Sunday, August 5, 2018

Camp Psalms

This year, my fiance and I are working our way through the One-Year Bible, reading the whole thing from cover to cover. At the end of June, we were nearing the end of Psalms. After making it through Leviticus (long lists of things you shouldn't do) and 2nd Chronicles (long lists of kings who did those things anyway), it was immensely refreshing to get to some poetry- even if it does sometimes reveal a brutally honest look at the whole gamut of human emotion (and a sprinkling of obscure musical terms, selah.)

Also at the end of June, Cherie, Bonnie, and I spent a week with 35 JOY campers and their awesome counselors. We stayed outpost, which meant we cooked over an open fire, walked in a lot of mud, and never had the problem of air conditioning being too cold. This was a big change, but it was a neat experience the kids really enjoyed. What I especially enjoyed was watching growth in campers I've now known for years. It is amazing to watch kids you once comforted comfort others when they're down. Because in one short week at camp, you get to see the whole gamut of human emotion- and a sprinkling of obscure musical terms (Oh kaway oh wuh? A tikki tikki tumba?)

Psalms + Camp = Camp Psalms.

Psalm 7:47, a lost psalm of JOY camp
1 How long, O Lord, will the others talk and shine their flashlights long after lights out? Yet Thy mercy is great, and the morning brings pancakes for talkers and sleepers alike.

2We bring our praise to You; we praise You with song, with hand claps, and with elaborate hand motions.

3 The swimmers and hikers raise their voices unto You. The righteous teach patience and safety to the young, and the cadence of their voices becomes like each other.

4 The birds, bullfrogs, and the lawnmowers, they sound Your praise, and the junebugs and the goats.

5 And when I am stuck in the muck and the mire, You are the polka dot rain boots that bring me out of the midst of it.

6 When Your waters pour from the sky, You are as raincoat and dry socks to us.

7 You have chosen us first for lunch in the presence of our rivals, and always are there seconds in Thy bountiful kingdom, as long as we walk and show courtesy to our neighbors.

8 All the superheroes and TV theme songs sing Thy praise to You, O God.

9 You tie us together as knots in a friendship bracelet, O Lord.

10 Your backpack and Your water bottle, they comfort me, and I shall follow the sound of Thy voice and Thy count-off.

11 We shall remember all You have done for us, O Lord, and as the forests echo with the shouts of chapel, we shall live as though each day is Easter.

12 You provide for me in my weariness a hammock under shade trees on a breezy day. You anoint me with sunscreen and fill my ear with birdsong- You restoreth my soul.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

(In)dependence Day

Happy 4th of August!

It doesn't have quite the same ring as 4th of July, and there are many fewer fireworks, but it's still a great day to celebrate dependence- which is what I did on Independence Day this year. Not many places want VBS over the 4th of July, but I had a hunch that my Osky site would be just fine- and so they were. It was a small bunch- six girls- but we didn't lose them on the holiday. We all enjoyed celebrating together as a small, close group.

How did we celebrate dependence on Independence Day? Well, it takes a village to raise a VBS.

-Each day my grandparents came, bringing tables, drinks, and other necessities, to help Bonnie and me set up. We discovered this year that with some strategic shade, we could do just fine without the canopy tent we've used in years past. (Tying the puppet stand to a tree so it didn't fall over and having a pond-like puddle from lots of recent rain were two finishing touches that really pulled the outdoorsy River Rampage theme together here in, well, the outdoors. No fancy decorations needed here!)

-Since my extension cord just won't go that far, we didn't use the video portion of the puppet show. Instead, some friends did a fantastic job of acting out the parts. Not just anybody can pick up the part of Jean Michel McDiver, expert survivalist or Max Breezy, meteorologist- but I preferred their live performances to the video.

-With such a small group, we pretty well turned craft time into a team building activity. One person held the cardboard tubes, the other rolled the duct tape. It was a great hands-on reminder of how we need each other!

-We rocked the boomwhackers and other instruments for a sound story about Zaccheus. Making music together is another great way to become a community quickly.

-Normally we eat at a summer lunch feeding site, but this year it wasn't open in July. When I checked to see if we could send someone to pick up lunches, they offered to stay open for us for the days we had VBS! That was really above and beyond- so impressive. The last day of VBS, a friend from church brought us pizza and homemade cookies.

Seeing so many hands working together always reminds me of what church really is- God's people working together to support each other and share God's love with each other. I love joining together God's children of all ages to do just that!

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Learning from the Littles

Well, I'm a little behind on my blogging, but allow me here at the tail end of July to take you back to the end of June, where Romper and I went to Orient UMC.

These helpers are awesome. They are super organized and had fun decorating. Brown paper turned into rocks and streamers turned into waterfalls.

One of the extra fun things for me here is that I used to teach in this town, so I get to see some former students- they keep growing up fast, though, so most of them were "too old" for VBS. Personally, I think you're never too old for VBS, but some of them have graduated high school and all, so I guess I can see that.

The kids we did have in abundance were littles. Little littles.

If you've done VBS, or if you have worked with children, or if you have seen children, you will recognize that little little children really change how you have to do things. The difference between a preschooler and a kindergartner is pretty substantial.

Yet Jesus says, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." (Mark 19:14)

Not just children, but specifically little children.
What can we learn from little children?

-The world is exciting and awesome and there's always something new to learn. Toilet paper tube binoculars really work. It's all in how you look at things.

-Sometimes you just need a little attention. During science in the afternoon, one little little was crying, wailing, really, for no reason we could see and with no signs of self-soothing. I took her to go get a drink. As soon as she grabbed my hand, she was quiet. She came back and sat on my lap throughout science. Sometimes we all just need someone to notice us.

-Naps matter. One especially little friend went home for nap time and came back refreshed. God rested. Why don't adults think they need to?

-You can be at peace no matter what's going on around you. Our all-day format left some of the little ones tired by the end of the day (those who didn't go home for naps. See point 3.) So, one little girl created her own nap time in her pew. We did the puppet show. She slept. We sang songs. She slept. We left for our next rotation, leaving a helper beside her so she wouldn't freak out if she woke up alone. She slept. We came back and practiced for the program. She slept. How you can sleep through all this noise is beyond me, but she did. When the world is crazy around us, how many of us have that kind of trusting peace?

Monday, July 2, 2018


I've had many conversations recently that have gone like this:
"Where are you going next week for Bible school, Allison?"

I think Woolstock should capitalize on this confusion and have a wool festival, like knitting for hippies. It's a pity people don't ask me to community plan. In real life, WOOLstock, Iowa is home to 168 friendly people and is the birthplace of George Reeves, TV's Superman.

On a Sunday, roughly nine people worship at the United Methodist church. Given that figure, this site had probably the highest percentage of its congregation come out to help of anywhere I've been! They hadn't had VBS in a very long time and were very nervous that no kids were going to come. We were all thrilled with the seven that came. These were some wonderful kids, too- the sort that remind me why I love working with kids in the first place. They loved to make things, to be creative, to sing. We need these people in our churches. That is the beauty of VBS- as illustrated in the following conversation:

Me, trying to get them to say ways we can learn about God: Where are we right now?
Little boy: Home! Oh. Church.
Me: I like that answer, because church can feel like home.
Little boy, eyebrow raised: How can church feel like home?
Me: Well, the people are like your family. We're all children of God, so this is our church family.
Little boy, proudly: I live in Woolstock.
Me: How many people live in Woolstock?
Almost every hand went up. Lots of faces were surprised. 168 people, but that doesn't mean you know all of them. A common theme in the places I visit is the expectation that living in a small town means you know everybody, but they find the reality is that people move in and out so much there are many strangers. I love having people meet their neighbors at Bible school!

Fun kid moments:
We're eating lunch, and one little boy observes, "There are lots of Poppies and Grandmas here." True story- every one of these people was retired. "And moms," he added, "that's you."
"Actually, I'm not a mom," I said.
"Are you a kid?" he asks, puzzled.
"No, not a kid."
"What are you?"

Another boy told me about his plan to go into business by collecting worms to make sushi.

Like most kids, this bunch adored the puppet. During closing time, one boy really wanted Romper to talk to him, and he kept calling out, "I love you, Romper!"

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Boomwhacker Life Lessons

In a host family first for me, Bonnie and I had our own apartment as guests of a member of the congregation who lives in a senior living facility. Quiet neighbors, breakfast buffet, free wi-fi, ice cream machine downstairs.... how old exactly do you have to be to move to a place like this? Asking for a friend...

Someone was an artist- we came to a decorated church, including a waterfall in the sanctuary!

Davenport Faith is a church that clearly wants to reach out to the families around them. They had knocked on doors to invite kids to Bible school. While they didn't get quite the turnout they were hoping for, we did average twelve kids a night- and not always the same kids, so we reached more than that. Plans were in the works for their Back to School night reaching out event with crafts and activities in the church yard. The energy and willingness to help in this congregation was amazing- which helped things go smoothly when our twelve kids had about twenty-four kids' worth of energy :) We decided to rotate between three activity stations instead of the two we had planned on- and it went swimmingly.

Bonnie and I were in charge of the science station. I'm coming to enjoy the science portion of VBS. We did three lessons from the curriculum and then we made one up involving boomwhackers and sound waves. I wish I had taken pictures I could show you, but that's hard to do while conducting. Essentially, they're different-sized, different-pitched, colored plastic tubes. We lined them up lowest to highest pitch, observed that the sizes correspond to the pitches, and then played songs. Because we had eight boomwhackers and four kids in a group, the adult helpers got to join us in music-making. You are never too old for boomwhackers! The helpers really gave good tips to the kiddos- "You've got to watch her for when she points at you! Don't take your eyes off her!" I was delighted, because A) when they watched, they knew when to play, B) I got to see even young children build attention span through the allure of making music and C) their faces lit up when it was their turn- kids and adults alike. We messed up on occasion, but we had all kinds of fun. I can't help but think of this in terms of our life of faith. We should always be reminding each other to keep our eyes on God, who is delighted to make music with us. We get distracted and we may miss a note- even when we're adults- but God still loves to see our faces light up when we're right there with Him paying attention. And then the song sounds right.

Fun kid moments:
Disclaimer: I could never be a kindergarten teacher. It takes a very special person to do that all day, and I am not it. However, I do really love the littles during VBS. At one point in the script, Romper the purple river otter talked about a time when he didn't have any friends. One of the littles objected quietly and sincerely: "But I'm his friend!" "Me too!" another chimed in.

On the last night, one of them asked very solemnly in the middle of closing time on the last day- "Are we graduating?"

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Martha, Martha, Martha

While Mary sat and listened to Jesus, Martha stirred the soup.
While Mary sat and listened to Jesus, Martha swept the floor.
While Mary sat and listened to Jesus, Martha fretted about the million and one details that go with the first week of Bible school.

Ok, so maybe that last one was me.

Mary and Martha- this was the story that resonated the most with me this week. It's so easy to get caught up in things that are trivial. Case in point: my wonderful hostess was making blueberry pancakes for breakfast. They looked great, and still were a hundred-fold improvement over my typical breakfast of Poptarts, but they got browner than she wanted. "Oh no," she exclaimed as she started to fret, apologize, and make some more. While they were cooking, she asked me what Bible story I was teaching that day. I got to tell her it was Mary and Martha, and we both got a good laugh out of the timeliness of that story that morning. 

Nature print paper is magic. 
Week one of Rolling River Rampage VBS happened directly after school finished, and the end of the school year for me this year was filled with upheaval and change. There were so many details to get worked out. I was thrilled to be surrounded by a familiar community of amazing, friendly people- and get to spend a little porch time in the afternoons relaxing and letting my soul settle a little bit.

Farmington was full of teachers and grandmas for volunteers, which made things run very smoothly. The first day we had 12 kids and grew to 19 by the last day. Six of our new friends were all from one family! The only trouble we had was technology that first day, as we tried umpteen combinations of cords and devices to make the DVD play on their system. Finally we settled on an old smaller TV from downstairs and someone's DVD player from home. And you know what? It worked beautifully. With a younger bunch of kids and three days instead of five, I also decided not to use the music from the curriculum and just do easy, familiar songs instead. And you know what? That worked beautifully too. Even the older kids whole-heartedly belted out Zaccheus Was a Wee Little Man. Their favorite craft that week? One of the simplest- the paper chain snake. And that is how I became Mary instead of Martha this week, and I never looked back.

Fun kid moments:
A few of the kids came early with their grandma to help set up. "Are we way early? Nobody else is here!" they asked her. Then they saw the MUMM van. "Oh- at least the captain's here!" :)

While we were cleaning up after craft time, I asked one little kindergartener who was spinning around on the stairs if he would please pick up the paper templates for me and put them in this envelope. Excited to have something useful to do, he found every single one- and I glanced over to see him proudly lick and seal the envelope to return to me.

As we did our Rapid Reminder of the day, Find Acceptance on the River, we were supposed to lean left and then lean right- I thought this was supposed to be like steering our kayak. Then one little girl in the front row made reference to the thing where "we lean on each other." I hope those words find your ear just right like they did mine. It's perhaps an unexpected picture of what church should be, watching rows of kids giggle as they topple over into each other, but yes, friends, don't worry- we are here to lean on each other. Leaning on each other helps us to focus on Jesus- that's the one thing that is needed, Martha.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sharing is caring!

The following is a quick summary of my summer (a summery?) If you'd like to share this in your church newsletter, I'd love that- especially if your United Methodist church is in southern Iowa. Feel free to share even if your church is in northern Iowa, or Hawaii, or your living room, or if you're Lutheran, or PresbyQuakeNazarLic, or anything else. :) 

You don't have to include the picture- it probably wouldn't print well- but you can if you'd like. Some nice cape clipart would do the trick too.

I velcroed my cape, hopped in the van, and took off towards a super summer...
This was my 10th summer working with Mobile United Methodist Missionaries. Devoted to making disciples in mostly rural southern Iowa, this organization spends summers working alongside church volunteers in vacation Bible school ministry. This year, we used Cokesbury’s Hero Central curriculum to show kids (and grown-ups!) that when they live with God, they are superheroes. Places I traveled this summer included Randolph, Van Wert, Osceola, Farmington, Orient, Hebron, New Virginia, Council Bluffs, and a park in Oskaloosa. The other two MUMM travelers, Cherie Miner and Paige Jensen, have similar lists.

Highlights from this summer:
  • Giving a Bible to a girl who didn’t have one
  • Watching local volunteers take ownership- one brought her own cape!
  • Having a donkey and his human come share the message about the cross on his back
  • Bringing 50 kids who wouldn’t normally have a chance to get to church camp to Wesley Woods for a week of JOY Camp
  • Hearing kids echo our theme verse- “Do good! Seek peace! Go after it!”- Psalms 34:14b

For more stories, check out my blog: or “like” Mobile United Methodist Missionaries on Facebook to see what we’re up to! We appreciate your support and your prayers!

Allison Engel
Senior Summer Assistant, Mobile United Methodist Missionaries (MUMM)