24 December 2012

are you ready?

Christmas is coming, ready or not! Berryman's script reminds us that if people aren't ready, they can just walk right through a mystery and not even notice. But sometimes we have to go ahead even if we don't feel ready. Sometimes maybe we can trust that lighting the Advent candles for four weeks ... or singing the O Antiphons for seven days ... or hanging our Jesse tree ornaments or whatever it is that we've been doing has made us ready. Sometimes we can pray, but only say the word and I shall be healed. 

In Godly Play we ask people to decide for themselves if they are ready to enter the room and join the circle. Sometimes when I didn't have a Door Person I would sit outside the room with the children, encouraging them to sit still for a moment (after they'd been running around) and take time to get ready. Then I'd say, I'm going to go into the room, and you can follow me when you're ready. One week, once we were in the circle, one girl said, It's easier to get ready in here. 

So I pray for you, and for me, that as we begin to celebrate Christmas that in itself will make us ready. That as we place the baby Jesus in the nativity manger, or sing carols at a Christmas Eve candlelight service, or fill stockings, or put the turkey in the oven ... we will find that we are ready. Let every heart prepare him room. 

Merry Christmas!

16 December 2012

"Look for the helpers"

Thank you, Sheila, for linking to Carolyn's post, "What do we say to the children when kids are killed with their teachers at school?"

Carolyn's advice reminds me of Mr Rogers' advice, or rather, the advice he got from his mother.

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

That's good advice for all of us, whatever our age. I sometimes daydream about the news media deciding not to grant fame to killers (which would also prevent them from mistakenly giving out the wrong name). I can choose to focus on and share news of heroes, of helpers, of the good that stands up against evil. May I urge you, too, to seek out any of the several recent articles highlighting some of the heroes of Sandy Hook, Newtown - such as this one from The Independent.

photo by Pokrajac

13 December 2012

Lucia greetings

Wishing my Nordic friends well on St Lucia Day!

public domain photo by Niels Henningsen (Helsingør,  2001)

02 December 2012

gifts for godchildren

I'm so pleased with some gifts that I delivered last weekend that I'm very tempted to write a self-congratulatory post. I'm going to try to turn it into an informative post for others, though. My apologies if I fail and just sound prideful.

We have two godsons. One is a young adult; the other is six years old. We're far away from them this year, but were visiting last weekend, and so I wanted to give them gifts - partly just to show our love but partly to foster their spiritual growth. So I went shopping for Advent gifts.
For our young adult godson, we bought a collection of Advent reflections, one for each day of the season (plus Christmas Day and Boxing Day): Inside the Christmas Storyby Bash & Bash. It's written by a priest who once served the parish of a relative of ours, with his wife, which gave it a little extra personal connection.

Sheila, at Explore and Express, has written a post about children's spiritual styles, and I agree that it's important not to assume that the same things will touch the same children. It's almost trite, isn't it, to comment on how different siblings can be. Our young godson and his younger sister are a case in point. He is deliberate, even cautious. He likes to know things, and to get things right. His sister is impulsive; she has no patience for long explanations. She's very extroverted - friendly and open.

image source

For our six-year-old godson, I bought the Advent magnets shown above. The big magnets on the top half of the sheet separate out into six - the wreath and candles, plus five separate flame magnets. Each "flame" can be placed over a candle on each Sunday of Advent (and Christmas Day). Below this are five "cards", with a suggested short Bible reading and prayer to go with the lighting of each candle. Besides encouraging his word-based expression of faith it also helps him practice his new reading skills, with the themes for each candle written in such large letters.

image source
We don't usually buy presents for this boy's little sister, but in the shop I spotted a holding cross (similar to the one pictured here) which was especially proportioned for a young child's hand. Do you remember the Lego stick that we pretended was a prayer cross? That was made by this little girl! So I thought of her as soon as I saw this cross, and really wanted to get it for her. Her first words upon opening it were, I remember we used to have a cross like this in Junior Church. 

I knew you would remember! I replied, and that's why I wanted to get this for you. Her second comment had to do with how small it was. I explained that it was designed for a child's hand but she corrected me: This was designed for a BABY's hand! Still, she was pleased with it. Being an extrovert, she thanked me for it (or told me how much she liked it) about four different times. Finally she said, When we have Junior Church again, I'm going to bring this, and we can pass it around the circle at prayer time.

I'm not sure our godson explicitly thanked us for his gift, except when prompted by his mother. But he immediately opened up the package and found a place to display the magnets, and later carefully asked me to help him read all the different themes. I took the opportunity for a quick chat with him about the fact that these themes don't match up exactly with the Godly Play themes for the Sundays, and encouraged him to ponder ways in which they do match up and ways in which they don't. We both laughed at the suggestion that Mary and Joseph's entry into Bethlehem might have been peaceful - probably not! Towards the end of our visit he caught my eye and slyly demonstrated how a flame would look atop a candle. As soon as we'd both seen it he snatched it away again, as if to stress how well he understood that it was not yet time to light that candle! So even though he didn't gush over the present the way his sister did, I know he appreciated it and will use it in his observance of Advent.

What about your own observances of Advent? What are you doing? And if you have children, what are you doing with them? I love the Busted Halo's suggestion that our preparations for Advent can be like preparing for a special guest. It's not that everything has to be perfect or that we need to pretend to be somebody we're not. If you're an extrovert - go ahead and gush! If you're a word-based spiritual type, do a special Bible study for the season. It's not too late to start. 

22 November 2012

experience it for yourself

Here's an invitation I came across recently:

This week we will be experiencing something called Godly Play. I can't really explain it to you, other than it involves a parable. The only way you'll know what I mean is if you come and experience it for yourself.  

Some friends and I offered a Godly Play session as evening worship during our summer school last August. I was amazed at how many students came up to us afterwards saying things like,
I liked it so much more than I thought I would.
or I hadn't expected it to be like that.
or Now I understand! 

So many people "know" that they don't like trendy worship and so "know" that they won't like Godly Play.* Or they "know" that it's only for children,* and only for Episcopalians.* Maybe they "know" that Godly Play is about making children sit down and shut up.* Or that discipline is "outsourced" to the door person.* Or that Godly Play storytellers don't make eye contact with children: Preposterous!*

Whatever your preconceptions about Godly Play, may I invite you to seek out a taster course and experience it for yourself? If you've had one bad experience with Godly Play, might I beg you to give it a second chance? It's not the only curriculum out there and it's not the only approach that works. But there's a quiet beauty in the way it allows you to "play" in the presence of (and even with) God. I'd love for you to experience that.

One man from summer school said, If you'd told me I would happily sit during worship and play with modelling wax... I'd have said you were mad. 

  • Most adults experience Godly Play as gently thought-provoking. Nobody is ever asked to do anything they don't want to do, not even answer questions.
  • Godly Play has been used with people of many ages. The invitation quoted above was for teenagers.
  • Godly Play is used within many Christian denominations and by people outside traditional denominations as well. It is Biblical and liturgical. Storytellers are encouraged to adapt the liturgical lessons to fit the practices of their own churches (for example, when and how people are baptised).
  • In Godly Play, children are given a lot of freedom of choice... within clear constraints and boundaries. GP follows some of the educational principles of Maria Montessori, as well as Sofia Cavalletti's use of these principles in the spiritual education of children. 
  • There is a division of labour in Godly Play, but it's about achieving the smoothest possible supervision of the classroom. The storyteller and door person work together as a team.
  • Here's a post I wrote about eye contact

16 November 2012

visualizing the Circle of the Church Year

For a while I was changing the image at the bottom of my blog screen according to the liturgical seasons, inspired by Emily at Watkins Every Flavor Beans. This year I found it easier just to stick with one image of a circular calendar by My Faith My Life. So I appreciate that Browniesmoke (at What Can We Leave Out) has linked to the new coming year's calendar, now available at My Faith My Life. (Lo hay también en español.)

© 2012 Jenifer Gamber.
Permisson granted to
reproduce for church use.
I echo Browniesmoke's advice that even if some in your family (such as children doing Godly Play or Catechesis of the Good Shepherd) already understand liturgical colors, this calendar can help others (such as grown-ups) grasp it. It's also interesting for older children in that it is more detailed than some GP classroom presentations will be, since it has a square for every day, not just for every week.

Bear in mind if you're outside the United States that it's been created for the Episcopal Church so may not entirely match your own church's practices.

Thanks, Jenifer, for sharing this resource!

14 November 2012

an overdue hello

Our little congregation in Finland isn't doing Godly Play this year, because I'm too busy with my theological studies and even more because I'm not even there right now. My husband and I are spending a year in England. Although I told myself this might mean I could write up a bunch of half-baked ideas which had never matured into proper posts, so far I haven't posted anything on this blog since summer school! Not having the input and prompting of weekly (or near weekly) sessions has meant it was easy to ignore the blog.

But Sheila's recent post on her children's first visit to a Godly Play classroom provoked me to dust off my Blogger password and add an appreciative comment. And so I thought I ought to post here as well and explain why posts here have dried up. As I have said, I do hope to carry on... but it's unlikely to be at all frequent for a while yet.

In the meantime, to make up for a dearth of Easterkind material lately, here's a bunch of links and a puzzle. What tenuous connection could there be between Godly Play and Malaysian football? Read on!

photo by Kamal Sellehuddin, of 
Malaysian footballer Mohd Aidil Zafuan (on left)
  • I've found another new(ish) blog on children's spirituality, Learning Up by Fiona. One of the posts I enjoyed most from her was a story about how a group of 8-10-year-olds gave her a completely new perspective on the story of Jesus's triumphal entry into Jerusalem. (Three cheers for Wondering!)
  • David Pritchard has recently returned from Kuala Lumpur, where he presented the lesson, "Exile and Return". (photo) He reports that the Dignity for Children Foundation (an educational charity in Kuala Lumpur) has created Godly Play -style stories and materials for use with the Muslim children at their schools. (photo)
  • Anyone working with children might also be interested to read Dignity's vision / mission statement, which includes graphic representations of the cycle of poverty. It's also moving to note that their work is not just (Montessori) education and teacher training, but also a football & netball tournament
  • And here is an account of a sermon David gave during that trip, on 2 Kings 5, with the theme "Small is Beautiful".
  • Finally, I was pleased to see that even though I'm "taking a break from Godly Play", my blog was mentioned and linked from the Godly Play UK newsletter back in August. Thank you!

10 September 2012

story images

As part of my theological training with the Church of England I was fortunate to be able to visit the Norwich Synagogue (the visit was part of our module on "World Faiths"). As beautiful and interesting as their worship space was, what really caught my eye were some pillows on benches in the lobby. The pillow covers illustrated stories from the Hebrew Scriptures (or, as we sometimes call them, the Old Testament). I had not brought a good-quality camera along, but these were so striking and beautiful that I asked a fellow student to photograph them for me so that I could share them with you.

pillow illustrating the story of Moses in the Bulrushes
photographed at the Norwich Synagogue

pillow cover: a whale with a huge, gaping mouth showing Jonah inside
photographed at the Norwich Synagogue

Visually, I judged these images as simultaneously simple enough to catch the eye and complex enough to hold a person's interest (you can just see a tiny little fish in the corner of the Jonah pillow, for example). Being myself a person who enjoys "white privilege", I was briefly startled but also very pleased to see that the figures in these images were clearly non-white. And as a Junior Church leader, I immediately rejoiced that the pillows would provide an easy point of contact and recognition for children. Young children entering the synagogue would be drawn to these beautiful yet non-breakable objects which were placed so as to be accessible to them. And yet they were not something which adults might dismiss or de-value as being "merely" for children. Wonderful.

31 August 2012

learning from a child

Recently, in preparing for a young family to visit our house, I got out my own childhood doll, Lolly, only to find that her dress was so old and worn that it was coming apart. It certainly wasn't suitable for play anymore. I mentioned this to a friend, and she suggested I pick up a package of doll clothes at Ikea.
Although they looked all right in the store, the clothes turned out to be about two sizes too big for Lolly. But with a bit of hand-stitching I took up the dress in the shoulders so that it was more or less acceptable, and put Lolly on the shelf of children's toys in our living room.

Almost as soon as our young guest found Lolly she asked me, "Don't you have any other clothes for her?" With exaggerated care, I showed her Lolly's original dress and how the fabric was disintegrating. Then I told the story of buying new clothes, finding they were too big, and hand-sewing the shoulders of the dress so that it would fit. But unlike me, this child was not daunted at all.

She took off the new striped dress, and put Lolly into the blue sweatsuit. She then carefully rolled up the sleeves and the pant-legs so that they were the right length. Then she put on the raincoat. 

Again, she carefully rolled up the sleeves. This was difficult, since there was already a large bunch of fabric there (the rolled up sweatshirt sleeves), but she persevered. She even managed to get the rain-booties onto the doll, despite the fact that the doll doesn't really have feet. By fastening the booties as tight as they would go, and then holding the doll very carefully, she was able to keep them from falling right off.

I told her how glad I was that she had shown me that the too-large clothes would work for Lolly. I really meant it! I had not even considered keeping them, but already had them ear-marked for the "donate" box in our attic. What a pleasure to be shown something unexpected.

09 August 2012

5 things to remember about Wondering

This is something I wrote as part of the Explore and Express series of Godly Play 101 posts:

Godly Play storytellers signal the end of the lesson and the opening of a time of reflection by pausing for a moment and then raising their eyes to make contact with their listeners. They say, slowly, thoughtfully, I wonder...

Each genre of Godly Play story has a slightly different set or style of Wondering Questions. I call these questions, but they aren’t phrased as questions, and that’s deliberate. Everyone is encouraged to wonder, everyone is free to share their responses, but nobody is ever pressured to answer.

Please click through to Five Things to Remember about Wondering on Sheila's blog to read the rest of my post.

05 August 2012


This moment was part of what I've been hoping for:

distracted by "adult" worship
This child spent the first part of our service today working with materials about the story of Jonah (a story she knows not from Godly Play but from a Bible storybook at home). However, as I snapped this photo, her attention was drawn away from her own work to the worship service taking place in the same chapel. Last week a mother said to me that she noticed her son singing along with one of the congregational responses as he sat drawing a picture.

As Carolynn wrotes,
The children playing during the worship does not mean they are not also engaging with what they are seeing and hearing. 

welcoming young families

Recently, David Pritchard pointed his Facebook friends to a short article which began like this:
Imagine a place where God's call to see children valued and cared for goes unheard. Imagine that in this place children are ignored, excluded and treated as insignificant. Now imagine that place is a church
Viva News, 11

(The Viva News link above will take you to a pdf of the whole magazine. This article is found on pages 4-5.)  

This week I've posted some ideas for welcoming children at church. Here's an example of another very simple and practical way to show young families that they're welcome:

This is accessible to both men and women.

The photos above and below were taken at a local church building, where they've provided a changing-table and even diapers / nappies. [I spotted a similar set-up at Ikea, where they had a whole range of sizes available.] The hand-lettered sign in the close-up below welcomes you to use the nappies / diapers.

(The sign welcomes you to take one. )

02 August 2012

children in church - advice for grown-ups

Earlier this week I wrote some advice for parents who bring their children to our Play and Pray area in church. In the weeks since we've brought children back into our regular services (rather than having them at Junior Church) I've also thought of advice I'd like to give clergy and other other grown-ups in the congregation. (Some is this is based on my own mistakes!)

photo (c) Pikku Arkki Valokuvaus, used by permission*

Advice for clergy, worship leaders, and congregations
  1. Include the children in your congregation. Include the children when you make eye contact with the congregation. If you'd like the children to participate in something, such as the Peace, say so. But attract their attention before your instructions or invitation. (It's better to ask, Children, have you got your banner ready? than Could you bring the banner forward now, children, which has the attention-getter at the end of the sentence.)
  2. Signal that narrative Scripture texts are stories. Whether or not your church stands for the Gospel, whether or not you include a Gospel lesson - if your Bible reading is a story, try to make it sound like one. You don't have to ask the children to listen - just reading something as if it were interesting will attract attention. 
  3. Think of ways to get children involved. Could children help collect the offering? hand out leaflets? read the lesson? serve cookies or biscuits after church? Even if the youngest you can easily include right away are in their early teens, I believe that'll help younger children look forward to the time when they too can participate. 
  4. Remember that not all children are alike. Work not to embarrass a child. If you wouldn't call on the average adult for this, is it something you should ask a child to do? Some children love to be the center of attention (and it may then be difficult to get them to step back out of the spot-light), while others hate it. Some children love to sing and others don't. For some, the best part of church is community; for others it is the chance to be still and know God
  5. Model the behavior you want children to follow. Stifle your laughter at behaviors you don't want to encourage (however hard that may be). Even glaring at a child who is "misbehaving" may be less fruitful than putting extra effort into your own concentration. If a child is going to take on a new task (such as using a tall candle-snuffer or reading into a microphone), let them watch you do it during a practice run ahead of time and then try it themselves. 

* I find this photo wonderfully funny because it looks as though the boy has been invited to watch what is happening at the altar but is bored by it. However, it's important not to mistake a lack of eye contact for a lack of attention. Who's to say that he isn't listening intently? And even if he is bored, I'm so thankful that he was welcomed to the Lord's Table!

31 July 2012

Play and Pray - advice for parents

These are some thoughts I've had after our first couple of months with a Play and Pray area in our worship space. This experience has been with a small group of children aged about 3-6.

Advice for parents
  1. Remind your children ahead of time about expected behavior.  This may vary from church to church. I ask children to keep their voices down to an absolute whisper except when the congregation is singing (or passing the Peace). Apart from Communion, I ask them to stay in the Play and Pray area (and to move slowly and quietly).
  2. Come a little early. Your child might well want to share some news with me, or make small talk. This is easier to do before the service has started. Coming early also allows the child time to orient themselves and settle down. (If you come too early, though, we might not have finished setting up yet!)
  3. Leave your child's own toys at home. We have selected the Play and Pray materials with care. Just as our worship space is not like your living room, so our "toys" are not like all the other toys your child has at home. In fact, I like to think of them as worship materials rather than toys.
  4. Once you've dropped your child off, sit elsewhere. The Play and Pray area is as much for you as for your children in that we want to give you the freedom to listen to the sermon without worrying about your kids. If there's a huge discipline problem, I'll come get you. Otherwise, please assume that I'll deal with it. Give me and your child the freedom to do our own thing. 
  5. Let your child know they may make their own choices. In my Play and Pray area, children choose for themselves what to do most of the time. The only exceptions are that we stand to listen to the Gospel, we may greet each other at The Peace, and we all go forward for Holy Communion or blessings. At other times, children may want to follow along with what the other congregants are doing, or watch what the priest is doing. They may choose to read a book, to color, or to work with our worship materials. They may want to pray, look around the space, or just sit quietly. It is their choice. 

p.s. Re-reading this after posting, I find it all sounds very stern. I'm sorry about that. My goal with our Play and Pray area is to help your children feel that they belong and that they matter - in church, to our congregation, to God! I enjoy worshipping with them. Thanks for bringing them to church!

30 July 2012

a disappointing alternative?

Yesterday we weren't sure whether any children would come to church (one family is away, another had only just returned from holidays and were jet-lagged), and then we found out at very short notice that "our" chapel was in use by another priest so we were moved elsewhere. Vandriver and I managed to dash in just in time to grab a few things from the storage cupboard (located *in* the chapel) to carry to our temporary location, and I set up and then sat within a scaled-down Play and Pray area anyway, just in case any children did come.

location as usual, just behind the first row on "the Gospel side"

Happily, two showed up. They had been away most of the summer and this was their first introduction to Play and Pray. Although I would say that on the whole things went well, the 4-year-old turned to me during the service and asked, When are we going to have Junior Church again? Caught off-guard, and needing to whisper, I answered non-committally. After the service, at church coffee, the 4-year-old contentedly informed me, I think we'll have Junior Church next week. I'd like to have asked what aspects of Junior Church / Godly Play she prefers over Play and Pray (I have several ideas, but they are mine not hers), but as it was, I just tried to explain that it'll be Play and Pray at least until the autumn.

If her parents are reading, perhaps you'll inquire about her preferences if this topic comes up again. If somebody does start up Junior Church again in the autumn it'd be good to know what aspects work well for the children. And in the meantime, it may be that the church can make some changes to the way we do Play and Pray to incorporate some of what different children miss.

And other readers - what do the children in your churches like and dislike about being in church for adult services as opposed to going to Sunday School or other programs designed for them? (Don't know? Why not ask?)

25 July 2012

Guest Post: Chameleon Godly Play

(aka Adjusting Godly Play to Fit the Context!)

Sheila, who blogs at Explore and Express, has been a guest blogger here before. I think we may be at the core of a sort of mutual admiration society. We are both ex-pats living in European countries, both discovered Godly Play here in Europe, and both brought it to our churches more or less single-handedly. In many ways, though, Sheila's managed to take it a good deal further than I have yet. She's taken it to schools and forests, she's done it in German and English and even in Russian. So when we first got the idea of trading guest posts (this was ages ago, because then we then got all caught up in the idea of an Eastertide guest post series and postponed these one-off posts for another time), I asked if she'd write something about adapting Godly Play to different contexts. Thanks so much, Sheila, for all your encouragement and enthusiasm, and for writing this guest post for me.

At school.
Chameleons have always fascinated me. They change their color in various social situations and to blend in with their current setting. They’re also a good metaphor to describe my life since it was „taken over“ by Godly Play several years ago.

One of the many personality tests that I have taken over the years describes me as a „Maximizer“. That means that when I put the time and effort into learning something, I figure out how to use the heck out of it.: ) Much like a chameleon, I figure out how to make whatever I am doing blend with the current setting.

In my kitchen.
Godly Play is no exception to this. After falling in love with this concept for religious education, I justified the time, energy and money I put into it by using it everywhere possible.  Since 2009 I have told Godly Play stories to children (both in church settings and in public schools), drug addicts, women involved in prostitution and „normal“ adults, all on two continents and in three languages.

How does one go about adapting Godly Play to fit a particular environment? I’m no expert, but here are a few things that I have learned along the way:

1. Know your audience.  Find out as much as you can about how they think and what makes them tick. Get a feel for how they will respond to the various elements of GP. Then you can expand on certain elements and tailor others. If you are telling a GP story in another culture or setting that you haven’t yet visited, do a little research beforehand to find out these things. 

2. Decide what is doable and be flexible. Ask yourself, „What can we leave out and still have everything we need?“ If, for example, your setting rather than your audience has changed (ex. going from an indoor setting to the park in summer), then you may have to pare down your supplies or expectations. At one point my „room“ for children’s church changed from a large kitchen to a tiny bedroom. I had to pare the creative phase way down to just crayons and colored pencils. But you know what? The kids still responded to God and drew thought-provoking things.

3. Pray and listen to God.  That might seem obvious, but sometimes we get so absorbed in the materials and learning the story that we forget this one! Having God’s perspective always bring fresh ideas.

Wondering with children in Irkutsk, Russia.

There is still so much more to learn! Storyteller and I would love to hear how any of you have adapted Godly Play to different settings. Please leave us a comment or link to any of your ideas.

22 July 2012

another baptism doll

I've written here about finding and purchasing my baptism doll, and her/his christening gown. (The doll is anatomically correct, but he/she wears bloomers so that children can decide for themselves what the doll is.) While at the same flea (super-)market last week, I bought another one for our Play and Pray area at church.

This doll came wearing a badly stained dress but since I wanted to get a christening gown, that didn't worry me at all. The doll was also wearing a pair of white and pink shorts, which will be kept for now as an undergarment. This doll is a bit different than my first one - slightly smaller, mouth pursed for a bottle, one tuft of hair on the forehead, and a little more ambiguous anatomically. I didn't take time to hunt right through the market for the "best" doll (it's an ongoing struggle for me to curb my perfectionist and "maximizer" tendencies), but chose this from among three dolls at the same stall. This one was simply the one most like the one I had already, that the children were used to.

Now that I think about it, there would be advantages to a considerably smaller doll. A smaller doll would be easier to store, and more manageable for small children to work with. Here are two (poor-quality) snapshots of children working with my original doll. They cannot lay the doll in the crook of their arm as I do when I demonstrate what it would be like to baptize a baby.

girl holds doll under left arm, grasping water jug with right handGirl struggles to keep hold of doll while opening oil jar.

On the other hand, it would have been harder to get a christening gown for a smaller doll. I was pleased to see that the doll clothes stall where I'd found the gowns the last time was still in business. There was a smaller selection this time, with only two gowns for sale, both with pink ribbons. So before I take this to church I'd like to replace the ribbon with one in a more neutral color - maybe green? 

baby doll, wearing long white gown with long pink ribbon decoration

Even on this doll (only slightly smaller than my other one) the gown is a little too big. [They're marketed as fitting a "Baby Born" doll.] The sleeves have to be pushed back up over the fingers to the wrists, and the neckline is large. But if I get a rush of energy and determination I could unpick the back placket and re-sew it (by hand - I don't have a machine) to give a better fit. Or I might just leave it - it's not impossible as it is. I gave the doll a wash before clothing it in this new dress and the tuft of hair went all funny... but I managed to curl it around a beeswax taper (!) which held it until it had dried into a cute curl.

Close-up of baby doll, with curl on its forehead. Its sleeves come down to its knuckles.

19 July 2012

off topic: Finnish Taizé chant

In the (church) news this week in Finland is the singing of a Finnish song by the Taizé community at Evening Prayer on Saturday. Many Taizé chants have been translated into Finnish, and sung by Finnish speakers at Taizé, but this is the first time they have used a chant which was composed in Finnish from the start.

The words of the song are from Psalm 119:105: Sanasi on lamppu, valo askeleillani. The literal translation into English is "Your word is a lamp, a light to my feet". Yep, English takes twice as many words to say this as Finnish does. 

Taizé evening prayers are broadcast weekly by the Cathedral in Cologne / Köln (scroll down the left sidebar and click on the service for the date 14/07 - or I think this link might take you straight there). The song comes about six minutes into the broadcast (06.25, if you want to jump straight to it). 

photo of Taizé prayers by "sasa1976"

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If you'd like to take this opportunity to learn a verse of Finnish then the double letters should be pronounced as longer than single letters, and every word has first-syllable stress. (That's when speaking; it's usually less clear - at least to me - in songs.) So that's SA-na-si (neither s should sound like a z) on LAMP-pu (hold your lips shut for a silent microsecond in between lamp and pu); VA-lo ASK-el-eil-la-ni. Again, you ought to hold that double-l for a beat before ending the word with ani. I believe that that little syncopation in the second repetition of the song would sound more Finnish if the sound the international Taizé worshipers lengthened were not the vowel "ei" but the "ll".

17 July 2012

"streets" of gold

I'm aware that my posting has slowed down a lot recently. I so appreciated Leslie's recent comment saying that she was behind in her blog reading - at least that was one person who hadn't been frustratedly checking in here asking themselves whether I was ever going to post again!

On Sunday I carried out an assignment relating to my ordination training - to construct a creative liturgy, appropriate to your own denomination for a main service. I chose the theme of "Salvation History", drawing upon the set reading of Ephesians 1:3-14. At two points I tried to involve the children in using fabric to change the atmosphere: I asked them to help me swathe the congregation in dark blue tulle to represent the chaos and waters spoken of in Genesis 1 so that we could meditate upon the time before Creation (Eph 1: 3-6) and later to lay down strips of sparkly golden material under people's feet, representing the heavenly streets of gold (Rev 21), for a reflection upon the End of Time (Eph 1: 10 & 14). 

photo kindly taken by Rami Rekola
This was, shall we say, a qualified success. I would have needed considerably more fabric for one thing (we had a lot more visitors than usual), but more importantly, I did not take the time to explain properly to the children what I had in mind. I should have done a little practice with them ahead of time, especially since two of them arrived nice and early this week. I also should probably have asked the (older) visiting children whether they would have liked to help as well. Still, I keep reminding myself that this is the whole point of training - to learn from one's mistakes.

18 June 2012

sneaking in some Godly Play

How long did you think it would be before I'd find a venue for presenting Godly Play again?

As part of my ministry training, I had to preach the sermon for our congregation yesterday. And what should be the Gospel text in our lectionary but a section from Mark's Gospel which included the Parable of the Mustard Seed! So, since the children are with us in their Play and Pray area in the chapel, I decided we should have a children's lesson as well as a grown-up sermon.

I invited everyone to come to the front of the chapel before the Gospel reading, and presented the Godly Play lesson then. After we'd wondered for a bit, and put the materials away, I had everyone stand to listen to the Gospel, or rather, the bits that hadn't already been presented in the Godly Play lesson, which is to say Mark 4: 26-29 and 33-34. Only then did everyone go back to their original places, and I went to the pulpit for the sermon.

This was actually the first time I've presented this lesson, as it was see-through-faith who presented it last year! There were various minor "flaws" in my presentation. It was hard for me to stay in the story and not get impatient with how long it took to unfurl the creased branches of the shrub/tree. When I'd practiced at home, I'd managed to get these to "stick" pretty well to the underlay as I unrolled it, but today they wouldn't un-crumple. Plus I was distracted with nerves about the other upcoming sermon.

I did get a good chuckle from the congregation at the beginning when I bunched up the underlay and suggested it might be a splodge of mustard.

The wondering remained silent ...

photo kindly taken by Rami Rekola
... but many people (not just children) took the opportunity to place birds and nests into the story themselves.

15 June 2012

(Post-)Eastertide Guest Post: Montessori-inspired Prayer Chart

As Sheila says in her introduction to this guest-post, life happens. I promised almost two weeks ago that I'd share more about our Play and Pray area and implied that would happen straightaway. Instead I finally posted two long posts about it today. Sheila and I had planned to include a guest post from Leann, of Montessori Tidbits, in our Eastertide series. Instead, she published this yesterday and I'm getting it posted today. 

prayerchart2 I love the simple prayers of a child.  They are so sincere, innocent, and pure.  They are spoken from the heart and in a way that many adults miss in their own prayer life.

As a Christian mom, I have always sought ways to help my son understand prayer is more than just asking for things.
It’s his time to mention things that are important to him. 
It’s his time to say thank you.
It’s his time to ask for help, especially on character traits that he’s working on.

However, my son sometimes has a hard time remembering what he wants to pray for and about.  That’s how our Montessori-inspired interactive prayer chart began.

Read the rest of this post here

evaluating the Play and Pray area

As I've said here, the adults were very positive about our first week of summer Play and Pray. I described our space and materials in this post. But I haven't really said much about my own expectations nor about what actually happened. That's this post.


The children will need to learn new rules for this space. Some are like the rules in Junior Church - we talk more quietly than usual and we move more slowly than usual. I modeled that we did not need to be silent during the hymns or music, but that we could sing along OR talk quietly together. Of the three children present this week, the older two already attend day-care classes (in fact, one has just "graduated" from pre-school or kindergarden and will start first grade next year), and they have several times sat through adult church services with only a few coloring pages or such-like to keep them occupied. For them it was pretty easy to stay still and quiet through the service.

The youngest is a bundle of energy. He found it hard to remember to keep his voice low, and often wanted to jump, turn upside down, or clown around with his sister. And yet, he did an excellent job of whispering when I reminded him to. To emphasize that jumping isn't wrong per se, but not to be done in chapel, as soon as the service was over the small boy and I made a beeline for the door and jumped up and down for several minutes just outside. As we were still in the Cathedral building this was perhaps not ideal, but I hope it will help him in the future to save up his jumps for after the service. (Pentecostals or anyone who does jump in church are welcome to make good-natured protestations in the comments.)

Godly Play Jonah materials & animals for Noah's ark
All the children worked with the materials we had available in (usually) appropriate ways. When the boy tired of coloring, I encouraged him to explore the available story materials. At first he really didn't know what to make of the Godly Play Jonah materials, especially the long squiggly blue "blocks". But once we had identified the boat, and looked at a picture of the storm in the Jonah storybook to see that the blue things could be storm waves, he carefully laid them around the boat, one at a time, until they were all in place.

He was unhappy with the suggestion that they might be put away before he moved on to work with other things later, but when, during our post-communion hymn, I said firmly (to all the children) that it was time to put everything away, he placed each blue wave back into its box, so carefully that it seemed to make no noise at all. I was enchanted.


My minimum expectations are these: I want the children to stop and stand and listen to the Gospel when that comes in the service, and to go forward for a blessing at communion. Word and Sacrament. Other than that, I am happy for them to have a lot of choice in what they do, in when they "pay attention" and when they seem absorbed in their own work. They will need, though, to begin to learn the cues - that the sung Alleluia Alleluia Alleluia means it's time to stand up and listen to a story about Jesus; that the song, Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us, is the signal to get ready to go forward for communion. It may take some time. This week they found it very hard to stop what they were doing for the adult liturgical timetable.

At "the Peace", I asked if they would like to go around and shake hands with people. One said, "No." Another said, "Only with my Mum." I had asked a genuine question, and so felt that any answer was acceptable. (I'm glad to say that many congregants did lean into our "enclosure" to greet the children.)

Trinity Sunday
I handed out "and also with you" flags to many members of the congregation, as well as having them available for the children. Our pastor was so pleased with the response that she had us do it again - which was a good encouragement for the children to participate. She also urged the children to join the congregation in blessing the newly baptized by raising our hands toward them as she prayed.


The children will need to learn how to keep themselves occupied. (One important task for the adult on duty will be to help them do this.) It may also prove harder than it was in our much larger Godly Play room to find a second choice if someone else is working with your first choice materials. What else is in the area that they could work with? What might this child color onto a blank sheet of paper? During which bits of the service is it most interesting to watch what the priest is up to?

As I've said , I hope the children will soon recognize certain cues about the shape of the service. But I'd also like to help them "read" other things in the environment. I happened to kneel next to the young boy at the communion rail. So while waiting for the wine I encouraged him to count the candles on the altar. Trinity is a six-candle day in the Finnish Lutheran liturgical calendar, so I corrected him when he only counted five, saying one must be hiding behind another.

three baptism candles
But I was wrong, and he was right! The pastor had taken one candle down from the altar to use to light the baptismal candles!

It's always a special pleasure when the children notice things and make connections all by themselves. One girl particularly noticed the baptism candles, and whispered to me that her younger sibling has just such a baptism candle.


In our old Junior Church / Godly Play format we would begin by "forming the circle", often chatting informally for a short while before singing our first song, and always asking if anyone had anything special they were thankful for (these things then were included in the opening song). Although I have visited a church which incorporated an extended time of "sharing joys and concerns" into their service, we have nothing similar at our own adult services.

When one girl sidled up and began chatting to me during the service I realized that for her, a weakness of our Play and Pray scheme is the lack of opportunity for talking. I recalled that once when we'd been unusually pressed for time during our Godly Play session, this same girl had said she'd rather skip the Response Time (when we usually work independently) than the Feast (when we resume sharing together). She is clearly one of those Christians who prioritizes fellowship!

I don't have an immediate solution for that, but I am reminded of Jerome W. Berryman's advice, Whenever you see a child in the church, approach the child, make eye contact, and say, "I'm glad to see you." 

more on Play and Pray

As promised, somewhat belatedly, here's more on the launch of our Play and Pray area. This post will tell you what the set-up was like, including some initial reflections on what worked and what didn't.

We chose our space to gave a good vantage point for any child who wanted to see what was going on. The space felt enormous as we were moving twelve chairs to make room for it, but didn't feel so large once three children were inside it. As soon as one lay stomach-down to do some drawing I began to be thankful that more children hadn't come!

The floor was lined with a thin comforter / padded blanket. Each corner was covered with a mat (and sometimes a strategically-positioned chair leg) to help keep it in place. Spare mats were available by the "entrance", but they weren't really made use of this week.

I realized that my idea of putting all the materials around the edges was perhaps ill-conceived when I watched the smallest child labor to get past the other two to reach the colored pencils. (I praised him for carefully avoiding stepping on any artwork in doing so.) I then moved the pencils, explaining in hushed tones that it would be better to put them where everybody could reach them.

  • For an embarrassingly long time, I've had the materials for the Godly Play Jonah story on loan from a neighboring parish (fortunately, they had two sets). But I never put it into our classroom because I have trouble with that story. (Why? That's for another post!) But I brought it out for the Play and Pray area, along with an odd assortment of tiny stuffed animals in a basket - I couldn't find an ark at the flea market!

  • Our book basket included a storybook about Jonah and the Whale in English and a book in Finnish with a huge fold-out poster of  (a cartoon painting of) Noah's ark. When a child first bored of drawing, I silently drew his attention to the correspondences between the illustrations and our 3D materials.
  • Two very different sheep, both  found at the flea market for super-cheap (the cheap sheep?), stood alongside the book basket.

  • The pastor was very leery of bringing clay / plasticine / play-dough to the service, feeling that then children would need to wash their hands before coming to the altar and that would just be impracticable. Similarly, I wasn't convinced we'd be able to clean glitter glue off the blanket we were using. But we did have paper and card in various sizes, colored pencils, two kinds of crayons, and some stickers left over from Easter egg decorating.

  • On the chair closest to the altar I laid a green cloth (flea market place-mat), the Christ candle, and a basket of half-assembled cardboard Nativity pieces. As it turned out, nobody took any notice of this activity this week.

  • Also available but not used were the flip-book guides to the liturgy (I might place at least one of these into the book basket next time).
  • Because we were having baptisms that first week (a whole family was baptized), I had also brought along my own Godly Play baptism materials. But at the start of the service they were accidentally covered up. Just as the youngest's patience and attention was wearing thin and I was getting ready to bring them out... I recognized the strains of Jesus, Lamb of God and announced that it was time for communion. So we did fine without them.

When the time came for the baptisms themselves, I stood up and walked right up to the front of our space, encouraging the children to do the same. It was rather a long process, as each adult knelt to be baptized and was then robed in an alb by their godparent before the next baptism. As you can see, by the time the family father was being robed, only one child was really still interested. But when the baby was finally baptized and began to cry that got everyone's attention again.

thoughts for the future: One member of the church has already told me she owns a Noah's ark puzzle that she'd like to donate to us. Hooray!

It feels paradoxical to think that two or three children at a table will take less space than the same children coloring on the floor, but if we can figure out how to store them I'd like to consider getting a child-sized table and chairs. (Last year we tried having the children kneel in front of the pew-chairs and use them as desks, but this was disastrous because these wooden seats make extremely loud percussion instruments. A mere dab of a glue stick  reverberates around the chapel like a gun-shot.)

03 June 2012

Play and Pray Launch

Today our congregation launched the Play and Pray area for children to use during our regular service (we had a sort of trial run back in October). The plan is to have this all through the summer, and then to revisit the question of Junior Church (and/or carrying on with Play and Pray) in the autumn.

Our set-up has been inspired by Margaret's blog post about the Play and Pray area at St. George's Church, Campden Hill, and Carolynn's pages for the Spiritual Child Network.

I received *very* positive feedback from the adults after today's service! Even more importantly, I think the children were also positive about it.

(during the service)

One child wasn't sure what would be available, so brought her own coloring pages (and kindly allowed the other children to use them as well). My hope is to move toward more specifically church-oriented themes for future art projects (as well as encouraging free drawing, which some children also did today). In addition to coloring, the children worked with Godly Play story materials about Jonah, a storybook about Jonah, a collection of small stuffed animals representing animals on the ark, a large poster of Noah's ark, Easter stickers, our "and also with you" flags, and what is more they got to witness *three* baptisms!

I'll write a bit more about today's experience in my next post.

27 May 2012

preparation through celebration

The Godly Play lesson of the Circle of the Church Year presents a concept which I had never heard before - that just as Advent helps us get ready for Christmas and Lent for Easter, so Eastertide helps us get ready for Pentecost. Eastertide is simultaneously a time of celebration and a time of preparation.

Preparation through celebration - what a gorgeous thought.

I have heard people puzzle or even fret over the fact that Advent is not a season of fasting nowadays. But the folks at Busted Halo revel in the richness of the differences between Advent and Lent: Advent is about Hope, not Repentance, they sayAnd how delicious it is to think that we prepare for Pentecost with celebration.

Sheila (of Explore and Express) and I have celebrated Eastertide this year with a series of guest posts. Our final one is coming soon, but in the meantime I'd like to share a photograph from my friend, "see-through faith". In addition to her regular blog she has a photo blog, where her goal is to post a photo a day and to "find God" in it. One recent photo was of a seasonal table display, which instantly made me think of  seasonal displays that my blogging friends have created - including Sheila's nature tables and Emily's displays marking the church year (such as this wonderful Ordinary Time collection of everyday green objects). Can you guess what the difference is between their displays and this one?

photo by see-through faith - a larger version can be seen here

This one wasn't in a private home but in a church building! Isn't it sweet? It's "homely" in the British sense ("homey" for Americans). Charming! It's from the Bakewell Methodist Church, home to  Matthew Loader, who wrote a series of guest posts for me last month.

My friends, whether your Eastertide celebration has been simple and sweet, solemn and grand, or felt cursory, dry, or difficult, I pray for you a joyful Pentecost.

Here's Busted Halo's Pentecost in two minutes video. 
[I posted about their Advent one here and their Lenten one here.]

26 May 2012

doing fine

Thanks to the several of you who have commented on my post-about-not-doing-any-more-Godly-Play-for-the-foreseeable-future, or written emails. I am fine. In fact, writing that post really seemed to help me process my feelings (as did packing the room up so slowly and then walking home). I want to reiterate that I was as much to blame as anyone else for the lack of communication involved. And I alone was to blame for not anticipating  (the extent of) the emotional impact that our plans (to be away for the coming year) would have on me. And I am solely, exclusively, and certainly to blame for the way in which I seem to be unable to write about this without using really convoluted syntax and roundabout phrasings!

I'm very grateful for the support of commenters, emailers, and lurkers alike (since you lurkers are not completely hidden - I can see reports of the number of hits my site has received). I have no immediate plans for much topical shift in this blog. The pace of my blogging may slow. But there are so many half-finished draft posts in my blogger account that I'm sure I should be able to carry on posting for some time even though I won't be leading Godly Play in the weeks and months ahead.

Telling the story of the Holy Family.

20 May 2012

Eastertide guest post - Beulah Land Bible Stories

This post's author is Margaret Pritchard Houston, Families Pastor for St. George's Church, Campden Hill (in Kensington, in London). As well as writing about children's ministry for the Church of England and Diocese of London, she maintains a blog about her work at St. George's: For All the Saints. If you follow that blog already, you'll have seen her photo of the St. George's Play and Pray area on Easter Sunday this year (I've reproduced it here, on the right.)

Is your eye, like mine, immediately drawn to that Easter image of Christ victorious standing before Martha at the empty tomb?

These are not the flannel-graph materials from the Sunday School of my childhood. So I asked Margaret to introduce them and give us a feel for what it's like to work with them.

I need to begin with a confession.  This is not an entirely objective review – my mother developed the Beulah Land storytelling materials, and I grew up using them, travelling with her to workshops and handing her the pieces she needed to tell the stories.

But this post is based not on childhood memories but on my own experiences using them in my own ministry at St. George’s Church, Campden Hill, in London.

What is Beulah Land?

Beulah Land are storytelling kits made out of felt pieces.  They are similar to the “Fuzzy Felt” toys popular in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  The full Beulah Land range consists of five different sets, which together contain everything you need for the Old and New Testament stories.  Our church owns sets 1 and 2 – these have, with the addition of a few pieces I made myself, been sufficient for a full year’s worth of storytelling, both Old Testament and New, but not as good as if I had all five sets.  I hope to buy sets 3 and 4 in the next few years.

The sets require self-assembly.  They come with all the pieces marked out on felt, and assembly instructions.  They also come with storytelling scripts and extensive notes on children’s understanding of Bible stories, which helps in guiding lesson planning.  The patterns of the pieces are also sent with your kit, so that if you lose a piece, you can remake it.

There is a full Beulah Land Curriculum handbook available, which contains worship outlines and activities for each story.  This is available separately.

What are the pros of using Beulah Land?

The first, and most important, positive aspect of Beulah Land is that the children respond to it with depth and imagination.  I leave the Beulah Land feltboard up after I finish telling the story each week, and the children have the option of playing with it.  I’ve seen children from toddlers to early teenagers engage with it, using the pieces to create their own landscapes and narratives, engaging with Biblical symbolism and imagery in a hands-on, child-led way.  Also, it provides a powerful visual vocabulary of Bible stories, which the children then use in their own artwork.  The library of images is broader and richer than the standard trinity of “heart, cross, Christmas scene” which is the limit of much of the popular imagination of Christian imagery.  Beulah contains a two-dimensional, easily replicated series of symbols for children to draw on in expressing their own spirituality and their own understanding of the Bible – altar and flame, dove, fruit trees, river, snake, desert, mountain, city, stars, moon, boats, pillar of cloud, storm clouds and lightning, fish, birds, water, and much more.  This is not to say that children slavishly copy the pictures they have been presented with – rather, Beulah Land gives them a wealth of Biblical imagery to play with in developing their own understanding of the stories, and it gives them ideas on how to portray these images in their own work.  How often has a child in your group come to you and said “I want to draw X but I don’t know how”?  Beulah Land gives them a starting point, freeing them to express their own creativity.  When I use Beulah Land with a group of ten children, I still have ten individual artistic styles.  What I don’t have are ten children coming to me saying “help me draw X, Y or Z.”  (I may still have one or two, but only occasionally – many fewer than I did two years ago when I began.)

Crossing of the Red Sea banner (made independently by a group of children)

Secondly, the scripts accompanying the materials are wonderfully written.  They contain Biblical language that is full of awe and wonder but not inaccessible even to young children.  They are easy to use, with the words and the actions (which pieces to put up and where) next to each other, so there is no flipping between pages while telling the stories.  (Of course, it is best if you memorise the scripts, but that’s not always possible.)  Each script contains a recap of what went before – often starting with “do you remember ...” before filling in the context in which the story occurs.  This can be helpful for children who may have missed the previous week or two, and grounds the story firmly as part of a whole.  The concept of Beulah Land is one of “metanarrative” – the Bible is not a collection of disjointed anecdotes, but a unified whole that begins with “once upon a time” and ends, after great trials and danger, with “happily ever after.”   The stories do not leave out the painful and difficult parts of the Bible, but nor do they linger (as is the unfortunate trend among some Fundamentalist materials, most notably the hideous “Left Behind” books) on gruesomeness for gruesomeness’s sake.

The pieces provide great openings for theological discussions with children.  “Why is God made of two hands and a heart, when nobody really knows what God looks like?” is one question I’ve been asked – leading to a discussion of what God might look like, why hands and a heart might be symbols of the nature of God, the nature of the Incarnation (this started when I said “when God became human in Jesus, he did look a particular way”), and so on.  My mother has reported children wrestling with the concepts of good and evil insisting on the Satan figure staying up through all of Jesus’ ministry – “because he never really went all the way away.”  I’ve overheard children playing with the figures independently placing the prison piece over Adam and Eve, and then Jacob’s ladder above them, explaining “they’re in prison because they’ve been bad, but they’re climbing to heaven.”

Beulah Land can be incorporated with some elements of Godly Play.  The stories leave themselves open for wondering questions, and are told with language that is rich and liturgical.  The storytelling materials are child-friendly.

Beulah Land materials are durable.  Occasionally the glue holding a tree trunk and tree top will fail and you’ll need to make minor repairs, but generally, once you have them, you have them for life.  They are not bulky to store, and they are lightweight.

What are the cons of using Beulah Land?

Unfortunately, at the moment, Beulah Land is only available from the US.  This means that you will need to pay a value-based import tax on them, which necessitates dealing with Parcelforce’s labyrinthine telephone system and spending a few days with your materials held hostage by HMRC before they can be delivered to you.  However, the extra cost is balanced out by the fact that since the dollar to pound exchange rate is favourable at the moment, you’ll make a substantial savings on the materials themselves.

Also, because for some reason, the US and UK use different standard paper sizes, and different numbers of holes in their binders, the storytelling scripts and assembly instructions do not easily fit inside a two-ring binder.  This can be got around by photocopying the materials onto A4 paper and then punching holes in the photocopied sheets.

The pieces do take quite a while, and occasionally some frustration, to assemble.  You can get around this by having a “Beulah Assembly Party” with your Sunday School volunteers, if they’re amenable, or if you have helpful children of your own, you can use unpaid child labour to help you assemble them.

Some of the pieces are quite small, and can get lost.

You have to provide your own feltboard.  These can just be ordinary felt display boards available from any office supply store.  Ours cost approximately £30. 

Cleaning up after a session in which children have played freely with the materials can be time-consuming.  Each tiny fish, every star, each small person, has to be individually taken off the feltboard and put back in its correct place.

What should I do if I want to try it out? 

You can start with the Starter Set, which is $175 (approximately £105).  This will give you four stories – Creation, Noah, Christmas and Easter.  See whether the assembly is easy enough, try out storytelling, and see how your children respond, both in their artwork and in independent play.  If you live in London, you’re welcome to come by St. George’s and visit our Sunday School to see Beulah Land in action.  You can also get in touch if you’re interested in having me come and do a training session with your staff and volunteers.

Thank you so much, Margaret. I had no idea when I suggested this topic what a close connection you had with these materials!