Radical Mister Rogers

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I have been so, so angry the last week. You probably can guess some of the reasons if you have turned on the television or picked up a newspaper or scrolled through social media, and of course, I have more personal anger, too, combined with a fair amount of stress. My husband suggested the perfect antidote last night: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

This documentary about Fred Rogers, the most unlikely television evangelist of his or any day, was balm for my soul. And then our bathroom ceiling collapsed. No, really. While my husband was in the shower. Perhaps it would have been different if it happened while I was washing my hair, but it’s 18 hours later and I am still smiling. Mr. Rogers was just what I needed. I believe Mr. Rogers is just what we all need.

Watching (visiting?) Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helped children communicate, to express even difficult emotions, and to resolve conflict peaceably. However, Mr. Rogers was not only kind and gentle, he was also radical and subversive. In 1968-69, the very first season of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the show helped children cope with the Vietnam War and the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and promoted racial integration.

In every episode, Mr. Rogers spoke directly to children to tell them they were special, they were loved, just they way they were. Inherent in his message, of course, is that everyone we meet is equally special and beloved. That is as radical today as it was fifty years ago and two thousand years ago. “Who is my neighbor?”

I read that during the filming of the documentary, director Morgan Neville’s mother died suddenly, and throughout the process, discovering “the better angels of people’s natures, the best that we could be” was for Neville “the best form of grief therapy I could possibly have had.” Keep looking for those angels, friends. As Mr. Rogers reminds us,

From the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving. So, on this extra special day, let’s take some time to think of those extra special people. Some of them may be right here, some may be far away. Some may even be in heaven. No matter where they are, deep down you know they’ve always wanted what was best for you. They’ve always cared about you beyond measure and have encouraged you to be true to the best within you. Let’s just take a minute of silence to think about those people now.

We can not only think about those people, we can be people who love others into loving.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents.

My September 11 story

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My September 11th story takes place the following Sunday, when the Gospel we read in church was the same as the Gospel we heard this morning: that God searches for all the lost ones, finds us, and brings us home, rejoicing.

On September 16, 2001, I walked back after lunch to the church where I had begun work only the month before, on the Upper East Side of New York City. As I came through the front door and my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I could see two people sitting in the front pew of the otherwise empty sanctuary: a woman and a young girl. I grabbed a few blank index cards and a fistful of crayons from a basket, walked over and knelt down beside them. I introduced myself and handed the child the crayons and index cards. “This is Annie, and I’m her aunt,” the woman told me. “Annie’s father died on Tuesday, and she is wondering who is keeping her safe now.” I took a deep breath, said a silent prayer, and began.

“Well, Annie, your mother and your aunts and uncles are keeping you safe. So are the firefighters, and the police officers, the mayor and the president.” I paused, and pointed to the paschal candle in front of us, which had been lit and placed in the center of the chancel as soon as we heard the news of the second plane hitting the towers. “Do you see this candle? We sometimes call it the Christ candle, and it’s there to remind us that God’s love is stronger than anything, even death. Jesus is here with us, and we are safe in God’s love.” I don’t remember if I said anything else. What I will never forget is that Annie drew three pictures. The first was of the paschal candle, the second was of the dark church with jewel-bright stained glass windows, and the third was the sun blazing in the sky. Annie knew. I simply reminded her.

                                    Excerpted from Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents

       “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:5

God calls us to adventure

trees-2897757_1280Harry Potter’s Call to Adventure came in the mail—a letter of acceptance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry— which he was certain was a mistake. It wasn’t so much the magic business that surprised him; in all his 10 years of life, no one had ever written him a letter. Moses’ Call to Adventure came while he was tending sheep, and God spoke to him from a blazing bush. Moses wondered whether it really was God speaking to him, and if so, had God perhaps made a mistake? God convinced Moses otherwise. Joan of Arc was in her father’s garden when she heard the Call. Harriet Tubman was working in her master’s fields. There they were, leading their ordinary lives, when suddenly they were called to change and challenge everything they had known before. “Put down your nets and follow me and I will make you fish for people!”

Again and again in the Bible, God calls the least likely for the more important work: Moses the stutterer, Samuel the boy, Mary the teenager, fishermen, tax collectors and the women at the tomb. It must be because we need to hear this over and over: No matter who we are or where we come from, no matter how unimportant and limited in circumstances or abilities we see ourselves, God sees beyond all that and calls us to lives of action, exploration and transformation.

The Separation from the Known is the first stage in the mythic archetype identified by Joseph Campbell as the Hero’s Journey, and the Call to Adventure is the first step in that journey.  Over three days at Trinity Retreat Center this July, families will look at this pattern that is our story, too, as individuals and as Christians, through the lens of the extraordinarily popular Harry Potter stories. Together, we’ll imaginatively explore how to face challenges and make difficult choices, what to do when we feel lost and alone, what our gifts are and how we can share them with others. In the context of our faith, we’ll begin to discover who we are, where we come from, and who we are meant to be.

Think of our baptismal covenant as the ultimate Call to Adventure: in water and in flame we are given new life, anointed and sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own forever. Then we are sent out to fulfill our promises, which include to proclaim “by word and example the good news of God in Christ,” to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,”  to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.” What does that look like? Where do we find courage and strength to take on these challenges?  How do we include others in the holy work of being God’s people?

Adults and children alike may find it hard to see themselves as potential heroes, but we hold in our hearts the longing to be called out of our ordinary lives—out of our small and insignificant selves—to make a difference in the world. Know then that God calls us to a life beyond our wildest dreams. When we answer the Call, we begin the journey. With God, nothing is impossible. As Harry Potter’s wise mentor Albus Dumbledore tells him, “It is our choices, Harry, that show us who we truly are, far more than our abilities.” First, we must choose to answer the Call.

  • This post began as an article I wrote in August 2005 for Saints Alive, the newsletter of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, before a week of Vacation Bible School based on the curriculum Wizards and Wonders. Trinity Church Wall Street’s Family Retreat this summer is inspired by Patricia Lyons’ terrific new book, Teaching Faith with Harry Potter.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents.

A Celtic Prayer

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You are the peace of all things calm

You are the place to hide from harm

You are the light that shines in the dark

You are the heart’s eternal spark

You are the door that’s open wide

You are the guest who waits inside

You are the stranger at the door

You are the calling of the poor

You are my Lord and with me still

You are my love, keep me from ill

You are the light, the truth, the way,

You are my Savior this very day.

A prayer of the first millennium, from Essential Celtic Prayers, a book my husband Phil Fox Rose made.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents.

Hearts and crosses: On Valentine’s Day and Lent

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There probably was no saint called Valentine and the story we have about him is rather gruesome, but that shouldn’t keep you from making February 14 all about love. Love of family, friends and neighbors deserves to be celebrated every bit as much as romantic love, and maybe even more.

My son’s due date was February 12. On February 14, I woke up feeling huge and miserable, like this baby was going to stay inside me forever. The sky was dark grey, and the temperature had been below freezing for several days. I looked out the window of my New York City apartment and discovered that someone had hung a large red tag-board heart decorated with glitter and shiny stickers that caught the light from every tree on our block. Even though they were not meant for me personally, those valentines made me feel loved. Read one of my all-time favorite books, Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli and dream up acts of kindness for your neighbors.

Include strangers: fill up snack-sized Ziploc bags with foil-wrapped chocolate hearts or kisses and hide them for others to find. Take extra signed valentines to the public library and tuck them into books. Put them under soup cans on the shelves of your local supermarket. Carry valentines in your pocket, backpack or purse and pass them out to those you meet and greet–the bus driver, the postal clerk, the crossing guard. If there is no snow on the ground, you could draw small hearts in sidewalk chalk that will remind people of the conversation hearts we gave each other in grade school. I want to do that along my route to the subway.

Love by Matt de la Peña with illustrations by Loren Long is a brand-new picture book for all ages about the nuances of this feeling, this bond, this force. You need to read with your children at home or at church now. It may become your favorite book to gift. Read the Brightly review here.

This year, Valentine’s Day is also Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. I never give up chocolate for Lent; it makes me not a kind person, so I see it as counter-productive. My friend Laura Alary writes beautifully about the confluence in this article; and if you are a Lent-observing family, you definitely need her book, Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter. For me, the cross of ashes I receive on my forehead on Ash Wednesday is intimately connected with the cross of oil we receive in the same spot at our baptism.  Here’s the heart of it: From Love we come, and to Love we return.

We just need more love, so please don’t let Ash Wednesday get in your way. Even if you are having a simple evening meal of soup and bread, you could set the table with candles, flowers and the fancy china. Print out the Christian valentines from blogger Angie Kauffman and put one at each place setting. She has several different sets, so it’s easy to choose the ones best suited to your family. Take time for each person to share what they love most about the others around the table. Let this be the night you decide how your family will show God’s love in action during Lent. Will you visit a seniors’ center, help out at an animal shelter or community food pantry, clean up a public park, make treats for the volunteer fire station? Traci Smith has a Lenten practices calendar for families with younger children and Jenifer Gamber made a Lenten giving calendar that works well for older kids and teens.  

Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.

1 John 3:18

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents. This post is inspired by chapter 5, Seasons and Celebrations.

On prayer

hand-2417725_1920I have never prayed more often or more simply than when I was pregnant. My constant prayer before Peter was born was “Please.” Afterwards, for nearly as many months, my prayer was “Thank you.” It was all I could manage, and all that felt really necessary. I don’t know how prayer works. I do not believe that prayer changes outcome, but that has never kept me from praying. “The prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays,”  says the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Prayer understands the importance of naming that which is too hard, too awful, too wonderful, and giving it over to the power which is beyond us.

What is prayer? Anne Lamott in her terrific book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers defines prayer as “communication from one’s heart to God.” Communication is key here. Prayer is conversation. It’s not just us, talking or asking. We are also deeply listening with our hearts. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk about what prayer isn’t. Prayer is not a Christmas list, and God is not Santa Claus. Prayer is not about what we want or even what we wish for, although it might be about what we really need, or what we most deeply hope for. Prayer does not assume or expect answers. That’s the hardest part. Why, then, do we pray? Prayer brings us close to God. When we pray for someone in need, we are lifting them to God’s presence. When we pray for our own needs, we are giving them over to God.

How do we pray? When do we pray? The Book of Common Prayer (which is full of great stuff—you should definitely get one) says that prayer is “responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” That’s from the Catechism, an outline of the faith found at the back of the Book of Common Prayer that is a basic summary of what is broadly taught in Episcopal churches. What a tremendously freeing description this is: responding, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. That means prayer can be just about anything, any time, any where. We don’t have to be in church or around the table or kneeling beside our beds. We don’t even have to be still! We don’t need a book or a script or words at all. Prayer is about intention: Set aside the time, make a space for God and for sharing what is on your heart or mind. You don’t even have to call it prayer. You can call it family time or quiet time, and then together reflect on how it was also time spent with God.

Prayer can be silence, even for children. Ring a bell or strike a chime and keep silence sitting together, feet on the floor or seated on a cushion until the sound fades away. Gradually stretch the time of keeping silence to three minutes, five minutes, ten minutes. That’s when it gets really interesting. Meditation and mindfulness techniques are great for all ages. This is a way of being more attuned to the presence of God, of letting stillness and silence bring heightened awareness and a diminishing of the noisy world, the distractions of our own thoughts, which are separate from our true selves. This is time and space apart.

Music can be prayer. According to St. Augustine (354-430 CE), to sing is to pray twice! What songs or pieces of music bring you close to God? Ask the same question of your teenager. Do this on a regular basis, because there will always be new responses. You could make a mix of tunes for family listening with just this purpose in mind. This could be Bach, jazz, reggae, or rap. Does this mean going to a concert can be prayerful? Absolutely, and so can going to church, even if one goes “just for the music,” which is sometimes the reason my son, who sings in the choir, gives. We have been known to sing at bedtime. It can be a hymn, a lullaby, or Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” gentle tunes to calm the busy day.

Making the sign of the cross (by touching the forehead, sternum, left shoulder, right shoulder and sternum again) is a body prayer, which I have long understood as a way of drawing God into us. Yoga and ta’i chi are ways of praying with the body. Although they come from other religious traditions, they can be deeply spiritual for Christians. I asked a friend whether she saw a connection between her son’s karate practice (rigorous, several days a week) and prayer; when she asked him, Harry (age 11) immediately responded, “I can’t explain it, but it connects me to God somehow.” Our bodies are in touch with the holy in ways words cannot explain. Dance can be embodied prayer, and if you have never seen Stephen Colbert dancing to “King of Glory, King of Peace” watch this now and know that laughter, too, can be a way of praying.

Walking and hiking are equally ways to pray. When you walk, take care to notice the presence of God. This will seem obvious in nature. Waterfalls, streams, the ocean, trees, meadows and mountains, the sunset, and the starry sky all tell us of the glory of God. As you walk, your kids might collect acorns, colored leaves, or interesting stones to set in a shallow bowl in the center of your table, or wildflowers to put in a jam jar. Preschoolers can be given an egg carton with a different color in each recess and asked to find something from God’s creation to place in them. Older kids can take photos (with a smartphone?) of where they find God in nature, or in the neighborhood. On a city or suburban walk, notice which people (the dog walkers, the grocery baggers) or places (the car wash and all who drive through it, the diner and those who prepare the food we enjoy) can be included in your prayers. Notice, too, where prayers are being responded to: The soup kitchen? The hospital? The art museum?

Walking a labyrinth is a wonderful way for adults and kids to pray. Labyrinths are different from mazes: there is only one way in and one way out, so you can’t get lost. It’s a journey to the center and out again, providing a clear path and a walking rhythm that promotes inner calm. Find out if there is a labyrinth near you. Churches and cathedrals are obvious locations you might find one, but they turn up in unexpected places, too: I have walked labyrinths at the beach and at a children’s hospital. There is labyrinth right near my office, at the tip of Manhattan in Battery Park, created to commemorate the first anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy. If you are feeling adventurous you can draw one with sidewalk chalk or mark one on a lawn with stones or pool noodles. One year at a medieval-themed summer camp we laid out a labyrinth on the auditorium floor with masking tape, dimmed the lights, put on a CD of Gregorian chant and sent mixed-age groups of six- to eighteen-year-olds through, pacing them with about 30 seconds between each participant. The teenagers were shocked by how quiet and reverent the young ones were, and how many times they wanted to walk through slowly and in silence. Afterward, when I asked them what they noticed about the experience, an eight-year-old told me she came close to God there.

Making art, coloring a mandala, even doodling can be prayer. Set up an art corner, or if you live in a small space, make an art box and fill it with heavy white paper, scraps of ribbon, old greeting cards, colored pencils, marking pens, glue sticks, a pair of scissors. My favorite art activity is to make collages––small ones, about the size of a postcard­­––just right for a prayer card, a get-well card, or a thank you card to give away. There are amazing coloring books available now that are perfect for praying: intricate patterns, nature designs, and symbols of faith. Sybil MacBeth found herself unable to concentrate, short of words, and needing to pray. She took a pad of paper and a basket of markers out to the porch, drew a leaf shape and wrote her friend’s name inside it. Soon her page was covered with shapes and names, colors and designs. Sybil had discovered prayer through doodling and subsequently wrote a book about how to do it, Praying in Color. When I introduced this form to a group of  choristers, twelve-year-old Eli turned to a friend and said with surprise, “I never knew praying could be so much fun!”

Like Eli, I was both delighted and relieved to discover that prayer could be fun. As someone with a rather haphazard prayer life, I have found that an expansive view of prayer also expands my sense of the Holy, making me more mindful of God’s presence in the everyday.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents.

Christmas morning

christmas-tree-2561872_1920Between now and Monday morning, I will have tied red ribbons on 500 bell ornaments, found and purchased 4 sheep hats, organized, rehearsed and directed a Christmas pageant with 48 participants, organized, rehearsed and supervised a nativity parade with 15 giant 12 to 8 foot puppets, finished shopping and wrapping gifts for my family and friends, and participated in four church services at three different churches. You are exhausted just reading this, aren’t you? There’s also laundry and, please God, some tidying around the apartment to do. Don’t feel sorry for me, though. I have lots of help and so will mostly be joyful and very tired.

This year, Advent officially ends at sundown on December 24, which makes Sunday a bit wild for those of us who work in churches. As I rush around preparing, I am singing this lovely carol under my breath, reminding myself of why I am doing all of this:

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

People Look East by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965), 1928

 

Sunday night, just before I go to sleep,  I will make this delicious and VERY EASY overnight Eggnog French Toast, and you can, too. Be sure to buy the very best eggnog you can find: Organic Valley, Horizon or Trader Joe’s are all excellent choices.

Christmas Morning Eggnog French Toast (prepared the night before)

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 loaf brioche or challah
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups organic eggnog
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

In a small saucepan, melt together the butter, honey and brown sugar and cook over low heat until sugar dissolves. Pour this mixture into the bottom of a glass or ceramic baking dish. In a large mixing bowl, beat together the eggs, eggnog, vanilla, cinnamon and spices. Slice the bread thickly and dip each slice into the eggnog mixture. Reassemble the sliced bread into its original loaf shape, set into the baking dish and pour the remaining eggnog mixture over it. Wrap tightly in Saran and refrigerate overnight. Let it come to room temperature for 15 minutes as your preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 45 minutes and serve with warm maple syrup.

On Monday morning, however, we’ll sleep late (this is when I am thankful that Peter is a teenager), and the first person up will turn on the tree lights. Once the coffee and tea are ready, we’ll take turns opening the tiny gifts in our stockings.  We’ll enjoy our yummy breakfast and each other’s company and the delights of the day. The waiting and preparing and all the errands and running around are over, for now. Love, the Lord is here among us.

The Christmas Eve worship services (including the pageant at 9:15 am, giant puppet nativity parade at 4 pm) at Trinity Church Wall Street will be webcast live and available on demand here.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of  Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents, which makes a swell Christmas gift for you or someone you love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Christmas at home

 

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The 8 foot Christmas tree stands in the living room of our tiny, messy apartment and we step carefully around it to get into the bedrooms.  90% of the ornaments were already on it when I discovered two extra strands of lights that I put aside last year when we more sensibly had a 4 foot tree. I have done almost no shopping at this point, and I’m not sure yet whether I will have a full day off work between now and December 25.

If you are feeling behind and not quite in the spirit of the season, take a deep breath. Remember that Christmas is about love. Take another deep breath. What really matters will get done, and what’s not essential can be put aside. In our family we take full advantage of knowing that there are twelve days of Christmas and the first day is Christmas Day. That’s right–just when everyone else thinks Christmas is over, we are just beginning to celebrate. Our holiday party is the Saturday after Christmas, and some years the cookie baking waits until then, too.

Since I work full time in a church, and my son sings in the choir of another church, we spend a lot of time in church in December. Christmas Eve is when churches are at their very best. The colors on the altar and vestments worn by the clergy are white for joy and gold for celebration. Go, see the baby lying in a manger (if there isn’t a pageant, there surely will be a crèche), sing the angels’ song of peace, and expect that your children will want to tell the story over and over again when you get home. You may have a beautiful crèche or nativity set that you will not want your kids to play with, so–if you can–get another that’s sturdy or unbreakable. It’s worth it. The story of Christmas is one with great power over our hearts and imaginations, and it’s natural that we want to get our hands on it.

Speaking of crèches, a wonderful picture book to add to your library this year is That Baby in the Manger by Anne Neuberger with delightful illustrations by Chloe Pitkoff. This contemporary Christmas story has a clear message of diversity and inclusion, reminding us that God’s love embodied in Jesus is for all people.

Holidays hold extra joy. The holidays of my childhood which shine so brightly in my memory were spent at my grandparents’ home and everyone around the table was family, every dish was delicious, and while I know it’s not true that no one ever argued, what I remember is how much love I felt.

For most of my adult life I have lived far from my family. However, holidays have been no less joyful. Now we most often spend Christmas Day and Easter Day with our friends Kathy and Greg, whose table seems to grow larger every year. Kathy says she inherited this tradition from her mother, Eileen. “We never lived near family as my dad was a military officer and my mom is from England. So our family was the neighborhood, military base, or community we lived in. My mom had an open door policy and invited neighbors, friends and most especially anyone who didn’t have a place to go.” Greg recalls that after college, when his immediate family had moved away from the Northeast, he was taken in, “given a place at the table” for holiday meals and “made to feel like family. It gave me a deep appreciation for there being people who don’t have family close by and face experiencing ‘gathering’ events on their own. What’s the price of a bit more food or a tighter squeeze around the table compared with the warmth and joy an open door can bring?”

Guests are invited to bring a favorite dish, but of course no one has to bring a thing. Kathy, who is a wonderful cook, says, “The food is important, but in the end it’s about who is gathered at our table and that they come and join us. I always think that the absolute best gift is someone’s presence.”

Do you ever find gifts after the 25th that you had hidden away and forgotten, or am I the only one who does that? This is helpful if you haven’t already saved a gift for each person to open on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, when we remember the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus. This part of the story is one that bears closer attention. Though in most Christmas pageants, three kings arrive just after the shepherds bearing gifts for the baby, that’s not what the Bible actually says. Read the story in Matthew’s gospel (1:18–2:7) and wonder: What’s up with those gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Gold honors Jesus as king, frankincense lifts our prayers to heaven and signifies his divinity, myrrh was anciently used to anoint the dead and acknowledges Jesus as fully human. Your family may want to honor the Holy Child in a more practical way: collect some gently used baby clothes, new diapers, and formula to take to a women’s shelter; babysit for a friend, offering a much-needed break to the parent and some insight to what it means that God came to us not just in human form, but as a baby, born helpless and dependent as all babies are, to a poor family in a troubled place.

Adapted from Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents, which makes a swell Christmas gift for you or someone you love.

Advent ideas

Advent begins this Sunday, December 3. In the secular world, this period of preparing for the birth of Christ has been swept up into “the holiday season,” that frantic period of time from just after Halloween (if we’re lucky) until Christmas Eve. In the church, however, we are serious about getting ready over a four-week period. While Christmas may be red, green and gold, the color of Advent is blue (for Mary, the mother of Jesus) or purple (for the newborn king). The mood is quiet, more focused. We are waiting for Jesus, and this is holy time. This slower, more deliberate approach to the season may be worth bringing home. What can you simplify? Where can you be more intentional, less rushed?

You could decorate first with just evergreen boughs, perhaps some walnuts or red apples nestled among them. Once the tree comes, try enjoying it with white lights alone for a week or two. If you or your kids are feeling crafty, string popcorn and cranberries, or make chains with festive patterned origami paper. Save the special, sparkly ornaments for closer to December 24. Save the most familiar Christmas carols, too, and listen to the delightful and quirky Keepin’ the Baby Awake or Yo Yo Ma’s lovely Songs of Joy and Peace. The beloved choral composer John Rutter is offering an Advent calendar this year; follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for a new musical treat each day.

Some years we have had an Advent wreath of boxwood and juniper and holly for the center of the table.  This year the most I will do is gather four tapers and one pillar candle–you can, too. Use any colors you like, and set them on a platter. For $5 you could also download and print this sweet booklet with weekly prayers, poems and activities.

We are preparing not just for Christmas, but for the coming of Christ. How do we ready our hearts as well as our homes? What can we do to make giving the focus rather than getting? Who might be feeling lonely and left out at this time of year, or just overworked and under-appreciated? Take hot chocolate to the crossing guard, make cookies for the firefighters or the postal carrier, spend time with an elderly neighbor or visit the local nursing home. The internet abounds with simple ideas along these lines; here is an Advent calendar with a suggestion for each day.

Advent calendars are great fun. If you don’t have one, or even if you do, be sure to follow the adventurous Wandering Wisemen on Instagram or Facebook  from December 3 to January 6.

Sybil MacBeth wrote a book chock-full of engaging ideas for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany called The Season of the Nativity, and she’s also the creator of a favorite prayer practice of mine, Praying in Color. She has several templates for a prayerful, colorful Advent Calendar that are great for kids, teens and adults.

When my son Peter was younger, we read a different Christmas book or chapters of a wintery book each night leading up to Christmas Eve, when he’d receive a new one. Some parents more organized than I ever was wrap these books from the family’s or the library’s collection in holiday gift wrap and number them, opening one each night at bedtime as a way of counting down the days.

All Creation Waits by Gayle Boss with stunning woodcuts by David G. Klein is an Advent book that’s perfect for older kids and adults. Each chapter opens a window into the mysterious life of an animal in winter, and through them we are reminded that “the roots of Advent lie deep beneath the Christian church—in the earth and its seasons.” To make it even easier to read a chapter about a different North American animal each day of December, Paraclete Press is offering a daily email subscription to All Creation Waits.

For younger children, Laura Alary’s new book, Look! A Child’s Guide to Advent and Christmas helps them connect what is happening in church with what is happening at home as we get ready. Its tone is both joyful and calming, in a way that suggests the profound difference between waiting for Jesus and waiting for Santa.

Advent is a season of wonder. We wait in darkness for the light to be kindled and grow and spread, for the long-expected child to be born, for our hope to be renewed. This year I need it more than ever.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents.

Giving thanks!

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I imagine that the very first prayer was “thank you.”

Saying grace at meals is a lovely practice, and Thanksgiving is the perfect time to begin or re-introduce it. Sung graces are great for little ones. If you sing the Doxology in church, you might start with that:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise God all creatures here below, Praise God above ye heavenly host, Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

The first grace my son Peter learned as a toddler is sung to the tune of “Frère Jacques”:

God our father, God our mother, we thank you, we thank you, for this food before us, for this food before us. Amen, amen.

Friends and family are a great resource for collecting graces and blessings from other cultures and religious traditions, which can be a great way “in” to this universal and timeless tradition. This year, you could crowd-source your Thanksgiving dinner blessing using this simple template from Episcopal priest Kyle Oliver, whose Creative Commons Prayer website has all kinds of engaging multimedia prayers. Sybil MacBeth, creator of one of my favorite prayer practices, Praying in Color, has some fun turkey templates  you could use for gratitude prayers tomorrow.

The Quakers have a very simple said grace:

Us and this, God bless.

Their most common form of grace, however, is everyone holding hands around the table in silence. It’s easy to add the invitation to each person to name something for which they are thankful. Cultivating a practice of gratitude, a habit of noticing and naming what we are thankful for is of profound benefit to our physical, spiritual and emotional health. You could keep a thankfulness journal that each family member contributes to throughout the year, or throughout this long weekend ask each person to write their thanksgivings on leaves of colored paper to fill a jar or a window. Peter noticed and remarked on a significant decrease in complaints when our household became more intentionally grateful.

Here is my go-to grace:

Bless this food to our use and us to your loving service, and keep us ever mindful of the needs of others.

Christians and Jews end prayers with a declarative, amen, which in Hebrew means “firm.” It is nearly the same for Muslims, who use the related Arabic word “amin.” Think of it as a strong YES. Let it be so.

Pray in whatever way works for you and your family, pray when you can, and where you can. Pray for what you need, what your loved ones need, what the world needs. Give thanks, give praise, give your heart. And let the people say, Amen.

(Adapted from Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents, chapter 2)