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I serve on the board of directors for a non-profit organization called All About Women.  All About Women was founded about a decade ago with the goal of helping women improve their lives, their health and their well-being. Last year, we launched a really wonderful blog series that focuses on the lives of two very different women, Lily and Z, who are negotiating the journeys of their lives with humor and sincerity. This week, the character of Lily blogged about counting her blessings.

It made me stop and count my own blessings. And I have many, many blessings. For example… Last night, my husband and I had to take our younger son to the emergency room because he developed a wicked-sounding croup. As he breathed in and out, he made a horrible, striderous sound that made both of us very nervous.

Luckily for him (and his parents), he responded very well to a breathing treatment and an oral medication. We walked out there in less than three hours with a healthy, smiling baby. Not everyone is that lucky. But we were. And we were grateful. So grateful. So grateful for our healthy son. Two healthy sons, actually.

In about five minutes, the women of my Disciple class will be taking a few moments out of their busy days to say a prayer.  We meet as a small group each Monday morning, but we are doing a communal prayer on our own each Friday at noon during Lent. Our leaders send out an email each Friday morning to remind us to stop, close our eyes and say a few words to God.

And as we do it, we know that our friends are praying at the same time. It’s still being part of the community of faith even when we’re not in the physical presence of that community.

I thought I’d share my prayer this week with you, my blog readers.

Creating God, Thank you for all the blessings that you have bestowed upon me. Help me to remember those blessings whenever I get down or discouraged. Help  me see and feel the Holy Spirit within me–and within others–this week. Please give comfort to all the people who were affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Please give strength to all the people who are fighting for freedom and justice all over the world. Please be with all the women in my Disciple class–these women who support me, shape my thoughts and faith and give comfort to each other when we need it. And please let me find new ways to respond to the amazing miracle that is your love for us. Amen.

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I have found that one of best places and times to have a really good conversation with my older son is in the car on the way to and from school.

That’s when we find ourselves talking about all sorts of things. William likes to pose questions that he’s been pondering, and we often have really wonderful discussions as a result. In the last few weeks, we’ve talked about a range of topics, including whether the Loch Ness Monster is real or not, how ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was sort of like the Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, and why Godric Gryffindor would have needed a sword if he was a wizard and all the wizards had wands.

A few days ago, he hit me with another good question.

“What’s underneath the Earth?” he wanted to know.

“Underneath the Earth?” I repeated. “Well, there’s space underneath, as far as I know.”

“But what’s underneath that?” he persisted.

Ack. A few months ago, William had asked me what was beyond outer space. (Readers of my family blog might remember that conversation.) I sort of stumbled around for awhile before finally resulted to that tried-and-true resource of all modern parents. Nope, not the Bible.  That’s right. As soon as I could get to a computer, I turned to Google. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much of anything useful. I think I told William something about how the universe is still expanding outward, but we don’t know really what’s out there for sure. I read to him a little bit about how there’s gas, plasma, dust and some other molecules in space, but that didn’t really address the heart of his question.

His question, of course, is really: “What’s out there?”

The funny thing is, I don’t think it really bothers him that no one knows for absolute certain what’s out there. He’s curious, yes, and he wants to learn more, but young children are accustomed to the fact that there is so much they just don’t know. And it doesn’t bother them. As far as he’s concerned, heaven is “up there” above us, although I don’t know how he logistically reconciles that with outer space. But he does somehow, and he’s comfortable with that. I remember when I used to think that heaven was just “up there,” too. I kind of wish I still did. It becomes more of a tricky existential concept as we become adults, though. 

And while we’re on the subject of tricky teleological questions…William also asked me around the same time if we would understand everything about God (that we don’t understand right now) when we get to heaven. I told him, honestly, that I don’t know.  Maybe we will, maybe we won’t. Maybe it will be enough just to be in the presence of God. Maybe our questions will be satisfied just by that. We won’t even know that ’til we get there…wherever “there” is.

As confounding as they can be, I like that he’s asking these questions. I like that he’s asking me, even though I have to tell him that not only do I know, but I have a whole series of my own questions that I’m asking. But I’m trying to raise my son to  know that it’s okay to ask those questions. 

In church, we talk a lot about the mystery of faith, and I think we have to grapple with that. And for me, at least, grappling involves asking a lot of questions and pondering the possible answers. It looks like William may be taking that route, too.

***

What’s the trickiest question your child has ever asked you? How did you respond?

My church hosted a guest preacher today, the Rev. Dr. John L. Bell, a minster from the Church of Scotland who also has a deep interest in congregational worship and music. For the adult Sunday School classes, Bell taught a lesson on rediscovering the Psalms.

Unfortunately, I walked in late (the baby has a little separation anxiety on Sunday mornings), so I missed his discussion of the first psalm on his list. While I got settled, I looked at the list of the rest of the psalms he planned to discuss.  I wondered why on earth he was including the 23rd Psalm. I didn’t think there was anything else that I could possibly learn about the 23rd Psalm, honestly. Haven’t we all heard it a million times? Isn’t it sort of the Old Testament equivalent, in terms of ubiquity, of First Corinthians 13?  It’s not that it’s not a perfectly fine series of verses, full of meaning, important to our understanding of God, blah blah blah, but honestly. It’s one of those pieces of Scripture that I sometimes think I probably don’t ever need to hear again because I’ve heard it sooo many times.

Okay, but I was wrong.

I’ve always been drawn to maternal images in Scripture because I’ve long felt that the feminine aspects of God tend to get downplayed (if, in fact, played at all). And it had never occurred to me to see a subtle feminine side of God within the 23rd Psalm. But Bell found it.

Let me quote:

“You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” [Psalm 23: 5. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version.]

Bell described going to a party. You ring the doorbell, and the person who thinks he’s the host opens the door to greet you. He takes your coat, hangs it in the closet, welcomes you inside, and offers to pour you a drink. But who is the person who spread the tablecloth on the dining room table, the person who arranged the canapes on the silver trays, who (likely) chose the furniture in the room? It was probably his wife. 

Granted, this metaphor doesn’t hold up for every single social situation or family, but doesn’t it ring true for enough of them that you can see Bell’s point? God is preparing a table for us. He is taking care to make the preparations for us to arrive, to make it lovely and beautiful and welcoming. Those are traits very often associated with women. We are often the decorators, the preparers. I’m not even naturally inclined to decorate or prepare, but somehow in my household, I still do it.

In the 23rd Psalm, the writer (David, or at least it’s ascribed to David) is clearly looking forward to being welcomed into heaven in such a manner. And don’t we all wish for that, both on earth and in heaven? Don’t we all want people to gladly welcome us into their homes and share some time and dinner (maybe salmon, she said hopefully) with us? And don’t we also want God to thrown open the door to his kingdom and beckon us in with a big smile and a crisp white tablecloth, heaped with a glorious feast? 

Something to think about.

Dear God,

Thank you for my beautiful wonderful marvelous children. I am so grateful to have the privilege to be their mother. Thank you for blessing me with the gift of these two bright-eyed little boys.

But would it not have been possible to have included a “mute” button or something? 

Amen.

This morning, my elder son clamored at my arm, “Mommy, help! I need a can of vegetables!”

Yes, he does like vegetables more than the average kid, which is wonderful, but he wasn’t begging to eat a breakfast of cold canned green beans. He was reminding me that we are trying to get back on track with something that we used to do religiously* but have kind of slacked off on in recent months.

(*Er, you know what I mean.)

Until last summer, my son took a can of vegetables or fruit with him when we went to church. When we got to church, he placed the can in a shopping cart just inside the entryway at the side door. The shopping cart is our church’s collection bin for Second Harvest, a non-profit that collects food donations for its Food Bank, which then distributes the food to agencies that serve the needy in our region. 

The point was that my son took a can to church every single time he went to church. If we went to church twice in one week, we took two cans of food. If we went three times, then the shopping cart was three cans heavier, thanks to my son. The can of food was his offering. It was his visible reminder of how privileged we are to have plenty to eat and because we are so grateful, we want to share what we have with others who are less fortunate. It is our response to God’s grace.

A relevant Scriptural reference for this comes from the following passages in the book of Matthew:
  • Matthew 5: 35: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”
  • Matthew 5: 40: “The King will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”  [Life Application Study Bible, New International Version.]

The food donation worked well, too, because every toddler and preschooler on the planet starts to grapple with the concept of sharing. Taking a can of food from our pantry and leaving it in the shopping cart was excellent practice in the art of sharing. My son understood 1) sharing is good, 2) there are hungry people out there, and 3) so we’ll share our food with them so they won’t be hungry.  And bless him, my son always liked to pick out his favorite food from the canned food stock in the pantry to share, not the stuff that he couldn’t care less about. Sometimes, I even let him pick out the cans at the grocery store so he could make sure to get some good stuff.

Then last summer, I broke my ankle. Yeah, no,  it wasn’t such a good time. There I was, with a new baby, a four-year-old and a bad wheel. Except for one committee meeting that required the entire committee to get me there, I didn’t make it to church for quite awhile. I was stuck in my house with a boot on my bruised-and-battered leg and a pair of crutches. By the time I did start going to church again, we were out of the canned food habit. I was lugging along an infant, his diaper bag, my purse, my elder son and his stuff, all on my wobbly ankle, while trying to gingerly navigate the long walk from the parking lot to the nursery where I could at least deposit some of that load. 

Oof. I’m having flashbacks, remembering.

It just seemed like I couldn’t manage a single additional thing, and unfortunately the can of food fell by the wayside. But occasionally, my elder son would walk by the shopping cart and say, “We really need to start bringing some food for the shopping cart again, Mommy. The cart’s almost empty.”

He was right. Second Harvest desperately needs food donations. You can probably guess how dire the need for food donations has been during the last few years, with the shaky economy and then the flood that demolished so many people’s homes last spring in Middle Tennessee. I fretted about how we fell away from our commitment to help.

So this morning, when my son reminded me that he needed a can of food, I resolved to stop letting things get in the way. He and I walked over to the pantry and studied the contents. I try to be mindful of the food bank’s actual needs–they like to get donations of beans, protein, peanut butter, canned tuna, veggies and fruits because those are the most nutritionally useful–so I’ve always tried to steer my son toward the healthy options.  We assessed the possibilities, ruling out the cans of chicken broth (why on earth do I have so many cans of chicken broth?) and the Chef Boy-R-Dee.

“How about diced tomatoes?” I suggested. “Or, hmmm, garbanzo beans? Those are good.”

Not sure what garbanzo beans were, he chose the tomatoes. And he was happy to have an offering to take to church again.

That’s it. We’re getting back on the wagon. We’re going to resume our good habit. People need us. God needs us to respond.

***

If you’re seeking a way to make giving relevant to your young child’s life, I highly recommend the food donation. My child loves the hands-on nature of thunking the can into the shopping cart. It’s tangible, and he remembers it afterward, which is even better.

If you’re searching for information about Lent, here are a few meditations that you might enjoy reading:

Diana Butler Bass’  Beliefnet column refers to a poem this week:  “Ash Wednesday: Lent Begins.”

Georgia Preach’s blog entry “Walk Humbly.” 

A Holy Experience’s “Why Do Lent? Why a Failing Lent Actually Succeeds.”

Here’s a social justice-type resource from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Hunger Program on fasting during Lent, if you’re up for that sort of thing:

A Lenten Fast: From Insight to Action in the Gospel of John

Here’s a seven-week faith formation resource that has information, meditations and ideas for each week of Lent:

Lent 4.5

And here are a couple of resources for observing Lent with your children–or finding ways to help children as part of your Lenten observance:

Caroline Kelly of Central Presbyterian Church (Atlanta) on “Observing Lent in the Context of Children at Risk.”

Talking With Children About Lent and Easter

The Presbyterian Church in Canada’s resource on “Helping Children and Youth Participate in Lent.”

The Presbyterian Church in Canada’s “Family Table for the Season of Lent.”  

“Thoughts for Lent: Faith of a Child” from First United Methodist in Wichita Falls, Texas.

As for my family and our Lenten observance, well…we aren’t really doing one this year. I thought about trying to find a way to do something with my four-year-old son to observe Lent, but I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. I mean, we had trouble even getting the Advent calendar done each night back in December. I also didn’t want to take on anything that really went over my son’s head. What’s the point of introducing him to something if it’s too complex for him to understand? But we have talked a little bit about the season of Lent being a little like the season of Advent, in that we prepare for a major event involving Jesus. And I was open to finding other age-appropriate things to do, too.

So I was pleased  to find a wonderful little section in the “Family Table” resource (above)  that talks about pretzels:  “Pretzels are traditional for the season of Lent because they remind us of arms folded in prayer. Many years ago the bread was known by its Latin name, bracellae or ‘little arms.’ Over time, that word changed into ‘bretzel’ and then ‘pretzel.'”

Interesting, huh? I never knew that. But I think I might have to incorporate pretezels into our Lenten observance around here. I think it would really appeal to my always-hungry child. At least it would give us an accessible way to start talking about Lent and lead up to Holy Week.

I probably should have named this blog post “Holy Pretzels,” now that I’m thinking about it.

Lent got a little tongue-in-cheek shout-out on Comedy Central tonight. Calling himself America’s most famous Catholic, Stephen Colbert appeared on his show “The Colbert Report” tonight with ashes on his forehead.

He started out with a relatively straightforward explanation of what the ashes were for and what Lent was…and then he said he was giving up being Catholic for Lent this year. Then he said he was going to be Jewish instead. He wiped off the ashes, donned a yarmulke and declared he was giving up being kosher for Lent and then dug into a giant vat of bacon.

(Side note: Mmmmm, bacon. I’m glad I didn’t give up bacon for Lent.)

Who says we can’t have a sense of humor, right? Anyway, there is no possible way I could do justice to The Funny, so you might have to go find the clip online.