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.

Kids and church, part 2: Sound doctrine, food for God's lambs

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Jesus commanded Peter, “Feed my lambs,” (John 21:15). Once we see the necessity of the church feeding those who are young in faith and young in age (see my previous post), the obvious question is: What do we feed them? When a shepherd is seeking to feed his little lambs, he seeks the lushest pasture. He wants to help these lambs grow up to be big and strong. When it comes to feeding those who are either young in the faith or young in age, the answer is simple--though it's hard to carry out. The answer is doctrine. Our doctrine, that is, our theology or knowledge of God, should always be growing. With each passing year, we should know God better, know him more deeply, know him more personally. We need to grow in our understanding of who God is so that we can better understand how to follow him faithfully.

But doctrinal study is a difficult discipline for seasoned believers to grow in, let alone those who are young. And yet it is necessary. When I say that the lambs need doctrine, I don’t mean that they simply need to memorize definitions and theological concepts. What I mean is that they must understand those concepts and how to apply them. This is where it gets hard. Here's what I mean. Shepherds take concepts that are, by their very nature, complex and difficult to understand, and we seek to make them simple. Teaching complex realities simply requires creativity with our teaching methods while remaining faithful to the truth. It has been my experience that this is a difficult balance to maintain; I often err on one side or the other. The balance is necessary though.

Here are two ways to get it wrong when teaching doctrine.

Most of the time it’s not so much the difficulty of the ideas or concepts we are trying to teach that is the problem. Rather, it's our lack of preparation. We may be easily frustrated when students don’t understand what we are communicating and assume the problem is on their side. But if we're honest the problem is ours. As teachers, we haven't dedicated the time to fully understand theological concepts ourselves, so we're not ready to convey their meaning.

Another way we teach doctrine wrongly is when we "dumb it down" in order for youth or children to understand. This does an injustice both to the doctrine and our students. As teachers and preachers, we need to keep the truth simple without simplifying it. We should never change the truth to make it more acceptable or intentionally leave out harder concepts (e.g. the Trinity, or the atonement) that may take more time to digest and understand. Yes, this is hard, but it's what we’ve been tasked to do. As teachers, we must be faithful with the whole counsel of God.

Here are a few ways to teach doctrine well.

Instead of dumbing down truth, we should break it down. Instead of simplifying truths, we distill them by teaching doctrine in chunks and by making sure our definitions are clear.  

And, after breaking down doctrinal truths into digestible chunks, we must also help help young lambs put the pieces together. We need to help youth see how individual truths connect with the bigger picture, the grand narrative of Scripture. When we do this well, we help kids see that the individual doctrines are simply windows through which we view our big God, and we lead them to worship and glorify the God of doctrines.

Finally, it's important to remember that no truth has been fully learned until it has been lived. Young ones don't need to simply memorize a definition that is divorced from practice. They need to work doctrine into their experience. In order for this goal to be accomplished, we teachers must both understand the material we are teaching and understand how this doctrine applies to our students. This requires one major thing. We must know the sheep. Proverbs 27:4 says, "Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds." There's a principal there for teachers. We must know our students personally and lead them to apply doctrine where they live. We must make it personal for them so they can understand the truth experientially. We must help those young in age or faith to see how specific doctrines apply to their particular stage of life.

May God help us shepherd them well.

A caution about orphan care and Adoption Theology

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The theology of adoption is a beautiful thing. I’m eternally grateful for it as a child of God. I have been adopted. I was not God's child. Now I am. My inheritance is now with my Father in heaven (Romans 8:15)  He is the author of adoption. He sacrificed so that, through faith, I live and have been made a part of his family.

In many profound ways, adopting our daughters has been a picture of this beautiful truth. 

At the very beginning of our adoption journey I would read books and articles on the theology of adoption and how it should inspire and convict Christians to give homes to orphans. I would engage in conversations that further drove the comparison home and would nod an emphatic “YES!” with each word.

Four years and two finalized adoptions later, I still nod –  just not quite as enthusiastically. Why? Because this theology can only capture part of the story. God himself cannot be fully understood by pondering one aspect of his character or work (or one thousand for that matter). There are many truths about God that need to inform how we view earthly adoption.  I’m now concerned about some practical ramifications for adoptees if we only tell them that their story is a beautiful redemption story -- that it was God’s plan from the beginning of time for them to be with their adoptive family. While these things are true, this is only part of the story. What do our dear ones do with the pain?  The loss?  The desire to find their birth family?  Birth culture? 

So following are three of my thoughts on where we need to clarify and broaden our understanding of adoption as it relates to a gospel theology.

1.  One aspect of the gospel is reconciliation with the Father. Adoptees can experience this fully with respect to our heavenly Father, but  but they may never experience reconciliation with their birth family. We are reconciled to our loving Father through Jesus.  We have been able to return to him. We can now commune with him and walk with him as he has desired from the beginning. All is made right. But adoptees aren’t reconciled to their adopted families! Reconciliation would happen with a return and renewal of their birth family.  Had sin not come into this now dying world, children would be with their birth parents. This was God's created intention.  Thankfully, he is also a merciful God who redeems and sets the lonely in families through adoption. But that precious redemption comes after there has been deep brokenness.  Earthly adoption is a beautiful picture of the gospel but not a complete one.

2Another aspect of the gospel is renewal and regeneration. A new Christian convert makes a clean break with the past. We change and don't go back. All children of God are made to be new creations. We don’t go back to find our “old life” – let alone live and have relationship with old sin habits. While a new adoptive family may provide greater stability and growth than time spent in foster care or during life as an orphan, the relationships built during this time of life may be very important for a child's growth. Adopted children should feel free to discover their past, previous caregivers, and their birth family and culture when and if it is wise to do so. 

3.  We need spiritual adoption because we are sinners. It's not the same with earthly adoption. We need to be clear.  It’s our fault that we need God to adopt us. We sinned. But our adopted children needed us to bring them into our family through no fault of their own.

The church’s passion for adoption needs to be informed by the whole counsel of our loving God.  We shouldn't merely latch on to talking points that deeply moved us in a sermon or a book. Children can suffer if we lack clarity. Do we ever pause and ponder how our conversations in the Christian world may impact the way thousands upon thousands of adopted children process or repress their story? Praise God he gives wisdom to those who seek and ask him. God, help us be balanced and wise as we teach the gospel to adoptee children.