Lent with Children

You guys. It has been ages. We promised to be back last fall, but then I started work and Haley’s homeschool year started, and well — with one thing and another, you know. And actually, I’ve been writing a ton, but most of it has been Sunday morning worship curriculum for our church’s children. Which is really fun, and rewarding, but not exactly blog material.

I won’t make any promises about when we’ll post next or a regular schedule, or anything like that. But know that the vision that prompted us to start Aslan’s Library is as close to our hearts as it ever has been. We’re still paging through stacks of books with our children, making long request lists, and texting each other about our finds. Should life provide a little more breathing space, we both have tons we want to share.

In the meantime, one fun part of my new job is that I get to spend a lot of time reflecting on the church year and how to mark it with children. The lovely Laura Turner recently invited me to reflect a little more publicly, on our church’s blog, and I wanted to share it with you.

So without further ado: Lent with Children. I hope yours has been rich so far.


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:


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?)


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.


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.


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!

When Advent Is Neither Quiet Nor Still

image courtesy of UW Digital Collection

Those of you who have followed us for awhile now know that Haley and I love the rhythms of the church year. As believers, we find it helpful to inhabit the story of God’s saving work in Jesus year after year, over and over. As parents, we believe by reliving the same stories and seasons, we are helping our kids get this big story in their bones — to love it and trust it as the true story of the whole world.”

We also don’t live totally blog-photo-worthy or pinnable lives. As tempting as it is just to share my hopes and ideals for celebrating the church year and pin a bunch of delicious links, that’s not going to be the reality of my Advent this year. We have two weddings, four trips, and one trip through passport control in the next four weeks. Add to that the annual round of holiday parties, benefits, school activities, and open houses. And add to that the reality of everyday life with two small children in a big city – packing lunches, school drop-off, the laundry, the discipline, the never-ending reality that they Must Eat! Every two hours! – and right now, Advent feels more like a sprint to a finish line than a season of waiting and longing. So what to do?

Well, I’ll be honest. We’re probably not going to light an Advent wreath each evening this season. We won’t make a Jesse Tree, or slowly move the Wise Men across the living room (the cat would get them anyway), or have an Advent jar. I doubt we’ll do anything, really, that can’t travel. Bedtimes and mealtimes are pretty consistent no matter what else is going on, and Haley just sent me a book that I’m really excited to read through daily with my daughter (and hopefully review). We’ll sing a lot, and listen to a lot of Advent music. Octarium’s Hodie will be on in our car, to still us and remind us as we move between the places of our days. We’ll fast. And we’ll talk: about waiting, about Who we are waiting for, about our hopes for his coming in our lives and in the world, about how to see him when he shows up. For my own peace of mind, I’m ignoring everyone’s Winter/Advent/Christmas Pinterest boards, because I know I need to actively wait on God – not just plan beautiful ways to do it.

Yeah, my life is too busy right now. I do feel overwhelmed by the list that forms itself in my mind upon waking. But this season – and the reality it points to – is so much bigger than the minutiae of my life. I refuse to worship the busyness. I will not elevate the scattered and cluttered rush of a life that is no more lasting than grass that withers. Advent is almost here, and I cannot escape the fact that I am a being made to long for the Lord and wait upon his salvation. All the bustle in the world can’t efface that truth. I’m not entirely sure what it will look like, but we will wait.

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?

Mystery Stories (Not the Kind You Think)

The lack of mystery in our modern life means decay and impoverishment for us. A human life is of worth to the extent that it keeps its respect for mystery. By honoring mystery, we keep within us some of the child we used to be. Children keep their eyes wide open, wide awake, because they know that they are surrounded by mystery.  They don’t yet have this world figured out; they haven’t yet learned to make their way by avoiding its mysteries, as we do. We do away with mystery, because we sense that it takes us to the limits of our existence – because we want to master everything and have it at our disposal. That is just what a mystery will not let us do. Anything mysterious is uncanny for us – we cannot do anything with it. We are not at home with it; it points toward another kind of “being at home.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a sermon given on Trinity Sunday, 1934

What do you think of when you hear the word “mystery”? I’ve noticed, in the Christian circles in which I move, two pretty instinctive reactions.

One is to recoil in discomfort and frustration from the unknown. Trotting out “mystery” can, after all, be an easy way to dignify sloppy theological thinking, or to paper over difficult questions a little too easily.

For other folks, the idea of mystery can have a romantic allure. If something’s mysterious, it must be deep! If you’re immediately attracted to the notion of mystery, maybe it’s easy to get impatient with straightforward explanations – theological or otherwise.

I find both of these reactions, frankly, kind of frustrating. The first is obviously impoverished and can kill imagination. The second can tend towards the shallow and trendy: there’s no automatic link between difficulty or mysteriousness and depth. Sometimes truth – even truth that will always evade our understanding – is best served by clear, rigorous language. (Case in point: the creeds.)

But I love the opening lines of Bonhoeffer’s 1934 Trinity Sunday sermon. “Anything mysterious is uncanny for us – we cannot do anything with it. We are not at home with it; it points toward another kind of ‘being at home.’”  True awareness and wonder in the face of mystery are character traits that serve disciples well – we remember that we are no gods; we are not even our own; out of the rubble of the fall, our true selves and true home are still being revealed to us. They are not of our making.

I came across this post recently, in which W. David O. Taylor (one of my favorite bloggers, by the way – do read him) argues that the best thing about a good story is that it puts us in touch with mystery. Being of the “ooh, I like mystery!” bent myself, I was intrigued. Isn’t a story about explanation? About shedding light? About conflict and resolution – and about looking hard at the world around us, trying to craft some shape and narrative order out of events?

And in fact, isn’t that how most of us learn to see stories, early on? We teach our kids about ancient mythology, and explain that this was how people learned to make sense of the natural world: Zeus and his thunderbolts, Prometheus and his fire. Stories seem to be in the business of giving answers, of clarifying, of literally making sense. Right?

Well, yes and no. Stories do distill meaning out of the great mass of moments making up a human life. They do help clarify the experience of living in this marvelous, awful, amazing world. They do – at least, the best ones – tell the truth.

But ultimately, our experience in this world is never one that can be mastered. It can never be exhausted or plumbed to its depths. Just the basic fact of existence is deeply, richly mysterious. Why is there something rather than nothing? Who am I, and where am I going in all of this? And what do I do with all these fellow pilgrims?

“You are not your own; you were bought with a price.”  The best and most true stories mirror this: they remind us of the mystery of our own existence, and the even more wild reality that we can’t help but give this existence a narrative shape. We believe – despite how little we control – that nevertheless our lives, and history itself, are stories. Not timelines, not collections of interminable moments, not a constant treadmill of brushing our teeth, trimming our nails, and taking out the trash.

No – stories. Because stories edit, shape, select, and make sense of the minutiae of human life. But also because, by their very existence, stories bear witness to what mystifies us if we ever stop to think. We all know, deep down, that we do not belong to ourselves; we have too little say over how we enter or leave the world. And no matter what we believe, we feel that we ought to belong elsewhere – that there is another kind of “being at home” we haven’t found yet, and long for. A story promises a kind of Providential mystery: the author, not the characters, is shepherding the narrative to its resolution; each character has a destiny that she has not chosen; this is the human lot.

And this lot is mysterious. Stories make that clear.

Becoming a Part of the Story

Notice that the faith the people of Israel recounted to their children was a communal one – not so much the testimony common today of one’s personal relationship with God, but rather a witness to the way in which God has led and dealt with the community. Many of the phrases in these verses [Deut 6:1-25] are customary creedal lines by which the Hebrew people reported their faith. In the same way, it is essential that we immerse our children in the Christian faith, the belief of a community that goes back to Abraham and Sarah, Mary and John, and that stretches throughout the globe. We don’t so much seek to develop in them their own faith as to make them an active part of the faith that already exists in a people. 

Marva Dawn, Is It A Lost Cause?

First of all, if you haven’t read Marva Dawn’s Is It A Lost Cause: Having the Heart of God for the Church’s Children, then run, don’t walk to your Amazon cart or favorite indie bookstore and place an order. Now.

Okay. Done? Great. We read this book last month in our book club, and I loved it. And I found myself deeply meditating on this passage in particular, especially since my daughter has started expressing her faith in Jesus and my son was baptized two weeks ago at our Easter Vigil. What am I trying to do as I raise my children in the faith?

I remember in high school, as we prepared each year for our service trip to Mexico, each team member was required to give our testimony to the youth group – and sometimes the church. And without fail, every testimony started, “Well, I was raised in a Christian home…” It’s probably terrible to admit this, but I used to wish I had something dramatic to tell. Some major conversion story, some dabbling in drugs or something exciting, and then God’s amazing rescue of my soul. Because clearly growing up in a Christian home means I didn’t have much to be converted from.

But what if our job as parents isn’t – at least primarily – to develop our children in their own faith as it is to introduce them to a story? To tell them the story that God has been enacting throughout history? And if the good news isn’t simply that they are sinners saved by grace (which, while of course true, can be hard to connect with when you grow up a good Christian kid) but that God is busy and has a job for them? That he is writing a story, and they are supposed to be primary characters?