5 Tips For A Fruitful Vacation Bible School

I just finished leading Vacation Bible School for Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA and the experience led me to write 5 tips for a fruitful VBS:

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  1. Learn The Names

There are few things as important as learning the names of the participants at Vacation Bible School. Whether the kids are regulars in worship or if it’s the first time they’ve entered a church, learning names shows that the church cares about who they are. I am new in my current appointment and am still learning the names of most people but I’ve made it a priority to learn the names of the children and the youth. We are blessed at the church I serve to be situated in a very diverse community and therefore the children at our VBS are all very different. It is good and right to learn the “Sallys” and the “Jims” but it means that much more when you take the time to learn how to appropriately pronounce the names of the children from other countries. On the first day of our VBS I called a couple of the kids by name and they responded with surprised looks and huge grins. Over and over again in scripture we learn about God calling people BY NAME! If we cannot learn the names of the children who come into our buildings for VBS, then we are failing to be the church God is calling us to be.

 

  1. Ditch The Phone

Go to any restaurant, or any large area of commerce, and you will see individuals (and families) with their heads down in their hands. The proliferation of portable devices has greatly transformed the cultural landscape in a tremendous way such that an entire family can sit down for a meal without ever uttering a word. At Vacation Bible School the phones and the tablets should completely disappear. Unless it’s an emergency, there is nothing so important that it should take attention away from the children and the youth that have arrived to learn about the love of God. By ditching the phones we are showing them that we, like God, care about them and we love them. Whereas many of them will return to homes with parents and older siblings sucked into the deceptive worlds of Twitter and Facebook, the participants can experience a little slice of being known and cared about in God’s kingdom at VBS if we believe our literal and physical relationships are more important than our digital ones.

  1. Get On Their Level

At VBS this week I have been the storyteller and have been tasked with sharing stories about David, Abigail, Jesus, the Beatitudes, and Pentecost. But before ever helping the children and youth enter the strange new world of the bible, I asked them about their favorite movie (almost all of them said Moana), or about their favorite meal (mostly chicken nuggets), or about their superhero (Wonder Woman). The Bible no longer offers an instant connection for children today and it is often experienced like an ancient relic from the past. By showing them that we care about what they value, and then demonstrating the value of scripture for our lives, it makes a connection between the things in a way previously unknown. Regardless of age, racial, and socio-economic divisions there is a need for connection between leaders and participants that can be achieved simply by getting on their level.

  1. Make Connections

VBS does not end when the children leave for the day. When they return home or move on to the next activity they are still absorbing what they’ve learned and experienced. Similarly, the church is tasked with making connections between sessions such that the kids know we’ve been thinking about them as well. For instance: one of our kids this week shared that he was excited about going to football practice after VBS ended that day. The next morning the first thing I asked him was: “How was your football practice yesterday?” The boy responded by staring at me and then saying, “How did you remember that?” (as if it was the greatest accomplishment in the world). The children and youth that attend VBS are more than the means by which we can grow the church, they are more than numbers on a piece of paper, they are more than the hope for the future. The children and youth that attend VBS are very much the church RIGHT NOW and they deserve to be known and heard just as much as anyone else in the church.

 

  1. Invite, Invite, Invite

Today, at least in the United Methodist Church, “invite” seems like a dirty word. Rather than offend or inconvenience anyone, we’ve simply stopped inviting people to church. Whenever leaders from the UMC get together we hear about a frightening statistic that should leave us shaking in our boots: “The average person in a UMC invites another person to worship once every 33 years.” At the very least the children and youth at VBS should be invited to attend worship the following Sunday to share a few songs they learned during the week. They should know that we want them to join us, not to increase numbers or to fill pews, but because we want them to continually know and experience the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t take much to invite someone to church, particularly young children and youth that have been running around the church for a week, but it must be done with love, care, and with intentionality.

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Devotional – Genesis 25.29-31

Devotional:

Genesis 25:29-31

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”

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Communicating the stories of scripture to young children is a challenge. Ask any young person even remotely familiar with the bible about their favorite story and you’re likely to hear something about Noah’s ark, Jonah and the Big Fish, or David and Goliath. But the bible is so much more than those stories and they need to be shared with all people.

During Chapel Time with the preschool students at my last church I would often try to come up with different and imaginative ways to tell the story. Long ago flannel-graph representations of characters and objects would be enough to impart the story in a young person’s mind, but today, with the advent of social media and youtube, different means are necessary.

Every year I would guide the children through the bible and whenever we came to the story of Jacob and Esau I asked the children to join me in the church kitchen. All of the ingredients were prepared ahead of time and each student was able to add a portion of the ingredients to make some “red stuff” (chili). They would stand there mystified as the ground beef mixed with the tomatoes and the black beans and the spices and they all struggled to stir the giant pot with a large wooden spoon. When it was ready to cook I would put it on the stove and let the kids return to their classes for a few hours.

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At the end of the day, right before they were dismissed, I would bring the chili downstairs and each child was offered their own bowl. While we ate together I would tell them the story of Jacob and Esau and how Esau was willing to get rid of something so wonderful and so precious for a bowl of red stuff. The kids would stare into their empty bowls and contemplate the greater blessing of a full stomach or the blessing of almighty God and then we would pray together.

I loved teaching the lesson every year, but what I didn’t anticipate was how well the younger children would remember it with each passing year. Because by the time the 2 year olds became 4 year olds they refused to even taste the chili for fear that God would remove the blessing from them!

The stories of scripture offer us a window into the divine. The bible is a strange new world that we enter whenever we open the book, and stays with us whenever we put it down. In the world today we are offered all kinds of things to quench our thirst and satisfy our hunger whether its literal liquid and food or relationships or experiences. But all of them are fleeting when compared to the immense blessing of God in Jesus Christ.

The Tyranny of Titles – A Christmas Pageant Homily

Matthew 18.1-5

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

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A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a kid’s bible and read to her every night. She loved it.

They read the stories of his birth and his teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they would talk about how Jesus teaches us to treat people the way we want to be treated. They read and they read and at some point the daughter said, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure that was nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

He realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how it was Jesus, and how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, and they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the Preschool his daughter attended had the day off in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The father decided to take the day off as well and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. And while they were sitting at the table for lunch, they saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. The daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

And she said, “for Jesus?!”

The father said, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl was silent again for a brief moment, and they she looked up at her dad and said, “Did they kill him too?”

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Kids get it. They make the connections that we’re supposed to make. And even though 2016 has been a rough year with the political rhetoric and partisanship at its worst, and all the culturally significant individuals we lost (David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Gene Wilder, John Glenn, etc.), and with the migration of refugees from the Middle East to Europe at the highest levels since the Second World War… our preschoolers have had a tremendous year.

Today, we adults live under the tyranny of titles. We want to label individuals based on a crazy assortment of criterion. He’s a Republican, she’s a Democrat, that family is poor, that family is rich, that woman is black, that man is Hispanic, that couple is gay, that couple is straight.

But the Preschoolers who gather in our basement don’t see the world and one another the way we see the world and one another.

Instead they see each other as Cruz, and Hadley, and Charlie, and Ellie Rose, and Owen, and Maddie, and Graham, and Henry. They, unlike us, do not view the world through the cynical lens that so many of us have adopted over the years. They, unlike us, see the world like Jesus.

Like that little girl with her father, they understand the cost of discipleship in a way that few us can.

I’ve been here long enough to have spent a lot of time thinking about what the Preschool should be teaching the children. I’ve had consultations with the teachers about curricula and paradigms. I’ve even met with some of you to discuss the growth and transformation of your children in response to the nurture and education they receive in the basement.

I’m guilty of the same cynicism that treats young people like objects to be molded in a factory to come out prepared for the world. When Jesus is the one who calls us not to make children into adults, but to change adults into children.

This Christmas, I have a challenge for you. Instead of being consumed by the desire to transform your little ones to fit into one of the labels of society, try to let them transform you. Try to look at the world the way they do. Try to love one another the way they do.

For it is on Christmas that we celebrate the birth of God in the flesh, born as a baby in a manger to a young couple all alone in the world. God did not come to change the world through political power or through economic wealth or through militaristic might. God changed the world through a baby, not unlike the ones we are celebrating with tonight. Amen.

Devotional – 2 Timothy 2.8-9

Devotional:

2 Timothy 2.8-9

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David – that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.

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A few of my friends recently embarked on a new venture into the world of podcasting. They call themselves “Crackers and Grape Juice” and they regularly interview people about their faith in order to share the conversations with others through the Internet. One of their regular interviewees is Fleming Rutledge, a retired Episcopal priest, who truly has the gift of preaching. In a recent interview they asked Fleming about her love of scripture and her response was powerful: “If I love scripture, it is because my grandmother read me those stories when I was a child. The role of someone we love, loving us enough to read us scripture, makes all the difference.”

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What do we think of the bible? Is it a text that we are called to master like a subject from school? Should we memorize the facts and dates like a work of history? Should we analyze the literary techniques like a famous work from Shakespeare?

Today, in the lives of Christians, the Word of the Lord is often chained to the realm of the church. If we want our children to learn about the bible, we send them to a Sunday School classroom. If we have a friend grieving the loss of a spouse, we recommend that they go speak with a pastor. If we are unsure about how to encounter a troubling topic, we ask to hear a sermon about it in worship.

But, as Paul reminds us, the word of God is not chained! The bible demands our attention and our affection. It yearns to be read and savored. It should not be relegated to the confines of a church building and should instead sit at the heart of what it means to be a family and what it means to be a community.

Can you imagine how all children would feel about scripture if someone they loved took the time to read them the stories? Can you imagine how differently you would feel about the bible if someone took the time to read it to you when you were younger?

The call of Christians, all Christians, is to remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead. We remember the great stories of the bible when we gather together in worship on Sundays, but that is not enough. We remember the greatness of the risen Lord whenever we share his gospel with the people we love: our families, friends, and neighbors. We remember the acts and grace of God whenever we sit down with one of our children and grandchildren to tell them about how Jesus changed our lives. We remember the resurrection when we believe the Word of God is unchained and worthy of our time.

Devotional – Mark 9.37

Devotional:

Mark 9.37

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

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I just finished welcoming all of the preschoolers into St. John’s for the first day of school. Many of the students and their parents were eagerly waiting in the parking lot holding their cameras in anticipation of some precious photographs. When I finally opened the door, tears immediately began to fall (though mostly from the adults) as everyone approached the building.

From my vantage point I had the privilege of witnessing some profoundly beautiful moments as children reached up to their mothers and fathers for a final hug and kiss before the day began. I saw all the new and perfectly coordinated outfits that you would expect for the first day. I experienced God’s holiness in the children reconnecting with their friends as they walked down the hallway toward their classrooms.

As much as I enjoyed watching the children and their parents this morning, what I really enjoyed was watching the preschool teachers. From the moment they arrived early this morning, they had permanent smiles stretched across their faces in anticipation of the new school year. They expressed a deep and profound love for all the children returning, and they welcomed them with open and joyful arms.

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From my office I can hear all the students laughing and playing in the preschool and I know they are going to have another incredible year. Yet, I can’t help but ponder about this beautiful morning in connection with the way we all interact with one another. Jesus once said “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” When I saw the preschool teachers welcoming their students, I experienced God’s presence and love in the preschool.

Why is this feeling so unique and rare? Why do we only feel this kind of excitement and love on the first day of school? If we can experience God’s love by welcoming the people in our lives like the way we welcome children, then why don’t we do that all the time?

This week, as we continue to wrestle with what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ, let us strive to welcome all people in our lives the way the preschool teachers welcomed their students. Let us reject our false assumptions about those who are different from us. And let us remember that when we rejoice in love, we are making God’s kingdom incarnate here on earth.

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Devotional – Deuteronomy 4.9

Devotional:

Deuteronomy 4.9

But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and you children’s children.

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Rev. Tom Berlin stood in front of a room filled with pastors in the midst of the ordination process and asked us to consider this important question: “How is your church transforming the world?” He asked us to briefly write down the stories of transformation that we had heard since we started at our appointments, and whether or not we had shared them with the congregation. When we felt like we had enough time to answer the question, we broke up into small groups and debated how the stories could be used to help grow the churches we serve.

Rev. Berlin then told us his favorite story from Florris UMC. Long before he arrived as the pastor, on a typical Sunday morning, a new couple from the community decided to try out the church. The husband sheepishly stood in the middle of the congregation during worship, but when the hymns began he could not contain his operatic and beautiful singing voice. When worship ended a couple from the choir beelined over to the new couple to introduce themselves and invited the man to join the choir. A few days later they called him on the phone and reminded him about choir practice. In the weeks that followed they made sure to check in with the couple in church and ask about their lives in the community. And after the new man had practiced with the choir for a few weeks, the couple baked a pie and brought it over to the new couple’s house to show them how valued they were.

“I know it sounds like such a simple story,” Rev. Berlin said, “and I’m sure each of you have a story just like that one from the church you serve. The point is to keep telling that story over and over until new people start living into it as well. The people of Florris are probably sick of that story, but it has truly shaped the ways we reach out to people even today.”

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We read in scripture about the importance of remembering who we are and whose we are. We learn about the value of taking hold of the moments that have shaped our lives and share them with our children and our children’s children. When we remember what shaped us into the disciples we are today, we are caught up in God’s great story that will continue to unfold into the future.

This week, let us each take time to reflect on the ways the church has shaped our lives: How have you been transformed by your church? What important stories are you telling to you children and your children’s children?

Devotional – Psalm 104.33

Devotional:

Psalm 104.33

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.

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Our service yesterday was filled with music: We began with the wonderful hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” as we praised God for the many blessings of life. Our Preschoolers offered wonderful renditions of “This Is My Commandment” and “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” all with corresponding hand gestures. Our Youth Choir faithfully proclaimed the words to “You Are My All In All.” And as a congregation we all joined together for “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Out of the numerous responsibilities that come with being a pastor, selecting the hymns for Sunday morning is one of my favorite privileges. I love spending time deep in God’s Word to begin crafting a sermon, but spending time in the hymnal and choosing songs to complement the thrust of worship is incredible. I grew up learning to sing my faith out of the hymnal and I believe hymns are vitally important for us to continually learn what it means to be faithful today.

After worship, while we were celebrating our preschoolers with a reception, I had a couple come up to me to thank me for worship. We talked about how cute the children were and how wonderful it was to see them in church. We exchanged stories about what we remember from our days in Preschool (not a lot). But before I was going to thank them for their words and pick up some more food from the table they had one more thing to say: “We heard God in the songs today.”

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Have you ever been in the middle of a hymn during worship when you started to really understand it for the first time? You might’ve known all the words to something like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” but one Sunday it finally clicked? Or you’ve heard children sing “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” but when you saw them pointing at you during the service you realized, for the first time, that God has you in his hands?

“I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.” Singing our faith is at the heart of what it means to be faithful because our words, and the music, help us to grasp who we are and whose we are.

This week, let us all reflect on the meaning of the hymns we sing.

What is your favorite hymn? What has it taught you about faith and discipleship?