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!

On Reading the Hard Parts

So, Haley’s post from two weeks back – on telling our children Bible stories in our own words – has really been on my mind lately. A lot of reasons why, really, but two in particular:

  • I’m teaching the Godly Play curriculum to the three-year-olds at church, which involves retelling Bible stories and asking lots of wondering questions at the end.
  • I’ve been reading through Genesis with my almost-5-year old. If you’ve never tried this with a small child, well, it’s not for the faint of heart. Those nephilim! And oh, gracious goodness, Noah in his vineyard. Let alone trying to explain Hagar and Sarah, or the smoking pot and the halved animals.

It’s amazing to witness a child hearing – really hearing – some of these stories for the first time. Especially the hard ones. And as I’ve read and told some of these hard stories, I’ve become increasingly aware of how my own theological education actually gets in the way. I find myself wanting to put myself between my child and the story – to give her a filter, quick! – before the sheer strangeness and scariness of the story hits her. To make the Bible stories safer, I suppose – or, to make her experience of them more safe, so that she is sure to draw the right conclusions from them. Except that I am becoming increasingly convinced that this is not my job.

Last night, my daughter and I read the Abraham and Isaac sacrifice story from Genesis 22. And it was harrowing. She didn’t know how it was going to end! She didn’t have a neat theological filter for the story, and she hasn’t been taught to read the Bible as a series of moral examples or instructions. It was just a story where God shows up and tells Abraham to do something really, really awful. The same God she talks to every night.

As I read, I could sense her responding to the story: tension, a little confusion, sadness, and at last, relief tinged with perplexity. I asked her at the end if she had any wonderings, and of course she did. “But why did God tell Abraham to do that?”

All I could think about was how to make coherent theological sense of the story for her: could I somehow translate and condense Fear and Trembling for the five year old brain? (Answer: No. Really. Don’t even try.) And I did give some simple answers. We talked about how Abraham trusted God; that Abraham obeyed because he knew God’s commands are always good, even if they don’t seem like it to us; how true obedience means you trust the person you obey. And I’m glad I didn’t just leave her alone with the story. But I still feel like I talked too much.

I mean, if we really believe that the Bible is God’s story, and that it’s a story that sweeps us up, takes us in, so that we become a part of it — well, then, there’s a lot to be said for just letting the Bible happen to us. And to our kids. Let them be awed by it, amazed by it, sometimes scared by it. Let them experience the goodness that always lies on the other side. I keep running into my tendency to pre-digest Scripture for my kids, to tell them what to think about it, to give them my understanding rather than enabling their own experience.

And I can dress it up all I want in the language of good theology, but (and here I’m speaking only for myself) it’s rooted in a profound fear of error and a lack of trust that God is present when my children hear his word. And a fear of their own freedom to hear and respond to God. I’d like to do it for them, so I can make sure they do it right.

So, a question, I guess: what’s your experience of reading the hard parts of Scripture with kids? How do you strike a balance between offering appropriate explanation and letting children experience the story freely and react to it for themselves? How do you give theological explanation without shutting down wonder or perplexity?

In Their Own Words

Our church has just begun using the Godly Play curriculum in Sunday School. It’s a wonderful program that invites children each week to encounter God’s story, to find themselves within that story, and to respond in worship. There’s a huge emphasis on allowing the children to wonder about and explore the stories; rather than telling the children how they ought to respond, they are given the freedom to encounter God in worship and be changed.

Each week, parents receive a handout with suggestions for following up on the week’s lesson. As I read Haley’s post last Wednesday on telling our children about Jesus in our own words, this exhortation from a recent parent page (excerpted from this GP volume) immediately popped into my mind:

Just listen. This is not a time to quiz children on what they may or may not recall about the lesson, but to be quietly present as they share their own experience. This will be different for each child – one may retell much of the presentation, another may recall a single moment that had meaning, and yet another will talk about his or her creative response. Again, your role is not to correct or supplement what your child tells you, but simply to listen in a supportive way. You are supporting the formation of young – sometimes very young – theologians.

This is really hard for me to do. I am an instructor by nature. Everything my daughter tells me, I want to add to, enrich, deepen, or correct. But like Haley pointed out: I’m not going to theologically educate my daughter into the Kingdom. Sometimes what she needs most is the space to experience God; to meet him and learn to express that experience in her own words; to be a free child of God, my sister in some important ways, who can also build me up on my own pilgrimage.

I can, of course, give her words to make sense of that experience; and it’s my responsibility to guide her, inform her, give her a solid Scriptural education, and so make it possible for her to build a sound theological understanding. But if that’s all I’m doing, I think I’m misunderstanding my God-given role in her life. Because it’s not, finally, to teach her. It’s not to give her all the right information. All of my “theological education” activities ultimately have to serve the one important thing: to usher her into the presence of her King and help her to know his saving love.

And sometimes that requires that I just quiet down. Listen. Try to understand how God is present to her. Try to believe that he is faithful. Trust that her experiences are authentic. That her language may not be sufficient to capture them, and that’s okay. Because honestly? Neither is mine.