Where Jesus would put the kids in worship

Churches with a play space in the worship space: so good. (And a hill I’m willing to die on in future pastoral leadership!)

A post shared by Erica Schemper (@eschemper) on Jul 16, 2017 at 10:35am PDT

Last weekend, I posted a picture on instagram of my husband with our two youngest children, playing in the child-friendly “prayground” space at my sister in law’s church. (Shout out to Shepherd of the Valley for general awesomeness.)

I snapped the picture because the light was good, and, in the interest of truth telling, I find my husband doing his amazing work of parenting really sexy, so I wanted a pictorial record of the moment.

I also mentioned that the play space in the sanctuary is a hill I’m willing to die on in future pastoral positions. (Take note, search committees of the future who may be reading my blog posts: if this sounds like a bad idea to you, we’re probably not a good fit.)

The photo was a hit with friends and several have asked me for my input on these sorts of spaces.

Here’s the thing: I can mostly comment as a parent of three kids who has spent a good deal of time sitting in the pews with my kids in last 6 years. Though, I bring a bit of expertise since I happen to have background and training in church ministry with children and families.

But, I have yet to successfully pull off the concept of kids truly having their own space to play in the church, particularly in a place that is sort of up close to the front and visible.

Had I been in full time ministry for the last few years, leaving the Sunday morning pew parenting solely in the (more than capable) hands of my husband, I honestly do not think I would be as adamant about the need for these spaces. I didn’t fully realize, in my first five years of parenting, how difficult it is to parent kids in a way allows them participate and be present in the faith community, because I was up front leading worship, or in the back greasing the gears of programmatic ministry: my husband was the one doing the hard work in the pews.

There are churches that have been doing things to encourage children’s presence in worship for years, and even some that have done so in similar ways to the prayground. As far as I can tell, the prayground concept came to full fruition (or at least got national attention) under the leadership of the Reverend Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, who pastors at Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, MN. Last year, she told fellow members of Young Clergy Women International (at that time, the organization was called the Young Clergy Women Project) that she was developing this space in her sanctuary where kids could play during worship. She asked for help in brainstorming names. Someone suggested “prayground.” Andrea ran with it, got it running in her church, and it was soon featured in an ABC news segment.

Other churches have adopted the concept and the name, including my sister-in-law’s congregation.

To me, the things that qualify something as this prayground concept are:

  1. There are toys. Good toys. Perhaps, even, better toys than the nursery. It’s a place intended for play, and not necessarily for play that directly correlates to worship (though I’ll come back to that later).

  2. It’s in the sanctuary. Not in the Narthex. Not in a room separated by a window (the horribly named, in some churches, “cry room.”)

  3. And, in fact, it’s in a pretty visible place in the congregation. The ideal for me? Up front, between where the bulk of the congregation is sitting and the chancel area, because this gives clear sight lines to the kids, which is essential, and also because this means that people in the congregation see the kids playing.

  4. And, I suppose you could start this in your church without this point, but I think it won’t work without it: the congregation has done the work to start developing a culture where they don’t just tolerate but welcome kids in church. And by welcome, I mean that they actively encourage and support parents in their decision to have their children present in worship even when their children behave like children.

These sorts of spaces are amazing for both kids and parents.

As a parent, it means you get to continue to participate, in a fully embodied way, in the worship life of your congregation. We forget how much of worship parents miss. I would be willing to guess that I have spent at least 30% of my worship time in church in the last 5 years outside of the sanctuary. Before I explain, I attend an incredibly child-welcoming church. A friend who joined there about the same time as I did once told me, “We decided to join this church because nobody shushed our kids.” In nearly five years there, I can tell you that this has been my experience 90% of the time. (There have been a few slip ups by some people, but I’d say 90% of the time is pretty good!) I once even had an elderly woman loud-whisper to me as I was rushing a super-squirmy 2 year old out of the sanctuary, “Don’t leave! We love having him here!” My congregation is doing a good job, and I am delighted to be a part of that community, and they are, most importantly, being the embodied presence of Jesus Christ to my kids.

But, our dedicated play space for kids is in the narthex. So, if I take my kid out to play, because playing the pews is not working for them anymore, I have to leave the pew where the rest of my family is sitting, and I participate in worship through a barrier of glass. I can hear what’s going on through the canned speaker. But it’s a little weird to sing the hymns or participate in responses and prayers without the voices of others surrounding me. It’s not the same.

We also have a nursery. Nurseries are really a good thing. But sometimes my kids want to go down there because that’s where the best toys are. And they have snacks. It’s a fun place. Which is great. But it’s funner than church for my kids, so they want to go there. I would prefer for them to be in church. But sometimes, we wind up in the nursery.

Occasionally, our nursery isn’t staffed or doesn’t have a non-parent, pre-assigned volunteer. Then I have to stay down there. I can turn on the speaker and hear worship. But I can’t see it. And I really can’t participate. Some churches expect parents to be the volunteers who staff the nursery. This feels more like a babysitting co-op than a Christian ministry to me.

Now, I do think nurseries are great sometimes. Some Sundays, I need my kids in the nursery because I really need to be in church or they really are just not able to deal with church.

But I think majority of the time, kids ought to be in worship, in large part because it’s the way they learn how to be in worship.

When my kids are in the sanctuary, they are experiencing worship with all of their senses. Even when it looks like they are not paying perfect attention (because they are playing with something else or reading or coloring), they are picking up the sights or the smells or the sounds. They learn the rhythm of liturgy. I’ve caught my 2 year old muttering parts of the liturgy that she’s heard Sunday after Sunday. (In fact, I once had some people giving me the side eye when they thought she was just being noisy while the pastor was praying, but she was actually speaking right along with him, parroting his lines because she had heard them week in and week out, and she hadn’t figured out yet that this was his part, not hers…or, to frame it another way, maybe my 2 year old is developing a call to the ministry!)

The point of the prayground concept is not just to keep kids in worship so that their parents can stay in worship, it’s to keep in them in worship so that they can absorb as much as possible of the worship service.

I mean, let’s be honest. Very few adults pay perfect attention through the entire worship service. I know this is true because I’ve been up front leading worship often enough to notice people looking distracted, and I’ve been a worshipper myself enough to know that I get distracted! (Sometimes, I even get bored during my own sermons.) Children aren’t going to be able to track the entire service, but they will pick up on many many things if they are present.

This is why I don’t even think it’s essential that toys be directly, thematically related to worship. Building with blocks (those foam ones are great because they are very quiet when they fall down!), rolling play dough, or cuddling a stuffed animal might be the thing a kid’s hands are doing, but their brain is still paying attention to what’s happening around them. Obviously, a singing doctor’s kit (no, really: this is a real thing, and it’s my 2 year old’s favorite toy at home) is not going to be appropriate for a space like this. But I’m sure parents of kids have ideas about the toys that they would love to have around for their kids for quiet play. In fact, some of them might already be lugging their own toys to church for play in the pew (by the way, it’s really hard to play in a pew…), and they would probably love not having to add “pack toys” to their list of Sunday morning tasks.

I mean, think about it: what if the toys up in the sanctuary were the best toys in the building? The ones kids wanted to play with? I know worship isn’t about toys, but for a four year old, the memory of church having great toys would actually translate well developmentally to a long term understanding that church is a good and delightful place where they are welcome to come and be themselves.

Because staying in worship allows children to participate with all their senses, I would say that the best place to put a play area is toward the front. If they can’t see what’s happening (because they’re in the back), they miss out on that valuable visual information.

And having kids in front is a good thing for everyone else, too. Children are part of the body of Christ. We shouldn’t hide them. We should celebrate their presence. Even Jesus told his disciples that the children should be close to the action.

Finally, we need to adjust our attitudes about children in worship if this is going to work for many congregations. Kids won’t be completely silent. Not every parent will make the same judgment call about when a kid maybe needs to take a minute to cool down in the narthex. We might have to modify the ways those of us who lead worship do things. (For instance, maybe we have to be OK with the idea that a kid might pipe up and interrupt a silent prayer; maybe we need to recognize that our preaching is absolutely inaccessible to an 8 year old, so of course they are bored, and modify things a bit…) Last Sunday, my two year old was in that play space at her aunt’s church and she discovered that there was a toy box whose lid she had not yet opened. She picked up the lid, and she looked inside (puzzles! There were puzzles!) and she yelled, “It’s a TREASURE CHEST!” She did this during a time when the flow of the service was pretty quiet. So everyone heard it. My husband, who was then sitting in the congregation, said that people around him chuckled, and he heard a few mutter, “Yes. It really is.”

So, if you were going to do this at your church, what would it look like? How would you set it up? You might have to rip out some pews, or change the configuration of some chairs. You might need to poke through the catalogues that preschools get with wonderful pieces of furniture for displaying books or little shelves that fold and roll if you have to put things away during the week. You might need to make a trip to buy some brightly colored children’s size furniture that doesn’t exactly match the church decor. You will probably have to talk a bit to people in the congregation who might have some questions and feelings about this.

But I think it would be worth it, even if it’s struggle. Many of my clergy colleagues say that the sound of children in church is important, because it’s a sign that we are fulfilling our baptismal promises. It’s a sign that we’re not dying. It’s a sign that the Church will go on.

So, let’s do this. Let’s get children into worship, and make spaces that make it easy for them, and for the people who are caring for them, to stay with the body as much as possible. After all, Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.”

Family History

About a decade ago, I was visiting California for a conference, and heard a speaker there talk about his family history of being incarcerated during WWII because they were Japanese American. As I sat there and listened to the story, it hit me: my family was there for this piece of American history. My paternal great grandparents and their children were Dust Bowl migrants to California, and in 1942, my grandparents were children in California.

After the conference, I had time to visit my grandparents. I asked my Grandpa what he remembered. There were Japanese families taken from his neighborhood in Long Beach. I told him the stories our conference speaker had told. And I asked him what my family thought about this at the time, hoping to learn that they had done something to help their neighbors. “You have to understand,” he said, “It was after Pearl Harbor. People were scared.” With hindsight, he knew this was wrong. But at the time, people were scared. My family didn’t do anything.

My ancestors, on both maternal and paternal sides, came to the US from the Netherlands between the late 1800s and early 1900s. They settled in Michigan and Kansas; no one fought in the Civil War; no one owned slaves. (Back in the Netherlands, they were farming families, not sailors, so I don’t think there’s a direct family history of being involved in the slave trade, either.) Intellectually, I know that this doesn’t absolve me, but I recognize that, on an emotional level, I give myself a pass on a family history of racism. Again, I’m working on recognizing how, in fact, even without ancestors directly involved in slavery, I still benefit from that history as a white person.

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the executive order that forced Japanese Americans into camps. I live in northern California now, and the reminders of this in the news are very close to home. I live in the place where this happened; I’ve taken my kids to movies at the mall that sits on the site of an internment camp. And as I listen to the news, I can’t forget that my family was on the scene as this executive order was implemented.

But here’s where things gets tricky. I am a progressive Democrat in no small part because of the paternal side of my family. I am proud of my Grandpa (and his father, my Great Grandpa, whom I knew well: he lived until I was a college student). They were Roosevelt New Deal Democrats; they were union people who worked in shipyards and aerospace manufacturing; they were people who, at other times in their life, took a stand for tolerance and diversity. I love the stories about the times they were progressive: Great Grandma was a Rosie the Riveter; my Great Grandpa refused to buy table grapes during the farm worker strikes; my Grandpa used to tell stories about the people on his team of workers with joy and love and appreciation for diversity among them. I remain proud of them for these things.

I suspect, these days, many of us are assessing the state of our country, looking back at history, asking this question of ourselves, “What would I have done had I been there?” For some of us, with deep connections to family stories, we’re also asking what they would have done, or did, as a way to calibrate our own courage to act.
But it’s always complicated. Human beings are capable of great good, and great evil, and of great action, and great passivity.

I sit this week with my family history, and with my nation’s history, remembering that we have so often fallen short of being the people we could be, and hoping we can do better. And, honestly, sitting with the discomfort of knowing that racism is rooted so deeply in our social system that we don’t even realize how deeply it’s soaked into us.

You at the Beginning

Jenn, who I adore, is doing this 52 pictures in a year project, and I am shamelessly copying her. (It should be noted that Jenn is likely to follow through on this and do it all year, and I might not make it…in an effort to hold myself accountable, I told Zora she can do it, too, and even use my fancy camera. That way she can nag me. A nagging child has potential to be a great motivator.)

The first assignment was to take a self portrait. We’re each our own worst critics. This makes me cringe. I am convinced that I photograph very badly. I have dark skin around my eyes that looks like a makeup disaster happened. The camera adds pounds that I’d like to ignore. I smile weird. My skin looks patchy, or my hair is out of order, or there’s just no way that actually looks like how I actually look. Even when I have an online video conference (I serve on the board of an organization that meets this way quite a bit: it happens once or twice a month at least) I make sure the video camera on my computer is at an optimal angle, and the lighting is good. It’s a little sick, I’ll admit it.

But I still think taking pictures of people is magical. If you do it right, you see who they are. (My uncle takes incredible photos of people, I think because he takes time to see who they are.) Taking a good self-portrait? What an opportunity to think about what you see in yourself.

I thought about showering and doing my hair, but figured maybe I should be a little bit honest about the life and times of the stay at home parent. I settled for a little makeup. I decided to use my little Olympus E-P3 instead of my phone. It has settings that do things for me. (I was sort of robbed of the opportunity to take a photography class in high school. It’s a long story. I’ll tell you sometime.) I don’t have a tripod of any kind, so I stacked little pieces of furniture as a makeshift tripod. (At one point, I used one of the toddler’s socks to tilt the camera just a little bit.)

I tried everything from laying on the floor to sitting against a backdrop. I finally figured out that the living room had the best lighting, but only if I sat on the floor. No where for a backdrop. This was going to have to be in my natural environment. I took about 30 pictures (I love digital.) Then I had to pick.

Some of my favorites:

half my face

This was interesting: I didn’t hustle back to my spot quick enough and the timer caught half my face.

Arty B & W

This one: a little arty, still with the black and white. Staring off into space like I’m thinking deep thoughts.

dreamy and in color

Next we have in color, and dreamy because it’s out of focus, and whatever filter I picked made things a little hazy.

Too bright

This one is good. Too bright, though I like the contrast. And look at my dimple!

And here’s the winner. When I was done taking these, this was the one I thought of as the least bad option. But coming back to look at it, I like it. I’ve got very blue eyes, and great glasses. There are nice warm colors behind me. There’s enough sun coming through the window to light things up, and you know, it’s a pretty good place to be, worthy of a smile.

You at the Beginning: The winner

Not So Silent: Welcoming Children to Christmas Eve

Dearest church people,

Get ready. In two days it’ll be Christmas Eve, your congregation will welcome people in for one of the biggest nights of the year. Get ready: you may be blessed with an overrun of visitors, and I hope some of those visitors will be children and their parents.

In the spirit of preparation (it is Advent, after all), I write to you with my qualifications as both a minister who has specialized in children and youth and, for the last few years, a pew-sitter: without a full time clergy position, I have done more pew sitting than worship leading.

And this season, I suspect, is the hardest of my pew sitting: I currently have a three lovely children, and we’re doing all the ages and stages right now. The oldest, at 10, is in that phase where she can follow along in church, but sometimes I have to remind her. Sometimes, this results in a little preteen mother daughter drama. The 5 year old wants to move. He has the energy of a Pentecostal, which is perhaps a bit more than your average grown up Lutheran (we currently attend a Lutheran church). And the 2 year old has recently learned that she has pipes, so she will deliver quite the yelp if someone takes what she believes to be her crayon. She’s also a bit of a Pentecostal, occasionally making a dash for the aisle because she thinks that music is for dancing, and she has a hard time waiting her turn when it’s time to go forward to receive communion. Sundays in our pew are sort of like wrestling a squirmy pet monkey, all while juggling hymnals and Bibles, with my husband and I tag teaming the kids when one or the other of us has to attend to something we’ve volunteered for (he’s a frequent worship assistant; we both teach in the short Sunday School pull out that happens during our church’s sermon.)

All this is to say, I know what I’m talking about when it comes to being in the pews with kids during worship. I know that they are not, in fact, the most contemplative pew companions. I also know, from a professional standpoint, that there’s some pretty significant evidence that children who feel welcome during the worship service that’s meant for the entire gathered community are more likely to be involved church members when they grow up. It’s important to me that I leave that legacy for my children, so I’m doing my best to keep them in worship as much as possible. This is why we attend a church that is very welcoming to children (with the occasional lapse: no one is perfect).

And so, here are my requests for Christmas Eve worship, when you may have many children and families in your pews. You may have regular attenders, occasional visitors, first timers, grown up children of the church coming home. There may a be a few kids who have never set foot inside a church before. This is a huge responsibility for a congregation. Please, for the sake of the baby Jesus, try to be as welcoming as possible.

If a kid is loud or squirmy or even gets away from their family, do not stare, give a side eye, or (God forbid) reprimand. Smile warmly. Practice this in the mirror if you have to. If it bothers you that this is disruptive to the peace and quiet you expect of Christmas celebrations, remind yourself that Jesus was a baby, who was probably noisy despite what the Christmas carols claim; and that Jesus born in a stable in a town that was overflowing with visitors. The first Christmas was probably a little chaotic. And the point of the incarnation is that God shows up among us, even with all our messiness and chaos.

If you can see any way to be helpful, do it. Offer to carry a diaper bag for a Dad whose hands are full. Play peek-a-boo over the pew with a kid who grins at you. If you are greeting visitors, go out of your way to talk to the children (sometimes I bend down and introduce myself to a child before a parent), and tell them you are so glad they brought their children. If there’s a nursery, feel free to tell parents it’s available, but add a comment like, “but your children are of course welcome here if that’s more comfortable for your family.” (Remember that, particularly for a family that’s unfamiliar with your church, dropping their kid off with a stranger, even if you have the best nursery attendants ever, might not work.) Think hospitality: how can you welcome every person, with your complete attention, and without any judgment? And welcoming all children on Christmas Eve? It’s a spiritual practice: remember how Jesus said that in welcoming the stranger you welcome him (Matthew 25:35-36)?

If there’s something going on between a child and a parent and it’s not how you would do things were you in that parent’s shoes, create for yourself a mindset of gracious imagination. You probably don’t know the whole story for this family, even if they are regular members of your church. A toddler might be teething. There might be extra stressors in this family’s life right now. Sibling rivalry may be at a high point between two children. A child may have some special needs of which you are unaware. The comment you think is polite, or the eyeroll you thought was subtle might be the final straw for a family that is struggling, a stab to the heart of a parent who is trying their best.

And, if after putting all these things into practice on Christmas Eve, you are still left feeling like something about the presence of children took away from your experience of worship, I’d encourage you to ask yourself two questions. First, are there things about the way your congregation does worship that are, in fact, unwelcoming to children? For instance, worship that is completely un-interactive is incredibly boring for children: they are asked to simply listen, rather than participate, for over an hour. This can happen by accident in some churches around Christmas if we have fewer opportunities for people to sing because we pack the service with as many choir pieces as possible. Not that I don’t love the choir at Christmas…or, when we are so concerned that with so many people in worship any of the times when we might normally have an opportunity to move around (passing the peace; coming forward for communion, etc.) are viewed as a hassle and cut from the liturgy. Maybe there’s a way you can help be an agent for change in your church, and help to ensure that worship engages people at all ages and stages of life: jot down some notes and ideas, and see if you can chat with your pastor (offer to wait until February: most pastors are actually quite busy catching up with the things that just didn’t get done in December, as well as the general business of church in January). Go into this conversation prepared to listen to what the pastor might say (they have some expertise in this area) and prepared to offer to help with implementation.

The second question is more important, though. If children took away from your experience of worship, is that because worship is about you, or about the community? If communal worship is your only time for a quiet, peaceful, personal experience of God’s presence, you may need to rethink your spiritual practices. If worship is meant for the entire community of God’s people (which includes people of all ages), it may not be the best chance for you to find peace amidst complete silence and without distraction.

Come to think of it, most of this is pretty good guidance for worship throughout the year.

So, get ready, Church folk: Christmas Eve is an incredible opportunity to open your doors and let the world know who we are. We are a people who believe that God came to us, in the midst of chaos, long nights, and messiness, and came into the world as one of us, kicking and screaming. And because of this, our arms are open, no matter who you are, how old you are, or how well you sit still in a pew.

If Mr. Trump Were in My Youth Group…

Here’s my thing about Trump and the second amendment threat.

I filter pretty much everything I hear right now through the perspective of a parent. That’s the main gig in my life.

So, when I heard what Trump had said, it made me think about the fact that, if one of my kids, even “joking” suggested killing someone, or any form of violence, that would be occasion for us to slow down and talk about what was just said. It’s not that they are “forbidden” from expressing how they feel. It’s just that, as a parent, part of my job is to raise children who strive for peace and justice, and respect the life and limb of others. (For instance, of their siblings. Their friends. Kids who are not their friends. Sometimes me and their Dad.) Fine. You can say what you feel, but after you say it, we’re going to get introspective about it. In our family, that’s the standard we’re working toward. And often, I find that Mr. Trump does not measure up to the standards I have for my own five year old. This worries me.

But then last night, I was thinking about this a little more, and I realized: an adult person who is running for president should be held to a higher standard than a five year old.

I’m going to take a risk here and tell a story about a youth group error I made almost a decade ago, no names. It’s possible someone might recognize themselves in this story, and if you do (Hello, friend!), please grant me some leeway? I have some qualms about telling ministry stories, but this is in service of something I think is important.

On a long long long youth group trip bus ride, I made the mistake of not taking hold of my authority as the church staff person and making the adult chaperones sit throughout the bus for the trip. After we returned, we found out that in the back of the bus, there was a pretty serious game of “MFK” going on (in which you name a person and have to say if you would…well, look it up online). Names of other youth group members were used. Word about the game got around among youth group members and it was something that created repercussions in relationships throughout the week.

I suspect (hope?) that the kids in my youth group who were doing this knew it probably wasn’t an OK way to treat each other. And I also suspect that had there been a caring adult sitting a few seats away, that might have served as enough of a reminder of the bounds of caring behavior that this would not have happened.

And this game bothers me for a few reasons. First, it objectifies people. Second, it combines violence and sex. Third, all pretty serious things to talk about as a “joke.” (Also, I do not buy “kids will be kids” as an excuse for this kind of behavior. Why? Because I have worked with teens for years, and I know them to be kind, sensitive, mature human beings who care deeply about other people.) Words have meaning. And even “jokes” have meaning. Sex and life are pretty sacred things, too. I don’t mind when we are playful about those things. But I do mind when we are flippant about them. And I should have known better, not to be present or make sure my adult leaders were present enough to help set boundaries and boost our kids toward a standard of maturity.

I don’t think it’s too much to ask that a presidential candidate can reach the maturity bar that I set for high schoolers in a church youth group. And by every mark, Trump misses that. He is way too old for people to make the excuse “he’s joking,” “he misspoke,” or, worse yet, “boys will be boys.” I get that there are people who are angry about the state of politics in our country, who feel left behind and shoved to the margins. But someone who can’t meet the basic emotional maturity of a bunch of high schoolers? That’s a horrible thing for our country.

And you know what? I bet he won’t win. It’s such a relief to look at polls and see that this may very well be the case (although I’m terrified at the possibility.)

But those politicians and private citizens who are excusing his behavior as “a joke”? I truly wonder what sort of standard you expect for children; for teenagers; for adults…

…for that matter, what sort of standard of peace and justice do you want for our society? Because Trump cannot be possibly be it. And that’s more important than any sense of party allegiance.

Your Own Patch of Earth

Jeremiah 29:4-9

Woodside Road UMC, Redwood City, CA

I’m not going to lie: I spend too much time on the interwebs.

In my defense, after years of being a pastor,

an extrovert who likes being with people,

a thinker who likes talking about big ideas,

I am now a stay at home parent,

and I have been home with my three kids all summer. And by “home” I really do mean “home”. We’re saving up vacation time for a thing this fall. Meanwhile, my kids’ friends are on vacation or in day camps. We don’t live on a block where the neighborhood kids roam yard to yard. Except for one precious week, my kids have not been in camps. So, this summer I have delved full on into the world of intensive parenting.

To keep in touch with a world beyond legos, laundry, and magic marker accidents with the baby, I pop over to facebook and twitter and check how the world is doing.

And the world is kind of a mess.

I am near tears whenever I read about refugees in Europe,

I’m embarrassed at my country’s inability to take care of people who come to us for refuge.

I am so angry about the way that we treat black people in America.

I am sad about the state of politics, Republican and Democrat.

I am worried for my two daughters,

growing up in a world that just can’t figure out how to treat women as equals.

I am floored by the responsibility of raising my son to be a man

who doesn’t believe that he should always get what he wants just because he’s a white man.

I am grieved for children in other countries

AND in the urban US who live in places where bullets fly.

I could go on. You could, too.

And sometimes, I just want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head because it is all too much, this echo-chamber of everything that is wrong with the world.

But, I suspect that Jesus wants me to do something about it. So instead of burying my head under a pillow,

I try to fit in time to write a letter to my congressperson,

or to make a little donation here or there.

I contemplate throwing on my clerical collar and heading to a protest, but it often interferes with the baby’s naptime, or the 5 year old is just too squirmy to make it practical.

What I can do to fix the world seems pretty insignificant. I’m supposed to love my neighbor.

But there are so many neighbors to love, so many injustices to address. And in the meantime, I still have to do the laundry.

How much can I really do?

It is almost backwards that I find some comfort for my pessimism in this passage from Jeremiah. This is a word written originally for people who were too optimistic. I

t’s written to the people of Israel, in exile in Babylon, who are hearing from some prophets that the return to Israel will happen soon. Don’t get too comfortable: we’ll be going home before we know it.

But Jeremiah has a different take. This exile is going to be a little longer than we expected.

And so, this is our reality,

this place,

this time,

these people.

We need to settle in and do what God would have us do in the place where we find ourselves.

Stop packing.

Plan a wedding.

Plant a garden.

Put down some roots.

I think it’s pretty common that we do not find ourselves in exactly the place we wish to be.

It might be that we are in exile from the place we always imagined for ourselves.

Or perhaps our relationships aren’t what we envisioned.

We are living life without someone who was central to our being.

We are not where we ought to be financially.

And sometimes, that feeling of exile also extends to our sense of what we’re supposed to be doing for God.

We find ourselves in life circumstances where we feel like we just can’t do enough to work toward the justice and peace that God desires for the world.

Now, there are times when our circumstances become a cop out. I certainly acknowledge that. We probably could do more.

But we also need to recognize that it is OK to be called to rather mundane things.

Like doing the laundry.

Being an excellent lawyer.

Coaching a kid’s baseball team.

Taking the kids camping.

Repairing the fence.

Planting a garden.

Here’s where Jeremiah 29 helps me.

We might need to peel our eyes off of the internet, out of the newspaper, and off of cable TV to be reminded of our current location.

What am I called to right now?

And where am placed right now?

Who has God placed next to me and who does God ask me to recognize as my nearest neighbors?

What patch of earth is mine to tend?

In a way, this is what Jeremiah is telling Israel:

you are so focused on the big picture

that you are losing sight of your own backyard.

So, what can you do

in the mundane world of your own backyard

to help God’s Kingdom come?

Or, for that matter, at your work desk,

during your commute,

with your morning exercise group,

in your bookclub?

Because love and compassion begin with every person you encounter.

I’m struck by how Jesus, in his life, was headed for a show-down with the greatest earthly power of his time, not to mention a show-down with cosmic forces of sin and evil…

and yet the radical acts that get him to that showdown?

Everyday love and compassion for the people he encountered along the way.

What does that look like for you?

Take a moment to think of the people you might encounter in a regular day.

Some of them are people you know and love well:

partners and children and parents and friends.

Some are people you encounter in the business of your day and don’t always slow down to notice:

Your boss;

Fellow co-workers;

Your kids’ teachers;

The neighbor who is not really your favorite.

Some of them are the people you might overlook:

the checkout cashier;

The landscapers;

a family living out of their camper in a parking lot;

What happens when you see each of those people

with the eyes of Jesus?

What happens if you love them because God loved you first?

Doesn’t it shift the world just a little when we slow down, take notice, and show compassion to the person who just happens to be next to us in the moment?

What if I remind myself that, just as much as any protest, my call right now is to raise these three children to look at people as Jesus looks at them, with love and compassion? That might bear fruit as much as any protest.

Maybe this is my patch of ground for the time being.

And what happens when you have a conversation with someone, and there’s a moment when grace, compassion, or justice might be spoken?

A few weeks ago, in my morning exercise class, our 24 year old instructor, rather bravely, I thought, said, “Did you all see the latest news about a black man shot by the police?!?” And then, for the next 10 minutes, in between ab exercises, a bunch of us, affluent suburban white people talked quite honestly about race in America.

It was so small. But it was like a fresh shoot in the garden. I thought, maybe we are going to be OK.

There is so much we could do. But maybe in trying to do too much we miss the places where we are deeply called. Maybe in doing too much, we miss our garden.

My friend Cat reminded me of this quote this week. It’s from Thomas Merton, who was an early 20th century society mover and shaker… until he became a monk, and lived a quiet, contemplative life.

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

So, here’s Merton, reminding us with Jeremiah, that we need to take care of our own gardens. I love this. Because it’s not just about “inner peace” (our OWN inner peace). But a reminder that we need to take care of ourselves in order to care for the world. We can get sucked in and do too much, and miss the true, concentrated places to which we are called.

And if we kill off our inner roots, we lose our connection to the source of love and compassion, the God who calls us to the places where our God-given gifts are most needed.

Friends, there is so much, and it is overwhelming.

But there are so many of us, so many whom God is calling. And each little patch of earth that we tend? It becomes a toe-hold for the kingdom of God.

And all together? Where we see a patch of justice and peace cultivated here and there? That’s just the picture we can see. In the mind of God, it is so much bigger.

May it begin with the smallest seeds.

And may it end in a new creation.

Thanks be to God.

Quitting My Fitbit

Suburban California's version of a runner's aid station: neighborhood plum trees.

A photo posted by Erica Schemper (@eschemper) on

I bought a fitbit a little over a year ago with the goal of getting back to running. Baby number three really did in my exercise routine: three kids to take care of, lots of nighttime feedings, and I was feeling all tapped out energy-wise. I’d go for a few short “runs” (timed, running for a few minutes, then walking for a few), and then give it up. It needed to be more consistent. And I was out of shape: I needed to start somewhere other than running.

I bought the fitbit to make sure I was walking enough. We spent most of Hazel’s first year renting a home that was far enough away from Zora’s and Abram’s schools and my church that I was spending more time in the car driving back and forth, less time walking. Our new neighborhood was arguably more walkable than the last (fewer giant hills; more sidewalks; a park a block away), so I figured I could take advantage of that and walk more to get to the point where I could run more.

Enter the fitbit. Again, with some starts and stops, some months being better than others, it did its job. I walked more. When I used it, I knew how much I was walking. (I will admit to discovering that I got credit for steps sometimes from things like swaying and bouncing a fussy baby, but, hey, that’s physical exertion, too, right?)

Finally, this spring, I decided to take another big step: I enrolled in an early morning bootcamp and committed to a couple weeks of extra walking. And then, I would really make a serious effort at rebooting the running. A few weeks of bootcamp and the walking, and I got brave and registered for a half marathon at the end of the summer. I wrote in a schedule of three runs a week into my planner (I decided to keep up with the bootcamp for 2 or 3 mornings a week).

I feel much better. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve lost much weight, but I’m finding the scale demoralizing these days (according to BMI, I am obese, and this just makes me feel bad right now). What I do notice: I am stronger. My upper arms maybe don’t look better, but I feel better about them. So, I’m just going to sit with that sense of satisfaction about my body and eventually the scale and I will get reacquainted.

A few weeks ago, I thought I’d lost my fitbit. Turns out I’d just misplaced it. But in the days where I couldn’t find it, I decided to stop wearing it. I noticed two things.

I wasn’t pegging the worth of my day to how many steps I’d taken. For instance, a couple weeks earlier, I’d actually gotten halfway to bootcamp when I realized I’d forgotten (HORRORS!!!) to put on my fitbit (I don’t wear it all night: I never got into the sleep functionality part because when I started wearing it, as a nursing mother, my sleep stats were just awful). I turned the car around and went home to get it, and missed 10 minutes of my class. Because I needed those steps. The sheer crazy of this hit me later. I missed 10 minutes of exercise because I was somehow convinced that it wouldn’t count if I didn’t track it. (Yes, I had, prior to this, had a some evenings where I ran in place before bed time just to add a couple hundred steps to reach some sort of goal.) The fitbit was making me a little bit of a crazy person.

Then, my 9 year old started talking about how she wanted to wear a fitbit. I’m not sure I’m ready for my kid to feel the need to track her steps. “Honey,” I said, “I think you are active enough. Or, if you aren’t and you want to take more steps, you should be active for the fun of it, not just the number.”

And that’s when it hit me: I also want exercise to be partly about playfulness, and mindful enjoyment of the moment. (In fact, one of the things I like about my bootcamp is that it’s a little bit like gym class for adults. There’s some play to it.)

And then I read this article about all of our smart devices. Now, I am the greatest of smartphone lovers. The smartphone allows me to traipse around with my kids and do stuff outside of the house and still answer emails and jot down notes and read newspapers and take pictures, yes, check facebook. Yes, I use it too much. No, I’m not giving it up. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with every detail of my life being tracked by every single device in my life. I draw the line at a smart blender. And my fitbit had accomplished what I wanted it to do. Why was I still bouncing in place in my bedroom at 10pm to get those extra 472 steps when I was sore from a couple consecutive days of bootcamp and running?

I ran six miles today. I ran it at my tortoise-slow, 12 minute per mile, run five minutes, walk for a minute and a half pace.

So I’m retiring the fitbit, in exchange for a little more running, and more bootcamp. If I can get my pace up enough, hopefully it’ll start looking like this:

via GIPHY

Not-George

We had a great little family road trip last week. We skipped church in order to drop Zora off for her first full week of overnight church camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I figure church skipping is defensible if it’s in the service of getting your kid to go to church camp.

Who is this man and what did he do with my husband? @erikvorhes just decided to get a membership at this vineyard.

A photo posted by Erica Schemper (@eschemper) on Jul 3, 2016 at 2:16pm PDT

The day included: visiting a couple of wineries, one of which Erik decided he loved and wanted to get a year long “membership” (in other words, we’re buying several bottles of their wine every quarter…come visit us: we’ll have great wine!). This was out of character for Erik, but I think it happened because he was smitten with their school-themed marketing and with the fact that the wine maker, who looked like just your average guy wearing 4th of July shorts on the holiday weekend, walked past our kids, who were rather sweetly sharing an iPad, and complimented Erik on how wonderful they were. The key to Erik’s heart is clearly to compliment his children, in case you were wondering. Then off to drop Zora off at camp. When did my little peanut become old enough to confidently spend a week away from home? That’s another blog post!

Waiting while Zora gets checked in. A photo posted by Erik Vorhes (@erikvorhes) on Jul 3, 2016 at 3:24pm PDT

An hour at a park, and burgers for dinner. Then home by way of a windy trip through the mountains, with breathtaking views of the marine layer rolling in from the Pacific.

But the highlight of the trip? Our encounter with probably-not-George R.R. Martin (author of the Game of Thrones series) outside of a coffee shop in a little touristy mountain town.

Here’s how it went down. We were stopping at a coffee shop for their (deservedly) famous chai. Three doors down there’s a ukulele shop that I’ve tried, thrice before, to visit. But my visit has always been foiled by odd hours or some minor calamity with my kids (including, one time, an ER visit). Erik was working to get Hazel out of her carseat and Abram had already bounded out of the car. He’s a wiry ball of five year old energy at this point, after an hour spent getting Zora through registration lines at camp.

“I’m just going to take Abram down to the ukulele store and see if it’s open today.”

“Great,” says Erik.

“Abram, there will be breakable things. How do you look while we’re in the store?”

“With my eyes not with my hands,” he says, while leaping up an unusually high curb. “You know, I still need a new ukulele. My red one is gone. Maybe they have one just like it. But only a red one like the one I had before.”

A guy at the table outside the coffee place is watching this, and starts chuckling, “Ukulele got lost, huh?” (I’m thinking this guy looks familiar but I’m not sure why.)

“Well,” I say, “it was more of a Jimi Hendrix kind of moment on his part and then the thing may have disappeared when his room got organized…”

“How old is he? Six? I have a four year old nephew. They’re something at this age.”

And then I run to catch up with Abram, we get to store, and I realize that I’d be best off drinking my chai in a hurry and returning without Mr. Destructo.

While we’re sitting in the coffee shop, Erik says, “What were you and Abram talking about with George R,R. Martin out there?” We start googling images because he does look shockingly similar. Maybe he’s visiting Santa Cruz. Who knows? I’d go there on vacation!

Erik is sure it’s not him. His hat is not quite right. The hat is apparently always the same. He’s probably right.

We finish our drinks. We wipe ice cream off the kids. We head out to the car. I discover the ukulele shop closed 10 minutes ago. Foiled again.

Erik is trying to load kids into the car. Abram is taking flying leaps off of that unusually high curb and asking questions, “Mom: why is this curb so high? Do you know what? I think it’s here for the cars to not get onto the sidewalk. How do you make a pipe? And how do you put it under the ground? What would happen if there were an earthquake? Or what if someone jumped on the pipe?”

Not-George is barely containing his laughter. “Oh, it’s really not about the answers with this one, is it? It’s all about the questions!”

I’m helping Abram with a seatbelt. Erik, across the car strapping Hazel into her seat, catches my eye. “That’s exactly the kind of thing I imagine George R.R. Martin would say,” he loud-whispers across the car.

Not-George, still quietly guffawing at Abram, shouts to him, “Hey! Who do you think I am?”

I’m not sure if I hope Abram hears him or not, if I sort of hope Abram and has put together what Erik and I have been talking about, and would yell back, “George R. R. Martin!” He doesn’t yell.

We get in the car. Erik and I agree he isn’t George R. R. Martin. He’s probably a sweet guy who works as a nice upscale mall Santa in the winter.

“Although,” says Erik, “I think you quit reading the books before you got to the point where you’d understand the significance of this: the name of the coffee shop?”

The White Raven.

When I Knew I Was Racist (And How I Know I Probably Still Am)

green board

I’ve been totally distracted by the news about the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. We talked about it this morning at bootcamp class in my affluent, mostly white suburb. The fact that people there are angry is, I think, a small glimmer of hope. Erik and I lamented it before he left for work. My kids have spent the day with altogether too much screen time while I putter around a wonder what on earth I’m supposed to do about this. I tried to write some other things. I read an article about reforms to policing and drafted a letter to local politicians (but I’m not sure it’s a good letter…I need to let it sit).

And among the wisest things I’ve seen today? What can white people like me do, people who have the privilege of dipping in and out at will of our frustrations about the state of race relations in America? We can talk about race, and most specifically, we can talk about white privilege and racism. (Link to Denise Anderson tweet.) And we can best talk about it not by pointing to the speck of dust (or, for that matter, log) in another white person’s eyes, but by paying attention to the log in our own eyes. We can name racism and white supremacy in ourselves.

So, here goes: the story of the time when I discovered for certain that I am racist.

For two years, I taught at Providence-St. Mel School in Chicago. My students were all African American. I was not trained as a teacher, so I learned how to teach while I was there (well, sort of…I like to think I learned a bit about education, if only because the principal and my supervising teacher were amazing and wise women who were patient with me and taught me what they could).

But the most important thing I learned there? I am a racist. I had never in my life been the only white person in the room for the majority of my waking hours. And in spite of the best intentions of my upbringing by loving, respectful, progressive parents, well, the culture of race in America is really damn pervasive. It just gets in there, whether you want it to or not.

I remember the exact moment that I recognized it. We used seating charts at PSM. The seating chart was the cornerstone of my classroom management plan. I had to know who was sitting where, who would do best sitting or not sitting next to whom, who needed to be in a seat where I could quickly and easily stand near them while lecturing in case they needed some incentive to pay attention. All those things. I poured over my seating charts every month, making changes, rotating kids. I was deliberate with those charts, thoughtful.

One afternoon, I was sitting at my desk reviewing some seating charts, and a few conversations I’d had (with other teachers and with students) and articles I’d read recently clicked. Here were things I’d heard recently, that suddenly moved together in my head like puzzle pieces (I’m sorry, as I recall this, that I cannot remember which things came from conversations or which from articles or studies):

Students with better grades tend to sit in the front. Sometimes by choice. Sometimes by assignment.
People tend to favor people with lighter skin. Even when you take a group of people of the same race, the lighter the skin, the more advantages given to the individual.
Among students of color, students with lighter skin will often have higher grades.

Wait, I thought. What about my seating charts? I pulled up my grades on the computer. I set my seating charts next to it. Yes, there were a few outlying “A” students who sat in the back. There was a student hear and there whose skin tone didn’t correspond with grades.

But, I looked over my seating charts and it was right there. The majority of the time, the VAST majority of the time, I was seating students with lighter skin color closer to the front of the room. And, in general, the students who were closer to the front of the room had higher grades.

I had no idea I was doing this. My bias was buried so deep in my brain that I did it without knowing it.

But now I knew it. I was racist.

Yes. I worked hard to make my seating charts better.

And, yes. I’m still racist. The lies about race are still rattling around in my brain, and I still have moments like that one, where I am appalled to realize the judgement I am making based on someone’s race.

I am part of this awful, horrible system that judged people by the color of their skin. And the most evil part of this system? How it just sneaks in everywhere, how we don’t even realize how pervasive it is.

I don’t think we’re anywhere close to rooting this out of ourselves, and out of our culture. I’m going to keep looking for it in myself, though. I’m not going to despair. Because despair would be pulling the covers over my head and trying to ignore it.

And ignorance clearly isn’t working.

Photo by Deepak Adhikari, used under creative commons

I Wonder What It’s Like to Be Her

Rockin' the vote with my entourage.

A photo posted by Erica Schemper (@eschemper) on


Yesterday morning, I voted in the California Democratic primary. I voted for Hillary. And if you still want to read rather than throw rotten tomatoes at me, please do. This is less about politics than it is about what it means to be female in roles that are historically male. I know more about that situation than I do about politics. So, Republicans, please put aside your tirades about what you can’t stand about Hillary and Democrats in general (you all have your own problems to deal with right now). And Bernie Sanders supporters? I am in total agreement with Robert Reich on this, and that’s all I’m gonna say about it.

I’ve had moments of being on the fence between Bernie and Hillary, but what pushed me over the edge was, I’ll admit it, gender bias. Watching the primaries roll on for months and months, it became clearer and clearer to me that the deck is stacked against Hillary because she’s a woman. I don’t think Bernie Sanders did it intentionally. (I think a few of his supporters did.) I expect nothing less than month after month of subtle, and sledge-hammer, attacks by Trump on Clinton based on gender.

But, over and over, little things added up.  And I know a little about what it means to be an early woman. In 2003, I graduated from seminary in a class of about 45 MDiv students. If memory serves, 5 of us were female. Those are slightly better stats than the 15% of women in Hillary Clinton’s graduating class from Yale Law School, but not by that much. In 2003, I was the 23rd woman ordained in the Christian Reformed Church in North America (which had started ordaining women in 1994). I really don’t consider myself a trailblazer, because there were other women ahead of me in those numbers who went through much more than I did. But, still, I dealt with things like being the first woman ever to preach in a pulpit; only getting a student internship one summer when the seminary could quietly offer the church a financial incentive; scrambling to find opportunities to fulfill my required Sundays of student preaching (often because the few churches that would take a female student in their pulpits were asking if they could please have a man since they were getting all the women). I was actually barred from preaching in the pulpit of my home congregation while I was a student (until the old ladies of the church banded together and called out the male leaders of the church on that one). I had a very hard time finding a position that was a fit for my gifts. So, in a very teeny tiny way, I get what it’s like to be start breaking maybe not the glass ceiling, but at least starting to lob a few things up there to start it cracking.

I left that denomination in 2007, because I’d found a call in the Presbyterian Church (USA) (which just celebrated 60 years of ordaining women.) But even in denominations with a longer legacy of ordaining women, there is still an incredible amount of sexism. (This book is on my reading list for this summer.)

Hazel will grow up, I sincerely hope, with her first memories of a President of the United States being a woman. She was toddling around my ankles while filled in that square next to Hillary Clinton’s name on my ballot.

I get nervous about dynasties in American politics, but honestly, maybe that’s what it takes right now for us to overcome the implicit bias of our culture against women (I wrote this about the dynastic aspects of this about a year ago.) I get nervous about the fact that we seem to have a political ruling class in America, but, again, I think the first woman to pull this off will likely have to be a part of that establishment. Political and policy implications aside, it’s a big day for the United States when we have a woman who is about to be a major party’s nominee for President.

And it means more to me than I thought it would.

← Previous Entries