Children & Lent

Children & Lent

MXASH  2 STANDALONE  BROWNLent is in some ways not an easy season to talk about with children. It doesn’t have the anticipation and joy of Advent and Christmas. It doesn’t have a cute little baby, or a pageant with angels, shepherds and animals. It doesn’t have the promise of presents under a tree. It has a certain dryness—a desert like quality.

For many of us it is associated with “giving something up”—often food, particularly sweet treats (always tough for chocaholics like me), or we give up a behavior or attitude we feel is negative. None of this “sells” easily to children (nor for that matter, to some adults). Part of the problem may be that our only understanding of Lent is that we are to somehow punish ourselves to make God happy, rather than understanding Lent in a larger framework of spirituality. Without that larger framework, an understanding that Lent is essentially about engaging in things that help us get in touch with our baptism, that help us get in touch with that still quiet center of life, Lent becomes a 5 week bummer.

We may worry about how to “give” our children spirituality, or may think that we need to be spiritual giants in order to teach our children. But children are inherently spiritual beings. Their imaginative minds can easily grasp concepts that adults have trouble with. I am constantly reminded of this during the 9am family service. I was recently telling the story of Jesus calling the twelve disciples, followed by a rousing rendition of “He’s got the Whole World in His Hands” and one little girl stopped me and said, “So this means that Jesus called me and I am in his hands—right?” I managed to say “right” and then took a moment to collect myself. Talk about grasping what it means to be a child of God and a disciple! Children also “get” the idea of offering themselves to God. The offertory during the family service is one of my favorite things—we have had little red fire trucks, shoes, even whole little people, placed on the altar at the offering. Children are also disarmingly honest and straightforward in prayer—not feeling the need to edit or censor their prayers for correctness. So, children are already pretty good at spirituality—there is no pressure to be a great spiritual guru yourself in order to help your children experience Lent—they have the tools. Our job as parents is simply to engage that energy—to let it out. One way to dive in and engage this innate spirituality, to see Lent in the framework of baptism is to begin a practice; whether it is a daily time of prayer or time of silence, coming to church each Sunday to hear another piece of the Lenten story and to be nourished at the Eucharistic Table, setting aside money or donations each day or week to give to those in need or something else, getting in a rhythm helps these practices become part of the fabric of our lives, helps us internalize the Lenten journey and reconnect with our promise to “continue in the Apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers”. Simply giving ourselves and out children the space to pray, to be silent and to talk about God is to go deeply into the heart of Lent.

One great gift of Lent, Holy Week and Easter is that it gives us a framework for having those difficult conversations with children. I am guessing that none of us like to talk about suffering, loneliness, or death with children and yet children are well aware that these things exist. They see and hear about them much more than we think—they know that “bad stuff” happens. Part of the spiritual journey of Lent, of living into our baptismal promise to turn to Jesus Christ, is being honest about who we are, about the world we live in and the part we play in creating that world. The story of Jesus final days gives all of us a larger framework into which we can place our own life story—with all its suffering, evil and death. So, not talking to our children about this, not being willing to look at this with our children, deprives them of that framework, that way of seeing the world as both a place where evil happens but also where redemption happens..

Caroline S. Fairless in her book, Children at Worship, Congregations in Bloom tells about an experience she had while discussing Lent and Easter with a group of young children. She writes, “A five year old named John explained to me that Jesus did not die from being nailed to the cross. He died from a heart attack”. Nicole disagreed, “it was the nails” she said, “there was poison in the nails.” Grown-ups often get squirmy listening to these things. Especially parents. “O my God, my child gave the wrong answer. I’m a terrible parent and everyone is going to know it.” Or else we say, “how cute”. But the idea of Jesus dying from a heart attack is neither wrong nor cute. John’s father had a heart attack. And everything that child knew about pain and death and loss and fear was set within the context of that heart attack. It made great sense to talk of the pain and death and loss of Jesus in terms of a heart attack. And the poison nails? Nicole told me that the nails weren’t bad in themselves. There were nails in the walls of her house and nails in her swing set. It wasn’t the nails that were bad; it was the poison in them. Nicole won’t talk to you about sin and she won’t talk to you about the evil that we do to one another. But she’ll talk at great length about poison. The poison in the nails that killed Jesus. The world of children is limitless in its possibilities, a world not constrained by boundaries we have come to know as adults”.

I invite you, as part of your own experience of a holy Lent, to engage in spiritual practices with your children (including the practice of listening to them!), to engage in those difficult conversations with your children, and to do all of this knowing that there are no right or wrong answers, there is just the willingness to struggle together. And knowing that God, who created each of us in love, is in the struggle with us, that no matter how desert-like Lent feels, no matter how long Lent and Good Friday seem to last, living water always finds a way to quench our thirst, Easter always happens.

Prayer Chain Activity

Have your children cut out strips of simple prayers, one or two lines. Place the strips in a jar. Each day take one out, read the prayer and then glue the ends together to make a chain. If you like a particular one, keep it on your refrigerator for use again and again. Use this resource as it can best fit your family’s life. Once each day when you need a prayer: meals, bedtime, quiet time, etc.

Personal Care & Lent

Let’s face it, parenting can be an exhausting task—yes, it is sometimes thrilling and joy-thrilled, but often it is just plain exhausting. One of the things you always hear when you fly is the flight attendant reminding you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your child or companion with his or hers. You simply cannot help anyone else if you are flat on the floor and unconscious. Just so with parenting, particularly with parenting and the church season of Lent and Easter. It is hard to model and teach the Good News that is Jesus without immersing yourself in it and without walking in Jesus’ way. So I invite you, in the name of God, to take care of yourself this Lent and to prepare yourself for Easter. Here are a few ideas that may help you breathe deeply the oxygen that is Christ.

Inward and Personal Disciplines

  • Spend time in solitude each day.
  • Share in the Lenten Series on Wednesday evenings.
  • Read a book for inner growth.
  • Read twice through the gospel of the lectionary cycle we are in. (Matthew in 2014)
  • Begin to keep a journal of prayer concerns, questions, reading.
  • Focus on thanksgiving, rather than on asking, in prayer.
  • Give myself a gift of three hours to do something I always say I don’t have time to do.
  • Find a way to go to bed earlier or sleep in so I get enough rest.
  • Make a list of people with whom I need to be reconciled. Pray for them and let Jesus guide me in my thinking and feeling toward them.
  • Go to all of the Holy Week services as an act of love and waiting with Jesus.
  • Take one hour to inventory my priorities and plan how I will reorder them.
  • Give up a grudge or a rehearsal of a past event.
  • Forgive someone who has hurt me.

Outward and Social Disciplines

  • Take on some loving task:
  • Plan to visit a “shut-in” neighbor or church member weekly.
  • Write a letter of affirmation once a week to a person who has touched my life.
  • Go on the Celtic Spirituality Retreat April 29-May1.
  • Go to coffee or dinner with someone I want to know better.
  • Begin to recycle waste from my home and workplace.
  • Give blood.
  • Say “NO” to something that is a waste of money and time.
  • Pray to God to help me resist racial prejudice and to give me courage in opposing it.
  • Give a Saturday morning to Camp Get Along or to the St. Peter’s Food Cupboard.

The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field

The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter's Church.

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