Each of these books takes us through a season or two of the church year, with vibrant and colorful scenes from scripture, nature, and a child’s daily life. Mystery, wonder, and celebrations large and small are woven throughout. The connections between church and home, scripture and our own stories are beautifully made, and you’ll find simple, meaningful ideas and practices to try.
In the Godly Play story, The Circle of the Church Year, we are reminded
It is all here. Everything we need. For every beginning there is an ending, and for every ending there is a beginning. It goes on and on. Forever and ever.
Wherever we find ourselves in the circle, we have companions on the way who help us follow Jesus. Laura Alary and her guides are wonderful companions.
Laura has many other books you’ll want to add to your library. Learn more about her and them here.
The Great Vigil of Easter was made for pillow forts. No, really. I am utterly convinced that this, the holiest night of the year, the jewel of our liturgical celebrations, is perfect for home, in pajamas, under two chairs covered by a blanket. We begin in darkness.
It would be wonderful if someone kindled an impressive new fire outside. If you are participating as a church, show this on camera and please light the Paschal Candle from it. If you are doing this as a household and have a fire pit or fireplace, by all means, make a blaze safely. A fat candle in a glass jar will also be lovely. This is the prayer:
Dear friends in Christ: On this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer. For this is the Passover of the Lord, in which, by hearing his Word and celebrating his Sacraments, we share in his victory over death.
Let us pray.
O God, through your Son you have bestowed upon your people the brightness of your light: Sanctify this new fire, and grant that in this Paschal feast we may so burn with heavenly desires, that with pure minds we may attain to the festival of everlasting light; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Next comes the Exsultet, the ancient Easter proclamation dating from the 4th century. It is usually chanted. You could listen to this beautiful rendition, which includes praise to the bees from whose wax the Paschal candle was made, or read the first three verses aloud:
Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels, and let your trumpets shout Salvation for the victory of our mighty King.
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth, bright with a glorious splendor, for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.
Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church, and let your holy courts, in radiant light, resound with the praises of your people.
Now it’s time for the stories, the record of God’s saving deeds through history. Tell them as if you are around a campfire in the desert. Hold a flashlight under your chin.
You don’t need to use all the stories. Actually, please don’t use them all. I recommend Creation, Exodus, Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones, and Zephaniah 3:14-20. If you are doing this over Zoom, let households choose the story the want to tell. Perhaps they’ll use poetry, music, drama, a picture book, various translations, a children’s Bible. Invite people illustrate the stories in advance (or maybe create a scene using LEGO bricks and snap a photo?) so you can share them with everyone.
If you are doing this with just your own family, I suggest James Weldon Johnson’s poem Creation, found here, or Phyllis Root’s charming picture book, Big Momma Makes the World. Exodus 14:10-31 is always read; I like Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message. At the line, “The Egyptians came after them in full pursuit” invite the listeners to slap their thighs, making a thundering soundof the Egyptians in pursuit, which should end abruptly at the line, “the sea returned to its place as before.”
Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones is next. I have found children love to be the bones. Remind them that bones lie very still! At the rattling (a maraca?), they roll on the floor. At the sound of God’s breath, they stand, and maybe dance? I suggest that the final reading before the Gospel be this, from the prophet Zephaniah, describing what it will be like when the Messiah comes.
It’s almost time. Have bells for ringing and pots and pans for banging at the ready, and someone will want to fling on all the lights. You’re all going to shout the Easter acclamation, three times:
Alleluia! Alleluia! We sing this night, joining heaven and earth that rejoice with delight. Jesus, our Lord, is risen today. God’s love and light is here to stay. Joining heaven and earth that rejoice with delight, Alleluia! Alleluia! We sing this night. Amen.
And what a year it’s been. I am grateful to be sharing with you the words and wisdom of others.
This brief essay, Hello, Gorgeous gave me a big boost today. Read the whole lovely thing, but this is the most important part:
For the past year productivity has not been the thing. Efficiency has not been the thing. Endurance, stamina, and resilience have been the things. Hope has been a thing. Doing the right thing has been a thing. Ultimately, though, this isn’t about what you did. It’s about who you are. You are still here and that is worth celebrating. You, Gorgeous, are beloved of God. You are worth celebrating.
Illustrated Ministry, which has created so much good stuff especially this year, has free prayers and coloring sheets of them here.
We begin this day Looking back over one year Of the deafening flood of this pandemic. Silence We begin this day With trust. Feeling that we are beloved and held by your Presence. We begin this day With hope. Knowing that each day can share Love, courage, forgiveness and reconciliation. Silence We recall the last year heavy with loss. For the confidence that has been stripped away. For the shock of emptiness and anxiety and unimagined fears. For the flickers of guilt and kindled regret of all that was left undone. For the strangeness of struggling to understand and struggling to breathe. For the overwhelmed-ness of households that are not okay. For the tolling bells and enumerated candles that barely define the countless heartbreak. One year of together apart. May we learn, may we love, may we carry on. God is with us. Silence We recall the last year offering thanks and praise For the chance to focus on what matters to God. For creativity to meet the challenges, For the technology that keeps us connected, and the science that is leading us forward. For the companion animals who have brought us newness. For the strength to hold onto blessings and the wisdom to let go of what no longer gives life. For the reminder that to be the church is not to be a club or a building, Instead, a commitment of practice to embody Christ wherever we are. One year of together apart. May we learn, may we love, may we carry on. God is with us. Silence May we find the wisdom we need in the days of the pandemic that are in front of us. God is with us. May we hear the needs of those around us. Christ is with us. May we love the life that we are given. The Spirit is with us. Amen.
Traci Smith wrote a simple prayer that’s great for all ages:
God you are with us all the time. All the time you are with us.
Today we remember. We remember how things used to be. We remember how many things we have gone through. We remember things we missed and people we lost.
Today we hope. We hope for healing. We hope for vaccines. We hope for wisdom.
Today we share. We share smiles with one another. We share our joys and our sorrows. We share our dreams for the future.
God you are with us, all the time. All the time, you are with us. Be with us as we remember, hope, and share. Amen.
That’s what I have for you, dear ones–prayers and a reminder that you are beloved and not alone. May that be enough right now.
Palm Sunday is one of my favorite days of the year. It marks the beginning of Holy Week, when we tell in story and song and pageantry of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem the week before he died and rose again. All four gospels recount that he came into the city not astride a great white stallion as would befit a king, but on a humble donkey, and thousands hailed him, laying down their cloaks and palm branches on the path before him, singing “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
One Lent my friend Hershey and I thought it would be fun if we could find a donkey to lead the Palm Sunday procession for five blocks along Broadway in lower Manhattan, from St. Paul’s Chapel to Trinity Church. Can’t you just see the stunned tourists and charmed children? We never actually thought our boss would agree, but he did, and each year thereafter, it was my job to wrangle the donkey. Just finding one was a challenge, for as Rob in Yonkers once pointed out to me, “Palm Sunday is like New Year’s Eve for donkeys.” So that’s something you don’t need to worry about at home.
You also don’t need to worry about palms. As my friend Bruce Jenneker explains in this short video, “All over the world people have chosen to use the branches that are common to them.” You could decorate your door with palms or any leafy branch, because one of the most touching things about Palm Sunday is the element of public witness, of welcoming the King of Kings. Illustrated Ministry even has a free downloadable palm branch to print and color, as in the photo above from a family participating in online worship at my church in 2020. Wherever we are, we enter into the story, we connect to it, to Jesus, to our communities of faith, to one another.
We could take time, and not even a long time, with the scriptures each day during Holy Week, using a technique from Ignatian spirituality called Imaginative Prayer. What I love about this is that it works well with people of all ages, and could be done at home or with others on Zoom. It’s best when one person reads the Gospel aloud. I suggest using the Common English Bible. The readings for all of Holy Week can be found here. As you listen, put yourself in the story, or imagine that you are one of the people in the story. Think about where you are, how you feel. Read the story again. Name, or draw, or write down what you smell, taste, touch, see, and hear, giving at least one detail in each category. Remember that in scripture, we find ourselves–at the gates of Jerusalem, in the Temple courts, having supper in the Upper Room, falling asleep in the garden, hearing the cock crow three times, trembling at the foot of the cross, wondering at the empty tomb.
Because, white friends, this is our work to do, here is a collection of my blogposts meant to provide parents and faith formation leaders with resources to begin or continue the work of becoming anti-racist. I am a curator of resources rather than a creator of resources, and if you have found others you recommend, please do let me know. It’s a short list. I will add more as I write them.
Hey, friends! February is Black History Month, and it’s for all of us to celebrate! Yes, it would be great if if such a thing weren’t necessary because Black history is American history, but it is necessary now and so I particularly want to encourage white families to learn and do more. There are lots of great resources at history.com, and I found this article helpful as an overview with some great suggestions and links to confront racism and support Black communities.
If you have little ones, please read Miriam Willard McKenney’s excellent post at Building Faith, Picture Books for Anti-Racists, which includes a link to the “comprehensive, living list of picture books on a variety of themes related to African-Americans, diversity, and Becoming Beloved community” that she created–a treasure that will enrich your family for years to come.
How can you engage locally? Order in from Black-owned restaurants, shop at Black-owned businesses, which have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. I’m doing my shopping online these days, and Etsy has me covered with a list of Black-owned shops. You can also make a donation to a Black-led organization–you’ll find many here. I’m going to make a donation to Children’s Defense Fund in honor of Marian Wright Edelman, Mrs. Edelman to me, because it was “founded, powered, and inspired by the legacy of Black heroes” and Mrs. Edelman is one of mine.
You can celebrate with entertainment: Parade Magazine has a list of “35 Inspiring, Joyful and Moving Movies” from various streaming services to watch, and Black History Month has also inspired February’s Tiny Desk Concert series at NPR with “different genres and generations” each week. If you’re at a loss, I’m betting your tweens and teens can tell you which Black artists to highlight for a family dance party.
A couple of years ago, my son Peter gave me this fantastic book of short stories by N.K. Jemisin, How Long ’til Black Future Month? I commend to you both the book and the question. Let’s join the essential work to ensure the answer is now.
Perhaps you had other plans for the holidays this year. I certainly did–for the first time since my son’s first Christmas, I had hoped we’d spend Christmas in California visiting my mother, since I am no longer in parish ministry, with all the attendant seasonal responsibilities. However, my husband, our 17-year-old and I are in Brooklyn, in our tiny apartment (“It’s so cozy!” my Texas nephew, then 9, exclaimed on his first visit). It’s possible that we are getting on each other’s nerves a bit after 9 months at home.
How will we get in the spirit?
Some days I make a simmer pot to make the whole house smell Christmassy, with whatever I’ve got on hand: cranberries, orange halves or even orange peels, apple cores, fresh rosemary sprigs or pine trimmings, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves and star anise, or a tablespoon of pumpkin pie spice. Toss these things into a large pot, fill with water, and simmer all day long.
My husband gave me an early gift of comfortable ear buds so that I can listen to my favorite carols whenever I like without annoying him or distracting our high school senior. On December 24th, we will listen, with millions of others around the globe, to the annual radio broadcast of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College Cambridge. This beloved tradition dates to 1918, and what a winter that must have been. The bidding prayer is always poignant, and the words “Let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light” will hold a deeper resonance this year.
I will also at some point watch my favorite Christmas Eve service ever, the 2016 Family Eucharist and Giant Puppet Nativity Parade at Trinity Church Wall Street, and you can, too. Being able to commission these puppets, designed and built by the very talented Lavinia Roberts and Cecilia Roberts, was such a privilege for me, and the entire service is a delight, with beautiful music from the Trinity Youth Chorus and a sweet homily by Hershey Mallette Stephens. If you just want to see the giant puppets and hear me narrate the Christmas story as told by Jerome Berryman in A Children’s Liturgy for Christmas Eve, that happens around the 10 minute 40 second mark. Trinity is a progressive, inclusive Episcopal church in the heart of lower Manhattan with a diverse congregation, a strong commitment to social justice, and a rich history. It’s also famous for being the hiding place of National Treasure as well as the burial places of Alexander Hamilton and Peter Parker in Into the Spider-Verse. When all this is over, come visit and I will happily give you a tour.
Cooking and eating seem to be what we mostly do for fun right now, and to show our love and care for one another. I’m baking and filling treat bags to share with friends and neighbors: snowflake-stamped cookies, honeycomb, chocolate cookies dipped in crunchy pearl sugar. While my husband will make a delicious dinner for Christmas Eve, I am responsible for and excited about brunch and a late afternoon tea on Christmas Day. Clearly, we are going to need to take plenty of walks. Walks are another way to feel connected–to each other, to our fellow humans, to nature, to God. We are lucky to live close to Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and one day between Christmas and New Year’s we’ve lined up a Zipcar so we can go further afield, to see the city “dressed in holiday style”, or take a drive to the countryside to walk in the snow. For our family, neighborhood evening walks also work well. Tonight we are excited to see the “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn that will be visible shortly after sunset, which may be the “star of wonder” that inspired the journey of the magi so long ago.
Right now I am profoundly grateful for the technology that will allow us to visit our loved ones and interact with our church community from a safe distance. I’m looking forward to a scavenger hunt over Zoom with my niece and nephew, video chats with my parents, Zoom Lessons and Carols (yes! another one!) and a Christmas movie watch party, assuming we can reach consensus on a Christmas movie. I’m thinking the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas might be just the ticket. Still, I am hoping Ella Fitzgerald had it right:
Next year all our troubles will be
Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Will be near to us once more
Someday soon, we all will be together
If the Fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, by Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane
Whatever happens, Christmas will come just the same, needing no ribbons or wrappings, nothing shiny or bright, just our hearts preparing room for God-with-us. Wishing you peace and a measure of joy, lovies…
Here’s what I want for us, lovies: let’s be gentle with ourselves and others. Let’s take joy where we find it. It’s okay to feel sad and out-of-sorts. Do what you need to do. Listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. Have some cookies with that coffee. Put up the tree early, or on December 24th. Please remember: Jesus is coming, is with us now, and will be with us again. We can’t screw that up, no matter what.
If you are looking for some inspiration for the holidays, I am glad to share what I’ve found. Traci Smith’s new book, Faithful Families for Advent and Christmas: 100 Ways to Make the Season Sacred is brimming over with wonderful, simple ideas, and here’s the best part: you are not supposed to try them all. I promise. Traci suggests choosing three. I’m definitely trying the Hot Chocolate Gratitude Party next weekend, which if my family gets through the college application process intact, we’ll certainly need. We are also looking forward to the Silent Night Star Walk, which might be Christmas Eve or Christmas Night. I am especially thankful for the chapter on Difficult Moments, because even without a worldwide pandemic, these are an inevitable part of our holiday experience, and being able to acknowledge them helps us accept them and honor what they teach us.
You may know from my earlier Advent post that reading one seasonal picture book each night leading up to Christmas Eve is a tradition beloved from Peter’s childhood. Matthew Paul Turner has a new picture book with illustrations by Gillian Gamble, All the Colors of Christmas, with not only the bright familiar red and green, but gold and blue and white and brown–yes, brown: “It’s God within a baby’s skin.” The final color is “…You! It’s your own unique hue.” I love this part best, when Matthew reminds us that through our being and doing, we are “part of the story, the joy and the glory.”
Another sweet picture book is Little Mole’s Christmas Gift, by Glenys Nellist, illustrated by Sally Garland, a charming companion to the spring-themed Little Mole Finds Hope. This book, without any religious language at all, carries a message of kindness and generosity that speaks to the heart.
My devotional recommendation for adults and youth is Keep Watch with Me: An Advent Reader for Peacemakers by Claire Brown and Michael McRay with daily reflections from a wonderfully diverse (in every sense of the word) group of contributors. Each reflection is accompanied by a scripture verse, a prayer and a practice. One of the prayers seems just right for me, and perhaps for you, in this time.
God of the unfolding story, draw us into friendship with our Divine Discontent as a gift of your Spirit. Give us the strength to keep longing for your Kingdom Come, to keep returning to our communities and our peacemaking in gratitude for your guidance toward the world you imagine for your creation. Amen.
Claire Brown, Keep Watch with Me, p. 95
In the practice that follows this prayer, Claire speaks of “the gap between the present moment and the holy imagination” and invites us to “sit with whatever comes.” That I can do. That I will do. With some carols on in the background and my messy life and apartment in the foreground, holding on to the promise and the reality of God-with-us.
Martin of Tours, one of my most favorite saints, was the son of a soldier in the Roman Army of the fourth century. He first attended church at the age of ten, against his parents’ wishes. When Martin was fifteen, he was required to join the army himself and served in Amiens, France. One winter night, he saw a beggar at the city gates, shivering with cold. Martin had no money to give him, but he took off his heavy cloak and sliced it down the middle with his sword, giving half to the beggar. That night, Jesus came to Martin in a dream, wrapped in part of Martin’s cloak. Martin’s biographer, who knew him personally, wrote that the next day, Martin “flew to be baptized.” Martin decided that he could not be both a soldier and a follower of Jesus. Later, he reluctantly became Bishop of Tours.
The piece of cloak that Martin kept was saved and much later, French kings swore oaths on it and ironically to us, anyway, carried it into battle. The words chapel and chaplain both come from the from the French word that means “little cloak,” for the little temporary churches that were used to hold the cloak and for the priest who took care of it. Eventually, all priests who served in the military caring for soldiers were called chaplains, and small churches everywhere became known as chapels.
Today he is remembered as the patron of all those who serve in the military, and the day of his death, November 11, is also Veterans Day, when we honor those who have fought for the protection of others.
In the Middle Ages, Advent began with the Feast of St. Martin and lasted for forty days until Christmas, just like Lent, the season that prepares us for Easter. In Europe, children still make lanterns on St. Martin’s Day as the night comes early to carry his light and the light of Christ into the world.
This year especially, I want to give us permission to begin Advent NOW. My lovely dinner church, St. Lydia’s, observes a seven-week Advent. This doesn’t change the readings we hear on Sundays, or interfere with Thanksgiving or the celebration of the harvest. It simply means that we can begin preparing, in our hearts and in our homes, for the coming of Christ in any way that makes sense for us. It’s time to live into the richness and mystery of the dark while waiting for the light to grow and spread.
Have you been wondering about the binary of light and dark that so often frames our language and thinking in Advent? There are some thoughtful resources to guide you as we consider the history of harm in the church that’s been done especially to our Black siblings when we name light and white as good and black and dark as evil. This article in the Anglican Journal is a good starting pointto the conversation. Learning to Walk in the Dark by Episcopal priest and renowned author Barbara Brown Taylor isa beautiful and wise bookfilled with spiritual insights.Illustrated Ministry designed a family Advent devotional inspired by it.God’s Holy Darknessby Sharei Green and Beckah Selnick, gorgeously illustrated by Nikki Faisonis ostensibly for children, but the note at its conclusion invites all of us to consider ways of challenging our perceptions of race in our theology and in our places of worship.
Shortly before he died on July 17, John Lewis wrote an essay to be published on the day of his funeral. It appeared in this morning’s New York Times, and in it, the civil rights leader and congressman speaks directly to our children with words of encouragement, guidance and challenge.
Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.
It’s a short, profound read, and after you read it with your kids you may want to listen to President Obama’s stirring eulogy of Mr. Lewis, delivered this afternoon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Your children may be too young for this right now, so you could read them this beautiful picture book, Preaching to the Chickens. Written by Jabari Asim and illustrated by E. B. Lewis, this book connects John’s strong faith to his actions, not only as an adult but as a child growing up on a rural Alabama farm. Tweens and teens will find Mr. Lewis’s award-winning graphic novel trilogy,March, a compelling introduction to the Civil Rights movement.
I got to know young Mr. Lewis through the pages of the most riveting non-fiction book I’ve ever read: The Children, by journalist David Halberstam, a chronicle of the young people who took the lessons of Reverend James Lawson’s nonviolence workshops to lunch counters and buses and the Edmund Pettus Bridge at great personal sacrifice, for their children and ours.
President Obama reminded us today that the young people who have filled our nation’s streets this summer, marching for justice, calling on us all to be “better, truer versions of ourselves,” are Mr. Lewis’s children, whether or not they knew they were following his example.
And that’s what John Lewis teaches us. That’s where real courage comes from, not from turning on each other, but by turning towards one another. Not by sowing hatred and division, but by spreading love and truth. Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with joy and perseverance and discovering that, in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.
I am so grateful for the life and witness of John Lewis, and so deeply touched that at the end of his remarkable life, he wanted our children to know he walks with them still.
When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.