VBS 2014 Ponderings

DSCN2128Last week was Vacation Bible School at Peakland United Methodist. It was my second VBS at Peakland, probably my 34th since birth – maybe 35th because I wouldn’t be surprised if I was at a VBS while in the womb. I’ve been pondering that this VBS was probably one of the best VBSs I’ve ever been to.

Perhaps it was the 100 children in the building.

Perhaps it was the close to 45 youth and adult volunteers who made it happen.

Perhaps it was the amazing curriculum from Group Publishing: Weird Animals.

Perhaps it was the excitement of putting loose change in a water-filled pool for Heifer International.

Perhaps it was the coordination across the generations in the various mission projects throughout the week.

Or perhaps it was the endless message of the gospel: Jesus loves you.

Every day during the week we were reminded just how much Jesus loves us. Even though we are left out, are different, don’t understand, do wrong, or are afraid, Jesus still loves us. We were often reminded of that love and that grace throughout the week. Even though we aren’t sure we want to be at VBS and scream and kick and hide under the table, Jesus loves us. Even though we hit our friend while on the playground or be difficult with our adult leaders, Jesus loves us. Even though we get really upset when we lose a game and stomp our feet, Jesus loves us.

Perhaps it was reading the blog posts that some of our adult and youth volunteers wrote about VBS. It was clear that there was a joy that moved way beyond the children to the volunteers as well. Perhaps it was leading the Bible story station with Pastor John. We took turns. I would go from telling the Bible story to 5-6 graders, to 2nd graders, to young 4-year-olds. The young 4s were the only group that did their Bible story in the “jungle” (also known as the Narthex). They listened – I mean – listened – to the stories and asked questions. They were engaged and willing to participate in the storytelling.

dscn2541-2Perhaps it was the willingness of so many of the children to let me wash their feet during one of the Bible stories (based on John 13). Even though they didn’t understand, they were okay with it. And even though I had to wash my hands a number of times that day to get rid of that “I just touched feet” smile, it was okay. Because something spiritual, something holy, had happened. We were being Christ-like.

And perhaps that’s what made this VBS so special. We were all being Christ-like. Yeah, we had fun with the puppets and the playground. We had fun making stuff – but most of that stuff was for other people, like our friends at the Williams Home or L’Arche. We saw some really weird animals, but at the same time we learned that its okay to be different, like our friend Ray who brought some of his weird animals for us to see. I saw children patiently and humbly help their classmates who were different adjust and remind them of what was going on. I saw adult and youth volunteers take special care for those children who needed a little bit of extra attention during parts of the day. And I saw parents, filled with hope, pick up their children and rejoice with them when they learned how much money they had raised for Heifer International.

It was a good week – it was an amazing week! And after a week or so of rest, we just might start planning next year’s VBS.


Richmond Mission: Day Four

On Thursday, the mission team worked with Hands Up Ministries in Richmond. I found out about Hands Up from my friend Debbie Ireland, who is a board member. Hands Up Ministries was founded by Cassie Matthews and her husband JT. I first met Cassie through Richmond Metro Work Camp which was a week-long mission experience I participated in as a youth and then later took youth in my youth group to. I have always known Cassie has a servant. In 2007, as she tells it on the Hands Up Ministries website, something began stirring in her as she was volunteering that it was possible to do more. In 2008, after getting involved in job training and other transformational projects, Cassie and JT started filing the 501©3 so that Hands Up Ministries could become a non-profit. You can like them on Facebook and see their stories and pictures.

Our group worked on a number of different projects. One group worked on painting Ms. Janet’s front porch. One of the standards at Hands Up Ministries, is that you can receive help if you are willing to help yourself. The paint that we used was paint that Ms. Janet had purchased and she was out there painting too!

The painting crew with Ms. Janet
The painting crew with Ms. Janet

Another group spent time with Mrs. Hall, an elderly woman who had just lost her husband a few days before we arrived. Mrs. Hall loves plants! Debbie had gotten over $100 worth of plants donated by Home Depot and the group that worked at Mrs. Hall’s planted them in pots.

The planting crew with Mrs. Hall
The planting crew with Mrs. Hall

Across the street from the Hands Up base is a basketball court. At times the game gets loud, and usually when that happens, the police arrive and the game is shut down. The young men playing are no longer allowed to be on the basketball court. Hands Up, through many donations, including a basketball net and pole from VCU, was able to pour its own court. One group worked on removing the wooden frame that was used to pour the concrete.

David removing the frame for the new basketball court
David removing the frame for the new basketball court

Logan used a weed-eater to trim around the fence and community garden. Some moved rocks that would be used for a flower garden near the basketball court. And another group went to Home Depot to get supplies to build a Little Free Library.

Logan weed eater
Logan using the weed-eater

We were thrilled to have lunch provided by Sarah’s Aunt Nancy. After lunch, we packed up and headed back to Trinity for what was becoming a daily nap time. A stop at Starbucks and a couple of U-turns later, we got on I-95 to head to Petersburg for the final night of the Jedi Academy VBS. The outdoor game activities were water games. It was tough saying good-bye to all the kids. We had gotten just as attached to them as they did to us.

Sarah and her Aunt Nancy
Sarah and her Aunt Nancy

After VBS, Blandford UMC held an ice cream social for the VBS volunteers, which was loads of fun. The adventure, however, did not stop there. The rental van’s right tire – the same right tire that was “fixed” a few days ago – had gone flat once again. Jacob at Blandford let the group hang out at the church and watch a movie, while we waited for Bill, the Building Manager from Trinity UMC, come rescue us in their church bus. It was a long night, but we were all thankful for Bill and the hospitality of Trinity UMC for taking care of us. It was a good reminder that serving is a two-way street. While we serve, we need to be open to being served.


Richmond Mission: Day Three

Our middle of the week morning project was at United Methodist Family Services (UMFS) on Broad Street. In 1900, Virginia Methodists started an orphanage. The once farm land has now turned into a huge campus of facilities for counseling, a charter school, and group homes for adolescents. It is a highly run campus for foster care and adoption.

Our group broke up into two working groups. One group focused on assembling much needed office furniture, while another group dug out weeds from a flower bed. Some of the dirt was used to fill holes around campus.

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After lunch at Westhampton United Methodist provided by some United Methodist clergy women in Richmond, the group took a well deserved nap. Everyone napped!

Of course, you can’t go to Richmond, without going to Krispy Kreme!

Krispy Kreme

Then it was back to Jedi Academy VBS at Blandford United Methodist in Petersburg. We were told more than once how excited the children were to have the youth group there with them. One little girl was not planning to be there because she had dance. After the first two nights, she told her babysitter she wasn’t going to dance, she was going to VBS!

Each night started off with Jacob (the pastor at Blandford), Anna, and Belle leading the group in Jedi Yoga, like the “Speed-racer”:

Jedi Yoga

Wednesday night was also when I met a new buddy who we will call Lucas. Lucas is going into the 5th grade this fall and lives in a  nearby trailer park. Of all the trailer parks in Petersburg, this particular park gets frequent calls to the police department. It is known for its high drug use and alcohol abuse. I spent some time Thursday evening talking with a Sheriff’s deputy from Petersburg about the trailer park.

Lucas decided he did not want to be at Bible school and was not going to go with his group. So, he stayed in the sanctuary with his mother. But, after his mother left him to go to the adult class, Lucas not only left the sanctuary, he ran through the yard towards the woods. After he went back inside, I laid down on the floor while he played a game on a cell phone to talk to him. We eventually made it into crafts with his group, went to Bible story, and finally to games outside.

It didn’t end there. Once it was time to go, Lucas ran away from someone into the women’s bathroom. I saw him running, and followed him in there. He had locked himself into the bathroom stall. We talked for a bit. He said a few things and then finally, “I’m hungry.” So we made a deal that if he came out and walked with me, we would ask his mom to get him some leftover VBS food. He unlocked the door and came out.

One of the youth Wednesday night brought up in our discussion that the reason we are here is love on these children who have crossed our paths this week. We don’t have to teach them the Bible, or share deep theological understandings. We simply need to love.

Richmond Mission: Day Two

Our motto for the week is becoming: “Every day is an adventure.”

After dropping off the team at Good Shepherd United Methodist in Glen Allen, I took the rental van to the shop the rental company uses to have one of the tires looked at. I watched for a few minutes, went inside and came back to find this:


I went back inside for a bit, and then came back outside and found this:


The mechanic found a nail in the tire and replaced it with a new tire.

The group worked at Good Shepherd United Methodist this morning. One crew cleaned their hospitality House, where they allow families to live for a short period of time as they transition. The previous family, however, left unannounced and when they did so, left the house in quite a disarray of dirtiness. There were dirty dishes in the sink at least three weeks old, used diapers, rings of dirt (or more) in the tub. It was a mess! The group that worked on the house was faithful to getting it clean and spotless, as well as loading a pick-up truck full of trash.

Other teams helped organize a craft closet and cleaned Nursery toys. Later the group moved storage cabinets into a storage room, after moving everything out of the room.

Good Shepherd provided an incredible lunch, sending with us sodas, homemade cupcakes, and other treats to snack on. Everyone has been very generous with feeding us so far. We will not go hungry! After returning to Trinity, just about everyone took a nap. It was a quiet hour and a half.

Tonight, we returned to Blandford United Methodist Church for day two of Jedi Academy VBS. This was the site in the van on the way:

van - sleep

Tonight we talked about Thomas doubting and how we have the power to choose to believe. We continued to have fun with the children of Blandford, singing songs, doing Jedi Yoga, crafts, and games. The greatest gift the team is giving is loving these children unconditionally.

This was the site in the van leaving Blandford, giving testimony to the power of doing God’s work:

wide awake

Richmond Mission: Day One

The group shook, rattled, and bumped in the 15-passenger rental van to Richmond today. The team is staying at Trinity United Methodist Church. We arrived to bountiful lunch provided by one of the United Methodist Women circles in the church.

A welcoming dessert at lunch today.
A welcoming dessert at lunch today.

After a time of gathering, explaining, and pondering, the group headed to Blandford United Methodist in Petersburg for a Vacation Bible School. Rev. Jacob Sahms put together a pretty awesome VBS called, “Jedi Academy.” Using the theological themes found in the Star Wars films, the children will discuss and explore what it means to be a Jedi.

In addition to singing, and hearing about Jesus being tempted, the children made their own light sabers from pool noodles, and played games outside. The group had an awesome time tonight with the children at Blandford and look forward to the rest of the week. Here are a few scenes from tonight:

Echoes from the Burning Bush

The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. (Exodus 3:2, Common English Bible)

Moses was out minding his own business, keeping watch over his flock. It was a pretty normal day, as normal days go. Moses was born to a Hebrew slave, raised in the Egyptian palace, fled to Midian after killing another man, and there he married the daughter of Jethro, a Midianite priest. Life was far from normal for this man.

Life had started to get okay. No more pretending. No more running. No more looking over his shoulder.

Echoes from the Burning Bush - jasoncstanley.com

In the normal and the mundane of everyday life, Moses saw something extraordinary. It was bush burning. At first, it was just part of the mundane. It was not all that uncommon for a shepherd like Moses to see such a site. But this site was different. While the bush was on fire, it was not burning up. Moses had to get a closer look, wouldn’t you?

And as he did, he heard the words, “Take off your shoes, you are standing on holy ground.”

There have been a lot paintings, movies, and sermons about this man named Moses; about his answering of God’s call and his leadership. Kathy Beach-Verhey, in the Interpretation journal, reminds us as is so often the case in the Bible, that this calling of Moses story is more about who God is and what God does.

God speaks.

God spoke to Moses in the midst of the mundane. God spoke in the midst of his work day. God spoke in the midst of looking out for his sheep.

In the midst of our everyday, mundane lives, we too can hear echoes from the burning bush. In the midst of cooking dinner, God speaks. In the midst of getting the kids to school, God speaks. In the midst of changing diapers, God speaks. In the midst of feeding the dog, God speaks. In the midst of driving to work, God speaks. In the midst of answering phones in a cubicle, God speaks.

And God speaks, because God hears.

Exodus is clear, God has heard the cries of God’s people. The people who are enslaved and oppressed in a foreign land have been crying out to their God. When God’s people cry, God cries. When God’s people suffer, God suffers. When God’s people are oppressed, God is oppressed.

When God hears, God speaks.

God speaks to us in the midst of our mundane and normal lives because their are others around who are living oppression and who are suffering. The echo from the burning bush rings in our ears and our hearts. Sometimes it is a bush on fire. Sometimes it is a whisper in the night. Sometimes it is a song we sing. Sometimes it is in the words we read.

However God speaks to us, God is calling us to set God’s people free. And like Moses, we might get a little nervous, anxious, or even may try and get out of it. What is important, however, is that no matter what the task is, no matter how high the wall of oppression is, no matter how heartbreaking the suffering, God will always be with us.

It is the promise that God has given down through the ages. “I will be you with always.” When we answer the call – whatever that call may be – we accept a huge responsibility, just as Moses did. No matter, God is with us offering compassion and guidance.

Are you listening to the echoes from the burning bush in your life?

Helping the Philippines

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), a missional branch of the United Methodist Church, has been on the ground since the Typhoon hit in the Philippines a few weeks ago.

The images we see break our hearts. And they move us to want to do something. In times of crisis like this, the last thing that relief workers need, however, is stuff. The best way to help is to send money. This way the relief workers will be able to purchase what they need when it is needed. Plus, they support the local economy. As the images scroll across your computer screen or televisions, know that 100% of the money donated to UMCOR is there in the Philippines at work.

Here is a short video that UMCOR put together and posted on YouTube. For more information about the work that UMCOR does, visit their web site, umcor.org.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel*

One of my favorite Advent hymns is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.  We sang a few verses the other Sunday (July 14) in worship.  I know it seems strange to be singing a Christmas carol in the middle of July.  But, hey, why not?

We sing it during Advent and Christmas because we are awaiting the arrival of the Christ-child to be born in our midst.  The Christ-child who was born in a barn, with no fanfare likely deserved for the One who will save all of humanity.  Much like Clark Kent, Jesus’ birth and arrival on planet Earth, went mostly unnoticed.  And yet, the hymn is calling for God to dwell among humanity.

I once heard a trio sing it at a concert acapella, which is when I paid so much more attention to the words.  Ever since then it has been one of my favorites.  When we sing this hymn we are asking for Emmanuel – God With Us – Jesus Christ – to “ransom captive” those in “lonely exile” and to “disperse the gloomy clouds of night.”

There are individuals and families right here in Lynchburg who are not able to meet the basic needs for their families, put a basic meal together, or have seasonally appropriate clothing.   They are “captive” to poverty, living in “lonely exile” and in the midst of “gloomy clouds.” Peakland partners with ministries like Lynchburg Daily Bread, Rivermont Food Pantry, and Park View Community Mission (and others!) who are working to release the captive, feed the hungry, and shine on the gloomy clouds.

My hope is that your prayer – our prayer – will be “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  Come, God With Us, and dwell among us as we strive to love others, release the captive, feed the hungry, and shine Light on the gloomy clouds.  Amen.

*This first appeared as a From the Deacon column at Peakland United Methodist. 

Missional Quote

From Jen Hatmaker’s Interrupted: An Adventure in Relearning the Essentials of Faith:

Missional at its core means “sent.” It is the opposite of “come to us.” So many believers have selected their pet conecpt of the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations” but neglect the prerequisite instruction: “Go.” Going is the noble history of the Trinity. God sent Jesus to dwell among fallen humanity – not to visit, not to remain separated, not to rescue. Upon Jesus’ resurrection, God sent the Spirit from the heights of heaven to the heart of every believer, an indwelling.

It’s not that Christian influence is bad (well, not all bad), but followed exclusively it distorts our perception of real life and our role in it.  We turn a blind eye to the customs, cultures, communities, and contexts where people live their lives with different preferences and worldviews right next door to us.  The problem with Christian segregation is the idea that God asked us to be on mission with Him, sent us to some group of people somewhere, and wants us to minister to them in a way that meets their needs by speaking their language.

New York Mission: 9/11 Memorial

One of the highlights of the mission trip to New York was the expected visit to a 9/11 memorial. A highlight because I had hoped that we would get a chance to visit the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero.

One of the church members from Christ Community suggested and then took us to a 9/11 memorial at Breezy Point. There was a deck on the beach looking out over the bay, with a great view of the cityscape, including the Freedom Tower, filling up the lack of space left by the World Trade Centers.

Along the deck were tributes to each person from Breezy Point who was lost in the 9/11 terrorist attack. There were lined up all along the deck. It was a moving tribute to the individuals the community lost. Moving, as well, because there were so many.


In addition there was a cross, made with beams from the World Trade Center Towers. A cross was beat, bruised, and bent. A reminder to us that in the darkest of tragedies and storms of life, there is One who has been there. One who is always with us, and One who loves us through the worst life can offer us.


New York Mission: Day 7

Fridays on mission trips are often times the hardest. The team members are running low on energy, often due to the lack off sleep, while running high on emotions. Mission trips provide a unquine opportunity for individuals to grow closer to others, God, and themselves, all while helping others. This has most certainly been true this week.

After our quiet time/devotions and small group discussions, we loaded up and headed out to Breezy Point one last time. Some worked with Habitat for Humanity workers in finishing up Sheetrock in the winter chapel. Due to the electrical work not getting fully finished, we were not able to do the whole room in drywall, but pretty close. They also finished a layer of flooring in the winter chapel.

A handful of team members made signs about the free cook-out to post along the road, reminding people about what was happening. Others started setting up for the cook-out, which included setting games, a face painting/craft station, and of course the grill.

After lunch, small groups had a chance to walk up to the local store to get a soda or a snack. Then we headed to the beach along the bay. The group gathered in their small groups. They used this beach time to share with one another where they saw God in each other this week. This included qualities or things they did that touched them or made a difference. When the group arrived on Saturday they were given a stone and asked to keep the stone in their pocket during the week. Last night each student gave their stone to their small group leader who was to choose a name for them. The name was to symbolize who the person was from he leaders perspective. The students were to do the same for their leaders.

As the groups went around their circles sharing where they had seen God in each other, the leader shared his or her stone for each person. After this personal, spiritual, and emotional time, the team had about 20-30 minutes on the beach.

Then it was back to work. We had to finish getting ready for the cook-out and set up the stations. At about 5pm the first few people arrived, and they slowly started to come in. We had 100s of hot dogs and hamburgers, but 100s did not show up. Despite that the team had a blast spending time with those who did, especially the children. Speaking of children, we brought with us shirts and onesies decorated by children who attended Peakland’s Easter Egg Hunt back in March. One little girl put her shirt on right away and wore it the whole time. A member of Peakland made quilts for infants. We handed those out as well. One grandmother was extremely grateful to take one and share it with her new grandchild.

And the puppets! Four youth came up with three or so skits and practiced them throughout the day. Then they preformed them at different times through the evening. And they were at hit! At one point they lead the crowd that had gathered in singing “Jesus Loves Me.”

Before the cook-out was over we presented to Paul, the leader of the church, a small gift. We took a scrap piece of drywall and Linda drew a cross and flame on it, wrote the name of the church and date of the trip, and then everyone wrote a short message to them and signed their names. They hug it up in the winter chapel right away.

Paul shared that in the time following Hurricane Sandy very little work had been done at the church, and while hundreds of volunteers with Habitat for Humanity came through their church doors, very, very little work had been done on the church. Most of the volunteers came to work on homes. Paul, with some passion, expressed how more was done on and for the church in this one week than any other since Sandy.

After cleaning up the cook-out and putting it all away in the U-haul, we played a few rounds of charades in our small groups. Then we gathered in one large circle and we went around the circle sharing where we had seen God this week, it was a great time of sharing. Very moving!

We then went down the road in Breezy Point to a 9/11 memorial that was built there. A huge number of Breezy Point residents were tragically killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack. Standing there is a cross, made with two beams from the Twin Towers.

It was about 9:30tonight when we said good-bye to Breezy Point. We crossed the bridge back into Brooklyn and volunteered for cleaning duties, so that in the morning we have less to do and can roll out on time. In the morning we will spend a few hours at the Bronx Zoo before heading back to Lynchburg, brining this mission trip to an end.