Archive for January, 2011

Sowing Seeds of Faith

A few years ago Diana Butler Bass wrote a beautiful post entitled Sock Puppet ChurchShe reflects on what is lost when programs like VBS become completely prepackaged.  Often they come in a can, and they wear entertaining titles like Big Jungle Adventure.  No doubt these can be time-savers, offering reassurance to teachers.  Yet something is lost when we don’t take on the challenge of reflecting deeply on the stories and creating teaching aids and crafts out of what we already have.  Moreover, Bible School in a can is very expensive, and it’s difficult to know how many student kits and other accessories to buy.

Our congregation does VBS on a shoestring.  We can’t afford prepackaged materials that promise to deliver everything except the children.  We use curricula that come in the form of leader’s guides that include reproducible materials.  We make what we think we’ll need, and we have the peace of mind of knowing we can make more if needed.  Our themes have titles like Sailing into Mission and Sowing Seeds of Faith.  One of our youth who is an artist creates a logo that can be used for everything from bulletin inserts and invitations to attendance certificates.  A team reflects on the theme and then decorates the church fellowship hall accordingly. Another team creates an outdoor sign and display.  For example, an old plow horse-drawn plow drew attention to Sowing Seeds of Faith.  For Living in the Light we used a model lighthouse outside.  Often men and women work together on the outdoor display.

Living in the Light

Bible School usually takes place on four consecutive evenings.  There are two or three classes for children and youth, and an adult class.  The whole group meets together at the beginning of the evening for singing, prayer, a skit on the evening’s Bible story, and information about the Bible School mission project.  When the children go to their classrooms, the adult class remains in the fellowship hall and does Bible study on the same scripture lessons and themes.

A curriculum series that has worked well for us is Walk With Me Summer Units  from Faith Alive Christian Resources, of the Christian Reformed Church.  Many themes are available, and each unit contains five sessions.  Each leader’s guide contains Bible studies for younger children and older children, a reader’s theater script for each session, music and an accompanying CD, suggestions for crafts and for an end-of-VBS celebration.  They are reasonably priced at $27.95, and we usually purchase two.   You can take the books apart and give leaders the portions that they need.  Samples in pdf format are available on the site.  We have used Shareable Parables from this series, adding the phrase “Sowing Seeds of Faith.  Living in the Light and Rough Waves? Jesus Saves! also came from the Walk With Me series.  Among many other titles are Creation Celebration and God’s Family in ACTion, a study of Acts that we hope to use in the future.   Short units suitable for Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter are also available, and I’ve even toyed with the idea of celebrating Christmas in the summertime for Bible School.

In a similar fashion we have also used a VBS series published several years ago by the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the We Believe line.  The overall title was Around the World in Five Days: Vacation Bible School Looks at the Wonderful World of Mission.  Three volumes were published as Director’s Notebooks (looseleaf), and congregations adapted the materials as needed.  While this line is no longer in print, presbytery resource centers may have them available.  Contact me if you would like to know more about any of the materials mentioned here.

Rough Waves? Jesus Saves!

We do our best to employ the gifts of people across the congregation, and this has made for some vivid memories.  For example, a master vegetable gardener was the farmer in a skit about the parable of the sower, and he brought a hand-crank seed sower that greatly enriched the telling of the story.  For us, Bible School is a project of the whole church, and much of the blessing comes out of what happens in the preparation.


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This week two elders and I were privileged to attend an inspiring seminar introducing New Hope Presbytery to the Acts 16:5 Initiative of the Vital Churches Institute.  The Initiative is a three-year program of coaching aimed at helping pastors and congregational leaders to grow spiritually themselves as they guide the congregation to do that. 

The point of the process is to appreciate and bless the present people and ministries of the congregation while opening our minds and hearts to the future that God has in mind for the congregation.  If my congregation and I discern that God is calling us to participate in Acts 16:5, it will be a program of continuing education that members of the congregation and I will undertake together.  Acts 16:5 is not a program for “turning your church around,” but an opportunity for coaching in spiritual discernment.  It is rooted in prayer and scripture, and recognizes two very important things: first, churches of any size can be vital and faithful; second, there is no one-size-fits-all program.  I was impressed that the whole seminar was soaked with prayer.  Folks in our flock are longing to go deeper spiritually and to find some way to connect with the community around the church.  We have so much to share with the world around us!  Will Acts 16:5 help us do this?  Time for some more prayer, and some more prayer-soaked conversation.

Check out the Vital Churches Institute website.  There are lots of available resources, including a free weekly e-letter of encouragement you can sign up for.

A note to folks in New Hope Presbytery: if you missed this week’s seminar, there will be another opportunity in May 2011 to learn about Acts 16:5.  A four-hour seminar will be offered in two locations, one in the East and one in the West.

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Leaving Home

Fisher of Men (do you see what i did there?!)

Image by triplej* via Flickr

I wrote this sermon at a time when several of our Morton children were launching their lives as young adults.  We certainly can imagine this Sunday’s Gospel lesson from the point of view of Zebedee as he watched his sons leave home with Jesus.   But it’s not only the young that are called to leave home.  Just ask Abraham and Sarah.  Just ask a church that’s trying to figure out where God wants it to go.

Leaving Home
A Sermon on Matthew 4:12-25

Jesus knows all about leaving home.  He knew what he was asking of Peter, Andrew, James and John and asking of their families.  Jesus had recently left home himself.  Until he was about thirty—middle aged in that day, Jesus lived at home in Nazareth.  Carpentry was his trade.  It was a good, honest, working class life.  The movie The Passion of the Christ imagines Jesus remembering that life.  It shows a flashback of Mary coming to call Jesus to a meal, and the two of them joking together about the table Jesus was making.

Matthew says that hearing about John the Baptist’s being thrown into prison was what prompted Jesus to move.  He moved some twenty miles away to the city of Capernaum on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, which happened to be a place where you could meet all kinds of people, Jewish and Gentile.  Luke tells us another reason for Jesus’ leaving home: rejection.  When Jesus preached a challenging sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, the home folks angrily chased him to the edge of a cliff, but he slipped away.

Moving to Capernaum was a big move.  Twenty miles was too far away to see his mother and other family members very often.  When Jesus saw the two pairs of brothers at the lakeshore, and called them to leave home and follow him, he knew what he was asking of them.  Peter, Andrew, James and John would have to leave their family businesses; other hands would be needed to take their place.  They would leave a secure, steady income, predictable schedules, familiar routines.  They would literally leave their families.  When Jesus called these brothers to leave, he was also calling their families to let them go, to release them, and rearrange the way they did things at home and work.  “Follow me,” Jesus said.  And immediately they left their nets, their boats and their families and went with him.  James and John left their father Zebedee.

Zebedee stood and watched his children go.  How we can feel for him.  Our children are literally leaving home now, seeking to follow Jesus’ call in study and in work, in marriage and families of their own.  One child of our congregation is getting married on in April, and then next fall, another child will be leaving for Chapel Hill. We rejoice to think of how Christ is using our children where they are now, and wherever he takes them in the future.  God’s got wonderful purposes for each and every one, reaching out to serve God and neighbor with their own unique gifts.  But I think those are tears I see sliding out of the corners of Zebedee’s eyes, don’t you?  Pass the kleenex. (more…)

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The Alban Institute has remodeled its online Congregational Resources Guide.  Here is a huge collection of articles on all aspects of congregational life, plus recommendations for books and other resources.  You can sign up for their email newsletter.  You definitely need to bookmark this site.  And while you’re at it, think about joining the Alban Institute.  Its publications and educational opportunities are excellent, and through the years I have found them to be most helpful.

They’ve added a new resource called CR Radio with resources you can download and listen to.CR Radio

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Jesus' calling card

Image by jayfreshuk via Flickr

Thank heavens there’s no aptitude test you have to pass before you can follow Jesus.  You simply start where you are and invite others to do the same.  Here’s a sermon for Epiphany 3A.

A Sermon on John 1:29-51
With Allusions to Isaiah 42:1-4 and Acts 17:16-34

Time is going by so quickly that it’s not going to be long before some more of our youth will be going off to college.  The admissions process will include taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test—the SAT–and Achievement Tests, submitting transcripts of their grades and recommendations from their teachers, and filling out applications with questions like the following: “Discuss some issue of personal, local, national or international concern and its importance to you,” and “Why this college?”  Do this in less than one page.

Getting into the college of one’s choice is often a great concern.  “Are my grades good enough?” students wonder.  Some take special classes to help them do better on the SAT, and it is not unusual for people to retake the SAT several times hoping to improve their score.

Imagine if Jesus had given his prospective students an entrance exam.  Today’s gospel lesson might read like this: Andrew, what does baptism mean?  Peter, explain the term, “Lamb of God.”  Philip and Nathanael, demonstrate your knowledge of Scripture—the law, the prophets and the writings.  Bring me references from John the Baptist, the leader of your local synagogue or other teacher.  Tell me what you can offer this company of disciples.  I want evidence of loyalty and strength.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order has a section that describes what mature Christian discipleship looks like.  It’s quite a long list and here is some of what it includes: proclaiming good news, taking part in the common life and worship of the church, praying and studying scripture, responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others, working in the world for peace, justice, freedom and human fulfillment.  That’s just some of the list.

Imagine if a congregation turned that into an entrance exam that you have to ace before you can profess your faith, become a disciple, and join the church!  Who could get in?  Who could ace such a test even after many years of working at it? (more…)

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Handicap Ramp

Image by marksliozis via Flickr

Accessibility is about a whole lot more than handicap ramps.  It’s a matter of the heart and soul.  Here is the sermon I preached when our congregation dedicated our first ramp, which allows access to our main entrance.

A Living Ramp
A Sermon on Genesis 28:10-17; Romans 8:35, 37-39; John 1:51, 14:1-7

Disconnected.  Jacob was disconnected and on the run.  His wily schemes had ruptured the connection with his family.  The content of the stolen blessing didn’t mean much at that moment, however.  What mattered was getting beyond the reach of his enraged brother, Esau.   If Jacob didn’t survive, all that scheming would have been for nothing.

Family wasn’t the only thing Jacob was disconnected from.  What little relationship he had with God was second hand at best.  He had made his choices with nary a reference to God, with no hint of prayer, only self-interest.  And despite being in danger, Jacob still didn’t seek God.

When night fell, the fugitive was alone in a place with no name, at least none he knew.  Jacob listened hard.  Any sound could herald the approach of Esau, yet Jacob was unequipped to go on in the darkness.  He had to stop.  And not only that, Jacob had brought very little with him.  He didn’t even have enough clothing to fashion a pillow.  Jacob set up a stone and propped his head on that.

Many people are like Jacob in that they don’t recognize their need for connection with God.  They stumble into the future without reference to God.  Self-interest rules the day.  These wanderers don’t even know they are lost.

But many other people know they’re disconnected from God and from the people around them.  They know they need God.  They need God’s gifts of mercy and forgiveness.  They need God to give their life a meaning that’s bigger than they are.   Broken and hurting, they need God to heal them in body, mind and soul.  Many seekers long to be with God and with the people of God.  Again and again they need to hear the scripture promise, that nothing—nothing!—can disconnect us from God’s love.

But plenty can separate us from God’s house and God’s people.  Church buildings often pose barriers that serve to disconnect people from the worshiping family.  When you can’t lift your legs high enough, or not any at all, a flight of steps might as well be a fence with no gate.  Sometimes it’s just a whole lot easier to stay home.  This is a painful disconnection! (more…)

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My husband, John, is literate in Chinese.  He recently pointed me to an ancient Chinese story that offers a word to the wise for churches, and a good thought for the new year.  Dating from the third century BCE, it reminds me of that saying, “If you always do what you always did…”

Waiting for More Rabbits to Bump into the Tree

One day, a farmer of Song was working in the fields, when he noticed a rabbit run by very fast and bump into a big tree by his field.  The rabbit broke its neck and died beneath the tree.  With very little effort, the farmer picked up the rabbit and took it home.

After the experience of picking up the rabbit, the farmer laid down his hoe and just sat under that big tree, hugging his knees, waiting for the next rabbit.  But not a single rabbit ever came to bump into the tree again.

–From 100 Allegorical Tales from Traditional China.  Rewritten by Wei Jinzhi.  Translated by Jan and Yvonne Wells.  Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Company, 1982.

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