A Joyful Tradition

Nativity SetIn the fellowship hall (large dining room with the kitchen) in our church building there is an old Communion Table (table used in a worship service for the sacrament of Communion) upon which a plastic nativity set lives during Advent (four weeks before Christmas) and Christmas.  Each year we bring this set out, try to remember to place the step stool in front of the table and a sign that says “please play with this set.”  Some years we forget all but the set.

Then the fun begins.  The custodian and I take turns moving the pieces all around the table and creating a jumble of all the pieces.  The next time a child comes in the room they put it all back together.  On a Sunday morning this can go on for the whole time the building is occupied.  I will walk by the table and mix up the pieces only to come back five minutes later and there are no children around but the pieces are back in an order.  I do what any good humored person would do, I mix them up again.

This year I took baby Jesus from the pieces and hid him in my office mailbox.  When the children seemed too fearful to remove him I handed him off to one of our youngest children and asked him to hold on to Jesus until the older kids came looking for him.  His sparkling joyful eyes were a gift that morning.

This tradition of ours is one I look forward to each year.  It is simple, makes me laugh, and the continued participation of our teenagers in the game fills my heart.  Yes, we talk about the Christmas Story.  Yes, the children lead worship with a program each year.  Those are meaningful parts of the season too.  But it is this simple game played with our children that ushers in the season for me.

The season begins for me with the laughter I overhear when little hands are trying to rush to put the pieces back in the stable as I come around the corner, being sure to make noise so they know it is me; with the questions about a missing pieces asked in the all-knowing voice of a child who has played this game with me before; with the whisper of the teenage voices telling me they mixed the pieces up this time while a little one was taking off their coat; and with the laughter shared with the custodian as we think about what to do next time. Nativity Set 2

As we approach the end of Advent and welcome the joy of Christmas morning I am thankful for the children who remind me of the joy of life that is best when shared with others.

Merry Christmas.

 

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The Tradition of Vacation Bible School

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Lights used to symbolize our daily God Sightings during the week.

Recently I had a brief conversation with another person about Vacation Bible School (VBS).  I referred to VBS as a mission project and they inquired why I would name VBS as such.  VBS has long been considered a program of the church, an event that happens because it has always happened.  I have learned in my travels and conversations with others this is not the case anymore as many congregations around the nation have let go of VBS, allowing it to be a piece of their history.  That we host VBS and consider it a mission project seems odd to others, but for those in our presbytery, VBS is still a vibrant part of our identity.

For us and others in our region VBS is both a traditional program of a congregation and a mission project.  VBS in a small community requires ecumenical relationships to gather enough staff to host a week of VBS, to be sure you are not hosting the same week a nearby community is hosting, and to share supplies those years you can.  VBS in a small community requires maintaining relationships with the local library, sports organization, and school because all have summer programs and the pool of children is small so we organize ourselves to not be in competition the best we can.  VBS becomes a mission project for us because the nature of the work requires us to go outside of our building simply to begin planning.  It continues as a mission project as we welcome children and adults from the larger community to join us in a week of learning and fun, and as we dedicate our efforts to raising money and/or supplies for a designated need.

Growing up some of my only contact with a worshiping community was through their VBS programs, I was one of those children who showed up unregistered, covered in summer sweat and dirt, for only a portion of the week.  I was the child who was reluctant to play the games, sing the songs, and would sit sullenly (sometimes) and quietly (most times) while I tried to figure out who this Jesus was they kept talking about.  I do not have a long history of VBS to inspire me to serve in this capacity.  But I was called to a community that has a long vibrant history of VBS and for them the thought of VBS being relegated to history is not an option.  Thankfully they have taught me what it means to love this mission project and how to find God at work in something so foreign to me.

This last week we joined together to host the VBS service in our town and once again I was amazed at how so many people come together to spend five mornings in a row providing a safe, fun, welcoming environment for our children and adults to learn about God’s action in the world.  I know for others VBS might not seem much like a mission project or even a viable program for a congregation, but for me, an adult learning what it means to be a part of the Body of Christ, VBS remains one of the undertakings that reminds me of how different people united in one cause can glorify God through their work.

 

Graduation Season

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A scene from the high school graduation. 

In our rural community graduation season often means for the month of May each weekend will involve at least one open house on Saturday and Sunday.  There are some Saturdays when the afternoon and evening are spent traveling from one location to the next, reminiscent of a traveling dinner as many of the same people are following the list you have in your hand.

These open houses are joyful events, made even more so because the people in attendance have known the graduate most, if not all, of their life.  As a transplant to this community these parties are an excellent opportunity to determine family lines and lifelong friendships.  They also provide an opportunity to eat someone’s famous recipe, that you had no idea they made or was famous, but everyone else seemed to know.

This year while sitting at a particular graduation party I looked around the tables and realized I knew most of the people.  My eyes rested on each of them as I thought about the particular struggle they are facing.  There were strained family relationships between siblings, exhausted parents wondering if their child will even make it to their high school graduation, couples filing for divorce, couples enduring life-altering medical conditions, individuals waiting to hear from the doctor about a test, and mourners who saw a tent with a glaring empty spot where last graduation season there was a person.  I listened to the conversations around me, shared in the stomach-aching laughter, received joyful smiles from faces recently drawn tight in grief, and felt an overwhelming sense of peace.

This peace came from the understanding that life is being lived with joy and purpose.  Amid all the pain of each of those individuals under the tent, they still came out to celebrate the joy of one child, a child they had prayed for before they were born, helped raise, and are getting ready to send out into the wider world.  As a transplant who did not have the experience of a community such as this, I am amazed once again at the deep connections of this community full of people who throw a party because there is joy, even when they know most of the guests are enduring some trial.  I am amazed at the people who come to the party to celebrate with joy, even as their heart is breaking.

This vulnerability and acceptance is what makes life in our community, not just our congregation, beautiful.  It is not the kind of life that can be bottled or written up as a curriculum, it is the kind of life found through generations of shared sorrows and joys.