Welcome back. We were very excited to kick off a new year of Sunday School programming yesterday. So excited that I decided to share the Great Family story not only with the children during Sunday School hour but also with the entire congregation during worship. Below is the the text of the story itself as well as the text of the personal testimony I shared afterward.
This is the desert box.. So many wonderful and important things happened in the desert, we need to know what it is like. We can’t get the whole desert in our sanctuary, so here is just a little piece of the desert.
The desert is a dangerous place. It is always moving, so it is hard to know where you are. There is very little water, so you get thirsty, and you can die if no water is found. Almost nothing grows there, so there is almost nothing to eat. In the daytime it is hot and the sun scorches your skin. In the night it is cold. When the wind blows, the sand stings when it hits you. People wear many clothes to protect them from the sun and blowing sand. The desert is a dangerous place. People do not go into the desert unless they have to.
When the flood was over, the creatures went out in all the four directions of the earth to fill it up with life again. They often gathered along the rivers. The people lived in small villages and then cities. One of the most ancient and greatest of these cities was called Ur.
In the city of Ur, the people believed that there were many gods. There was a god for every tree, every rock, every flower. There was a god of the sky, the clouds, the water and the land. The world was alive with gods.
But there was one family that believed that all of God was in every place. They did not yet know that, but that is what they thought.
Abram and Sarai were part of that family.
When it came time to move to a new place they were not sure that God would be there. So they wondered what the new place would be like.
They walked toward Haran with their sheep and their donkeys. Even the old people and all the children went, too. They slept in their tents at night, and during the day they walked along the great river called the Euphrates. It showed them the way and gave them and all of their animals water to drink.
It took a long, long time. Finally, they met people coming from Hran. They knew the journey was almost over. Then, they were there.
Sometimes Abram would go out to the edge of the desert and look out across the sand and into the sky. Then God came so close to Abram, and Abram came so close to God, that he knew what God wanted him to do. God wanted Abram and Sarai to move on again to another new place. Abram and Sarai did what God said. They went into the desert to the west of Haran and walked toward Canaan. They went with all their sheep, their tents, and many helpers. Abram’s brother’s son, Lot, also went with them. This time there was no river to show the way or to give them water to drink.
They finally came to a place called Shechem. Abram climbed up a hill and prayed to God, and God was there, so Abram built an altar to mark the place. Then they went on.
Next they came to a place near Bethel. Abram prayed again and God was there, also. Abram built an altar to mark this place, too. God was not just here or there. All of God was everywhere.
Then they went to Hebron to make their home, near the oaks of Mamre.
One night God brought Abram outside. He looked up into the sky. God came so close to Abram, and Abram came so close to God that Abram knew what God was saying. “You will become the father of a great family, and Sarai will be the mother. The members of the great family will be as many as there are stars in the sky and grains of sand in the desert.
Abram laughed. He and Sarai were very old. God’s promise sounded impossible, but God said to change their names anyway. Abram was to be Abraham and Sarai was to be called Sarah.
One day three strangers came out of the desert.
Abraham was sitting by his tent. He invited them in and Sarah mixed three measures of flour, which is a lot. She gave them bread and meat to eat, and milk and water to drink, as was the custom. They told Abraham that he and Sarah would have a son, and Abraham laughed. Sarah was standing by the tent and heard them. She laughed, too. They were too old.
The three strangers went on their way. Do you know what happened? Abraham and Sarah had a son. They laughed again, so they named the baby “Laughter.” In their language the word for “laughter” is “Isaac.”
When the boy was grown, old Sarah died. She was buried in the cave near the oaks of Mamre.
Abraham was lonely. He missed Sarah very much, but he had one more thing to do.
He sent his most trusted helper back to the land of his people to find a wife for Isaac.
Abraham’s helper stopped by a well in the evening. Rebekah offered to give him some water to drink. She then helped him give water to his animals. She was as full of courage as she was kind. Rebekah then invited him home. He told her family about Abraham and Sarah and the Great Family. Rebekah decided she would like to be part of that Great Family, so they went across the desert and then past Shechem and Bethel toward Hebron.
Isaac saw them coming and went out to meet them. Then Isaac and Rebekah were married.
Old Abraham was now very old and full of years. He died and was buried with Sarah in a cave by the trees.
Then Isaac and Rebekah had children, and their children had children, and those children had children. This went on for thousands and thousands of years until your grandmothers and grandfathers had children. Then your mothers and fathers had children.
Now you are part of that great family which has become as many as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand in the desert.
Now I wonder what part of this story you like best?
I wonder what part is the most important?
I wonder if there is any part of the story we can leave out and still have all the story we need?
I wonder where you are in the story or what part of the story is about you?
Of all the questions I just asked you to wonder about - the one I find myself wondering about the most is the last. Where am I in this story - what part of this story is about me?
I wasn’t raised in a church - we dabbled in attending off and on for a couple of years when I was in 4th and 5th grade - interestingly enough it was a congregational church - I have a memory of being baptized at 12 years old and our pastor cracking a joke - asking me to forgive him for not picking me up like he had the other babies being baptized alongside me. I remember his name was Vivian and I thought it was a beautiful name, I remember he had an accent and I would sometimes get lost in the cadence of it during the very few sermons I was around for - we had Sunday school while the grown-ups went to “big church.” I remember there was sometimes a bell choir that would perform and I wanted so badly to be old enough to play with them. I remember that during Sunday school there was a music teacher who would come around and “interrupt” our craft activities to make us sing and practice for the obligatory Easter and Christmas children’s performances. I remember that a lot of the kids complained about it, and I pretended to complain with them, but really it was my very favorite part of church, a chance to be in the big sanctuary with the beautiful stained glass windows and the music and pastor Vivian’s lilting voice talking about big ideas I wanted to know more about. I remember that after the service every Sunday we would head down to the basement and have brunch - there were donuts, and egg casseroles, and full-strength orange juice.
Crafts, music, and brunch - not a terrible childhood experience of the divine - but also not one that left a lasting impression. Church was something my family did off and on for a couple of years - I later learned it was something of a concession my parents made for my Catholic grandparents who were very concerned that my two younger brothers and I hadn’t at least been baptized. I think going was something my parents were doing FOR their parents and therefore not something they were highly invested in personally. I remember going to church as something that I didn’t mind and somewhat enjoyed, but also something that, when we stopped doing it, I didn’t really miss that much. It felt like something that was for grown-ups and maybe something I’d understand more later on. I didn’t feel out of place or left out being there - but it also didn’t seem to be about me.
Flash forward about 25 years. I got married. To a catholic. In a Unitarian Church - our compromise between him (and some in our families) wanting the wedding to take place in a church, and us not actually being a part of any church family at that point in our lives. And then a few years later we finally found ourselves about to be parents. And I started feeling some pressure, be it imagined or real, that Dan and I should think about joining a church before Elliott was born. I spent a year going to Catholic services in an attempt to consider joining the denomination my husband’s family and my father’s family had grown up with. I once again enjoyed the music and the stained glass and the beauty of the building - but I was old enough to understand more than the lilt or cadence of the priest and could hear his words - I knew this story was not about me either. I was not in this story.
Why UCC? Actually the first we heard of it was from friends who had recently moved out of town and joined a UCC church in another state and were very much enjoying it. They joked that the letters UCC actually stood for Unitarians Considering Christ. They mentioned they’d considered attending in Ames but were worried there wasn’t enough youth in the church. And I do remember noticing it was a very small group that toddled up to the steps for the children’s message when we first visited. But I also remember how clear it was the congregation loved and cherished these children and that Hannah “knew” each one of them, and that everyone we came into contact with that day wanted to know us. And after sitting through several sermons, and several conversations with folks afterward, NO ONE had tried to tell me what I should believe - or what this church believed. Sitting through Catholic services for me had always been this experience of listening to what was said and trying to do some mental gymnastics to find a message I could get behind. Somedays this was easy to do - other weeks I really had to just plug my ears and try to forget some of what was said. Again - I was not in that story. Could I be a part of this story? This Great Family. I hoped so.
Then I had a baby - at 35, after 4 years of trying, after two lost pregnancies, and with the help of medical miracles, dozens and dozens of injections and a couple of surgeries - and my world was rocked. And I became wrapped up in keeping him safe, and fed, and away from screens, and germs and sharp corners, and making sure he slept enough - oh how I obsessed about him getting enough sleep. And while we managed to make it to church to have him baptized before he got too big pick up - we basically disappeared from church, physically, for about 4 years. But strangely we still felt part of the church family - despite our absence from the building. Hannah would check in with me regularly - with no pressure or strings attached, just to let me know when things were coming up that I might be interested in - congregational dinners, preschool Sunday school opportunities, advent parties, etc. And one fateful day about 3 years ago she left me a message saying something to extent of - “you don’t have to say yes to this - but Terry wants me to ask you - if you’d consider coming on board as our CE team leader.” And, much to Hannah’s surprise (and mine really) I said okay - I’d give it a try - it was only a one year commitment and in fact we were already a couple of months into the year. And not more than a month later I found myself in a meeting brainstorming the idea of overhauling the Sunday School curriculum and someone mentioned the idea of Godly Play and I agreed to go do a little research about it and it looked amazing.
Hannah and I went on a little weekend trip to Milwaukee to learn more and be “officially trained” to lead Godly Play sessions. And the rest was history. I was all in. Yes. This. This is what I wanted for my son. This is what I wanted for my family. This is what I wanted for me. This was something I wanted to get up every Sunday morning to do.
I am now nearing the end of the the third year of my position as CE team leader and I honestly, from the bottom of my heart, want to thank this congregation for this opportunity. Thank you for letting a new mother who grew up with very little in the way of a faith tradition lead your children in finding theirs, and letting them lead me in finding mine. Thank you for trusting me to tell these stories and be with your children as we wonder about what they mean and invite God to be with us, to play with us, as we continue to find our places in the Great Family begun so very long ago.
To return to my question, where am I in this story? What part of this story is about me. I find myself in so many places. I see myself in Sarah and Abraham when they left what they knew - left unsure, but with a belief that all of God was in every place. They did not yet know that, but that is what they believed. Would God be with us if we abandoned traditional Sunday school lessons with a story and a lesson/interpretation - if we just told the heart of the story and invited children to play and God to join us? We didn’t know - but that is what we thought and hoped - and what we have since come to believe to be true.
And I see myself in Rebekah. She made a choice to leave what she knew to join this Great Family. Joining the executive team - becoming a team leader - becoming a storyteller - these were all out of my area of comfort. I didn’t even know any of the old testament stories I was about to present to the children. I didn’t even know we had an executive leadership team that met once a month and accomplished amazing things. I didn’t know anyone’s name on the board. I knew so little about all the teams working, it seemed to me behind the scenes...to make this church function. There are so many examples of Great Families that we have the opportunity to be a part of here.
I encourage you to consider where you find yourself in this story. Where you find yourself in the Great Family started by Sarah and Abraham - but also in this church family. I had the honor of bringing Godly Play to Grinnell this summer - they have decided to take the same leap we took two years ago and invited me to come help them prepare. And it was wonderful to join in their conversations as many in the congregation pondered and wondered what their place in this new curriculum might be. Several came to join us in a full Godly Play session for adults and several took home stories and prepared to try their hand at storytelling - some with the idea of joining the ranks of storytellers at Grinnell and others just for the experience itself. I find myself wishing we might find a similar group of adults ready to wonder together and grow our Godly Play Family. In today’s scripture Abram went out to the desert to “come close to God.” For me, I enter a Godly Play space, a circle of children or adults, and a story. And I invite you to join me.
Are you ready?
**Several congregants mentioned today that they wished there had been a zoom on the camera so you could have had a clearer view of what was going on in the Desert Box as I was telling the story.. Here is a link to a video of a Godly Play Trainer telling the story that does a nice job of that if you’d like a closer look. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1P7MdmrDHnM)
Godly Play Team
Hannah Hannover, Minister to Children and Families and Genya Coffey, Christian Education Team Coordinator make up our current team of guides and storytellers. Both have attended workshops in order to receive certification from the Godly Play Foundation. They will take turns authoring the blog posts found here. Interested in joining the team? Be sure to let them know through the contact page.