holy spaces sacramental

Backyard Communion

It happened unexpectedly. We had been gathering outside with friends for months – spacing our chairs at least 6 feet apart, constantly reminding our kids to keep their masks on. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best we could do in terms of safe social interaction. It felt comfortable, much better than not seeing our friends or letting our children play with other kids. It was also emotionally and mentally taxing. But we found ourselves doing it more frequently because gathering with others felt necessary for our mental and emotional health, and, like baby steps toward eventually sending our children back to school in-person and returning to other “normal” activities.

That week was ordinary in many ways, exceedingly stressful in others. I didn’t plan or anticipate anything particularly notable happening. Perhaps that’s what made it extraordinary.

On Monday, I texted a friend I had been hoping to spend time with and she was available that evening. My husband and our daughters were meeting friends at the park, so my friend came to our house and brought dinner. We sat at our back patio table eating, drinking, and talking for hours. No masks. Zero interruptions. Perfect weather. Good food, and even better conversation about the real stuff of life: family, work, ministry, discernment about the future. It was a gift – a means of God’s grace – and it was so very good for my soul.

On Saturday, friends texted that they were in the area visiting grandparents and would love to meet us so the kids could play. We invited them to our backyard, and it was a delight to watch our girls and theirs playing together so naturally, so comfortably, as if COVID-19 didn’t exist. It was getting close to dinner time, so we ordered pizza. We found ourselves gathered around our patio table – eating, drinking, and talking. It was delightful. It has been so long since we have gathered like that, without the stress and worry of infection, the trappings of social distancing and masks. It was a gift – a means of God’s grace – and it was so very good for my soul.

Two gatherings in one week, doing ordinary things in our backyard with friends. And yet, they were not ordinary gatherings at all; they were much more than that. Unexpectedly, by God’s grace, these ordinary gatherings became extraordinary.

Gathering around our patio table to eat and drink with friends that week reminded me of communion, that holy meal that we share in worship. Communion mediates God’s grace to us and connects us with the community of believers, helping us grow in our relationship with God and others, as we partake of a shared meal and remember the gift of Jesus Christ. In communion, ordinary bread and wine (or grape juice) become extraordinary, by the grace of God manifest in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Though the food we shared with our friends was not bread and wine, and we did not explicitly remember Christ’s sacrifice or invoke the Holy Spirit, the practice of sharing food around the table in community with fellow Christians is reminiscent of the community we experience with God and one another when we share in the sacrament of communion. The community is gathered, God is there, and there is good food to share. There is nourishment for our souls. We experienced it in our backyard that week, and I am grateful. I hope it happens again someday soon.


Learning from Virtual Kindergarten

Last week was my daughter’s last day of Kindergarten. To conclude the school year, each child was recognized for their unique contributions to the class and then they celebrated outside with sidewalk chalk and bubbles. It was a lot of fun!

I should clarify that this occurred within our home, because our daughter attended Kindergarten virtually this entire school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She and 19 of her friends logged on every day with their teacher, all from their own homes. They have never seen one another in person or played together, but they are friends. They are a community that encourages one another. I am amazed that friendships have been formed and such supportive community has developed among 5-and-6-year-olds, solely online. I had high hopes, but not high expectations, for virtual Kindergarten back in August. Virtual Kindergarten far exceeded my expectations. My daughter has learned and grown this year, but so have I. It has been a joy and a privilege to be a fly on the wall in her Kindergarten class.

While Robert Fulghum has already written a classic on how our learnings in kindergarten apply to the rest of our lives, I want to expand that concept in relation to virtual Kindergarten. The list below encompasses lessons from virtual Kindergarten that are important reminders for adults, here and now, in the 21st century.  

  •  We all need to know how to use the mute button. If 5 and 6-year-old children in Kindergarten can learn to mute/unmute themselves and wait their turn to speak, adults should be able to do the same. Yes, on Zoom, but also, on social media and during in-person conversations. In many arenas these days, it feels as if the mute button is broken. If adults simply employed the mute button appropriately, our social and political discourse, as well as our relationships, would all improve. We would all benefit from more listening and less talking.
  • Brain breaks, play, and moving our bodies is essential to being able to think and do our work well. Have you ever sat in Zoom (or in-person) meetings for hours on end, without taking a break? It’s miserable. Our daughter’s school was intentional about designing a schedule for kindergarten that incorporates plenty of screen-free time and brain breaks throughout the day. Even while on Zoom, her teacher plans activities that involve standing up and using their bodies. I’ve learned that taking regular breaks away from screens – to go outside, to move my body, to play – transforms my ability to work. It increases my productivity, even if my total work time decreases. Give it a try!
  • Paying attention to and naming our feelings is an essential life skill. Every day in Kindergarten, they talk about feelings. They read books and learn songs about feelings. They practice techniques for calming their bodies. They take turns naming their feelings. They identify the feelings of characters in books. Why all this effort toward identifying feelings? Probably because emotional intelligence is essential. We can probably all name an adult who would benefit from increased awareness of their own feelings and emotions. The last year has been a roller coaster of emotions due to the pandemic, the election, natural disasters, plus the specific events in our personal and family lives. Naming our feelings provides perspective and can help us move through difficult moments in a healthier way, for both children and adults. Virtual kindergarten has reminded me that being able to name my feelings in is vital to my own functioning and self-management and has a positive effect on relationships as well.  
  • Perseverance and confidence are the keys to success. Dozens of times every day, I hear a child say “I don’t know how to…” or “I can’t…” and the teacher’s response is always “Try your best! Never give up!” The focus is not on perfection, but on perseverance and believing you can do it. Kindergarten today is what first grade was when I attended elementary school in the early 1990’s. Children are learning and integrating challenging tasks. Guiding our daughter through her assignments has taught me that doing things in small chunks is important, especially when trying something new or challenging. For example: write one sentence a day, and by the end of the week, you have a 5-sentence short story (when it seemed impossible on Monday). That’s what perseverance looks like.
  • There are multiple routes to an endpoint. Having permission to get the work done in whatever way works best for our child was a game-changer. If writing with your finger on an iPad is hard, write it on paper and then upload a picture of it. Having the ability to decide the best approach for our child’s strengths and learning style greatly reduced our daughter’s resistance to completing assignments. Also, I weas reminded that working more slowly or in a different manner than others is not necessarily an indication of intelligence or ability. If you’re beating your head against the wall trying to get something done in a certain way or timeframe, be creative and find another way to reach the end goal. A different approach might change everything.
  • Mistakes grow your brain. In Kindergarten, students are learning the basics: how to read and write, the foundations of math. It doesn’t all come naturally. It can be quite laborious to read a book out loud to someone, to write a sentence and sound out each individual word or to translate a math word problem into an equation. When the kids become upset or frustrated about making a mistake, our daughter’s teacher says: “Mistakes grow your brain!” YES. As adults, we would do well to remember this, to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes, so that we continue to grow.
  • If the plan doesn’t work, make a new one. Flexibility and adaptability are essential to doing anything with children (well, really, anything at all involving humans)! We have all learned in the last 15 months that plans are only figurative. We must be flexible and adaptable at all times. When my daughter’s teacher’s video or screen sharing doesn’t work as planned, she transitions seamlessly to something else, and even turns it into a lesson for the kids on being flexible. It’s never too early to learn these important skills!
  • Be assertive! One of the things our daughter has had to learn in virtual kindergarten is to be assertive and ask for what she needs. With limited screen space, sometimes the teacher doesn’t see her when she’s asking to go to the bathroom or raising her hand to ask a question. She has had to learn to speak up for herself. I think I was much older before I learned this lesson. It is imperative to recognize what we need, name it, and ask for it (while keeping the mute button in mind). It is also important to do this on behalf of others who are unable to speak up for themselves.
  • 4 on the floor. All 4 legs of the chair, that is. It can be very painful to fall out of your chair onto a hard tile floor. Just like we need to look both ways before crossing the street, stay alert for obstacles when riding our bikes, and refrain from looking at our phones while driving, we need to keep all 4 legs of our chair on the floor. It’s an early lesson with relatively minor consequences that can help us learn the skills we need later in life to keep ourselves and others safe.
  • If you make a mess, clean it up. Some days, it looks as if a tornado has passed through our dining room, where our daughter attends school. Markers, crayons, tiny pieces of paper, and dirty socks litter the floor. Her desk is covered in papers for various subjects. She gets frustrated that she can’t find anything. We have worked with her on re-setting her space at set times – putting everything where it belongs, whether in a folder, her school box, the recycling, or the hamper. She feels more calm and able to work when her space is clear and organized. What if adults cleaned up after themselves, especially in public spaces? If we all took responsibility for our corner of the world, things might be different.
  • Wonder. Ask questions. Explore the world. Five and six-year-old children are really good at this. Their curiosity is not easily sidetracked by agendas and to-do lists, as often happens with adults. In fact, when a child is in the midst of imaginative play or investigating something interesting, if asked to clean up, they may throw a fit! One example: our daughter had a science assignment to take pictures of different types of rocks and varying uses for rocks near our house. She made it her personal challenge to figure out how many different types of rocks were on our block and was engaged in it for almost an hour! I was simply along to keep her safe while she wandered and photographed with the iPad. We saw so many things I had never noticed before, on the streets we walk nearly every day. Try following a young child around for a while, letting their curiosity lead you both. See what you discover together, and what you learn about yourself!

While it may seem that Kindergarten is about academic basics, perhaps even more important is the foundation composed of self-responsibility, emotional intelligence, perseverance, self-confidence, flexibility, and learning from mistakes. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone (especially adults), knew these things – deep in their bones – and practiced them in their work and personal lives. Which of these life skills do you need to brush up on or pay particular attention to today?

holy spaces

Our Dining Room

This post was originally written in October 2020. While much has changed since then, a lot has also remained the same. The main difference is that the “someday” I refer to is much closer now than it was when I wrote these words, and for that, I am grateful.

The plates that hang on the wall in our dining room

A collection of plates hangs on the wall in our dining room. The plates were hand-painted by my maternal grandmother. Born in 1917, her early life was shaped by the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and two World Wars. The plates are symbols of beauty born from resilience. They come from a home filled with good food, laughter, and love, where gathering around the table was as natural as breathing.

The plates that hang in in our dining room bear witness to a piece of our lives. Until this year, our dining room was used periodically for meals with extended family and close friends. Much of the time it was quiet and unused, the one room in our house that usually remained tidy. I have fond memories in our dining room, of the types of gatherings for which I chose our lovely table – on which we have eaten good food on family heirloom china, just like in my grandmother’s house.  

In the last fourteen months, we have lived in our dining room in new ways. Last spring, I found myself filming videos at our dining room table when the COVID-19 pandemic forced us all to stay home from church. It served as an altar around which our family led the congregation in worship on Maundy Thursday and as the backdrop for story times and Sunday School lessons.

Our dining room functioned as a transitional space while we consolidated my church office into our home office, in preparation for leaving my position at the church I had served for 9 years. It served as a holding space for physical things on their way in and on their way out, and the people who have spent time around our table held emotional space for me in that time of transition.

Currently, the dining room is a home for virtual Kindergarten. It holds a laptop, crayons, scissors, pencils, paper, early reader books, and learning game supplies. It is a perpetual mess, the floor strewn with crayons, dirty socks, and tiny pieces of paper. It is where our daughter overcame her anxiety of going to a new school and where she learned to read.

Though it is rarely used for meals in this season, our dining room has been used more often, and for more purposes, than I could possibly have imagined. It may not look like it used to, but it is well-used. It is a space in which our family has learned, grown, and adapted to new circumstances. It is a room in which we have experienced love, joy, and grace in unexpected ways. It is a holy space.

Someday, we will set our table again with my grandmother’s china and gather with loved ones in close proximity. Someday. But until then, we will use the dining room for whatever purpose seems right, expanding its uses as we expand our definition of what life looks like in this season. And the plates on the wall will continue to hang there as concrete signs that we will we get through this, and eventually, beauty will emerge from the ways that we are being formed in this season.

spiritual practice

When Time Stands Still

The trees in our yard during Spring Break 2016. Look closely and you’ll see the butterflies.

It was Spring Break 2016. Whatever you imagine when you think of Spring Break, let me clarify that I was spending it with a sick toddler. Our 16-month-old daughter had a UTI, which caused her to run a fever of 103-104 degrees for several days. She was miserable and only wanted to be held, so we spent most of our time sitting by the window and looking outside or sitting on our back patio. That week, our only other activity was our daily drive to and from the doctor’s office. There was little that I could do beyond comfort her and watch her symptoms for signs that we needed to go to the ER. So, we sat quietly and cuddled while we observed our yard, day after day.

I had planned to catch up on a lot of work that week while our church preschool and other programming was on a break. At first, I was frustrated that I was missing my opportunity to be productive.

As the week went on, I settled into the realization that my “work” was to be present with my daughter. Everything else could wait. That’s when something amazing happened: I witnessed the transition from winter to spring in our backyard. I don’t mean that I noticed that it began to look like spring outside; I mean that I literally watched the transition occur.

An observant toddler, our daughter was attentive to everything and wanted a closer look at each thing she noticed. As we observed our backyard that week, the trees underwent a transformation. Where at the beginning of the week stood bare silhouettes, buds burst forth into bloom and then leaves appeared. Migrating butterflies visited our yard, feasting on flowers that only the week before were absent. I saw my backyard for the first time. In the four years we had lived in our house, I had never slowed down enough to observe and truly see it, to notice the transformation in each individual tree and plant, the various creatures that call our yard home, whether briefly or permanently.

This “interruption” to my work became a spiritual exercise in slowing down and noticing the work of God in the world around me. Time stood still for me that week. While it was not peaceful or restful to care for a sick toddler, I found that I was able to rest in God in a very profound way. My daughter’s rhythmic breathing while she leaned on my chest and her inquisitive interest in the world around her were my teachers. I was changed, transformed alongside the natural world around me, as I spent time in stillness and observed. This work turned out to be far more important than the work I had planned to do that week.

That Spring Break, I learned that I needed to practice slowing down more often, not only at points of crisis, but regularly, as an act of resistance to the never-ending demands on my time.

That was 5 years ago. A lot of life has happened since then: most notably, the birth of our second child, a global pandemic, and a career transition. Sometimes, the tasks of life overwhelm me, and I lose sight of what I learned that week. But I always return eventually to the practice of stillness, quiet, and calm, leaning into the rhythms of the natural world and my own body. When I practice slowing down, I am nourished and sustained; I feel whole and connected to the Holy.

These days, I am spending more time playing and less time working and worrying. I am learning to be led by the weather and the seasons in ways that I never have before, intuitively spending time outside as the natural world beckons me to do so. I continue to observe, watch, and learn as I spend time in God’s creation. And I am continuing to learn this from my children as we practice it together. I pray that no matter how busy life becomes as the world re-opens, we hold onto the stillness, the necessity of slowing down, the gifts of respite and rest. Those are the moments when time stands still.