim Wallis, who noted that “media illiteracy about religion and the personal secular bias of many journalists” have led to “an easy narrative” in which “the religious right and the secular left have one thing in common: They both want the world to think that all religion is right-wing.”

In the mere twelve months since then, we have seen a hundred-year flood of news events and social ferment, and this facile equivalency has begun to break down.  The Covid-19 pandemic, and the wave of protests in response to systemic racism and police violence, have encouraged reporters and commentators to look for a broader range of faith responses to spiritual issues such as human suffering, human connection; altruism, justice, freedom, duty, and sacrifice. 

As a result, the secular media have become more aware of the diversity, indeed the polarization, of American Christianity, reflected in the disparate responses of different churches to the pandemic, to public health measures such as wearing masks and refraining from gathering in person for worship, and to the Black Lives Matter movement and the presidential election. Ordinary Americans are no longer getting a simplistic message that “all religion is right-wing.”

The swift and forceful response of Episcopal Bishop Budde, and then of many other religious leaders, to President Trump’s violent dispersal of peaceful protesters in order to pose, awkwardly holding up a Bible, in front of St. John’s Church, provided a standout teachable moment for the media and the American public.  The lifelong Catholic faith of the President-elect, which he wears with the unassuming comfort of Mr. Rogers’ cardigan and sneakers, and coverage of the Georgia Senate campaign of the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a preacher in the Black social-justice Gospel tradition, may also be helping to challenge some of the stereotypes about religious faith.

The divide between religion and science has a long and complex history, and is a fine example of the old adage, “When two sides can’t find common ground, look for the unexamined error that unites them both.”

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How to Grow a Welcoming Church

Longstanding readers of The Sunday Paper editorials and/or this blog, are aware that my daughter, Margaret Pritchard Houston, is a children’s ministry professional in the Church of England.  I have (with her permission) filched her articles as Sunday Paper editorials several times in the last ten years, and the Editorial for Fall 1 2013 reviewed her first book, There Is a Season: Celebrating the Church Year with Children.  (That review predates my blog, but I will post a condensed version of it as a comment on this post.)

Her new book arises out of her work since 2016 as diocesan staff member for children’s ministries in the Diocese of St Albans, and prior to that position, and overlapping with it, as Children and Families Minister at a London parish.  I should also mention, as I have before, that her blog, Living God’s Love, is well worth following. 

Beyond the Children’s Corner: Creating a Culture of Welcome for All Ages by Margaret Pritchard Houston.  172 pages +Afterword by Sandra Millar and 3 Appendices.  London: Church House Publishing, 2020.

I ended my review of Margaret’s first book with the paragraph, “Go out and get this book.  You’ll be inspired.”  The same recommendation applies to this one, which has a broader reach: it is aimed at parish leaders rather than children’s ministry staff and volunteers.  It is a guide to addressing the frequently expressed wishful hope of “attracting more young families to our church” by taking an honest look at every feature of that wishful hope.

What do we mean by “young families”?  How would we “attract” them?  And, for that matter, what do we mean by “our church”—what in fact is the church, what is its mission, what is the Good News it has to offer, and why would anybody (and particularly “young families”) in this stressful world get up and dressed and out the door on Sunday morning in order to be part of it?

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The Law and the Prophets

The readings for Proper 25, Year A, offer many insights at this time of compound-complex crises in our nation. 

“Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great Commandment, and the second is like unto it:  Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

“Lord, have mercy upon us. 
Christ, have mercy upon us. 
Lord, have mercy upon us.”

For people my age who grew up in the Episcopal Church, Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel slip effortlessly into the cadences of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, much as certain other Scriptures slip automatically into the words of Handel’s Messiah, or the words of Martin Luther King.  Every Eucharist would begin with the Summary of the Law:  “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith … On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  And this was followed immediately by the Kyrie:  “Lord, have mercy upon us.  Christ, have mercy upon us.  Lord, have mercy upon us.”  Before the supremely simple Law of God—love God, love your neighbor—we would fall down in dismay:  “Lord, have mercy upon us.”

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Church in the Time of Permanent Emergency

Quarantine measures have raised to a new level of visibility issues that the local church has been facing for a long time.

An article in The New York Times put it succinctly:

One of the cruelties of the coronavirus is that it has led places of worship to not only strip away in-person religious traditions, but also modify or eliminate community gatherings all at a time when the faithful —still reeling from the effects of an unrelenting pandemic—need them most.

For families with young children, this presents an especially big challenge: Without in-person religious education or volunteer activities, how do parents keep kids engaged in their religion? How can a family “love thy neighbor as thyself” in a world where close social interaction is discouraged?

Christina Caron, “How Families Are Finding God, Grace and Faith Outside a House of Worship,” New York Times, August 4, 2020, retrieved 8/24/20

Some parents, especially evangelical Christians, are long accustomed to seeing the home and family as a school of faith.  They readily share family traditions of prayer, Bible reading, and spiritual practice, and filter daily interactions through a lens of testifying for their faith. But for families in the so-called “mainline” churches, especially outside the socially conservative South and Midwest, faith at home does not come as easily, even if they are active church members. 

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Diddy Disciples

Shortly before Christmas, a large, heavy envelope was delivered to our door, from Inter-Varsity Press, addressed to me, and proved to contain two hefty paperbound volumes, 8½ by 11½ inches, and a couple of cards from Inter-Varsity saying the books were sent “with our compliments.”  The books themselves bore the imprint of SPCK, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge—a publishing arm of the Church of England—and because my daughter works in Christian formation in England, I recognized them as the documentation for a new curriculum for very young children that is becoming well known there.  So, “Diddy Disciples” is crossing the Atlantic, and I get to tell you about it.

Diddy Disciples: Worship and Storytelling Resources for Babies, Toddlers and Young Children, by Sharon Moughtin-Mumby.  London: SPCK, 2017.
Book 1: September to December, 262 pages + 20 pages of pattern outlines.
Book 2: January to August, 360 pages + 30 pages of pattern outlines (some of which duplicate the outlines in Book 1).

I’ll begin by getting this out of the way: I really, really don’t like the name.  I’m allergic to cute or twee names for church programs for children.  “Diddy,” according to Wiktionary, can mean “tiny” in British English—a discovery I was relieved to make after looking up the word in several reputable sources where the only definition listed was “Slang: a breast or nipple; var. of titty, diminutive of tit.”  Perhaps across the Pond it also means “pacifier” in some dialects?

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Who Do You Say That I Am?

In an era where religious identity and religious polarization are daily becoming more and more entangled with politics and culture, the traditional or “mainline” Christian churches in our nation have an identity crisis.

This season’s Editorial Page is only peripherally related to ministry with children, but everything the Church does has implications for ministry with children.  If we cannot find ways to keep our local churches alive, and to preach the actual Good News, how are we to raise up new generations of children to do God’s work in the world? 

How, indeed, can the followers of Christ carry out his mission unless our congregations have a certain number of active members, some buildings to which to invite our neighbors and feed the hungry and shelter the stranger, and opportunities to gather for the praise and prayer and sacrament that sustains our lives and strengthens us for God’s work?

The presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg has confounded many observers—and not only because the candidate is young, gay, a Navy veteran with Harvard and Oxford degrees, who speaks several languages and plays the piano well enough to have accompanied the South Bend Symphony in “Rhapsody in Blue”.  No, what really seems to sow confusion in the minds of both pundits and the public is the fact that Buttigieg is an Episcopalian who often brings up his religious faith. As Ed Kilgore remarks in New York magazine,

Buttigieg [is] an observantly religious (Episcopalian) Democratic millennial, part of a party and a generation increasingly … prone to thinking of religious expression in a political contest as something those intolerant, Bible-thumping conservative Republicans do. That makes him an unusually effective scourge for politicized conservative Evangelicals who can’t begin to grasp the phenomenon of a married gay Christian who may go to church more often than they do.

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Drawing on Faith

An overview of the (mostly serendipitous) observations and insights that I think may be my most significant contribution to the field of opening our faith story to children, and realizing how much of it all grew from one moment of ordinary parenthood.

Over thirty years ago, during the sermon at a dignified church service, I managed to quiet my restless not-quite-seven-year-old by giving her a service bulletin and a ballpoint pen. As I later described it:

She went instantly to work, and filled two bulletins, drawing not only the Good Shepherd [as I had suggested—it was Good Shepherd Sunday], but also the eucharist, a bride-and-groom scene where the groom is labeled “Jesus” and the bride “us”; two visions of the New Jerusalem; a flying bird; a crowned heart labeled “God”: a running horse; and rows and rows of hearts.  … Nearly every one of Margaret’s drawings was in keeping with [the theme of the sermon].  Her mind had been freed to listen.
(Gretchen Wolff Pritchard, Offering the Gospel to Children, Rowman & Littlefield, Cowley Publications, 1992, p. 66 )

I saved the bulletins with Margaret’s drawings, because they are so delightful; I had no idea at the time how much I would learn from them.

Above: The front and back of one bulletin …

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We’re Glad You’re Here

Ah, the Internet.  There is so much good stuff out there, on Forma (the Facebook group for church folks engaged in Christian formation of children and youth—if you’re not a member you should be), and sites like Building Faith from Virginia Theological Seminary, Grow Christians, Sharon Pearson’s Rows of Sharon, and many another blog or site. This post is a grab bag of thoughts from here and there, on the perennial topic of helping families and children feel welcome in church.

Getting in the door

Those of us for whom church is normal, routine, and familiar, may never have considered how difficult it can be, for those who have never been part of a church, or who are returning to church as young parents after having drifted away in their teens, simply to take the step of beginning to go to church.

My daughter, Margaret Pritchard Houston, the staff member for children and family ministries for the Diocese of St. Albans in the Church of England, recently wrote a lively and witty newsletter article full of striking insights into this pivotal moment for newcomers to the church.

Recently, I joined a gym. Those who know me will know this is out of character for me. But I’ve done it, I’m going to regular classes, and I’m not dead yet, so things are looking good.

However, one unexpected benefit of this is that I now have recent, hands-on experience of what it feels like to be really new to a place, and completely unfamiliar with its customs and culture. This is something many children and parents experience when they come to church – and church leaders, who are used to their church’s ways of doing things, can often forget how intimidating it is to be new, and how unfamiliar most children, and parents, are with what happens at church.

Margaret goes on to analyze the process by which she first resolved to join a gym and then actually did it—and examines the counterpart to each of these steps in the process of approaching church. Continue reading “We’re Glad You’re Here”

The Primal Story

I no longer remember exactly how I ran across this book a couple of years ago.  It is certainly not new—based on the title page verso and the introduction, it seems to have been originally published in 1992, apparently as a self-publishing project by the Order of Saints Martin and Teresa (“a national network of individuals and communities dedicated to peace, justice, and nonviolence”) and eventually, with the author’s retirement, it was taken up by the Lutheran publishing house Augsburg Fortress.   You can order it from Augsburg Fortress’s web site: https://www.augsburgfortress.org/store/product/9781506457017

Review – Manna and Mercy: A Brief History of God’s Unfolding Promise to Mend the Entire Universe, by Daniel Erlander (Augsburg Fortress, originally published 1992), graphic book, 77 pages + 16 pages of notes

I have a long history of engagement with the issue of the “distorted canon” of scripture, which is endemic to editions of the Bible intended for children but (partly as a result of childhood exposure to such collections of Bible stories) is also the concept of “the Bible” held by many adults in contemporary Western societies, whether raised as Christians or not.  As I wrote in my book Offering the Gospel to Children:

The standard children’s Bible is all narrative.  It moves slowly … through Genesis—creation and fall, Cain and Abel, Noah, the tower of Babel, and the Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph stories—and Exodus, dwelling with loving detail on the plagues of Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea.  But then the narrative begins to get skimpy.

Following a rehearsal of the Ten Commandments … the story flits through Joshua and Judges, … the stories of Samuel, Saul, and David, a brief mention of Solomon and the Temple, … the destruction of Jerusalem … [and] comes to rest with the Daniel stories, or possibly with Jonah or Esther.  Then … we jump into the more familiar New Testament world. The gospels … are merged into a single narrative … Many editions draw to a close somewhere between Easter and the conversion of Paul; others go on to narrate Paul’s journeys and struggles [and may include] a glance at the Book of Revelation. …

Offering the Gospel to Children (Cowley Publications / Rowman & Littlefield, 1992), p. 41-42

By selecting those parts of scripture that have come down to us in the genre of narrative, and omitting those that are couched in any other literary form—whether poetry, prophecy, prayer, law, exhortation, or lament—centuries of Bible compilations for children have recast the Hebrew scriptures as a loosely linked series of fabulous adventure stories, and the New Testament as the biography of a miraculous healer who went about fixing people’s problems, then died and went to heaven a long time ago but is somehow still supposed to be our friend, who “saves” us from … something—something terrible that we deserve because we are bad and are constantly messing up.

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