'Retired teacher with grandchild / Insegnante in pensione con nipotina' photo (c) 2013, Matteo Bagnoli - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/One of my missions is to challenge the assumption that small congregations have little or nothing to offer children.  Here are some more thoughts about how a healthy, loving small church can be a great blessing to families with children. There are good reasons for choosing a small church for your children’s sake. If you become involved with this kind of congregation,

•    Your children will have a nurturing extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who will truly be interested in them, encourage them, attend their sports events and performances, and celebrate their milestones. My daughter describes the senior generation at our church as her “grandfriends.”
•    Your children will learn how to follow Jesus from observing adult disciples of Jesus, knowing them well, and serving actively alongside them. For the rest of their lives, your children will remember these role models in faith.
•    Your children’s concerns will be taken very seriously. The pastor has time to spend with your children and can get to know each child personally.
•    Your children’s talents will be welcomed and appreciated. What better place, for example, for a young musician to make his or her debut than in the midst of the gracious circle of a small church?
•    Through ongoing relationships, your children and older adults will enrich one another’s lives and learn how to love and care faithfully for one another over the long haul of life.

I sometimes hear people say that they want their children to go to church with a large group of children. While it may be more exciting and more fun to be around a lot of children their own age, school, scouting, sports teams, and other programs meet that social need well. What is rare in today’s society is the opportunity for different generations to mix and become one people in life and mission together. In today’s world people of different ages and life stages are stratified and lead largely separate lives. They even live in separate communities. Congregations are often stratified in the same way. Intergenerational small congregations offer a much-needed alternative that challenges everyone–younger, older, and in-between–to love each other as neighbors.

If you are looking for a church for your family, don’t just automatically drive past a small church. Stop in and take time to get to know the people.   Give them a chance to bless you and your children.  You may find that God has led you home.

You may also be interested in these posts:

Mr. Rogers, children, and the small church…

Small Church Children: Growing Up in the Arms of the Saints

How One Family Ended Up Choosing A Small Church


Click on Children in the Church in the sidebar for more links.

Stories don’t always have to be big to be good.  They don’t have to be exciting to be powerful.  Here is a sermon inviting disciples and congregations of disciples to point to Jesus by telling the simple, beautiful stories that are ours.  It follows up on the sermon Be Opened, and it celebrates my home congregation’s heritage.


Have We Got a Story to Tell!
A Sermon on Exodus 3:7-12, 4:10-13; Romans 10:14-15, with allusions to Mark 7:31-37
Homecoming at Morton Church

At first Moses liked what God was saying. God was saying, “My people are crying out in pain in Egypt, and I’m going to do something about it!” Even though Moses had been living in Midian for decades, he remembered well the horrible abuse the Hebrew people were experiencing at the hands of the Egyptians: unjust working conditions, physical and emotional violence and more. Doggone right something needed to be done! High time! Past time!

“I’ve seen my people’s misery in Egypt,” God was saying, “and I’m going to get them out of there and take them to a good new place.” “Wow!” Moses was thinking.

“ And so…and so,” God continued. I am sending you to Egypt to speak up for me. Tell the people that I know very well what is going on with them. I see how they are suffering. Tell them the good plans I have for them. And tell Pharaoh that I say, ‘Let my people go!’” Then you lead the people to their new home.

Moses was utterly gotten away with. “Who, me?” he exclaimed. What made God think anybody would listen to him? Nobody was going to listen to him. So Moses gave God all sorts of reasons why this was not a good idea. Moses raised a series of objections, ending with one that really was serious. “But I am slow of speech and slow of tongue,” Moses objected.

Perhaps Moses simply felt that he wasn’t particularly good at putting words together. But the original Hebrew text there uses a pretty strong word for what ailed Moses. It reads “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” like there really is some physical difficulty.

Moses probably had a physical problem—perhaps a cleft palate—that meant he had to work really hard to make himself understood. And the reality is, if you have speech related difficulties, people often wonder if your intelligence is intact, and if you really have anything to say. Is it worth the effort to listen.

With substandard speech, who was Moses to be speaking publicly, and in the name of God? No! Just no!

“Lord, please send someone else!”

But when God’s got a job to be done, somebody has to go. Somebody’s got to speak up. Just like Paul said in our epistle lesson today, “How are people going to trust Jesus unless they hear about him? And how are they going to hear unless somebody tells them the good news? Somebody’s got to tell the story.”

Often people think that telling the story of Jesus is a job for someone else, and for reasons a lot like Moses’ reasons. They feel inadequate. Surely somebody else can do a much better job. What about a trained professional?

Maybe it’s partly a hearing problem, as we were talking about last Sunday. Last week we noted that you have to hear and repeat words in order to be able to speak them. Hearing and speaking go together. To speak the word of Christ’s love to others, we must first hear it—hear it deep down in our souls, and let it heal us.

Or maybe it’s that we aren’t sure we have a story to tell, not an interesting story, anyway. Not a powerful, riveting story like Paul’s story, where the light of God literally knocked him down and turned him completely around. How can we be effective witnesses unless we have something big and exciting to share? Who’s going to listen to us? Continue Reading »

Be Opened!

Here is a sermon about Jesus’ power to open the innermost ears of our souls to hear the good news of God’s love, and then to open our mouths–and lives–to share that good news.

Be Opened
A Sermon on Mark 7:31-37 with allusions to Psalm 51
We don’t know what had gone wrong. We don’t know what caused the man’s hearing loss. It could have been a problem from birth. It might have been the result of ear infections or injury. One overly loud noise is all it takes to cause permanent damage. My father-in-law traces his hearing loss to machine gun practice during basic training after he got drafted. Dad served in the Philippines during the Korean War.

People can experience hearing loss as a blanket of silence, or as the loss of some sounds. Many people that are hard of hearing experience tinnitus—ringing in the ears, phantom sounds ranging from high pitched whistles and hissing to wailing sirens or blaring musical notes. These unreal noises drown out the real sounds that they want to hear. The ringing in my ears sounds so much like the sounds on the hearing test that I often can’t tell if the sound I’m hearing is real or not.

The man in the gospel story had hearing loss, and he also had difficulty speaking. Hearing and speaking go hand in hand. Most people learn to speak by hearing and repeating what they hear. It really is a miracle. When they come into the world infants already recognize and respond to their parents’ voices. When our daughter Laura was a year old, we saw very clearly that she was well on her way to learning how to talk. One night she came downstairs after my mother had given her a bath, and I said in a sing-songy voice, “Hi, clean girl!” And Laura imitated my exact intonation: aye een irl! It was only missing some of the consonants.

Ordinarily children are born able to hear and imitate the sounds of all languages. The sounds they hear and repeat get reinforced, and the ability to make the sounds they don’t hear falls away. After a while it gets so that what you don’t hear, you can’t hear. That is why it is much harder to learn to hear and speak another language later in life.

Children learn to hear and reproduce music in the same way. And that is why we encourage babies and toddlers and their caregivers to participate in Music for Little Friends, our children’s music classes. It develops their musical ears and their ability to make music.

What children hear—or don’t hear—matters. And what they hear from the adults in their lives is incredibly powerful. I recently read a story about a little girl who was born very prematurely, and the medical personnel were pretty sure she would die within minutes of birth. The parents wouldn’t let them take her away. The parents insisted on holding their daughter and talking to her for however long she was alive. The nurses left them alone, and they held their baby. They looked her in the face, and the mother softly crooned over and over, “We’re so glad you are in the world. We’re so glad you’re here. We are so glad God gave you to us.” Immediately the child’s heart rate improved, and after a while it became apparent that she was not going to die

When I read that, I thought about how every child needs to hear that message, and about what happens when children don’t hear those words in some form. They might get so they can’t hear those words, or can only hear them after a major breakthrough.

Because we don’t just hear with our ears. We hear with our hearts and our souls, too. Continue Reading »

Blessed Shade

Mark’s telling of the mustard seed parable includes a  detail not in the other versions.  In Mark’s version, the seed becomes a bush, and birds come and nest in the shade of the branches.  Imagine the blessed shade.

Blessed Shade
A Sermon on Mark 4:26-34 and John 12:20-26, with allusions to Ezekiel 17:22-24

The story of the mustard seed is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The way Jesus tells it in Matthew and Luke, the tiny seed grows into a mighty tree. Some birds do like to nest high in a tall tree.

But other birds—especially many small ones—prefer the shelter of something smaller and more humble. They like shrubs and thickets where they might nest in the branches, and often underneath them in the shade. This is the scene Jesus is imagining when he tells the mustard seed story in Mark. The seed germinates, a shrub grows from it, puts forth branches, and birds come make nests in the shade underneath. Wonderful, blessed, sheltering shade.

Imagining the mustard bush sheltering many birds prompted me to read up on what birds find welcoming, things we can do to make our yard a more welcoming habitat. Certainly assisting with food sources and placing houses for birds that like them are helpful. We can provide sheltered spots in the landscaping itself and supply nesting materials. Birds like natural materials like pine straw, but I realized that I can also give them those little ends of yarn left from my needlework projects. I won’t throw those in the trash any more. You can even put yarn scraps and small strips of fabric inside a wire mesh bird feeder, and the birds will come and pull them out with their beaks.

The Sylvan Heights bird sanctuary in Scotland Neck has created a village of different kinds of bird habitats on a large scale. Two years ago when the Morton Salt Shakers (our daytime fellowship group) visited, we were able to go into a special area where we could feed the birds, and they would literally hop on our feet and land on our arms and hands. It was a place where the birds felt perfectly safe around us humans.

Mighty trees make good and beautiful bird habitats, but so do humble shrubs. To create a welcoming habitat, all it takes is one seed that falls on or into the ground, breaks open and dies to its old form, so new life can come out. That one seed can bless many birds.

This is what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus said. It is like a tiny mustard seed sown on the soil. It germinates and grows up into a great shrub, and puts forth its branches. The birds of the air come and nest in the shade. Welcome, welcome shade.

Who finds shelter in the kingdom of God? In the scriptures, birds are sometimes used as a metaphor or symbol for outsiders, for Gentiles—people that aren’t Jewish. It is clear from the gospels that outsiders of many different kinds—Gentiles and more—found a welcome in Jesus. They felt safe with the king of the kingdom. Continue Reading »

narniamapHere are some thoughts about Narnia that my daughter, Laura, wrote while she was in Oxford, England studying C.S. Lewis and other fantasy writers. 

Reflections on My Childhood Love of Narnia

I have realized that the love-even devotion-that I had for C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books as a child has not gone away, even though I now read them as a skeptical adult, and I feel the need to defend them fiercely when people disparage them. The books are part of me.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was especially instrumental in shaping my imagination. Many of my childhood games involved Narnia in one way or another. I had (and still have) a stuffed lion named Aslan. I sent my animals off on the voyage of the Dawn Treader in individual boats crafted from the lids of toy boxes.

I remember vivid dreams of Narnia. The most memorable dream is one that I had around the age of ten or so. I dreamt that I was Lucy, and I was too old to go back to Narnia, but I was still allowed into a corridor that stood between our world and Narnia. In my dream, I could sit in that corridor, a sort of limbo, for hours, and have tea with Aslan. Aslan was the most important part of Narnia. He was strong and wise but soft and gentle, a better cuddler than all my stuffed animals combined. I was not afraid of him at all, but being near him filled me with joy. Underlying that joy, however, was the uneasy feeling that one day, I would be too old even to enter the corridor between the worlds, and I would not be able to see Aslan directly any more.

For me, Aslan was always Christ. I intuitively understood the allegory of the crucifixion and resurrection. Perhaps that was partly because I had a morbid fascination with the passion of the Christ when I was little, but that’s another story. Jadis, the White Witch, was sin or Satan. Aslan chose to die because he cared more about the life of one small, imperfect human than about reigning forever; indeed, when the Pevensie children were crowned, he diminished, allowing them to rule. His self-sacrifice, the defeat of death “by death” (thank you, Rachmaninoff) was and remains one of the most touching displays of love I have seen. Aslan’s death was not about saving Edmund from Aslan’s own wrath, or that of the Emperor-beyond-the-sea, but from the all-consuming power of greed. And what better way to defeat greed than by the sacrifice of the greatest thing that he had to offer? I have always been moved by the rightness of it. That does not mean that my beliefs have not evolved since early childhood. I do not have the simple, unquestioning “child faith” that I used to have, and, in some ways, I am glad. In other ways, I still mourn its loss.

Sometimes, I feel like I am still searching for the corridor that disappeared while I was not looking. But there is one thing for certain: even though I do not see Aslan directly anymore, I know that the spirit of Narnia still lives in me somewhere, like a flame just under the surface of the skin. In my dreams, and sometimes, when I see what I know to be suffering or injustice, I know that I am hearing Aslan’s roar.   Amen.


Here is a link to a post I wrote about Narnia:

Lucy’s Healing Cordial

OUR Children

HPIM0165In his book Bowling Alone, published in 2000, Robert Putnam described the fraying community and social ties in American society, citing declining church attendance; declining voter turnout; and declining participation in labor unions, in civic clubs, in scouting, and in all sorts of community organizations like bowling leagues.  He warned that declining engagement with one another jeopardizes the social connections and social resources that we must have in order to solve community problems.

In a new book entitled Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Putnam describes the growing divide between children born into families who are able to give them enriching experiences such as reading to them beginning in babyhood and taking them to music, sports, scouts and other opportunities, and children whose families are struggling simply to survive economically  He stresses that it’s not just material resources that these children lack.  They are missing out on mentoring and the benefits that come from knowing a network of caring adults, and from enriching activities.  Along with a good education and good health care, these blessings help children grow up into strong adults.  Putnam reminds us that all of these children are OUR children, and we are collectively responsible for them.  Faith communities can certainly help address the situation, Putnam notes, especially when it comes to mentoring children. I resonate with Putnam’s call for adults to step forward and be mentors.  There is no substitute for having adults show interest in you and want to spend time with you.

You can read a Washington Post article about this book here, and a review from the New York Times here.

I look forward to reading the whole book.  Growing up I received so many blessings and was loved and mentored by so many caring adults in my family and church.  My husband was similarly blessed.  Thanks to our families and our church, my husband and I were able to pass these blessings on to our daughter.  God has brought to our church’s attention a whole flock of children that we can share these blessings with, and we are seeking ways to do that.  See my recent post on sharing music with little children.

God has also brought to our attention some statistics that cause great concern.  We have learned, for example, that within a seven mile radius of our church’s building 37% of households with children are headed by single mothers, and 8% are headed by single fathers, and that adds up to 45%.  Moreover, 18% of all households within this radius are subsisting on $15,000 a year or less.  It is a varied and challenging community in which to seek God’s call.  However we answer the call, it is going to require an investment of our hearts, making friends and building relationships.




Art by Laura Todd

When my daughter was a toddler, we enjoyed Kindermusik classes together.  We still remember some of the songs we learned then.

I always thought it would be wonderful to have a program of music and movement for young children and their adult caregivers that was faith-based, included songs of faith, and corresponded with the seasons of the church year.

With that dream in mind, we are experimenting with a music program at Morton that we call Music for Little Friends.  Besides helping children from infancy to age five to sense how deeply they are loved, we are helping them to develop an ear for music and a feel for rhythm.  This begins a lifetime of appreciation for music and lays a foundation for more musical learning later.  Moreover, music is great for their cognitive, physical, emotional, and social development, and it’s fun!

The CDs and songbooks that we use were developed by Kate Daneluk, a Catholic music educator, and her husband, John, who is also an accomplished musician.  They wanted a music program for their own children that integrated prayer and songs of faith with some of the methods used by secular programs like Kindermusik or Music Together.  You can learn more about their work and hear samples of the music at makingmusicprayingtwice.comMaking Music, Praying Twice has resources for parishes that want to do a large, full-scale program licensed to use the name Making Music, Praying Twice (MMP2), for families, and for small groups like ours at Morton.  I took the three-day training class that MMP2 offers for prospective teachers.

Our music comes from many sources: songs of faith, well-known children’s songs, music from other cultures, classical themes, and some new songs by the creators of MMP2.  We enjoy a wide variety of tunes and tonalities, meters and rhythms.  As you can see from the illustration above, we sing, dance, and enjoy playing musical instruments. Each class session lasts about forty-five minutes. One of the things I enjoy most is encouraging children and families to make up new words to some of the songs.  The next thing you know, they are making up their own songs!

Our next series of classes will probably run from Easter to Pentecost, and our prayer song will be “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”

Contact me if you’d like to know more!


Jamie Irene, 2-22-15--editedThis past Sunday our youngest disciple, age three, was able to stay with us in the sanctuary all the way to the last hymn before needing a break.  During that time, she colored the picture you see here.  We talked about Noah and the rainbow, and she put the rainbow all over the ark, all over everything.  Surely God’s rainbow promise is all over everyone, and all over everything.  Deep insights come out of the mouths of babes, but also out of their artwork.

In this blogpost,  pastoral musician Jonathan Aigner makes the case that traditional worship in which all generations worship together is a blessing to children, and truly good for their faith formation.  He thinks that we sell young people short when we believe that “modern entertainment is the only way to engage the fleeting attention span of our youngest worshipers.”  Aigner has some things to think about here, and some thoughtful comments follow his post.


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