Our July / August authors provide personal stories of how children have "caught" the faith, and how the Christian home is the "first church" for children.
Our thanks to Jeffrey Sackett, Clear Lake, Minnesota; Chip Borgstadt, Omaha, Nebraska; Nancy Campbell, Saint Leonard, Maryland; Matthew Nelson, Walla Walla, Washington; and David Schafer, Westminster, Maryland.
(1 Corinthians 1:18).
The senior pastor in my first call taught me the powerful importance of making the sign of the cross upon someone's forehead. On one day in particular, he took me to the home of a dying woman, laid down next to her on the bed (she was too weak to sit up), and read from John's Gospel (I will not leave you orphaned, I am coming to you). Then he traced the cross upon her forehead. We're All Foster Parents
I will never forget the silent power of that mark. It was as if we knew what it meant without saying a word: through baptism God had been with her from the beginning, God was still there in her suffering, and one day she would be raised with Christ.
Over the years the sign of the cross has taken on power for our family. One night, when our twin daughters were young, I came upstairs to find my wife singing a blessing song to them and making the sign of the cross. The tradition stuck. As the years have gone by, even on the worst days of raising twin daughters, we could still draw that cross and bless one another. This makes great sense to me: with the sign of the cross at the end of the day we seem to be saying, "No matter what happened today, the Lord is still with us. We are defined by Christ's love."
In our church many children come to the Lord's Table with their parents. They receive the sign of the cross and a blessing (By the waters of your baptism, the Lord has promised to bless you and keep you). Recently, I was presiding at Holy Communion when a small boy named Ryan came forward with his parents. As I bent down to bless him, he quickly reached forward and made a sign of the cross on my forehead instead! In that moment I was struck again by the power of that cross — a silent reminder of the gifts God gives to us all in baptism — forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
What would our church look like if we continually blessed one another with this powerful sign?
The sign of the cross, wordlessly traced on our forehead, proclaims the great promise of God!
Clear Lake, Minnesota
Before serving in the church, I spent many years serving in public and private schools. In those settings I worked with children and youth whose learning needs did not always correlate with the systems in place. Students, teachers, and parents struggled with these situations and did not always find effective or satisfying approaches to the needs they tried to address. Increasingly, expectations for involvement in athletics, academics, and community service have added pressure to already stressed young people and their parents.
In the midst of these competing demands, I have been inspired by several caring families who have opened their lives and homes to welcome foster sons and daughters. Their stories help me see hope for facing the challenge of raising kids in our time.
One family had children of their own, but found they had more than enough love to share with several sons and daughters who came to them through the foster care system. Their biological daughters, now adults, said they always thought they were rich. They may not have had all the toys and clothes their peers had, but they enjoyed the love and attention of their parents.
Mom and Dad did one other thing that made a difference: they worked on their marriage. Involvement and leadership in a faith-based, marriage-building ministry provided a source of stability and hope to many daughters and sons who came to their home during difficult times in their lives.
Another family who opened their lives and their home to foster children ended up adopting several kids with unique needs. With income that could have allowed them to live in more affluent neighborhoods, they chose instead to invest in building lives. They attended to the social and learning needs of the young people they adopted, investing time and energy in advocating appropriate learning settings and grace-oriented consequences that helped insure a place in community for all. Central to their involvement was a place of service and worship in the congregation.
A third family was comprised of a single woman who welcomed adolescents into her home. She managed to integrate her own service to the congregation with the advocacy and planning meetings of schools, courts, and social service agencies for each young person. Her relationship with each one wove together her respect for them as a person, expectations for appropriate behavior at home and in school, and a valuing of each young person's unique talents and ability to contribute to the lives of others.
Raising kids is challenging at any time, in any circumstance. Maybe we all could see our role as foster parents — the responsibility to nurture and appreciate the gift God gives us in sons and daughters. After all, we only have a short time before they set out on their own to raise the next generation.
The Prayers of Owen
In an attempt to teach our three-year-old, Owen, about gratitude and to foster his relationship with God, my husband and I do bedtime prayers with him. We encourage Owen to make up his own prayers each evening and make them personal conversations with God. Here's how it works:
My husband and I hold Owen's hands, or have him fold his hands. I say, "Dear Jesus, thank you for..." Owen then fills in the rest. Here's a typical one:
"Thank you for... trick-or-treating, curtains, green pillow, big teddy, sippy cups, Mommy, Daddy, running shirts, Arizona shirts, trains, windows, lights, Backyardigans book, pirate sheets, and changing table, too!"
You see, our pious, reflective son looks around the room and thanks God for whatever catches his eye. That is, with the exception of trick-or-treating. Although October has come and gone, trick-or-treating left such an impression that Owen thanks God for it every night
My husband and I usually prompt him, "Are there any people you want to pray for?"
Owen has learned to respond, "Thank you for grandmas, grandpas, Baby Joel [his brother], and all
the people who love me."
Jesus tells us in Scripture, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3). Reflecting on Owen's prayers, I have found myself changing and become more childlike in my own prayers. Owen notices the small wonders of sippy cups, pirate sheets, and model trains. He knows that he is loved by many people, and he is grateful for that love.
Thus, I strive to fill my prayers with more praise, more gratitude. Owen doesn't come to God with a laundry list of expectations or hurts. He is simply still (or at least, as still as a three-year-old can be) and thankful for the things and people in his life.
Without question, we will expect more depth and maturity in his prayers as he grows. Yet, we pray that Owen will always be like a little child when it comes to prayer. May he always pray for others, always find gratitude, and always sleep peacefully under the loving watch of his heavenly Father.
Saint Leonard, Maryland
I work where the phones can be very busy at times. By the time I get home from work, I sometimes don't want to spend another moment on the phone. As a result, I do a lot of screening of our phone calls at home. It is convenient for me, but not for those who want just a minute of my time. Sometimes by calling back I have already missed an opportunity to help, to listen, to laugh, or to be encouraged by someone else.
Even as a full-time church worker, I missed opportunities in my daily life because I thought I was too busy. There have been times when I have seen someone in need, yet not responded. I have driven by someone with a flat tire, walked by someone in need of money or food, and even failed to help with a simple situation when I thought my time was more valuable than someone else's time.
Answering the call to be a faithful servant is not always convenient, and making the time to respond is not always easy. As a former youth director and associate in ministry, I remember one call in particular. It came in the middle of the night from Tim, one of our congregation's regular youth group members.
A high school student at the time, Tim had attended a party where he knew alcohol would be served. At about 2 a.m. my phone rang. "Matthew," Tim said in a reasonably coherent voice, "I'm at a party and I've been drinking. I don't want to drive and I don't want to call my parents because they will be really upset with me. Can you come pick me up?"
Tim remained quiet on the drive home. I didn't want to fill his ears with clichés and he didn't want to justify his decisions that night. However, when we arrived at his home he asked me if I'd be willing to walk him in because he wasn't sure how his parents would react. We did that together and the conversation went well, in great part because they were glad that he did not try to drive after drinking.
Although I made myself available, I did not have to mediate their conversation the next day. However, I did learn something that night. I learned to stay awake, spiritually speaking. In my call to serve Christ and his church then, and now, I realized that there is no such thing as an ordinary day. Every day and sometimes every night can present the opportunity to serve others in need. The Holy Spirit guides us to these opportunities and gives our eyes and ears a chance to hear so that we can respond.
If I could influence the youth of today to memorize part of just one verse in the Bible, it would be in the book of Mark. The disciples had come to Jesus just as a storm was about to swamp their boat. Panicked, they woke Jesus and said, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" Mark 4:39 says "Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!' Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm."
Tim knew that he would be in trouble with his parents, yet somehow he heard the call, "Peace! Be still!" Even as I wished I could still be sleeping, I heard the call, "Peace! Be still!" In the calm following that moment, Christ spoke to both of us, kept us both safe, and deepened one family's relationship by instilling the value of honesty with one another.
I continue to be blessed by the events of that night and when I see or hear someone in need, I try to stop and hear those words from Jesus and — in the dead calm — respond faithfully.
Walla Walla, Washington
New Life Blessing
This past November our family had the privilege of celebrating the life of my wife's father, Howard, who lived in Christ for 81 years on this earth and now lives with him in glory. For so many of us, life and death are familiar experiences. From the perspective of a pastor and his family, however, the death of a parent and grandparent is slightly more unique. My wife, Lexi, our daughters, and I found ourselves on the receiving end of pastoral care in Howard's death instead of the giving end. That in itself was quite different for us, and awesome. Countless times, we witnessed people "being Christ" for us and to us.
Watching our daughters' reactions to Howard's deteriorating health, his entrance into hospice care, and then his passage into the church triumphant offered us many insights. Our daughter Creason, for the last two weeks of her grandfather's life, didn't want to hear us use the word dying. She needed to come to terms with her grandfather's dying and death. Soon my wife traveled again to Virginia to see Howard for the last time because the hospice caregivers knew time was short. Creason made a little videobyte on our digital camera for Lexi to share with Grandpa. In it, she said, "Grandpa, this is Creason. I know you are dying. I wish you a wonderful new life. I love you, Grandpa." Lexi held it up to Howard's ear that evening before his death.
Our other daughter, Chamberlyn, was pretty matter-of-fact in dealing with Howard's dying and death. At the family's first visitation the day before the funeral, Chamberlyn approached the casket, touched her grandpa's hands, and then made the sign of the cross on his forehead. It was a wonderful theological connection of the baptismal pronouncement, "Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever." Of course, all of us who witnessed this moment wept puddles of tears as Chamberlyn did this.
For our daughters, life and death are wonderfully intertwined. We have exposed them to situations of God's giving life and calling people to his side. We pray that they have little fear of illness and death because we have shared with them Jesus' wonderful promise of life everlasting.
The words of John 11 become all the more profound through children's eyes: "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die" (vv. 25-26).
Stephanie Frey is lead pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church, Spring Grove, Minnesota, and editor of
Written on the Heart.
This article appeared in the July / August 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 25, no. 4).