Celebrating Lent with children

In most congregations children are an important part of worship during the Advent and Christmas season: small children stand on tiptoe to light the candles in the Advent wreath; the children's choir joyfully heralds the news of the Savior's birth; the children reenact the nativity scene during an evening program. To exclude children from worship during Advent and Christmas would be unthinkable. Yet in many of these same congregations children are all but forgotten during Lent.

In the article that follows, Collette De Nooyer, consultant on children's worship and M. Div. student at Western Theological Seminary, describes ways in which children also can join their parents in the self-examination, repentance, and renewal that Christians experience during the Lenten season.

The children sit in a circle listening intently to the storyteller, watching her place the figures of sheep among them. They not only listen: they become part of the story. When the presenter has finished, one child lights a candle in the Lenten cross while the others watch reverently. Soon they will be working with paint and clay and other media to respond to the story. Already they are involved in worship…

These children, and many others like them, are participating in a new kind of worship experience designed to help them feel the renewal and joy of Lent. For years children were excluded during Lent—and understandably so. Lent, after all, is the time during the church year when Christians are encouraged to examine themselves, repent, and renew their Christian commitment. Adults have long assumed that these actions are outside the realm of what most children can experience.

However, recently educators have encouraged Christians to broaden their vision about what children do experience. Children, they explain, have an innate religious sense: they have a very real awareness of God. Although they may not travel the same path of self-examination, repentance, and renewal that adults do, they can experience the joy of being forgiven and surrounded by God's love.

The Approach

Perhaps the best way of helping children experience the joy and renewal of the Lenten season is through storits. Because it's impossible to explain God through rational or cognitive words, for centuries we have used stories to pass on "the Truth." Through stories or metaphors we attempt to recreate for others—both children and adults—that moment or time when we felt that we were in the presence of God.

The six stories described below are designed to help children experience God during the six weeks in Lent. All the stories both highlight the importance of repentance and self-examination and emphasize the joyful message that God is with us. In order to visually link these six stories to Lent, you may wish to prepare a wooden cross that supports six candles. After each story the children might light a "Lenten candle," just as they light candles in the Advent wreath during that season.

Although these stories could be told as "children's sermons," they would be more effective if incorporated into children's worship, Sunday school, or a mid-week class. These latter settings give children the opportunity to express themselves artistically after each of the stories, responding to what they have heard. We have often underestimated a child's experience of God because she or he is not able to verbalize that experience (even in story or metaphor). We are finding, however, that children are able, at times, to show us what they have experienced.

In the Worship Center at Beechwood Reformed Church, we teachers provide the children with a variety of art mediums (clay, play-doh, tempera paint, watercolor, chalk, crayon, wood sculpture) and an atmosphere that encourages and enables creative response. After hearing a story, the children are asked to select the medium they would like to work with and are encouraged to decide what they want to make in response to the story. (This helps the children narrow their focus and ensures that they will not be roving the room aimlessly.) Often they choose to draw or paint a picture about a part of the story that they particularly remember. Other times, working in clay or wood sculpture, they reproduce objects or themes of the story that seem to have special meaning for them. Although not every response will provide an accurate window on the child's sensitivity to an experience of God, many of their responses do show that they have been touched in a meaningful way by the story.

After the children have finished their work, we encourage them to talk about it with us. Often their insights have moved us as adults to deeper understanding of our own faith. It has become very apparent to us that Jesus' admonition to learn from the little children must be taken seriously.

The Six Stories

The Adventures of Eustace. The first story is intended to set the foundation for an understanding (on a child's level) of repentance and reconciliation. It is excerpted from chapter 7 of The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" (part of C.S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicles) entitled "The Adventures of Eustace." You will want to read this chapter (and probably the chapters that precede it) before you attempt to tell the story to the children. The following synopsis of the story should give you some hint of how it reflects the themes of repentance and reconciliation.

Eustace is a rather negative fellow who has unfortunately (from his perspective) happened along on an adventure into Narnia. In a fit of pettishness, he has decided to run off for a bit in order to avoid doing his share of work. While he is playing hooky, he has the misfortune (from the perspective of both Eustace and his friends!) of turning into a dragon.

As Lewis puts it: "He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon's hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself (p. 75).

But the real adventure (and the Lenten metaphor) begins when one dark night he encounters  Asian (the God/Christ figure) just outside his cave. The great lion communicates to Eustace (the dragon) that he must follow and then leads the way to a garden at the top of a huge mountain. In the middle of that garden is a large well and in the well is a staircase of marble steps (the very image of the ancient baptistries!).

Eustace looks longingly at the well. Not long before he was transformed into a dragon Eustace had slipped a golden bracelet onto his arm. Since his transformation, the bracelet, far too small for a dragon, has bitten unmercifully into his arm, causing constant pain. Instinctively Eustace knows that if he can bathe in the water of the well, the pain will somehow cease. But as Eustace heads for the well, the lion lets him know that he must "undress" before entering the water. Suddenly it occurs to Eustace that he might be able to shed his dragon skin. Immediately he begins scratching away at the green scales. It is easier than he imagined! The skin peels off like the skin of a banana.

As Eustace steps toward the well, however, he notices his foot—it's still the foot of a dragon. So Eustace tries scratching and shedding a second time—and even a third time. But each time, he finds another layer of dragon skin beneath the one he has shed. Finally Eustace looks to the lion and, gazing into his great eyes, realizes that he must let Asian help him "undress." With an incredible show of vulnerability, the "dragon" lies down on his back, chest exposed, while the great lion's claws cut deep into his skin—"so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart," says Eustace. The other three skins, he now realizes, had come off too easily. This one was "ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been."

Eustace's skin feels terribly new and tender when Asian picks him up and throws him into the well. And the water from the well stings awfully at first. But in no time the pain from his arm is gone, and he is feeling "perfectly delicious." Coming out of the well, Asian uses his great paws again, but this time to dress Eustace in "new clothes." Eustace returns to his friends, forever changed.

Noah. The second story is the account of Noah and the flood. Following the Eustace tale, this story underscores God's presence in the midst of crisis and establishes that God created all things for good, not evil. Even though God judges the world, he continues in loving reconciliation with his people. In the worship center we tell this story with a large wooden ark complete with animals, Noah, and his wife.1 During the response time some children use these concrete figures to retell the story.

The Temptations in the Wilderness. The third story tells of Jesus' struggle in the wilderness. Here again, we translate the story into concrete visuals. The "desert" is a square acrylic box (2x3 feet) filled with sand. The Jesus figure is cut from 1-inch plain pine wood. (No distinguishing features are necessary for the children other than perhaps a bit of woodburning to indicate the face.) Three stones, a larger rock for the mountaintop, and a large square block to serve as the temple are the only materials needed. (The less detail in the material used, the more it allows for creativity on the part of the children as they observe and then respond through art materials.)

The Good Shepherd. The last three stories focus on Jesus as the Good Shepherd, whose presence will surround the children even in the darkest of times. In the worship center we couple the scenes of the twenty-third psalm with the search for the lost sheep. We do it using flannel materials; but instead of arranging them on a flannel board, we spread them on the floor in the midst of the children. The message is that the story belongs to all of us, children and adults alike. The materials include a large green felt circle for the pasture, laminated tag-board figures of a shepherd and sheep, a sheepfold, a pool of water, and large black rocks (through which the sheep are led and where the lost sheep is found) all cut from pieces of colored felt.

During the second story session based on this theme the leader retells the first story, then adds the John 10:11-13 portion about the hireling, the wolf, and the Good Shepherd, who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. In addition to those materials listed above the leader will need two new figures: a hireling figure and a wolf, both made from laminated tagboard.(2)

The final story, like the story of Noah and the flood, uses three-dimensional wooden figures. Two wooden circles painted green and covered with felt represent the "pastures." On one is a corral made of fencing, and on the second sits a small replica of the communion table (complete with cup and plate). The Good Shepherd leads the sheep from the sheepfold to the second pasture, where "the table of the Good Shepherd" has been prepared. Once the sheep have been led around the table, they are exchanged, one by one, for people (men, women, children), for at this table the "Good Shepherd feeds his sheep." The impact that this final series of stories has on the children has been very evident in their art responses and in the way that they repeatedly choose to use concrete materials as they continue working with these stories.(3)

Repentance, reconciliation, and the joy of a renewed commitment—all three are needed for both children and adults to complete the Lenten journey. And as Jesus and his forebears knew, stories and parables can illuminate the way.

Notes

(l)A catalog of these and other wooden materials referred to in the article can be obtained by writing to Sawdust Creations, 3217 Davcliff, Portage, MI 49002, or by calling (616) 327-4545.

(2)This way of telling the Good Sheperd parable was developed by Dr. Jerome W. Berryman (see "Entering into Stories").

(3)You will discover further discussion of the use of the Good Shepherd metaphor in connection with the Lord's Supper in The Religious Potential of the Child by Sofia Cavalletti (see "Entering Into Stories").

Colette DeNooyer is director of children's worship at Beechwood Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, and a leader of workshops about children in worship.