Finding God Together

Conversations with your kids for Holy Week and beyond

What do I want my own kids to experience during Holy Week this year?

What do I want to experience this year?

Or rather, what do we all need to experience?

We will do our best to celebrate Easter. We will set up a home altar. We will talk about the stories of Jesus’ last week. These things are all wonderful, especially when we do them as simply and meaningfully as we can, without going overboard and adding stress. But these are visuals. Things we watch and hear. What I’m really curious about, especially this year, is what’s happening in the invisible altar of our hearts. The one we attend with our lives.

One thing I’ve been learning recently is that these inner altars, our hearts, are in fact very visible. Especially to our perceptive and curious kids. When I sit on the couch with bright eyes and an open posture my kids come tumbling into my lap. But when I sit curled into myself, even my three-year-old daughter will approach more cautiously, and ask, “Are you sad, Mommy?”

Being sad is wonderful, actually. Our emotions, even the strong and stinging ones, are right responses to a world that is both broken and beautiful all at once. They tell us what’s true. In some ways they are the voice of our soul. And they are often what Jesus began with first when saw, heard, and responded to people. Jesus’ attention was on the people, even during Holy Week.

So as I think about walking through Holy Week at home this year, I find a desire to do more than go through the outward rituals. I want to create space to be present with my kids the way Jesus was present with people. I want to invite them into the Love that came to us, delighted in us, ate dinner with us, went fishing with us, and in all ways invited us to see and cease our anxious frenzy, and instead notice the Kingdom, God’s love, already in our midst. As simply as I can, I want to find a way to attend with them to their emotions and notice the profound love and beauty in their lives.

One easy way I’ve decided to do this is to frame one picture from our family adventures each day for Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. I’ll invite all of us to sink back into that moment and remember what it felt like. My hunch is that, one way or another, the full spectrum of human emotion will show itself. I’ll affirm all of it, whatever it is, and wrap-up by asking them what God might be saying to us through this moment. What does this moment reveal about God’s love for us? Then I’ll keep three photos set out somewhere, as a very-visible altar to the not-so-invisible reality of love.

The first picture I’ve chosen is a snapshot of a loon. It’s from a canoe trip we took last fall in the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. The stillness has always been what I love the most about the BWCA. It’s so still you can see the rippling waves from one loon all the way across the lake. That’s how we noticed it in order to be able to paddle so close. We were also quite hungry and tired in this moment, after a long paddle, which only evoked deeper exhaustions within us all. Our hearts were anything but still.

What I hear as I revisit this moment, even just as I choose the picture, is something I’ve otherwise barely noticed in the Easter story. The stillness.

Like any year, even when it’s not so different, there is always something we can notice more deeply within the story of the love that triumphed over death. The empty tomb was shockingly still. It was just all of a sudden empty. With really no fanfare at all. I wonder if this says something about the way love itself just is. You can’t kill it. Nor can you create it. It simply goes on. With or without fanfare, with or without or anyone noticing at all. 

As Christians we hear often about how God loves us unconditionally. I’ve thought I’ve known this all my life. And I really have. But it’s also grown progressively deeper year after year. It seems like we often take this to mean that God loves us whether or not we do something good or bad. But what if it really means that God loves us whether or not we do anything? What if it means God doesn’t even have labels of good or bad or right or wrong for our activity?

It is really true. God loves us not our activity. God longs for our hearts; he doesn’t need or want any right or productive thing from us. God adores us in our stillness. This truth seems especially tangible now, as we all remain so still in our homes in support of our public health. My hope is that, as we all come to know this more deeply in our own varied ways, even when our bodies rise and are in motion again, and whether we find joy or suffering along the way, our hearts can remain still.

My philosophical self can feel all these wonderings tugging just a bit farther. Perhaps love and life and their opposites of loss and death aren’t actually locked in some kind epic cosmic duel. Maybe both are just part of reality? A reality that is both temporal and eternal. The Good News is that suffering is the temporal part; even though it real and a tangible part of every moment of our time-enclosed lives. Love is the eternal part; it’s what endures beyond the moment. And it’s also accessible and infused within every moment of our incarnate lives. That’s what makes this all really Good News.

So maybe the real Easter victory is, in its essence, just the act of noticing all this. And then realizing that we can step away from all of our imagined fights. We can stop worrying about defining right verses wrong, and we can rejoice always, choose love always, say alleluia even still. 

This is what I hear when I sit with all the complexity present for me in that photo of the loon. I don’t know what my kids will hear. It won’t (ever) be what I hear. But if what I hear is important for me, then I can trust that what they hear will be important for them. And listening to each other matters, because of all the things Jesus could have chosen to do with his time on earth, he often chose just to listen to people and just be with them.

So I’m going to ask. And I’m going to listen. And I’m going to invite my kids to consider that their attentiveness to God’s love and their sharing of that love – in whatever way they want to – is the most important thing they can ever do every day. I can do this for Holy Week this year. I can say this out loud to them. And I can keep on saying it. And if you’d like to, you can too.

Here is a basic outline you could follow.

Step 1. Pick three photos from a memorable whole family outing. Print them out if you can. Otherwise use them on your phone or computer. You can choose them at random or with intention.

Step 2. Gather your kids, or whoever your important people are, around the photo. It will help if it’s a low distraction environment. A lit candle or special blanket can help. As can having been outside and eaten beforehand.

Step 3. Present the photo. Invite them to sink into that memory and recall as much as they can about what they were thinking, feeling, hearing, seeing. After silent reflection, invite reflection out loud. Name and celebrate the diversity of emotions you heard. Remind them that God cares for all of this, and yet what God loves most of all in that photo is their beautiful hearts.

Step 4. Invite each person to again wonder silently about what all of this might be showing them about God’s love.

  • Where is God in this photo?
  • What is God thinking or feeling or doing?
  • If God is always loving us, how is that love revealing itself in this moment?

Step 5. Remind everyone that giving our attention to God’s love, even when things are hard, is always possible. Invite everyone to also remember that the ways we choose to share God’s love – through being kind – or in whatever way they want to – is the most important thing they can ever do every day.

  • What do you want to do today to help you pay attention to God’s love in your life?
  • What do you want to do today to help share God’s love?

Bonus Step. There are four basic truths that I think every young person needs to hear said out loud to them often. They are the four ideas that I try to implement in any camp or retreat or program I participate in. They are also easily connected to themes of Holy Week. If you have older kids, these might prompt a better or additional series of reflection questions. You could invite everyone to choose their own picture of a spiritually meaningful moment. Then each person could share about what resonates within those experiences with the ideas below.

  1. God thinks your life is an amazing idea. He thinks you are amazing right now. Just as you are. God gave you a unique heart and unique gifts that you will keep on discovering in different ways every day.  
  2. You can be yourself out in the world. We are here to surround you with love, no matter what goes right or wrong. So go be you, keep learning whether things go well or not, and see what happens.
  3. As you get older, you can expect miracles to happen, and you can expect everything to fall apart. Moments of complete joy and devastating suffering are coming. But in both, you will see God show up for you in amazing ways. You will really experience God at work in your actual life. God has your back, and offers light in every darkness.
  4. Create a life where your first job is to pay attention to God’s love and then to offer that love to everyone around you. Do this in your home. Do this at school. Do this in line at Chipotle. You can do this everywhere. And you won’t regret it.

Sarah Barnett serves as ECMN’s Missioner for Children, Youth, Camp, and Young Adults.