Our Family’s Holy Week Practices

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As a pastor, preparations for church Holy Week services consume a lot of my time and head space right now.  As a mum, we have our own family practices that – because they are annual – we just naturally fall into.  I thought I would share some of our family practices here, in the hopes that you may gain some inspiration for your own home.

Signs and Symbols

Just like we decorate for Christmas, in our household we decorate for the other seasons in the Church Year (especially feast days and holy seasons like Advent, Lent, and Easter-tide).  I like there to be a consonance between the signs and symbols in the church, and the signs and symbols in our home.

We have an alcove that I guess you could call a home “altar” where we decorate for the Church season. Here’s what we have up for Lent:

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homealtar

I’ve collected our “signs and symbols” over the years – mostly from dollar stores and thrift stores, although some of the treasures are ones made by me and the kids.  The art is all pretty much from printable downloads from artists on Etsy.com.  I store our seasonal decorations in bins, just like we do our Christmas decorations.  Now that they are older, the kids help decorate, just like they do at Christmas.

I know my positive, affective associations with Christmas are shaped in part by the sights and smells and sounds I associate with that season.  I hope that in a very humble and gentle way, these signs and symbols from Lent and Holy week will be one more thing that ties our children’s affections to God, in that same way that the Transcendent sometimes impinges upon our consciousness through a piece of choral music, or a stained glass window, or a fiery sunset.

Food and Fellowship

As a child and teenager, I was always fascinated by the Jewish observances around food, and especially the linking of special foods with special Festivals. Once I became Chief Cook in our household, with power and authority over the menu, I began wondering about ways to tie in special foods with special season of the Church Year, noticing all of my own positive associations with special foods at Thanksgiving and at Christmas.

Turns out, there are already many historic associations with the Church year that I simply didn’t know about!

Maundy Thursday

In 10th century England, clergy used to hand out Pax cakes to their parishioners on Palm Sunday as an encouragement to extend peace to one another and to their neighbours.  I have found some traditional recipes, but they are a bit complicated for me.  So this is the one I use:

Pax Cakes Recipe

Beat one egg.
Add and beat until smooth:
1 cup sour milk or buttermilk
2 tablespoons salad oil (salad oil is any vegetable oil)
� cup whole wheat flour
� cup wheat germ
� cup white flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
� teaspoon soda
� salt

Grease a heated skillet or griddle. Pour batter from jug onto the hot griddle in 3 to 5 cm diameter dollops. Turn the pax cakes when bubbles show.

Heat on the second side until brown. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Cinnamon may be added if desired. Makes 30-50 pax cakes.

Variation: Use 1 cup white flour, instead of combining whole wheat flour, wheat germ, and white flour.

Good Friday

On Good Friday, in the morning, we eat hot cross buns.  That is the first day we begin to enjoy them, and then continue eating the buns all through Eastertide.  One legend has it that 12th century English monk dreamed up these delicious treats as a way of honouring Good Friday, with the cross being the obvious symbol.

We also eat fish as our main meal that day.  This dates back to the the old traditions of fasting during Lent, which ranged from some kind of daily fasting, to fasting on certain days of the week, to fasting from meat on Fridays.  In some traditions, the diet for Holy week fasting (ie. one meal a day) was the xerophagiæ, which was a diet of dry food, bread, salt, and vegetables.  Fish was often allowed for the meal, as the fast excluded only flesh meat.

We haven’t practiced any kind of fast as a family, and this is mostly because I haven’t figured out how to meaningfully explain it to our children when they were younger, and because I myself get lightheaded and can’t work well without something for breakfast. But this year, our 12 year old understood the notion of “giving something up” for Lent for first time, as a meaningful spiritual exercise, so we might revisit it next year, and at least extend the practice to Fish Fridays in Lent.

Easter Sunday

A friend of mine taught me how to make pascha bread, and so that has become our Easter morning tradition. Unfortunately, since I leave the house at the crack of dawn, I don’t get to join the family in the meal; but I like that when our kids wake up, there are not just chocolate easter eggs waiting at the table for them, but a meal that is unique to the resurrection celebrations.

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Pascha bread

Lamb, a traditional food for Easter, doesn’t fit our budget, and anyways we are lucky in that my husband’s usually gathers this day, and so cooking is all taken care of.

Simnel cake is another lovely traditional food at Easter if you are baker (which I am not). It has marzipan balls representing the 12 disciples (minus Judas, which I guess makes only 11 marzipan balls!). If I felt equal to the task, we would eat Simnel cake on Easter Sunday or Monday.

Devotions and Worship

We do daily devotions at suppertime and during Lent have been doing the special devotional given out at our church.  But during Holy Week, we enter a special time of family reflections.  We have a Holy Week Egg tree devotional that we use, that I love because of the reflections and the visual reminders is offers:

eggtree

The artist is from Etsy, and is called Jesse Tree Treasures.  This was a birthday gift one year, as it is not cheap.

When the kids were younger, we used Resurrection Easter eggs, for Holy Week, which you can make or buy.

resurrections-eggs21-1024x768

Or, you can simply find a special devotional online to use in the home to mark this special week.  Here’s a simple one I found online this morning.

And, of course, worship with our faith community is an important part of this coming week.  For us, it means Palm Sunday as a family, Good Friday, the Easter Walk on Holy Saturday, and the big party on Easter Sunday.

Usually our kids go down for the kids’ program on Good Friday; just today our eldest asked if she could stay up with the adults.  She’s ready, I think.

Can’t believe how time flies!

Remember: there is no right or wrong way to mark this holy time in your home.  You know your family best!  Be creative.  And have fun with it!

Youth Alpha

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I am currently using Youth Alpha for confirmation classes for a group of eight 12-14 year olds at our church. It’s my first time using it, and I’m impressed.

Here’s what I like so far:

It’s engaging and gets them talking:

No bored kids in this class! The length of each video is about 20-25 minutes, which ends up being about 45 minutes to an hour when you add in discussion.

The production value on these videos is impressive. It’s no longer just talking heads, as in the old adult Alpha series; instead, these videos are visually rich and make use of the most creative styles of image-communication.

Since the videos were made as an evangelistic tool, they assume little to no knowledge of the Christian story. For confirmation classes, given that young people come from all different places spiritually, this is very helpful. Everybody is able to participate.

Following the model of the older Alpha series, Youth Alpha is low-coercion and open to questions. Before each group discussion question, there are interviews with ordinary people giving their perspectives on the question. There are always a range of viewpoints, and that diversity in outlook (ranging from belief to unbelief) creates space in the small group discussion for people to speak their minds.

This is one of the gifts I appreciate most about Youth Alpha. I have never had so much honest conversation with young people in a group setting. Somehow, the videos create room for people to speak the truth about where they are at spiritually, instead of giving the correct ‘religious’ answer. As a pastor, I have gained deep insight into our young people’s lives, and so been better able to engage with their questions. For that I am truly thankful.

youthalpha

It talks about the basics:

Kenda Creasy Dean, in her excellent book Almost Christian, talks about the failure of both Mainline and non-mainline churches to teach the basics of the Christian faith to young people. This, she argues, has led to the concomitant development of unorthodox faith amongst North American young people, which sociologist Christian Smith has dubbed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Dean writes:

We ‘teach’ young people baseball, but we ‘expose’ them to faith…we blithely assume that religious identity will happen by osmosis, emerging ‘when youth are ready’ (a confidence we generally lack when it comes to, say, algebra). We simply have not given teenagers the soul-strength to recognize, wrestle, and resist the symbiotes in our midst, probably because we lack [it] ourselves… Exposing adolescents to faith, as it turns out, is no substitute for teaching it to them.

Youth Alpha provides an excellent resource that helps redress that imbalance.

Here’s a look at the topics they cover off:

Life: Is This It?
Jesus: Who is He?
Cross: Why Did Jesus Die?
Faith: How Can We have Faith?
Prayer: Why and How Do I Pray?
Bible: Why and How Do I Read the Bible?
Follow: How Does God Guide Us Into Full Life?
Spirit: Who Is the Holy Spirit and What Does He Do?
Fill: How Can I Be Filled With the Holy Spirit?
Evil: How Can I Resist Evil?
Healing: Does God Heal Today?
Church: What About the Church and Telling Others?:

It is user-friendly and manageable for small churches & tight budgets:

Once upon a time, when I worked in multi-staff settings, I had time to develop my own curricula. Now, I am a factotum pastor: I am needed everywhere.

Youth Alpha enables me to do (I feel) a good job of confirmation preparation without requiring hours of prep. That means a lot to me, because the kids going through confirmation in our church matter…but my sanity is worth something too.

Plus, did I mention it is free?  No?  It costs exactly zero dollars, so that helps churches with tight budgets. (Of course, donations are welcomed to help under-write future Alpha ventures).

The caveat: It needs tinkering for your context

So obviously, as with every program, you’re not going to love every aspect of the videos. For example, we will not be showing the video session on healing (it is optional). And, you may not agree with every angle taken in the teaching. But you can handle that yourself as the leader, in the discussion portion.

So, for example, one of the questions today took us 20 minutes of energetic discussion to sort through: “How do you feel about the idea that God has a plan for your life?”  We talked about what that even means, this notion of “plan”, and what it doesn’t mean. We talked about human choice, and human responsibility. We talked about a “way of life” as opposed to a “blueprint.” We wondered about suffering, and how that fits in with this notion of God having a plan. We wondered about the scope of freedom. We somehow even ended up talking about sex and the huge pressure on teenage girls to give oral sex.  (Yep. Very revealing conversation, that continued on for awhile with parents and teens after the class officially ended).

There is a new Youth Alpha being developed, although the one currently available is only four years old.

Alpha has been around for so long, some people have developed an allergy to it.  I encourage you to keep an open mind and check it out.  It’s not going to be for everyone, but for those for whom it’s a fit, it is an incredible resource.

For Canadians, you’ll find the videos here:  https://www.alphacanada.org/ayfs/

 

Our Story & the Children’s Talk

childrenstalk

This is the second in a three part series.  Read the first entry here:.

Ivy Beckwith, in her excellent book Formational Children’s Ministry: Shaping Children Using Story, Ritual and Relationship, talks about the importance of not only of sharing God’s Story and the Church’s Story with children, but also telling the story of the local church.

She writes:

“No one can refute that our own stories, our own personal histories, and the way we tell them to others and ourselves shape who we are and how we act. Our memories provide our lives with context. Our histories help us to know who we are and explain ourselves to others. Our histories give us our identities. Because I believe faith communities play a large and important role in the spiritual formation of children and that stories of all kinds have the power to transform, it stands to reason that the particular stories and histories of a child’s faith communities have the power to shape children into children who love God and follow Jesus.” (49)

The children’s talk provides a good forum for sharing these stories.

Anniversaries & Images

Our church is looking ahead to celebrating the 90th anniversary of our foundation and the 40th anniversary of the rebuild after a fire destroyed the original church structure. A good part of our first planning meeting was taken up discussing how we would share these stories with the children and young people in the church. We talked about posting pictures in the entranceway, creating videos, interviewing the seniors who were there in the days before the fire and during the rebuild…Obviously, with these special anniversaries looming, we will have lots of occasions to tell and re-tell our community story.

fire
Photos of the fire that is part of our story.

But the most natural place to engage children with our local church story, on an annual basis at least, is on our parish’s feast day or anniversary Sunday. Again, as we have screens, it is easy for us to display photos from different eras of our church’s past. In other church contexts, it might be more appropriate to print a few, scanned digital images, show them during the children’s talk, and then post them on a bulletin board in a highly visible place where Sunday school meets.

Meet and Greets

I like to do interviews from time to time with members of our church, to allow those who participated in our parish history to tell their story and for members to tell children the story of the unfolding faith and life of our community.

A lot of this is testimony, which is about witnessing to what God has done or is presently doing in our lives. A former Bishop of mine, Philip Poole, used to call these Now Testaments, a term I absolutely adore and have re-purposed in my own context.

Now Testaments provide a powerful reminder that God continues to speak into and act in our world today.

interview (3)
Our caretaker, telling his story.

Because Now Testaments can be on the long-ish side, I tend to put those in between scripture readings once the children have gone down to Sunday school.

But I like our children and teens to hear these stories too, and those I handle in the children’s talk in the form of an interview.  Why an interview?  The interview allows me to control the length and direct the content.

testimonyedit (2)
One of my fave interviews

Let me give a few examples of the kinds of interviews you can do in the Children’s Talk.  When nine of our older children went through our local formational program, I interviewed one of them, asking him to describe the highlights of the course and his accomplishments. He talked about learning to pray and his pride in reading through the Action Bible, from cover to cover. On another occasion, I interviewed a young tween about her decision to ask guests at her birthday party to bring canned for the local food bank in lieu of gifts for herself. She spoke powerfully about God’s call to care for the poor. In another instance, I interviewed our retiring caretaker and he talked about his ministry cleaning and caring for the building. Praying for him, and giving thanks, then made a lot more sense to the children. On still another occasion, when we were talking about praying for the sick, I invited a senior who had been sick in hospital to come forward and tell his story. He talked about what it meant, while he lay in his hospital bed, to know that the church community was praying for him.  (He was still very frail that day, so we had him sit for the interview. In a totally unscripted but melt-worthy moment, one of the shyest kids in Sunday school spontaneously came over and climbed onto his lap, sitting quietly there right through the whole interview).

Again, I cannot tell you in any statistical way what real impact this is having on kids’ lives. There is always a mix of kids paying close attention, kids poking their neighbour, kids looking bored to tears. In short, kids being kids! But I keep plugging away at it, because there is plenty of research that confirms the importance of mentoring in the faith formation of children and teens.

As Beckwith says: “When kids meet people who talk about their stories of faith, how God works in their lives, and how they live out their faith every day, they have models for their own faith development. They see people other than their immediate family, who make positive choices about loving God and living in the way of Jesus.” (53)

Church Story & The Children’s Talk

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I’m going to be honest: I have mixed feelings about the Sunday morning children’s talk. On the one hand, I have low hopes for it as a significant formational moment for either children or adults. On the other, I value the place of children in worship, and support the notion of creating identifiable space and time for our little ones in gathered worship.

So how do you make the most of the children’s talk as a teaching opportunity?

Story and the Children’s Talk

Ivy Beckwith’s book, Formational Children’s Ministry, is one that has helped me with creative and research-based approaches to the children’s talk. One of Beckwith’s emphases is the importance of story in the spiritual formation of children, an insight that research in the field of psychology confirms.

Now, when we think of “story” and “children’s talk”, our minds go immediately to the biblical narrative, which is right and appropriate. Connecting children with God’s story is most important. But sometimes the gospel reading doesn’t lend itself to a simple children’s talk. Or maybe there is a special feast day being celebrated in worship – All Saints, say – and you want to somehow draw the children into conversation with that communal moment.

This is an opportunity to draw children into the Church’s Story.

Beckwith writes:

“Knowing the stories from church history is an important piece of the positive spiritual formation of our children. Helping children understand they are part of a movement that has been alive for more than two thousand years in places all around the world is an important part of their spiritual development and spiritual memory. Helping children meet and know the characters from church history who have followed Jesus in harrowing, life-threatening, and life-ending situations is a way to begin to capture their imagination for what it means to be a person who loves God and follow Jesus no matter what the cost. These brave and faithful men and women are great models for our children of what living according to Kingdom values looks like.” (41)

In my own ministry, I tell the Church’s Story during the Children’s Talk about once every four to six weeks. So for example, in January, I told the story of Martin Luther King Jr. on MLK Sunday. In February, we celebrated Black History month, and I told the story of Harriet Tubman. This coming Sunday, with St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, I will talk about St. Patrick and his desire for people to learn about Jesus. In June, when we mark the National Aboriginal Day of prayer, I may talk about St. Kateri. And so on.

There is some work involved in incorporating the Church’s Story into your children’s talk.

First, I do a bit of research about the person I am presenting, and ask myself: What good example of the life of faith does this person offer, in particular?  Next, I sort out what part of their story I will tell, in a way that is brief and simple enough for children to understand. Then, I look for photos or portraits so that the children can capture of visual image of the person being discussed. I’m lucky to be in a context with screens, so I can easily project the photos so everyone in the congregation can see. (For those without screens, another possibility is to print an image, although I realize that introduces additional cost and hassles. Posting the image somewhere in the entrance to the church means that adults will have a chance to at least glance at the image, before and after service.)

At the end of the Children’s Talk, I give thanks to God for the life of the person we have remembered, and ask God to help us, like them, grow in… [insert the commendable quality being held up.]

How is it working in my parish? Honestly, I haven’t heard any feedback on these Church Story moments, either positive or negative. But I keep plugging away at it, because I know that the witness of the lives of fellow believers is a source of encouragement and hope to children and adults alike. As Beckwith says: “Familiarity with the history of the church helps [us] to see that the work of God in the world did not end with the last page of the Bible. Having an understanding of the history of the church…helps [us] see the continued work of God over the centuries and assures [us] that God’s will continue through [us] as well.”

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee

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This book came recommended to me by my friend Tiffany Robinson, and it has in turn become one of my top suggestions to mums and dads looking for parenting books and for colleagues looking for resources for parenting small groups.

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The author, Dr. Wendy Mogel, is an American clinical psychologist and internationally renowned writer and speaker on parenting. She also has an interesting story of faith.

Although Mogel’s parents were Jewish, they did not raise her in the tradition. Mogel discovered Judaism later in adulthood, when a friend invited her to a children’s Rosh Hashanah service. She went to the service thinking of herself as a cultural anthropologist, but left with “something stirred inside me.” That brief outing marked the first step in a journey that eventually led to her embrace of the Jewish faith.

The book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, is the product of her experience as a clinical psychologist and her discovery of the wisdom of the Jewish tradition, with much of the content drawn from years of teaching a Jewish parenting class at her Temple.

Mogel believes that the Torah speaks powerfully into a milieu where parents wrestle against a consumeristic and individualistic culture,  and where children are reared in a performance-oriented and anxiety-producing environment. She writes:

Judaism provides a very different kind of perspective on parenting. By sanctifying the most mundane aspects of the here and now, it teaches us that there is greatness not just in grand and glorious achievements but in our small, everyday efforts and deeds. Judaism shows us that we don’t have to be swallowed up by our frenzied, materialistic world – we can take what is valuable from it without being wholly consumed.

Three cornerstone principles of Jewish living are moderation, celebration and sanctification Through these principles we can achieve a balanced life, no matter what culture we happen to inhabit…By applying them to our family life, my husband, my children, and I have found some mooring and meaning in an unsteady world. In my professional life, I’ve seen families transformed by this new perspective on their problem in living. (34)

That quote is from the opening chapter, and in the rest of the book she delivers on her promise of a parenting approach that is both liberating and commonsense.

The table of contents offers a good picture of the kind of topics she tackles:

Capture

She touches on everything from picky-eaters to chores to discipline problems to the futility of pious lectures, to teaching children to manage boring or frightening conversations with adults, to helping your child manage their yetzer hara.  [I know.  I had never heard of yetzer hara, either. You’ll have to read the book to find out.]

As a parent, I loved this book. (I say this as the kind of person who reads a book every time she faces a parenting dilemma she has no idea how to handle. So, I’ve read a lot of parenting books.) This is one of the few parenting resources I’ve read that didn’t make me feel more inadequate or more burdened than when I started it. Hopeful, is how I would describe my mood when I finished the final chapter.

As a pastor, you can see the possibilities.  Mogel not only offers excellent clinical advice, she ties it with the Torah, modeling a way of applying the wisdom of holy scriptures to daily living. For pastors wanting a resource for a parenting small group, this book helps lay people connect their parenting with their faith.

The other bonus: the book comes with a parents’ discussion guide.  As a pastor, you don’t even have to build the questions.

My only caveat, as a pastor: not everyone loves to read.  In a large church, this is no big-deal, since if you advertise a book study, people will self select. But in a small or mid-size church, you may not have tons of families. Your small group may well be all the families in your church!  Odds are, not all those parents will love to read, or have time to read.

I have gotten around this in the past by going through a summary each week of the content of the chapter, so that people get the nuts and bolts of what Mogel discussed. The discussion questions are broad enough that everyone can still participate, but…it’s imperfect.

I had summary notes on my old laptop that died; sometime in the next year I will take time to dig around for them, and if I find them, I will post them here.

Helping families celebrate Lent: Ready resources for busy pastors

celebratingseasons2We’re heading into the season of Lent. In the Church world, this usually means a menu of adult education options and special preaching series.

But what about families?  How do we encourage parents to keep a holy Lent in their homes?

When I worked as associate in Family Ministries, I always made sure we had special seasonal events for families. We gathered over a meal – usually on a Sunday – bringing all the generations together. After a short time of teaching, families then worked together on assembling a take-home project. The idea was they would work on the devotional or service project as a family during the Holy Season. The projects weren’t wildly original (think Advent Wreaths, Lenten Trees, Prayer projects and so on) but they did offer a resource and a reminder to parents that hey, we should be doing this seasonal journey with our kids, too.  

But maybe you are not on a multi-staff team, or you serve in a small church. Your volunteers are few, your time limited.

You can still do something.

Creative Communications is my go-to resource for affordable take-home activities for families when a special seasonal family event just isn’t in the cards. It does take planning as you have to order far enough in advance to ensure the resources arrive at your doorstep in time. Nevertheless it is a do-able undertaking for the pastor of a small parish.

We have a good amount of kids in our little church, but my portfolio is large and our volunteers stretched thin. We can’t do it all, but we are doing this much: tomorrow, every family is looking forward to receiving a take-home resource for Lent.

You can find them here:  http://www.creativecommunications.com/

(And no, I didn’t get paid to write this recommendation!)

EDITED TO ADD: shipping costs add up.  I tend to order Advent, Lent and any other resources for feast days at the same time.  If you only have a a couple of families in your church, it may be worth doing a joint order with other local churches to spread the pain of shipping expenses.