4 Terrible Kids Ministry Ideas

I have a lot of bad ideas, even when it comes to teaching kids about the Bible. In fact, some of them are so bad that they never get any use out of brainstorming sessions, so I decided to share them with all of you. Can’t let them go to waste, after all. (Except, surprise! They actually let me try one of these, which is proof that sometimes even the craziest ideas can sneak past and get approval.)

And feel free to comment with any ideas of your own that you’ve always secretly thought would be hilarious even if you know they sound more like a Babylon Bee article.

One: Ecclesiastes Blast-off: Stare into the Void with Solomon!

Want a truly original VBS theme for your church? Have we got the kit for you! None of this “he makes everything beautiful in its time” nonsense. We’re going to take the little tykes to the brink of despair only to provide hope on the last day about the ultimate meaning in life.

Here are the lesson themes.

Day One: Nothing Ever Changes.
Day Two: Wisdom and Foolishness are Meaningless.
Day Three: Power and Popularity are Meaningless.
Day Four: Money and Fame are Meaningless.
Day Five: Death Comes to Everyone.
Finale Night: Remember Your Creator in the Days of Your Youth (unless you broke down after Day Two and didn’t make it this far).

Suggested decorations: Lots of black and darkness. Possibly a ceiling full of stars to represent our own insignificance in the vastness of the universe. Have all of the leaders dress like the Grim Reaper for added flair.

Activities will include:

Work Projects: Need some landscaping done? How about some amateur parking-lot repavers? You can maximize your time by explaining to the kids that they’re exploring the meaning of “toil under the sun.”

Modified Snack Time: A few kids get a heap of overly-sugary snacks to “eat, drink, and be merry,” while everyone else gets nothing. Visual aid to reinforce the concept that both the very rich and very poor can’t find happiness in the pleasures of the world.

Endless Relay Races: Tell the kids you need them to bail out a pool of water using Dixie cups. Put a hose in the pool to add water as it is taken out. This will emphasize the futility of life found in Ecclesiastes 1: “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness.”

Existential Crisis Tag: Everyone is blindfolded and stumbles around in the dark trying in vain to connect with another human being in a meaningful way. Occasionally have the game leader shout ominously, “But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” The kids will love it. (more…)

The Best of 2018

It’s the first Monday in the new year, at that means…time for a blog birthday party! It’s still crazy to me that the blog I started in January of 2014 has lasted this long.

5 cake

In 2018, I wrote 39 posts, which is less than any previous year. Before, I’d only give myself a week off if I was deathly ill or it was a major holiday. This year I let myself skip if I was working on another writing project or had a busy weekend or just didn’t have anything worthwhile to say.

Overall, I’m a fan of the change and the freedom to pause…which is also why I’ll be taking the rest of January off. I love exploring my faith through writing, but I also feel like it might be time to step away and spend more time with God without an audience. So I’ll see you in February!

Here are a few of my favorite posts of the year, in no particular order. (So yes, it’s a “Best of”…but according to me, so a little biased.)

What Matters More than Your Problems

Why: The great thing about doing a post reflecting on a great song is that you have most of your content given to you already, and Andrew Peterson’s “Is He Worthy?” is my favorite song of 2018.

Quote: “When you’re repeating back God’s faithfulness with dozens of your brothers and sisters, from all different backgrounds, suffering in a hundred different ways and still singing…you start to be able to feel the things you know in your head.”

Baby Dedications for the Rest of Us

Why: Basically any time I get a chance to talk to my generation, and myself, about how being a part of the church means serving others and not just being served, I’m in. Also, it was through the church that I realized I actually enjoy kids. Who knew?

Quote: “Here’s the thing, though: you don’t get a family—a real, beautiful, stuck-with-each-other sort of family—without sacrifice.”

Chase Your Ordinary Dream: Time Travel Edition

Why: I’m a history nerd.

Do I really need a longer explanation?

Okay, fine, contrasting two pre-Civil-war preachers was fascinating because it shows that not much has changed. You’ll always have your private-jet feel-good-gospel leaders…and the ones who do what’s right, even at great cost and without reward here on earth. Also I just really want to hang out with Leonard Grimes in heaven.

Quote: “Appearances can be deceiving. Faithfulness has a cost. And history sometimes exalts the unworthy and forgets the selfless heroes…but God does not.”

Judas and the Mermaids: the Seduction of Sin

Why: My annual Judas post almost always makes my favorite list, because it’s helpful in shaking up my perspective on important things, especially my own sin. Add an eerie mermaid song, and this is a lesson I’ve returned to a few times throughout the year.

Quote: “We have to start with ‘All sin is seduction, and it leads to death’—even our sin—before we can get to the glorious truth of ‘God’s grace is salvation and it leads to life’—even for our sin.”

Come Quiet

Why: This is a lesson I’ve been kicking around for several years now, so it was fun to finally put it into words and share it. (Slightly ironic, since the whole point is that sometimes we don’t need to have everything spelled out and expressed? Maybe.)

Quote: “And maybe it’s good, sometimes, to remember that our words—that even my many, many words—are ultimately not enough. The best response to the hard times of life is not frequent check-ins with others for reassurance, more logical reasoning, a longer to-do list or a five-year plan…but silence in the presence of a God who is in heaven and in control.”

(If you’re interested in past “Best of” posts for some guidance in exploring the archives, here are: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014.)

 

 

What Mary Did, In Fact, Know: A Comprehensive Checklist

Oh, you thought the questions in the song “Mary, Did You Know?” were rhetorical? Think again. The Bible has answers…and I’ve gathered some of them here as a handy reference.

To come to my conclusions, I ran each of the lines in “Mary, Did You Know?” through the following tests:

  • Did someone directly say it to Mary or someone close to her? Then she probably knew it.
  • Does the Old Testament, which Mary would have been familiar with, prominently feature the information? Then there’s at least a chance she knew it.
  • Was it not mentioned in either form, and/or totally illogical? Then she probably didn’t know it.

Ready? Let’s go.

Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?

Answer: Probably not. There aren’t any prophecies I could find in the Old Testament relating to the Messiah walking on water (let me know in the comments if you know of one). You could maaaaybe stretch things and say that the Messiah was a “prophet like Moses” (Deuteronomy 18:15-19) and walking on water would be parallel to the parting of the Red Sea. But chances are good that Mary would not have predicted this particular miracle.

Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?

Answer: Yes. In Matthew 1:21, the angel tells Joseph, “[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Since in that same dream, the angel told Joseph not to call off the engagement, and since angelic visitations were highly unusual and highly terrifying, you know Joseph told Mary every word. Whether Mary understood what “save his people from his sins” meant…we aren’t sure.

Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?

Answer: Maybe. The concept of deliverance that most people were expecting seemed to be a physical, beat-up-the-Roman-empire sort of thing, even among Jesus’s followers (Luke 24:19-21). Mary’s cousin Zechariah’s prophetic song in Luke 1 contains some amazing promises, but most are very Psalm-like in their praise: “that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” And yes, Mary knew that Jesus would “save his people from their sins,” but would she have thought of a personal, individual spiritual renewal, or was she still thinking of corporate deliverance like the Exodus or the high priest atoning for the people in general? I don’t think we can say for sure.

This child that you’ve delivered will soon deliver you.

Answer: Not a question, but yes. But maybe not in all the ways that Jesus accomplished on the cross. See above. (more…)

Advent Stories: What Child Is This?

Amy Green

Warsaw, Indiana, 2002

According to my parents, there are no pictures of this Christmas program (I am not sad about this), but here’s me with my sister a year or so before this story.

Life isn’t fair, let me tell you. I’m not actually allowed to complain—my parents say that’s a “bad attitude”—but it’s my last year in kids’ choir and there was only one part I really, really wanted in our Christmas musical. And guess who got it?

My twin sister Erika, that’s who. She’s a member of the Fifth Grade Detective Brigade. They get to wear all black and sneak around to a cool theme song.

And guess who I have to be?

Chrissy. I call her Chrissy-the-Sissy, because she’s supposed to be all girly and dreamy. We’re performing tonight, and here’s my very first line: “Ooh, I want to be an angel! I just love wearing halos and big, fluffy wings.”

Really. I’m not kidding. Word-for-word, right there.

This is going to be so painful.

I wanted to ask to switch parts with Erika, but my mom said something like “Mr. and Mrs. Cox get to make the decisions, and they have their reasons.” But here are my reasons, for the record:

Why I Should Have Been in The Fifth Grade Detective Brigade

  • I can talk loudly enough that I don’t need a microphone. (Since the FGDB members walk around looking for clues, they don’t have any.)
  • Erika would be a better angel than me. Way better.
  • No offense or anything, but I’d be a better detective than her.
  • Anyway, she wants to wear a fancy dress and I want to wear sunglasses. Everybody would be happier this way.
  • Last year, I wrote a whole journal in code, an Ottendorf Cipher, where you pick a document and use numbers to substitute for letters. My document is a speech by Abraham Lincoln, but I won’t tell you which one, or where I hid the key to the code. Even if you found it, I put the key in another code, and you have to know twenty-four trivia questions about my life to break that one. So I have lots of practice at detective things and could really get into character.

I didn’t give this list to our directors, because I know the only reason I got the part of Chrissy-the-Sissy-Angel is because I’m supposed to sing a solo in the first medley. “What Child Is This?” Just a verse of it before the rest of the choir comes in. That’s one of my favorite Christmas carols, and to be honest, I like singing solos. That’s the not the problem. It’s just…well…

Let me explain by going back to last week. Every year, the 5th and 6th grade girls’ Sunday School class makes Christmas cookies with Mrs. K, and we eat way more of them than our moms would let us if they knew. While they baked, we watched this really old movie—like, barely in color and where all the women have big hair—called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

It’s about how six of the most terrible kids in the world, the Herdmans, end up being the main parts in a Christmas musical, and how they make everything better, but accidentally. In case you think that sounds boring, there are also fight scenes and attack cats and fire.

Come to think of it, I’d love to be a Gladys Herdman kind of angel during the performance tonight, if anybody would let me. Yell, “HEY! Unto you a child is born!” instead of singing “What Child Is This?” That would shake things up at Pleasant View Bible Church, huh?

I would probably also get in big trouble.

Anyway, that’s not the point. There’s this part in the movie where Imogene Herdman is studying a picture of Mary and Jesus, trying to copy it. Trying her best to look like something she’s not, and she knows it and everybody knows it too, with her dirty face and tangled hair and loopy earrings.

In the book—I read it after we watched the movie, it’s way better—the kids sang “What Child Is This” while Imogene is holding baby Jesus. The same song that I’m singing as a solo.

Later, Imogene looks at a picture of Mary and says it’s exactly right. And then the book says, “I think it meant that no matter how she herself was, Imogene liked the idea of the Mary in the picture—all pink and white and pure-looking, as if she never washed the dishes or cooked supper or did anything at all except have Jesus on Christmas Eve.”

That’s the way I feel, sometimes, being Chrissy the angel. Like a fake, who doesn’t look anything like one of those frilly tree-toppers. I didn’t put it on the list, because it seems silly, but I’m just not…the angel type. You know? I’m clumsy and I’ve got thick glasses and short hair that sticks out and I didn’t used to care…but I do a little bit now that I’m older.

Tonight’s the performance. I’m out of time. Soon, everyone’s going to be watching me, and maybe I can sound like an angel, sort of, if I breathe from my diaphragm like I learned in choir class. But I can’t look like one. Some days I think every other girl in my class would be better at that part.

But maybe that’s okay. That’s the whole point of the book and the movie. Imogene didn’t look a thing like the way we picture Mary. Gladys wasn’t exactly the most normal angel of the Lord, either. But there was something real about them, and anyway, what if we’ve been wrong all this time about what they’re supposed to look like? What if Mary wasn’t even pretty? The Bible doesn’t say she was.

Jesus sure wasn’t, because he was a human just like us, and don’t tell anyone I said this, but human babies are ugly when they’re just born no matter how much you lie your head off to their moms and say they’re cute. They’re just red and wrinkly and usually screaming.

I don’t know about the angels, but I’m guessing first off, they mostly looked scary, and also they probably didn’t care how they looked, so I shouldn’t either. People are supposed to think more about the song and what it’s about than me. “This, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.” It really is a beautiful song.

I’m gonna do it. I’m going to go out there and stand tall in my pinned-up baptismal robe with my tinsel halo that itches. I’m not going to think about my hair or my lines or which of the older girls would have been better at my part. I’m going to stare into that spotlight and stop trying to look holy or pretty and just sing like I mean it. For the Herdmans…and for Jesus.

And who knows? Maybe I can play a spy when I get into the youth group next year.

(This is the latest in a series of fictionalized narratives based on the true history of beloved Christmas carols…except since this is my last one of 2018, I broke the rules to include a true story about my personal interaction with a Christmas carol.  I have no links to biographical information, except that sixteen years later, I read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever each December…and I still can’t crack the code I wrote that journal in. To read past narratives, go here.)

Advent Stories: O Little Town of Bethlehem

Phillips Brooks

Boston, Massachusetts, 1892

How does one write a funeral address for President Abraham Lincoln? Defender of the Union, the leader who stood at the end of indescribable violence and promised restoration and reconciliation—until his own life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

That was the task I was charged with as a young, rising preacher who had been relentless in opposition to slavery. I labored over that sermon, going without sleep, knowing it would be kept in an ecclesial vault for the ages, and knowing too that this eulogy must somehow find itself equal to the task of remembering the greatest man of our age. I drafted and redrafted until it was beautiful, finding the perfect balance of eloquence and truth and delivered it perfectly.

These, I knew, were the most important words I would ever speak.

I was wrong.

Then, shortly afterward, weary of war and violence and longing for rest, I took a sabbatical to the Holy Land. I journeyed from grand Jerusalem to insignificant Bethlehem, there to celebrate the birth of Christ in an hours-long service. Looking at the dark horizon, so little changed over nearly two thousand years, the beginning of a poem began to form, and the poem became a song: “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, a silent star goes by.”

The children’s choir sang my song that next Christmas, their innocent voices warbling in the candlelight, and the response was incredible. Hymnals began including my humble verse, with churches throughout the country playing it each year in December.

These, I thought, surely were the most important words I would ever pen.

I was wrong about that too. (more…)

Advent Stories: Silent Night

Elisabeth Vincken

Hurtgen Forest, Germany, December 1944

Battle of the Bulge, a few miles from Elisabeth’s cabin

Each Christmas Eve, my father would tell us again of Christmas truce of the Great War. It was one of the only parts of the war he spoke of at all, a story kind enough for small ears and for his own battle-scarred heart.

Those nights around the fire, he would make us feel the first terrifying steps into No Man’s Land, testing the truce…and then of shaking hands and playing soccer with the young men who you knew would try to kill you again the next day. He spoke of the drinks, the cheer, and most of all, the singing. Each country sang in their own language, and after some of the French launched into a boisterous “Noel,” my Papa began his favorite carol, with the rest of the men of his regiment joining in once they recognized the beloved tune.

Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht.
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
Holder Knab’ im lockigen Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

A song from a simpler time, first performed at a midnight mass on Christmas Eve in a small village church, sung now over the bloodied, disease-ridden trenches, in hopes that there would be another silent night again. Soon.

“It was beautiful,” Papa always said, “and it was brave.”

All of this, of course, makes for very good stories and very bad war policy, which is why such truces were banned from then on. The ban continues in this new war, I’m sure, though I am not on the front lines to know. My husband might be, tonight. He is a baker—or was before our bakery was bombed to pieces three months ago. Fritz and I moved to the hunting cabin in the woods, while my husband stayed in town to rebuild. He was supposed to be here for Christmas, but it seems something has kept him from us. I pray it’s the weather or an emergency shipment of bread to the troops, rather than being caught in the battle rumbling these past few days.

When he comes, I’ll tell him about the celebration he missed last night, Christmas Eve. It started, as it must have the first Christmas long ago, with a knock at the door.

(more…)

Advent Stories: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

William Hayman Cummings

Essex, England, 1855

William Cummings fifty years after this narrative.

Good day. My name is William Cummings. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?

No? Well, I’m not altogether surprised. At twenty-five years of age, I haven’t yet made my mark on the musical world. It’s rather a shame. All those classical pianists who began composing when they were still toddling in the nursery created an absurd standard for the rest of us. By the time you’re old enough to have ambitions of being a prodigy, you’re too old to actually be one.

But perhaps you know the men whose work I have here altered and combined for our upcoming Christmas service.

First, Charles Wesley, the Methodist preacher inscribed in every beloved hymnal, wrote the carol. Second, George Whitefield, he of the Great Awakening, adapted it, changing some of the words. (Losing one of my personal favorites, “welkin,” an underappreciated bit of frippery.)

And I? I gave it a new tune, which I daresay it needed, no offense meant to either aforementioned man. As I read the verse and hummed the original melody line printed above it in all its plodding dreariness, I thought of Felix Mendelssohn, the renowned composer.

When I was a youth, I was able to meet Mendelssohn in person, as a tenor in the London premier of his opera, Elijah. One has perhaps not fully lived until he has shouted a call for Baal to bring down fire in guttural German. And to a hall packed with reserved Englishmen in evening dress, no less.

Mendelssohn, like Bach and Handel before him, desired to use his tremendous gift to honor his creator. Soli Deo Gloria. To God alone be the glory. (more…)

On Being Thankful for Famines

Do you remember why the prodigal son came home?

I hadn’t. That story is fixed in my mind in the stained-glass image of the father embracing his son, the moment we all remember and hope for. And, because I relate to him, the dangling plotline of the older brother who wouldn’t go inside to celebrate, the one who was the farthest away even though he never left.

We all shift our roles in the story, over the years, in different relationships, passing the script around to play the part of the runaway outsider, the dutiful-but-secretly-resentful legalist, the longsuffering embodiment of home. We understand the people of the parable because we’ve been them, and that’s what stories do.

But this time, a different detail stood out to me—a silent, non-human antagonist in the story: “And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.”

See that? It wasn’t the sudden realization that his father still loved him, or even sorrow over his bad behavior, that drove the prodigal away from his old life. His stomach, not his heart, led him home. (more…)

What Matters More Than Your Problems

Right now, I’m surrounded by people who are going through every kind of hardship and heartache possible. You probably are too…and those are just the ones we know about. If we could somehow see a feed of the unspoken anxieties and hurts and doubts of people we interact with every day, it might be too much for us to handle.

That’s why I love the song “Is Anyone Worthy?” by Andrew Peterson. It’s got a congregational call-and-response format, and I’ll explain why that matters in a minute. But first, listen to the song. Seriously. It’s great.

Here’s what I love about liturgy and catechism and really good worship songs like this one: they allow us to affirm truth together.

Because there are days when we want to give the wrong answers to the questions in “Is He Worthy?” Sure, we know what we’re supposed to respond to “Does the Father truly love us?” Sometimes, though…it doesn’t feel like he does.

But when you’re repeating back God’s faithfulness with dozens of your brothers and sisters, from all different backgrounds, suffering in a hundred different ways and still singing…you start to be able to feel the things you know in your head. It gets you outside of your narrow focus on whatever trial is in front of you and helps you remember that you’re part of a community, that God has done amazing things in the past, that there are other believers who care about you, that it’s possible for something to be 100% true and still feel like a far-off hope. But the more you repeat those hopes and the past realities they’re based on, the closer they feel.

That’s why I love the seemingly content-less question in the song, “Is it good that we remind ourselves of this?”

It is.

It is, because it’s so easy to forget, to lose perspective and hope.

In the end, God will make all things new. He won’t utterly destroy the old things, but he will transform them, and all creation is waiting for that day. He can do it because he’s already accomplished the ultimate act of renewal and reconciliation in the cross.

If Jesus can fix the most deeply broken thing—our relationship with God, made up of millions of hard hearts and defiant rebellions stretching out over centuries—then he can restore all of the broken bits of our lives and give them purpose and meaning, sometimes here, sometimes not until the new heavens and new earth.

If he is worthy to die in our place, then he is worthy of it all. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12)

I remember thinking once, overwhelmed by some decision or difficulty now forgotten, that it’s easy to say that faith the size of a tiny mustard seed can move mountains…until you’re looking up at the mountain.

The answer to that was obvious: So don’t look at the mountain, Amy. Look at Jesus.

It’s good to process and to listen well to others who are struggling. Both self-reflection and sympathy have their place. But they often grow out of their place, at least for me. It’s easy to dwell on my problems—feeding them my time and attention, constantly returning to questions that refuse to be solved, cycling through self-pity or resentment or worry as if that helps anything at all—or to let someone else do the same. We justify and even praise those processes when honestly that’s what seems to make us feel most stuck and scared and paralyzed by the unrealized good that might have been or the possible bad that might still be. None of it is helpful.

But you know what is? Directing our thoughts back to what God did, is doing, and will ultimately do. “Behold, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:5). That’s a truth the Bible speaks louder than all of the groaning of creation and the groaning in our own hearts during the waiting in between.

It is good that we remind ourselves of this—of the mercy of God, the shortness of life, the beauty of faithfulness in hard times, and the ending of the story.

Why I Disliked the Ending of Infinity War

Here are three facts that should not all be possible at the same time: it took me six months from release to actually watch Avengers: Infinity War.

I volunteer at a youth group full of superhero-obsessed teenage boys who get great joy from getting a reaction out of me.

And I didn’t hear a single spoiler about this movie.

It’s a miracle.

That’s why I waited so long to write about the latest installment in the Marvel Universe, not because I needed to think deeply about it or was trying to give a spoiler gap for others. (Several not-highly-specific spoilers will follow, so be warned.)

So. That ending.

What?

Listen, I don’t require my stories to have happy endings. I appreciated the gray-area triumph of Dunkirk, with its flawed heroes and realistic grief. The bittersweet, open-ended conclusions of Home by Marilynne Robinson and The Long Road Home by Louise Penny were both fantastic, and I’ve read several of Shakespeare’s tragedies this year and greatly enjoyed them.

So, why didn’t I like this particular sad ending?

No offense, Marvel people, but you dragged us through two-and-a-half hours of introducing all fifty dozen superheroes and having them do things that were supposedly important to saving the world and such. (My rallying cry throughout? “Cut the side-quests. The people demand more witty banter!”) We at least expect to get some narrative satisfaction after the smoke clears.

But instead, we ended in the middle, in that moment where all hope seems lost. Not even the moment when our heroes decide to rally and make one last desperate stand or we see some glimpse of lessons learned or justice vowed. Nope. The moment before that.

Every now and then, I don’t mind a good cliffhanger that will be resolved later in a series, if the author has good enough payoff. (Brandon Sanderson, I’m looking at you.) But I don’t like being left in despair.

I was reading reviews of Infinity War to see if everyone else thought the ending was artistic and bold and I’m just crazy. One had this gem when explaining why the movie was hard to watch: “Plans fail. Character fails. Even sacrifices fail.”

That’s it. That’s exactly it. (more…)