I met Bryan almost exactly a year ago when a dear friend and colleague posted on social media looking for resources for a middle schooler who was (understandably) “angry with God for not ‘taking care of things; a little faster – and why God allows us to keep screwing things up.” I commented that I definitely wanted someone to write a “theodicy for progressive Christian kids” book, Bryan responded, we had a great time working on it, and Bad Things, Good People, and God: A Guide for Teensis now available wherever books are sold.
Bryan is the author of four young adult novels including We’ll Fly Away (long-listed for the 2018 National Book Award) and Thoughts & Prayers. He’s also a former youth minister and curriculum designer, a parent, a theologian, and in the process of becoming an Episcopal priest. So, really, he’s the perfect person to write this particular book — a thoughtful, provocative, and humorous exploration of a serious, weighty, and ancient topic: why bad things happen, how God is involved, why it matters to us, and what we can do about it.
Bad Things, Good People and God takes on Bible stories, big ideas, and theologians and issues both historical and contemporary. It’s honest and fresh. What I love most about this book is that it empowers youth to construct and claim their own theodicies:
Let’s take a deep breath.
Just because there isn’t an easy answer (any answer?) to the problem of evil—why bad things happen—doesn’t mean we need to live in a state of constant anxiety or dread. It is not an overstatement to say this is the biggest question of faith. It’s also a question that all of us must wrestle with, cobble together some semblance of an answer, and claim our place as theologians in the world.
Because what you have to say matters. Your theology matters. Your view of the world reveals another glimmer of truth—some small answer—to these big questions.
Ultimately, these challenging questions can’t be neatly answered once and for all, but we — and our faith — are stronger for wrestling with them. I’m grateful for Bryan’s wisdom and wisecracks, and the passion he has for diving deep into the messiness of life with God and the rest of us.
During the first 18 months of the pandemic, I had a new job, as an editor and the Christian formation specialist at Church Publishing Incorporated in New York City. I spent all but eight days working from a corner of our kitchen table in Brooklyn, and one of the very best things I did there was to acquire and edit New Directions for Holy Questions: Progressive Christian Theology for Familiesby Claire Brown and Anita Peebles. It was a joy and a privilege to work on, and I am so glad it’s out in the world!
This is a book for those who come to Christianity with open hearts and open minds, for the curious, for children and others who have big questions about God and Jesus and the Bible — questions that often lead to more wondering rather than simple answers, questions Christians have wrestled with throughout the ages.
Each chapter asks a holy question and begins with a retelling of a Bible story. Thoughtful conversation prompts and opportunities for both action and reflection lead the reader in new directions. You’ll find spiritual practices to try, a justice story that gives a real-life illustration of the concept being discussed, and a few summary points at the end of each chapter to give adults suggestions for talking about these big ideas with children not yet old enough to read. The authors write from a perspective that embraces anti-racism, gender equality, economic justice, care of the environment, affirmation of LGBTQ+ folks, trauma-informed practice, and global citizenship.
Following Jesus is a journey, and Claire and Anita are wonderful, insightful companions on the way for children and adults alike. More enriching conversation can be found on the book’s website and podcast. You can read an excerpt on the Church Publishing website here.
A homily preached on Christmas Eve 2021 at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, Seattle, Washington
When I was six years old, I came home from church on Christmas Eve, made my little brother put on his bathrobe, plopped a dish towel on top of his head, and brought him into the living room, where I draped a lacy crocheted afghan over my own head and shoulders, tightly swaddled my doll Tabitha in a flannel receiving blanket, and directed my first nativity pageant. The story we tell every year on this night, the one that so vividly lives in our hearts and imaginations, is about the Holy Family, Mary and Joseph and Jesus, but it is also deeply and truly, a story about us.
You may know the story of the day you were born. You may hold the story of the birth of your child, or a sibling. When you were born, stars danced and angels sang. Every birth is a miracle, and every child is holy. How do I know? Let me tell you another story:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters… And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”
The very first thing that God spoke into being was light. And in this story, every time God makes something, God looks at it and calls it good. God creates us—humans—in God’s own image and calls us good. We carry within us the light of our creator. We are light bearers, all of us.
During the Christmas pageant at Saint Mark’s, when we get to the part where Jesus is born, the manger glows. Mary and Joseph wear golden haloes that catch and reflect the light. Here’s a secret about Baby Marilee, who played Jesus on Tuesday night: she glows, too. And so does her sister Esmé, and so do her parents, who played Mary and Joseph. So do you.
Mary brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes just like I swaddled my doll, just like my mother swaddled my brother and me, because babies love to be swaddled, they are calmed and soothed by the snugness of the cloth wrapped around them. There was no room for them in the inn because the busy inn was no place to deliver a baby. Mary needed privacy, quiet and warmth, perhaps in the room on the ground floor, where the most important animals—the cow, the ox, and the donkey—would be brought in at night for safekeeping. The manger may have been a hollow in the floor, with fresh, sweet-smelling hay, the perfect spot for a baby to snuggle down. Jesus, God’s own child, was born in this simple, ordinary way. God comes to us in the messy, everyday miracles of life and love.
One Godly Play story begins like this: “There once was someone who said such wonderful things and did such amazing things that people just had to ask him who he was. Once when they asked him, he said, ‘I am the light…’”
Another time, Jesus told the ones listening to his stories, “You are the light of the world.” The light shines in each of us. By this light, we see God in each other: in family, friends, and strangers. Through small acts of kindness and courage, the light grows and spreads. Everyone glows with the light of God’s love. Everyone is holy.
… Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer, p. 308
Whatever the season or reason for gift-giving, these words from the Episcopal prayer for the newly baptized encourage a different mindset, a way of thinking about giving gifts that will be truly nurturing. While not all of these suggestions are overtly religious, some invite the connection to God and the Holy; others ask us to be a part of God’s transforming work in the world.
An inquiring and discerning heart:
The Episcopal Diocese of Washington (DC) has created three card decks, one for children, one for youth, and one for adults, for lively conversations about five spiritual practices of discipleship: Pray, Learn, Serve, Give, and Share. These can be used intergenerationally, at gatherings, around the dinner table, or before bed.
What is God Like? by Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner (2021) is a beautifully illustrated picture book that uses images of God in scripture to show us glimpses of God’s expansive love for all people, everywhere.
WholeheartedFaith by Rachel Held Evans and Jeff Chu (2021) is a final book of essays by this beloved progressive Christian author, with essentially the same message as her children’s book—simply, that God’s love is without limits, conditions, or rules. Highly recommended for high school youth through adults.
The courage to will and to persevere:
Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints 2022 Wall Calendar — whether or not you have read the wonderful book of the same name by Daneen Akers, you’ll appreciate this vibrant wall calendar for all ages. Highlighting the lives of twelve holy troublemakers of different faiths who are women, LGBTQ, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, the calendar also includes “important holidays from diverse faith traditions, social justice movement anniversaries, and dates that help us remember that joy is an essential part of holy troublemaking.”
Glenys Nellist recounts the timeless story of the Incarnation–God coming into the world as Jesus, born of Mary–through a gentle retelling of scripture from the Old and New Testaments over twenty-five days in her newest book, ‘Twas the Season of Advent. Beautifully and sensitively illustrated by Elena Selivanova, the stories, which begin with a rhyme following the style of the beloved Christmas poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and include the scripture citation, are meant to be read one each day from December 1 through Christmas Day. Each ends with a simple prayer. A downloadable activity pack is available to help families deepen and further the conversation. A wonderful addition to the rich treasury of Advent and Christmas stories, ‘Twas theSeason of Advent may become a new tradition to add to your holiday devotions or bedtime ritual.
What I remember most vividly about that day was the color of the sky—a deep, clear blue that we remarked on to strangers in awe and wonder, minutes earlier. I was on a crosstown bus transporting a heavy bag of books to my new office at Church of the Heavenly Rest on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where I had recently joined the staff as Director of Religious Education. Just before my stop, the bus driver’s radio alerted us to the fact that there’d been an accident in lower Manhattan and all buses were being diverted and would not be allowed below 14th Street.
Tuesdays are staff meeting days in many churches, and at Heavenly Rest we began at 9 a.m. with Morning Prayer and the news that a plane had hit one of the twin towers. When someone rushed in to tell us of the second plane, we realized that this was vastly different from the sad but understandable accident we could imagine involving a small passenger plane. The sexton immediately went and got the Paschal candle, lit it, and placed it in the center of the chancel, where it stayed lit for months. Immediately we began planning a worship service for that evening. Whenever the phones rang—and service was sporadic that day—it was someone asking how they could help.
Around lunchtime, I went out with the communications director and put up flyers announcing the service in shop windows and on pillars and posts. As we did so, we noticed people in twos and threes—almost never alone—coated from head to toe in white dust, slowly and silently streaming up Fifth Avenue. At 5 pm, the church was filled with people from all over the neighborhood, whether or not they had any connection to Heavenly Rest, whether or not they identified as Christian. Communion was offered to every single person who was present. In the days and weeks that followed, I held fast to the words of Psalm 46 that was chosen for worship:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea; Though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble at its tumult. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be overthrown; God shall help her at the break of day. The nations make much ado, and the kingdoms are shaken; God has spoken, and the earth shall melt away. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. Come now and look upon the works of the LORD, what awesome things he has done on earth. It is he who makes war to cease in all the world; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire. “Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.” The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
The Gospel that was appointed for Sunday, September 16, 2001 was Luke 15:1–10: God searches for all the lost ones, finds us, and brings us home, rejoicing.
For no reason other than I felt drawn, I went back to church after lunch. As I came through the front door and my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I could see two people sitting in the front pew of the otherwise empty sanctuary: a woman and a young girl. I grabbed a few blank index cards and a fistful of crayons from a basket, walked over, and knelt beside them. Softly, I introduced myself and handed the child the crayons and index cards.
“This is Annie, and I’m her aunt,” the woman told me. “Annie’s father died on Tuesday, and she is wondering who is keeping her safe now.”
I took a deep breath, said a silent prayer, and began.
“Well, Annie, your mother and your aunts and uncles are keeping you safe. So are the firefighters, and the police officers, the mayor and the president.” I paused and pointed to the Paschal candle in front of us. “Do you see this candle? We sometimes call it the Christ candle, and it’s there to remind us that God’s love is stronger than anything, even death. Jesus is here with us, and we are safe in God’s love.”
I don’t remember if I said anything else. What I will never forget is that Annie drew three pictures. The first was of the paschal candle, the second was of the dark church with jewel-bright stained-glass windows, and the third was the sun blazing in the sky. Annie knew. I simply reminded her.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
St. Paul’s Chapel, the oldest public building in continuous use in New York City, stands opposite the site of the World Trade Center. It is the city’s only remaining Colonial-era church and by something like a miracle, it was completely undamaged on September 11, save for a one hundred-year-old sycamore tree that was uprooted in the churchyard. A survivor, too, of the Great Fire of 1776, George Washington prayed there on his inauguration day. And from October 2001 through May of 2002, St. Paul’s was a place of refuge and rest for the recovery workers. It was staffed around the clock with hundreds of volunteers, some with specialties like massage therapy and podiatry, and others who served hot meals, made up beds in pews, played the piano, prayed with the firefighters, police officers, and construction workers, and listened to their stories.
The October night I was there as a volunteer, two men arrived from South Carolina in a U-Haul truck carrying 3000 pairs of steel-toed boots. The fires were still so hot that the soles of the men’s boots were continually melting. At midnight I went out to the smoldering pile with a few others, carrying a basket with bottles of cold water, packets of tissues, eye drops, and pewter angel tokens that had been the gift of a parishioner at the church where I was then working. The angel tokens were all the firefighters wanted. “Thank you,” they whispered over and over. Imagine. They were thanking us.
When I got home, I found that the red tennis shoes I was wearing were entirely coated with fine white dust. They could not be cleaned. I could not throw them away, nor could I wear them again. I think of God speaking to Moses from the burning bush:
Remove the sandals from your feet for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.
Each of these books takes us through a season or two of the church year, with vibrant and colorful scenes from scripture, nature, and a child’s daily life. Mystery, wonder, and celebrations large and small are woven throughout. The connections between church and home, scripture and our own stories are beautifully made, and you’ll find simple, meaningful ideas and practices to try.
In the Godly Play story, The Circle of the Church Year, we are reminded
It is all here. Everything we need. For every beginning there is an ending, and for every ending there is a beginning. It goes on and on. Forever and ever.
Wherever we find ourselves in the circle, we have companions on the way who help us follow Jesus. Laura Alary and her guides are wonderful companions.
Laura has many other books you’ll want to add to your library. Learn more about her and them here.
The Great Vigil of Easter was made for pillow forts. No, really. I am utterly convinced that this, the holiest night of the year, the jewel of our liturgical celebrations, is perfect for home, in pajamas, under two chairs covered by a blanket. We begin in darkness.
It would be wonderful if someone kindled an impressive new fire outside. If you are participating as a church, show this on camera and please light the Paschal Candle from it. If you are doing this as a household and have a fire pit or fireplace, by all means, make a blaze safely. A fat candle in a glass jar will also be lovely. This is the prayer:
Dear friends in Christ: On this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer. For this is the Passover of the Lord, in which, by hearing his Word and celebrating his Sacraments, we share in his victory over death.
Let us pray.
O God, through your Son you have bestowed upon your people the brightness of your light: Sanctify this new fire, and grant that in this Paschal feast we may so burn with heavenly desires, that with pure minds we may attain to the festival of everlasting light; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Next comes the Exsultet, the ancient Easter proclamation dating from the 4th century. It is usually chanted. You could listen to this beautiful rendition, which includes praise to the bees from whose wax the Paschal candle was made, or read the first three verses aloud:
Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels, and let your trumpets shout Salvation for the victory of our mighty King.
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth, bright with a glorious splendor, for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.
Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church, and let your holy courts, in radiant light, resound with the praises of your people.
Now it’s time for the stories, the record of God’s saving deeds through history. Tell them as if you are around a campfire in the desert. Hold a flashlight under your chin.
You don’t need to use all the stories. Actually, please don’t use them all. I recommend Creation, Exodus, Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones, and Zephaniah 3:14-20. If you are doing this over Zoom, let households choose the story the want to tell. Perhaps they’ll use poetry, music, drama, a picture book, various translations, a children’s Bible. Invite people illustrate the stories in advance (or maybe create a scene using LEGO bricks and snap a photo?) so you can share them with everyone.
If you are doing this with just your own family, I suggest James Weldon Johnson’s poem Creation, found here, or Phyllis Root’s charming picture book, Big Momma Makes the World. Exodus 14:10-31 is always read; I like Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message. At the line, “The Egyptians came after them in full pursuit” invite the listeners to slap their thighs, making a thundering soundof the Egyptians in pursuit, which should end abruptly at the line, “the sea returned to its place as before.”
Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones is next. I have found children love to be the bones. Remind them that bones lie very still! At the rattling (a maraca?), they roll on the floor. At the sound of God’s breath, they stand, and maybe dance? I suggest that the final reading before the Gospel be this, from the prophet Zephaniah, describing what it will be like when the Messiah comes.
It’s almost time. Have bells for ringing and pots and pans for banging at the ready, and someone will want to fling on all the lights. You’re all going to shout the Easter acclamation, three times:
Alleluia! Alleluia! We sing this night, joining heaven and earth that rejoice with delight. Jesus, our Lord, is risen today. God’s love and light is here to stay. Joining heaven and earth that rejoice with delight, Alleluia! Alleluia! We sing this night. Amen.
And what a year it’s been. I am grateful to be sharing with you the words and wisdom of others.
This brief essay, Hello, Gorgeous gave me a big boost today. Read the whole lovely thing, but this is the most important part:
For the past year productivity has not been the thing. Efficiency has not been the thing. Endurance, stamina, and resilience have been the things. Hope has been a thing. Doing the right thing has been a thing. Ultimately, though, this isn’t about what you did. It’s about who you are. You are still here and that is worth celebrating. You, Gorgeous, are beloved of God. You are worth celebrating.
Illustrated Ministry, which has created so much good stuff especially this year, has free prayers and coloring sheets of them here.
We begin this day Looking back over one year Of the deafening flood of this pandemic. Silence We begin this day With trust. Feeling that we are beloved and held by your Presence. We begin this day With hope. Knowing that each day can share Love, courage, forgiveness and reconciliation. Silence We recall the last year heavy with loss. For the confidence that has been stripped away. For the shock of emptiness and anxiety and unimagined fears. For the flickers of guilt and kindled regret of all that was left undone. For the strangeness of struggling to understand and struggling to breathe. For the overwhelmed-ness of households that are not okay. For the tolling bells and enumerated candles that barely define the countless heartbreak. One year of together apart. May we learn, may we love, may we carry on. God is with us. Silence We recall the last year offering thanks and praise For the chance to focus on what matters to God. For creativity to meet the challenges, For the technology that keeps us connected, and the science that is leading us forward. For the companion animals who have brought us newness. For the strength to hold onto blessings and the wisdom to let go of what no longer gives life. For the reminder that to be the church is not to be a club or a building, Instead, a commitment of practice to embody Christ wherever we are. One year of together apart. May we learn, may we love, may we carry on. God is with us. Silence May we find the wisdom we need in the days of the pandemic that are in front of us. God is with us. May we hear the needs of those around us. Christ is with us. May we love the life that we are given. The Spirit is with us. Amen.
Traci Smith wrote a simple prayer that’s great for all ages:
God you are with us all the time. All the time you are with us.
Today we remember. We remember how things used to be. We remember how many things we have gone through. We remember things we missed and people we lost.
Today we hope. We hope for healing. We hope for vaccines. We hope for wisdom.
Today we share. We share smiles with one another. We share our joys and our sorrows. We share our dreams for the future.
God you are with us, all the time. All the time, you are with us. Be with us as we remember, hope, and share. Amen.
That’s what I have for you, dear ones–prayers and a reminder that you are beloved and not alone. May that be enough right now.
Palm Sunday is one of my favorite days of the year. It marks the beginning of Holy Week, when we tell in story and song and pageantry of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem the week before he died and rose again. All four gospels recount that he came into the city not astride a great white stallion as would befit a king, but on a humble donkey, and thousands hailed him, laying down their cloaks and palm branches on the path before him, singing “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
One Lent my friend Hershey and I thought it would be fun if we could find a donkey to lead the Palm Sunday procession for five blocks along Broadway in lower Manhattan, from St. Paul’s Chapel to Trinity Church. Can’t you just see the stunned tourists and charmed children? We never actually thought our boss would agree, but he did, and each year thereafter, it was my job to wrangle the donkey. Just finding one was a challenge, for as Rob in Yonkers once pointed out to me, “Palm Sunday is like New Year’s Eve for donkeys.” So that’s something you don’t need to worry about at home.
You also don’t need to worry about palms. As my friend Bruce Jenneker explains in this short video, “All over the world people have chosen to use the branches that are common to them.” You could decorate your door with palms or any leafy branch, because one of the most touching things about Palm Sunday is the element of public witness, of welcoming the King of Kings. Illustrated Ministry even has a free downloadable palm branch to print and color, as in the photo above from a family participating in online worship at my church in 2020. Wherever we are, we enter into the story, we connect to it, to Jesus, to our communities of faith, to one another.
We could take time, and not even a long time, with the scriptures each day during Holy Week, using a technique from Ignatian spirituality called Imaginative Prayer. What I love about this is that it works well with people of all ages, and could be done at home or with others on Zoom. It’s best when one person reads the Gospel aloud. I suggest using the Common English Bible. The readings for all of Holy Week can be found here. As you listen, put yourself in the story, or imagine that you are one of the people in the story. Think about where you are, how you feel. Read the story again. Name, or draw, or write down what you smell, taste, touch, see, and hear, giving at least one detail in each category. Remember that in scripture, we find ourselves–at the gates of Jerusalem, in the Temple courts, having supper in the Upper Room, falling asleep in the garden, hearing the cock crow three times, trembling at the foot of the cross, wondering at the empty tomb.