I met Bryan almost exactly a year ago when a dear friend and colleague posted on social media looking for resources for a middle schooler who was (understandably) “angry with God for not ‘taking care of things; a little faster – and why God allows us to keep screwing things up.” I commented that I definitely wanted someone to write a “theodicy for progressive Christian kids” book, Bryan responded, we had a great time working on it, and Bad Things, Good People, and God: A Guide for Teensis now available wherever books are sold.
Bryan is the author of four young adult novels including We’ll Fly Away (long-listed for the 2018 National Book Award) and Thoughts & Prayers. He’s also a former youth minister and curriculum designer, a parent, a theologian, and in the process of becoming an Episcopal priest. So, really, he’s the perfect person to write this particular book — a thoughtful, provocative, and humorous exploration of a serious, weighty, and ancient topic: why bad things happen, how God is involved, why it matters to us, and what we can do about it.
Bad Things, Good People and God takes on Bible stories, big ideas, and theologians and issues both historical and contemporary. It’s honest and fresh. What I love most about this book is that it empowers youth to construct and claim their own theodicies:
Let’s take a deep breath.
Just because there isn’t an easy answer (any answer?) to the problem of evil—why bad things happen—doesn’t mean we need to live in a state of constant anxiety or dread. It is not an overstatement to say this is the biggest question of faith. It’s also a question that all of us must wrestle with, cobble together some semblance of an answer, and claim our place as theologians in the world.
Because what you have to say matters. Your theology matters. Your view of the world reveals another glimmer of truth—some small answer—to these big questions.
Ultimately, these challenging questions can’t be neatly answered once and for all, but we — and our faith — are stronger for wrestling with them. I’m grateful for Bryan’s wisdom and wisecracks, and the passion he has for diving deep into the messiness of life with God and the rest of us.
I was having a really bad week, as was our country, and my anger was spilling over into everyday life, when my husband suggested the perfect antidote: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
This documentary about Fred Rogers, the most unlikely television evangelist of his or any day, was balm for my soul. And then our bathroom ceiling collapsed. No, really. While my husband was in the shower. Perhaps it would have been different if it happened while I was washing my hair, but it’s 18 hours later and I am still smiling. Mr. Rogers was just what I needed. I believe Mr. Rogers is just what we all need.
Watching (visiting?) Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helped children communicate, to express even difficult emotions, and to resolve conflict peaceably. However, Mr. Rogers was not only kind and gentle, he was also radical and subversive. In 1968-69, the very first season of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the show helped children cope with the Vietnam War and the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and promoted racial integration.
In every episode, Mr. Rogers spoke directly to children to tell them they were special, they were loved, just they way they were. Inherent in his message, of course, is that everyone we meet is equally special and beloved. That is as radical today as it was fifty years ago and two thousand years ago. “Who is my neighbor?”
I read that during the filming of the documentary, director Morgan Neville’s mother died suddenly, and throughout the process, discovering “the better angels of people’s natures, the best that we could be” was for Neville “the best form of grief therapy I could possibly have had.” Keep looking for those angels, friends. As Mr. Rogers reminds us,
From the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving. So, on this extra special day, let’s take some time to think of those extra special people. Some of them may be right here, some may be far away. Some may even be in heaven. No matter where they are, deep down you know they’ve always wanted what was best for you. They’ve always cared about you beyond measure and have encouraged you to be true to the best within you. Let’s just take a minute of silence to think about those people now.
We can not only think about those people, we can be people who love others into loving.
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 during the night, someone had hung big red tag-board hearts decorated with glitter and shiny stickers that caught the light from a branch on every tree on our block. Even though they were not meant for me personally, those valentines made me feel loved. Read one of my all-time favorite books, Somebody Loves You, Mr. 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 colorful hearts in sidewalk chalk that will remind people of the conversation hearts we gave each other in grade school. I want to do that along my route to the subway.
Loveby Matt de la Peña with illustrations by Loren Long is a picture book for all ages about the nuances of this feeling, this bond, this force. You need to read with your children at home or at church now. Read the Brightly review here.
Every so often, Valentine’s Day is also Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. I never give up chocolate for Lent; it makes me not a kind person, so I see it as counter-productive. My friend Laura Alary writes beautifully about the confluence in this article; and if you are a Lent-observing family, you definitely need her book, Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter. For me, the cross of ashes I receive on my forehead on Ash Wednesday is intimately connected with the cross of oil we receive in the same spot at our baptism. Here’s the heart of it: From Love we come, and to Love we return.
We need more love, but it doesn’t always have to be extravagant. Even if you are having a simple evening meal, you could set the table with candles, flowers and the fancy china. Print out the Christian valentines from blogger Angie Kauffman and put one at each place setting. She has several different sets, so it’s easy to choose the ones best suited to your family. Take time for each person to share what they love most about the others around the table. Let this be the night you decide how your family will show God’s love in action during Lent. Will you visit a seniors’ center, help out at an animal shelter or community food pantry, clean up a public park, make treats for the volunteer fire station?
Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.
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.
The 8 foot tree stands in the living room of our tiny, messy apartment and we step carefully around it to get into the bedrooms. 90% of the ornaments were already on it when I discovered two extra strands of lights that I put aside last year when we more sensibly had a 4 foot tree. I have done almost no shopping at this point, and I’m not sure yet whether I will have a full day off work between now and December 25.
If you are feeling behind and not quite in the spirit of the season, take a deep breath. Remember that Christmas is about love. Take another deep breath. What really matters will get done, and what’s not essential can be put aside. In our family we take full advantage of knowing that there are twelve days of Christmas, and the first day is Christmas Day. That’s right–just when everyone else thinks Christmas is over, we are just beginning to celebrate. December 26 is always pajama day, our holiday party is the Saturday after Christmas, and some years the cookie baking waits until then, too. We go ice-skating, have a picnic underneath the tree, and it’s often the best time to find tickets to The Nutcracker.
Since I work full time in a church, and my son sings in the choir of another church, we spend a lot of time in church in December. Christmas Eve is when churches are at their very best. The colors on the altar and vestments worn by the clergy are white for joy and gold for celebration. Go, see the baby lying in a manger (if there isn’t a pageant, there surely will be a crèche), sing the angels’ song of peace, and expect that your children will want to tell the story over and over again when you get home. You may have a beautiful crèche or nativity set that you will not want your kids to play with, so–if you can–get another that’s sturdy or unbreakable. It’s worth it. The story of Christmas is one with great power over our hearts and imaginations, and it’s natural that we want to get our hands on it.
Speaking of crèches, a wonderful picture book to add to your library is That Baby in the Mangerby Anne Neuberger with delightful illustrations by Chloe Pitkoff. This contemporary Christmas story has a clear message of diversity and inclusion, reminding us that God’s love embodied in Jesus is for all people.
Holidayshold extra joy. The holidays of my childhood which shine so brightly in my memory were spent at my grandparents’ home and everyone around the table was family, every dish was delicious, and while I know it’s not true that no one ever argued, what I remember is how much love I felt.
For most of my adult life I have lived far from my family. However, holidays have been no less joyful. Now we most often spend Christmas Day and Easter Day with our friends Kathy and Greg, whose table seems to grow larger every year. Kathy says she inherited this tradition from her mother, Eileen. “We never lived near family as my dad was a military officer and my mom is from England. So our family was theneighborhood, military base, or community we lived in. My mom had an open door policy and invited neighbors, friends and most especially anyone who didn’t have a place to go.” Greg recalls that after college, when his immediate family had moved away from the Northeast, he was taken in, “given a place at the table” for holiday meals and “made to feel like family. It gave me a deep appreciation for there being people who don’t have family close by and face experiencing ‘gathering’ events on their own. What’s the price of a bit more food or a tighter squeeze around the table compared with the warmth and joy an open door can bring?”
Guests are invited to bring a favorite dish, but of course no one has to bring a thing. Kathy, who is a wonderful cook, says, “The food is important, but in the end it’s about who is gathered at our table and that they come and join us. I always think that the absolute best gift is someone’s presence.”
Do you ever find gifts after the 25th that you had hidden away and forgotten, or am I the only one who does that? This is helpful ifyou haven’t already saved a gift for each person to open on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, when we remember the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus. This part of the story is one that bears closer attention. Though in most Christmas pageants, three kings arrive just after the shepherds bearing gifts for the baby, that’s not what the Bible actually says. Read the story in Matthew’s gospel (1:18–2:7) and wonder: What’s up with those gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Gold honors Jesus as king, frankincense lifts our prayers to heaven and signifies his divinity, myrrh was anciently used to anoint the dead and acknowledges Jesus as fully human. Your family may want to honor the Holy Child in a more practical way: collect some gently used baby clothes, new diapers, and formula to take to a women’s shelter, or babysit for a friend, offering a much-needed break to the parent and some insight to what it means that God came to us not just in human form, but as a baby, born helpless and dependent as all babies are, to a poor family in a troubled place.
The Church for centuries has observed the feasts of saints on the day of their death. In this case, however, let’s remember and honor the life and ministry of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when our nation does, on the Monday closest to his birthday, January 15. What our kids learn about him in public school isn’t enough: his Christian faith and his calling compelled Dr. King to make civil rights his life’s work.
The lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures appointed for his feast day is taken from the story of Joseph with the coat of many colors, whose brothers were jealous of him and decided to get rid of him. Eventually, they sold him into slavery, but Joseph became a powerful leader in Egypt. Pharaoh, Egypt’s king, believed Joseph’s dreams and because of that, Joseph was able to save the Egyptians and even his own brothers from a terrible famine. It is taken from Genesis 37:17–20:
They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
Read or listen to the “I Have a Dream” speech, beginning at the line, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”Continue to the end of the speech. Talk as a family about Dr. King’s dream, and how it has continued after his death.
Families with young children could try beginning this conversation with a brown egg and a white egg. Crack the eggs into the bowl one at a time. No matter what we look like on the outside, inside we are the same. Dr. King’s most famous speech is about his dream that everyone will one day live the way God wants us to live, treating each other fairly and with love, no matter the color of our skin or how different we might be. Read this quote: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” What we have inside us is the most important part of us. Talk together about what we dream of doing to make the world a better (more peaceful, just) place. Read the excellent picture book God’s Dream by Desmond Tutu.
Parents, we are our children’s primary pastors. Decades of research show that the faith and values our children carry with them into adulthood are largely taught at home. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. made a point of serious conversation around the dinner table every night, telling his young children about the injustices he encountered as a black man in the South in the 1920s and 30s, and how he confronted them. Years later, his daughter wrote, “These stories were as nourishing as the food that was set before us.” We can imagine how these stories inspired his son. The stories we tell from the day’s news, the office, the classroom or the playground give us the opportunity to reflect on where God is in them, and where God is calling us to be.
In 2018 at March for Our Lives, we heard Dr. King’s nine-year-old granddaughter Yolanda Renee King tell people across the nation about her dream. One of my favorite quotes of Dr. King’s is this: “Life’s most important and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'” We share our stories, our dreams, to help us live the answers to that question.
This post is adapted from my lesson plan. A Godly Play story about Dr. King is also available as a free download. If you are new to the process of talking about race with your children, here are some helpful resources.