The Theological Easter Basket

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As I mentioned on Sunday, this is Holy Week and properly a time for quieting down, lingering, waiting with Jesus. The temptation is there to rush through to Easter – especially for those of us hosting friends or family on Sunday, since we do have to plan ahead – but if we let ourselves, this week can be received as such a gift. It’s a chance, briefly, to taste eternal time; to let all the many things that occupy us pale a bit as we let ourselves be swept into these most momentous days of God’s story.

However. Those of us with kids still have lunches to pack, clothes to wash, baskets to fill, not to mention some planning to do as we prepare to usher our children through the transition of Jesus’ final days, his death, and his rising to life.

I can’t pack tomorrow’s lunch for you. (Sorry: I’m a pretty good lunch packer, but it is one of my LEAST FAVORITE chores.) And I can’t help with your laundry, either. (Sorry again: I love getting things clean, but I do so dislike the whole process of putting it all away.) But ideas for a theologically-rich Easter basket? That I can do.

Each year, I try to fill my children’s baskets with things I hope will encourage them to love Jesus more and want to know him better. To let them know that his love for them is the most important thing in their lives. (Also some Peeps, but that’s because I’m a traditionalist even when it involves disgusting over-sugared marshmallows.) In other words: I try to give them theological Easter baskets, Easter baskets that say something about God and why we’re hunting behind the couch for baskets filled with disgusting over-sugared marshmallows anyway.

So from me to you: some ideas for filling the baskets of your own small ones, with love and hope for a blessed week. Tuck one or more of these inside your child’s basket and commit to enjoying it together during the Easter season. Peeps optional.

ADD A FAMILY READ-ALOUD
(especially if you have an older child who wants to stay up just a little later: make some tea and read a little together!)

GIVE A DEVOTIONAL BOOK: & HELP YOUR CHILD USE IT!

INCLUDE A CD

  • Slugs and Bugs Sing the Biblewe haven’t reviewed this yet, but rest assured – we will. Because trust me, you didn’t know that you needed a song about Deuteronomy 14:21 BUT YOU DO.
  • Resurrection Letters: vol. II
  • Amy Grant CollectionBecause it still stands up, and is super accessible for kids. And it gives you an excuse to sing along to El Shaddai one more time.
  • Jim Weiss CDs: these aren’t explicitly theological, but they’re such a treat. If you haven’t discovered Jim Weiss yet, Do It Now. If you have, then you know what I mean.

INVEST IN THE MATERIALS TO TELL THE STORY

(A few Easter stories from Worship Woodworks – you can buy or make the materials, and tell the story throughout the season)

We’ll be quiet here the rest of the week: see you on the other side, when everything is “turned inside out and upside down” (Godly Play)  - or, in some of my favorite words, when we find the answer to our question “is everything sad going to come untrue?” (Tolkien) in the empty tomb.

The Story of Easter

The Story of Easter

The Story of Easter
Aileen Fisher & Stephano Vitale
HarperTrophy, 1997

While I love, and will probably always gravitate towards, books that invite us into the experience of the Passion and Easter (Peter’s First Easter and  At Jersualem’s GateI’m looking at you), I also have a seven-year-old who is hungry for information. This child falls asleep at night reading her science dictionary, and asked me yesterday on the way home from a playdate how the Romans stopped killing Christians and became Christians themselves. She likes to know why and how things happen: why are there so many eggs at Easter? What does a bunny have to do with it anyway? Bunnies don’t lay eggs, do they? Snakes do: hey, how long is an anaconda? Does an anaconda eat bunnies?

Sometimes you just need a good reference, right?

If you’re looking for just such a book for a similarly inquisitive child, or perhaps for a child who isn’t familiar with the holiday beyond the version you can buy at Target (as is the case for many of my daughter’s friends), The Story of Easter, by Aileen Fisher, is just the thing to tuck in their baskets.

This book does a lovely job explaining the history of Easter itself, beginning with the life of Jesus and the events of Holy Week. The pastel illustrations in this section of the book echo Renaissance frescoes, with color, light, and activity to draw us in. The second half of the book is devoted to illustrating how parts of ancient spring festivals were drawn into Easter celebrations as the good news of Jesus’ resurrection spread beyond the Jewish world. Easter eggs, the bunny, wearing new clothes on Easter: they’re all there. Fisher tells in simple, direct language the origins of each custom and how it complements and was taken up into the Christian celebration. It’s all very winsomely, gently written, and I especially appreciated that it gives my daughter a point of connection with the (sometimes-derided-as-”pagan”) pieces of Easter that are all her friends know.

And full of fun facts, which is just the thing for her right now! For instance: did you know that wearing something new on Easter can be traced back to the white baptismal clothes that early Christians received on their entry into the church (often on Easter)? But it all comes back to the sole reason for the holiday at all: “It is the joy and celebration of the belief that God’s love is stronger than death.”

 

The Garden of the Good Shepherd

Garden of the Good Shepherd The Garden of the Good Shepherd: A Sticker Calendar to Count the 50 Days of Easter
Peter Mazar & Tomie dePaola
Liturgy Training Publications, 2000

I don’t honestly remember when I stumbled across The Garden of the Good Shepherd sticker calendar. It may have been one of those rare moments of Amazon kismet, when they actually recommended something I might want to read. (Does anyone else confuse their magical recommendation machine with their reading/buying/browsing choices? Also, whatever algorithm they use, it’s not very sophisticated when it comes to determining one’s choices in theological kidlit. But that’s another rant.)

Anyhow. Whenever I did stumble across it, I ordered it immediately, and I have been hiding it in my sewing room ever since. And I am so excited to recommend it to you for your family’s Easter celebration.

What precisely is it? And do I promise it’s not cheesy?

Yes. I promise. It’s a lovely large format (17″ x 22″ opened) sticker background depicting a meadow, a fountain with a running stream, the sea in the background, and a city on a hill. Inside are 50 stickers and a week-by-week guide for using them. The printed guide instructs you which sticker to place each day, an appropriate Scripture to read together, and a short meditation on the symbol and its meaning.

The scene changes each week, as you affix new stickers. There’s a week when we are daily adding stickers to make the pasture of the good shepherd; a week in which the Lord’s Table is set in the field; and my favorite – the week in which we build the city and prepare to enter it for a royal wedding. Each week gives us a glimpse of God’s creation and a way of seeing it through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection and the new life that is already bursting into our world – as well as increasing anticipation for his final renewal of all things.

I love the idea of maintaining the Easter celebration past the first few days.But friends: 50 days is a long time. It overlaps with Memorial Day and the end of the school year, and a million other things that distract me once the chocolate eggs have been consumed. This sticker calendar is as much for me as for my kids: to remind us, daily, that we are living in a world that has been rescued, that God has said “Yes!” to in the most definitive way possible. To remind us, now, that we walk in new life and that the death we see around us is simply not the last or most important thing. Fifty days of celebration is not nearly enough.

Getting Ready for the Week

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Happy Palm Sunday, friends!

I hope it’s been a good one for you. We had a lovely service this morning – where we sang this song – and I was reminded yet again that this week is all about Jesus the king, God’s king, the king who is lifted up not to a throne but a cross. Our pastor remarked, “All that’s left for us to do is cry, hosanna! Save us!”

So we’re heading into Holy Week. And I usually use Sundays to plan the rest of this week — which, this week, includes trying to build in some meditative time around preparing for a big Easter dinner, filling baskets, and getting ready to feast. I like to have things mostly done by Wednesday night so I can enter into the Triduum a little less distracted than usual. Sure, some years are more organized than others (this is one of my less organized years!), but it’s what I aim for.

In that spirit, we’ll be offering you some resources to prepare for Easter in the next few days: not to jump the gun, but to help you finalize your feast preparations before quieting down to walk with Jesus through his final hours. To start with, check out this oldie-but-goodie from Haley on the Sights and Sounds of Easter. On my own to-do list this week is to make sure I have Champagne in the fridge Saturday evening – oh, and I need to remember to order eggs from the Natural Candy Store! For the kids. Really.

So stay tuned, and may this week be a time of blessing, quiet, and deep love in your homes.

The Colt and the King

Colt and KingThe Colt and the King
Marni McGee & John Winch
Holiday House, 2002

A few days ago a friend pointed out to me that the story of the triumphal procession is not included in either the Big Picture Story Bible or the Jesus Storybook Bible.  I was surprised when she told me – perhaps simply because Palm Sunday is this weekend and its proximity makes it feel particularly important – and left the conversation wondering what is out there in children’s literature that tells the story well.  Happily, I found one to share with you all just in time for the beginning of this year’s Holy Week!

Marni McGee (of The Noisy Farm fame) and illustrator John Winch have together created The Colt and the King, a creative retelling of the triumphal entry that is just right for preschoolers and early elementary kids.  It’s out of print, but my own library had it on its shelves and used copies seem affordable and easy to find.  The donkey is the narrator, and through the book’s pages he reminisces about the day he was drafted into the King’s service and carried him into Jerusalem alongside an exuberant crowd.  The text is clear yet gently poetic, the illustrations are captivating, and the author’s note that precedes the title page provides additional context and explanation.

Now, I have to admit that normally I’m not a fan of Bible retellings that focus on something other than what is the clear biblical theme.  Most frequently I see this in the form of telling the Christmas story from the perspective of the animals, though I can think of other examples as well.  It’s just not my cup of tea.  However… I really like this book.  For one thing, I love the way that McGee foreshadows both Good Friday and also the Second Coming as the story progresses.  Moreover, the colt’s encounter with Jesus is somehow entirely relatable, especially for a young child.  Jesus’ presence calms the animal as the Good Shepherd calms his sheep, and the colt is in turn pleased with the role he gets to play on that special day.  He feels anxious at what he senses is soon to come for Jesus (a feeling that I’m sure many young children share as the day we remember the crucifixion draws near).  And after the procession ends, the donkey longs for the day when he will once again see Jesus and be at home with him.  Each of these reflections strike me as particularly relevant for children and taken together they’re a wonderful way to begin Holy Week.

Sarah and I have long had trouble finding children’s books for Holy Week and Easter that we are truly excited about, so I’m particularly pleased to be able to recommend this one to you.  The Colt and the King is a lovely book that makes the Palm Sunday story come alive and I hope that you’ll consider tracking it down to share with the young ones in your life.

Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle

Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle

Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle
Sheila Miller
OMF International, 1983/2002

The most common forms of prayer that my children engage in are probably prayers of gratitude and meal blessings, and those don’t often lead to tough theological questions.  But as they grow and the more they ask God for specific requests, the more conversations we have about what that form of prayer is all about.  How we understand God’s ways when he doesn’t answer in the ways that we asked him to?  What if his timing is not our timing?  How do we continue to trust his love when we don’t see immediate evidence that he is listening to us when we talk to him?

The nuances of prayer are hard to communicate to young children, but I think that Sheila Miller has done an excellent job of doing just that in Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle.  It tells two intersecting tales: one of a missionary whose car is blocked by a huge fallen tree and one of a Thai man who loses an elephant.  I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s a great story of how God sometimes answers a prayer immediately yet we have to wait to see the evidence of his answer.  It’s certainly not going to answer every question about intercession you child may throw at you.  But as one simple illustration of how God is at work behind the scenes and knows the best ways to answer our prayers, it’s a great success.

This short, small paperback is a true story (which makes it even better!) and published by OMF, a missionary agency.  Amazon carries used copies as well as new copies from third party vendors, but you can also find it at Sonlight or purchase it directly from OMF.  I loved sharing Ian’s story with my daughter during Lent because prayer is a traditional Lenten theme (and the one that we’re focusing on this year), but since prayer is woven into the fabric of our lives year round it’s a great choice for any season.

The Lent Box

A month or so back, Haley and I had an email exchange about building seasonal boxes for our kids: that is, having a stash of materials, stories, and books for the feasts and seasons of the church year. (Doubtless this was while she was reading A Homemade Year, since she asked me if I had ever celebrated Candlemas. Answer: no.)

Afterwards, I did what all good friends who are lucky enough to have thoughtful, smart people in their lives do: I copied her idea. I had a week or so to go until Ash Wednesday, so I decided to start with a Lent box. There are lots and lots of ways to do this; my choices were shaped by the ages of my children (7 and 3) and our church’s children’s curriculum, Godly Play – which I also teach. Here’s a step-by-step guide to how I built my box, and a peek at what lives inside:

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Because we do Godly Play at church, I bought copies of Sonja Stewart’s Young Children and Worship and Following Jesus to use at home. Jerome Berryman (the creator of Godly Play) collaborated with her, so many of the stories are the same; however, Stewart’s books include patterns and templates for making the materials at home, as well as a helpful appendix listing all of the materials one could ever need, cross-referenced across the stories. That made it easier for me to get started: I ordered some materials that I can use in multiple stories, as well as a few gorgeous pieces that I wasn’t going to make myself. (This tomb, anyone?)

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Worship Woodworks has lovely wooden figures for each of the Young Children and Worship stories, but there’s no reason to buy every single piece. It’s entirely possible that when we need a Temple for the story of the poor widow, I will build it out of blocks. Or Legos! I love an excuse to play with Legos. The coins tossed into the treasury are going to be some old, worthless Italian lire left over from our honeymoon. And the Passover is going to happen around our dollhouse table, with dollhouse kitchenware, which the dolls so kindly loaned us.

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Each week, I’m introducing a new story. So far we’ve done The Mystery of Easter (a story in which we put together a “puzzle” of the six weeks of Lent, which shows us that Lent culminates in a cross – a cross that is at once mournful purple and celebratory white) and the parable of the two sons from Matthew 21. The materials from each story, once it is introduced, come to live inside our box or alongside it. Coming up are the stories of the greatest commandment, the poor widow’s offering, the last Passover, and during Holy Week, Jesus the King and Jesus Dies and God Makes Jesus Alive.

The other contents of our Lent box are several books, verging toward the meditative: The Saving Name of God the Son (probably the most theologically dense board book in existence) and Writing to God: Kid’s Edition. Oh, and Bible Stories for the Forty Days, which we’re trying our best to keep up with.  To make space for the stories, I deposited the box near our display bookshelf, where I added more books about Jesus, his parables, and miracles.

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My favorite part of the Lent box, though, is the simplest and easiest to replicate. Each child has a prayer journal and some art supplies. My reading 7-year-old uses Writing to God for prompts occasionally; the 3-year-old prefers to scribble when given a chance to “reflect” on a story or a book we’ve read. Yes, his scribbles generally include Lightning McQueen, but it’s more about getting used to the practice of reflection than the outcome right now.

A really simple version of this box could easily include a candle, some matches, a notebook and colored pencils for each child, and a Bible for reading aloud. I tend to get really excited about projects and dive in headfirst, but others might prefer to slowly build a box, year by year.

I’d love to hear if your family does something similar, or materials/books/practices that are a part of your (literal or figurative) annual Lenten box. I’m slowly putting a box together for the Easter season as well: I’ll keep you posted when we get there!

A Homemade Year

Homemade YearA Homemade Year
Jerusalem Jackson Greer
Paraclete Press, 2013

My spiritual life has been deeply affected by the Anglican practice of arranging church life around the various liturgical seasons of the year.  Liturgy began to feed my soul in college and has only become more important to me in the (more than) decade since graduation.  Now as a mother, I aim for my family’s home life to reflect what goes on at church.  I want my children to always sense that church feels like home and home feels like an extension of church.  It’s something that hasn’t magically come together all at once, but bit by bit and year by year I try to make steady progress toward that general goal.

You’ll understand, then, that when I caught wind of a new book on celebrating the church year with your family I was immediately interested.  A Homemade Year is a book that will appeal to both newbies and veterans to liturgical celebrations, so wherever you find yourself on that spectrum I happily commend it to you.  I loved that the book doesn’t contain long, intimidating lists of all of the ways you could be marking each special day or season.  (She says candidly in the preface, actually, that she doesn’t recommend doing every craft, recipe, and activity in the book unless you only require three hours of sleep per night.)  Unlike some of the other church year celebration guides that I own, this book is a peek into one woman’s family life and the simple, creative, personal ways that she has made the church year come alive in their home.  It’s less like Pinterest and more like a memoir of sorts, and for someone who can get intimidated by the sheer number of ideas out there, I appreciated that.  It’s a welcome reminder that celebrating the church calendar doesn’t mean we have to put every single great idea into place.  Just one or two recipes or activities is really all you need, and you alone get to choose which ones (from this book or from other sources) are going to mean the most to your family.  Hooray!

Aside from the well known staples of the church year (Christmas, Easter, etc), author Jerusalem Jackson Greer writes about a number of celebrations that I was almost entirely unfamiliar with.  Anyone out there regularly do something for St. Joseph’s Day?  Or Holy Cross Day?  Do you even know when they are?  I certainly didn’t.  But because of A Homemade Year I do have several new days that I’m adding to our family’s celebrations this coming year.  Here’s the passage that sold me on observing Candlemas, the day to remember when the infant Jesus was presented in the temple:

By the time February 2 rolls around, there is very little evidence of Christmas left at my house… Winter is still here, bleak and bare, long outlasting the holiday finery that it arrived in… Candlemas comes to me then, in those moments of wondering and cold toes.  It comes full of light and warmth, it comes with beeswax candles and cups of steaming hot cocoa, signaling like those blinking lights on the snow plows and school buses, reminding me that Christmas was not a dream.  Christ did come, and he is among us still.  

Yes, yes, and yes.  Sign me up for Candlemas!

I have long loved the church year from Advent to Christ the King.  I love the rhythm it brings to my spiritual life, I love the aesthetics it offers to my home, I love systematically reliving the life of Jesus every year.  But even if you’re not similarly devoted to keeping the liturgical calendar alive in your home, I’m going to venture a guess that you’d still appreciate A Homemade Year.  Jerusalem neither grew up in a liturgical church nor worships in one now, and her meditations about each mentioned day/season are down to earth stories from her own life experience.  To me, that’s what makes this book so perfectly unique from the other Christian year celebration books I own.  Sure, there is less talk about theological underpinnings or historic traditions.  But when I read it I’m inspired to pay attention not just to liturgy but also to the unique story being woven together in my own home.  It makes me want to think on a more personal level about the ways my family can meaningfully engage in the passing of the Christian days and seasons together – and ultimately, that’s why it’s found a permanent spot on my bookshelf.

[Paraclete was kind enough to send me a review copy of A Homemade Life at my request.  I'm sorry that, because of our long blogging break, it's taken me this long to share my thoughts with you all!]

Happy St Patrick’s Day!

Happy St Patrick’s Day!

I have to admit to feeling a twinge of sadness this morning when I dropped my daughter off at school amid of sea of green sweaters, hair ribbons, and jackets. (My girl was dressed all in black, as part of a super sneaky plot to “blend into things and then jump out at people,” but that’s another story.) I’m pretty sure that not one of those cheerful, gap-toothed first graders knew much at all about St Patrick except that he graciously gave us an excuse to wear tacky shamrock jewelry and pinch other people — two gifts, indeed, when you’re seven.

But did you know that St Patrick was kidnapped from his home and enslaved? And that, having won his freedom, he returned to the island where he had been held and preached the gospel to that slave-holding society? As a historical figure, he’s shrouded in lots of mist and legend; but even if a lot of the traditional lore around the saint is just that, that radical act of generosity and forgiveness makes his feast day worth celebrating with real gratitude.

That, and the corned beef.

 I’ll be introducing St Patrick to my kids with Tomie de Paola’s Patrick: the Patron Saint of Ireland, which arrived too late from the library for me to review. I’ll let you know if we’ll be adding it to our library. We’ll also be talking a little about modern day slavery and how our family stands against it – as well as encourages former slaves to find new life – by supporting International Justice Mission. Haley found a wonderful St Patrick figure at this Etsy shop, and I’m looking forward to hearing how she used him in her home. Do you have any books or resources that you’ve used to commemorate this ancient feast day? Let us know below in the comments!

The Parables of Jesus

The Parables of Jesus
Earnest Graham; Peace Hill Press, 2013

I will be the first to confess: I was pretty skeptical of a graphic novel version of the parables. Actually, skepticism is my general stance towards graphic novel versions of anything. This is largely an inexcusable bias, combining the naive feeling that these are books for elementary-aged boys with a general snobbishness towards things with pictures. An unbecoming attitude in a blogger about children’s books, I know. Which is why I went ahead and ordered Earnest Graham’s The Parables of Jesus when I happened across it, poking around over at Peace Hill Press — there’s nothing like self-improvement as an excuse to buy new books!

And since you’re seeing this review here, obviously I’m glad I did. I was wrong about graphic novels, mea culpa, et cetera et cetera. (In fact, reading it reminded me that as a kid, I loved comic collections – specifically Garfield books, embarrassingly enough! – and I just had to bring back a copy of Asterix the Gaul for my daughter from Paris. She was surprised and delighted. It’s fun to keep my kids on their toes.)

To be clear: The Parables of Jesus is not a comic-book serial of the parables. In fact, I should apologize to Mr Graham for even referring to Garfield in the same review. (I’m sorry.) In truth, the reason I loved the book, and the whole idea of a graphic novelization of the parables, is because I think it gives them to us much like the first hearers would have received them: in pictures.

What are parables if not pictures, images, metaphors to help us imagine a kingdom that is not of this world? That is utterly unlike anything we would dream up ourselves? Just like Jesus’ crowds, we need to have our imaginations jolted awake, enlivened, and reshaped. But we live in a culture in which these word-pictures are as old as the hills, and have been committed to dusty parchment. (Or worse: Sunday School melodies, which commit the words to memory while emptying them of any power to surprise or transform.) I found that seeing them drawn out, embodied on the page, made them new and fresh and challenging.

This visual re-imagining of the parables is faithful in two important ways: first, the words are only those of Scripture. The pictures depict one possible embodiment of those words; and, well, isn’t that the point of the parables? As Jesus speaks them to us, we all imagine and envision them for ourselves. We are invited into someone else’s faithful imagining, and our own imagination is prodded awake. And second, I especially loved the choice to set each of the parables against a different cultural backdrop. The parable of the sower happens on the African savanna; the landowner finds her day-laborers in a dusty border town; and the farmer whose crop is infested with an enemy’s weeds harvests them in rural Japan. Like the best stories, Jesus’ parables are deeply situated in their time and place (first century Galilee), but manage to reach powerfully across time and culture. They’re both strange and familiar; inviting and challenging; comforting and transformative at the same time.  I want my children to encounter the parables in just this way, as living stories that are compelling, powerful, strange and exciting. This collection by Earnest Graham gives them to us as such, and I’m awfully grateful.