A peaceful night: Bedtime

As we find ourselves in the midst of a stressful and confusing time, we need rituals, routines, and reminders of God’s peace and presence more than ever. Start simply, start tonight, with bedtime. Bedtime is the first threshold experience we remember, I think. We close our eyes and prepare to enter another world vastly different from the one we live in during our waking hours. No wonder kids (and some adults) often have such a hard time with it. How do we make a bedtime routine calming and soothing?

You could begin with a bath. A drop or two of essential oil such as lavender is enough. My friend Brook Packard writes, “Some children respond well to calm, peaceful touching. You can use almond, coconut, or jojoba oil, gently massaging feet, or the back of the neck, or even the child’s hands. There is an acupressure point on your child’s forehead, just above the eyebrows, that when stroked for half a minute, will calm your child down.”

If you have little ones, then bedtime stories are already a part of your routine, but even if—or perhaps especially if—you don’t have little ones, this might be a great time to start reading or telling stories or listening to them. My friend Linnae Peterson started a Facebook Page called Tucked In where you can listen to a bedtime story online, read by Episcopalians and others who have chosen their favorite stories with messages we all need right now. She was inspired by this elementary school principal who reads bedtime stories to her students. Operation Storytime is also a wonderful resource, with authors and actors sharing their favorite picture books.

Bedtime prayers are a beloved ritual in many homes, easing the transition from day into night and giving children and parents a chance to reflect together on past events and present needs. Young children may want to name those they love and be reminded of those who love them. When my son Peter was tiny, I sang a version of the spiritual “Seek and ye shall find” to him before sleep, even naps, adding names to the chorus that included family and eventually classmates, teachers and neighbors:

Peter, Jesus loves you, Peter, Mommy loves you, Peter, we all love you, and love, love, love comes trickling down.

Older children may take the opportunity to pray for their own needs and those of others.

Pastor and author Traci Smith’s newest book, Prayers for Faithful Families, includes sweet and simple bedtime prayers as well as bedtime blessings for parents to give their children. I especially love this one:

The day is done.

It’s time for sleep.

We say goodbye to the day.

We say hello to the night.

We breathe in love and peace.

May you have rest and peace

From the top of your head

To the bottom of your feet.

Love, rest, and peace to you.

Good night.

Traci Smith, Prayers for Faithful Families, p. 20

One form of prayer that lends itself well to the close of day is the Examen, a reflective practice developed by the 16th century saint, Ignatius of Loyola. This can be done with the whole family, with a parent and child, or by a teen in private, especially if you model this as a family practice first. The Examen begins with an invitation to notice God’s presence. You could light a candle. Next, take turns recalling something that made you grateful today. Then name your sorrows and your joys or lows and highs—just a few—from the day. Wonder together where you found God in them. Think ahead to tomorrow. What are you looking forward to? Ask God to be present in that, too. Conclude with the Lord’s Prayer or any words of your own to bring these thoughts together. That’s it, the Examen at its simplest.

Peter, who long had trouble falling asleep (he still does), learned a technique from my husband Phil’s own practice of centering prayer, using the imagery of letting thoughts float down a stream. One of Brook’s meditations uses the same imagery. It reminds me of a poetic Examen:

“With your eyes closed, see that you are standing

 in tall yellow grass near a gentle stream.

The stream bubbles along, over pebbles and stones.

You look around and see a long twig with several branches on it.

You pick up the twig and swirl it in the water.

The water of the stream flows around the twig.

Now think back on your day….”

At each prompt, the child in her imagination breaks off a piece of the twig and lets it float down the stream along with the pleasures and distractions of the day.

For many nights during middle school, the bedtime prayer that most resonated with Peter was this “Prayer for Anxiety” from the excellent collection Call on Me: A Prayer Book for Young People:

Calm me.

Release everything that’s making me anxious, especially

(name whatever is pressing in upon you).

Fill every cell of my body with your presence.

Help me feel your love everywhere:

in my body, in my brain and in my soul.

Hold me in your arms

so I can let this tension go.

Your love is stronger than anything.

Jenifer Gamber and Sharon Pearson, Call on Me, p.60

We tweaked it slightly it to include that which brought him comfort. 

Compline is the ancient service of night prayers dating to at least the sixth century, the last of the monastic “hours,” traditionally said or sung just before bed—the Church’s bedtime prayers. It begins on page 127 of The Book of Common Prayer. For several years, Peter and I said Compline together sitting at the foot of his bed almost every night; we said Compline together over the phone when I was traveling. We have begun to say Compline together again as a family this week, by candlelight, just before bed.

It doesn’t always start off that way, but invariably, in those moments in the dark when we finally pray together, we let go of our anxieties of the day and our tensions with each other, too.

Trinity Church Wall Street, where I worship, has a particularly beautiful sung Compline you can listen to or watch online. Karen Holsinger Sherman has written and illustrated a lovely picture book, Candle Walk: A Bedtime Prayer to God that gently introduces Compline in a walk through the woods.

This prayer, which comes near the conclusion of Compline, is dear to my heart:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work or watch or weep this night and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, shield the joyous, and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

Attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo

My husband’s favorite night prayer is from A New Zealand Prayer Book:

Lord,
it is night.

The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.

It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.

The night is dark.
Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives
rest in you.

The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.

The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
new joys,
new possibilities.

In your name we pray.
Amen.

ANZPB Liturgies of the Word, p. 184

These are long days, dear ones. May we find rest and peace.

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

Brook Packard is the creator of Sleepytime Club, bedtime kits for families.

Faithful parenting in a pandemic

Last week I did not imagine writing a blogpost on this subject, but here we are. I’m grateful that my days of parenting alone are over, and equally grateful that my son Peter is now a teenager who doesn’t need quite as much from me as he did a few years ago, and very grateful that I can work from home, though frankly, that’s rarely my preference. All the same, I’m grateful.

Still, there are three of us in roughly 650 square feet here in Brooklyn, and my husband, who always works from home, is having to make significant accommodations. Our son is a junior in high school; remote learning is set to begin for him next Monday. I have just begun a new job (this is week 3!) and the rhythms of my day are still being set and informed by this unprecedented (in my lifetime) event, and how we continue to be the Church, even when, or especially when we cannot gather.

As I write, the four-year-old in the apartment upstairs is racing back and forth across the hardwood floors. At the moment, the rhythm of his footfall makes me smile, but ask me again tomorrow, or even later this afternoon. It’s sunny and cold today; we are pledged to go outside for a neighborhood walk later no matter the weather or our inclination. It’s part of how we will take care of ourselves and be aware of God around us. By next week we’ll have graduated to a family schedule, but for now, having mealtimes and bedtimes and time outside feels like an accomplishment.

Previously, I’ve written about Finding God in Difficult Times, and some of what I shared in that post for families with younger children will be helpful in this context:

  • Comfort your children, assure them, be with them.
  • Be clear that God did not cause this illness–or any other crisis, accident, or disaster. In times of trouble, we remember God is with us. As God has throughout human history, God acts through those who are doing God’s work in the world. God acts through us.
  • Tell them that it’s okay to feel whatever it is that they are feeling. Help them name what they are feeling. Tell them what you are feeling, too, and don’t be afraid to show your emotions.
  • Make sure they understand nothing that has happened is their fault.
  • Tell them what they need to know as clearly and simply as you can. The facts surrounding traumatic events are far better coming from you than from any other source.
  • Limit their exposure to the news and/or adult conversation.
  • Listen to their questions. What they are actually asking is not necessarily what we think they are asking.
  • You are allowed to say that you don’t know or that you don’t understand either. It’s healthy and helpful to let your children know that you don’t have all the answers.
  • Try to maintain as normal a routine as possible. This will help you as well as your children, if some things in an otherwise chaotic time can remain the same.

I am mindful that even now, with a teenager, I need to be careful how we share information about the pandemic, about changes to our daily routines, about my own fears. My son overheard me tell a colleague over the phone that I was brought to tears listening to the mayor of New York City discuss the closing of schools here for at least a month and possibly through the end of the school year. That to do so seems less of a risk to the health and safety of vulnerable students than keeping schools open brought this public health emergency to a whole new level for me. Peter asked me later to unpack my reaction with him. It’s important that I can feel what I feel and not hide it from my family; it’s also important that my son doesn’t take on my anxiety as his own. This recent New York Times article has five helpful suggestions for parents of anxious teens in the age of coronavirus.

Prayer, of course, is a way of giving over to God what we can’t hold by ourselves. We could use the uncertainty of these days as an opportunity to become intentional about prayer, or to simply remember that with intention, anything can become prayer. In that neighborhood walk, we can pause and bring to mind those whose lives touch ours. We can make and send or drop off cards for those we can’t now visit. We can doodle our prayers. If saying grace is something you usually reserve for Thanksgiving dinner, try a mealtime prayer. There’s a wonderful new book by Episcopal priests and school chaplains Jenifer Gamber and Timothy Seamans called Common Prayer for Children and Families with prayers for all occasions, including a short set of devotions for morning, noontime, and evening that are ideal for right now. Illustrated Ministry has special resources for families to download weekly here.

Preteens and teenagers might enjoy making a playlist of music that comforts and inspires them to share with family and friends. In the books we are reading aloud or together, and in the TV shows or movies we are watching as a family, we can ask, “Where is God in this?” And whether or not we actually mention God, the big questions of how we should live are present in almost everything worth watching these days, from Brooklyn 99 to The Good Place, Frozen 2 , The Mandalorian, and Knives Out. Let’s ask the big questions, and listen to what our kids have to say in response.

Please do get outside! Fresh air and sunshine are good for us, and bad for this virus. Many people find God in nature more easily than in church. The word quarantine means forty, and this season of Lent began with the story of Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness. Lent means lengthen, and in these lengthening days for those of us in the Western Hemisphere, signs of spring make us aware of God’s presence and bring us hope. The seasons and the liturgical year are gifts right now, giving us a different way to measure our days.

What are you doing that’s working for your family in this challenging time? What resources would be most helpful to you at home or in your ministry? Please let me know in the comments, or feel free to email me.

God of the present moment,
God who in Jesus stills the storm
and soothes the frantic heart;
bring hope and courage to all
who wait or work in uncertainty.

Bring hope that you will make them the equal
of whatever lies ahead.

Bring them courage to endure what cannot be avoided,
for your will is health and wholeness;
you are God, and we need you.

-Adapted from A New Zealand Prayer Book, p. 765

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

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.

St. Francis of Assisi

One of the most beloved saints of the Middle Ages and now is Francis of Assisi, patron of animals and the environment. Here’s his story to share with your children:

Francis was born in Italy in the twelfth century to a wealthy
family. He loved parties and fine things like the beautiful brocade and silk fabrics his father bought and sold, and he dreamed of adventure. He became a knight and went off to fight, but he was captured and put in prison. After a year, his father paid a ransom and he was freed. Francis knew then that he would not become a cloth merchant like his father. He
found himself in a church that was falling down, and as he prayed, Francis heard God tell him to rebuild it. He sold a bale of his father’s silk to pay for the repairs, which made his father very angry. The bishop told Francis that God would give him what he needed, so Francis gave his father his purse of gold coins—and all the fine clothes Francis was wearing! From that time on,
Francis wore only rough burlap and gave up all his belongings to live among and serve the poor and the sick. Francis followed Jesus in his actions, not just his words, and soon he had followers of his own who wanted to live simply and serve God and others as he did. He took special notice and care of God’s creation. He helped people and animals live together peacefully. One of the stories told about him is that he helped a village make friends with a wolf that had been attacking their animals. Even the birds flocked around him as he told them of God’s love. Some churches hold a blessing of the animals on his feast day, October 4. Francis may even have staged the first Christmas pageant, with real animals to warm the Christ child in the stable. Francis died in the same little church that he rebuilt with his own hands. He still inspires others with his generosity, his joy in God’s creation, and his simple, peaceful ways.

In honor of Francis, your family could make dog biscuits or cat toys to give away in your neighborhood or donate to a local animal shelter. Even toddlers can string Cheerios onto chenille stems that can be fastened into circles and hung on a tree branch to feed the birds. You can also make a bird feeder by spreading peanut or soy butter onto a pinecone or ice cream cone and rolling it in birdseed.

Here’s a fun short video to watch, a simple recipe for dog treats, and my favorite picture book about Francis.

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

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.

Christmas Proclamation

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Christmas Proclamation      

adapted from Roman Martyrology by The Reverend Bruce Jenneker

 

Today, the twenty-fifth day of December,

unknown ages from the time when God created the heavens and the earth

and in the fullness of time formed humankind in God’s image.

From the time when God created the universe, 13 billion years;

From the origin of life on earth, the first living cells, 4 billion years;

From the age of the dinosaurs, 230 million years;

From the time of homo erectus, using tools, 1 million years;

Several thousand years after the flood,

when God made the rainbow shine forth as a sign of the covenant.

Twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah;

thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt.

Eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the Judges;

one thousand years from the anointing of David as king;

in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel.

In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;

the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome.

The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus; the whole world being at peace~

A fanfare sounds.

Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,

desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,

being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and nine months having passed since his conception,

was born in Bethlehem of Judea of Mary, the chosen handmaid of the Lord.

The People shout:

Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth!

 

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.

Meeting God in Others

good-samaritan

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.

Other Religions

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.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents. This post is adapted from Chapter 8, Meeting God in Others.

Image: Gertrud Mueller Nelson