Category Archives: Children

Martyrs Topic: “Faith of our fathers, living still . . .”

“Faith of our fathers, living still . . .” are the first words of an old hymn that isn’t sung too frequently these days. The fathers, in this case, are our ancestors in the Christian faith rather than our biological fathers. But that phrase came to mind, with a question mark added at the end of it, when I read this recent article in the New York Times about the passing of religious beliefs from parents to children: “Book Explores Ways Faith Is Kept, or Lost, Over Generations.”

Vern L. Bengtson is a professor at the University of Southern California, where he teaches social work. From 1969 to 2008, he studied 350 families, interviewing them on a regular basis over several generations. His most recent conclusions from that project are related to religious beliefs and are explained in a new book entitled Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations, which he wrote with two colleagues. Some of those conclusions, as noted in the article, are common sense. But here’s the part that caught my attention:

Professor Bengtson’s major conclusion is that family bonds matter. Displays of parental piety, like “teaching the right beliefs and practices” and “keeping strictly to the law,” can be for naught if the children don’t feel close to the parents. “Without emotional bonding,” these other factors are “not sufficient for transmission,” he writes.

Professor Bengtson also found that one parent matters more than the other — and it’s Dad. “But what is really interesting,” he writes, “is that, for religious transmission, having a close bond with one’s father matters even more than a close relationship with one’s mother.”

There are some interesting exceptions. Transmission of Judaism, for example, depends more on a close bond with one’s mother than with one’s father — perhaps because Judaism has traditionally held that the faith is inherited from the mother. Among Jews with a close maternal bond, 90 percent considered themselves Jewish, versus only 60 percent of those who weren’t close to their mothers.

In general, however, “fervent faith cannot compensate for a distant dad.” Over and over in interviews, Professor Bengtson said, he found that “a father who is an exemplar, a pillar of the church, but doesn’t provide warmth and affirmation to his kid does not have kids who follow him in his faith.”

Professor Bengtson is himself a living example of this. His father was a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church. More importantly, both his father and his grandfather exuded the kind of “paternal warmth” that his book describes. But his embrace of their faith didn’t happen immediately. Here’s what happened:

In graduate school and after, Professor Bengtson abandoned his faith. His despairing mother once wrote to him, “Vern, if I have to choose between you and my Jesus, I will choose Jesus.” Recently, however, too late for his mother to know, Professor Bengtson has found his way back to church.

“By golly, I had this religious experience when I was about 67 years old,” said Professor Bengtson, now 72. Easter morning of 2009, he woke up and decided to check out “this Gothic-looking church down on State Street” in Santa Barbara. He entered church a bit late, after the service had started.

“The organ was roaring,” he recalled, “the congregation was singing, the pillars were going up to heaven, the light was sifting down through the stained-glass windows. I was just overwhelmed. I found my way to a pew and started crying. . . . I haven’t been the same since.”

Professor Bengtson now sings in the church choir. His return — albeit to a progressive Episcopal church — has, he says, made him a better scholar. . . .

Parents aren’t just trying to pass on to their children a checklist of beliefs, he said. Better than ever, he grasps “the kind of passion these parents had for wanting their children to achieve the peace and the joy and the hope and the inspiration they had found for themselves.”

That’s what I want my two boys to experience in their own lives, not only during childhood but also as adults. What do you want your children to experience?

Learn more about the St. Stephen’s Martyrs and how to find them here.

Sermon: Diesel-10 and Worn Edges

One of the Christmas gifts that I received from my wife this year was a copy of Roger Hutchison’s The Painting Table: A Journal of Loss and Joy. Roger and I became friends 17 years ago while serving different churches, each within walking distance to the beach, along the Grand Strand of South Carolina. In addition to his work with children in the Episcopal Church, Roger is a wonderful artist for whom painting is a conversation with God.

Last spring, Roger was invited to help children and parents of Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, Connecticut, learn how talk to God in this way through art. Many of those children attended Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a child of their congregation, Ben Wheeler, was killed in a mass shooting on December 14, 2012. In my congregation, that was on the minds of everyone throughout the days leading up to Christmas of last year. Below you can read what I told them.

Here’s what I said: Continue reading

Justin Welby: “All this he did for you . . .”

Last Sunday the text for my sermon was Genesis 32:22-31, a biblical passage that describes Jacob wrestling with God until daybreak at the River Jabbok. He left there not only with a blessing but also with a new name.

I reminded folks that lots of Americans were just as excited as British subjects last summer to hear the name of the new royal baby. And I ended that sermon by noting that the Archbishop of Canterbury was going to baptize Prince George this afternoon and, about all of that, saying:

He is the great-grandson of the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But the most important thing we can say about George on that day will be that he is related to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and bears a new title – beloved child of God. At the end of that day and every day, it’s the only royal lineage and title that really matters not only for him but also for you and me.

And I hope that you’ll remember that as you walk out into the world, where you will be called many things. But none of them, good or bad, will ever be more important than being called a beloved child of God. If you cling to that truth and refuse to let go of it, you will not only be blessed but also be a blessing to all of God’s children.

But the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, in this short video, made that point much better than I did about the meaning of Christian baptism. His final words are the ones that are the most powerful and the ones that will bring tears to the eyes of many parents.  So take a moment to listen to this beautiful reflection.

Sermon: Lament for a Son

Yesterday morning I dropped off my oldest son at kindergarten, walking him to his classroom and entrusting him to the care of his teachers. The same day I spoke at the funeral of a ten-year-old boy, the oldest son of someone else who had once done that very same thing as a parent. His family had asked me to do that as a person of faith, even though the service itself was non-religious. What we had in common was an understanding that our children are gifts and that we have to let them go. It’s not fair when that happens through an untimely death.

Some people will say that I should have talked more about my faith and the God that I believe entered into the muddy waters of our humanity in Jesus. Others will think the opposite, saying that I stepped out in faith too far. If I crossed a sacred boundary, it was because I was invited to do so by parents who not only cared about their first-born child but cared about others who loved him too.

Love, therefore, became the thread that made a connection between all of us. It brought to mind the opening words of a beautiful antiphon that I didn’t quote in my remarks but have contemplated a lot: “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est,” which means, “Where charity and love are, God is there.” This I believe.

Here’s what I said: Continue reading

The Morning We Went “Down in the River to Pray”

Yesterday I added three new photographs to illustrate my last sermon, “Learning to Pray in Glorious Technicolor,” which was delivered at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Edina, Minnesota, on the morning of our baptisms in the blessed water of Minnehaha Creek. That water flows over beautiful Minnehaha Falls and into the Mississippi River. It flows, like the love of Christ, throughout God’s creation.

Thanks to the photography of Dan Akins, a member of the congregation, below are a few more scenes from the morning we “went down in the river to pray.” Continue reading

Monday Connection: Our Faith and Our Children

Last month there was an interesting article by William Hageman in the Chicago Tribune called “Keeping the faith at home.” It contained these nuggets of wisdom from the author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children, which illustrate a point in my last sermon:

Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of the best-selling parenting book “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” (Penguin), says that society today is awash in irony and cynicism. Couple that with a world that seems to be melting down around us, and parents without organized religion face a deeper challenge.

“We have gloom and doom, a cynical, mocking culture,” she says, “and that will be your family’s religion if parents don’t actively balance that by showing examples and other counter-cultural ways. That means not being cynical, not being apathetic, and not being extremely prejudiced in your beliefs.”

That also means letting kids see your values: how you treat others, what your priorities are, how you spend your time.

“Children, absolutely, from birth are theologians and philosophers,” she says. If we’re not careful, she says, “we can kind of burn it out of them.”

There are endless opportunities to instill spirituality. Start with meals. Mogel points to the Jewish tradition of the leisurely meal of Shabbat, and says the idea works for any family, any religion . . .

“It’s an opportunity to slow down our speedy lives and appreciate what we’ve been given rather than what we want to go shopping for tomorrow,” she says.

My wife absolutely loved Mogel’s book, and a glance at the chapter titles quickly reveals that I should read it, too. The final chapter, for example, is called “The Blessing of Faith and Tradition: Losing Your Fear of the G Word and Introducing Your Child to Spirituality.” Hmmm . . . that would make a nice series of posts!

Time for Work and Everything Else, Too

It’s not only the parents of young children with lots of activities who wrestle with the relationship between time spent at their workplaces and time that’s needed to honor commitments in the rest of their lives. Individuals whose elderly parents are experiencing major health issues and couples in need of marriage counseling wrestle with that relationship, too. When you get right down to it, all of us do.

That’s the point of Hannah Seligson’s article “When the Work-Life Scales Are Unequal” in today’s New York Times. Here’s a quote from it that comes after a description of one woman’s feeling that her need to care for sick grandparents wasn’t valued as much as the need of her colleagues to tend to their kids:

On this Labor Day weekend, when we celebrate the American worker, or at least the last unofficial days of summer, Ms. Azevedo is giving voice to what many people feel in their bones: the pursuit of “work-life balance,” which sounds so wholesome and reasonable, can be a zero-sum game in the office.

In theory, flextime seems like an everyone-wins proposition. But one person’s work-life balance can be another’s work-life overload. Someone, after all, has to make that meeting or hit that deadline.

As a result, many Americans who work for companies that embrace flexible hours are confronting a sort of office class warfare. Some employees have come to expect that the demands of their children, in particular, will be accommodated — and not all of their colleagues are happy about it.

These tensions are hardly new. But at a time when many Americans are struggling to find or keep jobs — and when many of us are being asked to do more with less — the issue has come to the fore.

Child care has long been the third rail in this conversation, and it is receiving renewed attention . . .

This holiday weekend you can — and should — read the whole article here.

Sermon: Learning to Pray in Glorious Technicolor

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Edina, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 16, August 26, 2012

“Pray in the Spirit at all times . . . and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.” (Ephesians 6:18)

I love to come into this church when the sunlight is streaming through these windows and bathing every thing and every person in the colors of the stained glass. It’s the vivid red and blue colors that capture my attention. But you’ll notice that it’s mostly the blue stained glass that dominates these scenes. That’s what makes them come alive. [Click the photographs below to enlarge them.]

My Sermon for Baptisms in Minnehaha Creek/Photograph by Dan Akins

Several weeks ago I learned something about that color in particular that I’m still trying to comprehend. It turns out that “seeing” blue in the world — thinking about it and talking about it — is something that I take for granted, and so do you. As language evolves in a culture and moves beyond words for black and white, red is without exception the first prismatic color to be named and added to the vocabulary. It’s not only the color of blood but also the easiest color for human beings to create artificially and, therefore, to use in art and design. Not so with blue. It’s added much later, if at all, as a language grows and expands. It’s also rare in nature and very difficult to produce.

These insights come from Guy Deutscher’s Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. One of the fascinating stories in that book is about William Gladstone in 1858, at the age of forty-nine, a decade before he would become the prime minister of Great Britain. That’s when his more than seventeen hundred page, three volume study of the poetry of the Iliad and the Odyssey was published. Gladstone was a man of deep faith for whom the words of Homer, the famous poet of ancient Greece, were the next best thing to the words of the Bible. At the end of his last volume, there’s an odd chapter called “Homer’s perception and use of color.” There Gladstone notes the curious fact that Homer, who was only blind according to legends, refers to the wine-dark sea and violet wool and green honey. But here’s the strangest part. Gladstone also notes that something is missing. Continue reading

The Simple Joy of Counting Ducks

I call this photograph “Counting Ducks” because that is, in fact, the simple joy and fleeting moment that it captured. Life itself is complex, but recognizing it as a gift isn’t. So I hope that you will also delight in that fleeting moment by looking at this photograph and by praying these words from The Book of Common Prayer:

We give you thanks, most gracious God, for the beauty of earth and sky and sea; for the richness of mountains, plains, and rivers; for the songs of birds and the loveliness of flowers. We praise you for these good gifts, and pray that we may safeguard them for our posterity. Grant that we may continue to grow in our grateful enjoyment of your abundant creation, to the honor and glory of your Name, now and for ever. Amen.

Sermon: “Taste and see that the Lord is good . . .”

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Edina, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 14, August 12, 2012

“Taste and see that the Lord is good . . .” (Psalm 34:8, BCP)

The psalms, both said and sung, are a treasured part of common prayer and worship in the Anglican tradition. Yet most Christians, including most Episcopalians, neglect these heartfelt words that have so much to say about the life of faith — a life of faith not as we wish it to be but as it really is. Aside from the 23rd Psalm and a few phrases here and there, these words are too often forgotten.

We sang one of those phrases a few minutes ago from Psalm 34: “Taste and see that the Lord is good . . .”[1] However, it’s not language that’s merely poetic or sentimental. That summary of life with God is more than a lovely turn of phrase, and that’s what I want us to think about together this morning.

There are different kinds of psalms in the Bible. There are psalms of lament, for example, in which a real person in the midst of a real problem cries out to God. Those who say or sing these prayers usually promise to praise the name of Lord if they’re delivered from their distress. Now you might never have prayed like that, staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night. But there’s a 100% chance that the person sitting next to you has. I’ll let you think about that for a moment. It’s true, we’ve all been there.

Psalm 34 is not a lament. It’s a psalm of thanksgiving. It’s that prayer that you promised to pray after going through hell and living to tell the story:

I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me out of all my terror.[2]

That’s the testimony of the psalmist, his witness to the mighty acts of God that, as one commentator puts it, “enlarges the circle of those who revere the Lord.”[3] I love that image of the expansion of the boundaries of faith through the telling of the story, a story with God at the center of it. We all have those kinds of stories — stories that aren’t meant to be kept to ourselves.

Psalm 34 goes beyond a piety that’s merely private or a faith that remains only in the personal realm. The person who prays this psalm tells others of what the Lord has done for her. She does more than that, however. Her beautiful words of praise and her testimony to the people around her are transformed into a concrete act of love. Continue reading

“. . . I don’t like what I can’t understand.”

Recently, my wife and I have been reading one chapter each night at bedtime to our oldest son, four years old, from the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. Tonight it was my turn to read, and there was a passage that really caught my attention. As an Episcopal priest, I’ve met a lot of people like Mrs. Arable:

“Have you heard about the words that appeared in the spider’s web?” asked Mrs. Arable nervously.

“Yes,” replied the doctor.

“Well, do you understand it?”  asked Mrs. Arable.

“Understand what?”

“Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider’s web?”

“Oh, no,” said Dr. Dorian. “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”

“What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?” said Mrs. Arable. “I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle — it’s just a web.”

“Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian.

Mrs. Arable shifted uneasily in her chair. “No,” she replied. “But I can crochet a doily and I can knit a sock.”

“Sure,” said the doctor. “But somebody taught you, didn’t they?”

“My mother taught me.”

“Well, who taught a spider? A young spider knows how to spin a web without any instructions from anybody. Don’t you regard that as a miracle?”

“I suppose so,” said Mrs. Arable. “I’ve never looked at it that way before. Still, I don’t understand how those words got into the web. I don’t understand it, and I don’t like what I can’t understand.”

“None of us do,” said Dr. Dorian, sighing. “I’m a doctor. Doctors are supposed to understand everything. But I don’t understand everything, and I don’t intend to let it worry me.”

One Degree of Separation: Andy Griffith (1926-2012)

Lots of people are familiar with the popular phrase “six degrees of separation,” which refers to the idea that every individual on this earth is about six steps away, by way of introduction, from anyone else on the planet. I don’t know if it’s true, but that idea became popularized through a trivia game called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” in which players try to make connections — as few as possible — between someone and the actor Kevin Bacon.

So what does any of that have to do with Andy Griffith, who died earlier this week at the age of 86? Well, the honest-to-God truth is that I really do have only one degree of separation from him. That’s because the pastor during my childhood at Union Cross Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was the Rev. Edward T. Mickey, Jr., who later became a bishop of the Unitas Fratrum.

Photo Credit: NCSU Libraries’ Digital Collections: Rare and Unique Materials

Mr. Mickey, as we called him, wasn’t only an ordained minister but also a very good musician. His grandfather, in fact, had been the leader of the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band during the Civil War. It was from Mr. Mickey that I learned that liturgy isn’t a meaningless repetition of words but a beautiful act of prayer. He also directed the children’s choir in which I sang at Union Cross.

One of my first memories of Mr. Mickey is of him asking us if we knew what “the music of the spheres” was. He explained that it referred to the harmony of the movement of the planets, which were created by God. Perhaps that marked the beginning of my interest in astronomy, which this recent post highlighted.

Mr. Mickey had once served as the pastor of Grace Moravian Church in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. There a teenager named Andy Griffith came to visit him, wanting to learn how to play the trombone. Here’s how that teenager later remembered it in The Player: A Profile of an Art, a 1962 collection of reflections by actors:

For three years, he gave me a free lesson once a week. Ed Mickey taught me to sing and to read music and to play every brass instrument there was in the [church] band, and the guitar and the banjo besides. I was best at playing the E-flat alto horn.

When I was sixteen, I joined the church, together with my mother and daddy. We had been Baptists, but it was all Protestant anyhow, so it didn’t make any difference. I was very happy with the Moravians. All the other band members accepted me. They didn’t ever make fun of me. When Ed Mickey had a call to serve another Moravian church, somewhere else in the state, I became the leader of the band until the church could bring in a new preacher. A lot of the people used to point to me and say, “There’s our next preacher.” I was beginning to get that idea myself. The preacher was the cultural leader of the whole town.

Mr. Mickey recommended Andy Griffith for a scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he began his college studies with the intention of becoming an ordained minister in the Moravian Church. He changed his major to music, however, becoming a teacher instead and spending his summers as an actor in “The Lost Colony” outdoor drama on Roanoke Island.

The rest is history . . .

“Who will rid me of this meddlesome grey duck?”

From sea to shining sea, children play a fun and almost-but-not-quite-universal game called “Duck, Duck, Goose.” Most people, however, are shocked to learn that little ones in Minnesota don’t experience this with the rest of America.

Apparently, while Paul Bunyan walked through this state, creating 10,000 lakes, he also used his giant axe to kill the goose of that beloved children’s game and threw its carcass across the border into the Dakotas, never to be seen or heard from again. It’s the only reasonable explanation of the fact that children here are forced to use a grey duck in the place of a goose to play this game. That’s right. Here it’s “Duck, Duck, Grey Duck.” My wife recently commented on this cultural oddity with these words on her Facebook page:

Dear Minnesota, You know I love you, but I cannot be a party to your duck-duck-grey duck nonsense.

Today we discovered that the indoctrination starts at a young age. After dropping off our four-year-old son for a summer program at a local park, I noticed that the schedule of activities had been written on a white board and took a picture of it:

So there you have it. This is the dark — or, more properly, grey — side of life in Minnesota. To paraphrase the words of King Henry II, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome grey duck?” Think of the children. I weep for their future . . .

A Very Short Story for Easter Day

Sometimes things aren’t going so well . . .

Then a little Easter joy comes into your life . . .

And you want to share it with the rest of the world . . .

Holy Saturday: One Photograph and Many Memories

"Preparing God's Acre for the Moravian Easter Sunrise Service, 1974"
Courtesy of the Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection

More than a year ago, I was looking through random photographs from Forsyth County, North Carolina, and found this one. Immediately I thought that it nicely captured a moment in time that represents so much of my childhood. Taken in 1974, it shows a family cleaning a headstone and decorating a grave in God’s Acre – the term for a cemetery in the Moravian Church – to prepare for Easter Day.

I figured out that the photograph of these three individuals, representing three generations, was taken on Good Friday. And I imagined that the headstone – plain, flat, square, and marble like the rest, symbolizing equality before God – probably marked the grave of the older woman’s husband (which was true).

Two days later these three individuals would surely return with the rest of their family to attend the Moravian Easter Sunrise Service. There they would join the members of their congregation and process to the sound of brass bands playing antiphonal chorales from the church to God’s Acre, where they would joyfully proclaim their resurrection faith. I could see and hear all of it in my mind.

I learned, serendipitously, that I actually know the man in the photograph. He is the Rt. Rev. Graham Rights, who once sent me a handwritten note that I still have somewhere because of the encouragement that it gave to me as a young person.

Bishop Rights’ son, the younger brother of the girl in the photograph, is the same age as I am. We attended junior high school together and could do pretty good imitations during those years of televangelists from the 1980s. Now he’s an ordained minister in the Moravian Church like his father and his grandfather.

As I wait in the silence of this holy Sabbath, when the body of Jesus rested in the tomb, I’m grateful for these memories of a childhood that nurtured my faith.