In case you identify as Christian but have never observed Lent, let’s get this out of the way: Lent is for all Christians, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never observed it before. It doesn’t matter if you do just one thing this year to mark the season and build on that foundation in future years. It doesn’t matter if you don’t fully understand Lent yourself or never practiced it as a child—this is a season of preparing our hearts to receive the mystery of new life, and—as a mystery—we don’t have to have it all figured out. It is a journey, an exploration, with our children, and we would do well to expect we too will learn along the way. Here are five simple ways to incorporate Lent into your family’s life in the coming six weeks as we look toward Good Friday and Easter. Take what is helpful to you, what resonates with your family’s context and interests, and leave the rest behind. May you be blessed on this sacred journey.
Spiritual Practices: Most of us associate Lent with giving things up. We’ll get to that next, but for most families, adding a spiritual practice is much more meaningful and practical. After all, the space we clear by giving something up is intended to be devotional, holy space. Lent is a time when we draw nearer to God, and here are some simple spiritual practices that your family might consider. Experiment with Prayer by exploring different ways to do it. Perhaps a body prayer in the morning is just the thing to bless your kids on their way out the door. Invite the family to paint a prayer before bed. Create a tactile prayer object, such as prayer stones. Using a bell jar and popsicle sticks, invite your kids to decorate them and write on each stick someone or something they’d like to pray about this season. Be sure to incorporate those who are hungry, in prison, in war zones, or sick. Pick a stick or two each night to direct your prayer. If you have super crafting powers, consider a prayer loom that builds over the season. For older children, pray a psalm or Nan Merrill’s brilliant rendition in Psalms for Praying. However you do it, experiment with prayer so that it becomes a full body experience incorporating all the senses. Walk a Labyrinth if you have a public labyrinth in your community. Or, make a finger labyrinth, create one in your yard, or walk a virtual one by checking out this website. Labyrinths not only invite kids to move their bodies in a contemplative exercise, but they also provide us with the opportunity to notice the world around us and make meaning of walking to the very heart of our faith, especially with older kids. Check out these simple processing questions. Practice the Superpower of Blessing with your kids. Explain blessing, using words like these: “Blessing is gathering up all of God’s loving power for good, taking it in, and then sending out like a laser beam on a person or place.” Bless them before bed at night by placing your hand on their head and looking into their eyes. Ask them to bless you. Bless the family pets together. Share with them the power of guerilla blessings—when you are out in the world and you bless someone silently who is having a hard time (a child crying in the grocery store, an elder who looks lonely, an individual who might be homeless, someone who is angry). Bless an object, like a stone or a small wooden cross, and invite your child to place that stone somewhere or carry it throughout the day in their pocket. Practice Gratitude and Kindness by naming things you’re grateful for before a family meal or at bedtime. Make a list that grows with the season. Write acts of kindness on each block of a Jenga set and pull one out each day to practice as a family. Read the Bible together. For young children I recommend the Family Story Bible by Ralph Milton for its progressive theology and inclusive language about God. The Jesus Storybook Bible is also on our shelves for creativity, beautiful illustrations, and salient meaning, though I find their projection of Jesus into Old Testament stories and treatment of the crucifixion (more on that under number 5) as a departure from progressive theology. For kids who are readers, I recommend the Deep Blue Kids Bible. Read a psalm before meal time, a story about Jesus’ ministry before bed, or write a memory verse on a notecard for them to read during breakfast. Remember, you don’t have to do it all. Choose one thing that you can maintain for six weeks and give it your all.
Fasting from Technology and Food: We live in an addicted society—addictions to sugar, alcohol, cell phones, screen time, consumerism, porn, and war pervade our lives and the messages we constantly receive from media. Lent is a time to check our habits, cleanse our daily lives, and try something new. I became a vegetarian after giving up meat for the six weeks of Lent my freshman year of college. This year, I hope to give up sugar as well as facebook. There are times when our mind, body, and spirit deeply crave rest from the frenetic lives we live. Fasting helps us clear space. While some children might be so bold as to give something up during Lent, mostly I recommend fasting as an adult practice to model, and perhaps as a family practice for meals. If you plan to fast from something, share with your child why you are doing so, how it feels, your struggles and your triumphs. Model what it looks like to unplug for a season. It’s crucial for our kids to see this. As a family, especially if you are heavy meat eaters, consider a Meatless Monday or Fish Friday possibility. Enter into solidarity with the poor by having a once weekly meal of beans and rice. Some families do not have the flexibility to change their eating habits, but if you do, consider it. Model sacrifice and face the discomfort of longing with deeper compassion for those around the world who know discomfort daily.
Mark Meals: Create an altar on or near your family dining table. Begin with six purple candles (representing the weeks of Lent) and a dark brown/light brown/cream candle to represent the Christ candle (note: I share the perspective of many faith leaders that we’ve moved past the time when it’s healthy to equate good/purity with white. The Christ candle is traditionally white, but I prefer a candle that transitions from cream to dark brown, and therefore represents all flesh colors). Add something to your altar or holy space each week…found natural elements are wonderful, such as moss, rocks, sticks, pinecones, flowers. Use the natural elements to build a progressive tomb if you have super creative powers. Imagine what Jesus might have seen on his way to Jerusalem, and honor his journey by placing little parts of those elements near your candle. In Advent, we progressively light a candle each week as we move closer to Christmas. In Lent, consider extinguishing a candle each week as we move closer to Easter. This represents moving deeper into shadow before we experience the full magic of the Christ light on Easter. Play with purple (the color of Lent) on the altar, in your wardrobe, in other spaces in the house. The color purple signifies royalty, and Jesus was a king with no palace, no army, no possessions. How did Jesus know power apart from wealth, violence, and might? This is the question we consider in Lent, how Jesus subverted the very meaning of power through love and especially love for the least, the lost, and the broken. Before meal time, remember that it is Lent by lighting the candles. Once a week, extinguish one. Read a psalm or a book about Lent briefly after the meal. I’m reading Make Room once a week with my family this year, recommended by a colleague. Even two minutes of reading after a meal can make meal time something more communal, holy, and beloved. Consider inviting someone special to your table once a week. Help your children decide who it will be, and be sure to invite an elder, or someone who lives alone, or someone living with illness or disability. Make them your special guest, lavish them with love and delicious food, and share the magic of your Lenten journey with them. If your church offers a weekly meal during Lent or an Ash Wednesday soup dinner, take part! Breaking bread with one another is always a holy act where we give and receive hospitality, remembering that all food and hospitality originates in God.
Acts of Service and Justice: This is an opportunity to do your research. If you are part of a faith community, which local organizations do they support with gifts of time and treasure? Consider organizing an earth clean-up day for your own family and others in your community to pick up litter or prepare community garden beds. Rake the lawn for a neighbor, visit with an elder, walk someone’s dog, or bring cookies to a labor crew in your neighborhood. Connect with a local soup kitchen to ask if you can help serve a meal or eat with those whom they serve as an act of living more deeply in community. Is there an intentional community in your area that lives with immigrants or the poor? If so, contact them to see if there are opportunities to worship with them, break bread with them, and serve with them. Explore the difference between charity and justice with your kids. For teens, check out this Ted Talk. Charity is sometimes harmful, sometimes helpful. It is helpful mostly when done through a reputable organization, paired with education that examines root causes. With kids we often find ourselves longing for them to do charity but uncertain about how to discuss the root causes of poverty, inequality, racism, and war. It’s good for our kids to give of their time and talent to engage in charitable acts. However, Lent is an opportunity to also talk to our kids about the real lives of refugees and immigrants, the hungry and homeless, those discriminated against because of racism, heterosexism, or bias against those living with disability. Learn their stories through online resources or community organizations. Talk about the root causes of inequality. Advocate for change with a letter to an elected official, by signing a petition, or talking to a community leader. Give to the work and wellbeing of these communities by giving of your treasure, including your child’s contribution. Charity often leaves us feeling like we can pat ourselves on the back and call it a day. Social Justice draws us more deeply into relationships that trouble our certainties, add nuance and complexity to our assumptions, and call us to work collaboratively over the long haul for social change. Lent is a time to get out into the community to listen first, be transformed by the face of Christ in the most vulnerable among us, and take action together.
Rethink the Crucifixion and Resurrection: Many of us were taught that the crucifixion was the plan of an angry God to substitute Jesus, God’s son, for our sins, so that we could be saved through the blood of Jesus. Being saved meant believing in (or intellectual assent to) Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, and a literal, historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which would get us into eternal heaven after we died, whereas anyone who did not believe in Jesus would go to hell. Our job, then, was to proselytize and win converts for Jesus. I once held these beliefs as the very core of my faith, despite the inner dissonance they created. My experience in ministry has convinced me that today’s younger generations are often turned off by notions of atonement at the hands of a bloodthirsty God; a preoccupation with literalism that eschews metaphor; legalistic religion that declares we must all believe the same doctrine; and an exclusive religion that fails to extend God’s grace to anyone who doesn’t claim Jesus as their savior. As we live more life, many of us are increasingly turned off by these aspects of Christianity which come to the fore around the Easter stories of crucifixion and resurrection. Our children have questions, and we struggle because we no longer believe the answers we were given as children. Today many are ravenous for authentic religion, and too often they do not find it in Christianity. Ironically, Jesus’ ministry was deeply authentic and profoundly compelling, so to the extent that Christianity fails in these ways, we fail to walk in the ways of Jesus. I will reflect more deeply on these aspects of theology in future blogposts, but for now I invite you to reconsider the crucifixion and resurrection in ways that open up possibility for new meanings. How might the crucifixion tell the story of a God willing to take on human flesh and human suffering to enter fully into solidarity with those who suffer throughout the world? Check out James Cones’ The Cross and the Lynching Tree to go deeper. What if Jesus’ crucifixion was not to satisfy an angry God, but a natural outcome of a world where the powers that be crucify radical love? What if an individualistic notion of personal salvation gave way to a more wholehearted understanding of salvation as liberation available to us as individuals, but also to our world, to the various people of the world, not just once—but on an ongoing basis? What if believing, as Marcus Borg suggests, truly means beloving—giving one’s heart (and life) in devotion to something? What if the thing that truly mattered was not how much divinity we saw in Jesus but that we wanted to walk in his ways—in the ways that bring good news of liberation to the poor and release to the captive, the way of love? What if we imagined we didn’t all have to believe the same thing but could still exist in holy community—even grow in love, grace, and understanding from the places where we don’t fully agree? What if we released a preoccupation with literalism and made room for people who understand the resurrection metaphorically (or who just plain don’t know) so that we could spend more energy talking about what it means to live into new life in the here and now? What if we believed that Jesus was truly about a movement that began here on earth rather than a golden ticket into heaven? What if we honored the spiritual wisdom of other religious traditions as companions on the human journey and we didn’t have to deny our Christian identity to do that? What if honoring divine mystery doesn’t require leaving intelligence outside the doors of the church? The questions that arose in us will also arise in our kids, and so I invite you to lean into God this Lenten season and deepen your own commitment to a fresh take on this ancient tradition, open your mind to new ideas and your heart to the possibility that God’s grace is far wider than we might imagine. May your journey be blessed, and may you emerge awash in the wonder that God continues to do a new thing.