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.

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.

Christmas morning

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

As I rush around preparing, I am singing this lovely carol under my breath, reminding myself of why I am doing all of this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Morning Eggnog French Toast (prepared the night before)

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

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

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

The Christmas Eve worship services (including the pageant at 9:15 am on Advent 4, and the giant puppet nativity parade on Christmas Eve at 3 pm) at Trinity Church Wall Street will be webcast live and available on demand here.

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

Giving thanks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Quakers have a very simple said grace:

Us and this, God bless.

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

Here is my go-to grace:

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

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

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

  • Here’s my favorite book for Thanksgiving, The Greatest Table by Michael Rosen, newly reissued with illustrations by Becca Stadtlander.
  • Kids can make these adorable thank-you cards over the long weekend, just in time for the gift-giving season.
  • Now you can preorder this lovely book, Common Prayer for Children and Families by Jenifer Gamber and Timothy Seamans, which includes table graces and prayers for expressing gratitude throughout the day and year. 

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents, from which this post is adapted.