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.
This is adapted from a homily I gave at a family Ash Wednesday Eucharist in 2012. Lent begins Wednesday, March 6, 2019.
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 of season after Epiphany, which began January 6, when the magi, the wise ones from far away followed a star in search of a newborn king, Jesus. People celebrate with parades and parties and pancakes. 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.
Advent begins this Sunday, December 2. 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 Peter John Hobbs.
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 2 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 Christmashelps 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.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:25–29
This question is the one which echoes the loudest for me in these last few weeks, with so much suffering and so much dissension in the news—the famine in Syria, the horrific attack at Tree of Life Synagogue and the migrant caravan approaching our border. Today I read this article in Sojourners, which concludes with a recent troubling quote from Rod Dreher, a well-known Christian blogger:
“The Bible tells Christians to love their neighbors as they love themselves. But who is their neighbor? The man next door? Yes. The people who live across town? Surely. Those who live in another part of their country? Okay. People from another country who want to settle in their country? Erm… .
If everybody is your neighbor, then nobody is.”
The scripture passage from Luke’s gospel is the conversation that prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan: A man, a Jew, is walking from Jerusalem to Jericho when he is set upon by robbers and left for dead. The religious leaders of the man’s own tribe who see him by the side of the road on their way to work or worship avoid him and do not stop. The person who helps him, who carries him to safety, bandages his wounds, and pays for his care is the enemy of the Jews, the one who is not like him, the one Jesus’s listeners would have been most surprised to hear named as the rescuer. Jesus’s entire point was that our commonalities do not make us neighbors. Showing compassion makes us neighbors.
Our neighbors have been the women who are shelter guests at Crossroads Community Services.During the day, most of these women are busy learning skills that will prepare them to transition out of homelessness. At night, they come to Crossroads for a meal and a place to sleep where it is safe, warm, and sheltered. As with so many programs, this one relies on volunteers. When we volunteer, we don’t actually do much. We chat over dinner and spend the night in a room nearby. The women leave very early the next day because the church also hosts a breakfast program in the same space. Those few mornings I hope we are more aware of our own privilege, more aware of how little it takes to be a good neighbor.
Expanding our children’s circles of concern from family and close friends to others whose lives and experiences may be very different from their own is a key element of developing empathy, according to researchers. A recent study—part of the “Making Caring Common” project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education—involving 10,000 youth ages twelve to eighteen, found that 80% of respondents valued personal happiness and success over caring for others.Empathy is defined as the ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes,” but it is more than that: it is valuing and responding with compassion to other people and perspectives.Giving our children the opportunity to know, listen to, and actively help others is essential, not only to our Christian identity and formation but to changing the society in which we live, or as Ed Bacon, the former rector of All Saints Pasadena likes to say, “turning the human race into the human family.”
Wondering how to start? Writer and activist Glennon Doyle Melton wrote a letter to her son the day he began third grade. In it she tells him about a boy in her own third grade class, whom her classmates teased and she ignored, and the regret she feels about that every day. “I think that God puts people in our lives as gifts to us,” Glennon tells her son. “The children in your class this year, they are some of God’s gifts to you. So please treat each one like a gift from God. Every single one.” She gives her son some concrete examples of how to be compassionate to his friends, like making room at the lunch table for someone eating alone, or choosing someone first for the team who is usually chosen last. That sounds like Jesus to my ears. Glennon also tells her son about his teachers and classmates, “You Belong to Each Other.”I’m pretty sure God says that, too.
Our upstairs neighbor Hoora spent the morning of her birthday translating a baptism class I was teaching into Farsi for a family who recently emigrated from Iran. Her husband later told me she spent hours in preparation, reading about baptism and watching videos on the Internet. I wish I knew as much about Islam as she knows now about Christianity; the best way I can think of to honor her gift of time and effort is to learn more about her beliefs and culture.
My sister’s husband is Hindu, and we have been learning about his religion to better understand the traditions that my niece and nephew are growing up with. A dear friend who converted to Buddhism and is now a monk shares with us teachings and practices that she thinks will resonate in our lives. Throughout the years so many Jewish friends have welcomed us into their homes for Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, and Passover. I have had the privilege of both working in an interfaith center and teaching children’s interfaith classes. I cannot overstate how important I think it is for all of us to better understand each other’s religions, our common values as well as our differences. Yes, it is important that we articulate our own faith to our children, but in this global age, we are connected as never before, and cultivating respect for one another is essential to the health and well-being of everyone who calls this planet home.
Once, we met an Israeli engineer on a flight from New York City to North Carolina and much to his surprise, my son Peter, then 9, sang him the Shema in Hebrew: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” We are, each of us, made in the image of God and when we look for God in everyone we meet, we are reminded of who and what makes us one.
At every baptism, Peter has heard this vow and at his confirmation, he made it for himself:
“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
“I will, with God’s help.”
The particular gift of knowing people of all ages and colors and religions and walks of life was easy to give Peter, and one that becomes a gift he can give to others. This, I think, is one of the most important things we can do for our children: teach them to draw the circle wider, help them make the world a little bit smaller. This is what the kingdom of God looks like; we are building it together and it won’t be finished until everyone, everyone’s in.
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.
Harry 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.
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. Hatchby 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.
Loveby 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.
I 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.