How Do You Talk About Sin?

We’re on the cusp of Lent: those 40 days that echo the time Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted. We will hear much about sin and repentance, yet this talk can be a joyful proclamation if it is well-framed.

Middle and upper elementary children have an innate sense of morality, and are comfortably judgmental of those who fail to meet their expectations. Without some way to confront their own sin*, it is easy to for them to fall into the black hole of shame. In the atrium, self-examination is grounded first in proclaiming who we are in Christ: “I am the True Vine, you are the branches. Abide in me,” or “You are children of the light. Remain as children of the light.” As they enjoy this truth and draw closer to God, they may become aware of certain blocks to the light or the life on the vine. Rather than run away, we are called to explore them, to lift them up to God for redemption. The desert of self-examination is a path to salvation, not condemnation.

As an adult, I know I don’t always “remain” or “abide,” and that my blocks are more serious. Sometimes I crave the desert, hoping God will vanquish one more demon. So today I am preparing myself for Ash Wednesday by grounding myself in Epiphany, to revisit that baptism proclamation: “You are my beloved; in you I am well pleased.” “Well pleased…” already, just for who I am. This gives me courage to go into that desert, to know that I am loved. It clarifies my vision to see demons where they are, not where they aren’t. Most importantly, it reminds me to trust in God’s faithfulness even when the terrain gets rough.

*The Hebrew word for “sin” can be translated as “miss the mark”.

Escape from Martyrdom


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We get mixed messages about the value of sacrifice. Often it has a negative connotation, because it is seen as deprivation, a one-way street with no reward.  On the other hand, sacrificing for your child is not only socially admirable, but we seem to be hard-wired to make all sorts of sacrifices for the sake of our children. Martyrdom is such an easy trap to fall into as parents, as spouses, as employees. But a sacrifice that leaves us less-than is not really a sacrifice, and here’s where the Eucharist can help us understand our own lives better.

All theistic religions have this notion of sacrifice.  It seems to be a universal impulse when humans encounter the divine. For years, the Eucharist for me was a sign of my desire to have this encounter, to have this relationship that I heard people speak of.  Recently, in my limited experience with divine encounters, my eyes were opened to my smallness and God’s goodness. I knew immediately that I was already both a beloved daughter who delighted, and a mere infant with many lessons to learn.  At these times, I would  feel a need to respond somehow.  I needed the Eucharist to help me articulate and participate in some sort of response. The phrase “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” delighted me. In this sense sacrifice was something that was leaving me “more-than”, rather than less.

What can this teach me about human relationships?  Some relationships are comfortable, some are challenging, some are distant, but each is an opportunity to respond in love, and thus encounter the holy in each person (and ourselves).  Through love,  I can see the value of others, and I can marvel at their mysteries. Through love, encounters can help both of us become more of our true selves, rather than less.   In this sense, every response of love, whether that be for family, friend, or enemy, is a true sacrifice, one that leaves feelings of gratitude instead of resentment. Even if I’m not  “feeling” the love, true sacrifice, performed intentionally, can be a sign of this desire  for relationship, or a desire to love better.  

Not that I, or any of us are perfect.  Not that we won’t still grumble or complain once in a while about chauffeuring kids, freezing limbs at the soccer game, or denying ourselves a much desired “necessity”, but this orientation toward love, can lessen such feelings, and leave us feeling richer than before: rich in gratitude and joy.

And let us not forget the sacrifice of love that Jesus made, offering his whole self for us. I once heard someone say of the Eucharist, “We must celebrate sometime and somewhere what God is doing all the time, everywhere.”  If you would like to further consider this idea of sacrifice, and how it is contained and expressed in our liturgy, I would recommend checking out my earlier post about the Eucharist:



When Saints Become Friends


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My cat named herself “Margaret, Queen of Scotland.”  Really.

Last year one little black and white cat attempted to adopt me by adorably rubbing up against her cage and mewing to be petted.  Her name was “Spider” because she had been a great climber in her youth.  I tried calling her “Spider,” but it just wasn’t working, so I thought I’d try other names.  The Rev. Jonah Kendall had just been talking about Margaret of Cortona, so called to her, “Margaret of Cortona?”  She paused, looked at me, then resumed her pacing as if to say, “Well, Margaret is okay, but not ‘Cortona’”.  So I tried again. “Margaret, Queen of Scotland?”  She paused longer this time, looked straight into my eyes as if to say, “Queen.  Yes, that’s fine,” and then the audience was over.  Of course, once a cat names herself in your presence, it’s awfully hard not to invite her to come and live with you.  She has been the most wonderful addition to our family:  joyful, regal, affectionate, demanding but cute…even the dog likes her.  But don’t ask me where I got the name, it must have been the Holy Spirit.

And “Who was this Margaret Queen of Scotland?” you may ask…

Send your child to and/or volunteer June 16th-20th for our evening Vacation Bible School which will be focused on a few pilgrimages and the saints that inspired them (June 8th is the last day to register children).

As I was preparing for our upcoming VBS, I learned that one night will be focused on Queen Margaret’s life and on the pilgrimage to Dunfermline Abbey.  Before, I really didn’t know anything about Queen Margaret other than her name.   From what I have learned, my cat named herself well.   The human Margaret grew up in exile, was able to return home (England) with her family in power, only to be exiled again, then lost at sea, then land in a strange place  with strange people (as in unknown, not meaning weird) that she would come to love and rule.  Sadly, more than once she had to grieve the loss of a child.

So, if you thought Margaret was just a fairy-tale princess, think again.  She was famous not for her jewels and silks, or a happily-ever-after-life, but for her love of God.  She is traditionally characterized as pious, intelligent, and educated.  She was able to convert her husband and most of  Scotland with her compassion and generosity (it is said that every day she personally  invited the poor into the castle for dinner), her spiritual discipline and desire to improve worship, and her drive to found institutions and systems that improved life for all (establishing a hospital, a ferry, and an abbey, to name a few).  When she wasn’t praying, taking care of her family, or saving the world, Margaret was also a renowned needle-worker who sewed cloths and garments for liturgical use.

Margaret is a saint because she used all of what God gave her:  from her power and status, to her compassion and creativity, all of these gifts she used to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [her] God.” (Micah 6:8)  We are each born with different God-given gifts and different opportunities for service, and thus prepared for a unique purpose in the Kingdom of God.  In that way, we are all saints (or at least Saints-in-training).

Saints aren’t superheroes, and some saints are parents, just like you and me.  Another famous mom was Monnica of Hippo, or Monica, mother of Augustine (i.e. of Augustine’s “Confessions).  She was the original “helicopter mom” following her heretical son from Africa to Italy, praying for his salvation  .  And if you have a spouse or family member who is an alcoholic, or just doesn’t “get your whole Christian thing,” then Monnica might be your gal, as her husband seemed to be what our post-modern society might call “complicated.”  Jonah’s own favorite, Margaret of Cortona, was a single mother whose pre-conversion story reads like a Jerry Springer production of “Cinderella”   .  If you ever had low self-esteem, grieved a traumatic end to your first love, wondered if or finally realized that God really loves you,  Margaret of Cortona might be for you.

Last Lent the oldest children in the Golden Thread/Level 3 atrium participated in an online game organized by the Episcopal Church to learn about saints called Lent Madness.   Our church continues, and will continue, to add people to our calendar for commemoration, and these modern saints really open up the meaning of sainthood for the children.  They loved learning that some saints had local connections to Raleigh (Anna Haywood Cooper), Durham (Pauli Murray), and even St. Philip’s (Thomas Gallaudet).

The more time I spend learning about and praying with the saints,the more they seem like friends.  

My interest in saints began when I started to read the Morning Office for the daily scripture as a retreat discipline. Many days would include a “hagiography” or introduction of a saint on their feast day.  I was intrigued by their miraculous yet human lives.  They were real people who let the love of God transform them into extraordinary witnesses.  Now that I am more familiar with the liturgical calendar, I have begun to look forward to my favorite saints’ feast days.  Some are even on my Google calendar!  Waking up, turning on the computer, and seeing the name of a favorite saint makes me smile.  If I have time, I particularly focus on the collect written in honor of their feast day.  The collect may be an entry into my own meditation, or it may close my prayers and be my entry into the rest of the day.

Sometimes when I pray, my spirit needs these saints as companions when God just seems to huge, remote, or divine-other.  Sometimes I visualize them just as I would a spiritual director, friend, or counselor, asking them for advice and help.  Other times one of their quotes will come to me just when I need it.  What would Teresa of Avila do?  Some of my other favorites are Peter, the Woman at the Well, Paul, Ignatius of Loyola,  John Donne, Charles Wesley, Philips Brooks, Therese of Lisieux, Oscar Romero, and Thomas Merton, to name a few.

There are seemingly countless others too:  men and women from all the ages and all over the world and from a variety of liturgical traditions and denominations. Episcopalians may want to start with James Kiefer’s hagiographies that are used for the morning office because there are currently a number of liturgical calendars in use, including Holy Women, Holy Men which has the most recent additions.  You can look up saints by their name or you may want to search a particular day, like your birthday, and see who you discover.  It may take some time before you find a saint who speaks to you, but there’s no wrong way to get started with the saints!

Growing in love

On our last day for this year in the Good Shepherd atrium, we had a goodbye ceremony for a few of our friends. Some are moving away from Durham. Others are moving down the hall to the True Vine atrium. Either way, as much as we celebrate that it is time for them to move on, I will miss spending time with them each week.

As anyone who works with children knows, it is awe-inspiring to witness the tremendous growth and change that take place in them over the course of a year.  To me (especially as a parent), it’s comforting to turn over the tremendous responsibility for that growth to God, which I find easiest to do in quiet moments. Lucky for me, these kinds of moments come frequently in the course of a year in the atrium. For example, we might hold our breaths, just a second, as we light a candle to begin our prayer time. Or, when we work in the practical life area, we listen for the sound of a sponge holding water (really! it crackles!). Reading a parable, we ask questions and wait in silence for a confident voice to hold up an answer. And we make small offerings for our prayer table –aromatic spices ground and collected on little dishes, diminutive vases arranged with just-picked flowers, a hand-sized model of the Good Shepherd himself, holding a sheep.


New this year (thanks to Elizabeth!), we have a collection of beautiful items, mostly from nature, that the children can use to make their own ephemeral arrangements as offerings for the prayer table. The resulting collages vary greatly, depending on the child, the mood, the season. Here are a couple examples:

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For our goodbye ceremony, we invited our friends who are moving on to select a treasure from the tray to take with them. It is my fervent hope and prayer that they will also take with them a growing awareness of the love of God, and that, as much as they recognize that love in the bigger things (the natural world, creativity, beauty, the Eucharist, to name a few), they will continue to see it in the smaller things, too (goodnight kisses, quiet moments where nothing needs saying, belly laughter, working hard when something doesn’t come easy, and so much more).

It has been a tremendous pleasure to be with and learn from these children this year.  Thank you, parents, for bringing them to our atrium, and thanks be to God!



Latest from the St Philips Atrium

Note to readers:  I incorrectly posted this to the blog, and so it didn’t appear as I had though on May 2nd, so I apologize that this is being published a week late.  But the good news is that it was a great Sunday last week, and now I have pictures to share with everyone!

Back-dated to 5/2/14:  We are excited to be back together in the atrium after Palm Sunday and Easter holidays away. We have celebrated Easter, we have resurrected our alleluias from the garden, and we are now looking at the “home stretch” of the academic year in the Atrium. With only a few weeks left together until we break for the summer, we still have a lot of learning yet to do! Our focus in our remaining time will be on the post-resurrection stories.

We begin with the wonderful Liturgy of the Light Sunday, May 2nd where the children have the opportunity to engage fully in the resurrection miracle. The children themselves bless the Paschal Candle, and then read passages from Genesis, Isaiah, and Ephesians, and finish with the Gospel of Matthew reading of the Women at the Tomb. The children then each “receive the light of Christ.” It is a beautiful celebration to witness. To look across the dark room and see how the room literally brightens as each child is brought into connection with Christ’s risen light…it is an “alleluia, amen” moment!



The children around the altar.

The children around the altar.

Lit of Light - 6

Children receive the Light of Christ.


Altar table.

Altar table.

One of our last focuses in the True Vine Atrium will be on the Celebration of Pentecost. This year, Pentecost falls on June 8th, long after atrium has retired for the summer. But never one to miss an opportunity to celebrate, in our class we will be honoring the “birthday of the church” early this year so that the children have an opportunity to reflect and meditate on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

This is the altar from last year's Pentecost celebration.

This is the altar from last year’s Pentecost celebration.

And although Atrium will wrap for the summer break on May 18th, children and parents need not fret! Vacation Bible School starts on Monday, June 16th and runs through Friday, June 20th, from 5:30 – 8:00 p.m. The curriculum and experience is a complete departure from what the children experience in the atrium during the academic year – it gives the children a chance to learn, celebrate, pray, and play together in a different and unique way. See the church website or bulletin for more information on enrollment for VBS.

Easter Bunny Doubts and Easter Faith

A child asked, “So, what does the Easter Bunny have to do with Easter anyway?”

The rest of the fourth and fifth graders gave a resounding, “Yeah!” as though they were finally going to get the answer that had left them partly bewildered, partly disillusioned.  This is what I get for asking, “Does anyone have any questions at all?”  I answered them briefly about traditions, spring, etc.  Knowledge is interesting, but it does not help answer the underlying question, “Who or what can I trust in now?”  How do we answer these questions as parents, and how do we these questions for ourselves?

I love Santa Claus’ visits and even advocated for my dad to keep it up when he said he thought it would be dishonest to start Santa-stuff with my youngest sibling.  Besides the tradition, illusions are fun, especially when you are a kid:  I used to love those magic shows on TV with Doug Henning and David Copperfield.  But the Easter Bunny disillusionment was a traumatic one for my boys.  They were old enough that I assumed they had heard the “rumors” at school.  They didn’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, so I thought I’d test the waters.  I let them witness the candy purchase, and explained that this was what we were getting for Easter this year.  But I was not prepared by the emotional response I got when I didn’t sneak the candy out:   “He’s not real?  What else haven’t you told me?  What else isn’t real? How can I trust you?”

I felt guilty and my credibility was shot.  That’s bad enough when you are a parent, but what about when you are a parent AND a catechist?  Would the kids discount Jesus too?  I decided to take a step back, and let others do the catechizing.  We made it through somehow,  and I have tried to maintain a minimal level of constancy.  Alas, as the boys have grown, my credibility rises and falls like the NASDAQ.  With teenagers, the only catechesis I provide at home is to live with and love them like its a ministry (without their knowledge…so keep that under your hat).  They tolerate me bringing up God every once in a while, although they still don’t understand why they have to get up on Sunday morning if God loves them so much!

Jesus leads ALL of us out of the security of the sheepfold, but He is STILL leading us.  How many times in our own lives have we come across something about the Bible, the Church, or the world around us that brought us up short and left us in doubt, confusion, or grief?  It is common enough to deal with this discomfort by not dealing with it, or by replacing an immature idea with absolutes like “therefore the opposite must be true” or “therefore nothing is true.”

I wonder if the disciples had a similar reaction after Jesus’ death.  Jesus had tried to prepare the disciples, but they didn’t understand Him.  I imagine that, not knowing what would happen next, they felt abandoned:

This is not how things were supposed to work out.  We entered Jerusalem, they had a parade for him, now he is crucified?  Jesus was our master.  We lived and worked with him, learned from him, but now he is gone. Who or what can I trust in now?

Their grief and confusion was not immediately relieved.  For two days, the disciples sat together, in community, without Him, in an in-between space.   I wonder what they talked about:

  • Did some of them doubt he was the Messiah?  Maybe someone remembered Jesus’ love and forgiveness, his wondrous acts, or his teaching about the Kingdom of God.
  • Maybe someone recalled Jesus’ words about dying and rising, but wondered how this tragedy could fit into God’s plan.
  • Did someone reassure them by recalling the good things God had done, or by reciting psalms about waiting patiently for the Lord?

On the third day they received an impossible testimony from women.  When they stood in front of the empty tomb, skepticism must have turned to bewilderment.  Jesus the man, who lived among them, died as one of them, might be risen?  Only later would the women’s bizarre proclamations be confirmed by their own encounters with Jesus.  Resurrection was no longer only a hope, it was reality.

Children will openly share their mysterious knowledge of the Holy, but the older child has also discovered disillusionment, which can be frightening.   The Easter Bunny is nothing compared to questions of faith.  In the atrium, they acknowledge their doubts and faith, and we sit in community in that in-between space.  Where isolation may tempt us to rest in our own conclusions, community led by the Holy Spirit can guide us and build our trust on deeper Truth.   We prepare for our own impossible holy encounters by listening to God in prayer, scripture, worship, and in one another.  God wants to be in a deeper relationship with us, and will help us understand a little bit at a time as we are able, and Jesus assured us that he is present even if only two are gathered in his name.

Whether or not we believe in or have experience with resurrection, we are not alone as we sit in the intensity of doubt and faith in the Triduum, i.e. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.   We sit with others in our beloved community and we sit where the disciples sat.  Through these days of grief and doubt the blessing of rebirth, resurrection, and new life comes.  Easter is coming, and it comes for us as well.  “He is no longer here.  He is risen.”  

Building Jerusalem



It can be hard to focus on the darkness of Lent in the Good Shepherd atrium.  We do what we can: before Ash Wednesday, we buried our Alleluias in the garden; now we drape our prayer table in purple cloth; without much prompting, our children know that we are now waiting and preparing for the celebration of Easter.  But that fact more likely than not will lead mostly to excited interjections from our children on bunnies and eggs and candy.  I can’t really blame them.

By this point in the year, we have come to treat Jesus as our friend, our ever-present Good Shepherd, the one who knows us and calls us by name.  We talk about him constantly; we sing about him even more.  We light candles as a reminder of his invitation each week to come to the altar and share in the feast he has prepared for us.

Now, suddenly, we’re talking about his death?  That seems like the wrong ending to the story, as if we’ve been hiding the most important detail.  More than once in past years, as we’ve been gathered around our atrium’s prayer table, I’ve inadvertently shocked a child by referring to Christ’s death on the cross: “What do you mean he died?!”  When this has happened, although I fumble to proclaim the resurrection in the next breath, I can tell it’s left a shadow, because, exuberant and life-filled as they are, our 4, 5 and 6-year olds are coming to awareness that death is –in every other case except this one- final.

I can’t explain how we must go through the soul-searching of Lent to get to the happy event of Jesus’s resurrection.  Truth is, I don’t always understand this myself.  So, instead of talking more about what we don’t know, we look for clues in a story we do know: Jesus’s last days before the cross.  The city of Jerusalem is our backdrop.

Always present in the atrium, our model of the city is a way to reinforce that Jesus was a living, breathing person who walked with us while he was here.  And this year we’ve been building our own pop-up version, using bigger blocks to make the walls (“They’re very high”), smaller blocks to mark the landmarks (the Temple, Herod’s Palace, House of Caiaphas, the Cenacle), and blue stones to make the water sources (Siloam and sheep’s pools).  Outside the city itself, we imagine the Mount of Olives and build the Garden of Gethsemane (“Jesus went here to pray after the Last Supper”).


This past Sunday, during a particularly quiet and meditative morning, we made the tomb.  Four pairs of small hands softened and molded stiff clay to make a cave.  (“The tomb is the place where they laid his body.”)  We combined our colors to look like rocks.  We decided to make a cross to go on top.  We closed the opening with a stone and thought about how dark it was inside.  At this point, I began to worry we were straying too close to morbid, that it might be time to change the subject or lighten the mood with song.  But then one child pointed to the cave and reminded us that this story doesn’t end with death: “In there, it’s like the people who walked in darkness.  Then they saw a great light.”


Would you like to see our Jerusalem?  Please stop by anytime after our atrium hour during Lent or let us know if you’d like to come in and help build.


From Ashes to Easter


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From Ashes to Easter

St. Philip’s will mark the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday liturgies on March 5th at 8 a.m., noon, 6:30 p.m., and a service designed for children at 5:30 p.m. in the gathering room upstairs in the parish house. Please plan to participate, as together we begin our journey through Lent toward the resurrection of Easter Day. And please check out the link above, to read some thoughts sparked by children’s Ash Wednesday services of years past.


Prayer Resource for children, teens, and adults


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Have you ever wanted to start bedtime prayers or maybe try something new?  Pray-As-You-Go has revised their Examen prayers to include variations for children and teens.  The Examen is a simple Ignatian prayer discipline that asks you to recall things that happened in your day and ask yourself, “Where was God in this?”  Click on the “Examen-Audio” link above to check it out.   I would recommend introducing this with older children (7+) anytime, but particularly in Lent.

The Pray-As-You-Go website and podcast is primarily to help busy adults incorporate prayer at any time, even while commuting!  Every day they provide a unique 12 minute guided meditation on scripture.  Instead of silence, there is usually music. It’s a gentle introduction into contemplative prayer and theological thinking.