The Mama Bear of the Johnson Fairy Tale, I am doing my best to follow Jesus and remain madly in love with my Prince, a carpenter of sorts. A Minnesota girl and an Alabama boy, we met as undergraduates at Princeton. Together we are raising our four precious children, G-Bear, E-Bear, Buddy Bear and J-Bear. In my spare time I am a physician in training trying to cultivate a culture of life, a fan of cooking anything fresh and homemade, and a not-so-secret admirer of southern hospitality.
Friends, the Holy Season of Lent has arrived. In the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, I was frantically taking down Valentine decorations to make space for this season. I printed off our Lent Calendars from Catholic Icing, hung our Lent pocket banner and set our our dried beans and Easter basket. The time has come.
Each year between the Christmas and Lenten seasons, I enjoy planning our Lenten activities and aides. This is a wonderful seasons to walk through personally and as a family. The plethora of Lenten activities on the web is certainly a blessing, but in years past I have been over ambitious and over zealous to the point of being overwhelmed and overwhelming to others. Now, I try to evaluate each of the Lenten pillars and what we can do to embrace each one as individuals and as a family: prayer, fasting, and giving (alms). If I focus on one or two activities to emphasize each pillar, I find that we all tend to do better without being distracted from the spirit of the season. This year, here are some of our aides and activities, each intended to draw us closer to the heart of Jesus.
Marking the Days
A take on an Advent Calendar, the Lenten Path from Catholic Icing has become a Lenten staple in our house. My kids look forward to receiving their "Lent Calendar" on Ash Wednesday. It helps them visualize the season and look forward to Jesus' miracle at Easter. The calendar also helps them follow along with days of abstinence (the fish symbol on Fridays), and helps them learn that Sundays are not included in the 40 days of Lent. Lacy at Catholic Icing has done such nice job with this teaching tool.
During Advent and Lent, I try to teach the kids a short, new prayer by adding it at the end of our mealtime grace. I try to pick a prayer that is symbolic of the season. This year, we are saying the following prayer together, while making the sign of the cross over our mind, mouth and heart: Lord, be on my mind. Lord, be on my lips. Lord, be on my heart. Amen. If the gesturing seems familiar when you try it, that is because it mirrors the Mass liturgy at the point of the gospel reading. I hope my kids will learn the prayer and remember it each time they make the sign of the cross on their forehead, lips and heart before the Gospel reading.
Our main prayer discipline will be our long-time tradition of reading the New Testament stories from our Jesus Storybook Bible. We have others, but this is my favorite kids' Bible version. G-Bear and E-Bear will soon be ready for more formal scripture readings, but they, along with Buddy Bear and J-Bear, love the pictures and the simple language of this interpretation. Buddy Bear also knows many of the stories by heart now, because T found an audio book version a few weeks ago, which plays continuously in our car these days. It is beautiful to watch them internalize the stories, reference them, and ask questions.
In addition to our Lenten readings, this year I added Scripture cards to our Lenten table, in hopes that we might be inspired to remember and live out a little of God's Word. All 26 of the ABC Scripture Cards (distributed by Magnolia Lane in Birmingham, AL) are beautiful and include a separate Bible verse for each letter. The verses are perfect for Lent, for example, the letter D spoke to all of us:
Fasting is truly countercultural in our society and so poorly understood, so I relish the annual opportunity Lent affords me to witness and role model Christian fasting for my children. While we won't eat meat as a family on Fridays during Lent, I don't expect my kids to notice that very much. What is more, since children under 14 are exempted from the dietary fasts of Lent, I am saving focused conversations about food and drink for later. For now, we are talking more about how making small sacrifices for ourselves can be a special way of growing closer to Jesus and clear away things that we think are more important than God. The biggest way I am trying to teach them this is with the help of our Bean Basket:
This well-known tradition has become another one of our Lenten staples. Whenever the kids do something kind, selfless or loving during Lent, they get to put a black bean in the Easter basket. At Easter, when Jesus rises from the dead and "makes all things new," the black beans in our basket are changed to jelly beans that we get to enjoy for the whole Easter season. With the basket, I am trying to teach my kids that "fasting" from bad behavior choices can help us clear the way for behavior that God wants for our lives. The delayed gratification that comes from going without candy for now and looking forward to it after Lent also helps to make the Easter celebration that much sweeter for all of us.
In the past we have had a Friday Food basket that I let the kids put food items into for our parish March Food Drive. This year, we are focusing our attention as a family on an event that I am coordinating for our church, the Lenten Family Service Morning. This event will provide service projects for families of all ages to complete together. I am asking the kids to help me gather the supplies and we'll be talking about the way our service is a form of giving to those who are less fortunate.
This year, we are once again using the "Lent Pockets" that I made last year. This string of 46 felt pockets reminds us of the pillars of Lent and helps us pass the days as a red wooden cross makes its way along the banner.
In each pocket, we have a daily Lenten discipline to serve as our "giving" for the day. If the kids are noticed doing their daily Lenten giving, they get to put TWO beans in the basket at the same time. Huge incentive, let me tell you. I write "what we're doing for Lent" each day on the chalk board in the kitchen so that we all remember. The kids are so eager each morning to find out "what is in the Lent pocket!"
I am coming to appreciate more and more each year the joy that it is to walk the Lenten journey as a family. In the end, this is a season to, above all, learn aware et amari: to love and be loved. Fear not, for He loves us in all our faults, and in His love there is hope for us all. Easter is coming....
What do you do when your three year old feels left out of Valentine festivities?
When he is the only one without a classroom Valentine party?
When he is the only big sib not making a Valentine box?
"Mom, don't I get to make Valentines for my friends?"
"Will I get to have a Valentine box?"
"Mom, are we going to have a Valentine celebration?"
I did the only thing there was to do if I was going to be able to sleep at night:
"Well, of course, Buddy Bear! We're having a preschool Valentine party with your friends HERE at our house! We'll decorate Valentine bags, eat Valentine treats, sing Valentine songs and read Valentine stories. Who are we going to invite?"
Take that. Call me a sucker. I love these kids.
So, I called the mothers of two three-year-old friends the night before and *begged* them to let me host their kiddos for a Valentine party the next morning. Not that I had to twist any arms. I think I was suddenly Friend of the Year. Even more so when I offered to take a third friend from her mom this morning right before the party.
And we did just what I promised. Spare paper bags, stickers and markers were perfect for decorating Valentine Bags around the dining room table. Fruit snacks and heart-shaped breads with jam and do-it-yourself-sprinkles made a great snack. When playtime grew tiresome, we sat in a circle and read a few Valentine books, learned about God's love in 1 Corinthians 13 and then sang "Jesus Loves Me" all together. Then it was time to make a few Valentines to put in our bags, hand out lollypops and erasers (already on hand from my treat cabinet) and head home.
Too bad there aren't any pictures. My hands were full, but thankfully, they were full of love. Buddy Bear was so delighted with his treats and Valentine bag. He was thrilled to get to share the news of his party with his siblings when they came home from school with their party stories. I think it made the day great for both of us. These preschool days go by so fast. I need to seize each one.
I am so thankful that this winter we have found a healthy balance of activities for our kids. So many families struggle with feelings of business when it comes to after school activities. So far, my tendency has been to stay away from activities outside of school. This is largely because the kids get so much activity and enrichment as part of their school day, and I want to prioritize time together as a family outside of school. Also, I know that whatever we start now sets somewhat of a precedent that will set expectations for the future. With a family of four kids, we need to pace ourselves.
This winter, though, I knew we would need some afternoon activities to keep us from getting cabin fever. My priorities were to choose activities that could either be enjoyed at home or could be enjoyed by most of the kids at a single destination. Preserving dinner time was a must. In the end, we settled on piano lessons for G-Bear (continued) and E-Bear (first time!) and swim lessons. We have been so thankful for both sets of experiences.
Piano continues to be a real treat. We love our piano teacher, Mrs. H. She comes to our house and does a fifteen minute Kinder lesson for E-Bear followed by a thirty minute lesson for our more experienced G-Bear. Thankfully, both bears enjoy Mrs. H's instruction and, at least so far, are happy to practice with only a little weekly cajoling on my part. Both T and I love hearing the piano as playroom background music.
Our second activity has been twice a week swim lessons at the Foss Swim School. Wow. We are so fortunate to have one of their pools nearby. These swim lessons are totally different than anything we have experienced. The pool is warm, really warm. Think bathtub warm. So, the kids are very excited to hop in the water when we arrive, even my littles who don't like cold water (just like their momma). Second, the teachers and teaching methods are excellent. The kids are drawn to the enthusiasm and out-going friendliness of the instructors. Everyone is known by his or her name. And, the class sizes are no larger than 3 or 4 kids. The best part is that each of our kids are improving by leaps and bounds. G-Bear is swimming like a real swimmer, E-Bear is swimming alone and getting rings from the bottom of the pool, and Buddy Bear is swimming assisted with his face in the water. The price feels a little steep when I am writing a check for three kids for four weeks at a time, but by the end of the swim session I always leave feeling like it was worth every penny. I have my fingers crossed that we will have three swimmers by this summer! Now that would be a winter activity well spent.
What could be more adventurous on a February morning than waking up early to go watch a hot air balloon launch? We tried it this weekend for the Hudson Hot Air Affair.
As it turned out, there was no balloon launch because conditions were too windy. We still got to see one of the balloons inflate, and then we took the kids to a special brunch at Keys Cafe afterwards. I hope we remember to do this event next year. We'll wear snow pants to stay even warmer, and we'll check the weather conditions before we leave home.