In This World

Year B, Peace Sunday, Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22; Lectionary for October 24, 2021

Nine years ago, I broke my wrist just as the school year began. It was rotten luck and I needed a lot of help getting my classroom ready, but I survived. Eight years ago, I broke my ankle. This time, I needed a lot more help– I needed surgery and couldn’t bear any weight on my ankle for three months, and even then, I had a long rehabilitation ahead. No amount of prayer knit my bones back together. No amount of faith took away the pain when the cast came off, when I could feel the metal scraping against my muscles and skin during physiotherapy.

I have to admit, I really struggle when I read the Psalms of praise. The psalmist paints a rosy picture of the life of a believer; a little too rosy. After all, many of the poor have called out to God, but how many have been saved from all their troubles (Psalm 34:6)? It’s difficult to read these glorious praises and promises when you can find hungry, hurting, and homeless people in any community. Would God help them if only they prayed more or believed harder? Why would a loving God put conditions on God’s mercy in the first place?

How do we make sense of the suffering of the world when the bible tells us of God’s great mercy for his people? This is one of the greatest theological questions, one I can’t hope to fully answer in a blog post, but I can give you my thoughts and perhaps they will be a useful way to talk with the children in your ministry about God’s promises and the reality of suffering.

I believe that God is always with us, just a breath away. God is with us when we have a great day and everything goes our way, and God is with us when nothing works out. God is with us when our bones break, when cancer cells wreak havok on our bodies, and when natural disasters strike. God never leaves our side, but is also not of “This World.”

In this world, we will have trouble, pain, depression, homelessness, poverty, violence… and God is there, waiting, waiting for us to close our eyes, take a breath, and remember that God’s kingdom of peace and plenty is right there within us. Sinking into God’s presence won’t make the psalmist’s promises literally come true, but the more we practice paying attention to the kingdom within us, the easier it gets to face the troubles of this world. When we know, really know that we are not alone, that is God’s mercy at work. When we take the time to notice God’s presence, we are delivered, if only for a moment, from our troubles.

Children are naturally concrete thinkers, so it can be tough helping them to understand something they can’t touch or see, like God. Matters are even more complicated by the media images of God as a bearded man in the sky. How do we teach children that God isn’t just over there, but everywhere? God Knows All About Me, by Claire Page can work as a conversation starter on this topic. It’s a fun rhyming book with bouncy illustrations that describe how God knows everything about us, no matter what. With guidance, children can take this idea from “God knows all about me” to “God is always with me.”

This book does not explicitly say that God is always with us, so as a worship leader or Sunday School teacher, you’ll still have some work to do, but this is the closest I’ve found to a book that can help kids understand that God’s kingdom is right here with us, only a breath away.

Questions to ask before you read:

  • How do you get to know someone?
  • Do you know EVERYTHING about your best friend?
  • Do your parents know everything about you?

Questions to ask after you read:

  • Can God be with you all the time, if God is already with me all the time?
  • Does God stop being with you if you do something bad?
  • Is God with some people more than others?

Thanks for reading! I hope this post sparks some interesting conversations with the kids in your care, and maybe even the adults in your circle of faith.

An apology to my regular readers for the lack of posts lately. Life has been a bit busier than usual, and it’s taking some time to adjust to the different demands on my time. I should be back up to 2 posts a week soon!

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Here I am! Saying Yes to Hard Things

Year B, Trinity Sunday, Isaiah 6:1-8; Lectionary reading for May 30, 2021

Image Description: a mountain with forests in the foreground, with the text from Isaiah 6:8 overlaid: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!”

Following Jesus is hard work. Yes, we have been set free and born again of the Spirit, but no one said life would be roses and sunshine henceforth and forevermore. In fact, if we are to follow Jesus, suffering is inevitable. God transforms our suffering to bring us closer to the Kingdom, but it is still suffering—rotten, terrible, painful, suffering—just like Jesus experienced on the cross (well, hopefully not to that extreme).

God transformed Jesus’ suffering from death to life to show us that our lives follow the same pattern of death and resurrection. I’m not just talking about physical resurrection or even eternal life in Heaven, but the kind of resurrection we experience all the time right now: those moments when we’ve lost all hope, but… plot twist! Things work out. We experience these moments of resurrection throughout our lives, and I believe they are meant to give us hope that all our suffering is redeemed. That belief didn’t make my ankle hurt any less the moment it broke in three places, but as I suffered through surgery, recovery, and physical therapy, I trusted God would somehow transform my suffering; and God did. My experience with that pain and limited mobility deepened my resolve to make my community and the world more accessible and inclusive.

Isaiah has no illusions about what God asks of him. God asks Isaiah to tell painful truths to the Israelites, truths they won’t want to hear. But Isaiah is a faithful servant and doesn’t hesitate to answer God’s call, despite the difficulties ahead. The last sentence in this chapter summarizes what Isaiah knows about suffering and doing God’s work: “Israel’s stump will be a holy seed” Isaiah 6:13, NLV.

And which book is the undisputed champion of inspiring kids to do hard things?

Watty Piper’s classic The Little Engine That Could has a fresh new look thanks to one of my favourite author/illustrators, Dan Santat, but the text remains the same. The funny little clown still does his best to convince The Shiny New Engine, The Passenger Engine, The Freight Engine, and The Rusty Old Engine to help pull the toys over the mountain, but none will put aside their own comfort for the broken down train. The toys don’t give up though, and ask one more engine, The Little Blue Engine.

My favourite part of this book is that The Little Blue Engine has never gone over the mountain before, but agrees to help the toys. She takes a chance and chugga-chugga-chuggs over the mountain, answering the call despite uncertainty and inexperience. Can we do the same? Are we willing, like Isaiah, to say yes to God, despite our own uncertainty and inexperience? Can we submit to difficulty, even suffering, trusting that we will be transformed?

Questions to ask before you read:

  • What’s the hardest thing you ever had to do?
  • Do you always want to say yes when your family asks you to do something?
  • Who encourages you when things get difficult? Who do you encourage?

Questions to ask after you read:

  • Why did the Little Blue Engine say she would help?
  • God sometimes asks us to do difficult things. How can we say yes to God?
  • How does God help us get over the mountains in life?

Piper, Watty. The Little Engine That Could. Grosset & Dunlap, 2020.

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