Paul and Cheryl share what they find most challenging about the Christian faith.

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Paul:  Living in community can be very challenging.  We all bring our expectations, past experiences, personalities, etc. to community.  This is true in a diocese, national church and in our international connections.  I am mindful that all of the models for our prayers of the people include petitions for the unity of the church.  Sorting out the contours of unity and diversity within Christianity is a major challenge.  Jesus expressed a desire for Christians to be united as one (John 17: 17-24).  He asked us to love each other in such a way that the world will know that we are Jesus’ disciples (John 13:34-35),   We are far from this and I don’t see how we can find our way.

Cheryl:  I agree with Paul, that perhaps most challenging is life in the church.  Some  of you might laugh at that, since clearly both of us have been called to ordained ministry, which thrusts us in the church morning, noon, and night.  And I would hasten to add that I love my work.  At the same time, it is challenging to navigate people’s expectations and differences in our own community, and even more so in the diocese, the national church, and beyond.   As I enter all of these circles I often find myself thinking of the apostle Paul’s words in his letter to the Ephesians:

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine…But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Speaking the truth in love is, I think, the key to walking with people in community.  It doesn’t necessarily make it easier.  Often what is “my truth” is not someone else’s “truth.”  It would be easier sometimes to just “go along” to “get along.  But if I am going to walk through this life in the church with integrity, I must be honest with those I live and work with.

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Cheryl and Paul share how their faith has changed over the years.

Paul:  My faith has grown and deepened over the years.  It has been shaped by the liturgy and by the ongoing exposure to Scripture as presented in the daily lectionary of the church.  It has deepened through the exposure to other Christians and hearing their stories of faith.  The beauty, coherence and truth of the faith has become more compelling to me.  I continue to have new insights.  I find that as I strive to preach from the Scriptures, that God speaks to me as well.  I stand with the congregation under the authority of the word.  This is something that has grown over the years.  Ironically, I am often challenged by my own sermons.  They guide my thinking.  They touch my heart.  They give me hope.

WonderWedAllSaints1Cheryl:  My faith has been shaped most powerfully by telling Godly Play stories to both children and adults.  First, learning the stories by heart has helped me to have the language of Scripture more available to me in every day life.  I believe the combination of the words, the visuals, and the movement help.

Little things like a puddle of water, conjure up for me the gift of water we speak of in the story of Creation, or the water of baptism in all of the baptism stories we tell.  The stories are my constant companion, whether I’m thinking about spiritual things on purpose, or just living my life.  The people that inhabit the stories, like Abraham, Sarah, Ruth, Mary, and all the others, are old friends because I have literally touched them as they walk through the desert and more.  Second, the responses of the people who listen to the stories, especially the children, have given me new insight and challenged me to stay open to what God wants to say to me in these stories.  So often as adults we think we have things all figured out, but then a child will say something that shatters what I thought I knew about a story.

For example, one time I shared the Parable of the Great Pearl to a group of three and four year olds.

Once there was someone so amazing, who did and said such wonderful things that people followed him.  As they followed him they heard him talking about a kingdom.  But it wasn’t like the kingdom they lived in.  It wasn’t like any kingdom they had ever visited or read about.  They couldn’t help it.  They had to ask him what the kingdom of heaven was like.  One time when they asked him he said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like when a person who buys and sells fine pearls, a merchant, goes to search for the great pearl.  When he found the great pearl, he went and exchanged everything for the great pearl.

From “The Complete Guide to Godly Play, Volume 3” by Jerome Berryman.

The children struggled to sit still during the story, and interrupted me over and over again, particularly my own son (then just three years old).  As I wondered with them at the end of the story they were mostly quiet.  Then I asked, “I wonder what could be so precious that you would be willing to give up everything for it?”  My son said enthusiastically, “It must be us!”  I was stunned into silence.  I thought the parable was all about what we had to give up to be followers of Jesus.  My little guy made me realize that the story might be about that, but it could also be about the fact that God was willing to give up everything, even his own son, so that we could be with him forever.  Maybe we are the great pearl?  I wonder….

Godly Play…or I should say the children…have taught me to approach these stories with openness; to be ready for God to speak to me in new ways each time I encounter them.

Paul and Cheryl write about times when their faith has been tested.

questions_handPaul:

My growing up years were a time of continual wondering in the wilderness of faith.  I didn’t like church.  I didn’t know God.  Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were a mystery to me.  I was not filled with the Holy Spirit.  Once I left home for college, I was free to decide what I wanted to do and believe.  I was willing to believe that there is a God, but I was not sure about the nature of God.  Is God Trinity?  What about people who are not Christian? What was the resurrection all about ?  What happened to Jesus’ resurrected body?  Can we be in relationship with God?  These questions swirled around in my brain and heart.  I recall go to college chapel and hearing the chapel dean say that he was praying for healing after surgery.  I remember thinking that he was a little silly for praying for healing.   God probably has nothing to do with that.

These questions, this testing, continued for years as lived in the church and learned more of the faith.

Rachel-Anne and her little brother.

Cheryl:

When I was pregnant with John Thomas there were some very serious complications.  First, I went into pre-term labor at about 21 weeks along.  I ended up on bed-rest, and yet the contractions continued.  It was a frightening time.  Then, to make the situation even more frightening, I developed a life-threatening blood clot in my leg.  I’ll never forget the night I was rushed to the hospital.  I ended up in the hospital for over ten days while they worked to get the clot “under control”, with medication and more bed rest.  They kept telling me not to move at all; that doing so could dislodge the clot and make it move to my lungs, heart, or brain.

I was never worried about my salvation, nor did I feel God far away.  But I did feel such fear and sadness…about the possibility that I might leave Rachel-Anne (four at the time), and Paul alone.  I wondered if I had somehow been selfish in some way, wanting a second child when our lives were already so full of blessings.

I was blessed by the ministry of the Rev. Alan Warren, who came to the hospital, and later our home.  Alan mostly just sat with me, acknowledging my sadness and fear, and then gave me communion.  It was a balm on my frightened soul, and I am forever thankful.

Paul and Cheryl share their favorite passages from the Bible.

BiblePaul:  I find myself coming back to 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 because it speaks of hope in the midst of suffering and how we can provide comfort to others out of the comfort we have received from God.  Often people say that God does not give us more than we can endure.  In this passage Paul says that he experienced suffering beyond what he and others could endure.  At that moment their only hope was in the resurrection.  This is so real and so powerful.  This experience gave Paul confidence for the future.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,[a] about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.

Great Family

Cheryl:  One of the greatest blessings of my life is telling stories in Godly Play.  And my favorite Godly Play story is the story of Abraham and Sarah called, “The Great Family”.  This story chronicles Abraham and Sarah’s journey of faith from Ur, to Haran, and finally to Hebron.  God promises to make of them a great blessing…a great family, and long after it should have been possible for Sarah to have a child their son Isaac is born.  Isaac has children, his children have children, and so it goes.  Until finally our great grandparents were born, our grandparents, our parents, and now us.  And, “We are all part of the Great Family….as many as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand in the desert.”   Follow this link to the Godly Play Foundation’s Youtube channel to see and hear the story:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1P7MdmrDHnM

This story speaks to my heart powerfully, perhaps because of how it connects to my favorite epistle, Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  Biblical scholars often say that Galatians was a kind of “rough draft” of Paul’s letter to the Romans, which is decidedly more polished.  But I have always been drawn to the letter to the Galatians.  I know it goes back to a course I took in Seminary at the Dominican House of studies with a scholar we all simply knew as Father Martin.  His lectures on Chapter 3 and 4 from Paul’s letter filled me with joy and wonder at God’s work of salvation in my life.  I was moved to tears at the invitation to intimate relationship with God that Paul speaks of to the Galatians in chapter 4.  Here are a few snippets, Chapter 3:6-9 and Chapter 4:4-7.

6Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” 7so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. 8And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.”

AND

4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Cheryl and Paul share their reflections on the importance of Christian community in their relationship with God..

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Paul teachingPaul:  For me, the local faith community has been key.  Worship is incredibly important to me.  It builds my faith as the community gathers to sing, pray and praise God together.  It has meant a lot to know that people are praying for me.  I am encouraged to see that Jesus has called others out to worship.  I am not alone in the Christian journey.   The understanding that the local church is part of the universal church is important to me as well.  The church is around the world and includes the living and the dead.  It is not just American.  It certainly is not just Episcopal.  The largeness of the family- the fact that one can discern a common faith despite differences is of great encouragement to me.  Thus we are likely the only church in the Episcopal diocese that prays for the Pope, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury each week.

I have had powerful experiences of Christian community while deployed as an Army Chaplain as well.  While in Cuba in 2003-2004 a Roman Catholic Priest played the piano for my Episcopal Service.  Now that is community.   After all of these years that memory continues to build my faith.  As Mount Hope Christian Church seeks to start a mission outpost here in Belmont I want to do everything I can to support these brothers and sisters in Christ because God works so powerfully in the local community of faith.

St. Mark's Chapel

St. Mark’s Chapel in Storrs, Connecticut – Where Cheryl grew up.

Cheryl:  I have been a part of a faith community for as long as I can remember.  Growing up in Connecticut our faith community was a real extension of my family, supporting me through the storms of adolescence.  Weekly worship was an important “touchstone” for me.  I remember when I started to work in retail to earn a little money, I was clear from the start with my new boss that Sunday morning was off limits.  I needed to be “with my people” in order to feel grounded the rest of the week. Each of them helped to build my faith in powerful ways, just in standing beside me in worship.  And I know it was important for my peers, and the adults in the community to connect with me each week as well.

I have forever been impacted by something my mentor the Reverend Robert Taylor said to my parents years ago.  He came to visit them at home, because he had not seen them in church for a few weeks.  I think I was about 13 years old, and I lurked near the door to the room where they sat, anxious to hear what he came to say or ask them.  I heard him say, “We’ve missed you at church.  I know that the two of you are strong in your faith, and may not need to be in church every week.  But there are people there who need you.  Just seeing you sitting in that pew helps to build the community.  You can be sure that there is someone in the community who needs you to be there.”

It was a pretty bold move on his part, one that I could probably not get away with today in my position.  But what he said is still very true.  We need each other.  On a day I am strong, I can be of support to another.  On a day I am weak, you can hold me up.  When I don’t feel the strength to pray, you can pray for me, and I will do the same for you.

How important has Christian community been in your own relationship with God?

Paul and Cheryl share times when they feel close to God.

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Rite of ReconciliationPaul:  I frequently feel close to God. It seems as if there is a very thin veil between the mundane reality of day to day and the awesome powerful presence of God. Most recently I felt close to God when preparing to engage in the Rite of Reconciliation with a priest colleague in the neighboring parish. There is often an undercurrent of competition among clergy. I felt God calling me to act against that and to be vulnerable about my sin with a neighboring priest and to have that person pronounce absolution and give me counsel as I opened the particular sins on my mind to that priest. It was a grace filled moment. God was there as the priest skillfully provided me with counsel, encouragement and absolution.

EucharistCheryl:  I often feel close to God when I am celebrating the Eucharist and sharing the bread and wine at the altar rail.  The words spoken over the bread and the wine have the danger of becoming “rote” for many of us.  We hear them week after week, and its easy to kind of zone out until they are over and its time to go up to the altar rail to receive.  Knowing this, a mentor of mine once told me when I was much younger (in high school) to be sure to open my prayer book and read the prayer silently along with the priest.  He promised it would help me to focus more carefully on the words that were being said and the deep, rich meaning.  Now that I’m the priest, those words I read for years and years are “like chocolate in my mouth” they are so sweet and precious.  The good news with each word that God wants to be with us even now, especially in the bread and in the wine, is like a kind of balm on my soul.  And this feeling extends to the very personal moment I get to have with each of you as you come forward and reach out your hands to receive the body and blood of Jesus.

When have you most recently felt close to God?

Cheryl & Paul share their earliest memories of knowing that God is real.

Paul:  My earliest memory of knowing God is in college. I had grown up in a Christian household and had heard a lot about God. I didn’t like going to church. I thought that the Cross was a tragic end to the story of a good man. I am not sure what I thought about the resurrection. In other words I didn’t know for myself that God is real. I just knew some things about God I did not accept Jesus as Lord. I was not filled with the Holy Spirit. In college, I began to explore whether it made sense for me to continual as a nominal Christian or strike out in some other direction such as Unitarian Universalism or Judaism.

I was open to an experience of God and explored prayer. I wondered if anybody was really listening. Was I just talking to myself? I read psalm 46 because that was one of the few psalms that I knew. Out of this openness I had a powerful experience of the reality and presence of God. It was deeply moving and I knew for the first time that God is real. It took some more time for me to come to terms with Jesus and the Cross and with the Holy Spirit. But that first experience changed everything for me. It also somehow convinced me that my struggle was a specifically Christian one so a Christian I would remain.

Cheryl headshot_3Cheryl:  My earliest memory of knowing God is real is when I was about 9 years old.  I was home alone with my Dad one night when we heard that our priest – a young man of about 32 years old – had lost his battle with cancer.  We were all very close to the family, and the news hit my Dad very hard.  My Mom was out and it was before the explosion of cell phones so we just had to wait for her to come home.  In the meantime, my Dad sat in his chair and began to cry.  I remember feeling a little helpless in that moment.  I yearned to make it better some how.  I finally simply crawled into his lap and cuddled up as we waited for what seemed like a long time for Mom to arrive.  It was so quiet.  We never talked.  And I knew that God had somehow wrapped his arms around us.

What is your earliest memory of knowing that God is real?

Nurturing the Spirituality of Children: Using the Bible

MOHI_Godly_Play

Gretchen Wolff Pritchard writing for “The Sunday Paper” ( a resource for children and parents) reminds us that,

Our faith comes to us as story: even our Creeds, in which we declare our beliefs, take the form of a story: ‘We believe in Jesus Christ…he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…’  In the stories of what Jesus did, we learn, finally, what God is really like; in the stories that Jesus told, we learn how the Word Made Flesh wants us to think and choose and act.  The story itself brings this about, without any need for explanation or elaboration.  Indeed, as with any good story, explanation and elaboration can spoil the story’s power.

Pritchard goes on to admonish us that as we explore the Bible with children, it is important that we give it room to be a story.  She writes, “It is more important that your child come away from the Gospel stirred into thought and troubled into compassion, than that he or she be able to repeat back a lesson or a moral.”

Rebecca Nye, in her book Children’s Spirituality: What it is and why it matters,  reminds us that this is in fact the power of Godly Play in its insistence on simply sharing the story with children, difficult parts and all, and then getting out of the way for the Holy Spirit to act.   The child is even directed to look at the story and not the storyteller as the simple materials on the floor in the center of the circle are used to bring the story to life.  Afterwards the children can use the materials “to retell and play out the story for themselves, getting inside its meaning in their own ways” (Nye, p. 67).

After hearing a story in Godly Play the children are encouraged to wonder about it.  What is most important is that this time of wonder is open-ended.  There is not one right way to think or feel about the story.  Each person’s response is respected – even honored.

This helps to open up the children’s sense of the infinite possibilities of meaning that the biblical material holds for their spiritual life in the long term.  In other words, everything possible is done to avoid studying the Bible with children in ways that suggest this story has this point and you’ve learned this, there’s nothing more.

Rebecca Nye, p. 68

As you think about sharing Bible stories with your own children, I encourage you to remember these principles.  It is very easy to fall into the role of the expert with our children as they ask and wonder about the meaning of these stories.  Instead you might try simply saying, “I’ve wondered about that too, hmmm….”

Questions to ponder:

  • Which Bible stories do you recall most clearly from your childhood?
  • How were they told?
  • What struck you most about them?
  • Do you think they appealed to any spiritual needs you had at the time?
  • If so, was anyone else aware of that?

Nurturing Children’s Spirituality: Spiritual Practices

Prayer

Praying-Hands-over-Bible“Notice that not once did Jesus make his disciples pray.  he just kept on praying until they could contain their hunger no longer and asked Him to teach them how to pray.”                                                                               Pat Lynch, Awakening the Giant

Rebecca Nye quotes Pat Lynch in this chapter on spiritual practices to help those of us who love and spend time with children to perhaps shift our attitude when it comes to teaching children about prayer or how to pray.  So often in our work with children we ask all the children in our circle to contribute during “prayers” or teach them all to say a particular prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer.  While none of this is intrinsically bad, it is different from the way we usually approach things with adults.  Nye writes, “with groups of adults exploring the Christian faith, current practice is usually to take a much more ‘only if you’d like to’ approach. (p. 57).  In a Godly Play circle we work to create space for the child to pray, but we do not insist that everyone says something.  I often will say, “Its always okay to pass, or simply pray quietly in your heart.”

Research indicates that it is more important for children to see the adults they love and trust praying, then for the adults to pray with children.  That seems very counter-intuitive.  We read about families who have “family night” when they pray and play games together, or families that do “Lenten devotions” each day with their children and we think, “That seems like a good idea.”  Again, none of that is a bad idea, but what researchers have discovered is that even more influential is the kind of modeling a parent does.

Robert Wuthnow (1999) conducted a study with college students looking to discover what, if anything, made them reach for God as young adults.  These were students at Princeton University who were active members of the Christian fellowship, or Jewish fellowship on campus.  Many of them did speak about doing “religious activities” with their families such as attending worship or retreats, but what seemed vastly more important were what they saw the adults in their world doing when it came to God.  Some spoke of their grandmother sitting in her chair praying the rosary and attending Mass every day.  Others spoke of their father reading his Bible in the living room.  The students said that this kind of modeling helped them to reach for God as adults, trusting that it was something worth doing since they had seen it as a source of strength for their parents or grandparents.

My own children grew up as double P-K’s (Priest-kids).  Church was kind of the family business.  However, I often wonder if the most powerful influence in their lives was watching their father pray.  Paul is very disciplined, often praying both morning and evening prayer daily.  When the children were little they would often find him sitting in bed in the early morning hours praying (with me fast asleep beside him).  It was a ritual that I think helped ground our entire household.  Once when my parents were visiting our daughter went into wake them up before she came into our room.  As they visited she decided she needed to ask her Dad something and jumped up to to our room.  My parents said, “Oh no.  Wait.  Give Mom and Dad a little more time to sleep.”  She scoffed at them and said, “I’m sure Dad’s already up and praying.”   I was surprised that she realized that was what he was up to, and began to wonder how that might impact her later.

Nye goes on her chapter on prayer to describe some ways that we can pray with children, paying particular importance to the six general principles we have already discussed (Space, Process, Imagination, Relationship, Intimacy, and Trust).  Most important is her reminder that prayer can take many shapes and forms, and be attentive to those times in our child’s life so that we don’t intrude.  In our Godly Play room we model this respect by reminding the children to avoid shouting or bumping into people, “Because someone might be talking to God and we don’t want to disturb them.”  This alone, writes Nye, “builds up a powerful expectation of the reality and mystery of what prayer is.” (p. 64)

Questions to ponder:

  • What is your best experience of prayer with children?
  • What is your worst?’
  • How will your understanding of children’s spirituality help you approach prayer now: with children?  in your own prayer life?