Disruptive children in church

by Maria L. Evans

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey...
I asked for health, that I might do great things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things...
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise...
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God...
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things...
I got nothing I asked for - but everything I had hoped for;
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among men, most richly blessed!

--Attributed to an unknown Confederate soldier

Although the author of this prayer has been lost to history, legend has it that it was found on the body of a dead Confederate soldier in the Devil's Den at Gettysburg. It remains a poignant reminder that in our relationship with God, "what we get" can be an opportunity for spiritual growth, even when it's grossly apparent it wasn't the thing for which we asked.

Now, I can't explain why, but this long ago prayer/reflection sprang to my mind when I read a recent blogpost about the value of decorum-disrupting children at church, written from the vantage point of one of our Roman Catholic neighbors--it's certainly not a denomination-specific point of coffee hour chatter.

I'm the first to admit I've seen kids in churches do things that raise my hackles, often thinking, "Oh, wow, if I'd done that at church, my granny would have turned me into a little red grease spot on the church steps." At the very least, she would have applied her version of the Vulcan Nerve Pinch on my shoulder, never looking at me, but making it painfully clear I'd better straighten up and fly right. It's amazing how those old memories can bring an almost instantaneous rush to judgment.

But then I take a deep breath and consider the bigger picture. Perhaps I know nothing about this child and he/she is a special needs child, and those poor parents have showed up in search of one shred of solace in their difficult family life. Perhaps the parent is busy serving the worship service through a role in the liturgy or music, or coffee hour, and simply can't always keep an eye on their child and their task every single moment. Perhaps that baby's been fussy for three solid days, and the mom came to church because she simply needs the Sacraments to get her through what may well be Day Four.

Child-based annoyances in church, when we begin to look at the bigger spiritual picture, are often simply God's wake-up call to look at how we are caring for each other in our shared community life. What kind of break could we have given the harried moms, dads, or grandparents on Saturday, that might have made Sunday easier? Are we a trusted person who can step up and work through things with the kids when they are acting out and the caregiver is needing to focus on an immediate task? Do we have a story to share at coffee hour that helps families and caregivers feel less isolated or alone in the rearing of their boisterous child? Is there something we can do in our normal interactions with the child that can help plant the seeds of good manners and good social behavior?

When I am open to exploring those options, and changing my behavior, I find my attitude changes, as well as the level at which they become an annoyance. I can catch myself even smiling in gratitude--because you see, if the truth be known, I've had days in church where I was so overjoyed with the liturgy, I secretly wish I could show it the way little kids do--by leaping off the top step of the chancel, zooming up and down the aisles, or spinning circles to the verge of dizziness before returning to my seat. If only I can be so lucky that God knows those feelings live inside me, even though I'm standing or kneeling reverently.

What stories can you tell of annoyances or irritations that became fuel for spiritual growth, and a reversal to a more Gospel-like view of the world?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Gender and the Holy Play of Nativity

by Cameron Partridge

At a post-Eucharist lunch at Harvard Divinity School earlier this week, a student asked me a question about children, nativity plays, and gender. She and another student collaborate as Sunday school teachers at a local parish, and she wondered what I thought about making the parts of these plays more gender-accessible. For instance, what about suggesting that the Magi didn’t necessarily have to all be men—perhaps two men and one woman or some other combination? Or a female shepherd? Or on the other hand, would it be better to leave the parts gendered as in the biblical texts, and just make it really clear that anyone can play them?

Before I could offer a cogent response, I was practically assaulted by a childhood church memory.

I must have been six or seven years old when my parish did a “living nativity” outside on the lawn, along a fairly busy street. They scheduled it at night, and my mom brought me over after dinner. I recall pulling up to the curb in the darkness, arrested by the sight of a tent and kids dressed in strange clothing, illumined by a spotlight. I wasn’t particularly involved in church at this point, and felt awkward and shy. As we approached the tent, the curate ushered me in and gave me a choice of the parts that were left. How about a shepherd or a wise man?

I honestly can’t recall which one I chose—in fact, I may have chosen the former one year and the latter the next. But what I recall with complete and joyful clarity was what I got to be: a boy. Or, more exactly, a man. A man in flowing robes and—the best part—a beard. I remember being brought into the makeup area and having facial hair glued to my gleeful face. I stared and stared at myself in the mirror. With Mary I thought, How could this be? But in any case: Yes!

Minutes later I stood in the tent, stage right, until it was my turn to walk out into the cool darkness and kneel with gifts outstretched before that impossible baby.

Since those days I have, shall we say, traversed afar. And yet what strikes me now was how, amid the most ubiquitous of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany children’s activities,
church created a space, a moment, in which-- completely unexpectedly-- I could be myself. For me, the experience became a thing secretly treasured, one of several early exposures to how the Christian imaginary could instill in me a new and living hope.

Now, I doubt the community really knew what it was making space for in that little tomboy shuffling around in robes. But what if it did? What if our communities could be intentional about such things? Here in this season of living nativities, how might we actively seek to give a new and faithful agency to the children in our midst, whatever questions they may carry? What might such faithful agency look like?

As I circled back to my lunchtime question, what struck me was that churches can and do bring this story of Incarnation to their contexts in wonderfully adaptive ways. My local parish, Grace Episcopal Church in Medford, re-envisions the nativity in an imaginative way. Last year my older son and his best friend—daughter of the rector—were a pair of wiggly angels. This year he’s slated to be a sheep (though he’s waffling on that—the rehearsal will tell).

On a practical level, I think it’s a matter of inviting children to inhabit the stories and characters and to see what they do. Lord knows nativity playwrights have forever added various characters – animal and human -- to welcome children into this holy mess. If your characters are gendered otherwise than your prospective actors, check in with them about it without making a big deal of it. Would they prefer to play different characters? Maybe the shepherd could be a girl instead of a boy? Or maybe the kids will have fun crossing the lines of gender that may otherwise hem their days. And if they choose the latter, again, don’t make a big deal of it. Just make space. For most folks, a little gender play is just that. For others of us, it can mean more.

Our work here is to create spaces of holy play, to invite all of us—kids from one to ninety-two, as they say-- to enter these stories, to make them our own, in some mysterious way to read our own lives in and through them, to illumine and be illumined by them. The ultimate invitation to all of us is to encounter and embrace the mystery of Incarnation, whoever we are, whoever we grow up to become.

The Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge is an Episcopal priest and an openly transgender man. He currently serves as the Episcopal Chaplain at Boston University and a Lecturer and Counselor for Episcopal/Anglican Students at Harvard Divinity School.


by Donald Schell

Our oldest grandchild is three, or more accurately three and a third. Many readers won’t be surprised to learn that his word of the day (and week and month) is

- Why?

When our own youngest was this age, I discovered that if I didn’t try to respond his questions with answers, but paused

and then asked,
- What do you think?

He’d often have an answer that he was glad to offer. And sometimes that answer told me that the answer I was ready to give wouldn’t have actually addressed his wondering. I’m making that my default response with the grandson and finding again that a child (maybe our inner child too) asking “why” frequently wants to talk and think aloud.

My wife teases me when I slip into being a pedagogical and theological Piaget, and yes, I do think of Jean Piaget as I notice what startlingly fertile reflection on human learning and our insatiable drive to find meaning in our experience I witness in our grandson’s learning process.

His three year old answers to his own questions of why (and how) move freely among Aristotle’s four kinds of causation –

Material cause (“when ice melts it becomes water”)
Formal cause (“because she’s your mother and parents make those decisions”)
Efficient cause (“it fell because you dropped it”)
Final cause (“because saying ‘thank you’ makes you and the person you’re thanking happy”)

(I’m happy for comments or refinements to this sketch of the four causes from any philosophers or Aristotle scholars who’d like to offer them as a comment here.)

What I often notice in conversation with my grandson is that my adult default answer (the “because…” that often gets left unsaid when he supplies us with a more satisfactory answer) tends to be an efficient cause, the “what started it all” in a chain of cause and effect. My grandson’s “why” is a richer question than we adults usually let ourselves ask so nakedly. He’s asking for (and often offering) an answer that’s part of a whole spectrum of meaning, how things fit together, how they work, why we care about them, what we’re committed to.

Aristotle’s cluster of possible answers may hint what our own internal three year old is looking for as s/he keeps asking “why.” We’re not actually hoping for “The Answer.” There are all kinds of answers, many of which we can frame for ourselves. Maybe we want to tell our answer. Maybe hearing someone else’s question prompts us to discover an answer we hadn’t yet framed. What we’re looking for is the pleasure of engaging with someone we’d like to talk with about what it all means and how.

In Sunday by Sunday church practice in the Episcopal church, are we in danger of rushing to offer and assert “the answer.” I fear that partisans of the Nicene Creed in the liturgy have lost sight of the process that runs through the historic liturgical action, inviting the Spirit to come among us as we become and partake of the Body of Christ. We come to the point in the service where we all articulate our faith in ancient words (not a story, not a prayer, a series of finely tuned philosophical and Biblical points). We’ve unconsciously shifted the public work of liturgy to deliverables (proclaiming the Word, defining the faith, receiving the sacrament).

Was the liturgy of the first five centuries in the East and the first eleven centuries in the West defective for not having its moment of reciting the answer? What does it tell us that the liturgical use of the creed began when Monophysites in the East introduced it as a protest against the Council of Chalcedon? Why did the West resist using it liturgically for half a millennium? And what about finally introducing it in the West with the filioque added in (“who proceeds from the Father AND THE SON”) so that the recitation of the Symbol of Christian Unity cemented the division between Eastern and Western Christians. Is the creed like answering my grandson’s question when he wants to talk? What I notice talking with him is that the faster I offer answers, the more “why” he throws back. Answers aren’t giving him what he wants or needs.

Let me rush to add that the content of the creed makes sense to me. All I’m questioning is its liturgical use. When I’m in a congregation that uses it, I do say (or more happily sing) the creed. As a text and theological formulation, I welcome what it adds to our understanding of (and wonder at) our faith in Christ.

But I think the “why” question we’ve been asking since we were three years old and are all still asking, our craving to get closer to “what it ALL means” and to get closer to that meaning in the company of people we’re also learning to love and may be better “answered” by the Prayers of the People (where prayer and the action that flows from it are our shared response to what God is doing), or the Peace (our physical celebration and enactment of God’s reconciling work), or the Eucharistic Prayer (that tells the same story as the creed but does so as a prayer in, to and with our loving God).

I also suspect that what a Godly Play “I wonder” session or an EFM theological reflection conversation touches is truer to our ceaseless why than something that thinks we’re looking for “the answer.”

My grandson is asking me to join him discovering and reflecting on what the world and everything in it means. Whether I’m preaching and presiding or happily attending and sitting in the congregation to pray and sing and listen and share, what I find enlivening, satisfying, and sustaining is feeling and knowing that we’re plunged into that discovery together. Prayers and intimations are truer to our discovery and fit the richness of our “why” better than anything that presents itself as “the answer.”

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Outsourcing and children

by Patrick Hall

Outsourcing is a recurring topic every election season. Pundits and candidates for office score political points by pounding podiums and particleboard newsroom desks while belching vacuous indignation over the flight of American jobs to overseas markets. Yet, even as we ride the bump of righteous anger, we keep the focus narrow. Corporates, profiteers, fat cats – they are the outsourcers and we the deprived. We never allow the conversation to wander past the tropes of villainy that make glorious fodder for the televised drama of our political life. I suspect this intense focus is a subconscious reaction to a truth we all intuit, but would prefer not to acknowledge: we are ALL outsourcers.

We all delegate our daily problems to paid professional experts rather than muddle through, relying on our own wisdom and resources. The most tragic casualty of our rampant outsourcing is the vocation of parenthood. For a variety of reasons, some systemic and some cultural, mothers and fathers expect more from the people who care for their children than ever before. This parental outsourcing has become especially pronounced among the middle and upper middle class people who make up the bulk of the Episcopal Church. Episcopal parishes that provide Christian community for children and young families find themselves under constant pressure to accommodate demand-y parents who expect the Church to meet all their children’s religious needs with an hour of program on Sunday, and perhaps a couple more during the week.

The most egregious parental outsourcers are the Starbucks™ parents, who apparently frequent every parish everywhere, and commit the fatal sin of depositing their toddling issuance at the foot of some well-meaning Sunday school teacher whose name they don’t know so that they can zip around the block and indulge their seasonal addiction to pumpkin spice lattes (which I sort of totally understand because they taste REALLY REALLY good).

Among church-ers nationwide, Starbucks parents have become a symbol for the religious outsourcing that is putting such pressure on our Christian communities in a variety of ways that go far beyond our Sunday schools. Naturally there is much venting and grousing about Starbucks parents at staff meetings and curriculum planning sessions. Most biting is the sense that these parents have no genuine interest in actually participating in the Spiritual life of our communities. They view the Church as a service-provider whose task is to inculcate “good values” in their children, and nothing more. The Starbucks parents and their unrepentant outsourcing remind us that the Church finds itself in a hostile cultural environment, where the obstacles to genuine Christian Spiritual formation are proliferate and complicated.

But, taking a lesson from the vapidity and stuckness of our national political discourse, it would be prudent for us to make this conversation more than a bitchfest on the small-time villainy of religious outsourcers and Starbucks parents. These people incarnate an urgent challenge facing the Church in post-Christendom: How do we strike a proper balance between an evangelical welcome to all comers, and a passionate fidelity to our increasingly foreign Christian identity? The best answers to this question will be rooted in the Scriptural narrative and a THEOLOGICAL vision of Christian community – not some ridiculous “BULLETPOINTS FOR GETTING THE STARBUCKS PARENTS” that fits on a tacky power-point slide.

The Rev'd Patrick Hall is the Episcopal Missioner to Rice University in Houston, TX. He enjoys making ridiculous and obscure statements on twitter that arouse bafflement and consternation among his followers.

Teachers and lessons

Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it. - Proverbs 22:6 (Tanakh)

It's the time of year when kids go back to school. Here in these parts, they started nearly a month ago while in other places they will be going back almost immediately. It's one of those yearly markers that come around every year and which mark another milestone in the lives of children and parents alike.

Children begin to learn from the moment they are born. By the time the start pre-school, they've learned to breathe, to eat, to crawl, to walk, to say words, to carry on conversations, to feed themselves, to share their toys, to help with chores, - an almost incredible list of accomplishments they've managed to do in just a few very short years. A lot of what they learned has been through imitation. They see their mother or father smiling at them, they try to imitate it and get more smiles in return. They learn to ask questions, including the seemingly unending "Why?" questions, and from the answers their parents give them, they learn about the world they live in, how to behave, what is safe to do and what could get them hurt, what things mean, how to tell true from false. They look to their parents for clues as to what is important and what is not, what is good and what is not, and what is proper and what is not. Parenting is a big job, and sometimes it's not hard to forget that little sponges are around, soaking up what we say and do and, quite often, repeating it back at the most inopportune moments.

Scripture tells us to teach a child what they should do and they will continue on that path for the rest of their lives. Take church, for instance. If a parent takes a child to Sunday school, drops them off and then comes back for them in an hour or two, the child figures that Sunday school is fine but that's all there is. Church is not a priority, while a golf game, doing laundry or going to the grocery store during that period is. It's easy to tell a child that they have to follow certain steps but if, in our adulthood, we skip some steps (because we've done this so often it's routine to do so), we teach them that (a) what we say and what we do are two different things, and (b) it's the objective that is important, not the way we obtain the objective. If we are constantly telling a child "No," or continually criticizing them for mistakes or infractions, are we really teaching them to make better decisions and to do things perfectly or are we making them fearful to try something new for fear of failing in our eyes?

When we come home late from work, bolt down dinner and then rush off to the upstairs office to answer emails, work on a proposal or review some figures, what are we teaching them about their value to the family? What if the child's teacher ignored their lessons and sat there polishing her nails or reading his email? We'd be incensed. Teachers are paid to teach. It's their job. Yes, it is their job, but it's also the parents' job to teach the child things that textbooks and drills won't; it's the parents job to teach the next generation how to be good parents and to model positive traits for their own children.

The next time you drive in your car with your son or daughter (or both or plurals of each), ask yourself what you are modeling for them. Are you yelling at the yahoo who cut you off on the freeway? That could be teaching your kids that anger is acceptable and name-calling when it comes to other drivers is okay, even if they aren't allowed to call their little brother anything nearly as bad. At the soccer game, are you yelling instructions at your child and reminding them that you're judging their performance when you tell them they missed a shot or didn't run as fast as they could have? You could be teaching the child that they are failures, just not good enough, and that could trickle over to other parts of the child's life -- like the inability to conquer math. Do you remind your child to do book reports for their class but they never see you pick up a book and actually read it? How can they get the idea of how valuable reading is if nobody shows it to them, especially their primary and most important teachers, their parents?

Training up a child is a huge job but it's probably one of the most important jobs in the world. Just as scripture reminds us, doing it sets them on a path that will impact their whole life -- and potentially impact the world along with it. If we want to plant the seeds for the kingdom of God on earth, we have to be willing to tend the young plants that will grow and then produce the next generation of kingdom seeds. It's more than about just taking them to Sunday school or cheering them on at the soccer game. It's about showing them what we expect and want from them by doing it ourselves. We learned from our parents, and now it's time to pass it on. No need to wait for summer vacation to be over; it begins the day they're born and ends the day we parents take our last breaths. In between are a lot of years of teaching and, oddly enough, learning from our kids.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter

The Spirit Journey Youth

by Kaze Gadway

“They’ll never bring money into the Church.” In the past eleven years, this is the main complaint about having a Native American youth program. Oh, and “They don’t know what to do in Church services. They whisper during the service.”

No matter. There are more Native youth in Episcopal Church services in Northern Arizona than I can transport. It is heartbreaking to tell a youth he or she can’t go to Church today because there is no room in the van.

This is not a youth group where parents go to church and someone takes care of the kids. We plan events and meet in houses or parks or a fast food place to gather as the People of God. The youth are from twelve years to twenty-four. All are from homes of poverty, violence, addiction and some level of abuse. Most have been incarcerated or are on probation. They live in the border towns of Holbrook, Winslow, Joseph City, and Sun Valley in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. We have created a short slang version of the Daily Office. We travel far to receive the Eucharist.

Several key events have shifted my understanding of being a lay youth minister with these promising youth who have made a place for themselves in the Church.

Once the youth are making Christmas decor for families when two of the Middle School youth begin arguing underneath the table. “I’m going to hell,” says one youth defiantly. “Everyone says so. I lie and talk back to my parents.”

“My mom says that I’m so bad that even hell won’t accept me,” replies the other youth.

I sit down on the floor near them and ask, “Why do you think you are going to hell?”

“God hates people like us,” is the simple response.

Until then I had not realized that the most common image of God is a god of harsh judgment and condemnation. Or that being a Christian meant having behaviors that let you fit into the dominant race.

We started visiting different Episcopal Churches that would not fling racial insults at them. It took a while before I realized that the youth evaluated each church not on the sermon, or the music or the liturgy but on the welcome they received.

“That was a good church,” says one of the youth.

“What makes it good?” I ask.

The answers they give have remained consistent over the years. “They really enjoyed passing the peace to us. No one turned away.” “They talked to me at the coffee hour like I was just a regular person and not a Native.” “They invited us back like they really wanted us there.”

Finding churches where the laity respond lovingly to youth who are a different culture is rare. It is more common for people to ask me why the youth fidget or sit off by themselves or don’t wear clean clothes to church. (They don’t realize the youth don’t have money for good clothes.)

My second learning is I was taught in my weekly visit to Juvenile Detention. I visit one of the youth in lock down. Guards had cut him down when he used his towel to hang himself. He almost died.

“What’s keeping you alive now?” I ask.

“Well, you know how you always begin prayers with me saying ‘God, this is your beloved son. He needs your help.’ I don’t know why, but I have started praying every night and morning by identifying myself the same way. It seems to help me not be so alone. And when you give me the consecrated bread, you always say that God is in this place and lives within me. I think that I am beginning to believe it. I thought that messing up would keep God away.”

My third learning when we began giving food and clothes to the homeless on a regular basis. One of the youth admitted that he finally understood what his grandmother taught him about respect. “She always said that as Natives, we respect everyone from the youngest to the eldest but I had a hard time looking at the homeless with respect. Everyone in town compares us to the homeless who beg for money, who don’t do anything and who don’t seem to like themselves. I think when you asked them to pray for us, I began to realize that they are my relatives. I feel like I am doing God’s work and honoring my ancestors at the same time.”

My fourth learning is on change. Some youth are still into drugs and violence. Some are in college or have a steady job. What has made the difference? I ask some of the young adults how they changed.

One young man told me this story. “I remember when I thought that God wasn’t for me. Then on our mission trip we were playing in the ocean. We were all laughing so hard about being knocked down by the waves and getting up with salt in our eyes and mouths. I stood up and it was like all the joy in the world came flooding into me. I felt whole. You tell us that forgiveness is a done deal when we turn to God. And that where God is found, there is holy ground. Standing in the ocean, I started shouting ‘Thank you God. The other kids starting yelling with me. People looked at us like we were crazy. But it was real.”

That’s it. That’s how you get youth on a spirit journey. Transformation is the name of the game. The laity they encounter in and out of church are the key. The journey begins by their being welcomed and cherished for who they are. They learn that God is just a prayer away. They can be God’s hands and feet and find wholeness. They can recognize the holy in their lives.

One more thing. I watch these young men and women be acolytes, respond to those who are hurt, comfort the bruised in spirit, and stay up all night with those who want to die. Being blessed they share blessings with others. They are already emerging leaders of the Episcopal Church. Now they need to be recognized.

It will require imagination to keep up with what God is doing in the lives of these young people. That is the holy work required of us.

Kaze Gadway has worked with the emerging leaders of the Episcopal Church within the Native American community of Northern Arizona as a volunteer for eleven years. They are youth of promise from ages twelve to twenty-four. The Spirit Journey Youth is an outreach program of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona with forty young people. She is on Facebook and blogs at infaith's posterous

(ed. note: A poem by Jeremy Blackwater of Spirit Journey Youth was featured on the Art Blog)

A Christian's responsibility to public schools, Part II

This is the second of a two-part article.

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will return on the Tuesday after Labor Day.

By George Clifford

When U.S. parents opt to send their children to private schools or to home school their children, I invariably wonder why. Half of the students at the college from I which graduated matriculated from private prep schools. Generally, their parents had enrolled their children in prep school to provide a better education than the one they believed their children could obtain in the public schools. Ironically, after overcoming my initial sense of inadequacy, I discovered that my public school education was roughly comparable to my peers’ private school education. Public education is not inherently inferior.

During my high school and college years, white flight into private schools and home schooling dominated the educational scene in parts of the country, Raleigh included. The allegedly racially separate but educationally equal schools of the Jim Crow south were in truth far from educationally equal. These segregated public schools failed at the enculturation of most minority children into valued citizens of our democratic society, deprived many of the prosperity that education frequently produces, and denied all the equal opportunity expressive of God's equal love for everyone, regardless of race.

During the five years I lived in Hawaii, I observed a public school system that largely enrolled children of parents unable or unwilling to afford private schools, i.e., mostly parents from lower socio-economic strata. The unofficial, pervasive public school ethos included strong elements of racial prejudice and violence. Funding and political support for the public schools was low, a result of elites and the even modestly affluent paying private school tuition and therefore having little interest or incentive in paying the higher taxes necessary to fund the public schools adequately. From a Christian perspective, Hawaiian public schools, like public schools in the Jim Crow south, had failed; lack of interest and greed rather than racism caused the failure.

Ministry as a military chaplain brought me into conversation with hundreds of families who had opted to home school their children or to send their children to “Christian” schools. Typically, these parents both wanted their children to acquire values and ideas that cohered with the parents’ evangelical Christian vision and were willing to pay the price to achieve that goal. This is not a new phenomenon. Immigrant Christians (and others) in prior generations sometimes established parochial schools for similar reasons. Economics have since forced the closing of many of these schools; many of the schools that remain open have joined the ranks of secular private schools whose mission, formally or informally, is to educate the children of one or more socio-economic elites. Others have established themselves as helpful options for children who fail to thrive in the public schools.

In some significant respects, the curriculum of most self-identified “Christian” schools and homeschoolers bears more resemblance to Islamic madrasas than to any U.S. public school curriculum. Both types of religious schools emphasize the primacy of a narrow religious perspective that instills religious and gender bigotry, distorts history, and demeans science (the “Christians” interpret scientific data through their religious lens; the Islamists ignore science). Neither provides an adequate foundation for their graduates to contribute to a democratic society, achieve economic prosperity, or genuinely value equal opportunity.

In Christ, there is neither black nor white, red nor brown, rich nor poor. God does not love or judge people based on net worth, income, or skin color. So why do Wake County residential patterns, like the patterns across America, broadly reflect an unchristian homogeneity, the nation’s affluent majority living in one set of neighborhoods, middle income people in another set of neighborhoods, and poor minorities in yet a third set? This pattern tragically alienates poor and affluent children alike from those who are different, sinfully perpetuating racially and economically determined patterns of friendship, employment, and opportunity. The Episcopal Church at General Convention 2009 adopted Resolution C049, endorsing equal opportunity for all.

Only when indiscriminate love for neighbor replaces self-centered economics and racial prejudice as the driver in determining residential patterns will Wake County (or any area) more fully incarnate the gospel. One essential long-term step toward achieving that goal is municipalities adopting development and zoning policies that promote real economic diversity in all neighborhoods. Another important long-term step is creating numerous small parks, designed for the young children who live in those neighborhoods. Young children rarely care about race or family income; they enjoy playing with any friendly peer. Some of the friendships spawned in those parks will surely endure into the teens and even adulthood. Day care programs with diverse populations can achieve the same result. Finally, parents (and others) instead of relying on public school alternatives should strive through political action, adequate funding, and civic support, to provide public schools with diverse student bodies that offer quality education to all children.

Collectively, those changes will help to tear down the sinful racial and economic barriers that presently stratify people in unchristian ways and leave too many children unprepared for a global community shaped by the gospel. I’m certain that other public policy ukases can also aid in attaining that goal. Christians, called by God to incarnate the gospel vision on earth, can usefully articulate and then wholeheartedly support such policies.

However, the Church’s most important and probably unique contribution is to motivate energetic Christian community support for achieving quality and diverse public schools. In a branch of the Church that today can easily appear myopically focused on internal issues and politics, the needs of some of the most vulnerable and least amongst us – children who are victims of racial, economic, and social injustice – deserve our focused and prioritized commitment. Indeed, by boldly working to transform public school systems in Wake County and elsewhere into instruments of social justice, we will live more fully into the gospel mandate, experience individual healing, and organizational renewal. Alternatively, if we ignore the children, we, like prior generations, will inflict our sins on today’s children and future generations.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, ministered as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh, is a visiting professor of ethics at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

A Christian's responsibility to public schools, Part I

This is the first of a two-part article.

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By George Clifford

Scripture presumes that education consists of more than the three Rs and that sagacious instruction offers hope for building a future that is better than the present, e.g., Proverbs 22:6 reads, “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray” (NRSV). One essential skill for children in our increasingly global society is learning to live as brothers and sisters with people who do not look, act, or think as they do.

The responsibility for educating children belongs to every Christian. Remember, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Regardless of how you feel about Hillary Clinton, who helped to popularize that saying, the basic concept is profoundly Christian. In the liturgy for Holy Baptism, the celebrant inquires of those present, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” Educating children truly and rightly is every Christian’s responsibility.

Controversy over the policies used to assign students to schools currently roils the Wake County Public School System, the nation’s 18th largest system with more than 137,000 students. Since 2000, the Wake School Board has assigned students to schools to achieve the worth goal of socio-economic diversity, a proxy, for various legal reasons, for trying to ensure racial diversity in the public schools.

The current conflict has generated sufficient heat and animosity to attract national media attention. Battles over the public schools are a major front in the religious culture wars that in large measure contribute to the increasing polarization of U.S. society. The details of the Wake County controversy vividly illustrate this.

Wake County is approximately 70% Caucasian, 30% minorities. Socio-economic status in Wake County, as in most areas of the United States, roughly mirrors race. For example, the zip code for my suburban Raleigh parish is 85% Caucasian with an average 2009 household income of $85,600. An urban Raleigh zip code has an 87% minority population and an average 2009 household income of $28,600. Busing for diversity has achieved a substantial measure of socio-economic (and therefore racial) diversity in the public schools. Research suggests that the diversity policy has improved the standardized test scores of Wake County students, especially those from lower socio-economic strata.

The assignment policy has spawned a large number of critics with some valid grievances. Some children now spend over two hours per school day riding a bus to and from school. Wake County’s rapid population growth in conjunction with the current recession has led to frequent reassignment of students from one school to another and converting approximately one-third of its schools from a traditional nine-month calendar to a year-round calendar to accommodate more students in the same building without increasing class size. Those changes disrupt education and extracurricular participation, student friendships, parental involvement in schools, pre- and after-school care plans, and sometimes mean that children in the same family attend schools with different calendars.

Critics and grievances coalesced this summer in a hard-fought, highly emotional election that produced a new School Board majority, a majority opposed to busing for diversity. The new Board members quickly seized control and, among other actions, ended the policy of assigning students to schools to achieve socio-economic diversity. The NAACP and religious leaders, including the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, immediately responded with vociferous protests.

The Wake County School Board has yet to announce a new student assignment policy. One option, intriguing to both sides in the present dispute, would create about a dozen assignment zones. Parents in a zone could request that a child attend any school within the zone. Lotteries would select the students to attend any school for which the number of requests exceeds the number of available seats. Depending upon who one asks, the Board might or might not draw the zones to promote socio-economic diversity.

Good practical theology requires careful analysis, not only theologically but also sociologically and psychologically. Three dynamics are important. First, white flight remains an ugly, often ignored reality. In a county 70% Caucasian, the public school system is only 51.8% Caucasian. We Christians, the preponderant majority in Wake County, have failed in our moral responsibility to provide a quality, attractive public education for many children in Wake County.

The legacy of prior generations’ sins – slavery and segregation – too often manifest itself as socio-economic discrimination, thus perpetuating racial prejudices and exacerbating greed. Children born to poor and lower income parents generally have fewer and lower quality educational opportunities than do children born to affluent parents, as evident in the Wake County school system and the choices parents make to send their children to private schools or to home school their children. In biblical terms, this inequality afflicts the sin of earlier generations on this generation.

Second, the recently ended policy of assigning children to create socio-economic diversity only partially succeeded in achieving its broader goals. Although the policy seems to have improved standardized test scores, consistent anecdotal evidence suggests that the policy has broadly failed to nurture student friendships that bridge racial and socio-economic divides. Proximity by itself is insufficient to create relational diversity. Instead, the policy has had the unintended, tragic consequence of creating a backlash among lower and middle-class whites, as well as others, against policies designed to promote a healthy and vital diversity.

Third, school assignment policies by themselves are insufficient to bolster democracy, foster prosperity, and promote equal opportunity for all, goals profoundly consonant with the gospel’s vision of a just society. A half-century after the Supreme Court supposedly ended racially separate but equal schools, growing numbers of minorities believe themselves politically disenfranchised, without viable economic opportunity, and victims of racial and economic discrimination. In most parts of the United States, voting patterns, incarceration demographics, and employment statistics support that assessment.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, ministered as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh, is a visiting professor of ethics at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings /a>.

Why I love camp

Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Adam Thomas

I love camp. I love being surrounded by more trees than buildings. I love singing Grace to John Williams’ theme from Superman. I love seeing the half-exhausted, half-excited faces of the campers at breakfast. And I love conversing with children and teenagers because every once in a while they will say something unexpected and profound amidst all the buzzwords and canned phrases that they know will be considered “correct” answers during afternoon Bible studies. Invariably, the profundity of their unexpected contributions comes in the form of the simplest, most direct response to a question.

Here’s why this practice is so profound. Over the years, we adults learn to hedge, to inject some wiggle room into everything we say in order to maintain some deniability later on. We prevaricate, deflect, and obfuscate because we’ve learned from the incessant 24-hour news cycle that a juicy sound byte can tank a career. We’ve learned that a verbal defense mechanism is a necessity for survival.

And with our deniability glands working at full capacity, we say, “Well, that’s not exactly what I meant,” or “I’m not sure you heard me correctly” (when, of course, I purposefully didn’t say exactly what I mean). But the problem with speaking equivocally creeps in over time: prevarication erodes the truth that has been in each of us since God knew us in our mothers’ wombs. When we hedge, we atrophy the muscles that store the truth, and we cut ourselves off from bits of the truth that is within us.

Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t monitor our words to make sure we always speak hospitably and graciously. Hedging is simply a cheap and ultimately ineffective way to achieve what hospitality and grace achieve naturally – namely, speaking in a way that keeps conversation open and kind. Hedging achieves this end by leading us to speak obscurely so that no meaning can quite be pinned down. Hospitality achieves the same end by leading us to speak truth uncoupled from judgment. One of the epic failures of our time is the withering of this graceful truth when we bury it under our own insecurity and our need to conform to society’s agreed upon level of appropriate vagueness.

Okay, let me get back to why I love camp. I love camp because for a week I get to ascend into the clean and invigorating air of youthful wisdom. The young people just haven’t lived long enough to acquire toxic levels of prevarication. They say all the things that were the first to erode in us adults. God will always be with me. You are my friend. Jesus is awesome. And after a few days of rubbing elbows with the young people, I remember the need to nourish the root system within myself that keeps the truth from eroding.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to preach until Tuesday. I had enough time to drink in the campers’ wisdom, so that when it came time for me to speak I was in less danger of hedging and wiggling. (This was a good thing, too, because children can spot phony commitment a mile away.) I had five minutes to talk about Moses and Aaron, and I had played with several ways to approach the story as I thought about speaking to the campers. When I stood up to speak, I knew my direction of travel, but I was unsure where I would end up.

I began to talk about how Moses was making excuses to God, about how he’s no good at public speaking, about how God might as well get someone else. I looked out at the campers, and then I told them to look at each other. Just then, I realized where the direction of travel was taking me. “God gave everyone special gifts,” I said. “A few of those gifts are within us, but most gifts come wrapped in the people around us. Just because we aren’t good at something doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. It just means we have an opportunity to invite a friend to help us.” These words rang true as I said them, but I didn’t feel them within myself before speaking them. I felt like I was absorbing these words from the young people staring up at me. What a gift.

Of course, as usually happens, I spoke the words aloud, but I’m probably the one who benefited from them more than anyone else. I needed the injection of youthful wisdom to find that truth again, the fundamental truth that I forget more than any other. I am not alone. I am with God. And I am with other people. We are God’s gifts to each other. This is the truth, and it leads to another true statement.

I love camp.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

Learning to love and live the Christmas pageant

By Ellen Painter Dollar

Confession: I could really do without the annual Christmas pageant.

The children’s ministries director at my suburban Episcopal church says this is a common sentiment among those in her position, for whom the pageant can be crazy-making, what with the involvement of dozens of small beings, some of whom rarely come to church otherwise and don’t know the altar from the aisle, who need to be costumed and corralled and choreographed, all at dinnertime on Christmas Eve, one of the most excitement-filled, overscheduled, oversugared, meltdown-inducing days of the year. Our director, though, insists that she loves it all, and it shows in her patient handling of errant camel drivers and weeping angels who can’t find their halos.

But as the mother of three of those children on the brink of meltdown, I always dread the pageant. Sure, it’s cute and all, and it helps my kids understand, in a very concrete way, why we celebrate Christmas. But after weeks of baking, shopping, wrapping, and decorating, I’m ready to kick back with a glass of wine to admire the tree and stare into the fire. I am ashamed to say that I often see the pageant as the final hump to get over, the last thing to check off my to-do list so that I can actually celebrate the holiday instead of preparing for it.

This past Christmas Eve, it looked as if the pageant was going to be even more difficult to sit through than usual. A snowstorm the weekend before meant that the kids had no dress rehearsal. There were long, awkward pauses as we all waited for solos that both the singers and the organist seemed to have forgotten. There were sidelong glances and inscrutable hand gestures as the kids tried to pantomime to each other what they were supposed to be doing. I was anxious for it to be done so we could feed the kids and get them in bed by 9 p.m.—later than normal but early enough that they might make it through the following day without collapsing into puddles of misery. My stomach was growling in anticipation of Christmas Eve dinner. I sat slightly slumped over, chin in hand, as I went through my mental checklist of the children’s gifts, making sure I hadn’t forgotten to wrap something vital and that everyone was getting an equal number of presents.

And then, Gabriel delivered the infant Jesus (played by a three-month-old baby girl) into Mary’s arms, and Mary and Joseph began to sing. And everything—the pageant, my attitude—was transformed. I was so caught up in what was happening up front that I sat glued into the same position, slumped over with chin in hand, for the entire song, afraid that the slightest movement would break the spell.

They sang “O Holy Night,” and it was remarkable for many reasons. The teenagers playing Mary and Joseph had beautiful voices, certainly, but it was more than that. They took turns harmonizing—one would sing the melody while the other sang harmony, and then they would switch roles, seamlessly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. They worked together, each bringing something unique to the song, each willing to step back into harmony or step forward into melody as the song demanded. Just as two unprepared but willing teenagers might work together to raise the surprising gift of a baby—one stepping forward to lead when the other is scared or weary, each giving what they can when they are able, the sum of their efforts worth far more than their individual contributions.

And how poised they were. Not confident exactly. There was uncertainty in the way they held themselves in this pageant that had, thus far, not gone quite as planned. Joseph stood with hands clasped in front of him, while Mary took care to hold the baby in her arms just so, stealing frequent glances down and occasionally doing a deliberate little bounce to soothe her. This was all new, this singing a song with difficult harmonies in front of several hundred hushed spectators, with a living, breathing baby alongside and without adequate rehearsals. They seemed apprehensive but not afraid, aware that things could go badly—the baby might wail, the harmonies might be off—but eager nonetheless to do what was being asked of them. Just as, I imagine, Mary and Joseph might have felt two thousand years ago in Bethlehem, two young people who were asked to accept and love a baby they did not expect, and no ordinary baby at that. A baby born among animals and visited by kings.

I did not want the song to end, but it did (probably to the relief of Mary, holding the baby who miraculously stayed calm and quiet for the entire song and the remainder of the pageant). The pageant continued, with the wooden camels clickety-clacking their way down the stone-slabbed aisle, and the proud parents snapping photos of the assembled angels and shepherds during the Peace, and the restless children asking, “Is it almost over?” through the Eucharist and final hymns.

We got through the pageant and Christmas Eve dinner, and the wildly anticipated Big Day itself. We had a wonderful week with no work and no school, during which I ignored most chores and allowed myself to really celebrate the holiday after all those weeks of preparing. And now, as I write this, the decorations are back in their plastic bins in the basement, the Christmas gifts have been shelved alongside all the gifts from past Christmases and birthdays, the kids are back at school, and my husband and I are back at work.

But I hold onto the sight of Mary and Joseph singing at the Christmas pageant, not fully prepared but ready enough, a little nervous but nonetheless willing to do what was asked of them. They have become, for me, a symbol of what it looks and feels like to respond to God’s call.

There are two major works that God has called me to thus far: motherhood and writing. In both cases, I have had to do what God was asking me to do despite not being fully prepared, and yet being fully aware of how things could go wrong. My husband and I decided to have biological children even though I have a disabling bone disorder and each child had a 50 percent chance of inheriting it. For five years, I worked at writing a book about what that experience taught me (is still teaching me) about God, human beings, suffering, love, choice and disability, even though publisher after publisher told me it was well-written but not marketable enough.

Today, I have three beautiful children, a book contract and two blogs with appreciative and growing audiences. Every day brings opportunities to get up in front of those willing to listen—my family, my community, my readers—to sing about darkness and light, sin and hope, weariness and rejoicing. I am blessed with many partners—my husband, my parents, my editor, fellow writers, friends who read and respond to what I write—with whom I work in harmony, sometimes leading, sometimes following, always aware that work done in communion with others is more valuable than work done in isolation. Writing and parenting can both be tremendously isolating, and even though that isolation is sometimes necessary (I keep my cool through many loud, contentious dinner times by reminding myself that later, once the kids are in bed, I can sit down alone to write), if I write or parent without engaging with the wider world, then my work becomes self-indulgent.

As I sing, offering my words and my work, the baby’s wailing might drown me out, I might sing the wrong notes, or I might be unsure of what I’m supposed to do next. But I’ll sing anyway, not fully prepared but ready enough, a little nervous but willing nonetheless to do what is asked of me.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

Getting out of God's way

By Marshall Scott

The robins are eating my blueberries.

This is not a new problem. It was something of a surprise to me when my wife first pointed it out to me a number of years ago. In part I was surprised because the bushes had born for several years, and no robin had appeared. But I must admit I was more surprised because of all those coloring book images of happy robins tugging struggling worms out of the ground. I had seen them pick at worms. I had even seen them poking through the grass, picking up insects. I had no idea that robins ate berries, much less that they would eat mine.

In years past, I’ve been able to prevent most of their predation. I’ve taken time to build a frame – really, a cage – of concrete reinforcing bar and bird netting. I built it large enough that I could move under it to pick myself, and tight enough that birds couldn’t get in. On the rare occasion one did, it was generally sorry enough not to come back.

But this year the cage didn’t happen. This year the spring rains always seemed to fall on Saturday, or at least on every Saturday when I didn’t have another commitment. Too, my wife is lead gardener for the parish’s new vegetable garden, with the produce committed to another parish’s soup kitchen. So, there wasn’t as much time this year to get the cage built.

And another thing: this year the robins waited. They didn’t show up when the bushes bloomed. They didn’t even show up when the berries first became distinctive. No, they waited. They waited until the berries were full sized, and starting to take on some color. Even then they hung back. I took off the first cup of ripe (or at least ripe enough) berries. And suddenly the next day they were there.

And, to make matters worse there are more of them than ever before. In the past it’s been one, and occasionally two. These days it’s three and frequently four. If I’m outside at the right time, I can scare them off with the solid bang of a deadfall peach thrown at the fence behind them. But of course with more rain and less time I’m not out there enough; and like as not that one cup of blueberries will be all I harvest this year.

I find myself wondering if I didn’t teach them this persistence. Several years – probably several generations - of robins have grown up lusting after my berries. For most of those years they’ve been prevented, stymied by the barrier of net and steel. Did they wait to be sure what I would do? Did they wait, holding back so as to lull me into a sense of security; and then swarm in when, caught by time and hoping they really weren’t coming, I didn’t put my guard up? Indeed, did I teach them to want the berries all the more because they were for so long out of reach?

I have to wonder. That seems too much intelligence, too much planning, to attribute to a robin. On the other hand, there have been those remarkable reports about the ability of some parrots to synthesize spoken concepts. So, who knows? Maybe I did teach them or inspire in them the persistence to wait and seize that which had long been forbidden.

I have occasionally wondered if we needed to do the same thing with the faith. We worry about the next generation of Episcopalians. At our lowest we worry about whether there will be a next generation of Episcopalians. I sometimes wonder whether that would change if we made participation in the Church somehow forbidden.

What if, for example, we barred everyone under sixteen from worship? I don’t mean just making them wait for communion. I mean not allowing them in the door. Can you imagine the young teens trying to sneak into church, instead of sneaking out for an illicit drink? Can you imagine them trying to sneak into the side doors of the transepts instead of the side doors of movie theaters? Can you imagine them surreptitiously reading the Prayer Book under their covers instead of one or another sensational magazine? “Reverse psychology” is largely the stuff of cartoons and situation comedies; and yet there’s enough apparent truth in it that virtually every parent has tried it at least once. Think what might happen if we did that in the Church.

We could think of it like so many other things in life. We hold some things apart as “adult,” things which we forbid to “children,” even children of relatively advanced age. And after all, the one thing that every child wants is to be an adult. If we made Church “adults only,” wouldn’t they clamor to join in?

And, you know, there’s precedent, at least of a sort. In early Eucharists the Peace was the point at which those who weren’t going receive left. Those not yet baptized and those under discipline weren’t just prevented from receiving. They had to leave the building. I have to wonder whether some, at least, didn’t look for a window to at least peek in. Couldn’t that work now?

Well, maybe it could; but, not for us. Oh, it might well get and hold the attention of a number of folks; but I don’t think we could take that step. You see, it may be good marketing, but it’s bad theology.

It is bad theology first because we are called to be people of light, and not of darkness. Certainly, Christ is the Light of the World, but there’s a lot more to it than that. The Gospels call us to put our lamp on the stand, and not under the bed or a bushel. They tell us that what is hidden in darkness will be exposed in the light. They call us to walk in the light.

It’s bad, too, in that we have been shaped, perhaps more than we know, by the same desire as the author of Proverbs. Many times that author speaks of raising children. We know best, “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray;” but we might also claim “And now, my child, listen to me, and do not depart from the words of my mouth.” And how shall the child listen to our words if we haven’t shared them?

And so we model ourselves on Peter when Christ called him to evangelize Cornelius. When he spoke to Cornelius, Peter said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” As he reported when he returned to Jerusalem, Peter understood God’s intent to be that Cornelius and “all [his] house will be saved.” In light of that mission, Peter asked, “Who was I that I could hinder God?”

This is, after all, the foundation on which we baptized infants. We want them to grow “in the right way,” a way that we publicly proclaim and in which we want them to participate. To that end we make explicit our expectations of parents that they will see “that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life,” so that “this child [can] grow into the full stature of Christ.” To that end we all commit to support them; after all, we all say, “We will!” We seek to bring them into life in Christ, and not simply the club of Christ.

It is also the foundation on which many of us call for full inclusion and full participation of all the baptized in the life of the Church. Until we see the Kingdom, we will all still have room to grow in the knowledge and love of the Lord; and we pray often enough for our departed brothers and sisters that such growth can continue in the Kingdom as well. The Holy Spirit fell on everyone in Cornelius’ house who heard Peter. So it was that in the face of criticism from the circumcised believers, Peter said, “If then God gave them the same [Spirit] that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

And so we could not in good faith keep the faith from our youngest, whether they are young in years or simply young in faith. Withholding might make for good marketing in its way. It might even teach some to long for something they cannot have. It just wouldn’t reflect God as he has revealed himself in Christ. It wouldn’t express our call that all participate fully in Christ’s Body, the Church. In short, it wouldn’t demonstrate the faith as we have received it.

This is not to say that we can’t help our newest and our youngest siblings to appreciate the wonder and the value of life in Christ, and so inspire them to live in the Body more fully. I think, though, that we will do that more faithfully and effectively by what we give than by what we withhold; by what we demonstrate than by what we hide. It has been said before, but can bear saying again: if we commend the faith that is in us, if we allow the love of God in Christ to shine through us, we won’t have to worry about the next generation of the Episcopal Church. Living in Christ to the best of our ability will so shape our community and our communion that we are able to welcome our newest and our youngest, and to offer them all the opportunity they can desire to grow in grace and to participate in the life of the Church. They will certainly desire, as we desire, to do more and to know more of life in Christ. It’s just that they will desire it, not because it’s been hidden, but because they will see, first in us and then in themselves, the wonder and the mystery of the love God has for us, and the possibilities to know more, to do more, and to be more.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

They also serve who are knuckleheads

By Heidi Shott

In the mid-1980s, when my husband Scott and I were first married and living in his hometown of Bluefield, West Virginia, we were asked to take on the junior high youth group at the big Presbyterian church where he had grown up. Today, if you were to shine lights into our eyes and ask us to name the kids we worked with over that year or two, we could name about five of the 15 to 20 kids involved in the program.

I particularly remember Daniel, a seventh grade smart aleck, who once, when chastised for his annoying behavior, said, “Hey, it’s a free country.” To which Scott, perhaps a tad imprudently, replied, “Not if you’re dead, Daniel.”

We would meet every Sunday in the youth room at 5 p.m. having begun to consider the evening’s program just a few hours earlier. Scott surely played his guitar, and I’m certain we played silly games to start. I vaguely recall one serious conversation about some contemporary issue and have a dim memory of working our way through the Gospel of Mark. We always concluded the evening with a boisterous visit to the Dairy Queen on Cumberland Road.

Sometimes a group of kids would come over to the little house we were renting to play games and watch videos. The girls and I made an unsuccessful attempt at constructing and decorating gingerbread houses one evening, but we ate a lot of candy and laughed hard at our lopsided handiwork.

The fact is that we were terrible youth leaders. When I started working for the diocese ten years ago and saw the amount of thoughtful planning and preparation that goes into each diocesan youth event, I felt ashamed for having been such a blithe and knuckleheaded youth leader. Scott and I had no plan but we genuinely liked the kids even though they were tiring and seemingly impervious to anything we had to say about walking humbly or otherwise with their God. At that time in a small southern city like Bluefield there was – probably still is – a cultural component to being a part of a church youth group. Just about all the kids had some kind of church connection. These kids kept showing up every Sunday night and so would we and whatever happened, happened.

So when, early one recent morning, I opened an email from a friend saying that someone named Steve from Bluefield had contacted him after seeing our photos on his web site, I was nonplussed. Steve who? I bounded upstairs and shook Scott awake.

“Did you go to high school with a guy named Steve M---?”


By noon, after a few mistaken identities, we realized that Steve had been a member of our junior high youth group and he was now 35 years old. Suddenly I remembered him: a little guy with dark hair and bright red lips. He was cute and well-behaved, which is probably why I didn’t recall him at first. Steve, it turns out, is a full-time middle school ministries director at a huge United Methodist church in Tennessee. He said he has tried for years to find us.

He wrote to Scott, “I want to thank you and Heidi for all the time spent with me during my early junior high years. Who would have thought that playing Monopoly and watching old zombie movies with a junior high kid would plant a seed in his life?”

Whaaa? Dude, we would never have thought that. Surely you’re mistaken. Surely it wasn’t anything we did.

But as I’ve mulled it over for the past few days, I guess it was something we did. We had blindly, unthinkingly really, said “yes” to a call. We didn’t do it well; we weren’t gifted youth leaders, nor could we be ever be described as dedicated. Steve obviously had other, more skilled people who mentored him and helped shape his vocation and spiritual journey along the way.

We just took him bowling, bought him ice cream at Dairy Queen, laughed at his jokes, and gave him a ride home. Holy cow! Can ministry be as simple as that?

Can ministry be as simple as a couple of knuckleheads saying “yes” when asked serve and then letting the Holy Spirit do its mysterious thing? I’ve been mulling it over, and it seems the answer to that question is “yes.”

Heidi Shott is Canon for Communications and Social Justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.

Bound tight through blood

By Joy Caires

“the nails in his hands” (Jn 20:25)

They pushed fluids until they started to pour from her mouth, gave round after round of epinephran and took turns doing chest compressions for over two hours. They would get a pulse for a moment or two, just long enough to decide to keep going, before her heart would slow to a stop again. It was the longest I ever saw the medical team in the pediatric intensive care unit attempt resuscitation.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12)

She was eight years old. After she arrived I stood outside the door of her hospital room room as the clinical team worked. As team members shouted orders for items from the crash cart, I prayed; with each bump on the monitors, I prayed; as numbers fell and rose, I prayed. After what seemed an interminable time, but was really less than 40 minutes, the parents arrived. I met them at the door of the intensive care unit and their eyes opened wide as they took in my black shirt and white collar.

“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Lk 24:26).

At that point I told them exactly what I knew—their daughter was still alive but barely, that the medical staff was fighting for her, that she had been intubated and that they continued to do chest compressions. I could not tell them that she would “make it”, and I couldn’t tell them that she wouldn’t. I huddled with the parents on the sleeper couch in the child’s hospital room as the team continued to struggle. I read the faces of the staff I knew so well and I knew that their heads had given up hope but their hearts and hands would continue to struggle to exact a miracle from the improbable.

“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” (Jn 20:27)

They went beyond the point of possibility and shortly before they stopped, her head lolled to the side and I saw her eyes and I knew she was gone. Her parents kept praying and, after a momentary pause, I prayed as well—for a miracle I was certain would not come. But, just as the medical staffs hearts and hands fought on, my heart and mouth continued to pray for the improbable. For this child the difference between the declarative of a flat line and hope was the pounding of hands upon her chest.

“Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? “ (Lk 24:38)

By 2pm it was all over. The air in the unit was thick with tension and unspent grief. Another little girl whose family had been preparing for her death for months had slipped away and another child had entered Hospice care—all while we had tried to pound life into a lifeless chest. The medical staff huddled in small groups—two of the children had clear diagnoses, but the third would be a coroner’s case. The parents spent time with the children’s bodies and eventually left. The mortician made his appearance—even he was shaken by the magnitude of the death that day. And, we all kept working—other patients and families needed to be attended to and we were all conscious of the need to keep moving.

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…” (Jn 20:19)

Then word came, the attending physician had ordered pizza for the staff on the unit. As we were able, we used our identification cards to let ourselves into the locked staff room. It was quiet in the room and the locked door made me feel safe, safe from pain, safe from inexplicable death, safe... I don’t remember any conversation beyond the running commentary about the sauce and toppings—to an outsider we would have seemed callous. But, the current of the unspoken ran through us. While the words would not be uttered, love was truly in that place. Our bond as a team had grown as tight as that of blood brothers—but the blood we shared was not our own. Our souls had been bound by the blood of an innocent.

“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16)

I wonder what choices had brought us there? I wonder, what fruit we bore that day? Perhaps it was the peace that came from having shared in the washing and dressing of the child’s body; of giving a family an image that was less that of the violent cross and more that of the quiet tomb; or, the knowledge that we had given a child her last and best chance at life. We all went home later that evening, it was hard to leave and we clung to each other—finding excuses to stay a bit later, work a bit longer. We, regardless of beliefs, had chosen to dwell in the valley of the shadow of death and we needed each other—we needed to bear the fruit of hope even as we ate the fruit of misery. Blood and pizza became our sacraments whilst death lurked.

“I lay down my life for the sheep.” (Jn 10:15)

The outward signs of devastation and recollection and the insistence of living in the face of death—we eat because we are alive, we gather because we need to see life in each other. Each week we, the Christian faithful, gather around a feast of the body and blood. Each week we are joined with those who gather in mourning--bound together by a shared participation in the bloody death of an innocent. We will live despite death, we will feast in the shadow of the cross and we will love throughout time.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (Jn 20:29)

I have seen too much. My hands have touched the wounded side and my ears have heard the final breath. I have not seen…but I still hope. I hope for the resurrection, I hope for the loving embrace of God and I hope, for each innocent, peace beyond that of my own understanding. The irony for us Easter people is that it was Christ who conquered death and eternal life is on the other side of a flat line.

The Reverend Joy Caires, a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School, is currently the Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour in Akron, Ohio. Joy's first call, after ordination, was as the pediatric chaplain at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.

Suffer the little children, and their parents, too

By Leo Campos

I have heard and read much about Jesus' openness to children. In his day and time children were not of much more value than cattle, if that much. So for Jesus to permit children to "bother" him was different enough to merit a mention. It is also one of those small little details which seem to me to be proof of the impact of Jesus in the lives of those who followed him.

It is also, in my opinion, proof of Jesus' celibacy - against those inclined toward a gnostic or DaVinci-esque view of Jesus. Only a really cool uncle would say such a thing about children. Of course, Jesus never said such a thing directly to my youngest son.

Case in point: taking my 3-year old to school can turn any morning into drama of epic proportions. Part of the difficulty is that he is one of those kids who absolutely must do everything for himself - no matter that he lacks the finer motor control or the experience or both. He must get it himself, do it himself. He will not tolerate any help...even though without help he cannot (physically) do the task. Even though if I did it we would be out of the house already and I would not be late for work. No matter. A typical conversation will go something like this:

"Daddy I want milk!"

"What do we say?"

Pause. He looks at his father and practices the look he will give me 20 years hence at the early onset of dementia, "I. Want. Milk."

I adjust my glasses, the International Sign of Infinite Patience and explain, "We say 'please'."

"Oh yeah. Please? Milk? Please!! I said please."

"Yes you did. Here's your milk," and I hand him a glass of milk, in his favorite white plastic cup which turns purple with the temperature of the liquid.

"No," he frowns, crosses his arms, and if he knew how, he would probably tap his toes too.

A puzzled look crosses my face, and instinctively I check the cup to make sure it really was milk I poured in there, remembering that one time when it involved my wife's kefir. "Don't you want milk?" I stretch the glass to him.


I look at this child like someone looks at a small but extremely dangerous animal that is making threatening noises, "You asked for milk!"

After a few seconds of death-staring each other, I say, "Ok. Don't have any milk. See if I care. Do you know how many starving cows in Timbuktu would love some milk?"

I try my best to slam the milk down with dignity and focus my attention back on doing my cereal box lectio. My cereal now is mushy. A few minutes later I hear, "Look Daddy I got milk."

Suffer unto me indeed. But Jesus did not mean this particular pint-sized lovable terror; he meant the approach to certain things in life which all children share. For example, regardless of how the day begins, without or without military interventions, duct tape, and sugar frosted cereals, when we get to the car the request is usually the same: "Daddy can we say prayers?" By this he means he wants to listen to my CD of Morning Offices which I got from GIA Music (highly recommended, by the way). So we put it on and listen and sing along to the psalms and the canticles.

On my wife's side of the family, music is an integral part of their self-identity. Everyone, it seems plays various instruments well, has a range of multiple octaves, and can usually be counted on to start some sort of sing-along around the piano - and that's just the pets. My tone-deafness and general music analphabetism elicits the same sort of look one gives to those brave souls who wear their Phillies hats out in public.

The other day our little one was singing to himself the intro to the Offices ("O God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me"). I could tell it was in tune because my beloved wife was frantically calling the DNA research lab, canceling the DNA tests, and just as quickly dialing her family and holding up the phone so they too could hear it.

But the issue with the daily singing of hymns goes deeper than musical appreciation or even family affiliation (and perhaps a larger percentage of inheritance later in life). The point is that my son finds routines comforting. Children, it seems, make natural Benedictines - they thrive on the day-in day-out routines: certain predictable things happen in certain predictable hours, in certain predictable days. My little one quickly memorized what days he could bring a book and what days he could bring a toy to daycare. He must have dinner no later than 5:45 EST. He demands a certain amount of reading every night - usually from a limited collection of "best" books (a collection which his older brother is always trying to expand). And then there is "compline."

"Daddy. My brother has not read me a book."
In the background I hear a "Did too!" from his brother.

"But son, I heard him in there with you for the past half an hour," I reply hoping against hope his mother will be home soon.

Silent pause. He looks at me on the couch with the practiced caring disdain of an overworked nurse, "He has not read me a book," he repeats probably figuring out that all adults are hard of hearing.

"Which book?" I ask putting down my own reading, the international sign of Fantastic Daddyship.

"Don't let the pigeon drive the bus!"

"Ok - let's go read the book."

And after reading, not one but three Mo Willems books plus a few others, there is the bathroom run, and then the prayers. The "friend light" (night light) has to be on and the correct blanket in place. And on and on.

Routines - they bring stability and, strangely, an opportunity to explore and play. Play is much better when carried out within boundaries. There is perhaps a certain feeling of security which routine affords. Those of us who recite the Daily Office find their constancy and their repetition extremely comforting. While novelty is the fastest way to happiness, repetition is the surest road to joy.

Instead of ruing the boredom of our lives, we should spend sometime thanking God for routines - and then setting about doing the work He has given us to do within that routine. To complain of boredom and routine betrays a lack of creativity and of insight - both of which are fundamental tools for a deep spiritual life.

Children, especially my lovable younger one, are masters of creative ways of existing within the boundaries, of playing in and with the boundaries. They are masters of living. Let me suffer unto the little children and learn to live better.

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude , a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the "tech guy" for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

Wounds that don't heal

By Martin L. Smith

I will be celebrating Easter in Sydney this year, and no doubt the aromas of early fall down under will be different from the springtime scents of the northern hemisphere. But I expect there will be Easter lilies there somehow. I was recalling their fragrance the other day, and very particular feelings it has evoked in me ever since Holy Saturday, 1989.

I was arranging Easter lilies in a little chapel, not very well, so it is no wonder that I got distracted by one of the old magazines I was using to protect the floor. I glanced down and was shocked to read the title, “Children After Divorce: Wounds That Don’t Heal.” I knelt down and began to read the damp page with a strange feeling of apprehension; I felt on the verge of breaking a taboo. I was abandoned by a parent when I was a child, and endured the divorce that followed. And I was forbidden to grieve. I internalized the ban so thoroughly that for most of my life all sorts of upbeat interpretations of my experience sprang instinctively to my lips: “Well, it was hard, of course, but maybe it was all for the best… Everything worked out OK in the end. My parents weren’t a good fit for each other. We were resilient…” etc. etc.

This was the passage that struck me from Judith Wallerstein’s article, one anecdote from her research with kids who have undergone the divorce of their parents. A 6-year-old boy came to the research center. He wouldn’t talk about his parents’ break up, but he made a beeline for the array of dolls and toys that the therapists used. “When he found a good number of them, he stood the baby dolls firmly on their feet and placed the miniature tables, chairs, beds and, eventually, all the playhouse furniture on top of them. He looked at me satisfied. The babies were supporting a great deal. Then, wordlessly, he placed all the mother and father dolls in precarious positions on the steep roof of the doll house. As a father doll slid off the roof, the boy caught him and, looking up at me, said, ‘He might die.’ Soon all the mother and father dolls began sliding off the roof. He caught them gently, one by one. ‘The babies are holding up the world,’ he said.”

The devastating simplicity of that little boy’s words and the piercing eloquence of the scene he had created with the toys struck me to the core. “The babies are holding up the world.” That’s how it had felt! This unjust reversal of roles, this burden of protecting parents from their pain, this huge sense of responsibility… Kneeling among the disarray of Easter lilies, I felt knots beginning to loosen. It wasn’t too late, then, to feel the healing that comes when one’s pain is acknowledged as absolutely real. The burden of having to obey the protocols of denial begins to be lifted away.

Self-pity is such a horrible phrase that its associations can prevent us from feeling something that is different and wholly good—self-compassion. I felt tender compassion for the child I had been, and I put my finger on the wounds that suppressed grief had inflicted, wounds I had been taught to pretend weren’t there. I somehow managed to arrange the flowers though my vision was blurred by tears—good tears that seemed like the harbingers of integration and blessing.

Was it merely coincidental that this moment of truth happened on Holy Saturday? Perhaps not. After all, wouldn’t “Wounds that don’t heal” be an accurate title for an Easter sermon? I’m not alone in finding this single detail found in the stories of Jesus’ Easter appearances—that the Risen Christ has open wounds—to be the key that convinces me that the resurrection did occur. A made-up story would have had the wounds healed and an imaginary Christ as a figure of sheer glory. But no: the resurrection as it actually happened is God’s savage rebuke of all human tendency to cover up pain, all cosmetic smoothing over, all letting bygones be bygones, all conspiracies of silence, and phony cover-ups masquerading as reconciliation. “He showed them his hand and his side.”

Yet the resurrection of the wounded one is also the supreme gesture by God that bestows irrevocable permission for all time on those who have suffered to acknowledge their suffering as genuine, however others deny or minimize it. In the resurrection of the crucified, as the crucified, sufferers meet the Son of God as the one who keeps them company in the worst that can befall us. Through this meeting, we can find the redemption of what we endured, and delve into possibilities of grace in which buds of life and creativity can germinate just where injury and loss have done their worst.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

Breakfast with Jesus and 30 of his closest friends

By Lauren R. Stanley

Nine days after departing for Sudan, I returned to the United States on an emergency trip. A visiting teacher from America had taken ill and needed to be escorted home. We arrived late on a Friday night, after nearly 24 hours of travel, and immediately got care for my friend.

On Saturday, I realized that for the first time in a long time, I had nowhere to go on Sunday. I was supposed to be preaching at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Renk, Sudan, but that obviously wasn’t going to happen. Usually, when I am in the United States, every Sunday morning and half my Sunday afternoons and evenings are filled with preaching and teaching and forums. This weekend, however, I was foot-loose and fancy- (and sermon-) free.

Then a friend contacted me, the rector of a large Northern Virginia parish. Would I like to come celebrate the Eucharist at the family interactive service the next morning? I told him I didn’t have any of my vestments, not even my collar, because I had left Renk in such a rush to get our visitor to the hospital in Khartoum. Not a problem, he said. We’ll take care of that; you just come celebrate.

So on Sunday morning, I showed up, found some vestments and into the parish hall we went. While the regular 9 a.m. service took place in the Nave, we had a few hundred parents and children with us for a service that included a lot of singing, a video show of the saints of the Church and the saints of the church, and a Eucharist celebrated at a small, short table in the center of the room, surrounded by about 30 children.

“OK,” I told the kids, “it’s time to have breakfast with Jesus.”

“I’m not hungry,” one little blond boy, aged 3 or 4, promptly declared.

“Well, the rest of us are,” I replied. “You can join us if you want.”

Then I told the kids I needed their help, that to get ready for breakfast with Jesus, we needed to pray, but that I couldn’t do this alone. “Will you help me?” I asked. “Yes,” they said. “Good,” I told them. “So when I put my arms out like this (in the orans position), you do that too,” I said. “And when I lift my hands up over my head to pray, you do that as well. And,” I said, “when I cross my hands over the bread and wine, you do that with me. That way, we’ll all be getting ready for breakfast with Jesus.”

My little questioning boy wanted to know: “Where’s Jesus?”

“Right here in the bread and wine,” I said, pointing. “And right here,” I added, pointing to my heart and then to all of theirs.

I asked the “big kids” (aka the adults) to say the responses for Prayer C, so that they could help as well. And then we celebrated the Eucharist together.

“The Lord be with you,” I said, putting my hands out. Thirty pairs of hands rose into in the air.

“Lift up your hearts,” I continued, putting my hands over my head. Those same 30 pairs of hands went straight up.

“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” I said. The hands stayed up until I brought mine down, and then they all put their hands out to their sides.

When we sang the Sanctus, which most of them knew, I put my hands over my head again, peering under my arms at all these little faces. In the middle of the hymn, I told them: “This is what I’m going to get to do in heaven; I’ll get to sing this song in the morning choir to God.” A few of the children nodded.

When we did the epiclesis, calling down the Holy Spirit to bless the bread and wine, 30 pairs of hands matched mine, crossing over at the wrist and hovering over the elements in a tremendously holy and touching moment. These children really wanted to participate in getting breakfast ready.

Then came the anamnesis, the remembering. I held up a small loaf of bread. “Take, eat,” I said, showing the bread to them at their eye level. Thirty pairs of eyes followed the bread closely as I showed it next to the “big kids.”

Then I picked up the cup of wine. “This is my blood,” I said. Before I could go any further, my little blond-headed boy disgustedly interrupted:

“Blood?!?!? I’m not drinking blood!”

“It’s a rep-re-sen-ta-tion,” a 5-year-old girl replied, taking special care with her pronunciation.

“It’s not really blood,” I said. “It’s wine.”

“It’s a rep-re-sen-ta-tion,” the little girl said again.

“It’s OK. You don’t have to drink it,” I told the boy.

“I’m not drinking blood!” he said again.

The “big kids” all around us were smiling, and I was thinking to myself, Oh, my, out of the mouths of babes. I turned to my friend the rector, who was at the end of the parish hall, watching all of this. “Isn’t doing Eucharist with the kids great? They ask the best questions.”

On we went with the prayers. Thirty pairs of hands went over 30 heads for the Lord’s Prayer, then clapped together during the fraction anthem.

Finally, breakfast was ready and it was time to eat.

I gave out the bread to the children first – after all, they had worked so hard to get it ready. When I got to the little blond boy, he took his bread right away. Apparently he was hungry after all. When a chalicist brought the cup, he took some of that, too. We might have called it “blood,” and he for certain wasn’t going to drink any of that, but this wine in the cup? Well, that was all right.

Then we communed the “big kids,” some of whose children came back with them.

“Do you want seconds?” I asked the returnees. One girl, not the 5-year-old with the incredible vocabulary and understanding, took me up on the offer. The blond boy did not.

And then we sang some more hymns, and cleaned up the table, and said some more prayers, and we were done.

Did we celebrate the Eucharist the way they taught me at seminary? No. Was it the most orthodox way to celebrate? Again, no. And I know there probably will be some who object to allowing the children to participate in this way, and others who will say that I wasn’t solemn enough and that I shouldn’t have talked with the children or my friend the rector during the prayers, but really, that’s OK with me.

Because we had a holy time together, and there was much of God present, and that is something I definitely learned in seminary, and for which I have striven all the years I have been a priest.

And now I go back to Sudan again, where we do not commune the children and where there will be no side comments, no objections to drinking “blood!”, no explanations from 5-year-olds carefully explaining that the “blood” is a “rep-re-sen-ta-tion” and I will miss having little children crowding around me and lifting their hands to praise God and crossing their wrists to bless bread and wine with me, and I will regret not having them present.

But I will not forget what happened last Sunday. I will not forget that a friend called and said, “Wanna come celebrate?” and then let me truly do just that, with 30 little children in the center of a parish hall.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Liturgy, Biblical Greek and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.

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