Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, 2018
We’re All Wonders – Choose Kind! Click here for audio
Pastor Donna Buell and Vicki Anderson
Psalm 145:8-21, Ephesians 4:25-5:2
The other day I found a copy of A Wrinkle in Time in our Little Free Library. I’m always finding treasures there. This 2007 edition of the classic book by Madeleine L’Engle included “An Appreciation” written by Anna Quindlen. It began with these words: “The most memorable books from our childhoods are those that make us feel less alone, convince us that our own foibles and quirks are both as individual as a fingerprint and as universal as an open hand.” One of those memorable books for me was called The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Written in the early 1960’s this story told of Robin, a 12 year girl growing up during The Great Depression, who discovered a room in an abandoned mansion which became a refuge for her from the difficulties she and her family were facing. I still remember the way that book spoke to the loneliness of my young, introverted heart. And I imagine each of you can point to books from your childhood that were memorable for you, helping you feel less alone.
February is “I Love to Read Month,” and today we are not only celebrating reading, we are celebrating our reading-focused partnership with Lily Lake Elementary School, and we are celebrating the book Wonder, which some of our volunteers are reading with 4th grade students in a book club this winter. And most importantly, we are lifting up the virtue of kindness that is not only the focus of that book, but is also the focus of a school wide effort to draw on the power of books as a way of cultivating empathy and kindness throughout the school community.
Over the past year we have been re-investing in our church’s long-standing relationship with Lily Lake Elementary School, with a special focus on the media center and reading. We call it Leap into the Gift of Reading, and in your bulletin you’ll see the wonderful logo that Dave Swanson created for us. This summer we applied for a church-school partnership grant from the Minnesota Annual Conference. Through the $1,000 grant we received, we have been able to do several special things. At the end of August we provided a warm and gracious back-to-school welcome to teachers, staff, students and their families. This seemed especially important this year in the wake of the many changes that were taking place in the district. One third of the teachers and students in the building were new to Lily Lake when school started this fall, and every single teacher, whether new or returning, was teaching in a new classroom. So you can imagine how those words and gifts of encouragement from our church family were received by the staff as they reported to work at the end of August. In addition, our church Mission Committee used the proceeds from our Rally Day brunch to give gift cards to each classroom teacher at Lily Lake and Sunny Hill Preschool, to be used to enhance their classrooms, and we also had a visit from the Lily Lake Principal, Nate Cox to learn more about the challenges and opportunities facing our neighborhood school.
Our grant has also funded a number of reading-related activities this winter, which I will talk about more in a minute. And it will also make it possible for us to build a Little Free Library on school property this spring.
All this is an extension of our commitment, as a congregation, to grow in our love of God, to grow in our love of neighbors near and far, and to grow in our stewardship of all that God has entrusted to our care. This growing relationship with Lily Lake is one tangible way that we as a congregation are reaching out into our community to make a difference. And as Ann shared with us in the skit she wrote for our volunteers this morning, this effort is very much appreciated.
It may not seem like a big thing to check in a stack of books, or to re-shelve those books in the right place, or to help a child find a book to check out and read at home. But as small and as simple as those things are, they do make a difference. They certainly make a difference for the school media specialist, Tonya Potter, who overseas two busy elementary school libraries. But they also make a difference for every student in the school. And on top of that, they make a difference for those of us who volunteer.
I love the time I spend in the media center. I love being around all of those children’s books. I love being in the school and interacting with the children. I love seeing the particular books each child selects to take home and read. I love helping a child who is having a difficult time choosing a book to read. I love the feeling of getting all the books back on the shelf before the next pile is returned. I love gently cajoling the children to check under their beds and in the couch cushions to find their overdue books. And I love our “I love to read” month project, which made it possible for all 500 students to draw the cover of a book they especially loved reading this year. Thanks to those of you who helped assemble that display two weeks ago. And I’m glad to report they are still pretty much intact as they hang in the hallway of the school. The students have had a lot of fun searching for their book cover and looking at the book covers created by other students. Teachers, staff, and parents have also been quite impressed by the creativity of the students and have enjoyed seeing the progression of abilities and the differences in the books chosen as you move from Kindergarten to Fifth Grade. This turned out to be a great project and even made it to the District Facebook page.
Another special reading-related project funded by our grant is our Wonder book club, and I’ve asked Vicki Anderson, to share some of her thoughts about this with you.
Bob Talbert, columnist for the Detroit Free Press once wrote “Teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching them what counts is best.” For 32 years I was given a chance to do just that- to transform lives and touch the future- I taught. When the opportunity to facilitate a book club was presented to me, I was thrilled. Not only would I get to hang out with kiddos, but I’d get to learn from them. And I certainly did! Every week the 7 of us would bring our ideas to the table and engage in a lively conversation centered around a common book- Wonder. There was no need for me to ask questions- everyone had tracked their thinking (hold up book) and had “new takes” that they couldn’t wait to share. The “wonder” that I experienced was the deep thinking that these young readers demonstrated. (shiny smile) (most changed character Miranda) Our 45 minute sessions were so powerful- we became passionate readers, learning from the powerful words on the page but also learning from each other. It reminded me of the lively Bible Study discussions we have at church every week- our understanding of Scripture has deepened exponentially because of our time together. How much richer our experience of a text is (whether a novel or scripture) when we read it and discuss it with others.
Six nine-year-olds were exemplars of kindness. If a student hadn’t shared an idea, someone would lean in and ask what they thought. One day a student came in looking sad and down-hearted- we all knew he was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. The rest of the students went out of their way to let him know how important his input was to the group. These youngsters appreciated and embraced the uniqueness of humanity, the special God-given gifts each one of us offers to the world. Auggie would have been proud!
At the end of our last book club gathering, I took the word WONDER and created an acrostic poem that I shared with the students:
Wonderful time we’ve had!
Offering ideas, learning from one another
New “takes” on the book emerge
Deepening our comprehension
Enriching our understanding
Reminding us of the power of conversation…the beauty found in book club!
As you can see, Vicki is quiet enthusiastic about the power of book clubs, especially with a book as powerful as Wonder.
One of the reasons that the book Wonder is so powerful, is that it does just what Anna Quindlen wrote: It helps a reader not feel quite so alone. It reminds us that though we each have things about us that are different or unique, and those things sometimes make us feel as though we don’t fit in, we are not alone. Auggie’s circumstance is very extreme, yet as the book progresses we not only learn what it feels like to be Auggie, we also learn what it feels like to be his big sister, Via, to be his friend Jack or Summer, to be Julian – a classmate whose reaction to Auggie leads him to exhibit bullying behaviors. And we are reminded of that precept that encourages us to “be kind, for everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Many educators have been using this book in their classrooms to create important conversations with children about topics like bullying and acceptance of differences, about kindness and courage and empathy. And I don’t have to tell you that it isn’t only our children who need to cultivate the capacity to live and act with kindness as they navigate their way through life. Kindness is not just about being Minnesota nice. It isn’t about being “politically correct” as some people dismiss pejoratively. It is about treating other people with dignity and respect, it is about recognizing our common humanity, it is about being willing to step outside of our own self long enough to imagine what it might be like to be someone else, to carry their burdens, to experience life as they experience it, and to have compassion and empathy for them. Kindness is a choice we make, and I believe that choice is as an act of faithfulness to God.
There is a Hebrew word hesed, which has sometimes been translated as lovingkindness. Hesed is used in the scriptures to describe the love God has for God’s people, a love that is beautifully fleshed out in the Psalm Alan read for us earlier. “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God is good to all, and God’s compassion is for everyone and everything that God has made. God upholds all who are falling, raises up those who are bowed down. All of God’s ways are just and all of God’s doings are kind. God is near to all who call upon him.” It seems to me that kindness is a choice we make as an act of faithfulness to this God, “whose lovingkindness is better than life itself.” Psalm 63:3
That choice is what Paul is writing about in today’s passage from Ephesians, when he calls us to put away bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, and malice; and to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us. In other words he writes, “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
You and I are called to choose kind, because that is what God chooses, over and over again, and that is what we are called to choose as beloved children of God who follow the one who reveals to us the very heart of God.
Sounds to me like the message of the book Wonder. What a blessing it is that so many children across the country are being exposed to this book and its message. Earlier Vicki quoted Bob Talbert who said teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching them what counts is best. And that phrase reminds me of one last thing I want to tell you about the book Wonder. One of the characters in the book is Auggie’s English teacher, Mr. Browne, who introduces his students to precepts, which he describes as rules for life, or words to live by. Each month he shares a new precept with his students to reflect upon and to write about. And at the end of the year he invites his students to choose or create their own precept and send it to him during the summer. When our Lily Lake volunteers began reading the book Wonder in preparation for our book club, we were all surprised and amazed to discover that Mr. Browne’s precept for the month of March was a quote that was very familiar to us as Methodists. It was the “Do all the good you can” quote of John Wesley, which in many ways is a call to continually choose kind, with as our children sang “our hands, our hearts, our everything the Lord did give us.”
And so this morning as our offering is being received, Open Circle and I are going to introduce you to a song based on that quote. This song was written by a colleague and friend of ours, Wendy Smith, who is the worship and music coordinator of the Northfield United Methodist Church. So we thank Wendy for sharing it with us so that we could share it with you. As you feel comfortable, you are welcome to join us on the refrain. Let us offer now our gifts to God.