Celebrating baptism with a Teddy Bears’ Picnic

At All Saints, we give a Baptism Bear to each person who is baptised here. Many thanks to Simon Cutmore for this idea – you can read more about it on his blog. These are lovely hand-knitted bears which are given to children (and adults!) to remind them of their baptism.

But this is something we’ve only started doing recently, so there are lots of children who have been baptised at All Saints before that point and therefore don’t have a Baptism Bear. We have been looking for ways to reconnect with our baptism families, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity!

We sent invitations to every child who has been baptised here in the last 5 years, inviting them to come to a Teddy Bears’ Picnic, and to bring their families, godparents, and a bear. And what a great response we had! 27 children and 31 adults attended the picnic, and we gave out Baptism Bears to 19 children who were baptised here.

We provided a simple picnic (indoors!) and played some fun games – musical bumps, pin-the-nose-on-the-bear, hide-and-seek, balloon games, etc. We also parachuted bears from the balcony (sadly no photos of that!) which caused a great deal of excitement!

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And in among all the fun and laughter and catching up with people we haven’t seen for a while, we renewed the promises made at our baptism. This was a very brief and informal piece of liturgy – we responded to the 4 questions in the baptism liturgy with a loud “I do”, watched as the paschal candle was lit, were liberally sprinkled with holy water, and ended with the Lords Prayer (with actions).

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The children who hadn’t previously received a Baptism Bear were presented with one. We also read a bear-themed picture book about love (“The Best Present” by Jane Bingham and Rosalind Beardshaw), briefly linked that to God’s love, and talked a little bit about baptism.

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The whole event was very relaxed and informal, and seemed to be enjoyed by children of all ages, and the adults too. We had several conversations with people who would like to start coming to church more regularly, and some who are planning to bring a younger child for baptism.

We will follow up the event with an email to thank people for coming, share photos, and inform them about events coming up for children at All Saints, as well as our regular children’s groups.

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“You are called” – a sermon on vocation for back-to-school Sunday

Our first reading – “love one another” – reiterates Jesus’ central teaching. Love really is all you need.

“Love one another”.

That is very easy to say and very difficult to do.

So, how do we love one another?

Two weeks ago, a few of us were at Greenbelt. We heard and saw and experienced a huge range of exciting, challenging, interesting stuff. Some of it might even be life-changing. I want to share with you today something I picked up.

The organisation Inclusive Church was asking everyone to think about vocation. They had some question cards to get people thinking, which we’ll explore together this morning.

Those of you who study Latin might know that the word vocation comes from “vocare” – to call. Our vocation is what God calls us to.

Vocation is an often misunderstood term. In church, we too often talk about “vocation” only in terms of priesthood and other recognised, authorised, official ministries.

At school we might hear “vocation” being used to refer to particular jobs, like being a teacher or a doctor. It’s part of the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” conversation.

All of this is to misunderstand the nature of vocation, what it is to be called by God.

We all have a vocation. We are all called by God. From the youngest to the oldest, from the most confident to the least. God is calling you.

Some vocations are the work of a lifetime. Some of those are jobs – being a vicar, or a teacher, or a carer, or a gardener.

Other vocations are less about what we do than who we are and how we live. Some people have a lifelong calling to be a good listener, or to encourage others, or to organise things. Those are all vocations which I know people in this church have, and often we are not as good as we should be at recognising and valuing the way all these and many other vocations contribute to our life together.

Not all vocations last a lifetime. There are some things God calls us to for a particular time, or at a particular stage of life. A particular task or way of living for that time. Perhaps some of you will be taking on more responsibilities at school or work, or discovering something you didn’t know you could do. That could be part of your vocation for now.

This time of year, as we start the new school year, is a great time to think about our vocation. What is it that God is calling you to, now?

The questions that Inclusive Church asked people at Greenbelt were:

What gives you life?

Where would you like to go?

What do you need to let go of?

Where do you see God in the world?

What are you passionate about?

The cards with these questions will be available for you to discuss over coffee after church. But for now I’d like us to concentrate on that last question.

[Discuss with neighbour – feedback.]

Vocation isn’t something you do when you grow up, or something you might do at some point in the future, or something that “isn’t for people like us”. Vocation is what God is calling you to, right here, right now.

God calls all sorts of people, to all sorts of things, and often the most unlikely people to the most unlikely things. So keep an open mind about what God might be calling you, and others, to.

God calls us all, in all sorts of ways, to love one another. The vocations we have are – as the theme of this year’s Greenbelt says – “for the common good”.

You are called. Called by God. Called for the common good. Called to love one another.

But a call is nothing without a response. I wonder how you will respond to God’s call? Over to you!

“Jesus isn’t white” – 5 ways to make your children’s and youth ministry less racist

I am white. I have lived my whole life with the immense and entirely undeserved privilege that brings, and for much of that time I have been largely unaware of the ways I benefit from my whiteness.

I minister in a context where many of the people I meet and work with are not white. In my school, for instance, less than 50% of the children are White British. In the light of current events in the US, I have been reflecting on how I minister among children and young people in this context.

I am enormously grateful to the people – adults and children – who have pointed out to me, and continue to point out, my own racism. If any of us who are white and ministering in the C of E (and many other places besides) think we are not racist, then we are not looking hard enough. We need to take the beam out of our own eyes.

The following are just a few of the ways I have tried to make my ministry in my context a bit less racist. I will be very grateful for any suggestions anyone wants to add, especially from people of colour. I am learning, and I am trying, but I know I am still getting it wrong. But if sharing my own inadequate attempts can get others thinking about how to challenge racism in their own ministry contexts, then that seems worth doing.

So, here’s a bit of what I’m doing:

1. Pictures, picture books and videos

We all use images, all the time. A photo of a baptism, a book about going to church, a video about the lives of the saints. And I often ask children “Who can you see in the picture?” If the answer is “nobody who looks like me” then we have a problem.

The Communion of Saints is not white. It never has been.

And yes, it’s harder to find more diverse images. It takes longer and (especially with picture books) it might cost more. That’s because you’re bucking the trend in a racist system. Trust me, it’s worth it. For children to see themselves represented as part of the body of Christ, it’s worth it.

2. Jesus

Jesus wasn’t white.

That shouldn’t still need saying, but it does, and it will for as long as our default images of Jesus – in art, in church buildings, in children’s bibles – are white.

Again, it can be a struggle to find resources. There is an excellent pack of images called “The Christ We Share” which is  good starting point. I’m not sure if it is still being produced, but those images are also available in a YouTube video here.

In terms of children’s bibles, the best I’ve found is the “Children of God Storybook Bible” by Desmond Tutu, illustrated by artists from around the world. If anyone has come across other children’s bibles where Jesus (and everyone else!) is not depicted as white, I’d be interested to know about them.

3. Role models

Who do the children and teenagers at your church see in positions of leadership? If the answer is “white people” you need to do something about that.

Perhaps you are thinking “but the leaders in our church *just happen to be* white.” Not good enough.

Firstly “just happen to be”? Really???

Secondly, if that is the case, then think about who you invite as guest speakers/preachers, whose books you recommend, and (this is a big one with teenagers) whose YouTube videos you show/link to/recommend.

If you use contemporary worship songs, who are the written and performed by? This seems to be a particularly non-diverse area – any recommendations of non-white worship leaders with a YouTube channel would be gratefully received!

4. Name the issue

Talk about racism with your young people. If they’re watching the coverage of Charlottesville (and they will be) don’t just talk about “violence” or “people being nasty”. Name the issue. “White supremacy”. “Racism”. “Bigotry”.

Take time to explore with young people what the Bible has to say about racism. Yes, that can be challenging. Which is exactly why we should be doing it.

5. Colouring pencils

There is no such thing as a “skin colour” colouring pencil. Or rather, there are many colouring pencils which could be used to depict the skin colours of various people.

If a child asks you to pass the “skin colour” pencil, and you unquestioningly hand them the nearest thing to a white person’s skin colour, you are part of the problem.

Does that seem trivial? Maybe. But the little things matter, and it’s not just about colouring pencils. To leave a racist assumption unchallenged is to endorse it.

“Won’t you come and join the dance? ” – a sermon for Trinity Sunday

Today is Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, creator, redeemer and sustainer, one in three and three in one. Many preachers have attempted various analogies for the trinity, and of course none of them come close to explaining this great and glorious mystery, but some of them might help us to understand something about who and what God is.

Today we are using fidget spinner to help us think about the trinity. When we hold the fidget spinner still, we can clearly see that it is one object in three parts (which is not quite what the trinity is!). But it’s when we start to spin it that things get interesting. The three seem to become one, as the spinner moves. Father, son and holy spirit, three and one in continual movement.

The idea of the trinity in motion is not a new one. The Church Fathers as early as the 4th century AD wrote about “perichoresis” – literally, dancing around one another – to describe the relationship within the trinity. The essential thing to understand about this idea of movement within the trinity is that God, though unchanging, is not static. God exists in movement and in relationship. And into that movement, that relationship, that eternal dance, we are invited.

The movement of God re-orients us, points us in a new direction. When we say on Ash Wednesday “turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ” or when we ask those to be baptised “do you turn to Christ?”, that is what we are talking about. When people speak about their lives being “turned around” by an encounter with God, that is what they are talking about – the redirecting of our lives and our very beings away from the things of evil and towards the goodness and holiness of God.

When we allow ourselves to be caught up in the movement of God, we are turned around, our focus and direction fundamentally changed, and then we find ourselves spun around and out, out into the world which is already Christ’s, to proclaim in every word and deed, the Good News of the triune God. The truth that God is love, and we are loved. That you, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done or had done to you, wherever you come from are loved, and called to love.

And when we step into that dance, that movement, that relationship which exists within the trinity, within Godself, we are caught up too in the work of God. In prayer, in worship, in communion, and in acts of service, generosity and love, we become part of the action of God in the world, as we are part of the body of Christ.

Jesus speaks of this in our gospel reading, in his final instructions to his disciples, the Great Commission. They are not to stand still, not to rest on their laurels. It is not enough to have seen the risen Jesus, they need to be transformed by their encounter with him, to let it change the direction of their lives. They need to take their place in the never-ending dance of God’s love. They are called to participate in the life of the trinity and in the mission of God. And so are we.

“Go” says Jesus. Do not stand still, but be drawn into the movement of God. Then go out, take your place in the joyful, life-giving dance of the Trinity, and draw in others to know the love of God.

Amen.

Lifting the Lid on Lent 5: Faithfulness

I am leading an intergenerational Lent group (more details here). This is what we did this week. 

Introduction: We found the letters of our theme word around the room, and worked out that it was “faithfulness”. We briefly shared ideas about what it means to be faithful, and what faith means to us.

Story: I presented the Godly Play story for the Parable of the Mustard Seed.

Wondering questions: We wondered together about:

  • I wonder what seeds we have?
  • I wonder what those seeds need to grow?
  • I wonder what was the most important part of the story?
  • I wonder if there’s anything we could take away and still have all the story we need?
  • I wonder where you are in the story?

Reflection activity: Everyone chose a seed, stuck it to a piece of paper, and drew a plant growing from it which we felt reflected our own faith. We shared what we had drawn and had the opportunity to speak about what it represented.

Creative response: We did marble painting, but using seeds instead of marbles – we dipped seeds in paint, and rolled them across paper to create patterns.

Prayer: We took it in turns to light candles and place them on a large world map.

Lord’s prayer.

There were seven of us for this session – three adults and four children. We discovered that mustard seeds are a bit too light for effective ‘marble’ painting – they fly everywhere and spread the paint far and wide! This in itself prompted some interesting reflections – is that what the kingdom of God is like?! 

“Who is in your family?” – a sermon for Mothering Sunday

In a departure from the Lectionary, I am preaching on Matthew 12.46-50

When I was in Year 5, we learned about family trees. We were each given a piece of A4 paper, and told to draw our own family tree. I looked at my blank paper. I tried to visualise my family tree. And then I put up my hand: “Please, Miss, I think I need a bigger piece of paper!”

Families are complicated, messy things. I know mine is. I think most are, in their own way. The reality of our beautiful, flawed, complex, imperfect, glorious, human relationships is not easy to pin down on paper.

I wonder who is in your family?

I wonder if everyone you just thought of is actually related to you? Or does your family include people who aren’t related at all? Mine does. It used to be common for children to call adults not related to us “aunty” and “uncle”. Now more and more people, especially those who have been rejected by their birth families, talk about their “family of choice” – those friends who are as close as any family.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus challenges his disciples’ assumptions about what a family is. The disciples assume they know who Jesus’ family is – his mother and brothers – but Jesus speaks about a much bigger idea of what and who his family is. Jesus’ family includes everyone who follows him, and does God’s will.

That’s a pretty broad definition of “family”! All of us, all of the people who follow Jesus, throughout the world and throughout history, are part of his family. When we choose to live God’s way, we become part of God’s “family of choice”.

And just as Jesus expands his disciples’ idea of what his family is like, so the Holy Spirit is continuing to expand our idea of what God’s family is like, and who is included.

So who is included in God’s family? Everyone. It’s a simple answer, and a challenging one. Everyone is included in God’s family, because everyone is loved by God. Love is what families, relationships, in all their complexity, are all about.

You are loved by God, and so you are part of God’s family. And so am I. And so are the people you like. And so are the people you don’t like (this is where it gets challenging!). All of us, together, in God’s messy, beautiful, unconventional family.

And it is challenging sometimes, isn’t it? Like any family, we disagree, we fall out, we upset each other. But there’s always something that holds us all together. And that something is love. God is love, the most powerful force in the world.

We are called to share that love, in whatever ways we can, with whoever we can. And we are also called to look for that love. Sometimes it’s easy to see – in happy families, loving mothers, supportive friendships. And sometimes it’s very difficult to see indeed – in broken relationships, abusive families, conflict.

But always, always, that love of God is there. It is there in the Junior Doctor running across Westminster Bridge into an unknown danger, in order to hep people. It is there in the child who invites their classmate who doesn’t have a friend to sit with them at lunch. It is there wherever people treat each other as precious, unique individuals made in the image of God.

Today we celebrate the love which has nurtured us. The motherly love of God. The love of the people who have guided and cared for us. For some of us, that will be our mothers, and we celebrate them today. For others of us it will not, and we celebrate instead (or as well) the other relationships which have shown us something of the vast love of God.

Whoever you can think of who has nurtured you – whether they’re related to you or not – I invite you to write their name or draw a picture of them on the paper flower you were given when you arrived, and bring them to the front.

Let us thank God for the many, diverse, beautiful expressions of love we have known, each of them showing us something of the awesome, mysterious love of God.

Amen.

Mothering Sunday Flowers

Display of paper flowers, showing the names of people who have nurtured us.

Lifting the Lid on Lent 4: Generosity

I am leading an intergenerational Lent group (more details here). This is what we did this week. 

Introduction: We found the letters of our theme word around the room, and worked out that it was “generosity”. We talked briefly about time when someone had been generous to us, or we had been generous to someone else.

Story: I told the story of the Widow’s Mite, using toy people and props to act out the story.

Wondering questions: We wondered together about:

  • I wonder why the people in this story wanted to give?
  • I wonder what it feels like to give away everything?
  • I wonder what was the most important part of the story?
  • I wonder if there’s anything we could take away and still have all the story we need?
  • I wonder where you are in the story?

Reflection activity: We thought about what gifts we have, that we could give to or share with others, wrote/drew these things on coin-shaped pieces of silver card, and discussed them.

Creative response: With a variety of materials available, everyone was invited to create something to give to someone else. 

Prayer: We made a paper chain with prayers written/drawn on each link.

Lord’s prayer.

There were five of us for this session – three adults and two children (aged 6 and 8). For two of the participants, this was the first session they had attended. The freedom of having a range of materials to use, and minimal guidance about what to make, led to some interesting discussions about what we had each chosen to create and why.