What is Given From the Heart

Year B, Fifth after Pentecost. Lectionary reading for June 27, 2021: 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Have you ever received a gift so small, you knew it was the biggest thing someone could give? As an early years teacher, I have been the lucky recipient of countless handfuls of dandelions, and you better believe I make a fuss over them every time. Once, a little girl stopped eating her cookie halfway through and gave it to me. We weren’t in a global pandemic back then, and I decided she needed to see me eat the cookie more than I needed to worry about germs.

One Christmas about 6 years ago, my little loves were giving me little gifts before the holiday began. Most of my students came from homes that struggled to make ends meet; some were just plain poor. I tried to find a delicate balance between making the children who brought gifts feel appreciated while not making those who had no gifts feel bad. “Your smile is all I need for Christmas,” I would tell them.

Little E had no gift, no lunch, no backpack, and nobody to watch him sing in the Christmas concert. As much as I tried to reassure him, I could see it bothered him that he hadn’t brought a gift. Right around the end of the day, as everyone was packing up for the break, he brought me this gift:

While I treasure any gift, be it a fistful of dandelions or a box of chocolates, E’s drawing will be a gift I never forget. At the beginning of the day, he felt left out because he had nothing to give, but by the end of the day, he gave me a work of art I will always cherish.

As adults, we all know the parable of the widow’s offering, but the children in your ministry might not. Consider reading it to them (Mark 12:41-44), especially if you have a good story bible. The thing about being a little kid though, is sometimes they don’t even have two pennies to give. Today’s book is a beautiful tale of generosity that can teach little ones they always have something to give if it comes from the heart.

In Patricia McKissack’s story What is Given From the Heart, James Otis and his mama have nothing. It has been a difficult year: Daddy died, they lost the farm, and the dog disappeared. When Reverend Dennis tells his flock that Sarah and her mother lost everything in a fire, James Otis can’t imagine what he could possibly add to the ‘love box’ the church will give them on Valentine’s Day. He keeps thinking of the Reverend’s words: “what is given from the heart reaches the heart.”

Mama finds a way to help Sarah’s mother, and James Otis has a great idea too—but I won’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say that you might need tissues to get through this book. Even when it seems we have nothing to give, if we look in our hearts, there’s something we can offer. Wildflowers, a drawing, even a smile are precious gifts when given in eagerness.

Questions to ask before you read:

  • What is the best present you’ve ever given someone?
  • Do presents need to cost a lot of money?
  • What could you give someone if you didn’t have any money at all?

Questions to ask after you read:

  • Did James Otis and his Mama know they were going to get a love box?
  • Do you think they might have given differently if they had known?
  • What would you put in the love box for James Otis and his Mama?

Special note: this book portrays an obviously poor Black American family and community. This is an opportunity to talk about the systems that kept Black people poor and marginalized in Canada and the United States, in terms that are meaningful to the age group you teach. I think it is also important to specifically tell your kiddos that not all Black people are poor, as sadly, many books focus on Black struggles rather than Black successes. This book is a gem and a great conversation starter, but please make sure you have other books that feature Black characters outside the poverty, trauma, and slavery tropes. Contact me if you need some more suggestions!

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you add this great book to your ministry library. Be sure to check your library and local bookstores first, but it is available on Amazon as well.

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Adopted into the Kingdom of God

Year B, Trinity Sunday, Romans 8:12-17; Lectionary reading for May 30, 2021

To get a handle on this passage of scripture, it’s important to define two key concepts: slavery and adoption. Why does Paul use these two words to encourage the community of Roman believers?

Slavery was a common practice in Rome; in fact, 30-40% of the population was estimated to be enslaved. Slaves completely depended on the whims of their masters for survival. They had few rights and could be executed for disobeying their masters. They could be tattooed or branded by their owners, and had a life expectancy of only 17 years, while many Roman citizens lived into their 60s.

And adoption?

In Rome, during Paul’s ministry, they considered an adopted child equal in every way to a biological child—with full rights of inheritance and to the family name. Since having children the good old-fashioned way was unpredictable, wealthy Romans frequently adopted boys to insure they could pass down their fortunes and family names. When a child was adopted in Rome, they immediately gained the status and power of the adoptive family. There was no stigma attached to adoption in first century Rome; rather, adopting out a child was one way for a family to gain status!

Paul used these two familiar practices to demonstrate the shift we experience when filled with the Holy Spirit. We are not slaves to God, only doing God’s bidding out of obligation. We are not slaves to sin, dependent on greed, gluttony, and lust for satisfaction. Instead, we are adopted! When God adopts us into God’s family, we are loved unconditionally and have access to God’s status and power. We inherit the Kingdom of God!

What a great day to talk about adoption in our contemporary lives! Over the Moon: An Adoption Tale by Karen Katz is a touching depiction of adoption based on the author’s own experience. This book pulls readers into the excitement of waiting for the new baby to arrive along with the parents and their community. The mommy and daddy have dreamed of this baby and love her unconditionally, just as God dreamed of us and loves us conditionally.

Over the Moon can spark discussions about family diversity with the kids in your ministry. Children’s literature has come a long way towards better representation of diverse families, but adopted and foster children are still too often left out of the conversation. If you would like more recommendations for books featuring adoption or fostering, leave me a comment and I will send you a list.

Questions to ask before you read:

  • What is adoption? (Be prepared to hear about pets!)
  • How many kids can a parent love?
  • Does God love some kids more because of who their parents are?

Questions to ask after you read:

  • Why are the mommy and daddy so excited to meet the new baby?
  • What will the mommy and daddy give the baby as it grows?
  • What does God give us as we grow?

Katz, Karen. Over the Moon: An Adoption Story. Square Fish, 2001.

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How do we lay down our lives? Y’know, without actually dying?

Year B, Sixth Sunday of Easter: John 15:13-14 Lectionary reading for May 9, 2021

A couple of years ago I read a meditation about the nature of the Gospels that forever changed how I read them:

The three synoptic Gospels are largely talking about Jesus, the historical figure who healed and taught and lived in human history. John’s Gospel presents the trans-historical “Christ.”

-Fr. Richard Rohr

I wanted to start with this statement of how I interpret the Gospel of John because it speaks further to my rejection of dogma (see my post from April 10th). I don’t think John ever intended for his Gospel to be read literally; rather, it needs to be read with a much wider lens.

Jesus the Christ laid down his physical life for his friends as an example for how we are to live, putting love ahead of all else. I would hope as adults, we would agree that there is no higher love than laying down our lives for a friend, but we can’t look at in terms of binary goodness: martyrdom good, staying alive to fight another day, bad. With children, we need to talk about how Jesus sacrificed his life for his friends, but also introduce them to the metaphorical understanding of the crucifixion as well: doing hard things, sometimes REALLY hard things to help our friends and do what is right.

There’s so much to love about What Can a Citizen Do? Dave Eggers’ book features gloriously diverse kids drawn by Shawn Harris who work together to build something none of them could build alone. The words describe how citizens have responsibilities to each other, but the art shows something more: how we are sometimes called to put our own comfort aside to make life better for our friends.

A citizen’s not what you are—a citizen is what you do.

Dave Eggers

The book never specifies the location of citizenship, and I think this is a great opportunity to talk about how, while we are citizens of our communities, we are also citizens of the Kingdom of God, and that holds us to even higher standards. The book demonstrates that while laying down our lives for our friends can be uncomfortable and challenging, it is critical if we want to live the Kingdom of love during our lives.

Questions to ask before you read:

  • What is a citizen?
  • What communities are you a citizen of?
  • What are your responsibilities as a citizen?

Discussion for after you read:

  • Tell about a time you when it was hard, but you helped someone anyway.
  • Tell about a time someone put their own comfort aside to help you.
  • What can we do to make sure everyone feels welcome in the Kingdom of God?

Thank you to everyone who has subscribed to this blog, my Facebook page, and my Instagram. Your support means a lot! Please forward this post to others in your circle of friends who may find it useful in their work with children. As always, if you click on the book covers, you can purchase the featured book at Amazon and I will receive a small commission that helps pay to keep this site up and running.

Eggers, Dave. What Can a Citizen Do? Chronicle Books, 2018.

Love, Especially When It’s Hard.

Year B, Fifth Week of Easter; 1 John 4:7-21; Lectionary reading for May 2, 2021

When my kids were 6 and 8, we unexpectedly took in a 5-year-old foster son. A little boy in my kindergarten classroom could no longer stay with his current foster family and was going to spend Christmas at an emergency care home 2 hours away. I reached out to his social worker to see if he could spend Christmas vacation with us so he wouldn’t be with strangers, and he stayed with us for 8 months. It was wonderful, heartbreaking, hard, and we needed to do it for one of ‘the least of these.’

Big D had the warmest smile and was born to cuddle. He loved listening to stories as long as he could wiggle, and could dribble a basketball like nobody’s business. He was always on the move, but put a kitten in his lap, and he’d stroke her fur long enough for us to get supper on the table. He had a hard time remembering things like how to spell his name or count to 5, but he memorized our family prayers within days of moving in. He was easy to love.

But Big D was also a handful. He needed constant close supervision because his behaviour was so unpredictable. He told so many lies it was hard to tell when he was being truthful. He stole things. A lot of things. Thankfully, he always hid them in the same place! Despite the best supervision we could provide, he still stole a friend’s iPod, a lighter from the hardware store, and $100 from the hot lunch cash box at school, along with countless small, shiny things from around the house that we’d find under his pillow each day. He was hard to love.

I needed to remind myself daily of this passage from 1 John. Christ lived in that little boy, and I had to love Big D no matter how tough it was. Abiding in Christ wasn’t just a theoretical experience during those 8 months; it was a daily necessity. While I have spent many years cultivating a loving, positive outlook and manner, loving Big D the way John commands every day felt impossible. By leaning on God, I succeeded more days than I failed.

I found this little book a couple months after Big D came to live with us, and I have complete faith the Holy Spirit put it in my hands. At first, I thought it would be a great book to read to my son Tim, who struggled with jealousy. He had a hard time believing I could love another kid without me loving him any less. I think it helped Tim, but mostly, when I picked this book at bedtime, I was reading it for me.

God loves us so completely he sent us Jesus. God loves us no matter how many of us crowd onto the planet; God loves us even if we eat fast food and watch too much Netflix. God loves us so that we can learn to love like God does. Just as it doesn’t matter how many children are in a family, a parent’s love expands to fit them all, we all have an infinite supply of love when we abide in Christ.

Ok, ok, I’ve made this post way too personal and if I keep going I’ll likely cry, so to wrap up: the kids in your ministry need to know that God will always give them more love than they can ever give away, and the adults in your ministry? They need to hear the same message.

Questions to ask before you read:

  • Who gets more love: a kid with no siblings or a kid with lots of siblings?
  • Does God love you when you are naughty?
  • Does your family love you when you are naughty?

Questions to ask after you read:

  • Is it always easy to love the people in your family?
  • Can you love someone you’ve never met?
  • How do you show love to someone you don’t know very well?

I am morally obligated to inform you of my little money-making scheme with Amazon, the one where you click on a book and I earn a 5% commission, but since no one ever actually does, these extra words are just for fun. This book is less than $10 though, so if… let’s see… carry the 1… if 154 people bought this book, I could pay for my domain name this year!

Docherty, Helen. You Can Never Run Out of Love. Scholastic, Inc. 2017.

The Good Shepherd: Always With Us

Year B, 4th Sunday of Easter; John 10:11-18; Lectionary reading for April 25, 2021

Most people would have had a basic understanding of sheep and their care during biblical times, and so it made sense to use pastoral imagery. Last summer, I argued with my 11-year-old son that a picture of a cow wasn’t, as he thought, a sheep; and we kept sheep on our acreage for several years. Livestock just isn’t something most kids have any connection with anymore! If you have rural kids in your congregation, start by asking them what they have to do to keep their livestock healthy. If you minister to urban children, explain to them how much sheep need the shepherd. Sheep have no way of defending themselves from predators, have no sense of direction and get easily lost, and will happily eat weeds that will make them sick if they don’t see grass right under their noses. They are a bit like toddlers—completely dependent on someone else for their care. Thankfully, a good shepherd is a lot like a good parent.

A good shepherd makes sure the sheep are safe, fed, cared for, and most importantly, loved. The good shepherd knows the sheep by name (even though some people couldn’t tell them apart from cows) and the sheep know they can trust the shepherd and follow the sound of his voice. Finally, a good shepherd does whatever is necessary to protect the sheep. Sure sounds like a good parent to me! Hopefully, all the children in your care have a parent in their lives that this reminds them of. If you minister to children in foster care or adopted children, treat this metaphor with care so that you are not pointing out the faults of their biological parents.

Once you have explained that Jesus is talking about how much he loves and cares for us, you are ready to dive into this beautiful book. That’s Me Loving You by Amy Krouse Rosenthal explains that all of nature is God loving us. From a gentle breeze to a persistent mosquito, God’s love surrounds us. Whether we are with our families or off on our own, we can trust the warm feeling inside of us is the love of God.

Questions to ask before you read:

  • How does your family show they love you?
  • How is that like what a shepherd does with their sheep?
  • How do you know they love you even when you aren’t with them?

Questions to ask after you read:

  • What other ways do you think God is showing God loves you?
  • What ways can you show God you love God?

This book makes me tear up every time I read it, so tuck a tissue in your sleeve before you start. Check with the families in your congregation and your library before you buy this book, but if you just have to have it on your shelf, please consider buying it through the links attached to the pictures. You’ll be supporting this blog with a small commission at no additional cost to you. Whatever you choose, please subscribe to this blog or to my Facebook page and spread the word about Storybook Ministry to your friends who minister to children.

Rosenthal, Amy Krouse. That’s Me Loving You. Random House Books for Young Readers, 2016.

Love With Actions, Not Just Words

Year B, 4th Sunday of Easter; 1 John 3:16-24; Lectionary reading for April 25th, 2021

I did a double take when I read the scripture for this week. Hadn’t I just written about sharing and caring for our neighbours? Why yes, yes I did, just 2 weeks ago. But that’s the wonderful thing about the Bible: when a lesson is important, it is repeated. “Love one another” appears 16 times in the New Testament! It’s a good thing my collection of books features more than a few lessons in getting along—I’m going to need all of them.

It’s easy to forget that love is more than a warm feeling towards our neighbours. In this passage, the apostle John reminds us that love is also more than words. It isn’t enough to feel love; it isn’t enough to speak love; God calls us to love with action. Sometimes, this kind of love comes more naturally for children than it does for adults. Best friends Maddi and Sofia do everything together, but when Sofia impulsively runs into Maddi’s apartment for a snack, she discovers Maddi’s fridge is… empty. She hatches a plan to help her friend while keeping the empty fridge a secret.

Globally, approximately 854 million people regularly do not get enough to eat. Hunger kills 25,000 people every day. These numbers are so high they are difficult to even conceptualize. But those are our global neighbours, surely the situation is better closer to home? Over 4.4 million Canadians experienced food insecurity in a 2017-2018 report, and experts estimate that number to be much higher right now because of the COVID pandemic. Clearly, hunger is not an issue exclusive to developing nations. While I don’t suggest throwing these numbers around in your children’s ministry, I bring them up because in Canada, empty fridges are an invisible problem. Sofia discovered Maddi’s empty fridge because she could run faster than Maddi. Hunger can be a shameful secret for many families.

This story celebrates kids helping kids, but it also teaches children the importance of reaching out to adults for help when a problem is more than they can handle. Reading this book is an opportunity to broach the tough topic of poverty with the children in your ministry, but it can be a wake up call to your wider congregation as well. John calls us to love with actions and in truth: are we living up to that call when so many of our brothers and sisters around the world still cry out for food?

Purchasing Maddi’s Fridge through my amazon links supports the blog (and my book-buying habit) with a small commission. Please consider subscribing to the blog or my Facebook page, so you always have a great book recommendation at your fingertips.

Brandt, Lois. Maddi’s Fridge. Flashlight Press, 2014.

Planting Seeds, Planting Love

Year B, Lent 5; John 12:20-33; Lectionary reading for March 21, 2021

Please, plant some seeds. Right now, go to the store and buy some nice big seeds, or better yet, ask a farmer in your congregation to give you some actual wheat seeds, and plant them with your little ones. Fill a jar with dirt, push some seeds down along the sides so you can see them, and witness death and resurrection.

Once you’ve done your planting, choose one of the dozens of great storybooks about seeds and gardens. Some that I wanted to write about but didn’t:

Seriously, so many splendid books. But today, we will plant something a little… unorthodox.

As a general rule, I add every new Peter H. Reynolds book to my library, and when he works with Amy Krouse Rosenthal, it’s twice as magical. Plant a Kiss features simple rhyming text to capture the attention of very young children, but the illustrations and the message will equally interest older children.

Rather than plant a seed, a little girl plants a kiss to the skepticism of those around her. But just as one kernel of wheat that falls and dies produces many seeds, the one kiss multiplies to bring joy to everyone in the community. Towards the end, the little girl runs out of kisses to share and walks away from her empty bowl. Take that opportunity to ask how the little girl might feel, having given away everything she harvested. How would the children in your congregation feel if they made a batch of cookies and gave them all away, getting none for themselves?

Questions to ask before you read:

  • How do you think a seed feels when it is planted?
  • What happens to the seed underground?
  • How does a seed transform into more seeds?

Questions to ask after you read:

  • We can’t really plant kisses, but what are some ways we can spread love?
  • If you could plant things other than seeds to make the world a better place, what would you plant?

Rosenthal, Amy Krouse. Plant a Kiss. HarperCollins, 2011.

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