There are some easily accessible ways to keep Advent at home -- to help you slow down and notice the season. With some special attention to ritual, time, and your own awareness, Advent can become a special time of waiting on God in your life. But the season usually isn't that kind of special time of spiritual enrichment until we are intentional about a few things. Try some of these spiritual practices to help enrich both your experience and that of your family and church.
Advent Wreath Making - This is a popular practice in home of lighting a candle each night and praying before dinner - then adding a new candle each week. The object of the wreath and candles helps families to focus on the season. Here is a Advent Wreath Liturgy appropriate for your church. Here is a great explanation of the Advent Wreath with prayers for the home.
Pray Together: If this isn't a daily habit, use the season of Advent to start this practice of praying together as a family. It doesn't have to be fancy. If you don't have an Advent Wreath, then just light a candle and use a simple prayer. From the Book of Alternative Services from the Anglican Church in Canada, here is an Advent prayer for the home:
Leader: Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Those who follow me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."
All: Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly.
Leader: Source of all light, send your Son Jesus Christ to shine in our dark world. Help us to prepare our hearts to receive him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
Share Stories: Advent is a great time to share stories - from your family history and experiences, what Christmas means to you, what are the wishes and expectations of each family member. Perhaps pull out some family heirlooms and talk about one every week. How are we connected to our past? Click here for more on sharing stories.
Read the Nativity Story: Pick a children's Bible, a favorite Christmas storybook, the Bible passage, or look at this Online Interactive Nativity story for a modern retelling. Perhaps watch a movie version of the story such as the Nativity Story, and discuss as a family.
Set Up a Nativity Scene or Creche: Create a special corner, almost a home altar space, where you set up the family nativity set. If you don't have one, make one. On Pinterest are all kinds of creative ways to make a creche. Check out my Advent Pinterest Page for some downloadable designs. I love this picture with the 3 kings moving one rock closer each day. It is both creche and Advent Calendar. Be sure to not put the Baby Jesus out until Christmas Eve.
Serve Together: Pick a service project, or several, to do together as a family. It gets the focus off "stuff" and on to helping others. But more than that - it is a chance for families to do something meaningful together. If you want to pass on the value of service and outreach to your kids, this is a great way. Here is 24 Days of Random Acts and one mom's blog on Family Service projects in Advent to help you get started.
Combine some of all of this in the Family Advent Calendar: Here is an easy way to talk, pray, serve, and count down the time to Christ's birth. The Rev. Thomas Mousin, St. John's, Charlestown, has created a lovely downloadable Advent Calendar suitable for everyone.
May you have a blessed Advent,
It has been hard to put something down about Tom. I worked for him for a decade. There are many stories to tell and many ways he shaped my own thinking and ministry. We all could probably list areas that we know have been shaped by the vision and direction that Tom gave to this diocese. But as people share remembrances, here is one of mine.
Many years ago I found myself attending the same dinner meeting as Tom that was at one of our churches. Tom offered me a ride and that drive in rush hour traffic was the longest conversation I ever had with him up to that point. We were talking about Lenten practices and I remember him asking about Lenten practices with children. I started to name several things and one of them was pretzel making. Tom immediately asked “What do pretzels have to do with Lent?” I remember being a bit surprised but I immediately talked about the history of pretzels and engaging children in making them as a way to introduce prayer practices. Tom let me talk a lot on that drive.
Later, as I reflected on it, I realized that he knew the story about pretzels but he wanted to hear me talk about it. He wanted to know what I know, to gauge how I share, and where my passions lie in teaching. And since then, I have also used that technique – questioning someone to find out where they are, what they think, and to see how they might share this information – one of the oldest teaching methods in history.
I can remember many things about Tom, but I think I like to remember him best as a teacher, passionate about faith and finding that gentle questioning is often one of the best learning tools we have. Perhaps this came from his deep work as a spiritual director. I noticed him effectively use this many times over the years. By gently asking questions he moved from the place of a “bishop who knows everything” to “someone who cares what I think and know.” And I think this is what helped him be so approachable with children and youth as well as adults.
We will miss you Tom, but thank you for leaving us so much to think upon and learn from.
I just found out that this is "Socktober" according to www.soulpancake.com. Now granted, this is a made up campaign from this website, but it is a campaign to help the homeless! This is a great little video (and there are several in the "Kid President" series) which can start conversations and get people motivated.
But for me, what makes this so interesting is that "Soul Pancake" is a secular site, although I am sure there are some religious people working there, and the discussions and videos they are posting are pretty important for the church right now. If you want to know what those who are not in church are interested in spiritually, then look at this site. They believe that helping the homeless is important, but how about if we use this as an opportunity to share with our children, youth and adults in the church (and beyond) that helping the homeless isn't just a nice thing to do, but it is something that Jesus told us to do. Show this video and then talk about the scriptures where Jesus asks us to consider the "least of these" and those in need. Help make the spiritual connection of giving as a deep spiritual practice that is part of being a follower of Jesus.
The videos and discussion starters at this site are spiritual in nature and get it the heart of our priorities and values - even if the Bible or any other sacred text is mentioned. They don't seem to be afraid to pose some hard questions about life and death and our place here on the planet. And sometimes in the church we are afraid to tackle the harder questions, and to challenge people to deeper faith, or to even make the biblical connections to what it already happening in the world. So here is a great way to easily (and entertainingly) help make those connections with scripture if you are willing to do some of your own work by linking scripture and teaching with the spiritual themes of these videos.
Use this site as a way of seeing what the greater society is talking about. Share some of the videos to start discussions. It seems like there are some that are more appropriate for children than others - but digging around a bit will uncover some great resources. Please enjoy the video -- and perhaps make the connections with your local homeless shelter!
In the Episcopal Church we (or at least many of us) don't focus as much as some other denominations on personal piety or our own attempt at being devoted to God in our daily lives. We don't necessarily talk a lot about behaviors, about how we specifically act as Christians, and about daily practices and disciplines that help us grow. But maybe we should talk about this more. What does it mean, practically speaking, that we follow Jesus? Does that change our behaviors? Do we expect people to act a certain way (or at least "not" act a certain way) because they come to church?
What if we understood our church education programs as actually shaping and forming behavior, or ways of living as the body of Christ? How would that change our understanding our our education process? Or, in another way -- do we actually expect that what we teach and believe makes a difference in how someone acts and interacts in daily life?
Think about life goals for your children's programs. This could be norms of behavior in the group, but also outside of the group. Discuss with children ways to act and interact and react with others that fits with being a follower of Jesus. Try asking about the ways that God wants us to live and help kids understand how that might affect their own lives.
Remember, church prepares us for God's ministry in the world. Help those in your education and formation groups to keep applying the lessons from Sunday morning to all the hours that follow during the week.
Many years ago I found a children's "sermon" illustration online. In it, the authors described taking an apple and a peeled onion, putting both on wooden sticks, wrapping each with a caramel wrapper, and then wrapping both up in pretty boxes. The "lesson" then told the leader to pick one child out of the Sunday school to unwrap and get the box with the caramel-covered apple. Then pick a second child (and they cautioned it should be a child who could take a "joke") and give them the caramel-wrapped onion. The lesson was supposed to teach something about how sin looked good on the outside but could be bad on the inside, or some such stuff.
I remember being appalled when I read this. Whatever the author thought the explicit message of their talk was, the implicit message is "Don't trust the adults in church because they can trick you!."
We must always be careful that our actions don't contradict our words. But also remember that all kinds of good content can be wiped away if a child is hurting emotionally.
How should kids FEEL when they are at church? If you answered "Safe" and "Loved" then you are definitely on the right track. But how about Accepted, Welcomed, Listened-to, and Respected? Here are some thoughts on the emotional well-being of children in our church.
SAFE -- Obviously we want our classrooms and buildings to be safe. Our spaces should be clean, well-lit and in good-repair. Cleaning supplies and other chemicals should not be where inquisitive kids can get to them. Please don't leave heavy metal tables stacked against walls where they could easily fall over onto small children. Also for safety's sake - is there a check in system at church so that children can't be tracked down and taken by a predator or an estranged parent. And are you aware of all food allergies/food needs that kids might have?
Outside of the obvious physical safety, have you made sure that all your teachers and volunteers have taken SafeGuarding God's Children online Training? It is free online to churches in our diocese, so get everyone up to date with these online modules!
LOVED -- Do you know the names of the children in your church? Can you greet them when they enter? Do you let them know you are glad to see them? Are children protected and valued in your congregation?
WELCOMED -- Are all children welcomed? or only when they act a certain way? I have heard too many times adults in churches say "they're glad the children are there, but. . . ." Try to encourage adults to make the necessary changes for their own worship experience while still allowing the children to be children. As an example of this, if an adult doesn't want to be "bothered" by kids coming into the service, then encourage them to find the seat that isn't in any child's way. Help them to take ownership for the children in their midst. Remember, the whole church promises to "support these persons in their life of faith".
RESPECTED -- Do we actually listen to what the children and youth are saying? Can we respect them as humans with their own likes and dislikes, ways of being and learning? Sometimes in teaching situations we want the kids to like what we do rather than meeting them where they are. And do we ask kids opinions for some of the big decisions in church? What might they say?
Wherever these types of questions take you, think about the feelings of the children at your church. Remember that no matter how perfect your theology is, if a child feels hurt, abused, scared or ridiculed they won't hear anything you SAY about the love of God. And really - it won't BE the love of God that you are sharing.
Stay tuned for Part 3 - coming soon.
This is the time to evaluate your Sunday School program of this past year. What worked well? What didn't work as well? How are kids responding? How did teachers like and use the materials? Is something different needed for curriculum? And these are all good questions.
However, one of the most important questions that doesn't get asked enough is "What do we want the kids to actually learn?" What is the content that we are teaching in church to our children?
After you answer these questions, it is relatively easy to pick a curriculum. But publishers know that this isn't often the starting point so curriculum is often marketed by theme and graphics rather than the content. Publishers develop trust or rely on a certain market share (such as a denomination) to set the buyer at ease about the content. But just because we trust a publisher and know that in general we usually agree theologically with content doesn't mean that we should just accept a curriculum.
Instead, figure out what your church wants to pass on about faith! This is really the most important question. What do we want our children to KNOW as a result of being a part of this church community? What do WE (as adults) think are the most important pieces of our faith?
Questions to ask parents and teachers
When I go out and meet with groups of parents and teachers, I always start with a basic list of statements about faith and/or a curriculum that I have gleaned straight from the materials themselves. I ask the parents and teachers to rate each statement as 1) most important, 2) somewhat important, or 3) not a priority. Then we look at where the agreement is in the group. Each of the statements allows for conversation around what is important in this particular setting. Here are some of the statements I use:
I have many more questions like this and each statement represents a different emphasis in teaching. For example, there are curriculums and programs available that really emphasize worship - such as Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. If your goal as a church is to really help children learn to worship God, and have children fully participate in the worshipping life of the church, then this would be a good choice. However, this may not be the right choice if you are more interested in teaching bible skills and helping kids understand the big story of scripture. If you are more concerned with teaching children about how to live out their faith and have a real concern for peace and justice, you might consider the Shine curriculum from the Church of the Brethren. If one of your top goals is having kids know and understand the Episcopal Church and our specific style of worship, then you might choose Weaving God's Promises which connects every week with specific Episcopal Church teachings and worship.
All of these are good choices. But the most important thing is to have some education goals and a plan to get to where you want to go. Then you won't spend the year frustrated at trying to make a curriculum fit what you really want to teach.
IMPORTANT NOTE: There is no perfect curriculum (although there are some very good ones...) so you will need to adapt to suit your specific needs.
So take some time and think about the WHAT -- the CONTENT of your teaching.
Keep watching for Parts 2 and 3 on Setting Goals.
Let's face it, Holy Week is hard for kids. It is hard for adults as well but trying to share the Passion of Christ with children is especially challenging. For parents and teachers alike this is a tough story - and when we have our own difficulties with parts of the biblical narrative the temptation is to just ignore it and go on to chocolate bunnies and eggs. But here are some recommendations:
1. DON'T skip the story!
The Passion of Christ during Holy Week is essential to the Christian faith. Try and share the complete story with kids during Holy Week so they know what is happening and understand where our services fit in remembering that week. There is a lot that happens between Palm Sunday and Easter, and kids have questions. One I always hear is "Why is it called 'Good Friday'?" So help children get a basic understanding of the events.
For very young children, try these YouTube videos that are cartoon versions (without blood and appropriate for younger viewers) There are lots to choose from but some are better than others. Always preview materials!
Beginner's Bible for Kids - Easter
Animated - The Easter Story
When children are older, watch a film about the life of Christ. Some of the classics are usually shown on TV at this time like Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth". But again, YouTube offers some good choices at your fingertips...
The Jesus Movie (1979)
The Visual Bible - The Gospel of John
PLEASE stay away from Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ". It is too violent and brutal for children and most teens and even adults. Some of the other Jesus movies can also tend to be on the bloody side so please be sensitive to how older kids and teens respond to the visual. On the other hand, I think we do an injustice if we don't let kids know that the cross and suffering of Jesus was difficult and painful and a horrible thing to do to a person. Just explain in a manner that is appropriate to them developmentally and emotionally.
2. REDEEM the Easter Basket!
Easter Baskets are traditionally filled with colored eggs, chocolate rabbits, jelly beans and many other sugar-filled goodies that make them a treat to look forward to all year. Many churches have egg hunts on the church lawn – weather permitting in New England – or in the parish hall. As well as the hunt at church, many have egg hunts in their homes on Easter morning with plastic eggs filled with candy hidden in strategic spots around the house or yard.
I love egg hunts and baskets and chocolate bunnies and jelly beans. But growing up, my parents also included some gift in our baskets that reminded us of the reason we celebrate Easter. Perhaps I found a cross necklace, a Christian book, or a religious-themed game in my basket.
So if your child is focusing on candy and wonders “why do we have to go to church?” then creating an Easter basket that puts a focus on Jesus can help shift the focus. As someone told me at Christmas time, their children used to open presents on Christmas morning and then quickly get bored with an “Is this all?” attitude. Then the family started going to church on Christmas day. The children accepted it and after 2 years it transformed the family. Instead of the mad rush to rip open packages and then sit around, the family would enjoy opening gifts but then really look forward to going to church. Let’s make Easter a time to look forward to going to church as well!
Here are some great things for the basket (besides the candy):
3. Be READY to LISTEN to the questions
This past Sunday as I was sharing the events of Holy Week, one child mentioned that she thought the cross was set on fire. Obviously she had seen a picture or seen some sort of clip of a burning cross from a hate crime incident. I didn't want the entire group to be sidetracked by this so I didn't get into the differences, but I did tell this child's parents at coffee hour to let them know about this misunderstanding.
It is a hard story and not an area that we usually explore with children (historical torture and death) but one that they are exposed to none the less because of our faith. Kids will misunderstand, misconstrue, and get stuff wrong as they wrestle through the enormities of seeing the ugliest side of humanity balanced against Jesus who they have mostly understood as some great guy who did good things and loves everyone.
On the other hand, I had some kids last week who are normally bored in church who were really listening to the story of Holy Week. It is compelling. The person of Jesus is compelling, and even young children can be drawn into the enormity and depth of the Passion of Christ. Help them to experience that depth.
When I get off the train at North Station in Boston, I need to walk underground down a long corridor to get to the T. Suddenly I stopped the other day in that tunnel because about 40 feet of wall was covered in huge images of Russell Crow holding an ax while waves crash behind him. The image is startling, but what caught me more is the name of the film -- NOAH.
In fact, 2014 has been called the "year of the Bible" in Hollywood. And get ready, because there are a lot more Bible-based, religious-based movies coming our way with big stars such as Russell Crowe as Noah, Christian Bale as Moses, Julia Ormond as Mary, and Brad Pitt as Pontius Pilate. Plus there is a movie with Greg Kinnear coming out soon on "Heaven is for Real" based on the book of the boy who came back from death and shared about heaven. Next year there will be a movie from Will Smith on Cain and Abel (for more on this Hollywood trend check out this article from The Daily Beast). And here are some of the big reasons for this new emphasis on religious movies:
When I walked down that hall at North station and saw the ads, I immediately thought "This has got to be about Noah's Ark - water, ax for boat-building, must be...." But that is because my life has been steeped in scripture. I learned those stories from a very young age. But we do not live in a culture of Biblical literacy. For many, the name of "Noah" will not conjure up a story they
learned as a child and read later with more depth and understanding.
So consider this a new opportunity to share scripture! In your churches have youth groups or families go together to some of these films and then discuss them. Have groups compare the movie to the SOURCE MATERIAL and see how it stacks up! Create your own emails with questions and links to biblical passage - such as this link for the Noah story. And be warned --- this film will be VERY different from the Biblical story so help your churches be aware of that and encourage discussion.
Finally - encourage Biblical Literacy! Make sure that adults can feel comfortable asking questions and digging in to something that they think they should know better but maybe don't know where to start.
My favorite new resource for helping people dig into scripture is the "Exploring the Bible Series" from the Massachusetts Bible Society. (You don't need to live in MA -- it's available on Amazon!) There will eventually be four parts to this series, but for the moment you can get a leader guide and student guide for What is the Bible? and Introducing the Old Testament. (Introducing the New Testament will be out very soon!) This terrific series helps give people a wonderful introduction and footing to read scripture whether it's new to them or they have been reading the Bible their entire lives. I know of no other material that has worked well (from teens to octogenarians) with Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Baptists and Unitarians - and many more. The series sparks discussion and study and is accessible to everyone regardless of previous knowledge or theological understanding. And it is affordable and requires no trained leadership.
Give your church the gift of feeling comfortable and engaged with the Bible before they see the movie!
This morning I preached at our staff Eucharist at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston. It was supposed to be the day to remember St. Gregory the Great, but I tossed him out and went with Harry Potter. Sorry Gregory – he is actually an interesting guy and I encourage you to read his story here.
However, I have wanted to share some ideas about Harry Potter for a while and this seemed a good opportunity. You can read the entire sermon by clicking on the link at the end.
One thing that didn’t make it in the sermon however is the connection I see with Ash Wednesday. Harry Potter is forever marked by his encounter with Voldemort with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead. Initially others think that Harry must have great power to somehow defeat Voldemort even though he was just a baby at the time, and his scar must be proof of that power. Harry learns though that the lightning bolt on his forehead is not the result of his own power but is a mark left when his mother gives her life to save his. Her love results in Voldemort’s defeat and Harry carries a constant reminder of her love.
In baptism we are marked with the sign of the cross on our foreheads. This is an invisible sign of God’s saving love for us, that through baptism we are raised into new life with Christ who has overcome death in his death and resurrection. That symbol of the cross drawn on our foreheads (and often on babies) shows that it isn't by our own power that our sins are forgiven, but by Christ’s power.
Ash Wednesday is that it is the one day of the year when that mark is visible to world. That ashy, smudgy, cross-shaped mark says to the world that death has been defeated! Like Harry Potter walking around with his lightning bolt, I have a cross that says to the world “It isn’t me or my power, but someone loved me enough to die to save me.” The love of Harry’s mother for him was special and unique – and created a unique situation that saved Harry from certain evil and death. However, for us, we live in a paradox. We are also unique, loved individually by God. But unlike Harry, God’s amazing love is available to all – each and every one of us.
And to follow up, you can click here and to see the keynotes by Patricia Lyons and Dr. Lisa Kimball mentioned in the sermon.
Believe it or not, the first service I ever attended in an Episcopal Church was on Ash Wednesday. I had a college class on Virgil's Aeneid, Dante's Divine Comedy, and Milton's Paradise Lost. Our professor felt we should understand something about liturgical cycles so she required all of us to go to an Ash Wednesday service at either an Episcopal or Roman Catholic church. For this Southern Baptist, the Roman Catholic church seemed very scary, so I opted for the Episcopal church - which I knew nothing about.
I sat in the back, unsure what to do but following as best as I could. I was struck by the readings, the starkness and beauty of the liturgy, and a powerful sermon about the spiritual practice of Lent. I couldn't go forward for ashes -- that seemed too weird. But I was moved. In fact I was weeping. In all my years of going to church three times a week I had never felt the same impact of remembering Christ's death, my own immortality, and my need for repentance in my life.
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen. (BCP 265)
It would be many, many years before I returned to the Episcopal Church, but that service remained with me. To this day, I love the Ash Wednesday service because I need to cry. I need to enter into a place remembering my own immortality and God's immeasurable love for me. I need to repent, to feel sorry for the things I have done wrong -- and frankly I really don't dwell on it during the year. Now I gladly wear the ashes on my head to know that I am sorry and God's forgiveness is very real.
There is a beautiful Mystery to Lent, and don't we need to invite others to that place of Mystery? It can be difficult to explain all this to children, yet children understand feeling bad about what they have done wrong and needing forgiveness. They can understand about temptation, about feeling alone, about having to do something hard, and the idea that God is always present with us no matter where we are. So don't ignore the hard stuff of Lent. Walk through it together with your families and those you work with.
For help, check out some of these articles:
Singing in the Dark: Why Children Should be Invited to Ash Wednesday
Greatest Hits - Lenten Resources from Building Faith
The Meaning of Lent - activities for families
And to start you on the journey, check out this video on Jesus' Temptation in the Wilderness - to start your Lenten Journey.
More videos can be found every day at Videos for your Soul, which will post a new video every day of Lent along with questions for reflection.
Amy Cook is the Missioner for Education, Formation and Discipleship for the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. She works with 185 churches in Eastern Massachusetts in the area of Christian formation for all ages.
contact me at email@example.com
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