Reading, Writing, and . . . Vertical Habits
Muskegon Christian School, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, is a pre-K through 8th grade school serving the greater Muskegon area. Last year it was the recipient of a worship renewal grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, (funded by the Lilly Foundation) to teach kids about Vertical Habits. (For more on Vertical Habits, see RW 84.) We asked Tara Macias, who developed the curriculum used by the school, to tell us about the project.
Reformed Worship: Most people don’t think of school and worship in the same breath. What inspired you to write a curriculum focusing on worship habits for kids?
Tara Macias: Our project was inspired by three basic needs at the school:
- We wanted to make our worship service/chapel time more relevant and meaningful for students. We wondered how to help students engage in true worship during these times.
- We wanted to help students of all worship backgrounds appreciate their own style of worship and, at the same time, encourage respect of different styles and spur understanding of what is similar to those who worship in different ways.
- Finally, we wanted to create solid partnerships with churches very near the school (and not necessarily the traditional supporting churches).
RW: So how did you do all that?
TM: We didn’t just focus on worship services, but sought to bring “a life of worship” into every aspect of school life—art, music, physical education, math, and science. First I wrote a teacher handbook that consisted of themes for each month (each Vertical Habit: “I’m sorry, Lord,” “Thank you, Lord,” “I’m listening, Lord,” “Help, Lord,” “Why, Lord?”); ideas for a Bible character for each habit; crafts, movement (dance and sign language), songs, Bible verses, and stories; forty devotionals centering on the habits (four for each habit and some intro and some conclusion); a praise service schedule; and resources from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.
I presented the grant and facilitated planning and brainstorming at a professional development day for teachers in August 2006. Teachers used the materials and ideas they generated, plus what I developed during the summer, to integrate worship through the Vertical Habits into their everyday classroom experiences. Our teachers were incredibly creative!
We also partnered with Angel Community Church in a choir exchange: our students tutored theirs for 45 minutes, they had a fellowship time, and then the church choir director, Kenneth Jackson, led a combined choir.
Our focus on Vertical Habits included special worship services and speakers. We used some of the grant funds to purchase copies of the songbook Sing! A New Creation to use in worship services, along with Sing with Me for classroom use (both are available at www.faithaliveresources.org). We also purchased puppets to use in our worship services and for other worship opportunities.
Finally, our Vertical Habits theme was visually evident. In the hallways we posted signs painted by our art teacher on Plexiglass showing each habit in different languages. Our Muskegon Christian School sign out front had a message each month dealing with that month’s habit.
RW: How was the Vertical Habits training received by kids and teachers?
TM: Very positively. Every project depends on the enthusiasm of staff, and our staff did a great job. Each teacher did a fabulous job of adapting the materials provided in the handbook to each grade level. The possibilities were endless! In fact, they’ve asked us to continue the ideas this year, so I’m writing monthly notes called “Vertical Challenges” to remind them of some core values and inspire them to keep going!
The students enjoyed the worship times (“Not so boring!”) and learning about how habits like lamentation (“Why, Lord?”) are a form of worship. During this habit, one of our students, who has cystic fibrosis, wrote: “Why am I sick, Lord?” We have lots of testimonials, poems, and projects that show the students took the habits to heart.
RW: What effect did going through the curriculum have on Muskegon Christian? Have you seen lasting changes?
TM: I believe there has been a fundamental spiritual change at Muskegon Christian. When we think about raising up lifelong worshipers in school life, home life, the community, and the workplace, we can see that our worship life affects ourselves, our families, and our world. This is the redeeming element of Christianity—the ultimate purpose in our lives as Christians.
When students understand this, they have an unmatched spiritual passion. Students also learned to respect worship differences while understanding that ultimately we are unified in our worship of God.
Bearing Each Other’s Burdens
One teacher made “burden bags” for each class. The students carried around the bags and teachers helped them make the connection between carrying their burdens of sin around and how it gets in the way of normal activities. Then, during a praise service, 5th graders demonstrated laying the burdens down at the cross. Jesus takes the burden of our sin upon himself so that we do not have to bear its consequences!
One teacher reported this story: “Today a middle school student approached me as the rest of the students were settling down before class began. It had been a frantic day and we were learning about ‘laying down our burdens’ in confession. The burden bag our class was using was sitting across the room. The student looked right at me and said, ‘Mrs. Vermeulen, may I carry your burden?’ What a remarkable and meaningful question in the midst of my hurried day. This student knew the exact connection he was making between our Vertical Habits and coming to the aid of another believer. Wow!” —Mrs. Vermeulen, former middle school teacher
Vertical Habits Poem
Awesome, great, fantastic (there is no word for you) dear God
Died on the cross for me no one but you would do Lord
O my God you made me the world I live in and the air I breathe
Really God you have created things that some people have not even seen
Even though I can not see you I will worship your name Amen.
—Osha Towers, 5th grade, “Adoration” habit
Watching Us Pass Through
After we’ve been through it all,
After these precious goodbyes,
God will be watching us all pass through
To where his kingdom lies.
No more weakenings,
No more pain,
No more tears of worry.
For when we die
God will watch us bye and bye;
No need to rush or hurry.
Huge mansions we see.
Roads paved with gold.
No more hurts to bear.
These great things we are told.
No more burdens to carry,
For it’s grace we now hold,
Don’t you now worry;
Our sins are all sold!
—Abigail Vermeulen, former 4th grade student
Journaling About Vertical Habits
Muskegon Christian School students kept journals about their experiences with Vertical Habits. Here are some excerpts (reprinted with permission):
“I usually pray once a day, but this week I prayed twice a day . . . I usually pray for myself, but now I pray for other people. And that is how I have gown in praying—for other people, more than usual, and longer than usual.” —Justin, 5th grade
“Mrs. Pluaski, That note from God was the best thing ever. I never have felt this way before.” —Nick, 4th grade, after a “Go Vertical” time using “A Father’s Love Letter”
“I am thankful this week that my grandma is in a much happier place. She was blind, disabled to walk on her own, can only remember things from when she was a child. She really couldn’t do much but hear and eat. I’m so thankful knowing she is with Jesus dancing and singing like she love to when she could. And I’m extremely glad knowing right now she is safe and out of the cruel world. —Jessica, 5th grade, during “Thanksgiving” habit, the same week her grandma died.