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.

Jesus University Dancers
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.

 

Cooperative Preschools Build Community

(Seventh in a series of articles on reaching out to city kids.)

download (1)I have so many good memories of taking my kids to pre-school. They attended 3Cs Nursery School, a Christian cooperative at College Hill Presbyterian Church that focuses on building a supportive environment for families.

I was often scheduled to work at the same time as a young dad, a big, muscled African American guy who looked terribly uncomfortable on the tiny classroom chairs, his knees up to his ears. My son loved him.

He was a kid who hated crafts and wanted to play with blocks. The kids were supposed to finish their ‘small motor activity’ before they were allowed free play. This dad would  only require the bare minimum before he cut him loose. “Me and Daniel, we got an understanding,” he said, winking at Daniel as he hastily scribbled a picture and took off.

Several good things are happening at once at a cooperative pre-school. Children are learning from the teacher and from socializing with others. The parents are helping the teachers so kids get more attention.  The parents are probably learning most of all – both from the gentle, patient teachers, and from watching how their kids interact with others. They’re also saving money because cooperatives require less paid staff. In addition, they are forming relationships with other parents and grandparents who have kids the same age.

Even though I didn’t always feel like dealing with a bunch of three or four year olds, it was very good for me to do so. I learned what was developmentally appropriate for my kids at that age – especially helpful with my first child. I observed that he was way ahead of kids in some areas, lagging in others, and I adjusted how I worked with him accordingly.

I also saw how he related with other kids. At one point he was under the influence of a child with a strong personality, and was getting into trouble under that kid’s direction. I may not have picked up on what was going on if I were not there. Because I was there, I could coach him on how to say no or switch activities to break the pattern.

Not everyone in our neighborhood can afford to pay for pre-school, so 3Cs  has several fundraisers to raise scholarship money. Staff and volunteers run a resale store for children’s clothing and toys, Sonshine House.  They also host Gingerbread Shoppe, an enormous craft show that fills every corner of the church and raises around $8,000.

3C’s current director, Shannon Caton, has worked hard to make the preschool accessible to everyone.  The seventy children now attending are racially and economically diverse.

“It’s been challenging to reach beyond the middle and upper classes to make it a place where everyone can benefit, but that’s what we need to be doing.

She said about half the families are receiving some amount of scholarship money, or working extra time beyond their coop commitment. Some families may only be paying $5 a month, but she has found that it is important to require people to contribute something.

Another way the program has changed to accommodate families with single parents or two working parents is to reduce the coop commitment to once a month, and offer a four-hour preschool as well as the former two and a half hours.

“That gives part time workers time to work a whole morning, and gives grandparents who are taking care of grandchildren more time to rest,” Shannon said.

3Cs has been part of our community since 1968, and because it has adapted to meet the needs of our neighborhood, it will probably remain for years to come.

Give a Home to a Child

(Sixth in a series of posts about reaching out to city kids.)

I am challenging myself as I write this post because the most time I’ve had a child in our home, who is not part of my family, is six weeks. But I still have to mention it as a key way to reach out to city kids, because the number of children needing foster care and adoption is epidemic.

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Cincinnati’s county alone, Hamilton County, has over 2,100 children in custody, the most in at least the last 20 years, maybe ever. More than 40 per cent of those kids must be moved out of our area to find a home. The heroin epidemic as well as many other stressors have pushed the number of displaced kids to all-time highs.

I think giving a child a home is one of the most generous and loving things people can do. I’m struck by how many families in our church have reached out in this way.

There’s the couple with two boys who took in a baby girl with a severe disability. There are two couples who took in five kids between them, a family from Columbia. The father of one family and mother of the other are brothers and sisters. These two families live on the same street, and so do two sets of grandparents. One of these older couples also has foster children. They form this marvelous community of caring adults, with a dozen or more children between them.

One single lady, after raising her own family, took on a second family by adopting three siblings. Another couple with their own three boys are carrying for two more little boys.

And there are more. I’m so proud of these families, who are living out their faith in Jesus in sacrificial ways. I’m also continually delighted by all these diverse kids, with the joy and energy they bring to our church. If I try to imagine Sunday mornings without all these children, I realize how much quieter, more somber, less fun – our church would be!

Make Church Fun for Older Kids

(This is the fifth article in a series on reaching urban kids.)

Many churches do a great job with little kids – providing doting nursery workers and dedicated Sunday School teachers. But the older kids get, the harder it can be to engage and discipline them, particularly kids from tough backgrounds.

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One of the things our church has done for the last few years is to add a Sunday night activity in addition to traditional Sunday morning Sunday school. We’d rather do something during the week, but sports and other competing activities just crowded out too many kids. This time parallels when older youth groups meet.

The upper elementary age group often becomes disenchanted with the activities of younger kids, so it’s important to give them something different and challenging. For example, here’s our format for this year’s MEGABLAST, which meets from 6pm to 8pm:

  1. For the first half hour, they join older youth groups for a time of worship. Kids are invited to help lead worship as singers, musicians or leading movement to songs. There is often a structured activity, like writing out a sentence of praise to God, then everyone reading theirs out loud. In a setting with older role models and guided activities, worship is caught as well as taught.
  2. The next half-hour is spent rehearsing a super-easy short drama that I write for them to present to their families at a monthly dinner. The dramas include narration that can be read, Scripture recitations and personal stories. We keep memorization to one or two lines per person so kids don’t get too stressed about performing. We want them to have fun, present truth and become confident speakers.img_20161127_191857648
  3. For the third half hour we break into boys’ and girls’ groups, with an adult leader. These groups read and discuss a Bible passage and pray together. There is a strong emphasis on good group process, with simple listening exercises at the beginning of each session. For example, we’ll get kids to share a highlight from their week, but first they repeat what they heard the last person say. It pays to insist on good process; to require only one person talking at a time. Good communication skills and behavior boundaries are crucial for diverse groups. When those are established, even kids from very different backgrounds will feel safe and open-up.
  4. The final half hour is devoted to some crazy game that lets everyone run around our large building and make lots of noise. This is by far their favorite time, and when they relate most spontaneously.

We’re considering some other formats – maybe some in-home small groups next year, for example. But this structure has worked well for us, helping kids from different backgrounds to worship, learn, work and play together.