What Pastors Need to Know About Children with Developmental Disorders In Their Congregations

This post is out-of-place on my blog. I usually write about spiritual formation for adults. However, I get questioned so often from pastors about how and why their churches should care for the autistic children in their congregations that I want to write the answer down permanently. Hopefully, someone, somewhere finds it useful.

th

In the United States, one in six children have a developmental disorder. (That’s roughly about 17%.) Those complications range from speech and language impairments, to autism, cerebral palsy, intellectual delays, and other serious impairments. Because of Christian charity, I would venture that the values for churches would be even higher.

Of these special need groupings, one of developmental delays that has risen dramatically over the past couple of years is the number of children on the autism spectrum. In years past, maybe one or two families in a congregation would be challenged to care for these children. But, in the past decade alone, children diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorders has risen SEVENTY EIGHT percent. What this means is that while one of two children may have needed some extra care in past years, now you may be able to have a whole classroom full on any given Sunday morning.

Pastors and other church leaders have always had a couple of choices when it came to addressing the needs of these kids. They could ignore, belittle, or isolate the families until they left the church. They could personally attend to the families, who often needed more time and support than others in the congregation. Or they could make inter-church/inter-denominational programs that met on days other than Sunday to give these families a half-a-shot at fellowship. But with the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders and other special needs on the rise, these cannot be the options anymore. You will have to love and serve these families, there will be too many to care for individually, and shoving these families off to other churches will say something about your church.

While it is true that these children’s needs can make it more difficult for other children to learn, for teachers to plan activities, and can even make the space feel unsafe to other kids, the good news is that modifications for autism spectrum children often benefit all children. It really is a win-win situation. Your special need children can be seen as canaries in the coal mines, warning you of the dangers of poor programming.

I try to avoid practical step-by-step, numbered approaches, but for clarity’s sake, that’s exactly what I’m about to provide. If you want to help the special needs children and benefit the other kids in your care, you need to pay attention to three things: time, space, and expectations.

TIME

The first question parents ask their children when they get out of a classroom is: What did you learn today? And if you want to help the kids in your ministry, you’re going to have to think through how that question gets answered differently. In particularly white, wealthy, highly educated churches, there is an expectation for children to excel in the church classroom as much as any other class. But jam-packing the schedule is detrimental for special needs children, who are often overwhelmed by the non-stop action, and who transition poorly. Multiple transitions in one to two hours can make their little brains explode. Other children may often feel pressured during this time, but they’re just not reacting as strongly as these other beauties. But following a schedule that benefits your special need kids provides everyone the space and time to absorb the important components of your programming

When planning children’s time, there should always be a transition time to start, and if you have the area to do it, a transition space. This should be like a holding area where they can see their classrooms, but they don’t have to go into them yet. This is an opportunity for the children to independently adjust to the children’s space. Don’t require them to play. Don’t require them to participate in a  group game. In fact, if they want to lay on a rug, by themselves, or walk around the classroom 15 times, that’s just fine. The goal of this time is just the idea of welcoming. This space is your space. You are a part of this family. This is your church home and it should be comfortable.

Next, there should next be a time for them to move their bodies and increase what’s known as their gross motor skills. Studies show that all children, and especially children on the spectrum, learn more if they are physically active before a lesson. (Children even speak better if they do a couple of push ups before trying to engage in conversation). Again, for children affected by sensory stimuli, you might need to let them sit this out. That’s okay. The goal is that they feel a part of the group, not that they participate in the ways we want them to. Sensory avoidant children might even absorb more if they are allowed to sit in the back with adults, being quiet.

Next, there should be a short, clear, and concise lesson. Children don’t even develop the ability to reason before 12, if they reach that stage at all. Asking children to break down bible stories, apply it to their own lives, and work through how it compares to a 5 point gospel model is really tough. you’ll often leave most kids feeling confused, stupid, condemned, or having receiving wrong information. At this stage, telling the story is enough. It really is. You don’t need to apply it for them you don’t need to make a  point. You don’t even need to challenge them. Don’t worry, if you tell the story, Jesus will use it, interpret it, and apply it later. (Remember the verse: Raise a child in the way they should go and when they GROW OLD, they won’t depart from it.)

If you must have a small group time, and you must ask questions, then learn to break apart reasoning skills. Give these kids step stones to understanding. Children on the spectrum barely grasp why and how questions, and many young children join them. For example, if you’re teaching children about the time in the wilderness, don’t ask questions like “How did God provide for the Israelites in the wilderness? What does that tell us about how He’ll provide for us?” They may be able to tell you – God provided food. God will give us food. But I guarantee, they’re not grasping the concept of provision. Instead, ask questions like:  “What did God give the Israelights? What does God give you? What does it feel like when God gives you ____? What do you feel when you give people gifts?  Do you give people gifts? What makes you want to give gifts?” It will take longer, but all the things we understand as adults will start filling in the spaces that children often have blank through our direct, linear questioning.

Lastly, there should be a planned time for children to transition before their parents pick them up.This should be thought of as the closing stretches in a well executed exercise program. If you don’t do it, you can cause damage. Don’t just let kids run around. Don’t just finish up art projects. Have a calm, group inclusive game or activity planned.

This plan of only a short time to talk about the bible and Jesus goes against what many would consider “good stewardship,” but this is exactly what works well for children to grasp, understand, process, and remember information.

SPACE

We all know that shoving a bunch of kids into a room with no toys and nothing comfortable isn’t the best plan for children’s ministry. But the space you design and prepare for your children is super important. You don’t need a room full of cute, Ikea crap. It might make the parents feel more comfortable, but it’s not what your kids actually need.

All humans respond really great to color coding, but special needs children and young children especially respond to color coding. It might be cute to call your 2-4 room: Activity Climbers, but it would be better to just call it: the Blue group. As children advance, there is far more excitement to reaching a new color stage than a new name. And bonus: knowing that they have the same color around them each week makes hem feel safer, which means they will open up more.

The space should also pay attention to sensory information: touch, smell, auditory information, visual interpretation, and taste. If you know the kids will have to sit on a floor, provide a color-coded, appropriate rug and allow them to bring blankets. If your children meet in a basement, make sure to run dehumidifiers at least 24 hours before they get there. And don’t spray perfumes or plug in strong deodorizers. If you must, use a Renuizit odor eliminator cone. Any children with sensory sensitive systems will not be able to focus if there is a strong smell.

Worship is a huge part of the American church. We love to have little children rocking it out for Jesus. We want to see their little arms raised. But we have no idea how hard this is for many kids to deal with. If you must have your children listen to loud, rock and roll music for Jesus, then make sure you have sound proof head phones for your special needs kids. They’re cheap, and it can allow them to actually participate in worship. But, I would also still advise that you only do one or two songs, at most, and that you limit the number of songs you’ll present in a year (under 10 songs, for sure). While your little ones are worshiping, make sure to care for your sensory avoidant children. Don’t make them stand. Don’t make them sing. Even if you get them to stand and sing, you’re not getting them to understand the importance of worship. You’re assaulting their systems and they are associating worship with feeling scared, frightened, and intimidated.  If you have sensory seeking kids, make sure to provide a safe space that they can dance and move while worshiping. For them, receiving auditory information without being able to work that through movement is just torture. And lastly, try not to have lights and lasers going.

Other visual accommodations include making sure that views to the outside and other groups are blocked off, so there are no distraction or triggers to their systems. Also, think through what the children are looking at. Would you be able to look at a felt board for 15 minutes without becoming distracted? Then why wouldn’t they? Would you be able to stop watching TV and just jump into the next activity? Then imagine how much harder it is for them. Could you look at an activity that’s really enjoyable and then not do it? Then why do you have the markers, toys, etc. in their eyesight while you want them to learn a lesson? Get on your knees and look at what they are looking at.

Lastly, taste is an important element for children to experience in church. Jesus didn’t leave us with a liturgy. He left us with a meal. Children connect, learn, and develop more through conversation around a table than they do anywhere else. So don’t just hand them a cup full of goldfish crackers. Have them pump a bit of Purell into each other’s hands. Have someone say grace. Have another present the cups to each person. Enjoy and talk to each other during the cracker eating. And then clean up the space together. The structure will do awesome things for your special needs kids, but it will help all of the children to feel part of the family.

EXPECTATIONS

The most important lesson I ever learned about evaluating the behavior of special needs children is to always, always, ALWAYS, ask the question;

“Is this behavior defiant?”

Special needs children get a bad rap for being behaviorally challenged. But often, their ‘bad behavior’ isn’t. It isn’t defiant. It isn’t rebellious. It’s, largely, out of their control. Take this description of a day in the life of a child with sensory avoidant sensory processing disorder for example: (Note: I didn’t write this. I’m not quite sure where I got it from.

Today, I am so sensitive to be touched. It’s like this everyday. I don’t like to be hugged. Sometimes my Mom has to remove the tags off of my shirts. I can’t wear socks or underwear. Today, I don’t want to brush my teeth or have a shower. I’m sensitive when I hear things and the louder it gets, the more it hurts me. It makes me want to cry, and sometimes I will have tantrums, not because I want too but I lose control, it’s just too much. I always have a melt down because my food hurts my mouth, I can’t eat very much. I yell a lot because I don’t like how these things make me feel. I can’t sit still. When I’m at school, I can’t do the same work as my friends. I don’t have many friends, just two. Sometimes they play with me at recess, sometimes they don’t. I am aggressive because there’s so much information coming in and I don’t know what to do with it all. When the lights get too bright. I yell at my Mom to turn off the lights. It hurts my eyes. I sometime hit my Mom or I’ll break her things even though I don’t want to. 

The expectation levels for our children have to be changed. We can’t expect authoritarian structures to work, even if our churches are authoritarian for adults and it works well at that level. We can ask and encourage our kids to be kind and be safe. If you have those two rules, and you explain what they mean, you have a great chance of hitting that goal almost 100% of the time. If your goal is for warriors to walk out of your classrooms, warriors who will fight for the kingdom before they’ve experienced it, then you’re going to unknowingly develop something in these children that you don’t want: pride, superiority, and self-righteousness. It would take me another long blog post to explain the hows of why that happens, but it’s highly predictable.

 

So, that’s it. If you have any follow-up questions, let me know. :)

Love,

Pam

 

 

 

 

Practices of Looking – Final Edition – Making Space for Beauty

This is the third, and final, installment on a series on Creating a Practice of Looking. The first post talked about the effect beauty has on us as humans and why we are so moved by what we deem beautiful. The second post argued that if beauty is affecting us, then we should stop and pay attention to what is considered beautiful and how we are being moved by it. This third post, then, is a practical approach to making space for beauty instead of just being pulled along a current of needs and desires.

peacock2

From the missionary who has seen far too much, to the pastor who lives in the heartache of others’ lives; from the mom who can’t get a moment to think, to the lawyer who blows out his pre-frontal cortex with non-stop analytical thought, we all are in need of a great big pause — time and space to both think through the 86,400 seconds we live, and move, and have our being in — and also to surrender to not thinking at all. We all are in need of the Beauty that says “I see you and hear you and understand you” and yet, who also exists with us. So, how do we do it? How do we connect to this source of Beauty?

It’s not a coincidence that I write this post now, the days leading up to Christmas. Our cultural conditioning makes us long for storybook endings and perfectly placed flurries of snow and gleaming, bright grins. These are the days we want beauty the most. We want it in twinkling lights, decorated trees, and human beings who suddenly have perfect character. We want something to connect to our weary hearts. Maybe even more so this year. Because this past year has been a blast of worry, fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, lament, heartache, and shock. When you live in the midst of destruction like that, it’s really hard not to hate the silver lining type of talk, and you start to doubt whether beauty can exist.

But beauty is there. It’s just riskier and less consumable than we thought it was.

Real beauty isn’t something that we can fake or conjure up. Beauty isn’t something you merely create. It is the by product of a relationship. And that’s not something than can be trapped. It’s something that takes a part of you. You have to lean in, give a little, and have a little bit of ridiculous faith for. Because the artist who puts stroke to canvas knows that things might not turn out the way they want, but they lend their ideas to the canvas nonetheless.

If you want more beauty in your life, you have to stop, look, and value the sacrifice of others, and you have to be willing to take a step yourself to create something better than all the cynicism you see.  That’s why the Ebola caretakers are beautiful. It’s why the struggling single mom is beautiful. It’s why the special education room always has a bit of unexplained joy flowing from it. It’s why the counselor who sits in the mud feels so fulfilled at the end of the day. It’s why it’s easy to see beauty in a dirty house, a fractured soul, or a simple jar. Something happened in these lives and places. Something was offered and something was taken. There’s a story of sacrifice. There’s a story of giving of one’s self.

Because beauty might not be about us creating, but it is, for sure, about co-creation. It’s about being invited, beckoned, by a need, desire, or belief, and then responding with ideas that better the world you live in.

That’s why Christians’ story of Christmas is the most beautiful idea to them. A God saw and heard their need, and didn’t have to respond, but did. He came as a little baby, who allowed Himself to be molded and shaped by the people that He was trying to create a better life for. And eventually, it took a great sacrifice — something that  looked like failure — but something that solidified relationship. “I am yous, and you are mine,” He said. And then He stood, and still stands by this thing they created together. Selah. Beauty.

Do you want to have more beauty? Then commit to co-creation. Commit to looking for something you can join in on. That can happen in a dance. It can happen as you ride your bike, bending on the curves of a trail. It can happen as you clothe the naked, feed the hungry, or counsel the brokenhearted. The only way it can’t happen is when you stay in your own self-controlled bubble, insisting that you have created enough, loved enough, shared enough, or are right enough.

Merry Christmas,

Pam

 

 

 

 

The Biggest Miracle I Saw This Year Involved a Catholic Priest and a Bunch of Southern Baptists

I saw something I never thought I would see this past year, and six months later, it’s still moving my heart towards compassion and love. It was such a move of God that I’ve struggled to put it into words for fear of lessening the beauty of the moment, but I’ll try to explain.

Although doctrinally I now fall squarely in the protestant camp, I grew up as a devout Roman Catholic. I know that some have horrible memories of a church that taught a foreign, almost Satanic God, but that was not my experience. I was raised in a thriving parish that taught me that God loved me, that I was a sinner, and that He saved me, and that I needed to accept His payment for my debts. I was also was taught that I should read and study my bible, serve my neighbor, and confess my sins, not only to a priest, but to other believers who would walk with me. That’s why I never understood why, when I would go to Christian conferences, or listen to Christian radio, other believers would hate me. (Because that’s really what I received as a child: that other Christians had disdain for me.) I loved and served the same God as them, and hoped to be reunited with Him, both in life and death, the same way they did. Why did they think of me as less-than?

I loved both of these camps so much though, that from a very early age, I began praying that they would love one another. I wanted them to see that they were brothers and sisters, not enemies. I realized that it would probably take my very life and body to help bridge this gap. (I also balanced my mom’s checkbook at five, so this level of depth and concern wasn’t out of the ordinary for me.)

I didn’t realize how hard this task would be though, or how many other saints had been called to it. The most discouraging experience I had was in 2003. A very prominent pastor in a very prominent church (and yes, you would know both of their names), held a workshop on the difference between Catholicism and Evangelicalism. I watched as this assumed man of God took an entire audience who was eager to love Catholics and share their knowledge of Christ with them and transformed them into people who thought that Catholics were the scum of the Earth. I’m not exaggerating. I watched as love was replaced with hate, and curiosity was transformed into fear and loathing. I walked out angry, hurting, and lamenting. Ironically, that was also my husband and I’s first date: him a non-denominational Christian who had been taught that Catholics were dangerous and to be avoided. And I, a Catholic and Evangelical lover. We almost didn’t come together because of this gap, for don’t you know, that would be becoming unequally yoked?

Although in my own life I was able to persuade my husband to love Catholics, and I eventually became a protestant myself, I never thought these camps would come together. Not in an act of poor euchamenism  — not in some weak “let’s believe nothing so we can hug it out way” — but in a show of understanding that we sit at the same table and eat the same food. We are brothers and sisters who are very different, but siblings nonetheless. Siblings that need each other. I didn’t have faith for this family reunion until this past June.

I was at a conference that was talking about why, it seemed, that God was using ideas like Sacrament and Liturgy to do a new thing in the Evangelical church. The presenters argued that those things seem like they should produce death, but instead, evangelical churches were finding that they had some resurrection power for their churches. The group of attendees had Mennonites and Southern Baptists; Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Catholics; Evangelicals and Pentecostals. Each of these groups had people who were supposed to fight with one another. Instead, we learned together, confessed our sins to one another, and prayed together.  It. Was. Glorious. But the best part came when we went to break bread with one another.

An Anglican priest prepared communion for all of the protestants. But, the leader of the conference acknowledged that some Catholics in the audience may not feel comfortable receiving that communion.So, he shared that a priest would also be available to give a blessing.

“Some of you protestants could use a blessing from a Catholic priest,” he joked.

We lined up, each feeling the sacredness of sharing a meal that we probably won’t be able to share again until heaven. As I sat in my row, and then stood in line, I watched as something spectacular happened. Almost all of the participants were willing to go to the priest and let their brother bless them. I may have been shocked, but the priest was downright moved. I saw, as he blessed each of them, that his armor was melting away. He, like me, believed that these people would hate him, ignore him, belittle him, and instead they humbled themselves and chose to believe that they belonged to him — and he to them.

I wept.

I couldn’t do anything but cry. If you’ve never seen a family reunited, you won’t understand. But if you have, you know that there is weeping and rejoicing that is unparallelled in this world.

I feel the need to note that the protestants didn’t become Catholic in that moment. Nor will they. We each went home to our own tribes and our own camps that day. But, many left finding out that they had a brother that they never knew they had.

What I saw was downright miraculous. I’ve worked for it, but I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime.

The church is so much bigger than we allow it to be. We all have wrong doctrines, and wrong beliefs, and I look forward to the day when we don’t argue anymore. I’m expectant, and joyful, and hopeful for a day when we all know who was right and who was wrong, and we can drop our misconceptions, and love and serve Christ together. I wait for a day, when instead of arguing, we love with all of our heart, soul and mind. It sounds romantic, maybe even sentimental, but after living a lifetime of doing it, I can say that it’s gritty, and strong, and hard, and completely looks like Jesus. For, as a catholic priest once told me, FAMILY means

Forget. About. Me. I. Love. You.

 

An Advent Medition: the Incarnation

The prayers of my childhood have been coming back to me a lot lately. One of those prayers is especially on my mind this Advent: the Angelus. In school, we would recite this prayer at noon everyday to help prepare ourselves for what it means to receive Christ. Roman Catholics insert the “Hail Mary” between each set of statements, but I’m finding myself just meditating on the words of the stanzas.

The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.
And she conceived of the Holy Spirit.

mary

As I think about these words, I’m broken. Mary was told God’s will, and immediately life began growing in her body.  I have to ask, when God declares that He wants to share Himself through me, do I immediately allow Him to conceive — to start growing — good within my very body? Do I allow Him to increase and allow myself to decrease? Do I allow His good creation to break into reality?

Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
Be it done unto me according to thy word.

images

Mary’s response was that she was the handmaid of the Lord. Do I think of myself as the handmaid of the Lord? Or do I think of myself as the spouse of the Lord, who gets to converse with Him about upcoming plans first? Do I allow Him to live and move and have His being in me? Or do I wait, holding back the good God has because it’s too sacrificial?

And the Word was made Flesh.
And dwelt among us.

mary jesus

When we got to this stanza, we always paused for ten seconds. We honored, with Thanksgiving, that Jesus wanted to be with us. I wonder if that’s how Mary felt as she held the infant Jesus? If she silently held him, in thanksgiving and awe that He would choose to be with her? I think of how many times I’ve felt a tug of prayer — a tug to be intimate and alone with Jesus — this year and how I’ve brushed it away. I think of the gift of intimacy with Christ and how it becomes a reality. How this relationship with Christ becomes more real than any human relationship I have. I think about what it feels like when my Best Friend walks with me and dwells in my everyday life. And how very grateful I am that the veil between heaven and Earth doesn’t hold Him back. And unexpectedly, I’m reminded of how much I love Him, and how much He loves me.

Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ Thy Son was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection. Through the same Christ Our Lord.

The church prays for grace to pour forth — Grace to know and understand and believe that God has come and is coming again to inhabit the world. That Goodness, and Grace, and Light, and Love will reside with us in Immanuel. I’m so tender to that hope, and yet, until I meditate on that truth, I am so prone to forget it.

I hope this 12th century prayer helps you connect with the God that knows you and loves you today.

Peace,

Pam

Practices of Looking – Part Two – If Beauty is Changing Us, We’d Better Pay Attention

In the previous post, I shared that a philosophical look at beauty could show that we are, individually and collectively, changed by beauty. I also shared that beauty, quite literally, changes the world. If you have not read, part one, please take a quick peek.

     3413908befdd18e0285ca04255f7088f

     If what I thought was beautiful was determining what I chose to eat, and wear, and encounter, I figured I better pay attention. And if others were saying that a person, a piece of artwork, or a film was interesting or captivating, (otherwise known as beautiful), then I better pay attention to that, too. Because even if I didn’t personally find it moving, or even healthy, that form of media had the power to change my world on a very practical level. From the color paint that was available to be slathered on my walls, to the design of the cars I would sit in, to the stories that would become part of my soul and the souls of those I loved, beauty mattered.

The more I looked, the more I realized that what was deemed beautiful — from kitchen gadgets to human relationships to religious and cultural expressions –is our human story. Beauty was developing the narration of what one day would be our history. It was creating new traditions, ideas, expectations, and forms of expression. And unlike the generations that came before us, our story was changing far more rapidly than most of us could grapple with. Realizing this, I did what every control freak would do: I developed a process of tracking beauty.

The trouble is that in order to find beauty, you have to slow down enough and remove your own judgement and criticisms long enough to ask: What are people responding to exactly? And what in them connects with that image or storyline? And why does it matter? And those, my friends, those are not questions that have quick answers. Those are questions that take a steady, patient soul, who is willing to listen and to learn. I know, because I have been easily irritated at this practice of looking. If you try this, you will find our just how opinionated you are, and just how much your worldview colors how you see everything.

I can bore you with opinions about what I saw and what I think it means, but I’m not going to. What I am going to tell you is that deliberately seeking out beauty opens your eyes to a different reality. In essence, you get to see what no one will ever tell you, but what’s driving them forward. And, if you’re really lucky, you get to change your own decision making process, too.

If recognizing beauty could do all this, maybe beauty is not just a concept. Maybe beauty is a movement, originating from a source, and someone was in control of the story. And maybe beauty then was a form of a gift from that person/being, who obviously really cares about us. And, if that’s true, then maybe our creations were some kind of communication with that source. It was our way of hearing and responding to something greater than us.

Because, it seems that Beauty seems to be both what allows us to move forward, and what allows us to stay in the present. It is the food and drink that nourishes us, and we simply cannot live without it. If that’s so, then making space for beauty becomes an essential practice. And if we needed beauty, and we might also need the source of that beauty. That’s where I’ll pick up next time.

To be continued….

 

 

 

Practices of Looking — How to Cultivate a Philosophy of Beauty in Everyday Life — Part One, the Background

Author’s Forward: There are some blog posts that have sat in my bones for too long. They are lessons that seem so simple and so obvious, and so unworthy of anyone’s time. What’s worse is that when I attempt to write about them, I feel narcissistic —  I end up becoming the writer where I am the hero of my own story and the lessons I implemented saved the day… and maybe the pet fish’s life. Gross.

But this post, this post is about what saves MY life each and every day.  I’m going to do my best not to be annoying, obnoxious, or too geeky, but I won’t make any promises. Because I really believe in this with all I got. And I am kind of a nerd about it.

"Person at the Window" Salvador Dali

“Person at the Window” Salvador Dali

I didn’t register for college classes the way most kids did. While others were fiddling around with lining up work schedules and drinking habits to class loads attuned to graduation requirements, I researched like crazy. I didn’t have a full-ride scholarship or a college fund, and I knew that I was going to be paying for my degree for years to come. So when I registered for classes, I looked for professors who I knew were going to change me as a person. I wanted a Robin Williams Dead-Poet-Society-Style teacher for every class, if I could, please. And if it were at all possible, could that class be after 10am?

I knew that I would forget the things I was taught, but I wouldn’t forget the passion with which the lessons were taught. And that, that would mean that I  would leave the class changed. That seemed like something that money couldn’t really buy, and that might actually be worth going into student debt over.

Three of those classes seeped into the marrow of my soul so much that I can hardly tell where my ideas begin and their lessons end. These three classes were Philosophy of Aesthetics, Practices of Looking, and Film and Looking. The first asked the questions: how do we tell if something is beautiful? What qualities make a piece of art aesthetically pleasing? And how can we create beauty? The other two class used fine arts and popular cultural forms as a way of tracking social movements. They asked questions like: Why do we respond emotionally, artistically, and intellectually to media? And Does what we see affect how we think about the world? (As opposed to previous cultures who relied upon what they heard or were told by leaders).

Both classes were taught by people of integrated faith. By that, I mean that these were not simple-minded professors who wanted to connect everything with God. They were people who looked at the intersection of art, philosophy, sociology, psychology, literature, creativity, life, and music and found that they were holding something sacred. Something that seemed like it was way too precious to be scrutinized, but was far too rare and important to just ignore. You can see why classes like this could change the way you think about life, and humble your own intellectualism in a way that few other arguments could.

I left all three of those classes with a profound truth: For better or for worse, the greatest beauty was one that you cultivated yourself, and which, so moved you, that you changed who you were to accommodate it. And that kind of beauty could literally change the world.

How does that look practically?  Well, if you, as an individual found tradition to be beautiful, you would move your body to practice tradition. If you found a certain person beautiful, chances are, you would change your own appearance to be like that person, or find a way to befriend someone like them. In short, beauty would move you from the place that you were to a different reality, and you would go willingly. (Jesus folks, stay with me, I’m not going to go Oprah doctrine on you. I promise.)

Beauty would change your world view. It would change how you saw the world and the movements in it. Encountering beauty would be like encountering a truth that you did not know, but that you wanted to become one with. Which means, that you could also disrupt social movements, long-held ideals, and social and political issues. Beauty was powerful, and it had to have a bigger definition than “pretty” or “pleasing to the eye.” It had to be more than this weak background noise. Beauty was moving us, and we didn’t even know it.

To be continued….

 

What Are You Going To Do When You Have to Face Winter?

Polar Vortex doesn’t begin to describe what it feels like to face a Chicago winter. Unfortunately for us Windy-city dwellers, the cold has already started. (My children are currently hunkering down in the basement rather than trick-or-treating in what our weather forecasters affectionately call “lake-chill effects.”)

Today, as I watched  snow whip around my backyard, PTSD set in and I wondered out loud: how are we going to get through another winter?

I think that’s a question a lot of people ask when they realize they’re about to go through a winter season: whether it be an illness, a move, divorce, death, walking through recovery, or sadness.  Just the thought of having to push through one more hard thing can cause panic, rage, foolish behavior, and all out psychosis.

So, how are you going to get through winter? Well, is it too early to whisper the word Advent?

Advent is the reminder that we don’t have to lie down and wait to die. We can move. We can plan. We can come together in the cold and be joyful. Advent reminds us that while we wait, in the midst of pain, there can be something memorable. Something precious.

Advent reminds us to hope and to hold on to hope, even when we know that spring isn’t coming anytime soon.

Advent reaches out to us like a parent loving on a colicky-child with whooping-cough and whispers, “it’s going to be okay.”

Advent teaches us how to walk day-by-day with patience and perseverance until we see the tide turn and the light shine through once again.

Advent wraps around us like our favorite blanket and allows us to be real with our fear and concerns, all the while promising that it will stick with us and guide us to a better place.

And so, even though advent doesn’t begin for four more weeks, I think the Christmas music is going to have to come on the radio in our house earlier this year. Because I’m going to need Advent if I’m going to make it for five more months of those dear arctic wind chills I’ve become so accustomed to hearing about.

What it’s like when you damn near kill each other. A post about marriage.

It was the worst sermon you’d ever want preached at your wedding. In it, the priest that married my husband and I went on-and-on for what seemed like hours about how we were not good for each other. He listed all the reasons that we were unfit. Unmatched. Destined for failure. This, in front of all our guests.

Way to lay us bare, dude.

And then, in the culmination of this homily, he said:

But Pam and Tom know one thing. They know that, without God, they’re not going to make it. And for that reason alone, because they know that they-know-that-they-know that this relationship is desperate even before they begin… Because of that, they may be one of the most prepared couples that I’ve ever met at the altar.

Hello, guests. Welcome to my marriage.

I wish I could say that things have changed since that wedding day. But the truth is that in ten years, we’ve damn near killed each other. We’ve yelled. We’ve slammed doors. We’ve both walked out and gone for walks. LONG walks. We’ve deliberately pushed each other’s buttons. We’ve run to other things to escape from living this life with each other — from TV to coffee, to work, to anything that could lessen this uncomfortability that is this truth: I am stuck with you.

And yet, I can confidently say that he … He is my very best friend. Which is to say, we are either incredibly unhealthy, or we’ve found something that is true about covenant relationships. And what’s true is that at some point you stop asking the question “Why did you hurt me?” And you start to ask the question “Why are you hurting, and how can I help?” And that, my friends, that is where you meet God in a marriage.

We’ve stopped taking each other’s misbehaviors personally. And it’s taken God holding our hands and making sure that we don’t act like five-year olds, demanding justice, to do it.

What’s real is that I’m not sure that either one of us isn’t going to go temporarily insane at some point in this life. What I do know is that the list that I walked into marriage with — you know the list that says “I vow to love you unless you … commit adultery, become a drunk, hit me, gamble away our life savings, or otherwise massively screw this up” — that list doesn’t exist anymore. (And no, my husband is not an alcoholic, or a gambler, or an abuser, but we all have our own demons). What’s left in it’s place is this brokeness for this man. I want Him to breathe deeply and grow and live fully. And I want to be the one that always encourages Him to go towards those things. Even if it means me boosting him up and me being left behind. And fortunately, I think he feels the same way.

And for the first time, I think I get why God made marriage and told us that it might give us a glimpse of what it means to be in relationship with Him.

All peace and love to you,

Pam

Prepare the Table — What It Means To Offer and Receive Communion

Just prepare the table. That was the command I received a few years ago.  I was organizing a church-wide Thanksgiving dinner, which had always been my favorite celebration together as a church body.  Unlike other Thanksgiving meals, this was not a soup kitchen. It was a family meal. Ridiculously smart University of Chicago students would sit next to struggling parents, who would sit next to lonely neighbors, who would sit next to the homeless. But, as we had found out from years past, this would only happen if there was only one table. Because given the opportunity to remain in our comfort, we would choose it every time. And everybody had a group that could comfort them.

But there was a problem with us all sitting together. This little meal had grown from asking someone extra to dinner, to a celebration that would include about 100 people. How in the world could we get everybody together? How was our little congregation going to feed everyone? And how was I, as a brand new mother of now three children, going to offer leadership, support, food, prayers, and emotional healing to that many people?

Prepare the table was the answer.

Not cook. Not clean. Not recruit volunteers.

Just ask the question: how do I prepare the table?

Despite only having one volunteer, three other people to cook side dishes, and no sleep for a month straight, that Thanksgiving went off without a hitch. It was gorgeous. And yes, everybody did sit at the longest banquet table I’ve ever seen. But I think that experience taught me more about communion than any sermon ever had before.

It taught me that in order for it to look like one of God’s meals, everyone had to have a seat at the table. And if it is really going to be beautiful, there had to be bridge builders who could bring two very different conversations together. The beauty of that table was that no one had the same level of education or economic status, but when we bowed our heads in prayer, we all had a deep love for the very same best friend. He was big enough to hold us together and to keep the conversation going. Because of His leadership, everyone was allowed to have a seat. Everyone was allowed to have a voice. And everyone was allowed to serve each other.

It taught me that you need to let people be as open as they know how to be. I couldn’t push anyone to sit next to someone who would make them feel unsafe. But what we could do, and what we did do, was allow people to come as they were. If they were newly divorced, or struggling with in-laws; angry, bitter, drunk, or cold, we let them in and said, if you’re willing, we’d like to eat with you. We listened. If they asked us to, we prayed. But we didn’t think for a second that we could jump into their world and tell them how to fix it. If you don’t think that changes people, you’re crazy. And if you don’t think that Jesus knew it would be a powerful and tangible way to tell people about a different kind of kingdom, then you’ve probably never experienced a meal like this before. You have to let people come into your church where they are — without judgement or a plan for them to improve — and meet at the table to say:  I need this nourishment as much as you do.

It taught me that you need to allow people to bring whatever they have to offer, even if it doesn’t seem to fit. Sure, buttered chicken and Indian rice didn’t exactly look right next to green bean casserole or marshmallow topped sweet potatoes. But allowing that seemingly out-of-place dish allowed someone to know that their customs, and background, and story were welcome. (And I dare say the turkey and rice meshed quite well.) Casting the analogy aside though, it might not seem like a charismatic should bring their gifts of tongues as they pray silently after communion in your cessationist church. It might not seem like the very orthodox sign of the cross, or the Nicene creed should be said if you’re in a western modern worship setting. It might not seem like a woman who was raised in a different city can speak the deep truths that a seminarian could. But if you let people share how they connect with God, you just might get a glimpse of Him. And it’s usually pretty stunning.

It taught me that “We expect God to show up every place other than the place he’s promised to be.” -J. Martin  06/06/14  I don’t know why it always surprises me that Jesus is present when we gather people around our table, or when I gather with brothers and sisters around the Lord’s table. But Jesus stresses breaking bread together over and over. Paul even re-emphasizes that we should wait for one another before we eat. The fact is, we need these meals. They offer us something that our souls need. And to neglect them is to have God offering himself to us, and for us to smugly say, “naw. We pass.”

This is what I know for sure. I know that every time I’ve been hurt, broken, stupid, or defiant, the Table is what broke me, reminded me who I was, and restored me. I know that when I couldn’t find words to pray, just saying Amen to a piece of bread held me to both God and the church. And I can’t ignore that it may just have been because this table — this table that had me pull up a seat instead of sending me to the kitchen — this table that said that I could bring whatever I had, even if it was only my breath — this table where God met me and I didn’t expect Him to — this table has over and over allowed God to say “You have dignity. And you have worth. And I love you.” And I think that’s why He has us prepare the table. To tell people: You have dignity. You have worth. And I love you.   Peace to you, Pam

The Value of Ordinary Time in a War Torn World

Because I grew up Orthodox, the church calendar was a part of our rhythm of life. I remember always being upset when the Lenten purple ribbons and banners and vestments gave way to green: the season known as ordinary time. Green meant no more holidays. It meant no more “highs.” It meant boredom to a child.

One year, however, shortly after Pentecost, a priest gave a homily that I’ll never forgot. He told us about how ordinary time was supposed to be a season of life. That purple shifted to green to remind us of the grass and leaves — that new life springs forth. “The church calendar year includes ordinary time to remind us that we need periods of rest and simplicity,” he said. “A time to rest and reflect so that we can feel like we’ve really lived.”

I liked that. Perhaps that’s why I never forgot it. And as liturgy became important to me again this past year, I thought about how to pass that on to my children.

That’s why this summer, I went in with different intentions about how my kids were going to spend their time. Unlike years past, the summer days weren’t filled with teaching them about how to have a missional attitude toward the world, or preparing them for the next year ahead. Instead, this summer, I gave my kids the gift of intentional, plain, boring ole’ ordinary time.

I wanted them to have memories of wind blowing through their hair while flying down hills, peddling as fast as their little legs could take them. I wanted them to have giggles ringing in their ears as they drifted off to sleep of the time they spent with their cousins in a backyard pool. I wanted them to know what it felt like to have neighborhood kids sit at a picnic table while they guzzled down buckets of sugar- laden, homemade lemonade.

And I wanted them to have all of it because I don’t know where their life is going to take them. And selfishly, I wanted memories of snuggles and picnic blankets, fireflies and family bike rides, because I’m not quite sure where this world is going to take me, either.

I look at world news reports and local murder counts and I sigh with deep pangs of sadness. I watch as marriages crumble — marriages that really have no reason to fall apart, except that couples are bored, or disillusioned, or just downright selfish. I feel like my head is spinning as I hear young children teach me about the heartaches and sorrows that are well beyond their years. In the past year, I’ve had more than a couple of middle school children whisper thoughts of suicide to me in moments of utter despair.

But I don’t want to jump from the Lenten truths about suffering, to the “Come Lord Jesus” of Advent. I don’t want to wallow in the things that have died, or have anxiety about the days ahead.

I want to guard the time, while we have it, to think of the green. To appreciate the days in between rockets dropping and women and children being buried alive. I want to teach my kids how to take big gulps of air on the good days that will sustain them through the days ahead. I want to take daily bread from the Lord when He gives it, even if it looks ordinary.

Because ordinary is a beautiful thing. And it’s not promised for long. But it is our glimpse of what lies ahead. And that might not be so bad. Fireflies and community, weeping willows and still pools of water just may be what our dreams of Kingdom come look like anyway. Where not every day has to be a high, but it’s good just to not be in need.