Saturday, February 23, 2013

Eggs, whales, and butterflies: more Easter preparation

                                                    photo from

Let's start with the most basic of all Easter activities: dying hard boiled eggs.  Although the intricate designs of Ukrainian eggs are famous, another tradition of the Ukraine is to dye eggs in a single bright color.  For a step by step explanation of how to do this, check out <>. Before your Easter dinner, have the children place the eggs in the containers of newly grown grass (from last week's suggested activity).

Historic note:   During the Middle Ages when infant mortality was high, bereaved mothers in the Ukraine took comfort during Easter by sending something tangible to the souls of their children. They told the story of the Blazhenni, spirits who live on the edge of the world where all the streams and rivers come together; these Blazhenni, they believed, were the souls of unbaptized babies.  On Easter, grieving mothers would throw the shells of red-dyed eggs into nearby rivers and streams, believing that when the shells reached the Blazhennni, they would know that it was Easter and they, too, could celebrate.  The Blazhenni were gentle spirits who ate no meat, except on the day the red shells reached them. 
Another activity in preparation for Easter is to decorate an Easter Tree with ornaments of eggs, whales, and butterflies.  Choose a tree or shrub in the yard, or bring a branch indoors to use as your Easter Tree. In preparation for making whale decorations, tell the children the story of Jonah and the whale (read it from Scripture, paraphrase it on your own, or use one of the many picture books -- Amazon lists 1, 618 versions of this story!). Jesus told his followers: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” No wonder the early church celebrated the story of Jonah and the whale as symbolic of Jesus’ death, entombment, and resurrection!
Then as the children work on butterfly decorations, tell them about the metamorphosis of caterpillars into moths and butterflies through the seeming tomb of the cocoon, and tell them that the butterfly--also symbolic for the early church--is still used today to represent Jesus’ resurrection.  Both Golden Books and Scholastic Books offer readable explanations and clear illustrations of the metamorphosis, or you could read Eric Carle’s lively classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. 
If you haven’t talked about eggs while coloring them, do so as they make egg ornaments. Since ancient times, eggs have been symbols of fertility and new life.  Many cultures believed that the world began as an egg; the Hindus, for example, said that the “World-Egg” was formed in “the waters of chaos” before the beginning of time.  Christians adopted the egg as an Easter symbol because, like the dry, hard seed that brings forth new plant life, seemingly hard eggs bring forth new animal life.  In both cases, what seems dry and hard and dead actually contains new life.  This hiddenness is part of the strangeness and surprise of Easter itself. 
For activities that echo this theme of hiddenness, have an old fashioned Easter egg hunt, either with hard-boiled eggs or with foil-covered  chocolate eggs.  Be sure to have extras to pass out at the end so that the less successful hunters don’t have empty baskets or bags.  (If the successful egg-hunters complain, tell them the parable of the laborers in the vineyard from Matthew 20; or use Dina Strong’s retelling of this parable in her book The Vineyard and the Wedding.)  Another option would be to get a piñata that holds hidden treasures; if you can’t find piñatas locally, you can online -- eggs, whales, and butterflies! Hang the piñata from a high place, and take turns blindfolding the children and having them swing a broomstick or other long stick at it (remember to have everyone else stand far back while this is going on). When a child finally manages to break open the piñata, all the children get to gather and share the goodies. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Watching the grass grow: helping children get ready for Easter

Looking at Lent as a purely penitential season isn’t helpful for children, who often have an exaggerated sense of guilt to begin with. My very first memory involves getting in trouble for picking our neighbors tulips when I was three years old. And when I was a little older, I spent years praying to be forgiven for pocketing a penny I found at a cousin’s house.

While it’s important to acknowledge that we don’t always get things right or behave as we should, it’s also essential to let children know that God loves and forgives, always. Nothing we can do can separate us from God’s love. We always have a chance at new beginnings.

That’s why I’m going to use Lent as a time to suggest ways to get ready for the celebration of Easter rather than provide specific activities for Lent itself.

I’m starting with this first activity because it takes time to prepare – and then there’s the waiting.  We’re going to grow grass.

A week or ten days before Easter, have the children plant wheat grass seeds in small containers such as paper cups or small bowls.  You can check with health food stores for whole wheat seeds (sometimes called wheat berries), or you can get wheat grass seeds to grow for indoor cats from your local pet store.  Here are a couple of online options:

·      * hard red wheatberries:

You will also need potting soil to put in the small containers. These containers of grass can then be used as nests for colored eggs and put at everyone’s place at the table for Easter dinner. There's something alive and lovely about growing grass indoors.

For an art activity before you fill the containers and plant the seeds, have the children decorate their containers with pictures of grass or flowers or the sun or bright abstract designs--whatever pleases them.  They can make the designs on paper and tape or glue them to the containers, or they can work directly on the containers themselves if the surface allows. 

Once you have seeds, potting soil, and decorated containers, here’s what to do:

·      * soak the seeds in water overnight 
·      * plant them in small containers of potting soil
·      * water enough during the week to keep the soil damp

Before or after the children plant the seeds, you can teach them the Easter song  “Now the Green Blade Rises.”  Below are three different presentations of the song.

·      * with guitar accompaniment:
·      * by a college quartet:
·      * Ely Cathedral choir:

Slightly varied versions of the lyrics can be found:

Where I live in Maine, some years the grass outside is buried under snow until long after Easter.  One year when the snow was especially deep, I planted wheat grass seeds in a ceramic bowl and took it to school where it spent a month on my desk. Adolescent students in my English classes would walk by and touch the growing grass, pat it, run their hands over it. That small container of earth and green evoked such longing for spring in all of us that it seemed a sacred thing in a very secular place.

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

“Chemistry is not destiny” (thoughts in preparation for Lent)

When I was growing up, we were supposed to spend the 40 days of Lent contemplating all the ways we sinned, all the ways we failed to measure up – not easy for a kid, and probably not healthy either, unless it was balanced by the constant reminder that even if we snuck that extra cookie or harbored thoughts of putting piranhas in our neighbor’s bathtub, God loved us and was willing to forgive us.

The Baptismal Covenant in the Episcopal prayer book asks, “whenever you fall into sin, [will you] repent and return to the Lord?” The assumption is that of course we will sin. As Christians, however, we are to understand that our capacity for egregious behavior does not determine our destiny. Salvation is not only possible, but promised.

And what does all this have to do with parenting? Or chemistry? 

I want to start with another quotation from Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: “scientists have demonstrated that the most reliable way to produce an adult who is brave and curious and kind and prudent is to ensure that when he [or she] is an infant, his hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functions well.” That’s the chemistry part, and it happens when parents provide nurturing attention to their infant. (I wrote more about this back in the post on “Rat moms.”) 

But if babies don’t receive this early tending, teachers, clergy, social workers, and neighbors -- as well as the parents themselves – can later intervene in ways that help build character, all the way through adolescence. “Chemistry is not destiny,” Tough writes. That means that the times we unintentionally caused pain or neglected our kids don't have to result in irreparable damage to their character. Our children can still become brave and curious and kind….even if we haven’t always been so ourselves. We can try to do better, and we can not only allow but encourage others to help. 

This strikes me as one of the lessons of Lent: just as the body chemistry established in infancy doesn’t have to determine our destiny, neither do our piranha-like tendencies have to determine our relationship with God.  In both cases, redemption is possible. -- On the other side of Lent, after all, is the resurrection promise of Easter.

Note: once we move into Lent itself, I will begin posting ideas for crafts and activities families can do in preparation for Easter. Despite having its own liturgical color, Lent is not a stand-alone season but always looks to the promise of Easter.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The sins of the fathers…and quantum physics

One of my daughters-in-law recently shared a CNN article about the increasingly devastating effects of Agent Orange on children in Vietnam and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of American veterans of that war.  The deformities get worse; what we did then affects those being born now.

Reading the article brought to mind the words from Scripture about how the “sins of the fathers” will be visited upon the children for generations to come. I used to think this was meant to describe the actions of a stern and terrifying God, but I realize now that it simply describes what actually happens: our children inherit the unintended consequences of our behaviors. Generationally, they live with climate change and national debt and, if their grandfathers were exposed to Agent Orange, with the potential for inheriting debilitating deformities.

Once again, here is a place where Scripture and science agree: everything is interconnected. As the physicists say, “Action in one place, even at a distance, affects action in another place” because “at a level we can’t discern, there is an unbroken wholeness.”*  As St. Paul says, “If one member of the body suffers, we all suffer together.”

This interconnectedness, by the way, isn’t just about the bad things; it embraces the good as well.  The smile, the vote, time spent reading to a child, faithfully going to a difficult job, raising money or awareness for a good cause – all these, too, have far-reaching effects.  Everything -- the physicists say, Jesus says -- everything is interconnected.  “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me,” across time, across space, across generations.

So what should we do today to tend our children – and the universe? We can’t do one without affecting the other because they are, after all, part of an unbroken wholeness, all of it held together in God. 

*(from Margaret Wheatley)