Growing in Faith

From the time I was 2 ½ until I was 18, my church was St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Beach, California. Naturally, I thought all churches were like my church. I remember the smell of incense and the sound of Sanctus bells and the sight of people coming down the aisle in shorts, tee shirts and flip-flops.

At St. Mary’s, we had Christmas pageants and pancake suppers, we stopped eating green grapes in support of Cesar Chávez and the migrant farmworkers, and boycotted Nestlé over marketing baby formula in underdeveloped countries. We helped ready the rectory to become home to a succession of Vietnamese boat families. Until I was old enough to know better, I thought every church had gay and lesbian families. Faith in action formed me.

When I was 10, I was paid to help Miss Gigi with the babies and toddlers in the nursery, 50 cents an hour. It was my job to help them feel God’s love, and we did that by playing with them, reading to them, giving a bottle to a baby, even changing the occasional diaper.

At 11, I was confirmed and awestruck that the adults who taught us encouraged us to wrestle with ideas like transubstantiation and consubstantiation. I remember my first taste of the bread and wine made holy. The new prayer book wasn’t out yet, but we had the green book, and my imagination was caught by the will of God creating “the vast expanse of interstellar space, the galaxies, suns and planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.”

At 14, I started teaching Sunday School. It was before I’d ever heard of Godly Play, but Brad Karelius, who had been our seminarian and then became our curate, baptized my baby doll, Elizabeth Anne, for my class of 4-and 5-year-olds, because I was teaching a lesson on baptism and I asked him to. I sang in the choir, directed by my high school humanities teacher, and on the same Sunday it might be Mozart and music from Godspell and “Wade in the Water.”

At that point, I was also the youngest member of the Christian Education committee, led by my beloved Mrs. Mudge, who was not only our Director of Religious Education, but had been my social studies teacher in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade as well as my drama director and the person who oversaw my work as editor of the school newspaper. The Christian Education Committee met after church on Sunday afternoons, which meant I could actually go to the meetings. During my freshman year of high school, my parents separated, and for a period of months, my mother stopped going to church. I got on the bus and went by myself, because I was pretty sure they couldn’t have church without me.

God is a mystery, but how children and youth grow into an adult faith is not: we now have 40 years of longitudinal research from across the country and across denominations. Here’s what the data supports: Children whose parents were active in their congregations, who practiced their faith and talked about matters of faith at home, are far more likely to be religiously active as young adults. Participation in Sunday School and youth group are not indicators of children and youth who grow into an adult faith. Active participation in worship and connection to other adults in the faith community are stronger predictors, as well as integrating faith into all aspects of our lives, and modeling that doubt and questions are aspects of faith, not its opposites.

I am so grateful to have been raised in a church that took my gifts as a child and teenager seriously enough to use them every week. I long for children and youth to be incorporated into the full life of the congregation. We have much to learn about following Jesus, but that’s best and most authentically done in community, growing together in faith as people of God.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents and is currently at work on a book about this very subject: how churches become intergenerational, and why it’s essential.

Pentecost

It’s almost Pentecost, the Feast of the Holy Spirit, the birthday of the church. Fifty days after Easter, ten days after Jesus ascended to heaven, we remember the day that the Holy Spirit came to Jesus’s disciples, setting their hearts ablaze and turning their lives upside-down. There they sat, trying to figure out what they were supposed to do next, now that Jesus had truly left them, when a rushing wind filled the room. Tongues of fire danced above their heads, and they were given the sudden ability to speak in other languages—apparently it was such a scene that some onlookers thought the disciples were drunk, at 9 am. This is how the church comes into being. What a story!

At our church, we do Pentecost up right, with baptisms and a bishop, confirmations of those baptismal promises made by teenagers and adults after a period of study, receptions for those becoming Episcopalians, and reaffirmations for those who wish to strengthen their commitment to following Jesus. There will be readings in other languages (of course), we’ll wear red, munch on birthday cupcakes (red velvet), strawberries, and watermelon. Some years, we’ve handed out pinwheels, or wooden rings with flame -colored ribbons. It will be a glorious day, and then we’ll all go back to our busy lives. That’s exactly what is supposed to happen. The church isn’t a building; it never has been—it’s the people of God, filled with the Holy Spirit given to us in baptism, going out into the world, bringing light to dark places, mending and making, healing and helping, one conversation or small act of love at a time.

Here’s a great children’s book on Pentecost: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23214224-the-day-when-god-made-church

Here are some simple ideas for celebrating Pentecost at home: https://www.growchristians.org/2017/05/30/thinking-ahead-to-pentecost-five-ways-to-celebrate/

And here’s a video about Pentecost to share: https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/video/episcopal-explained-day-pentecost

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

Cindy Wang Brandt’s Parenting Forward—Review

One of my favorite things is curating resources to help parents navigate Christian faith—for their children and themselves—with a progressive understanding, and to help Christian formation leaders provide both best practices and excellent resources to their congregations. I’m in my thirtieth year doing this for families (and, as my son just pointed out, in my seventeenth year of parenting). Unlike Cindy Wang Brandt, I never knew anything but progressive values in the Christianity I grew up in and around. Still, my exposure to and experience with Cindy and the online, worldwide community she convenes, Raising Children Unfundamentalist, has made me a both a better Christian educator and a better parent.

Cindy is a leading voice in the progressive Christian space as a writer, speaker, podcaster, and activist. Her book, Parenting Forward: How to Raise Children with Justice, Kindness and Mercy, with a warm and encouraging forward by her friend Rachel Held Evans, is a thoughtful, compassionate, and clearly written guide for a new generation of parents as well as anyone wanting to take a progressive path with their children and partners.

Parenting Forward offers an approach to parenting that’s both gentle and fierce: gentle in the ways Cindy focuses on love and respect for children and other vulnerable people; fierce in the ways she advocates taking on such challenges as dismantling racism, sexism, and homophobia in family life. Cindy’s stories of herself as both a child and a parent, stories of other children and parents, and stories from today’s headlines provide fertile ground for this exploration of parenting as and for social change. When Jesus put a small child in the center of his grumbling disciples and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” I imagine Cindy there, taking this in, seeing the children as Jesus did, fully themselves, bearers of their own wisdom, with gifts to offer all of us, as we help to bring about the realm of God, here and now.

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

The Season of Lent

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

This is adapted from a Godly-Play-style homily I gave at an Ash Wednesday Family Eucharist in 2012.  In 2020, Lent begins Wednesday, February 26.

Lent is the name we give to the forty days before the great mystery of Easter. Lent means lengthening, because the days are growing longer. It is a time for the color purple, the color of royalty. We are preparing for the coming of a king.

On the Tuesday before Lent begins,  Christians all over the world celebrate the end the Epiphany season, which began January 6, when the wise ones, the magi, the kings from far away followed a star in search of a newborn king, Jesus. People celebrate with parades and parties and pancakes. Some people eat King Cake, in honor of the magi, the kings, and the person who finds the Baby, Baby Jesus, in their slice of cake is King or Queen for the day. Mardi Gras—Fat Tuesday— is called that because long ago on the night before Lent began, people used up all the fat in their kitchens—milk, butter, eggs, meat—so that during Lent they could come closer to God by not eating those foods.

Some of us still prepare for the coming of our king by fasting—giving up—something. Some of us give up foods we really like—desserts or sodas or vanilla lattes. Then the money that we used to spend on desserts or sodas or lattes can be saved and given to help feed the hungry. Some of us give up television or video games or try to spend less time with our smart phones, and for the forty days of Lent we use that time instead to look for ways to come closer to God.

Some people read the Bible more often in Lent, listening for what God is telling us today. We may pray more often, or at a certain time each day, and when we pray we could light a candle to remind us that Christ is the light of the World, and we are Christ’s light in the world.

We might draw or write our prayers and keep them in a special place, in a journal or a box or even on a calendar to show we are giving all our worries and hopes to God.  There are so many ways to pray, and Lent is a good time to try new practices.

Some of us take on doing more of God’s work in the world during Lent: collecting groceries for the food pantry, visiting the lonely, helping people in our neighborhoods or across the ocean. We might use a giving calendar so that we can return God’s blessings to us out into the world, by giving one day a quarter for every bottle of medicine you have in your house, or a nickel every time you turn on the water faucet another day.

Lent is a serious time, a time set apart for thinking, praying, giving thanks and remembering God’s gifts to us so that we might give generously to others.

We call the day Lent begins Ash Wednesday. Long ago, when people wanted God to know they were sorry for what they had done wrong, they asked God’s forgiveness by making a sacrifice—an offering—to be burned on the altar. If people had a lot of money, they  offered a lamb to God. If they had just a little money, they offered a bird.

When their sacrifice was all burnt up, all that was left were ashes. Sometimes the people who asked God for forgiveness would wear these ashes on their bodies to show how sorry they felt.

We no longer bring animals to be burned on the altar when we ask God to forgive us. Everything changed when God sent Jesus to live and die as one of us. Whenever we ask God to forgive us, we are forgiven. Whenever we turn toward God, we are embraced.

Our ashes come from the palms we waved almost a year ago at the end of Lent, when we remembered the day that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey instead of a stallion, still speaking of peace instead of leading a great army, and the people waved palms in celebration, as if they were welcoming a king. We welcome the King of Love. We call that day Palm Sunday—it is the Sunday before Easter. Some of those palms we fold into crosses, and keep in our homes all year until it’s time. It’s time.

At our baptism, we are claimed as God’s beloved children and a cross of oil is made on our foreheads to mark us as Christ’s own forever. The cross of ashes we receive in the very same spot is to remind us that God made us, we belong to God, and God loves us. May we remember who we are and whose we are, each day of this holy Lent, so that our Easter joy will be complete.

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

Looking for additional Lenten resources? Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter by Laura Alary is a wonderful book to add to your collection. For older children, youth and adults, Gayle Boss’s Wild Hope: Stories for Lent from the Vanishing is a gorgeously illustrated new book of powerful stories about endangered animals. Illustrated Ministry offers three downloadable family devotionals for Lent; of their always-rich content, the one new this year focuses on giving.

Advent ideas

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The circle of the church year turns. It’s almost Advent.

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 pine cones, walnuts or 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

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 votive candles and one pillar candle–you can, too. Use any colors you like, and set them on a platter. Advent devotions to use with the wreath can be quite simple; these are offered by Helen Barron at Candle Press.

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; Action for Happiness has created a kindness calendar for each day of December.

Advent calendars are a fun way of counting down the days until Christmas. Here’s a mason jar Advent calendar from the creative people at The Salt Project, if you haven’t already purchased one.  This year, I am participating in Advent Word, a global online Advent calendar, for which a daily prompt for a photograph and personal reflection are given. I also recommend following the adventurous Wandering Wisemen on Instagram or Facebook  from December 1 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.

For younger children, Laura Alary’s 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 calm, in a way that suggests the profound difference between waiting for Jesus and waiting for Santa.

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 a North American 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.” Another adult great read for Advent is Quinn Caldwell’s smart and thoughtful All I Really Want: Readings For a Modern Christmas.

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, which makes a swell Christmas gift.

Radical Mister Rogers

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Focus Features

I was having a really bad week, as was our country, and my anger was spilling over into everyday life, when my husband suggested the perfect antidote: 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.

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 faith at home

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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 during the night, someone had hung big red tag-board hearts decorated with glitter and shiny stickers that caught the light from a branch on 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 colorful 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 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. Read the Brightly review here.

Every so often, 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 need more love, but it doesn’t always have to be extravagant. Even if you are having a simple evening meal, 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, which this year begins on February 26. 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?

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.

All Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls

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Did you know that Halloween is only the beginning of a holy three days? Hallow means holy and “Hallowe’en” is a contraction of All Hallows Eve, or Even. On Halloween, we face our fears and laugh at them, knowing that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. The Celtic day of the dead, Samhain, predated Christianity and fell on October 31. Ancient practices and festivals have been adopted by the Church and made new in the light of Christ. To me this does not diminish the Christian holy days; it makes them stronger, more resonant.

My friends at Salt offer a brief theology of Halloween which I find both heartening and illuminating. Halloween is the busiest and most festive night of the year in our Brooklyn neighborhood, joyfully celebrated by all. We’ll spend several hours (in costume, of course) on our stoop with lollipops, play dough and glow sticks to hand out, delighting in the community flowing by.

November 1 is All Saints Day, a major feast of the church which we’ll celebrate on the following Sunday with baptisms. The Book of Common Prayer calls saints “the lights of the world in every generation”–people whose lives and deeds have shone brightly and helped others more closely follow Jesus. There are saints who lived long ago and there are saints living and working in the world today, saints who are known by the church and saints who are known only to God. We say that we are part of the Communion of Saints, the company of all faithful people, connected through our baptism to those Christians who have died, those who are alive now, and those yet to be born. The word “saint” means holy. In the Episcopal Church we have a Calendar of Saints, holy men and women we remember in prayer and with readings from scripture on their feast day. The saints tend to be quite colorful, and being perfect is in no way a requirement.

November 2, All Souls Day, is the “commemoration of all faithful departed,” a day to remember our own family and friends who have died. It’s a good time to visit a cemetery, which should not be a place of fear, but of respect. No one minds if you make rubbings of old gravestones. The churchyard where I work has markers dating back to the late 17th century. Mexican friends observe this day with serious play and even joy as the Day of the Dead, making family altars with photographs, flowers, candles, and food. Light a candle, say a prayer, tell stories of the ones we love and see no longer.

Here are three books I recommend for children who are grieving: The Invisible String by Patricia Karst does a wonderful job of describing the way in which we are all connected to those we love and is helpful for those experiencing any kind of separation or loss. My Favorite Color is Blue. Sometimes. by Roger Hutchison is a sensitive, imaginative exploration of grief in child-friendly language and vibrant art.  Death is Stupid by Anastasia Higgenbotham, is refreshingly honest, while leaving room for your own religious beliefs. 

(Excerpted from Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents, Chapter 5)

Why we call Good Friday “good”

cross-symbol-christian-faith-faith-161078.jpegYes, it’s really hard to talk about the crucifixion with children. Adults have enough trouble with it. Please don’t skip over the hard parts, though. We do know how the story ends. We call Good Friday ‘good’ because we are an Easter people. Even in the name we give it, we do not look at this day alone for the terrible thing that happened, that Jesus died on the cross. We look all the way to Sunday, when Jesus rose again. We pause on Friday to remember that Jesus, whom we love, died on a dark day when soldiers shamed him, nearly all his friends left his side, and he wasn’t even sure that God was with him. We tell the story of what happened that day because it is vital for our children to hear: Jesus was afraid, he suffered, he died . . . and God turned his fear, his suffering, and his dying into hope, wholeness, and new life.

We tell this story—our Christian story—over and over again because it tells us the truth: not that there is no darkness, but that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Remembering that gives us comfort and makes us bold, helps us encourage others and find goodness in the most difficult of days. We are Easter people because we have been to the cross and the grave and we know the promise God makes to us in Jesus: God’s power and grace can transform anything; God’s love is stronger than the cross, stronger than death itself.

You might bring some sweetness to this bitter day in a traditional way, by baking hot cross buns, a custom that dates to Saxon times. My husband makes this recipe.  Break your fast with these, and make enough to share with your neighbors or with the overworked staff of your church, who still have three intense days before they rest.

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