Month: June 2016

scripture, creation, & calm

Last week – with dozens of volunteers and nearly a hundred Kalamazoo-area kids – we held our annual Bronson Park Vacation Bible School. It was an intense and exuberant week, marked overall by much singing, shouting, and joyful noise.

But one session each day – which I was inspired to create during last year’s VBS – sought to offer kids some insight into what to do with all that energy: how to move from enthusiasm to commitment to our scriptures; from excitement to comprehension of the Word; from creative energy to creation itself.

Each day – in groups of twenty – kids entered a small space replete with rich textiles, lamps for light, a small altar, prayer mats, and candles. Each day, I greeted them at the door, whispering hello and encouraging them to greet one another in whispered tones as well. They seemed to understand instantly that the space was different. In that room, they were remarkably still. It wasn’t what they expected to encounter at Vacation Bible School, and so they were watchful, full of curiosity and wonder.

Upon entering, they were invited to find a prayer mat and draw awareness to their breath. I was startled by how well they responded to the work of intentional breathing. Here are the five particular exercises we did to prepare our bodies and minds for each day’s Bible chapters. I encourage you to try them: for yourself or with your kids. They were wonderful for helping us receive the Word, but they would work well, too, in a myriad of other circumstances.

  1. Flower Breathing: Breathe in, imagining you’re smelling your favorite flower. Breathe out, imagining you’re blowing out birthday candles. Repeat slowly, and at least ten times. This technique will help you engage your imagination, become aware of your breath, and calm and awaken your body.
  2. Fire Breath: Interlace your fingers underneath your chin. Inhale and lift the elbows up to frame your face. Exhale, lifting your head up and making a whispered “hah” sound toward the sky, like a dragon breathing fire. At the same time, lower your elbows back down to meet at the bottom again by the end of the “hah” exhale. Do so slowly, and at least ten times. This technique builds strength and heat within, making it a good energizer. It also helps us feel brave when we might be nervous.
  3. Feather Dancing: Hold a feather (a peacock feather, if possible!) two to three inches in front of your mouth and exhale completely, seeing how long you can make it dance. Watch the feather carefully as it moves. Then breathe in slowly to the count of four, and hold your breath to the count of two. Then breathe out again, seeing how long you can push the air out of your lungs, how long you can make the feather dance. Repeat at least ten times. Notice how this feels. Notice any differences in your body or your thoughts.
  4. Sound & Attention: This exercise is particularly helpful for grounding you in the present moment. It is of use when your thoughts carry you into the past or the future. Begin by lying down comfortably with your hands at your sides and your eyes closed. Draw your attention to your breathing: simply notice as your breath enters and leaves your body. You can also place your hands on your soft, breathing belly, feeling it rise and fall. Do this for at least five breath cycles (five inhales and exhales). Then, when you feel ready, create or have someone else in the room create a sound that resonates. This could be a piano key, a meditation chime, a singing bowl, a rain stick, or another sound that will resonate and eventually evanesce. When you hear the sound, focus on it as it gets softer and softer. When you no longer hear the sound, move your hands from your sides to your heart, as if in prayer. Return to five breathing cycles. Repeat this a couple of times.
  5. Weather Report: First, sit up tall and do some breathing. Try one of the approaches above, or simply breathe in for four counts, hold for two, and breathe out slowly. Repeat for at least five cycles. Then close your eyes and ask your body what your weather is. What weather best describes your feelings at this moment? Do you feel sunny, rainy, stormy, calm, windy, like a tsunami? This exercise helps us to remember that just as we can’t change the weather outside, and the weather is not our planet, we can’t change our emotions either, and those emotions aren’t us.

Having finished the day’s breath work, students were handed their art notebooks, in which they created art all week – being artists in God’s image – while listening to each day’s scriptural reading.

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  1. The first day, when the theme was hope, kids drew their understanding of light while listening to Isaiah 9:2-7. Their depictions of light were stunning: some offered it coming in through windows; others drew candles; still others created bright, vibrant skies.
  2. On Tuesday, the theme was courage, and they were asked to draw something they wanted to do but were afraid to try. I was startled by how easy it was for nearly all of them to bring to mind some current fear: jumping off the swing like their older sister; taking the training wheels off their bike; holding their breath and going under water; climbing some structure at the playground. They drew while I read Matthew 14:22-32, in which Jesus commands Peter to walk across the water towards him, which Peter can do it until he remembers his fear, forgets to trust, and begins to sink. Jesus, of course, lifts him up again.
  3. On Wednesday, the reading was the Beatitudes; the theme was direction; and kids drew their own imagined door to God: a door only they would recognize. These were especially moving: some were enormous while others were tiny passageways. Some were full of color, others just space and light.
  4. On Thursday the theme was love. The reading was the resurrection according to Luke, and they created images of themselves offering a small act of love or kindness towards someone in their lives. What was amazing about these was how much they smiled while they drew.
  5. On Friday, the theme was power; the reading was Acts 1; and kids drew one moment of beautiful creation that they had been privileged to witness. They were incredibly precise about these: I saw a small red flower that no one else noticed. There was a moon in the sky even though it was morning. I wanted a baby brother for so long and then I got to hold him. 

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Each day, when their creations were finished, we talked through what they had felt called to draw, and why. Then, together, they would create a prayer that related to the reading and images. For hope, one group wrote: Dear God, we hope for happy children. And we thank you. Amen. For courage, another wrote: Dear Jesus, were you ever scared? We have been scared. Please give us courage. Amen. For direction, a third wrote God, please help us find the door to your house. Amen.

Given the children’s remarkably open, calm, present experience of this process, we will definitely incorporate mindfulness in other aspects of our formation offerings, including our upcoming Music Camp. And if you explore any of these techniques as a part of your spiritual formation at home, please let us know how it goes. Watching nearly a hundred children engage scripture both contemplatively and creatively was well worth the effort.

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storytelling

As is always true following devastating acts of violence, these past days have brought questions about how and when to talk with children. When do we introduce them to the knowledge that trauma on this scale exists? When do we pull back the curtain and let them see more suffering than they are required to see in their own lives and worlds? In the case of this week’s tragedy – the destruction of lives in a gay nightclub in Orlando – this question is especially fraught for queer families, who have to ask when and how to tell their children that Omar Mateen wanted to destroy people like their parents. Families like their family.

I don’t have an answer for the question of when to have these talks, and God knows I don’t know how. As I write this, my four-year-old is napping on the sofa next to me. It feels like violence even to imagine telling him that people were shot to death for being like his parents.

But what I do know is that those conversations – the ones about gunmen and body counts and hatred – aren’t the only ones we need to think about with great care.

We are all of us storytellers. Whether we think of ourselves that way or not: we tell stories. And the stories we tell have enormous influence over how we, and our children, and those around us think and behave and practice living.

When a couple in rural Ohio – seeing a bumper sticker on our car that identified us as gay – tried to run my family off the side of a mountain in 2009, they were reacting to any number of stories they’d heard about gay people and the danger we pose. They were reacting to those stories, and not at all to us as humans. Those stories promote violence.

When we tell stories that make us fear our trans brothers and sisters, or followers of other faith traditions, we’re at risk of promoting violence. When we tell stories that insist upon a rigid and narrow understanding of identity, people learn tragic and untrue things about themselves and those around them. For countless humans, stories like these aren’t just stories: they’re death sentences. And even when we’re careful not to tell these stories ourselves, our children hear them elsewhere. So we have to do more than stay silent. We have to tell other stories, different stories. Stories that seek not to shut down questions, but to open them up. That seek not to control mystery, but to illuminate it. Stories that articulate both our humanity and our divinity.

As Christians, we have rich tools with which to do that work.

We have scripture: the stories of our desert fathers and mothers. The stories of Jesus Christ, who told stories to teach us to love God and our neighbor, “on [which] two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

We have liturgy: space and time for ritual and attention; for Word, song, movement, and sound; for the community of saints and a wide-open table.

We have the liturgical year, which grants us blessed space to move safely through the most inescapable of human states and emotions: surrender, longing, vulnerability, elation, disbelief, cynicism, trust, terror, desperation, devastation, grief, sorrow, loneliness, triumph, fear, grace, compassion, gratitude, reverence, and love.

And we have responsibilities articulated for us in the Book of Common Prayer, and by us at our own baptism and throughout our lives. That we will “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” That we will “put our whole trust in [Jesus’s] grace and love” (which is to say in ways of being that bring forth grace and love). That we will “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbor as [our]self.” That we will “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

We are fed spiritually such that we might go forth and serve God’s fragile world. One of the ways we do that is by telling stories. And we have the right stories to tell. Millennia-old stories. Stories of love, grace, and resurrection. Of miraculous birth, mystery, and life following death. Of radical inclusion, rejected dominance, and subverted paradigms.

We are storytellers with some of the world’s oldest and richest stories at the ready. And we live in a world that needs to hear more of them.