Easter at Home with Babies and Toddlers

When I was in my very first call and was still saying I wasn’t sure I was called to be a parent, I led a conversation for the monthly potluck shared by parents and children about faith at home. It felt like a new idea all those ten years ago.

Children were supposed to learn about matters of faith at church. They were supposed to ask their pastors and Sunday School teachers. Parents weren’t trained. They weren’t equipped. That was what we thought then when there was never a question about gathering in our places of worship. That was before this pandemic changed things forever. Or maybe just for a little while.

It has taken this new normal for me to actually do the things I taught parents to do with their children. It started really because I was gifted a daily observance for little kids to mark the days of Holy Week from my dear friend Teri. My sweet toddler would remind me every day that it was time for “Baby Jesus” and we would share in whatever the story and activity was for that day. It made me realize I need to do this more.

Just like I find activities for my children to play with bubble foam, finger paint and embark on neighborhood scavenger hunts, I need to find time to cultivate their faith. I want them to learn more about these stories that are so important to me but it also builds up my faith. It reminds me every time we take the time to do so that this is matters to me. Here are some things I’m doing with my very young children to carry us through the Easter season.

My toddler is two and a half and very verbal. My baby girl is nearly 10 months old and is ready to start walking. Or so it appears. She might not get as much out of these activities but she is in awe of her sister and will follow her anywhere. I can’t say these activities will work without an older child to lead.

Prayer Book

I confess that I have been tired at bedtime and so the long list of people we usually pray for has been truncated. I feel badly badly about it and so when I downloaded Traci Smith’s wonderful at home resource for Faithful Families, I felt nudged by one of her ideas to create a book of people we pray for. I’m adapting a tiny photo book to use in our prayer time every night and every other time my toddler pulls it off the shelf and clasps her hands together.

Jesus Song Time

The churches I’ve served have all had Sunday School during worship. In every church I’ve served, the kids start in the sanctuary until the children’s sermon and then are excused to their classes. This means they usually only hear one or two hymns and one of those hymns may have been difficult to sing. I know this. Zoom Worship has provided the extra blessing for our family that my kids hear the whole service and my baby girl sways and dances every time music begins. music

I want to cultivate that love of music and want them to learn the songs of faith. So we have started to have Jesus Song Time. I created a Spotify station by the same name that we turn on the Roku and jam out in our living room. I sing loudly and out of tune and encourage my kids to play with bean bags and their music instruments including the egg shakers that were in their Easter baskets.

Psalms and Shepherds

In the spirit of familiarity, I am attempting to teach Psalm 23 to my children this week. It’s going really great in that they are not getting it at all. We are going to make sheep from egg cartons this afternoon and tomorrow we will play with those tubes using this prompt from Carolyn Brown on Worshiping with Children:

Using a small cardboard sheepfold, a shepherd figure (maybe from a crèche), and some toy sheep.  Demonstrate how the shepherd would gather the sheep into the fold, counting as they came in and checking each one for injuries, then sleep across the gate so no animal or human thief could get to the sheep at night.  Show next how in the morning the shepherd would call the sheep to the gate and lead them out into pasture.  After showing this, reread John 10:2-5 and comment that just as the good shepherd takes care of the sheep, Jesus takes care of us.

I will also build a pen from the surplus cardboard in our lives. A shepherd will be found from among other toys. I’m not sure which yet. I also really like the idea from Worshiping with Children to spend some time with this first picture of Jesus from the Roman catacombs. The questions would be over the head of my toddler but it might be a fun way to continue to explore Psalm 23.

Jesus Story Time

One of the things that I learned during Holy Week with Teri’s wonderful resource was that I didn’t like any of our children’s bibles. I have a lot of them and I’m still not quite satisfied. With her encouragement, I ordered the Spark Story Bible. We take our special picnic blanket outside of the backyard for what my toddler calls Baby Jesus Story Time. I’m really trying to teach her that Jesus grows up. I’m choosing some of my favorite stories about Jesus’ life and reading them.

Though I’m not sure we will get there by Ascension Sunday, I’m keeping this idea from Worshiping with Children in the back of my mind.

Display pictures of Jesus’ birth, healing, teaching, Palm Sunday, Crucifixion, Empty Tomb, and Ascension.  With the children review Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  Then tell the story of the Ascension in your own words.  Stress that during his life on earth, his disciples knew Jesus as a very special person, after Easter Jesus was different.  He appeared and disappeared sometimes in locked but still ate fish and bread.  Thomas could touch him.  Since the Ascension, people have seen Jesus only in visions and dreams.  Jesus is still alive and is not just with God, but part of God.

My toddler is just at the age where she can tell a story from a picture if we read it often enough. So this might be something we try.

I’m already starting to think about what I’ll do for Pentecost because I haven’t used my Pentecost kites in the longest time. I’m also pretty sure I’ll go searching for other ideas between now and then because I get bored but this is where we are now. If you are doing something similar with your littles, please share your amazing ideas in the comments.

Christmas Comes

Christmas comes in the ordinary.

It comes into a guest room where strangers are welcomed as friends. A place is made for another night of rest. Two expectant parents wonder if this will be the night.

No matter what may have been foretold, it could be any night. The baby will come when its ready. No amount of walking or spicy food from a food cart in Bethlehem will change that.

I wonder how ordinary it seemed to Mary: this long trip to the hometown of her betrothed, the lingering impact of a celestial visitor, the frustration that no part of this wonder could have been easy for her. I wondered all of this as I unloaded the dishwasher and rinsed off the breakfast dishes and piled them into the machine that makes my life easier. I pondered this as I bent down to haul clean wet clothes from the washer to the dryer. It was my second load of laundry this morning. I had promised myself yesterday that my Christmas gift to myself would be to not have to do a load of cloth diapers on Christmas. I didn’t succeed in avoiding other laundry.

Kathleen Norris finds laundry to be one of the ordinary tasks that most inspires prayer. I don’t usually feel that way, but I found myself musing over her wisdom. Wondering, again, if these ordinary chores on Christmas Eve might have value just as Norris suggests because they’re “never completed, but only set aside to the next day.”

I wondered what Mary did to clean up that borrowed space where she would give birth. After such a long journey, did she feel the need to scrub her clothes clean? Did she lament that Joseph always manages to clump so much dirt to the souls of his feet? Did she slosh a bucket of warm soapy water his way and insist that he chip in by at least cleaning his feet off, for the love of their unborn child?

These are the kinds of questions I wonder every year on Christmas. It’s a question I ponder on other days when something fantastic is supposed to happen. Miracles abound but I’m otherwise preoccupied with laundry or the dishes. I’m supposed to feel something different about this day. Something is supposed to shift but I’m too worried about the things that keep me busy every other day.

Still, I wonder. I wonder how much Mary worried about bringing a child into this world. I wonder too about those other children she had. They came later, we are told. This would be her first child. She would learn to be a parent for the very first time when her child’s life was threatened. She would become a refugee for his safety but as I sat breastfeeding my baby girl I wondered if there were other children she was protecting. Did she sit there in that borrowed room feeding her baby for the first time while she watched her toddler playing with blocks by the manger? Did she know in that instant that she would do anything for these kids? Did she berate herself for not feeling as certain in this conviction until she had children of her own?

There is nothing ordinary about these questions, but perhaps that is why this story matters again every year. We might repeat the same prayers and sing the same old carols. We might prepare the same feast without ever experiencing the magic of Christmas, but Christmas comes.

Christmas comes into the monotony. It comes into the back-breaking frustration that the work is not done, that justice hasn’t yet come. It comes into the constant struggle to do more because the world needs more. Our children need more. Our hope needs more. Christmas comes when nothing seems to be any different. Christmas comes when we have so exhausted ourselves that we can’t believe in miracles. Christmas comes anyway. It comes into ordinary flesh. It comes in the tiny cry of a small child. Christmas comes again.

 

 

 

New Traditions for Our Family

My husband is an atheist.

That’s right. I am an ordained minister in the Christian Church and I married a man who could care less about anything remotely related to God.

He will be quick to amend that. He will say that he does care. He cares because I care but it’s not quite the same. It’s not the same as having a partner seated next to you every Sunday in church. It’s not the same as having a spouse that shares some similar experience from childhood. He didn’t have that. Mine was weird.

My father is also an atheist. Or at least, at one time, he said he could care less about God. It was shortly after my mom had died. They’d fallen in love, had two children and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. They’d been been married eleven years when she died. It was not the ending he would have imagined. It certainly wasn’t what he wanted. He had every right to be mad at God, but that wasn’t how I dealt with it. Instead of rejecting God, I snuck off to church.

It was, as I tell those in the churches I’ve served, my young rebellion.

Marrying my husband was not a rebellion. He just happens to be an atheist. He’s an atheist who chose to marry a Christian pastor and regularly jokes about the bake sales he’ll host as a pastor’s husband when he retires from the Army. There are a lot of things that make our marriage wonderful, but Christmas can be hard.

For you see, I adore Christmas. It starts with Advent. It’s a season that echoes with my soul every single year. It calls me into greater attention with the needs of this broken world and forces me to focus on what I can do to bring hope, peace, joy and especially love into a world that needs so much more of these things, but I love the decorations. I love the lights lining the roof of my neighbor’s home. I love the gift giving and the twinkly tree that I turn on again the minute I wake up.

I love the candles held in the darkened sanctuary as we sing Silent Night. I love the cookies. Well, I love the cookies when I’m not pastoring a church and there are just too many cookies. I love the carols and sappy movies. I love the mall Santas. I love every bit of it.

My husband doesn’t love it. He doesn’t hate it but it doesn’t have the same magic for him. He doesn’t get excited like I do. That would be hard to accomplish for anyone.

He did, however, agree to raise our children in my faith. We talked about it before we got married and it’s still a conversation we continue to share. There are things that come up, things that neither one of us ever expected but things that we need to keep in the ongoing conversation of how we might try to raise the one kid we do have and any other children that might become a part of our family.

So we keep talking. We keep talking because it’s important.

We’ve made some decisions already. We decided we’re not traveling for the holidays. Our children will know a lot of change in their young lives. There will be lots of moves and no matter where we might call home, we want them to have an experience of the familiar. We want them to know that these are the things that our family does.

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Our first Easter Vigil

Earlier this year, we made a list. We picked all of the days that we would want to celebrate and how we might cherish these special days in our family. We talked about what traditions were a part of our younger years and what really matters to us. It’s a work in progress. We both know it will change but we started with an Easter Vigil. I explained the tradition and the big parts of the liturgy to my husband and then suggested a redacted version that might work for our family. Of course, it involves lighting a big fire and food. He was won over and it was wonderful.

I opened the document earlier today to remember what we intended for Christmas. It was blank and perhaps that is right. It’s our first Christmas where it is just us. It’s the first year where we get to try new things and see what fits our family.

Truthfully, the Easter Vigil is the only one we really have figured out. There are other things we want to do, but our baby girl isn’t old enough yet. Service is important to both of us and it’s something we want to share with our children, but there isn’t much that a one-year old can do to serve. There are other traditions that I know will emerge once we all start sitting down to dinner together at the same time, but neither my husband or I have our act together to sit down at 5 o’clock to eat together.

There are things that I hope will happen but I don’t really know what will happen. I don’t know how these practices will evolve in our family. I don’t know what will end up sticking and that’s hard for me. I love a good plan.

So it is with Christmas. I’ve made plans. I’ve planned a menu and wrapped presents. I made elf hats like my great-grandmother made us all wear on Christmas Eve though we will wear them on Christmas Day. We are going out to dinner on Christmas Eve and there will be the cinnamon rolls that I loved as a kid on Christmas morning. I’ve prepared for the details but not for the wonder.

That’s what always surprises me on Christmas. There is something mysterious and magical that happens. That’s what I want to emerge from all of these new traditions that we make for our family but it’s hard to plan for magic. It’s something that comes. It surprises and hopefully delights. My job is to wait for it and to be ready when it comes.

 

Toward Transformation This Lent

The holy season of Lent begins in just a few short weeks on Valentines Day, if you can believe it. Even if you can’t quite fathom this holy and profane confusion, get ready. Easter will fall on April Fools Day six weeks later.

Maybe it’s appropriate for this year in American Christianity where we are not quite sure how to define the sacred from the patriotic. Maybe it is a challenge to us to move past the rhetoric from the White House to define what needs to be restored, renewed or even resurrected not just for ourselves but for our world.

Several years ago, with the good people in the First Congregational Church UCC in South Portland, Maine, I wrote a curriculum that reflected this desire. They wanted to experience this thing. They wanted the resurrection to come alive not just in their lives but in the world. They were looking for hope when the world was still frozen and nothing would ever grow.

CoverWe created this guide which we called Toward Transformation through the Psalms to imagine such a possibility, but we were careful not to get too stuck on the thing that happens to Jesus. We didn’t want to get lost in the particulars that may or may not have made it a bodily resurrection. We are, after all, a diverse people in the United Church of Christ and this is always a question. Instead, we wanted to take it into our own bodies and look for change.

We all agreed we hated change, even if we knew it was good for us. It was hard and it was unlikely any one of us was going to choose it even if we knew full well that the very good news we proclaimed pivots on the hope that people can and will change. So we set aside Lent to understand this about ourselves so that we might see it in the world. It wasn’t a hope to make Christianity or even ourselves great again. We weren’t looking to capture something from the past but to repent or turn around to be changed.

Years have passed but as the calendar changes to approach Lent, I always return to this guide. There was something amazing that happened within those six weeks. We broke through the noise and got real about our hopes. We were changed by the way that we shared our struggles and our slow movements toward change and Easter was different. We were different and it’s why I want to offer it to other groups seeking such a possibility. I want you to have this experience. You’ll find the whole resource with leader notes and a weekly group discussion reflecting upon the Psalms here.

Take a step Toward Transformation this Lent and download this guide today. If you have any questions or want to know if your group really needs to follow this guide exactly as written, please contact me. I’d love to share this wonderful experience with you.

I aspire to write other resources for group exploration when I’m not so busy cooking up this baby but in the meantime, you might be interested to find what else is currently in my kitchen. However you might choose to explore this holy season of Lent, may it be blessed.

10 Observations for Right Now

It seems to me that there are so many great teachers out there. It’s why TED is so popular. There are just so many people that are pulsing with wisdom and creativity. It isn’t a select few that have these great ideas but something that is shared across disciplines among all different kinds of people.

For years, I’ve been safely tucking ideas from great teachers into my files on Evernote. I save them for some future date when I might be able to use them in my ministry. Maybe they’ll become a sermon illustration or maybe they’ll work their way into some of my consulting work or maybe I’ll use them for some small group resource I’m writing. Among those things saved in my files on Evernote are actual assignments that teachers assign their students that have caught my interest including Paul Thek’s “Teaching Notes.”

On my walk today, with Krista Tippett in my ears, I heard from another wise teacher and while I’m tempted to file the idea away on Evernote, it grabs my attention enough to know that it’s something that I should probably attempt to practice right now. In OnBeing’s “The Power of Words to Save Us,” the poet Maria Howe offers this assignment that I’m feeling nudged to practice. She explains:

I ask my students every week to write 10 observations of the actual world. It’s very hard for them… They really find it hard…

Just tell me what you saw this morning like in two lines. I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. And to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason…

We want to say, “It was like this; it was like that.” We want to look away. And to be with a glass of water or to be with anything — and then they say, “Well, there’s nothing important enough.” And that’s whole thing. It’s the point… And then they say, “Oh, I saw a lot of people who really want” — and, “No, no, no. No abstractions, no interpretations.” But then this amazing thing happens, Krista. The fourth week or so, they come in and clinkety, clank, clank, clank, onto the table pours all this stuff. And it so thrilling. I mean, it is thrilling. Everybody can feel it. Everyone is just like, “Wow.” The slice of apple, and then that gleam of the knife, and the sound of the trashcan closing, and the maple tree outside, and the blue jay. I mean, it almost comes clanking into the room. And it’s just amazing.

There’s an added dimension to this assignment. Not only are these students called to pay attention to the thing in front of them or even the world around them, they are not supposed to use any metaphors.

Jesus loves a good metaphor. He invites people past and present to imagine the kingdom of God in all of these fantastic illustrations. It’s like treasure hidden in a field. It’s like a merchant in search of beautiful pearls. It’s like a king who wants to settle all of his accounts or perhaps like landowner who goes out early in the morning to hire laborers to tend to his vineyard.

This great teacher, Maria Howe, advises against it. No matter how much Jesus might love a metaphor, Howe says to avoid it. Don’t compare the thing. Don’t illustrate it. Don’t try to connect it to anything else. Just describe the glass of water as it is.

Right now, it feels like there is so much happening in the world and even in my own life. It feels like are moving fast and slightly out of control and perhaps what I need most is just to slow down and pay attention and notice what’s in front of me. Every day, just write 10 observations of the actual world.

It feels like enough for such a time as this.