A Half-Day Retreat to Spiritually Recharge

(With a free booklet on prayer and meditation for beginners)

The summer interns at our church have really appreciated the retreats we’ve structured for them over the past few years. These high school and college students come from all over the region to work with children and youth in our urban neighborhood – they’re camp counselors, youth group leaders, Sunday School teachers, swim instructors and spiritual mentors. It’s wonderful, exhausting work.

We wanted part of their training to include time alone with God, so they would learn that the power comes from Him, and we only have to give what we have experienced with God. We schedule three or four half day retreats over the summer, and try to do them in a beautiful, natural setting.

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Here’s how we structure it:

  • For the first hour we stay together, checking in about how each person is doing (I ask them to rate themselves out of ten on energy levels, stress levels, happiness levels). We stress listening deeply to each other. Then I read a brief Bible passage three times, asking them to listen first for content, then to experience it with all their senses, imagining themselves in the scene, then to pay attention to what stands out to them – what God may be speaking to them through the passage. This excercise calms and centers people, and they can keep focusing on that passage, if they want, in their alone time. Then I pray for protection, peace and guidance for them in their time alone.img_20170605_160429434.jpg
  • For the next two hours, everyone disperses alone, not talking to one another. They choose whether to stay in one place or walk around, and are given guidance in how to use the time. I encourage them to keep gently bringing their minds back to the here and now, and the reality that Jesus is with them. They may read the Bible or another book, memorize a few verses, or rest in the beauty of nature. We encourage them to stay off their phones. To help them, we give them a booklet of ten short articles on how to spend time with God – everything from dealing with silence to confession to healing to surrender to gratitude to Bible study (compiled from blogs on this site). Download this here. IMG_20160629_134707716
  • For the last hour, we meet together again and check in about how that time went for us. Some will describe a spiritual experience, some will share difficulties they may have had – trouble concentrating, falling asleep, grief overtaking them. Some of the interns are not comfortable being outside for long and get freaked out by bugs! But usually they report a good, refreshing time. We end up praying in groups of three or four for anything that surfaced during the time alone, and for ministry coming up.

It’s a good idea to have a few people available during the alone time in case people get stuck trying to connect with God alone, and need someone to talk with them or pray for  them. I think any group of people in Christian ministry should regularly have retreats. Jesus did it; so should we.

Tutoring Kids from the Bible

(An introduction to a free series of studies in the Gospel of Mark for kids aged 9-12)Maker:L,Date:2017-9-19,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-ve

Twenty five volunteers from our church tutored at-risk kids from our neighborhood school this year. We are one of many sites, working in partnership with City Gospel Mission to reduce poverty and bring God’s truth and love to people in Cincinnati.

One of the most successful things we’ve done is make the Bible the reading text for our older students during the tutoring hour. Since the program is after-school, there’s no conflict of church and state. We have parents sign their approval to have their child in a faith-based program, we use a simply-worded translation of the Bible, and we train our tutors to  invite but never push their students into a closer relationship with God.

Click here to link to a PDF of all the lessons we used this year. Feel free to use them, but you will have to edit them; they contain site-specific activities and references, especially in the introductory paragraphs and in the box at the bottom of the page which suggests other activities. But I refer you to them as an example of how the Bible can be used to teach fluency and comprehension, as well as introduce children to the life and work of Jesus.

About halfway through this year, I asked a group of sixth grade boys how they were enjoying the program. They said they really liked coming. I assumed the main reason would be the snacks we serve, but the all the answers stated that they enjoyed learning and talking about God. That was confirmation that we were on the right track!

 

 

 

Multitasking is Overrated

(Eighth in a series on working from home.)

Image result for multitaskingSo, am I a loser if I can’t take in a lecture, text a friend, and check my email all at the same time? Everyone else seems to be doing that.

I’ve always had an instinctive sense that when I try to do more than one thing, concentration falters and I suffer an angsty discomfort with no good result.

Turns out that communication research is in my  court, and it has been established since the middle of the 20th century that divided attention leads to compromised  retention. A Cornell study repeatedly demonstrated  that students who browsed on their laptops during lectures performed worse on tests than their classmates who kept them closed. (Hembrooke &Gay, 2003)

Apparently, we’re not actually capable of focusing on more than one  thing at a time, and energy is lost in the effort of the switch.

I often suspect that I am on the receiving end of multitasking innefficiency.  I’ll get emails in which only one of my two questions is addressed, even though I wrote “2 Questions” on the subject line, and numbered the questions in bold.

Or someone on the phone takes about two seconds too long to reply. You can just see them peeling their eyes off some screen long enough to formulate a minimal answer. I often get the sense that people are half-listening or skim-reading.

Worst of all is to be in the sole company of someone who is so into their phone that you don’t feel fully visible to them – like one of those holograms on the Disney Haunted House ride. Many of us who work at home are in danger of preferring the company of an operating system to those pesky flesh-and-blood humans, who are so much harder to control.

My guess is that these last few decades will go down in history as the age of social geekiness, before norms were established around the use of technology that kept people from living on desert islands of screen addiction.

“Remember how dad used to check his phone as soon as it pinged, even when he was reading us a story?” a scarred 30-something  will ask his sister.

“Yeah, and mom never actually saw us kick a goal, ’cause she was always texting,” she’ll reply, and  they’ll shake their heads at the bad old days.

Before that day, there will be nation-wide 12-step tech-addiction meetings. People will stand and announce, “Hi, I’m (Aiden/Emma/Liam) and I’m a techaholic, and my life has become unmanageable.” Everyone will put their devices in the middle of a circle, and will courageously endure the agony of separation in an odd but comforting environment of human support.

To avoid all that, it helps to plan our work in blocks, where we decide ahead of time to stay focused on one  thing. Julie Morgenstern, who wrote, “Time Management from the  Inside Out,” advises that we build screen breaks into our schedules, starting the day with one at least an hour long, where we’re free to do deeper, focused work before getting distracted.

That sounds like a good beginning towards living in such a way that we value people more than things, and work from an intentional center rather than a reactionary swatting at interruptions all day long.

Maybe when we look up from our screens every so often to rest our eyes, we should also take a few deep breaths, and ask ourselves, “Am I paying attention to who and what matters most?”

 

 

 

Free Christmas Story

final cover     This is one  of twelve short stories from my book, “Christmas on Pleasant Hill”, available from Amazon. I wrote it for adults, but most of the stories are good material for families. One fourth grader borrowed it from me and read the whole thing to his five year old sister! It’s set in College Hill, a Cincinnati neighborhood, so it has an added appeal to locals. Here’s the cover story:

                        THE BALLOON
The day before Christmas, three year old Damon sat up in his new big-boy bed, which was shaped like a red fire truck. He climbed onto its roof, about four feet from the ground, and did a flying dive onto a mattress, which his dad had put on the bedroom floor “for a few days”, when he had bought a replacement for it. That was a year ago, and Damon had safely mastered quite a few acrobatic moves because of it. It had been a fixture for so long, this queen-sized cushion for heroism, that he couldn’t remember living without it. When he visited his aunt on Thanksgiving, he had stared at the bare floor of his cousin’s room bewildered, and asked, “Where’s your mattress?”
Damon rolled around for a while, then somersaulted off the mattress and ran into the room of his sleeping parents. He scrambled onto their bed and jumped up and down until he tripped on his dad’s leg and fell in between his parents, who would have liked to sleep a little longer.
“Are you ‘wake, Dad?”
“Yeah, buddy. You’ve made that happen.”
“Can we go for pancakes now?”
His dad was going to take care of him all day long while his mom cooked for Christmas. They would go to the restaurant with the smiley-faced pancakes, followed by
riding the little train at the mall, and other fun things. They would do all these fun things one after the other, not like with his mom, who always had other things to do in between
the fun.
Damon’s dad, Will, stroked the little boy’s spikey hair, pulled him down on the bed and blew on his belly until the shrieking made his mom groan and cover her head with a
pillow.
“Come on, we’ll let Mommy sleep more,” Will said, and carried Damon out of the room. He was a hefty little kid, not fat but strong and muscled, with a round belly still, and soft chubby cheeks. Will loved how steadily cheerful he was,how ready to talk, learn and play at every moment. He might be obstinate or bossy sometimes, but he never
whined. In his monotone, matter-of-fact voice, he was always asking questions about how things worked. He had an enormous vocabulary, and an answer for everything.
When his preschool teacher asked him to do crafts, which he hated, he would say things such as, “I’d like to, but I just got my fingernails cut so my hands don’t work very well.”
Will took him to the pancake house, then up to a nearby funeral home that had a live nativity. They fed carrots to the donkey. Will told Damon that baby Jesus had been born in a place like this, out where the animals lived.
Damon stuck his hand into the greasy wool of a sheep as it stood by the fence. He examined his fingers, rubbing them together. Will assumed he had not been listening, but Damon asked, “Why didn’t they go to the hospital?”
“There wasn’t one back then. Babies were born at home, but Mary was far away from home in a crowded place and there wasn’t even room in the hotel.”
Damon peered in the shed where statues of Mary and Joseph, shepherds and baby glowed under spotlights.
“That’s not a real baby,” Damon observed. He stuck his lanolin-greased thumb in his mouth, but Will pulled it out. “Keep your hands out of your mouth, Damon, you’ve
got animal germs on them. You’re right, it’s not a real baby. Jesus was a baby a long time ago. He’s still here, but he’s…invisible now. We can’t see him.”
“Why doesn’t he ever show up? Santa does.”
Will thought fast, as he often had to with Damon’s incessant curiosity.
“The Bible says Jesus is always with us, forever and ever.”
“Well, I never see him anywhere.”
Will did not answer. He suddenly remembered having the very same thought as a child. He recalled the empty disappointment when he understood that no one ever
actually saw God. He didn’t know what to say to his son. “Should we go get a present for your mom now?”
When they finished their stop at the dollar store, where Damon had picked out a pair of pink socks with silver bells on them, (“Because mom’s a girl and girls like pink,”) and a
large plastic angel so luminous it possibly glowed in the dark (“Because Grandma likes pretty things and this is just beautiful,”) they went home for a nap. They laid together on
the couch by the Christmas tree. Damon smiled, settled in with his head on Will’s chest, and stuck his now-washed thumb into his mouth.
Will thought he was asleep, but then he opened his eyes, pulled out his thumb and said, “I still wish I could see the real Jesus like the shepherds did.”
“You’re still thinking about that?”
“Yeah.”
Will started to formulate a response about having to wait for the next life for that, puzzling over how to make this palatable to a three year old, then, on a better hunch, he
just said, “Me too.” Then he smiled and asked, “So if Jesus wasn’t invisible and you could see him, what would you do?”
Confidently, Damon answered, “We’d wrestle, and ride a swan.”
“A swan?” He guessed Damon was remembering a fall walk in a nearby cemetery where white swans glided around a lake.
“Yeah. In heaven there’s lakes with big swans, and Jesus could ask them to give us a ride.”
“So what else is in heaven?”
He shrugged with a frustrated frown. “I don’t know. I can’t get up there.”
Will went up on an elbow so he could see Damon’s face.
“I know what you mean. Sometimes I just want to go right up to Jesus and talk to him. I wish I could see into his eyes.”
“He should show up. Then we could give him a present.”
“Well, when you give other people presents, like Mom and Grandma, it’s kind of like you’re giving them to Jesus. He really likes it when you do that.”
The boy’s head shook back and forth patiently. “It’s not the same thing, Dad.” He snuggled against Will’s chest and fell asleep.
When Damon woke up, he lifted one of his father’s still-closed eyelids.
“I have an idea,” he whispered, his face a few inches away.
“Why are you whispering? You woke me up.”
Much louder, he said, “We could get him a balloon!”
Will rubbed his eyes. “Who?”
“Jesus! It’s his birthday and no one ever gets him anything. If we get a balloon, and let it go up in the sky, he can catch it.”
Will grabbed him, lifted him high and brought him back for a hug. “That’s a great idea, buddy.”
Right away, before the stores closed, Will dressed Dammon in his red coat and drove him to a party store that made helium balloons. They got a red one that said, “Happy
Birthday” on it. Will wrapped it several times around Damon’s hands and tied it.
“We’ll save it for tomorrow morning.”
Christmas morning, Damon had his parents up as early as they had feared.
They would not let him open his stocking or any presents until they had made coffee.
Damon said, “Well, then, I’m getting my coat on and my boots on and I’m giving Jesus his balloon.”
His mom deferred making coffee to throw on a coat and join him. Will hastily followed, grabbing his camera. He handed Damon the balloon, which was still tight and
buoyant, pressed against the ceiling. Will prayed that it would rise in the cold outside.
Will got the picture just as Damon let go of the string, the crimson coat and balloon against the green of juniper bushes. Damon’s eyes were wide and shining.
“Say something to Jesus,” his mom urged.
As the balloon rose and diminished in the cold clear sky, Damon yelled, “Jesus – get that balloon!”
They sang happy birthday as it disappeared.
Will took Damon’s hand. “He’s got it. He got your present.”
“Yeah,” Damon nodded with satisfaction. “Now, he won’t feel left out.”

 

10 Ways for Churches to Love City Kids

(Last in a series of 10 posts on reaching out to city kids.)

I think many urban churches need to cross cultures and classes and ages. I’ve visited a lot of mainline churches in urban areas struggling with aging, declining membership. Often they are predominantly white and middle or upper class. Often they are in neighborhoods where many people are not white and may be poor. The challenge to these churches is to become parish churches for the people who live right around them, and it may be as challenging as going with a mission organization to another continent. So be it. God has put us here for such a time as this.

2247327_orig (2)Most people who become Christians do so when they’re children or teenagers. So kid-focused ministry makes sense. It’s a joy to witness the group that shows up for youth group at our church on Sunday nights. This is our first group that has integrated black and white, rich and poor, for a sustained period of time. These kids are playing games, talking and praying together. Those who have committed to following Christ work together as interns in our summer programs. I would not have been able to imagine this even ten years ago.

There is so much transforming power in Christian community. Even a struggling little church full of people over 60 can change the future for the kids in their neighborhood.5794254_orig (2)

Here are ten ways to start, linked to articles that explain more (click on the orange letters to go to the articles):

  1. Go where the need is. In a post Christian culture we can’t just do things inside our church walls and expect people to come. We need to take our ministries out into the schools, libraries, preschools, community centers, day cares and playgrounds.
  2. Don’t be afraid of differences. Connect with minorities. Wade into poverty. Welcome people who dress funny. Do not fear other languages, multiple piercings, bizarre tattoos, kids who come only for the food, or anyone who does not yet believe in Jesus.
  3. Consider tutoring at a struggling school. In after-school programs, it’s legal to use the Bible as a text.
  4. Consider throwing a free party for the neighborhood, outside in the summer time. Include free food and water, and think of ways for people to meet, have fun, get into conversations, and draw closer to God.
  5. Consider becoming a foster parent, or providing help to other foster parents.
  6. Consider helping a single mom in your community to raise her family. One older man in our congregation did this, and his love transformed an extended family.
  7. Consider hosting a preschool or day care at your church.
  8. Find ways for artistic members to pass on their gifts to children, with free or reduced cost lessons, classes, mentoring relationships, or by leading dance teams, drama groups, bands, or teams of visual and production artists.
  9. Find ways for athletic members to pass on their gifts, by starting teams, coaching existing teams, sponsoring teams or passing on skills in free or reduced cost lessons.
  10. Provide church camp for children of the neighborhood as well children within the church, and sponsor the kids who can’t afford it. If you don’t have camp, partner with a camping ministry to send a few kids there.

There is a big harvest of children longing for love and truth, in every city. Sometimes people doubt whether they are qualified, or  ‘fun’ enough to work with kids. I say, if you can pass a criminal background check and you’ve got a pulse, find at least one kid to help.

The Agony and Ecstasy of Church Camp

(Ninth in a series on reaching out to urban kids.)

9902990_orig   For years, summer camp was a reliably idyllic experience for the kids at our church. We always went to some awesome facility where kids could swim, boat, run around, eat s’mores around campfires, have raucous worship and animated teaching, sleep in cabins and practice minimal personal hygiene.

Then we started inviting kids from the local school and surrounding neighborhood, reaching beyond the crowd we’d all raised to share the same values and good behavior.

The first year we did this, it was rough. We took on more needy kids than we could supervise well. We had fights, we had kids refusing to do activities, we had kids from tough home environments acting out like crazy, especially on the last day of camp.

My personal low point came on our last morning, helplessly watching an eight year old leap into one of the camp staff’s golf carts and drive it erratically around the cars of parents who had come to pick up their kids.  It was one of those moments when seconds felt like minutes.

We felt pretty beat up after that camp – physically, emotionally, spiritually. What had always been a high point of the year for adult volunteers became something that some of us needed to recover from.

But Jesus didn’t say, “Go create wonderful experiences for your children in safe and sheltered environments.” He said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel,… teaching them to observe everything I’ve commanded you.” Summer camp is a superb opportunity to carry out that commission with children and teenagers. So we didn’t give up. We pulled back and regrouped, but we didn’t give up.

5345345_origHere’s what we do differently to make camp a good experience for children from different backgrounds:

  1. Set up high staff to camper ratios that ensure activities can go on while other leaders are free to trouble shoot rebellious behavior and emotional melt-downs. In the past, we had two teenagers in cabins with eight or ten kids. Now we have an experienced and spiritually mature adult in every cabin too. We also have an extra staff person in any cabin with a kid who has a disability like autism or a history of behavior issues. We have always had a nurse on site, now we have a mental health counselor too. Even if it means turning some kids away, we are committed to keeping enough staff per camper to ensure that all kids are well supervised and cared for.
  2. We offer summer camp as a privilege for those who have behaved well during the school year. and reserve the right to refuse children who have been repeatedly defiant or destructive.
  3. We have few rules, but they are clear and consistently enforced.  We require parents or guardians to come to meetings before camp so they understand the rules too. Even families who get scholarships have to pay at least $10, and if a child has to be driven home early, they lose their money. If the child behaves well enough to stay at camp all week, they get their money back.

Last summer, camp went really well. These changes kept the atmosphere positive most of the time. The healthiest environment is a mix of rich and poor kids of different races with enough loving, mature leaders to set the tone. Put that together with worship, fun things to do and the beauty of nature, and camp is as close to heaven as it gets.

The Arts and Sports – the Great Equalizers

(Eighth in a series of 10 posts on reaching out to city kids)

Having a good team experience can be transformative. I wouldn’t know personally, because I was always the kid who missed the ball and never got picked for a team, but from what I observe, kids who are completely alienated from all other aspects of school often come alive, and do better academically, when they start playing soccer or basketball or whatever is offered.

I am indebted to my high school drama program for a similar experience of working hard with other people to give a good performance; I was cast in two of our musicals. Memorizing hundreds of lines, singing my heart out, dancing the tango with a rose between my teeth – these experiences transformed me from a super-shy wallflower to a confident graduate ready to take on journalism school.

The tragedy of many city neighborhoods is that their stressed school districts lack the resources to offer much in sports or the arts – the two areas that give people so much pleasure and provide such important outlets for energy and creativity.

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Jesus University Dancers at College Hill Presbyterian

That’s why I’m so grateful that our church, set in an urban neighborhood of Cincinnati, has a dance and choir program for children. One of our members also offers affordable karate classes and another family coaches girls’ soccer at the local elementary school. 

I’ve also used drama often in our children’s ministry. It can drive you nuts to try to rehearse with a group that has even one undisciplined kid, let alone two, four or six of them, but even then, it pays off.

Last year, when I started pulling together simple sketches with our fourth through sixth grade Sunday night gathering, I was appalled at how the kids behaved.

They would chat with each other right onstage when I was directing other kids, they would sit on the stage when they got tired of standing, they would argue over who got the biggest parts. Once, a kid came up and asked me a random question while I was narrating in a performance to parents. They just didn’t get stage etiquette. Behavior that I assumed was instinctive had to be taught step by step.

But what helpful behavior for them to learn! They grew in confidence, in patience, in focus, in body awareness, in timing, in their abilities to pick up social cues.

fog with kids Jerusalem
A Friends of the Groom theater workshop

By sponsoring sports teams and offering arts training and experiences, churches can accomplish several goals. It’s an outreach opportunity, drawing in people who may not otherwise get involved with a church. It builds relationship. One practice or rehearsal binds people together faster than months of just sitting with one another in classes or worship.

And in the case of the arts, it contributes directly to the quality of the church’s educational and worship experiences. We need people who can sing well,  play instruments well, dance well, act well and make beautiful visual art or we’re not going to be able to illuminate spiritual truth the way our culture needs us to.

Best of all, in a performing group or a sports team, all the things that so often divide people – race, class, age – those things fade into the background as everyone works together on the task at hand.