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Someone You Should Know: A Conversation With Laura Alary about Atonement Theology and Making Room During Lent

Make Room: A Child’s Guide for Lent and Easter is a primer on Lent and Easter for young children. It’s part poetry, part practice and part storytelling. It’s divided up into four parts, making time, making space, making room and Holy Week.  It describes difficult concepts such as sacrifice and emptying in ways that are friendly and appropriate to children. I noticed it when I was looking at Lenten Resources that might be appropriate for my family and for families who appreciate the type of children’s ministry resources I share on Treasure Box Tuesdays, and so I asked Paraclete Press if I could take a look. I fell in love with it, instantly. Paraclete was also kind enough to put me in touch with the author, Laura Alary, who graciously agreed to drop by my virtual office here and chat about her book. I’m really excited! 

Traci: Laura, thank you so much for chatting with me about your book. When I approached you about how much I loved it, I started to get nervous about how much I was gushing about it, but that’s mainly because I just love this book so much! You assured me I could feel free to gush away, so here I go: I love your book a WHOLE LOT. Here’s an example of the type of writing I love: 

This is how to make space:

If you have done wrong,

tell God you are sorry.

Sweep your heart clean and start fresh.

Be kind to all people,

not just the ones who like you.

Open your heart wide

If someone hurts you

ask God to help you forgive.

Do not store up angry thoughts.

Let them go.

 

Make space inside for better things.

Share so that everyone has enough.

If you have two coats

give one to someone who has none.

Why clutter up your life with more than you can use?

Make space for what really matters. (p. 14 & 15) 

 

Traci: I think what I love about it is that it’s profound enough for adults to feel spiritually challenged, but yet simple enough to touch the hearts of little ones. It’s also so beautifully poetic. What was your vision for this book? What inspired you to write it? 

Laura: Thank you for such lovely and supportive comments, Traci. Children deserve writing that has real depth. My challenge is always to distil big ideas into a simpler form that retains their essence, but uses language and imagery that children can grasp. Although children are my primary audience, I am always glad when I hear adults say they feel fed by my books too.

I wrote Make Room because I was looking for resources to help me guide my own children through the season of Lent, but was not satisfied with what I found. Some books focused so exclusively on the death of Jesus that his life and ministry seemed like an insignificant prelude. Others put forth particular theological interpretations of the death of Jesus that I found troubling (more on that later). A few were disturbingly graphic in their portrayal of the crucifixion. I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted, but could not seem to find it. That was my cue to start writing.

My own experience of Lent was always characterized by limits and restrictions. The whole season was dominated by death, suffering, and renunciation. To be honest, as a child I found Lent quite scary, especially the notion of having to lay down my life—to renounce my self—in order to follow Jesus. Whether this was actually what I was taught, or whether I just interpreted it this way, I saw this as a call to obliterate my own identity and give up all the things I enjoyed and was good at. This made me both frightened and resentful. By the time I had children of my own, I was determined to introduce them to this season in a more constructive way.

One year we were experimenting with different ways of praying, and I came upon the book Praying in Color by Sybil McBeth. When I tried it with my three young children I was really amazed at how absorbed they became in their prayers. They had lost themselves in the best possible way. For the first time it dawned on me that losing yourself is not necessarily about death; it is also about love, and transcending self-centredness. That was the genesis of my new perspective on Lent.

The more I pondered the biblical texts for the season, the more I noticed the quality of space. This is epitomized in the story of Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus goes out into the desert to get away from clutter and distraction and to open himself to guidance about his identity and direction. But the same theme is evident throughout his ministry. The way he chooses is all about making space for others—especially those considered outsiders. He makes the circle bigger in so many ways. His whole life is characterized by generosity and self-emptying—he does not cling to anything. This same pattern is revealed vividly in his death.

This integrated view of the life and death of Jesus made a lot of sense to me. And I thought it also offered a pattern for others (including children) to follow. I started to think about Lent in terms of transformation—consciously imitating Christ and cultivating those qualities of generosity, hospitality, openness, trust, and self-giving.

Along the way, I wrote another book about non-clinging. Jesse’s Surprise Gift is about a little boy who keeps crossing paths with people in need and having to decide whether to hold on to what he has, or take the risk of letting go of it to help someone else. It’s a simple story, but it helped clarify my thinking and prepare me to write Make Room.

In a nutshell, my aim in this book was to present a positive view of Lent as a time of transformation, and to invite children into the meaningful work of following and imitating Christ.

Traci: If I’m understanding your publication date correctly, this is only the second Lent/Easter that the book has been around. What feedback did you get last year about how people were using it and what they enjoyed most about it? 

That’s right. Last year was it’s first year and the response was very positive.

It’s a strange sensation to send a book out into the world, not knowing how it will be received. So it means a lot to me when people let me know how they used it. One person shared with me how she used the book as the basis for an intergenerational service for Shrove Tuesday/Ash Wednesday. She wove together passages from the book, congregational responses, and some symbolic actions, and created a very meaningful worship service.

One comment I hear frequently is that although the book is written in simple language, it is not simplistic. There is real depth to it, which means it can be shared with children, but still offer something nourishing for adults. I suppose that’s why it works well in contexts involving all ages.

Speaking of intergenerational worship, I have written a similar book about Advent (Look! A Child’s Guide to Advent and Christmas). This past year I turned it into a script for our congregational Christmas Play. I have toyed with the idea of doing something similar with Make Room and presenting it in the weeks leading up to Easter. There are all sorts of possibilities!

Traci: I intend to use this book with my own family this year during Lent. My children are 6, 5 and 1 — right in the target age for this book, I think. What suggestions do you have for how to use it? Is it the sort of book that parents read with their children in one whole chunk, or do they read a little bit each night? 

The structure of the book offers many options for reading. As you described earlier, the book is divided into four main sections: Making Time, Making Space, Making Room, and Holy Week. The first three sections are my interpretations of the traditional Lenten triad of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. But the book also consists of two intertwined narratives: elements of the story of Jesus; and a first-person account of walking through Lent from the perspective of a child.

So, you could read one section at a time, and talk about the particular theme developed there. Or you could read each narrative as a distinct story. I have to say, though, I think the back-and-forth quality of moving from scripture to contemporary observance sends an important message. It roots our Lenten practices in the story of Jesus and encourages conversation and reflection.

I have, on different occasions, read the entire book aloud at once. But it takes at least fifteen minutes and is a lot for young children to process. I would recommend taking it in smaller bites and wondering together about each section as you read.

Traci: One of my own frustrations with Lenten resources for young children is the way in which they deal with the death of Jesus in inappropriate ways. Not only does your book have very simple visuals for this, but the wording is simple as well. Truthful, but not lingering on violent details. It says, 

On Friday we come to church again.

We hear how people who did not like Jesus came

and carried him away.

They made fun of him, bullied him, hurt him.

They took everything from him, even his clothes.

They nailed him to a cross.

Jesus died.

As we listen to this story

everything around us changes.

The candles on the altar are snuffed out one by one.

Darkness creeps in.

All the colors are carried away.

The cross is draped in black.

The church is not dressed in purple anymore.

It is bare and sad and full of shadows.

Outside on the street I hear people laughing and talking.

It seems wrong.

Don’t they know what has happened to Jesus?

Traci: Tell us a little about your view on violence and the cross. Was the decision to be simple and understated with these details a deliberate one? How did you handle deciding how much detail to go into? 

Laura: Ah. Good question. I could go on at length about this.

Yes, I was very intentional about keeping this part of the story as spare as possible. I wanted the elements of the biblical narrative to stand alone with minimal interpretation. Jesus died. I don’t say why, or how, or for what purpose. It is powerful enough to state the fact simply and let the reality of it sink in. Ann’s artwork helps. It is sombre and simple.

So many books for children impose a specific theological framework on the death of Jesus. Many of the books I looked at used the language of substitution (Jesus suffered and died for us, or in our place). While this is certainly one way of understanding the death of Jesus, it is not the only way. Furthermore, as I see it, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is fraught with problems, not least of which is its assumption that violence and punishment—in particular the punishment of an innocent victim—are necessary to salvation.

I remember as a seven-year-old protesting to my Pioneer Girl group leader, “But that’s not fair! Why couldn’t God just forgive people? That’s what Jesus taught us to do!” Although many years of study have allowed me to articulate my concerns in more sophisticated language, the heart of problem remains much the same.

The claim that suffering serves a redemptive purpose is complex. Who can fully comprehend such a mystery? To offer children a facile explanation of how the cross “works” feels false to me. I would rather follow the lead of the biblical writers and tell the story as a drama, rather than a work of systematic theology.

I wanted to draw the children into an emotional experience of Good Friday. At the time, no one comprehended these events intellectually; they just experienced them in all their terrible mystery. When I think back to the Good Friday services I attended as a child, what stands out in my memory are sense impressions: the gathering darkness as the sanctuary lights were turned out one by one, the ominous rumbling of the biggest organ pipes as the last words from the cross were read aloud. My intention was to pull children into the pre-Easter experience of the disciples and allow them to feel the shock, sadness, emptiness, and confusion. This is more powerful than moving too quickly to the post-Easter task of trying to interpret and find meaning in these events.

Some readers appreciate this open-endedness. Others think I have really strayed from the path. A few of the online reviews are quite negative about this specifically. Some readers come to the book wanting a very specific interpretation of the death of Jesus and they are not hearing it. But I am content to disagree. The most important thing for me to convey is that God is a God of love, not violence or retribution. Personally, I see the death of Jesus as an embodiment of that love—a love that shocks and disturbs and stirs opposition.

And really, when it comes to doctrines (plural) of atonement, there is no single monolithic orthodoxy. Even within the New Testament itself, there are many different interpretations of the cross and they are just that—interpretations.

So I choose to let the story stand on its own.

Traci: I am just nodding my head like crazy to read what you wrote about the atonement and children. I believe this with 100% of my being and am also writing about it. We need to re-evaluate the way we present the atonement to children (and adults for that matter.) We are absolutely on the same page in that, and I think it’s one of the reasons your book resonates with me so profoundly. I love so many different portions of your book. Do you have a favorite passage? 

Laura: I have a few favourite passages.

I quite like the opening description of the earth slumbering and seeds and bulbs “dreaming in shades of green.” A few people have commented that they don’t like this because it connects Lent too tightly with a particular part of the world (that is, places where the transition from winter to spring is taking place). But I need to write what I know, and for me, it has always been very meaningful to feel the natural world waking up and coming back to life as Easter approaches.

I have always believed that the shortest route to the universal is the particular, so it is my hope that people in different places and different climates will use the “strangeness” of this description as a catalyst to think about how the sights and smells of the natural world in their own places inform their experience of the Lenten season. I’m sure there are different messages to be heard, and I would love to know what they are.

(By the way, my book about Advent is similarly rooted in a northern setting, so if this bothers anyone, be duly warned )

Another one of my favourite parts is one of the lines you quoted: “Outside on the street I hear people laughing and talking. It seems wrong. Don’t they know what has happened to Jesus?” I think the simple question (“Don’t they know what has happened to Jesus?”) captures the natural empathy of children. It also reminds us of the raw grief of those first disciples.

When I wrote those lines I had in mind the strange dissonance I feel whenever I walk out of the solemnity of a Good Friday service into a bustling world full of people going about their business as usual. But I was also thinking about the experience of being in a state of anxiety or grief and feeling a sense of incredulity—even indignation or resentment—that other people are having perfectly ordinary days.

Strangely enough, as I jot down these words, I am sitting in a hospital waiting room, one eye on the clock, while my fourteen year-old son has surgery. All around me other families are living our their own private dramas. But outside this building, the streets are bustling with people for whom this is simply another Sunday night. So I guess that phrase in the book has particular resonance for me in this moment.

One final favourite bit is the line which speaks of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples: “That is who Jesus is. He pours himself out like water from a pitcher. He touches what is dirty and hurting and makes it clean and whole.” If I do say so myself, I think this is a very simple yet vivid depiction of the identity and work of Jesus (healing, cleansing, forgiving, loving) that broadens the idea of sacrifice beyond his death. This is what I mean by an integrated portrait of the life of Jesus. We are used to speaking of his death as a sacrifice, but his entire life and ministry was sacrificial—an outpouring and an offering of love.

Traci: I’m endlessly fascinated with beautiful illustration, and the illustrations in your book are fantastic. Tell us about your collaboration with the illustrator and how it worked? 

The relationship between author and illustrator is a bit like an arranged marriage. We don’t choose each other; rather, we trust in the wisdom of the publisher to make a match that will work!

I was familiar with Ann’s work from a book on Centering Prayer she had already illustrated for Paraclete Press (Journey to the Heart by Frank Jelenek). There is a very calm and restful quality to her painting that suits my writing style. Ann had a few specific questions for me (like “what do ‘pretzel arms’ actually look like?”) but most of her communication was with the fine people at Paraclete Press.

I think Ann’s work is stunning. I was particularly delighted with the cover. I had simply assumed it would be purple, and instead it turned out to be this vivid spring green—one of my favourite shades. I thought it was a brilliant way to capture the emphasis on growth and transformation that is so essential to the book. I love it.

Traci: Where can readers go to learn more about you and your work? 

I have a personal website (www.lauraalary.ca) where I post descriptions of my books, guest blog posts, reviews, articles, and news items. This is the best place to get a taste of what I write. There is also a brief biography on the website.

I also have an author Facebook page (Laura Alary, Author) and always welcome “likes” and new followers.

My next big project is the publication of a children’s bible: Read. Wonder. Listen. Stories from the Bible for Young Readers will be published very soon by Wood Lake Books. I expect it will be ready to ship by April. It has been a labour of love for me and I am very excited about it!

Traci: Me too! Sounds fantastic, and I can’t wait to read it. Congratulations on Make Room, and thank you so much for stopping by my virtual living room to chat a little about it!  

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing a review copy of this amazing book. I review and share only products that I love and believe in, and this one is WAY high on the list. Goodness. So good. All links in this post are affiliate links which means that I receive a small commission for products purchased through them. All proceeds cover hosting and other costs for www.traci-smith.com. Happy shopping!

 

 

Children at the Table: Some Thoughts on Communion and Children

I can’t imagine communion without children being present, partaking in the sacrament right alongside adults. I’m always taken aback, then, when I hear of people or churches requiring communion be reserved for children of a certain age, or for children who have completed some “to do” on the checklist, such as a public profession of faith or catechism class. The Lord’s Supper is a community celebration and it is a place where God’s grace is revealed.  If you or your congregation is wrestling with this, I invite you to consider the following:

Communion is the joyful feast of the people of God, and children understand it as such. 

 I recently had the opportunity to serve communion to a group of children, and the joy they had in receiving the elements was palpable. They sprinted up, tore the bread and happily ate, some of them laughing with excitement. Did their joy dilute the sanctity of the moment? Not at all. In fact, it added to the holiness. Many times adults come to the table with sad or somber faces out of the concern that one must be reverent at the table. I agree that the table should be approached with reverence, but reverence and solemnity are not  the same thing at all. There is such a thing as joyful reverence, and children understand this intuitively. Children, if given the opportunity, don’t grab a tiny square of bread, they tear off a large chunk. Where is it written that the communion bread must be consumed in one, tiny, disintegrating bite?

The communion feast is a symbol of our shared unity and faith. Denying children the elements sends the message that they are not a part of our community.

What kind of message does it send to children when the bread and the cup pass them by? I think the thought of those who elect to have children wait until they’re confirmed or older goes something like this: communion is a serious sign of faith that should not be entered into lightly. Those who partake of it must come to the table having examined its true meaning and understanding its significance. Not only do I think this argument is theologically flawed (more on that in a minute), I think those who offer it as a reason for excluding children from the table underestimate the value in passing on faith to very young children through this important ritual.

I often turn to the important work of James Fowler in Stages of Faith as a guide for understanding how children perceive the actions of the faith community. Fowler says that children in the first stage of faith, are in the “fantasy filled, imitative phase in which the child can be powerfully and permanently influenced by examples, moods, actions and stories of the visible faith of primally related adults.”  (Stages of Faith  p. 133). What better way to influence through action than the table?  Furthermore, what connection are children supposed to draw about God’s table if they’re not allowed to eat at it? Is God for them, or not?

I remember one time when my children came to communion when they were very hungry. As they ate the bread and drank the juice and my child said, loudly “I’m still hungry!” What a wonderful theological statement, and a reminder that those who see things literally have a lot to teach us about how we come to the table.

The table is for all, even those who don’t fully understand it. 

The idea that children should wait until they understand what is happening there is very weak. The truth is, none of us fully understands the mystery of the communion table. Not even adults. John Calvin said, “there is something so mysterious and incomprehensible in saying that we have communion with the body and the blood of Jesus Christ, and we on our part are so rude and gross that we cannot understand the least things of God, it was of importance that we should be given to understand it as far as our capacity could admit.” (John Calvin, Short Treatise on the Supper of our Lord) If we were to exclude all those who do not fully understand the mystery of the sacrament, no one would be able to come. It is wrong to single out children when none of us could fully understand

The sacrament of communion sometimes leads people into deeper faith, rather than the other way around 

Sara Miles beautiful book Take This Bread tells many wonderful stories of how the communion table can be a place of conversion and grace, drawing people in to a place of deeper commitment to Christ. The same is true for children who often have a remarkable ability to explain the importance of coming to God’s table and partaking of the bread and juice.

There is strong historical precedent for children, even very young children, participating in communion. 

The very early church encouraged even babies to take bits of the elements as priests dipped their fingers in the juice and placed it in the baby’s mouth. The Eastern Orthodox church still continues this practice today. Far from being some sort of vogue new trend, communion for children has deep historical roots. 

Paul’s words to come to the table “examined” are taken out of context and used to exclude children from the table unnecessarily. 

One scripture that is used in support of keeping children from the communion table is 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 about those who “partake unworthily.” My short response to this is: this isn’t talking at all about children coming to the table. For a fancier exegesis, however, I’d point folks to professor Wiema’s great article which you can read HERE. (The whole edition of that newsletter is devoted to the topic of children and communion. It’s all worth reading, but his piece on this scripture can be found on page 7 of that link.)

Attention Presbyterians: Children are officially invited to the table. 

Our Book of Order says this: The opportunity to eat and drink with Christ is not a right bestowed upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving who come in faith, repentance, and love. All who come to the table are offered the bread and cup, regardless of their age or understanding. If some of those who come have not yet been baptized, an invitation to baptismal preparation and Baptism should be graciously extended. So grateful to be a part of a denomination that officially welcomes all to the table!

 

What are your thoughts on inviting children to the table? Would love to hear them in the comments!

 

A Dinnertime Gratitude Practice for Families: How Did The Food Get to the Table?

We like to mix up the dinner time prayer at our house. Sometimes we sing a short song or say what we’re thankful for. Sometimes we say a traditional prayer. Sometimes we try something different.

Recently we tried a new exercise I wanted to teach you here today. The exercise was inspired by the video HOW TO MAKE A $1500 SANDWICH IN ONLY SIX MONTHS. It’s the incredible video of a man trying to create a sandwich absolutely from scratch including growing the wheat to grind into flour for the bread, killing the chicken, milking the cow for the cheese, etc. Take a look!  Watching that video reminded me of all the things that go into the dinners we eat every day in our house and take for granted. It was a really easy exercise. All we did was say “Wow, take a look at what’s on our table! What are all of the things that had to happen in order to get it here?” We tried this on a Saturday morning breakfast and were eating egg casserole with potatoes, bacon and cheese along with OJ and coffee. We talked about how the chicken laid the eggs that were checked and put into cartons that were brought to the store where we bought them. We said “thank you, God, for the chickens.” We talked about how bacon comes from pigs and said “thank you, God, for the pigs.”  Without much prompting, the boys made the connection to God when we were talking about the potatoes. We talked about how potatoes require soil, water, and sunlight and they offered that all of those things come from God.

Give it a try sometime and see how you like it! One thing I think would be good to add to this practice would be to talk a little about fair labor practices, or free range meat and eggs to get the discussion going about all of the ethical choices we have when we buy and prepare food. We didn’t do that this time, but I’m planning on that for next time.

Treasure Box Tuesday

Treasure Box Tuesday is a weekly (well, mostly weekly, some weeks are skipped) email of all the best resources for Children/Family Ministries. I link to interesting articles, products, books, conferences and all sorts of great goodies. It’s also the main way I keep y’all informed about what’s  I’m working on. I often include special discounts, promotions or other inside scoops, so make sure to sign up!

If you have the scoop on something you’d like me to feature on Treasure Box Tuesday, please fill out this form. Note: recommending something is not a guarantee it will be featured.

Faithful Families Study Guide: 4 Week Guide — FREE!

You’ve asked for it, and here it is!

Children and Family Ministers have been asking me for months for a study guide for Faithful Families, and it’s finally HERE!

Faithful Families is not a book that lends itself to traditional study because it’s a book of practices that are meant to be, well, practiced. I’ve been mulling around a format for a book study that would be meaningful and I’m thrilled at the result! This four week study identifies four values that are woven through Faithful Families and uses them as a framework for discussion. Each lesson features an article (that is free, and online) as well as a Bible passage. Suggested practices from Faithful Families are outlined each week and also used in the closing prayer practice. The four sessions are:

  • Faithful Families Value #1: Embrace the Messiness and Imperfection of Life
  • Faithful Families Value #2: Fight Against Consumerism and Materialism
  • Faithful Families Value #3: Prioritize Time Together
  • Faithful Families Value #4: Value Mystery and Accept Doubt

The four sessions are designed to be about an hour each, but the entire study could be adapted to one afternoon or evening workshop. Download, study, and distribute widely!

Please get in touch with questions or concerns. I’ll do my best to respond personally as I’m able!

HERE’S THE LINK to the study! So excited!

 

Shared Truths About Santa and Jesus: How to Talk to Children

Does teaching belief in Santa lead to a feeling of betrayal once a child learns the “truth” about him? How should Christian parents teach about Santa in a way that fosters trust and encourages mystery?

There are certainly a wide variety of opinions out there. Mine is this: Christian parents would do well to teach faith in Jesus and belief in Santa in nearly the same way. Jesus and Santa are both real, true, and rooted in myth. If we are willing to offer children more nuance when talking about Santa and Jesus, we might be able to set them up for a mature faith at a very young age.

If saying Jesus is rooted in myth makes it sound like Jesus is a fairy tale, or if saying Santa is real sounds divorced from reality, keep reading, you might change your mind.

The Myth of Santa and the Myth of Jesus

When we think about myth we often turn to the definition of a false narrative. Oh, she still believes the myth that a going outside with wet hair will give you a cold, or it’s a myth that if you have heartburn during pregnancy your baby will be hairy. The other definition of myth is a shared story that explains a deeper truth.

When it comes to Santa, we get stuck in a mental trap of believing that because Santa isn’t real, he isn’t true, and so we ignore the theological messages we are sending children when we talk about him. The Santa myth is 100% true. Who puts the presents under the tree every year in my house? Santa does. Santa may not be a physical being in a red suit with a sleigh, but he’s a real presence I learned from my parents who learned about Santa from their parents. My hope is that when my children learn that it’s not possible for one person to fly around the world giving presents to everyone they won’t feel “duped.” Instead, I want them to be drawn into a deeper faith in Santa, one that doesn’t rely on Santa needing a physical body.

In the same way, when we talk about our faith in Christ with children, we don’t have to get caught up in explaining all of the mysteries of our faith, particularly resurrection. How is it possible for a person to be resurrected from the dead and come back to life? It’s not scientifically possible at all, but that’s not the point. I’m not saying one way or the other whether or not Jesus’s body was literally and scientifically raised from the dead. I absolutely believe it’s possible, because for God, all things are possible. That said, it’s a mystery, and one that has very little impact on my faith. If the bones of Jesus were discovered somewhere, and there was 100% proof that Jesus’ body did not rise from the dead, I would still have faith. My faith in the resurrection is not tied to a scientific truth about his bones and body, just like my belief in Santa is not tied to one physical being who breaks into strangers houses in the middle of the night, via the chimney.

Some Practical Tips for Talking about Santa in Ways that Encourage a Mature Faith

  • Stop talking about Santa in ways that is connected to behavior. No more talk about Santa bringing gifts when you are good and coal when you are naughty. No more talk about Santa watching you and punishing you if you’re bad. No more “Santa is watching” talk at all. I’ve written about this before. I believe connecting Santa to behavior can be damaging to faith development.

 

  • Do not lie to children about Santa when they ask, but let it be an opportunity to engage some of these deeper discussions. I really like some of the wording in THESE letters that explain the concept of Santa.

 

  • Use words like mystery, shared story, and faith when talking about Santa.

 

  • Do not shy away from making a connection between Jesus and Santa, rather than trying to separate them. I love the idea of teaching about the historical St. Nicholas and connecting him to Jesus.

What do you think? What experience do you have teaching children about Santa and faith? What resources would you like to share? Use the comments below to talk about it!

Advent Roundup: Practices, Books, Activities and Gifts to Create Meaning at Home

Advent snuck up on me this year! I can’t believe it. It means my baby daughter is almost one year old! Wow! I’m glad to be able to get you this Advent roundup just in the nick of time.

This list is, in no way, exhaustive, but it’s a list of my favorite ideas for taking Advent out of the realm of buying and traditional gifting and into a place of deeper meaning and focus on that which is important. I hope you’ll find it to be both inspiration and full of permission. That is, when the stores and commercials and peer pressure make you think that the way to be a good parent is to give shiny things, you might be able to think “Yes, but there’s also another way…”

In an attempt to keep this list manageable, I’ll give three ideas for each. Yay for the perfect number of three!

Practices

If you’ve been hanging around this site for any length of time at all, you know that practices are my favorite. By practice I mean something that is repeated at regular intervals (usually daily or weekly) to deepen spiritual growth and focus. Taking up a spiritual practice during a season like Advent is a perfect way to “try one on” with a clear start and end date. Here are some I recommend:

  1. Fasting A couple of years ago I wrote about using the spiritual practice of fasting during Advent. Though we often associate fasting with Lent, I think Advent lends itself to fasting for different reasons. I especially recommend fasting during Advent for those who are finding this Advent to be challenging for one reason or another.
  2. Gratitude is a practice to take up anytime of the year, particularly Advent. Make a paper chain this advent where each link is something you’re grateful for. Watch it grow and decorate your house.
  3. Compassion and Service during advent as a practice can be life changing. I have an Advent calendar that focuses on this, but you can just as easily make a list of the ways you’d like to serve others this Advent and begin going through them one at a time.

Books

  1. The Song of the Stars – Poetic and beautiful and beloved by many. This one does not disappoint. Its perspective is that of creation waiting for the arrival of the baby Jesus. Lovely!
  2. Christmas Love Letters from God – I’ve talked about Glenys Nellist’s books many times before, and with good reason. I just love them. One of my favorite features of this book is that each page is a sort of “stand alone” story which makes it great to read through over time.
  3. Room for a Little One – A lovely story that focuses on the nativity through a variety of animal perspectives.

Faith Activities

Spending time together during Advent doing activities that teach some of the basic principles of faith is a wonderful way to make memories during the season, pass on faith, and spend time together. Here are three of my favorites!

  1.  Make an Advent Wreath and light the candles every day at dinner, or on Sunday evenings at home. Week one starts with the first candle, HOPE. Week two, is PEACE. Week three is JOY and week four is LOVE. Pinterest and Google are your friend for more examples than you ever wanted, but some of my favorites are: THIS crafty one from Jerusalem Greer, THIS simple design with votive candles (could be painted or unpainted.)  and  THIS no fuss budget version from Build Faith. The Build Faith version has words you can say around the table if you like. I also like the idea of using tea lights, as the photo above shows.
  2. Make a Jesse Tree – There are so many different ornaments, patterns, and guides for this online. THIS one from the RCA is a great place to start, but I recommend using whichever guide or style suits your family most.
  3. Do a Faith Practices Advent Calendar  – I’ll give a shout out for the one I created, of course! But you could make your own.

Gifts

Many churches have alternative gift markets or ways to highlight giving that go beyond a tangible product that can be broken or collect dust. Instead of saying no to all gifts, think about ways to give alternative gifts

  1. Give a gift for someone in need. I love these little boxes for kids that teach about a charity while offering them the opportunity to make something.  You could easily make one yourself by looking at this list, or asking around at local charities in your area.
  2. Give the gift of time and connection. Wrap up a certificate promising a nature walk together, quality time together to color or do art, or bake together. Your imagination is the limit!
  3. Give a gift to the earth. Pick up trash, make a bird feeder, or plant trees. Wrap up seeds, or the materials needed to make the feeder, or other earth-based gifts.

What are you doing to celebrate Advent with your family in a way that creates meaning and joy?

One more link. I have loved the graphics, videos and ideas Advent Conspiracy has put out for the last few years and highly recommend this site!

 

 

I share my favorite products and ideas because I love them! Some of the links are affiliate links which means I earn a small commission if folks click through to buy. I use the funds to pay for costs associated with this site which keeps it free from other advertising and allows you these articles to remain free!

 

Boredom as a Spiritual Practice

Recently I’ve been actively working on making sure my children and I are bored on a regular basis. Yep, that’s right. I’m trying to be bored and to make sure the rest of my family is too. It all started a few months ago when I heard an episode of the RobCast called “The Importance of Boredom.” The episode is well worth your time, and it’s a reflection on what it means to be busy all the time, filling up every single spare second with something to do. Bell talks a lot about the time we spend doing things that don’t nurture our souls — aimlessly scrolling through social media, for example.  The episode reminded me of a sermon I heard John Ortberg preach one time. (tangental side note: Why you gotta leave the PCUSA, John Ortberg?!) Anyway, I can’t remember the exact topic of the sermon now, but I do remember he was talking about TV watching. At some point he addressed the congregation and said “Who here, after watching a few hours of TV leaps up from the couch and says ‘Man, I feel great! That was really energizing!’?” The answer, of course, is nobody, because TV isn’t energizing; it’s draining. Boredom, as defined by Rob Bell and by me in this post is the exact opposite of TV watching. Boredom done right can be very energizing. When we are bored our mind has a chance to rest and think, and we’re able to actually be creative and fresh. Sometimes it is in the stillness and silence of boredom where the best ideas are born.

Choosing to be Bored

What does it mean to try to be bored? In my experience, there are many times where boredom might creep in, but  a persistent voice urging me to “be productive!” or “Get something done!” stops it cold in its tracks. I have a tendency to do anything required to shut that voice up. So instead of just sitting in silence while I ride the elevator up to the eighth floor, or mindlessly browsing the silly headlines on the tabloids in line, I feel obligated to read  emails, respond to text messages and flip through my to-do list. Filling up the cracks of the day with stuff to do seems productive on the surface, (see how many things I get done, even while I’m in the elevator!) In reality, though, it just wears me down. After a full day of “productivity” the only thing I want to do is collapse in a heap and watch Netflix. Intentional boredom is a remedy for this way of living. The phrase”Not every second needs to be scheduled” has been my new mantra. Paradoxically, doing nothing is the thing to do. Here are times when I’ve been choosing boredom recently: 

  • In the car — I’ve not even been listening to music or podcasts recently — just silence (there’s a version of this in Faithful Families called “Silent Car Rides.”)
  • In line at the grocery store. No flipping through the phone or texting, or working on the meal plan, just looking at the extra large sized candy bars and thinking “why aren’t they called ‘King Sized’ anymore?” or pondering the crazy tabloid headings
  • While waiting for a meeting to start, or when getting somewhere early — Instead of sitting in the car and flipping through email or Facebook, I take a walk
  • In between tasks – I get up and walk around for a little while instead of scrolling social media or trying to squeeze in one more thing.
  • In the shower – Extra long shower for the win!

Making Room For Children to be Bored

There’s some fairly compelling evidence that boredom is great for children, too. Providing space for boredom in my home is not easy for me. Its easy to feel like I’m being lazy if I don’t have a structured activity for my children to do to do, especially since I don’t have a lot of time with them during the week. On the other end of the spectrum, I’m tempted, not by structure, but by formless screen time.  Sometimes it’s easier to just say “why don’t we turn on Paw Patrol” so I don’t have to think about it. The middle way is, what I’ve been calling “space for boredom.”  We turn off the TV, don’t plan anything to do, and see what happens. It’s not usually the first hour or two that are a problem. They happily play. It’s what happens after the playtime gets, well… boring. When I’m most tempted to say “Ok, let’s go to the museum now!” or “Ok, let’s turn on Paw Patrol” is precisely the time to say, “I know it’s hard to find something to do sometimes” and to go back to making muffins. I’ve been doing this for awhile now, and the results have been even more powerful than I originally anticipated.

Crayons have come out, on their own. Kleenex boxes have been sloppily taped onto Amazon boxes with proud declarations of “It’s an ambulance.” Comic books have been created. It’s magical, but certainly not easy. In order to get there, we’ve had to suffer through many rounds of “Pleeeeeeeeeease can we go to incredible pizza” and “This is SO BORING.” Well, when you’re bored you can think. When you can think you can be creative. Boredom is a gift. Not all the time, but some of the time. Too much boredom isn’t good, of course, but this not the danger for our family and a lot of families like us.

This “dance floor” was born after a long stretch of boredom

It seems to me that previous generations of parents understood this intuitively (plus there were no iPads or TV on demand to compete with.) Boredom wasn’t really something you needed to “make room” for in those days. It just happened. Now, if we want our children to be bored, we have to make sure it happens by intentionally blocking out the time and saying no to extra lessons and classes and enrichment opportunities and parties. We have to make space. 

 

Here are some times when I’ve been making room for my children to be bored:

  • In the car
  • On Saturdays (all day, not just for an hour or two)
  • Sunday afternoons
  • Days off of school
  • At the dinner table — Example: “May I be excused?” answer “In a few more minutes….”

Boredom Apps? Say what?

It seems counterintuitive to think about using technology to find rest and create boredom, but there are actually some tools I’ve found that work remarkably well for this.

Forest App: I’ve mentioned this one before, but the forest app helps plant virtual trees to keep you off of your phone. The more time you’re away from your phone, the more trees are planted. Plant enough virtual trees and forest will plant real trees in your honor. Pretty great. I go through seasons where I use this app a lot. 

Forest App is one of my favorites. Grow trees instead of looking at your phone!

Do Not Disturb Mode: I’ve not had to use this in awhile, but there have been times when I’m so fried and so overloaded by texts and emails that I need to not know that they exist. In order to get in to true do not disturb mode, I need to adjust my phone settings to turn off all notifications for email (I turned them off for social media a long time ago) and also put the phone in “Do Not Disturb” mode (this works well for iPhone. I’m not sure how to make it work for Android, but I’m sure Google will help!) iPhone will kick out of Do Not Disturb mode if someone calls back immediately.

News Feed Eradicator for Facebook: This extension for Chrome has been a huge game changer for me. I love using Facebook for a lot of things, including keeping up with folks in my congregation, keeping connected in clergy communities, and connecting with friend who don’t live in the same city as me. At the same time, it can be a huge way to fill up empty time that should be used for boredom or true rest. The Newsfeed Eradicator removes the newsfeed. You can still get notifications, still check on groups, still update status, etc. It eliminates the phenomenon whereby I log in to Facebook to check on something and 20 minutes later I’m clicking through photos of people I don’t even know because they’re there. HERE’s a link for Chrome. Also available for phones, I believe. 

Boredom has been a gift recently. It’s been the difference between exhaustion and a little room. It’s not been easy, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Give it a try and let me know what you think!

What about you? What do you think of boredom? Is there a place for it in your life or home? Share your stories in the comments!

At Home in This Life, Interview with Author Jerusalem Greer!

I’ve gushed about Jerusalem on this blog before. We’ve never met in real life, but I really can’t wait for the day she comes to San Antonio. I’m going to march her right over to Bird Bakery so we can eat cupcakes and share stories. In the meantime, these “virtual chats” are a fun way to get to know one another. I know you’ll enjoy this chat as much as I did. She’s an artist in so many ways.

Traci: Tell us a little bit about your inspiration behind At Home in This Life. What story did you feel like you needed to tell? Who do you think should read it and why? 

Jerusalem: At Home in this Life is not the book I set out to write, but it was the book I needed to write. It was the story I needed to live and then tell. I thought I was going to write a fluffy happy book about combining Benedictine monastic practices with ordinary domestic chores – and to some extent that is the book I wrote – but it went much deeper and was much messier than I ever intended.  This book is the story of how everything I thought would make me happy fell apart, and how I found peace at the intersection of mess and brokenness and beauty and happy surprises, when I decided to give God’s plan a try instead of forcing my own. I think anyone who is wishing that their life was something different than it is should read this book, because ultimately – no matter who we are or where we live, we have to learn how to water the grass beneath our feet instead of always seeking greener pastures.

Traci: #notgonnalie, when I see your Instagram posts of your gorgeous farmhouse and your amazing kitchen and your sense of style that includes magazine worthy cookouts  I think to myself “I want that life!” I struggle with that sometimes on social media, seeing other people’s lives and wondering how my own life measures up. One of the things I love about At Home in this Life is now it dives in to some of the challenges you’ve overcome in living the life you want to live. What encouragement do you have for me and other readers who feel overwhelmed by the pressure to do it all and be perfect? 

Jerusalem: Everyone – probably even Martha Stewart – looks at parts of other people’s lives and pines for what they have.  I think that is just a normal part of human existence. The trick is to not become so defined and driven by what you want or what you lack, that you miss all the goodness of what you have.  It’s the old trap of comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides.  I talk a lot about spiritual practices (or disciplines) in the book, and whenever I give a talk or a workshop about these practices I like to remind people there is a reason why they are called spiritual practices and not spiritual perfections. It’s because we all have to practice them in order to get better at them. And some practices – areas of our lives, behaviors, patterns of thought, design skills etc – take longer for us to master than they do for our neighbor. The idea that everyone should be proficient in everything is just nutso. If it makes anyone feel better I stink at cleaning baseboards and exercise.   

Traci: At Home in this Life is more personal and vulnerable than your first book A Homemade Year is it hard to tell your story and know that so many readers will be peering in to your life? Do you have any vulnerability hangovers now that the book is published? 

Jerusalem: Ha! Nope. I generally am on the other end of the spectrum – I worry that I haven’t been vulnerable or transparent enough.  Which is why my husband Nathan reads everything I write first – he is my B.S. meter. He is the one who tells me if I am putting lipstick on a pig, glossing over the hard parts, spinning something to be better than it was or not digging deep enough.

Traci: Along with the book, you’ve worked to curate a whole collection of on trend and fun items to go along with the book. Tell us about the process of finding the artists, curating it, and how it’s doing. 

Jerusalem: Most of the artist are either women I know, or women who were recommended to me. Women whose art and designs I just adore. The collection came about because (as you will read in the laundry chapter) I am a bit of a “stuff” person and I love cute things. (I will never be a minimalist!) But what I really love is cute things that have some meaning – that convey messages of beauty, hope, joy, peace and so on.  The idea was to create a collection based on the words of At Home in this Life an as interrupted by these artist. I am so in awe of their talent and I love every item in the collection – which all make great gifts btw! [Traci Note: I can attest to this! Jerusalem sent me the sweetest mending kit from the collection when her book was released. Love, love, love it!] 

 Traci: What’s your actual writing process like? I imagine you cheffing up some farm fresh eggs and coffee and sitting down at your kitchen table to write before the sun rises, inspiration flowing out for hours, but I know how hard writing can be, too. What time of day do you like to write? Do you have any inspiration or words of wisdom for others who want to publish their own stories? 

Jerusalem: For better or for worse, I write in the margins. Sometimes I do write in the bucolic setting, and other days (like right now for instance) I write in nondescript airports in between speaking gigs. I write on my couch, in my bed, in coffee shops and upstairs at my parents’ house. Sometimes I go away for a week and get a chunk done but that is the exception, not the rule. Generally I am writing whenever I can find enough time to turn on my computer and sit down. And sometimes inspiration flows, and sometimes I just stare at the screen until I can’t take it anymore and give-up.

The only advice I would give aspiring writers is to try and figure out (if you can) why you want to be published writer… Is it to be a conduit of information? Is it to inspire? Is it because you just enjoy it? Is it as springboard to being a speaker? Is it because you love storytelling? There are a lot of ways to approach writing, and the sooner you figure out why you want to write, the quicker you can find a support system in the writing community – which is extremely helpful!

Where can readers get the book and items from the Etsy collection? 

The book is available on Amazon and B&N and for large orders (for book clubs etc) make sure to visit Paracelete Press. To view the whole Curated Collection go HERE

WIN A COPY of At Home in this Life! Paraclete Press has generously offered a copy of At Home in this Life to Faithful Families readers! If you’re interested in winning, just write a comment on the pinned Facebook Post to enter! Deadline to enter is Sunday, July 30th at NOON CST!

 

Birthday Tradition: A Birthday Plate!

 

Somehow, inexplicably, we woke up yesterday and our baby boy was six years old. How is that possible? How often I wish it would just slow down (a la Nichole Nordeman’s beautiful song, guaranteed to make you cry.)

I believe tradition, spiritual practice and ceremony can be a way to add meaning to our days, that we might capture them and engrave them on our hearts. When I talk to groups about this, it’s the traditions people can relate to the most. I love hearing stories about special traditions shared on holidays, birthdays and other special days. Traditions can be so comforting and act as an anchor for the soul.

Traditions need not be complicated to be powerful, and the tradition of the “Birthday Plate” is one of the simplest traditions of all. Have a special plate dedicated to birthdays and bring it out for each person, young and old, when it’s their birthday.

Here are three easy options for a birthday plate:

  1. Paint one at a pottery place (Google “paint your own pottery”) – This is how our Birthday Plate came into existence. My husband Elias and I painted one while I was pregnant with our oldest child. Doing a larger item like a plate can get expensive at a place like that, but for a plate that is to be so special, it’s worth it! Take your time, pick a design you really like, and paint over each letter several times to make it dark and vibrant.
  2. Make one using a plate from the dollar store and permanent markers. This is my new favorite way to make a gift for someone. I have used THIS TUTORIAL with great success. My children made gifts for their teachers using this technique, and we made plates for Father’s Day as well. Unique, simple, and fun. If your family doesn’t have a birthday plate tradition, get everyone involved in working on a plate together that can become the new tradition.
  3. Buy one! Etsy has a great selection.

Does your family have a special birthday plate? Post a picture in the comments or tell us about it!

 

If you like creating traditions, spiritual practices and ceremonies at home, check out my book Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments at Home which has dozens of easy to implement ideas!