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The Idea of Invitation in Worship

“Let the little children come to me.” – Jesus of Nazareth

This past Sunday was a snow day in our part of the country. Most churches closed due to weather. When my wife, daughter, and I made our way downstairs to make some breakfast together, my wife suggested that we have a family devotional time. Since our daughter is six, we have the Jesus Storybook Bible, a summarized version of the Bible that tells the major stories on a level that children can easily understand. Sarah, my wife, thought it would be nice to read a chapter from that book and then say a prayer together.

It was looking like an idyllic family devotional time until we told our daughter about the idea. For some reason (maybe because she had just woken up and because of the magical snow outside), she was not in the mood to have a family devotional time together. She started to cop an attitude and resisted the idea of reading a Bible story together and praying together.

My mind and heart raced for a response. I knew that I had two primary ways of responding: be a dictator and insist that our daughter cheer up and join us in this spiritual moment OR give her the freedom to choose whether or not to join us parents in a devotional reading and prayer.

I chose the latter. I decided that I did not want to force or demand participation in something so special as a time of worship. Instead, I chose the option of invitation. I invited her to the table with us, knowing that she could freely opt out without any hard feelings.

So my wife and gathered at the table, held hands, and started praying. Our daughter was in next room, free to do as she pleased.

While Sarah and I were praying, something beautiful happened…..with our eyes closed, we suddenly felt a small hand join in on top of ours. It was our daughter, freely accepting the invitation to join us in worship. My heart melted for a moment and then we continued our prayer and then read some of the devotional book together. From that point forward, our daughter was actively engaged and the attitude was gone.

I tell this story knowing that not every similar case ends that way. But I couldn’t help but notice a general principle at play that I have noticed when working with children and families in worship settings (or humans of all ages for that matter).

Here is the principle: the idea of invitation. I believe it is critical to invite people to worship and engage with Jesus rather than to force, coerce, or bribe people to such things. For those of us who lead worship experiences, that can feel risky. What if nobody wants to come? What if nobody responds? What if they all walk away? The answer is, it doesn’t matter. What matters is stepping out and worshiping God in Spirit and in truth and offering a free invitation to anyone else who wants to join in. God will work in the hearts of those He is calling to join for that particular time. And if some do not join in at that time, that’s fine. God may still be working in their hearts, just on a different pace or with a different big-picture story.

I wonder if many people are resistant to the Church and to God today because at some point in their lives (probably their childhoods) they felt forced or coerced to do something spiritual. The last thing we want to do to children is communicate the message that God is a dictator that makes them do things they don’t want to do.

Remember that Jesus said “Let the little children come to me” (Mark 10:14; emphasis mine). He did not say, “Make the little children come to me.” The irony in that passage is that the disciples were actually holding the children back. The children wanted to play with Jesus. And Jesus simply said “Let them come to me.”

 

Easy Group Game: Mouthpiece Madness

I got this idea from a friend of mine at Camp Orchard Hill, Derek Hodne. I did some searching online and discovered that many other people have taken this game and packaged it into various retail forms, such as Watch Ya Mouth, Speak Out, and Mouthguard Challenge.

The game is simple, and you can do it yourself with a small or large group setting with a little creativity. The supplies needed are the plastic mouth spacers (cheek retractors) that dentists use to hold back lips and cheeks while they work on patients. You can grab a dozen of them on amazon.com for about $12 ($1 per spacer).

You give a player the spacer and they put it in their mouth. Then you give them a phrase to try to say and the other players have to decipher the phrase. The spacer makes it near impossible to pronounce words with sounds like “M”, “B”, “P” or other phonetics that bring the lips together. So phrases like, “Mommy buys peanuts at the market” can be both difficult and entertaining at the same time.

When my friend Derek administered the game, it was at a gathering of hundreds of high school students. He called up about eight players onto the stage and split them into two teams of four each. Each team had one player with the cheek retractor and the other three were the phrase guessers. It was fun for the rest of the crowd to watch as Derek held the microphone up to the teams while they played.

Try it with your group (large or small) and have fun!

Do you do Santa Claus?

This is a common question I hear parents asking one another at Christmas time. The question comes from different perspectives and experiences that people have had with the story, tradition, and character of that jolly man, Santa.

We’ve all heard stories of the proverbial thirteen year-old kid (or older) who finds out from their friends that Santa is not real and then cries for days both because there really is no Santa Claus and because they felt lied to all those years.

We also know the stories of the “magic” of Christmas that children feel and the joy of watching them believe in a generous and mysterious character that comes down their chimney and leaves gifts and takes cookies.

Here are three primary responses to the question that I’ve seen/heard. There, of course, is a spectrum in between these three major categories. Perhaps you fall into one of them. I would love to hear where you might be on this scale and why…..

  1. YES: Of course there’s a Santa Claus (wink)! These are the parents who play the game and are all in. They make sure the narrative of Santa lives on in the imaginative minds of their children. Many of these parents try to prolong the magic of Christmas as far as they can into the childhoods of their kids. To these parents, Santa is a good person who does good and is a good example to everyone in that he generously gives gifts at Christmas time. The presents under the tree are undeniably from Santa Claus. These parents may never reveal to their kids that Santa is imaginary and simply let their children figure things out as they age. The extremist parents of this view still believe in Santa themselves 🙂
  2. KINDA: We’re not big about Santa Claus, but he’s unavoidable, so we’re not against him either. These are the parents who try to take the middle ground of wanting their kids to enjoy the Santa narrative of Christmas while at the same time not wanting to “lie” to their children. The presents under the tree may or may not be from Santa Claus, and the parents do not go to great lengths to keep the fictionality of Santa from their children. Some parents might try to “redeem” the story of the historical figure Saint Nicholas and tie that into the Biblical meaning of Christmas.
  3. NO: We don’t ‘do’ Santa Claus. This imaginary character distorts the message of Christmas. These are the parents who have either a theological conviction against the glorification of this ever-evolving fictional character or a moral conviction against what they consider to be lying to their children (or both). ALL the presents under the tree are from actual people (like from Mommy to daughter or Uncle Joe to Sally). The extreme side of this view avoids all depictions of and interactions with Santa Claus in an effort to focus on the Biblical story of Christmas and the person of Jesus Christ.

The interesting thing about these three views (and all the others in between) is that we all share the public sphere together, and the question comes up as to how to approach the topic of Santa in public regardless of one’s personal position. If you are a part of position three, should you proactively “ruin” the story for others when given the chance? If you adhere to position one, should you (like Will Farrell’s Elf character) be actively proselytizing others to believe in Santa Claus?

So how do you respond when someone says, “Do you ‘do’ Santa Claus?” What do you explain to your children and at what ages? What are your reasons for doing so?

If you’re curious as to where Sarah and I fall on this spectrum, you can find some clues to our answer in a previous post I made about Santa Claus here. But I am more interested in all the other different perspectives out there. So feel free to share.

Big God, Little Kids – free Bible lessons for children’s ministry

I have written a 13-lesson curriculum called “Big God, Little Kids.” It is a series of lessons built around stories of God doing big things through ordinary kids in the Bible. You are free to use it for any non-profit ministry setting such as Sunday School, Children’s Church, Vacation Bible School, or the like.

I have provided the introduction and a preview lesson right here. If you want the rest of the lessons, those are free too. To get the rest, simply sign up for my once-a-month newsletter and email me that you did so (these instructions are also at the end of the free preview).

Click the link below to access. Enjoy!

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First Night Virginia!

I am happy to announce that I will be performing at First Night Virginia in Charlottesville on New Year’s Eve! My shows will be at 3pm and 5:30pm, respectively. Bring the whole family and tell your friends about it too. There are lots of other activities and entertainers for the whole family. See you there!

Here is the link to their website so you can learn all about it: http://www.firstnightva.org/

The Thanksgiving Tree

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My wife and I had a debate a few nights ago over the meaning of the Christmas Tree. What ensued was a discussion about the “why” behind traditions that we often just take for granted. She doesn’t want to do things just because “we’ve always done it that way.” She likes to know the meaning and purpose in things. And she wants that meaning to be important. So she decided to go ahead and start a new tradition in our house – a tradition with meaning. She made a Thanksgiving Tree.

I did not know this was a thing. But apparently it is. And Sarah made her own version of it. She asked me to find some sticks and branches outside. So I fetched some and put them in a jar. Then she and Kezzie cut leaf shapes out of fall-colored construction paper (orange, brown, etc.). Finally, everyone wrote something they were thankful for on the leaf cut-outs and hung it on the tree.

We had so much fun and it gave us a chance to remember all the things we are so thankful for. It also looks good in our foyer. I guess we’ve started a bit of a tradition in our house.

Hamilton: An American Musical – Chicago Review

imageLast night, I had the priviledge of seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-award winning musical Hamilton in it’s Chicago iteration. I have been familiar with the soundtrack for months and I will say that the opportunity to view the show live adds several dimensions to the show that will not let “Hamilfans” down.

If you are not familiar with Hamilton: An American Musical, I would suggest you take a listen and find out for yourself what all the hype is about. Miranda slays it with poetic lyricism not seen in musical theater since Sondheim. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work, among plenty of other accolades. Where else can you find someone who rhymes “abolitionist” with “show me where the ammunition is“? Or take this lyric from “Guns and Ships”:

How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower

Somehow defeat a global superpower?

How do we emerge victorious from the quagmire

Leave the battlefield waving Betsy Ross’s flag higher?

Miranda is not only a brilliant lyricist, but he crafted an entire show (along with director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire) that merges today’s pop culture lingua franca of Hip-Hop with a lesser-known but incredibly fascinating story in American history. It is a story of a poor orphan from the Caribbean who fights and writes his way up to Founding-Father status during the birth of our nation. His success story then turns into tragedy and the audience is left pondering life’s deep concepts such as the seemingly indiscriminate nature of love, life, death, war, and “who tells your story.” There is comedy, espionage, adultery, forgiveness, and of course, multiple pistol duels. One of the most evident things about the show is the ethnic diversity of the cast. Instead of casting all-white Founding Fathers like the now decades-old musical 1776, Miranda casts the players to represent what America is today – a colorful mix of heritages that show how far we’ve come since the late 18th Century. It is at the same time a well-played subversive move in the performing arts, indicating that we still have a long way to go in many respects in terms of Jefferson’s ideals of equality and liberty in our nation.

Regarding the Chicago show, I recently read an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Delta Sky Magazine. In it, he says that “the kid is off to college,” which essentially means that Hamilton has now matured to the point that it can thrive without his direct nightly participation. He was right. In the opening song, I will admit that I felt slightly betrayed because the voices and actors on stage were not the original Broadway cast (which I knew going into this). But it took only a matter of minutes to hear these new voices come into their own and rock the stage in the their own right.

Ari Afsar, who plays Eliza Hamilton, was one of the highlights of the show. Flanked by the experienced Karen Olivio (Angelica) and Samanthan Marie Ware (“and Peggy” :), Ari anchored the strong and beautiful harmony of the Schulyer sisters. Their powerful performances in “The Schuyler Sisters”, “Helpless”, and “Satisfied” takes your breath away. Later in the show, when Afsar sings the slow-burn lament aptly named “Burn,” you are caught in a trance as she plays with real fire on stage and nails the deep sense of betrayal in both her vocals and acting.

An unexpected standout performer was Chris De’Sean Lee. He just finished his Junior year at Belmont University and is now Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in this Hamilton Chricago show. I love Daveed Diggs in the Broadway cast for this role and you would think that he could never be upstaged. But in my opinion, Lee did just as good or better. His French accent was way more believable than Diggs’. And though I never saw Diggs on stage, Lee filled every last bit of the role you would expect in terms of his flair, animated personality, stage presence, and “working the crowd.”

Miguel Cervantes fills the tough shoes of Miranda’s Hamilton extremely well. He shows you that he is just like his country: “young, scrappy, and hungry” with his commanding vocals and articulate rapping (which is necessary if the audience wants to understand all the creative words in the songs). Equally strong was Joshua Henry, who played a convincing Aaron Burr – probably the most difficult character to portray because of his ongoing internal struggle for meaning and external fight for notoriety.

The lighting design was a pleasant treat that one can only experience in the live show. For example, when Angelica sings about Benjamin Franklin’s eureka moment with his key, kite, and “light,” the upper stage flashes a set of lights right on cue with the words. The lights also work in some shadow magic when Washington makes the Biblical reference to sitting under his own vine. But the best lighting of all comes in Hamilton’s song, “Hurricane.” And I’ll just say that you have to see the show yourself to see what the lighting does in that song because you’re already spoiled with the fact that Burr shoots Hamilton. I don’t want to spoil everything for you 🙂

Another dimension one can only see live is the choreography. The ensemble rocked it with a nearly three-hour aerobic display of “all-in” modern and and Hip-Hop dance to tell the story. They were not merely eye candy to fill the stage. While the lead characters told the story in song and acting, the ensemble displayed the narrative by dancing (and singing) the transcendental world of emotions, feelings, consciousness, and even conscience of the characters. Of all the aspects of the show, that was the dimension that surprised me the most and the one that will stick with me the longest as I reflect on the depth of this work of art.

Finally, I cannot review the show without mentioning the brilliant comic relief performance by Alexander Gemignani, who plays King George. His subtle mannerisms and pious patronizing were perfect in the role of a nihilistic monarch who sings the blues of losing America like a pouty ex-boyfriend singing a break-up song.

In summary, go listen to the soundtrack. Then find out when the tour comes to your city. And get on the ticket-seller e-mail notification list, because you’ll have about a two-hour window to secure your ticket for a show eight months ahead before the rest of your city snatches a ticket. You will want to be in the room where it happens.

 

Note: Since this blog focuses on topics surrounding kids and families, I’ll add an addendum here that I suggest that parents pre-screen the lyrics and thematic elements of the show before playing it and/or attending the show with their children (the album has explicit warnings). There is language, violence, and adult themes such as the adulterous affair between Alexander Hamilton and Maria Reynolds.

Kahoot: A free and easy platform with lots of fun uses for learning

kahootI attended a community event a few weeks ago at a local theater. Before the event started, a quiz game was running on the big screen. And anyone could join in and play if they had a personal electronic device and the game code entered into their web browser on the device. The game code was posted on the big screen before the game started. Lots of people in the theater played. The game kept score of the players based on correct answers and the speed in which they answered. At the end of the game, the winner was posted on the screen and the young man came forward to receive a prize.

The online platform used was called Kahoot. It is an app, but it also has an old-fashioned website so that players can play without having to download the app or even register with an email and password (which I love).

I had an event at which I was speaking a few days later, and I dove into Kahoot to find out how to use it myself at this event. I was so glad I did, because I found out how much fun it is for both the teacher and the learners.

So here is how it works. First of all, it is free (for now…currently they make money by offering it to large corporate clients who use it for various purposes). While you do not need to register an email and password in order to play, do you have to register if you want to administer Kahoot games. Once you sign up for an account, you can write your own trivia games or select one from the thousands that have been uploaded by different users. You can browse by keyword, and you can pre-scan the questions and answers of each uploaded game so you can see if it is one you want to use or not.

This event I spoke at was a family retreat for a church in Texas, so we did trivia games in three different categories: Bible, Texas facts, and Disney. The crowd loved it. Since the event was for families, we played the option of one device per team (per family) and everyone gathered around the device and tapped the multiple choice selection on their device. You can also set up the game to be every-person-for-themselves, but that only works if everyone has their own device.

Apparently, there are many more uses for Kahoot than just trivia games. That is nice because trivia can sometimes be merely that: trivial. You can use it for crowd-sourcing, opinion gathering, voting/polling, testing, and real-time feedback and input on public speaking presentations. Basically, if you need to gather information from a crowd, whether in a fun game or in something more serious, this app lets you do that in a simple and user-friendly way.

Check it out and discover all the great uses here: kahoot.it

Cutting Down Old Trees

woods-1072819_1920I went on a camping trip with some friends this past weekend at a local state park. We went on a hike through the woods and at one point we came into a clearing where about five acres of large-growth pines and other trees had been bulldozed – on state park property. It was quite an eyesore on such a tranquil hike, so one of my friends asked the park ranger about the clearing.

He said that every so often, the trees can grow so old and tall that they suffocate any new and fresh growth that is needed for a diverse and healthy ecosystem. So there comes a time where it is better to get rid of the old in order to make space for the new, fresh, and diverse growth.

And here is the profound point here: the new, fresh growth cannot come unless the old growth is torn down. You can’t have both.

That got me thinking about life and even the show that I perform. Are there things in my life or in my show that are “old growth”? Maybe something that I have worked on for years and am very proud of, but I over-value it and thus prevent myself from growing in new and exciting areas of my life and my show.

At one of my shows several years ago, I flew into Mississippi and my luggage (with all my show props) did not arrive in time for my show. That was only the second time it has ever happened to me in over a decade of full-time traveling and performing. What did I do? I had to get creative and perform for my waiting audience with whatever I could find nearby in the town of the event or at the venue. I grabbed chairs and ladders from the local church, fruit from the local grocery store (after paying for it, of course :). When I did my show, people loved it and nobody knew that I had performed without my “old growth” props. That show taught me something: that I do not NEED those tride and true items that I think are so necessary. In fact, it got me out of my box and forced me to get creative and come up with new tricks and ideas on the spot for a waiting audience. I have taken that attitude ever since – and my show has been more diverse and evolving than it has ever been before.

The old adage, “necessity is the mother of invention” is so true here. But in order for us to find new and exiting paths in our lives, we need to place ourselves in situations that force necessity upon us. I know that requires taking risks, but that is the only way we can grow. That might mean traveling, spending time with people you normally don’t spend time with, or removing a particular “sacred cow” in your life. Trust me, it will be worth it.

Are the Sciences Better Than the Arts?

Mega-bank Wells Fargo recently put out an advertisement for their upcoming “Teen Day.” In it, the wording appears to suggest that the sciences are a higher calling in life than the arts. Many celebrities in the arts took to Twitter to make the case that we should not send a message to teens that makes them think STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is necessarily superior to the arts.

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The ad could be perceived to be saying that the young woman and man were once artists (ballerina and actor, respectively), but then chose a more meaningful path in life such as one of an engineer or botanist. Celebrity Donna Lynn Champlin pointed out that the highest salary of an actor for 2016 is $64,000,000 versus the highest-paid botanist: just over $165,000. She asked Wells Fargo, “u sure ur a bank?”

In their defense, Wells Fargo apologized for the misunderstanding and removed the ad campaign.

As someone whose full-time vocation is in the arts and humanities (juggling, entertainment, and education), I have to say that I have no regrets in life for choosing the arts over the sciences. Do I think that one is more important than the other? No. In fact, I don’t think we should create such a dichotomy between the two. Life is both an art and a science. Have you ever seen great architecture? That is the blending of the arts and the sciences. In fact, what I do (juggling), is taking the physics of motion and materializing it in the form of a movement art.

But if someone (especially an aspiring teen) is dreaming of a life in the arts, we do them a disservice by trying to make them think that being a botanist is a better use of their life. The same can be said in the opposite direction. If a child wants to grow up and be a chemist, by all means we should not tell them that it would be better for them to join the circus.

I’ve been studying philosophy for a class recently and read that Aristotle made the case that though many vocations in life are clearly useful for a productive society (such as the sciences), there are other disciplines that seem less utilitarian but are just as important and “should be valued for their own sake,” such as music (the arts). Why? He said that “leisure” was a vital part of the human existence and argued that it was “noble” and contributed to the wholeness of life. He said, “To be always seeking after the useful does not become free and exalted souls” (Ozmon, Howard A. and Samuel M. Craver. Philosophical foundations of education. Eighth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. 2008, pp. 73-74).

I’m not anti-STEM. I am simply bothered when people think that STEM is all there is in life and education (or that it is inherently better than the arts and humanities). Life is both STEM and Art. We need both. And we should expose our children towards both and communicate to them the importance of both. And as they grow, they will each discover the unique blend of science and art that may exist in their life calling and career.