Teaching Kids about Ash Wednesday and Lent

Back in 2010, my friend Sam Luce was on a children's ministry road trip across the country with Kenny Conley. They stopped in Louisville and met Tony Kummer and me at Quill's Coffee. It was Ash Wednesday. I still had ashes on my forehead. It think it was a bit surreal for Sam--hailing from very Catholic upstate New York. I am not Catholic. I clarified that right away for Sam--probably just a bit uncomfortable in my own skin when he asked about the ashes. I'm a Baptist by confession, but I'm part of a church community that follows the church calendar. And, for that, I'm really thankful.

To know the seasons of the Christian year is to know the milestones of Jesus' earthly ministry--from the promise of his coming at Advent through his resurrection at Easter and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As Christians, we want our personal story to be shaped by his story. One way the universal church has practiced this historically is by letting Christ's life shape our time--not just at Christmas and Easter but throughout the year.

What is Lent?

To know the seasons of the Christian year is to know the milestones of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Lent is all about preparation. We prepare our hearts and minds for Good Friday and Easter, those days that mark Christ's passion and then his victory over death. We experience the significance of holy week more when we're prepared for it by retracing Christ's journey to the cross. The season of Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter, lasting for 40 days (not counting Sundays). Each day of Lent symbolizes one of the 40 days Jesus fasted in the wilderness before Satan tempted him. During Lent, Christians fast from something that can pull our minds way from Christ (TV, social media, chocolate, etc.). The goal is to fill the void with an invigorated prayer life and increased reflection on God's holiness, our sin, and Christ's perfect obedience even unto death. 

What is Ash Wednesday? 

“Dust you are, and to dust you will return.”
— Genesis 3:19b

On Ash Wednesday, we acknowledge that no one gets out of this world alive.  Those who gather around the world for Ash Wednesday services receive a sign of the cross on their foreheads from ashes (usually made from the palms used on Palm Sunday the previous year). This mark is a reminder of our mortality--we are all going to die--and a call for repentance. The person who gives the signs says over you, 

"Dust you are, and to dust you will return" (Genesis 3:19b) 

Lent with Kids

As I've reflected about on how to pass the practice of the church calendar on to my children. Here are two brief thoughts.

This is an opportunity for a parent to intentionally pass on the truth that life is but a breath

First, I think it's really appropriate for kids to receive ashes during an Ash Wednesday service. We wait until after kids are trusting Christ and give a faithful confession to baptize them and allow them to take communion. But there is nothing about the Ash Wednesday service that needs to be reserved until kids are converted. It's good to have sober conversations with children about life and death. The sage teaches us, "It is better to go to a funeral  than to go to a party, because death is the destiny of everyone. T he living should take this to heart" (Ecclesiastes 7:2). The goal isn't to scare kids out of Hell in some manipulative way. But I believe Ash Wednesday provides an incredible teaching moment for kids. Particularly for a child with a more reflective temperament, this is an opportunity for a parent to intentionally pass on the truth that life is but a breath.  

Second, Lent gives your family an entire forty day season to remember Jesus is best. We fill our busy lives with candy, toys, sports, extra curricular activities, video games, television--you name it. During Lent, we remember the happiness we find in those things is temporary. Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19-21). Every toy your child has will one day lie in a junk yard. The treasure of this earth makes us happy, but that happiness is temporary. During Lent we stop filling our lives with temporary happiness and make more room for Jesus.

Consider fasting as an entire family during Lent this year. When you do so, don't just give up something. Also, be intentional about adding a practice, a new affection like serving at church together or volunteering at a local non-profit, to help set your family's heart on God instead of the thing you are giving up. One great resource we've used to teach about Lent with our kids is an old episode of Adventures in Odyssey from Focus on the Family (Episode #152: The Meaning of Sacrifice) that explains the purpose of Lent and the practice of fasting as a family in a way with which our kids have really connected. 

Are you planning to celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent with your family? What practices have been helpful for you? 

Some portions of this post were adapted from the 2015 Sojourn Church calendar devotional written by Daniel Montgomery and Bobby Gilles.

Christmas in a Minor Key: Reflections on "A Charlie Brown Christmas"

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Editor's Note: At our home, we make sure to schedule a time each year to sit down together a watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, the animated classic created by late cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. A couple of years ago, Sojourn Church member, Michael Morgan, wrote this reflection for our church website. He has given us permission to repost it here:

Christmastime is here. Bring on the blitz of traditions and travels, wants and wishes. Get the shopping done, get the family together, get the food ready, get the getting going. Fill the snowy expanse that is the holiday season. With so many things trying to get in, sometimes it seems like nothing succeeds and Christmastime is empty instead of full; Christmas in a minor key. This can only mean it’s time for the annual viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Charlie Brown is searching. For meaning, for escape from materialism, for Christmas. He confides in his pal Linus that even with Christmas on its way with gifts and cheer, he still feels melancholy. Through the course of an afternoon, Chuck looks where we all tend to look this time of year. He looks in his mailbox for a Christmas card, for some human connection and affirmation. He looks to the 5-cent psychiatrist; perhaps a mental health adjustment will help. Ultimately, Chuck’s enlisted to direct the kids’ Christmas play and so he looks to a satisfying career to put his heart at ease. And we certainly see how that works out.

Meanwhile, Snoopy dives into Christmas commerce full tilt, festooning his doghouse and erstwhile WWI fighter plane with an arsenal of lights and ornaments. Taking Christmas by storm, in hot pursuit of a glorious cash prize.

At the pageant rehearsal, Charlie Brown learns a lesson in herding cats and so even merry company and music can’t cure what ails him. Beneath the cheer lies vanity, snobbishness, and shallow revelry. Actors, right? In need of a break and determined to set the right tone for this Christmas play, Chuck sets off with Linus to get a Christmas tree (following the modern equivalent of a star in east: two roving spotlights). A nice, shiny aluminum one, Lucy shouts after him. Looks matter.

Confronted by an explosion of neon kitsch at the tree lot, Charlie Brown nearly despairs until he finds a spindly, real tree. Wood and needles, the least commercial, most plain thing he has seen in the whole town. With apparent peace, he takes the one true tree to show the others. His humble offering earns him humiliation. What a blockhead.

Deflated and frustrated, Charlie Brown cries out, ‘Does anybody know what Christmas is all about?’

Linus knows. In what may be the last place a passage of Scripture gets a sincere reading in all of primetime TV, Linus recites Luke 2:8-14 center stage in a single spotlight. Beneath all the hyper-exaggerated veneer, Christmas is really about something as simple as the birth of a baby (albeit a birth announced by angels and the glory of the Lord). It’s the emotional turning point, the moment of quiet clarity. I tear up every time.

On a side note, maybe the glory that shone round about those shepherds long ago has been echoing through the years and, in an effort to recapture it DIY style, people have just gotten a little crazy. Maybe the aluminum trees are just an over-cooked reflection of something real after all.

Of course, that’s all easy to swallow. Christmas™ has grown gaudy and superficial. Tone it down, for heaven’s sake. Have some goodwill towards men. But, simplicity is only half the point. In the next five minutes, Schultz and the animators drive home a seditiously counter-cultural point, exposing the hollowness of mere tradition and DIY glory, to replace it with something enduring.

Comforted by Linus’ soliloquy, Charlie Brown carries his Christmas tree home. As he walks through his snow-bound town, all the other trees stoop under the weight of the drifts. Bowing in the direction of Chuck’s sad little tree oddly enough. Seemingly giving due deference. At home, Charlie is astounded to see what his beagle’s been up to. Snoopy fed right into the hype and glitz of his culture and did up his little red house into a festive juggernaut. I tell you, he has already received his reward. First place. Good grief.

Charlie Brown takes a crimson ornament, a token of Snoopy’s best effort, and hangs it on his own tree. The poor, wretched thing buckles under the weight. ‘I’ve killed it.’ Indeed, Chuck. Haven’t we all?

A dejected boy heads in from the cold. The Peanuts gang shows up (hopefully to apologize for being mean as snakes) and slowly notice that the tree ain’t all that bad. It just needs a little TLC. Snoopy could probably spare some lights and bells. But wait! Is the whole premise about to come undone? Is the commercialist brigade about to take the last lonely refuge of humble simplicity and bling it into oblivion? Thankfully, no. When the gang finishes, it remains a real tree, but a tree fully revealed.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the kids start humming ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’. Glory to the newborn king. Indeed, glory has found its home. Not on a dog house, but on the one true tree. The emblem of Christmas. Snoopy’s reaction might just be the most subversive moment of the whole show. His glory has been robbed and given upon this tree and instead of moping or snarling about it, he joins the singing. Every tongue confesses that the lights look better on the tree, even the dog who thought he had cornered the market on glorious display.

Charlie Brown returns, touchingly stunned to see what’s become of his lowly little tree. His honest search has been rewarded with a beautiful vision far more than he could have imagined. Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.

The Jesse Tree and Other Advent Resources

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Many families mark the days of advent with a traditional advent calendar, opening a tiny door for each day leading up to Christmas. Our family advent tradition, the Jesse Tree, focuses on tracing the storyline of God’s family from Creation to Cross.

We all have a family tree–branches filled with mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. The Jesse Tree is a way we remember God’s family line and our own place in it. As Christian parents, we remember our adoption into God’s family by his grace. As we teach our children, we pray that God will include them in this family by giving them living faith.

What is a Jesse Tree?

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In our home, it is a tiny one and a half foot discount store Christmas tree. On it, we hang a laminated paper ornament for each day of Advent. Each ornament on the tree represents the story of a person in Jesus’ family tree. In Isaiah 11:1 we read, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Jesse was the father of David, Israel’s greatest king. And it was from David’s lineage that Jesus came. That’s where the idea of using a Jesse Tree to celebrate Advent came from. Before a symbol is hung on the tree, a Bible passage or a story from a story Bible is read. This is the story of God’s family, the story of the Christian family. As we read his Word, we remember that Jesus came for his family. Jesus comes to us, and he will come again. Come Lord Jesus. I've worked on a Jesse Tree project guide with the Arts ministry at our church, Sojourn Community Church--Midtown in Louisville, KY. It includes sample symbols by artist Tim Mobley, beautiful cover art by Elise Welsh,  instructions for how to make Jesse Tree ornaments, and family devotions based on the Jesse Tree.

Other Advent Resources

Over the years, we've used several different devotionals with our Jesse Tree. We've found the following resources to be particularly helpful:

  • Sam Luce has posted about how there are 24 Old Testament stories in the Jesus Storybook Bible that lead up to the birth of Christ. One year, we chose to read one of these each night as we put up our Jesse Tree ornaments.

  • Another helpful resource is Ann Voskamp’s book, Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, which was designed for use with a Jesse Tree.

  • My friend Scott James has written a children's book entitled, The Littlest Watchman, which tells the story of a boy named Benjamin who watches for the fulfillment of the "root from Jesse" prophecy. The Good Book Company has created an accompanying Advent calendar and devotional that includes instructions for making your own Jesse Tree.

  • We have also used Marty Machowski's devotional Prepare Him Room, which unpacks one Old Testament prophecy about Christ's coming during each week of Advent. The devotional has an accompanying 4-week children's ministry curriculum that our church has used during Advent season with our church as well.

  • Finally, you might consider these Bible memory ornaments from She Reads Truth, which provide Scripture memory passages for each day of Advent.

Have you ever used a Jesse Tree in your home? If so, what tips have you found to be helpful?

Lord Teach Us—and Our Kids—to Pray

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One of the most basic ways we love our children is through prayer. But if we’re honest, prayer is one of the hardest things to do consistently and intentionally.

Below we want to share two stories about prayer from the life of our family, and then give a few tips for capturing and leveraging everyday moments to pray with your toddler.

This post, which I wrote along with my wife, Megan, originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition.

God of the Details

Jared and I (Megan) typically drive to church in separate cars on Sunday morning. He heads in early to help set up and to pray with the other pastors. Then I bring—or drag—the girls in for the early service.

One Sunday, I was running late. We were late getting up. We had to wait for a train to pass. And I was worried I wouldn’t find a place to park before the service started. Then, just as I pulled up to the building, another car pulled out of its space. Immediately, I blurted out: “That was lucky!” And as soon as I said it, I felt a twinge of conviction. I’d started out that Sunday without even thinking about God and the way he guides my days.

Jared and I had recently read Paul Miller’s book A Praying Life. Miller related how he’d read an “otherwise excellent book on prayer” in which the author implied we shouldn’t pray for trivial things like parking spaces. He went on to tell what his mother, Presbyterian missionary Rose Marie Miller, had to say about it:

We met for breakfast, and when I told her what this author thought about prayers for parking spaces, she looked a little incredulous, cocked her head, started laughing, and said, “How else would you find a parking place?” (103–04)

Rose Marie Miller’s conviction about God’s intimate involvement with our lives made an impression on me. One lie we believe that keeps us from prayer is that God and the real world aren’t connected. I tend to think that the everyday stuff I do as a mom—cleaning house, getting kids ready for school, finding parking spots—don’t matter to God.

But the Bible combats the artificial distinction I make between the sacred and the mundane. Paul tells us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). I think the only way to truly do that is to pray about normal life. The songwriter who gave us Psalm 104 confirms my suspicions. He sees God at work in everything—from the upper chambers of the heavens to the normal meals we eat every day.

God Is Accessible

One of the hardest things for me (Jared) as a dad is when our girls won’t stay in bed at night. Selfishly, I just want my kids to go away after 9 p.m. I work hard each day, and I tend to think this is something I deserve. But God knows better.

In fact, he knows just what I need, and he gave me a youngest daughter who is particularly fearful at bedtime. If you’re a parent, you know the drill. You’ve just tucked them in and turned on your TV show when there’s a knock at the bedroom door:

“Dad, will you pray for me? Will you pray that I’ll be able to sleep? Will you pray that I won’t be afraid? Will you pray . . . that the scary clowns won’t come?”

There was a season of parenting when I was considerably angry at whoever decided to run commercials for It during college football games!   

Goodness, the fears are real. And of course, we stop everything in those moments. We pray. We cuddle. And we tuck her back in. Sometimes multiple times in a night. Over time, I’m coming to see those moments less as a frustration and more as an opportunity to learn something about prayer.

Jesus encourages us to ask for anything in his name (John 14:13–14). Like children, we have permission to run into our heavenly Father’s chamber. And when we meet him, we can expect that he will be eager to see us and give what is best (Matthew 7:7–12).

Learning to Pray

God cares about everything, so we can talk with him about it all. Matt Chandler regularly talks about how parents can capture and leverage moments in the course of everyday life for the purpose of gospel-centered conversations.

Specifically, how can we capture and leverage everyday moments to help our kids—even our youngest kids—learn to pray?

Here are three suggestions.

1. When you’re happy, give thanks and adore God.

Our family says thank you to God before we eat. Megan uses this time to help us thank God for blessings we’ve received recently. Then, at the end of the day, our kids will say thank you to God for everyone in their lives—mom, dad, grandparents, pets, and so on.

Saying thanks to God was concrete and simple for our toddlers. For whatever reason, it was less natural for them to practice adoration, that is, to say thank you to God for who he is.

One way we’ve tried to cultivate this is by asking our kids what they learned in our nightly Bible story, and then encouraging them to thank God for that immediately after.

2. When you’ve sinned, tell God you’re sorry and ask for his help to repent.

When I (Jared) got in trouble as a kid, my mom made me confess my sins to my dad after he got home from work. It was a way to teach me about my need to confess my sin to my heavenly Father as well. I love the simple connection that practice made between moments of correction and prayer.

Sometimes kids are overwhelmed by getting “in trouble.” I’ve seen some children experience a bit of Romans 7: “I know you told me to wait until the cookies were cool, but I really wanted them!” In those moments especially, I think it’s important to stop, model for our kids what it looks like to confess that sin to God, and then ask the Holy Spirit to change their sinful desires: “God, help me to want to obey like you want me to obey.” 

We can have a similar practice when we sin against our kids as well. The next time you lose your temper with your toddler, take time to stop, confess what you’ve done wrong, and ask your son or daughter to pray for you.

3. When you need help, ask God to intervene.

One of the best ways to practice continual prayer is to identify the moments when emotions—both yours and your kids’—are the most intense, then stop wherever you are and take that emotion to God. Whether it’s fear about scary clowns or anxiety over parking spots, God cares about it all. 

In addition to the moments of intensity, it’s important to cultivate moments of daily dependence through regular requests. We all need help, and we need it all the time. Nightly, we pray a kid-friendly adaptation of Luther’s nightly prayer as a blessing over our kids:

God, thank you for our daughter, and for watching over her today. Help her to grow up to love and trust Jesus. Please help her to have godly friends and a godly husband when she grows up. Please watch over her tonight and protect her from Satan and his schemes. Amen.

The “godly husband” part wasn’t really a part of Luther’s prayer, but Megan’s dad added it when she was growing up, so we kept up the tradition. In those intentional times of daily prayer, you can also ask your child if there’s anything you can pray for them about. Even if there’s nothing on most nights, keep asking. You’re modeling for them from an early age that God and you both care about their entire life.

The Lord cares about everything, so we can talk with him about it all. Teaching our kids about prayer begins with that simple conviction.