Monday, May 27, 2013

Babies, Goblins, and Quantum Mechanics: That which is observed changes

(Note: next week I will ask for ingredients for a Goblin-to-Go story, so be thinking....) (If this is an unfamiliar request, see earlier posts from May: "Jesus Told Stories"  and  "A Goblin-to-Go Story".)

Observing our granddaughter take delight in using a spoon for the first time, watching our grandson fling himself into the pool with delicious abandon – what joy! As grandparents, my husband and I are happy observers of these two babies, who are utterly secure in their awareness of being beloved children of attentive parents. And quantum mechanics assures us that being seen as objects of love and delight by their parents and grandparents is actually helping form them into loving and delightful people. "That which is observed changes."

Once again, it seems to me, science rephrases what Christianity has always known.

My husband says he never worked as hard in school as when he had his baseball coach as his teacher in eighth grade -- knowing that he was being observed by Red Beal compelled him to become a better student. And I remember back when I was teaching high school English, two of my colleagues chronicled the reading habits of a diverse group of sophomores. By the end of the year, all of the  students in the study were reading far more than their classmates of similar academic background. My colleagues realized that simply knowing that they were being observed made the students more conscious of their own reading habits – and unconsciously changed them. Again: "That which is observed changes."

In the children's book The Goblin Under the Stairs, Mary Calhoun describes how differently three different people see the goblin that has set up residence under their stairs: looking at the goblin through a knothole, the boy sees a frisky little man, his mother sees a neat little servant elf, and his father sees a wild-haired goblin. When my children were growing up, they loved that book, but now I realize that The Goblin Under the Stairs is more than  just a story. It actually demonstrates quantum mechanics: how Calhoun’s goblin looked depended on who was doing the looking. 

Quantum physicists ponder how the mind of the observer directly influences the properties of whatever it observes. In other words, "You get what you see." They may be talking about waves and particles at the atomic level, but it works with Calhoun's goblin, and it works with actual children, too. If we see our children as beloved treasures, that's what they are. If we see them as problems to be solved, they are problematic. If we see them as failures, they will fail. Now that's not to deny that all children have their share of problems, some of which may be beyond our ability to solve. And, as I wrote back in January, children need the experience of failure in order to develop character and courage. (See the post: "Let the Little Children Suffer? Sometimes...") But having problems and experiencing failure is very different from being observed and identified by them.

All of this leads me back to our primary identification as beloved children of God, and it makes me wonder: how are we changed by God's compassionate observation of us? How might we live if we truly believed that God gazes on us with unconditional love? What added security might we offer our children if we could help them know that God watches over them and loves them, no matter what? 

It's a paradigm shift for me to believe that the way I see something or someone actually affects what I observe. It is only by claiming my status as a beloved child of God, flaws and failures and problems and all, that I can begin to live into the responsibility involved. I can only do it by the grace of God.

Today's message: gaze on your children with love, as God does. It will change them.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Pentecost: an epiphany and an activity

Yesterday at church, even though it was Pentecost, I had an epiphany. 

Every week before the Family Service begins, children choose a task they would like to do, such as lighting the candles on the low table we use as an altar, or passing the collection basket, or bringing up the bread or wine or water while one of the deacons sets the table for Communion. Yesterday, Jacob chose to bring the water.

As part of the homily for the Family Service, I had brought in a tea light candle,  a plush stuffed dove,  and a small electric water fountain as ways of talking about the Holy Spirit. First we blew on our hands to feel invisible wind, which is one way Scripture describes the Spirit. Then we talked about how “tongues of fire” rested on the disciples at Pentecost, and stuck out our tongues to see how a flame really is tongue-shaped. Next we passed around the dove for everyone to hold.

And then I began to talk about water and the Holy Spirit, and I invited the children to come and feel the water as it burbled in the fountain.

Jacob heard the word “water,” and instead of coming to the fountain, he went straight to the credence table and brought me the cruet of water for Communion.

“Oh!” I realized. “I’ve never thought of the water we add to wine as the Holy Spirit! That would mean that when I pour water into the cup of wine, I’m adding the Holy Spirit to what will become the blood of Christ. I will never think of it the same way again!”

No wonder Jesus told us we need to become like little children! Thank you, Jacob!

For those of you who would like a lively activity to do at home  during this week following Pentecost Sunday, begin by cutting strips of craft or butcher paper into one to two foot lengths, about three or four inches wide.  Then have the children use red, orange, and yellow markers to color both sides of the paper to represent fire. Once they finish, show them how to shake the paper to make the sound of “strong wind blowing” just like when the Holy Spirit first came to the disciples.

Then you can teach them the following song, which uses the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”  If you're not sure of the tune, you can find a lively version at: <>

Be sure the children have their colored paper “wind” strips with them for the last verse:

            If the Spirit comes to you, then clap your hands.
            If the Spirit comes to you, then clap your hands.
If the Spirit comes to you,
You can tell the world good news.
If the Spirit comes to you, then clap your hands.

Additional verses:
  • If the Spirit comes to you, then stomp your feet.
  • If the Spirit comes to you, then nod your head.
  • If the Spirit comes to you, then turn around.
  • If the Spirit comes to you, let’s hear some wind (get them to shake their paper}.

You and the children can make up other verses if you’d like.

For more activities, check out this website from Australia (especially the popcorn for Pentecost):

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Goblin-to-Go Story: worms, a cat, a secret, a red balloon, marigold seeds, a left handed lug wrench, a snickerdoodle

Note: this is the first Goblin-to-Go story on this blog. Normally the list of "ingredients" will be limited to five, but since seven people sent ideas for this first story, I decided to incorporate something from everyone. I'll solicit ideas again in early June for the next story, from which I'll randomly choose five. And starting next month, you'll get to see more of the goblin's tree, and to meet one of his friends. (If this is all new to you, check out last week's post.) Meanwhile, I hope you have fun creating stories with your own children!

Photo by Micah C. Brown (me with the goblin's tree)

The green goblin sat on a branch outside his front door, watching robins hunt worms in the grass below. Under a near-by lilac bush, the surreptitious swish of a tail caught the goblin’s eye just before a gray cat raced toward the hungry birds.

“Must be breakfast time!” the goblin exclaimed. “I’m hungry, but not for worms or birds!”

He went back through his front door – a knothole in a knobby old tree – and climbed the staircase that curved around inside the trunk, all the way up to a smaller knothole where he could see out over the whole neighborhood.

The sky was already turning pink with pre-dawn light, but most of the houses were quiet on this Saturday in late spring; even the children were still in bed. “Maybe,” the goblin thought, “I can get two jobs done – and that would mean two breakfasts!” He liked that idea.

Everyone in the neighborhood knew about the green goblin, though none of the grown-ups had ever seen him. They just knew that, like most goblins, he would do secret, unexpected jobs for them, as long as they would, in return, leave out his favorite food: instant maple and brown sugar oatmeal. No one ever knew where he might go or what he might decide to do, so everyone kept a supply of oatmeal on hand, just in case.

This morning as the goblin squeezed under a fence, he saw a red balloon, left over from Teddy’s birthday party, caught in the branches of a maple tree. He scrambled up the tree, untangled it and brought it down, then tied it to Teddy’s back door.

At Abby’s house, he saw a packet of marigold seeds abandoned on the edge of the garden. Yesterday, when the phone had rung and Abby’s mom jumped up from gardening to answer it, she had twisted her ankle so badly that she had to spend the rest of the day lying on the couch. “I’ll plant those for her!” the goblin said. So he did, dropping them carefully one by one into the trench she had already dug.

Then he suddenly wondered, “What if she doesn’t realize the seeds have been planted?” He had just gone into their garage to look for something to put the empty seed packet on when he heard the back door open, and Barnabas, their great big golden retriever, came bounding out.

“Uh-oh!” the goblin gasped and quickly climbed up on the tool shelf to hide. Barnabas was friendly, but his bark could waken the whole neighborhood. Barnabas raced around the yard a dozen times, then nosed open the garage door. The goblin held his breath and listened to the panting dog.

“Breakfast, Barnabas!” he heard Abby call, and the big dog went racing back inside. The goblin quickly grabbed the closest tool, which happened to be a rusty left-handed lug wrench, and scooted back out to the garden. He pushed the handle deep into the soft earth, jammed the empty packet of marigold seeds on top to show where they’d been planted, and clambered over the fence into the next yard.

This yard was neat and tidy, carefully tended by Dorothy and Henry, who had lived there as long as anyone could remember. No work for a goblin here. The sun was just now rising, slanting its light through leaves and around houses. The goblin ran his hands through his hair, patted his empty stomach, and thought, “What next? Where should I go? I want that second breakfast, and I don’t think the balloon is enough to earn me one.”

Then heard a cheerful humming. Following the sound, he turned the next corner and came across two-year old Sam, wearing his Spiderman pajamas and humming to himself as he balanced on the edge of the curb. No grown-ups were in sight.

“What are you doing out here by yourself?” the goblin asked.

“I opened the door all by myself!” Sam said proudly. “Mama and Papa are sleeping.”

“Oh dear, oh dear!” said the goblin. “It’s not safe out here alone.”

“You’re here!” Sam said.

“But I can’t stay.” The goblin thought and thought, and then he had an idea. “I need your help. Can you tell your mama and papa that the green goblin wants oatmeal? Can you say that to them?”

“Goblin wants oatmeal,” Sam replied.


“Goblin wants oatmeal!” Sam called out.

“Shhh, not yet. Let’s get you back inside first.”

So the goblin walked Sam home. Together they climbed the front steps, then the goblin lifted Sam so he could ring the front doorbell. Ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong. He rang it three times. Then the goblin set Sam down, tucked himself under the bushes, and watched.

Sam’s sleepy mom opened the door, took one look at Sam standing there in his pajamas, scooped him up into her arms, and asked in a frightened voice, “How did you get out?”

“I opened the door myself!” Sam said proudly. Then just as the door was closing, the goblin heard Sam say, “Goblin wants oatmeal!”

And sure enough, later that morning Abby’s dad and Sam’s mom each made instant maple and brown sugar oatmeal and put it on their back porches for the goblin to find, so he got his two breakfasts after all!

And on his way home as he passed Teddy’s house, he saw by the back door where he had tied the red balloon, someone had left him one giant snickerdoodle, so he even had breakfast dessert as well!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Jesus Told Stories

When people asked Jesus a question, he often answered with a story, and he usually invited his listeners to interact with him in the telling or interpreting. As Christians, we are often called "people of the book" because we are part of a faith tradition grounded in stories.

So it makes sense that we should tell stories to and with our children. I'm not talking today about Bible stories, or even about books, but about stories that you and the children create together. It's a way of deepening the imagination of our children,  and it's fun.

When I was a little girl, my mother used to make up stories about a green goblin that lived in the rough of a golf course. He had been a lonely goblin until he was befriended by a golfer (not a very good golfer, but a very good man) who began to take the goblin home to play with his children and to share family meals.

When I was a little older, I fell in love with a book that had belonged to my father when he was growing up: Made-to-Order Stores by Dorothy Canfield (you can see by the photo just how well-loved that book has been over the generations), in which a little boy named Jimmy would come up with five ingredients for a story, and someone in the family would create an impromptu story using those ingredients (some examples: a sack of potatoes, false teeth, a busted bicycle, a hole in the ground, a polar bear). He also always wanted a little boy in the story.

When my own children were young, I combined those two -- the green goblin and the made-to-order stories. Jeremy and Micah would take turns coming up with ingredients for stories about a green goblin. Their green goblin lived in the trunk of a gnarled old tree instead of on a golf course, and (because it was their favorite breakfast) he ate instant maple and brown sugar oatmeal, which (in the stories) we would set out for him. To this day, when I see a particularly gnarly tree, my first thought  is, "Oh, a green goblin tree!" and oatmeal is always goblin food. Over time, the green goblin acquired friends: a wood elf (small enough to live in those fairy houses I suggested you build), and an owl, and they often had adventures together.

(This is a very simple fairy house I came across on Monhegan Island, Maine)

To model how this story-telling works,  I'm inviting you to send ingredients (from you and / or your children), and I'll choose from among them to come up with a new story. I call these "Goblin-to-Go" stories, because you can take them -- create them -- anywhere: on car trips, in waiting rooms, at the playground, while fixing supper, as part of bedtime.

Have fun thinking up ingredients -- and then be sure to send them!