Easter Eggs

We are not hosting an Egg Hunt this year. I know many churches probably don’t do Egg Hunts because it is too “secular.” They believe Easter is about the Risen Christ, not plastic eggs and candy. I respect their convictions. For us though, we think you can hold both hand in hand. Yes, the Resurrection is one of the most important events in the life of the Christian. It gives new meaning to life and death for me personally, and as a church we celebrate it heartily. At the same time, Easter provides a time for family, and celebration of spring, and new life, and Easter eggs and candy!

So we have held a very large Egg Hunt event for the past 10 years. As our church has grown, so has the egg hunt. It started on the grounds of our church, on the little bit of green space we had. Then as the campus grew, our green space diminished. So we moved it to the park.

We collected thousands of eggs, literally – over 6000 eggs last year. We divided the kids into age groups, to keep the egg hunt fair. We put up ropes and markers so we could “hide” the eggs before each group started. But because we had so many participants and so many eggs, we didn’t really hide anything. We simply poured out buckets and buckets of eggs and spread them out in the park. Then we would blow the whistle and let the “hunting” begin. Except there was no actual hunting involved. It was more of a “grabbing.”

Kids would run as fast as they could to a spot and begin grabbing as many eggs as they could put in their basket or bag. The bigger faster kids, well, got a lot more eggs. In the toddler category, sometimes it was the more aggressive parents who claimed more eggs. The whole thing was over in a matter of minutes. It was very anticlimactic. We tried adding music and a story and food over the years, but it seemed families really just wanted to come for the eggs.

Each year, after the event, I would feel a bit of angst. Something in me said, “This is all wrong.” Ultimately, our team decided that we were teaching our kids the wrong message: “Restrain yourself behind the line until it’s time to go, then race to grab as much as you can for yourself.” At Easter, when we remember the ultimate sacrifice Jesus made for all of us, the selfishness of it all seemed counterproductive.

So this year, we opted to hand the Egg Hunt tradition back to the families. Instead of participating in a giant Egg Grab with lots of other families, how about you create your own Egg Hunt for your family. Or perhaps you use this opportunity to invite neighbors or friends you’d like to know better. Maybe it is a big family event with all the grandparents and cousins. Use plastic filled eggs and traditional boiled eggs. Create an egg coloring station and let kids dye the eggs before hiding them. Fill plastic eggs with coins, special family treasures or puzzle pieces for creating a puzzle later. Let your whole family hide eggs for another family and visa versa. Let older kids hide eggs for the younger. Relish the fun of finding treasure hidden in the tall grass and shrubs. Read the Easter story aloud to all the kids and enjoy each other. Get to know your neighbors and extend an invite to church while you’re at it. Yes, the church isn’t hosting an Egg Hunt this year, but you can. Be disciples who love God and others! Happy Easter!

When your child gets a new Bible…

We hand out bibles to 2nd graders every year in May. Our church values children and this is one of the ways we celebrate significant milestones in their lives. However, we know that if we want them to develop a love for God’s word, it has to be in partnership with the families. So for our part, parents can count on our teachers and shepherds encouraging the kids to bring their bibles each week and use them in class. They’ll help them learn to find the books and chapters and get comfortable using the tools in the bible. They will also offer rewards for scripture memorization and for bringing their bible to church.

All of that will only go so far when we see them for one or two hours a week. And the parent can have only so much influence at home too.  But if we work together, the impact is tremendous! So join us in this adventure and turn your child into a bible reader for life! Try one or more of these ideas at home:

Personalize it: Get your child a Bible cover that protects the book and makes it easy to carry. Include a bible highlighter, a pencil or pen and a few bookmarks. Purchase child-friendly bible tabs to help them easily find the 66 individual books of the bible. Explain to your child that this book is their own and they can highlight, underline, write notes in the margins and even draw in the blank spots.

Enrich it: Invite parents, grandparents, other family and friends to underline or highlight their favorite stories or verses; then sign it and identify it as their favorite. Have those same family members or close friends write a letter to your child explaining the significance of the bible in their own lives. They can include their own favorite scriptures and meanings behind them and they can end with a prayer of blessing for the child and their bible. Ask the pastors and leaders of our church what their favorite scripture passages are and why. Do this through email so you can print off their responses and keep them in a special place. By the way, one of my favorite scriptures is Isaiah 40:29-31. It really helps when I feel weary or out of strength (physical and mental).

Bless it: Ask a pastor, parent, or grandparent to pray over the child and their bible. Gather as a family and put the child and their bible in the middle of a circle. Pray a special blessing, or have each person take turns saying a prayer.

Explore it: Help your child discover the table of contents, the concordance and other special sections of their bible. Try utilizing those sections for finding new stuff in the bible. Look at the unique ways this children’s bible is laid out and let your child explore the fun sections.

Celebrate it: Create or go out for a special meal to celebrate this milestone. Bring the Bible and talk to the child about how important this day is in their lives. Explain why you want them to have a bible and how they can use it in their daily lives.

Carry it: All of the celebration, discovery and enrichment of a bible will not matter if the child does not learn to use it on a daily basis. Encourage them to take it to church each week. Teach them to go to it for answers when life brings tough situations. Read parts of the bible during your regular bedtime routine, and discuss its meaning afterward.

Model it: The best way to teach a child to do something is through modeling it for them. Let them see you reading your bible. Even if you normally do this after or before they are awake, take a few opportunities to read it in front of them. Talk about how you found an important scripture in your readings that helped you. Carry your bible to church with you and keep it handy at home. The more they see you opening the bible, the more they will want to open their own.

I can hear what some of you are thinking – “What if I am new to this whole Bible thing myself? What if I don’t know the answers to their questions about the bible?” This is where it is important to understand that God isn’t expecting you all to be bible experts. God just wants to use you to show your family his love and grace. This means you can quit worrying about what you know or don’t know about God and the Bible. Just be honest with your kids. If you got a late start on your walk with God, tell them that. If you have never really read or understood the bible yourself, tell them that too. If you can’t answer their questions about the bible or God, just say, “I don’t know” and find the answers together. Learn to turn to your church family, the pastors and other leaders to find answers. Pray about things you want to understand and pray with your child. Be willing to accept the mystery of God. After all, if we understood everything about God, we wouldn’t need him would we? God will honor your eagerness to know and understand him. God loves you and wants to know you better. One great way to get to know God is by exploring the bible along side your family.

May God bless you and your family! Pastor Tina

Marriage – guest post

Enjoy this guest post from my friend Jeff Green. He wrote these lovely words in celebration of 25 years of marriage to Tricia Green. They struck a chord in me. I think they will do the same for you.

In light of our 25th anniversary, Trish and I thought a lot about how to celebrate it. We’ve decided we should (gulp) renew our wedding vows. 25 years seems like a good marker to say some nice words to each other. To put the shine on new wedding rings and cowboy boots. To make sure others know exactly how we feel.

It’s funny, people sometimes ask me how we’ve stayed together so long, and I always feel like I should give some sage advice. But the advice always seems to be that it’s work…hard work.

It’s work worth doing, don’t get me wrong. And most of the time the work isn’t even that hard. But if you don’t do it, if you try to coast through on good faith, good sex and the occasional bouquet of flowers, the whole thing will evaporate into a whisper of smoke from an untended fire.

Marriage is work, you say? What kind of work?

The simple work that makes the other person feel special. Yes, you can vomit into your puke bowl now if you wish, but the truth is that we all want someone to make us feel special. The minute you stop doing special somethings for the person you love is the minute you make them feel less special. And then they feel less loved. And then love isn’t enough. So maybe the key to marriage is putting gas in her car when it’s almost empty, or just doing the dishes. Or wearing that perfume he likes, or seeing the movie he/she really wants to see and you could care less about. See, it’s mostly the small stuff…the easy stuff.

And yet.

I think most people give up in a benign kind of way. It’s not that they don’t care, quite the contrary. But somewhere along the way they get to feeling comfortable enough, or passive-aggressive enough to stop working at it. And why not? We’re settled down now, right? And we have to spend so much of our time trying to make everyone else in our lives happy. Bosses, children, parents, friends and nosy neighbors. We figure, hey, she knows I love her. I’ll do something nice for her tonight, this weekend, next month, on her birthday…later.

When I think about the vows I’ve written for our renewal ceremony I get a little overwhelmed. Is this the time to simply thank each other for having kept the old vows, or should we try to come up with different vows, which are more representative of who we are today? Twenty-five years ago, a sweet old Pastor married us. We were scared to death he was going to forget Tricia’s name…he kept calling her Teresa. We’ve made so many promises, agreed to so many vows, that I wasn’t sure where to start this time. Frankly, I’m not totally sure I know what I agreed to the first go around.

And here’s the thing, through our ups and downs, ins and outs, highs and lows, and with the occasional thrown balled up sock (that was me), we seem to be doing a pretty good job riding the wave of our first vows. And as much as I like the symbolism of making things new again, I’m pretty content with the old stuff. Then we’ll start on the next 25 years. Which we’ll take, just like the last set, one nice deed and one thrown sock at a time.

Just Talk About It

The Search Institute published research findings from a study called Effective Christian Education: A National Study of Protestant Congregations. These findings tell us what factors were involved in producing adults who now profess a mature faith. Here’s what they found:

Certain personal experiences have a measurable positive impact on the maturity of faith of the believer. The most powerful of these experiences is conversations about God with one’s mother during the ages of 5-12. But among mainline denominations 16-18-year-olds, almost 40% say that conversation rarely or never occurred.

Talking with one’s father about faith or about God at the ages of 13-15 is another powerful correlate with mature faith, but 56% say this has happened rarely or never for them. Other powerful experiences for children and youth are talking with other relatives about faith, the experience of having family talks about faith, family service projects, and the number of friends who have strong religious interests.

Take away: Parents, talk to your kids about their faith and yours. I’ve been saying this for years; you don’t have to have formal family devotions, just make your faith a part of every day life and conversation. Make a point of using the words, God, Jesus and Faith every day. You’ll be surprised how easy it is when you try. When you struggle with an issue, talk about it, ask for prayers, and do the same for your kids. Point out when you see God’s handiwork. Talk about how God works or has worked in your life. You don’t have to show them a perfect picture of a Christian, just talk. You’ll be teaching them that Christianity is a way of life, not an event on Sundays.

Rwanda day 7

Today was our final day in the Butare area of Rwanda. We visited a few more groups and a few individual families. These are all in their first year of Zoe and they are filled with hope for their future. Each are working on group farming projects and beginning their individual businesses.

We met with one particular family who has a horrific story. Their parents were both survivors of the genocide. They lived comfortably with their five children and a grandmother. In 2010, when the community trials began for the genocide in their area, perpetrators of the genocide threw a grenade into their home so they could not bear witness to the crimes. The three older children were not at home but the two little ones (age 2 and 3) were with their parents. The parents were killed instantly, one child was not harmed and the other was hit by much shrapnel. The killers came into the home and told the babies their mother was sleeping and to go lay by her. So they did. You can imagine how traumatized they were. In fact, Epiphany would not allow us to ask their story as is the norm when we visit the children. She told us ahead of time and allowed the children to tell us only of their life for the past two years, before and after Zoe.

We ended our day in Kigali, where we would be staying for the night. We ate dinner at Hotel de Mille Collines, otherwise known as Hotel Rwanda, made famous by the movie that tells of refuge offered at the hotel during the 100-day genocide.  It was a very nice hotel and we ate by the pool with excellent service and a band playing in the background. We felt the stark contrast of our experiences over the past week with this extravagant setting. How do we justify to ourselves this difference? Not only then, but as we enter into life in America again. Where poor means an entirely different thing than in Rwanda. Where all of us have more than we need. I don’t have the answers. I only know what Jesus tells us and that is to love God above all else and to love our neighbors as ourselves. When we act out of that love, we use all that we have to serve others. I pray I can love that way.

Tomorrow we visit the genocide museum before boarding the plane. Grace and peace to you all.

Rwanda day 6

Everything in Zoe is done through working groups of 80-100 children. At their first meeting they elect a chairperson, a secretary and a treasurer. They also select a few mentors from adults who have been kind to them in their community. Then, they have regular meetings and decide how to distribute resources. They attend trainings and learn to have compassion for one another and build each other up. When one child is struggling, the others help.

Today we met a young family with the head of household (the oldest child) at age 14. He and his two siblings, twelve and eight years old, had been alone for seven years when Zoe found them. Because they were struggling more than others, the group helped them build a garden and an outhouse. That the other children can share so soon and while still struggling themselves is amazing.

Another pair of brothers, ages 12 and 13, had their small business of charcoal production stolen. They will find solace in the group. They are going to start a co-op with others and begin to watch out for each other. The mentor and other group leaders will work together to help them.

I am in awe of God at work in these children. A completely desperate situation can be turned around in a matter of months with hope, love and support of community. These children still have a long way to go. Their road is still hard. Continue to pray for them and support them in any way you can.

Final visits tomorrow as we head to Kigali for our last night in Rwanda. I am in love with this country. It will be sad to leave.

Rwanda day 5

God’s house is big. Today we joined our Rwandan friends for worship in a local church here in Butare. This is not like any church I have been in before. It was open air, on the top of a small mountain, with a gorgeous view. One of the Zoe staff told the church leaders we would be coming, so they graciously welcomed us and provided interpreters as well. But, I found the interpreters were not necessary. When the Holy Spirit is moving you can tell what they are saying. You know when they are praising God or singing songs of love for him. They did sing a few songs in English, including one that states, “this is your house, this is your home, we welcome you, we welcome you today.” It was a beautiful song and I was overcome with joy that God is truly everywhere. This is his house. Here in Rwanda; at home in Texas; everywhere. God is big enough.

We also visited a few homes of orphans who are in the second year of the program. One young girl remembered Pastor Mike and Teresa from 2 years ago. When they met her last she was new in the program and still struggling quite a bit. She is the caretaker of one sibling and a grandmother with mental illness. She told us stories today of having to sleep on the ground and being bitten by snakes before Zoe ministry. Now she has a home and a business selling avocados. Her grandmother is still sick, but is getting better with proper nutrition.

We were privileged to witness a few children graduate from trade school today. They had been trained in sewing, knitting and construction. Each group received tools for their trade along with their diplomas. It was a special ceremony.

Tomorrow we will see children in their first year of the program. We are preparing our hearts for the sadness. These children may still be struggling to adapt to the program and survival will still be at the forefront of their minds. Please pray that our presence will provide encouragement and love.

Rwanda day 4

It is truly amazing what children can do.

At one of our stops today, we met with a large group who have co-op projects farming corn and rice. They are in their second year of the program, but told us today that they are ready to graduate from Zoe. Later, when our host Gaston explained the Zoe model in more detail, he explained that this does happen from time to time. If the group has good leadership (which they elect), and everyone does well in the beginning, they can be self-supporting in less than 3 years. The group’s chairperson told us he wanted Zoe to help others who needed it more than them. We told them how proud we are of them and that we love them.

Also in this group we heard the story of Theo, who is 13, but looks like he is 8. He has been caring for two younger siblings for a few years. This group recently adopted him into their community. He told us his mother died a long, hard death of AIDS and he was with her when she passed. He began to cry and could not stop.  It was breaking all of our hearts to watch him stand across from us crying, so we motioned him to come over by us and we sat with him, hugged him and held his hand. It is hard for these children to accept affection, because they do not trust it or really know what to do with it. But we continue to give it.

Today we also witnessed a group who was quite remarkable. Many of their parents were killed in the genocide — by families of other kids in the group. They began to reconcile and take care of each other immediately after the genocide and continue now in Zoe. The amount of grace this must take is unimaginable to me. But today they were happy teenagers who shared a skit with us demonstrating life before and after Zoe. They shared their gratitude and thankfulness to God.

My heart is full and my eyes are tired. Thank you all for your prayers and support. What a gift it is to be on this trip. More tomorrow…

Rwanda day 3

Today, I was surprised by God. I don’t know why I am ever surprised by a God so big and so good, but he is working miracles beyond what I thought possible. In our visits today, the theme seemed to be one of orphans giving back to their community and to other orphans. These kids, who have only been off the streets for two years, now have their own businesses of farming, livestock, tailoring, construction, craft making and others. And, because they now have enough to live on and have some saved, they, on their own accord, decided to share with those around them.

One community went to train another younger community in their farming skills. Another group gave away ten goats to ten needy families in their neighborhood. They did not even know these families, but asked the local officials to direct them to those who were the most in need. It was a powerful moment when a child gave a goat to an elderly lady who could barely stand, then says it is because God showed him love and told him to show love to others by sharing with them.

We listened to Grace share her story of losing 9 siblings and her parents in the genocide, leaving her to live with an abusive aunt who eventually rejected her. As tears rolled down her face (and ours), she said that once she had a home and food to eat she went to find another orphan who she had met and adopted her. Grace is only 18.

We talked to a group of girls who were able to go to trade school through Zoe. Now they make beautiful clothing and are teaching others their trade so they do not have to pay for school.

We ended the day eating bread made by Vincent, who made enough to share with his group while we all celebrated their success. They gave us some beautiful hand-made gifts and a chicken. Yes, a live chicken. You will have to hear that story in person. That same young man apologized to his community for being a problem before Zoe. He said he used to steal, but now he is a respected leader in the group and is doing all he can to help his neighbors.

These kids are beautiful, humbling, and inspiring.  I wish you could all be here to see them and hug them, but we are showering them with love for you. Grace and peace be with you. More tomorrow…

Rwanda day 2

It has been a day full of stories, prayers, singing, dancing, celebrating, and cow-chasing. Yes, you read that correctly — cow-chasing. We were to present one of the orphan groups with cows, but the cattle were not cooperating. So, there were some “muzungoos” (the name for non-Rwandan people) running around, chasing cows and looking pretty silly.

We visited three villages that are all part of the community our church supports. Each of these groups are in their third year of a three-year program. They will graduate from the Zoe empowerment program later this year. This means they are almost completely self-sufficient now. They can provide their own food, they have homes to lives in and they can even make some food to save and help others. It is amazing because most of these families are led by children. Yet, this program uses their child-like faith, curiosity and energy to their favor. I tell people often that children can achieve great things just as adults, and this is a testament to that belief.

We heard many children tell stories of life on the street — begging, stealing, or working a full day for just a few bananas. When they went to the initial Zoe meeting in their communities some were disappointed because they just wanted food. They did not want to start a new life, work with others, or even trust adults who were trying to help them. They had no hope and no belief that they were worthy. Some said they did not even feel human. But now, two years later, they dance, sing and celebrate how good God has been to them. Their faith and perseverance are incredible. I wish you all could be here to see their beautiful faces and feel their hugs. Continue to pray for them, for life is still hard and there are still obstacles to overcome.