Playing in the Fields of Hope

I’ve been playing in church for a long time, mostly with children, sometimes with adults. I learned a new game, “God’s Musical Chairs,” from Jeff Doucette, pastor at Enniskillen & Tyrone United Church in Bowmanville, Ontario. We are members of an online international church called CASA. God’s Musical Chairs sets up a circle of chairs looking a lot like the mean-spirited game of my youth where I felt desperately left out and occasionally sat hard on the floor with my skirt embarrassingly hiked up.

Music is played and when the music stops everyone runs for a seat. In God’s Musical Chairs everyone finds one, and one has been added. The group stands again for more music and another chair is added. The young participants know that something is different. I ask, “Whom should we ask to sit in this chair? Who needs a place?” The first two suggestions are always parents

Whom should we ask to sit in this chair? Who needs a place?

After forty years playing, dancing (and trudging) in the fields of hope and justice, I am retired. I am a guest preacher almost every week (the word “supply” always makes me feel like a toilet paper roll) and so this spring I have played this game in a large number of churches. By the fourth added chair, every time, every sanctuary, one of the young people responds to, “Who needs a place?” with “Immigrants.” After “immigrants” in June, Pride month, I heard “trans people.” Once I heard “homeless people.” Also, once, well … “my dog.”

It’s a pastoral calling to invite children to the justice table. The invitation lodges deepest in the heart when they speak the realization themselves. I’ve been known to pass an inflated globe and a basket of band aids so they can name a hurt in the world and bandage it. I’ve hosted God’s picnic by handing out paper plates and plastic ware with the forks (f) labeled friends and family and the spoons (s) labeled strangers. I’ve passed out squares of aluminum foil which look not unlike the blankets covering children along our southern border, and asked whether that would be a comfortable blanket. Those are more directive small quick ways to open a conversation about welcome, compassion and care. None of these are as significant as what Christian educators can do with their longer time frame, but brief parable-play brings justice into the sanctuary children’s time with that awkward mixed age range from two to twelve. The kids know my agenda is to touch them, love them, change them, not make them appear cute for the adults present. I believe it is more pastoral, more political and more important than anything I say in the longer sermon.

My father, a white labor organizer, was a champion for Civil Rights. He spoke at rallies, he marched arm in arm with African Americans, he integrated the local shops in his union. He inspired me. Then when he grew old and Alzheimer’s disease stripped him of his chosen adulthood, the desperately poor child from Boones Creek who was prejudiced against people with black skin re-appeared. It broke the heart of the woman who had been married to him for sixty-three years. Changing heart and head perspective in a faith context belongs in the very youngest ages.

And play — thank you Jeff — is a powerful part of life. Certainly, yesterday with its threatened immigration raids targeting families caused people in nine American cities to hide behind their doors. It was a cruel mind-game of fear. It was a taking of the chairs, the homes, the jobs, the lives out from under people while whistling a twisted tune in patriotic music.

And we game back that organized meanness with God’s Musical Chairs, inviting our youngest children to be welcomers. It is what they will choose. Nothing is a greater community-game than a parade and in the United States in the last two weeks we have seen two — one in Washington with tanks and flyovers and military might and one in New York with handmade confetti, number jerseys for the World Cup Women’s Soccer winners, and dancing in the streets. It was that one with the drum major in pink hair rather than orange that was filled with children.

Maren C. Tirabassi is a United Church of Christ (US) pastor (currently interim for RevGal Eliza Tweedy’s sabbatical at First Church Congregational, Rochester NH.) and writer. Most recent book is A Child Laughs: Prayers of Justice and Hope. Maren blogs at

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