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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.