Last week my Methodist minister friend Mandy and I took our children on our annual winter "pilgrimage" to a small retreat center in Northern Minnesota. Each year the kids are older and the dynamics are different, but it is rich and surprising every time. This year we had two six year olds, a four year old, a three year old and a nine month old. Two moms and five kids in a cabin in the woods with no TV or video games. It is our living sacrifice, our spiritual service of worship.
This is our third time, and we've perfected the packing: a huge tub of outdoor clothing and boots, sleds, a giant bin of legos, a small tent, a novel or small set of children's books, a couple of board games and a container of craft supplies - which sits in my storage room completely packed until the next year's trip rolls around. We do not deviate from this assortment. It's tried and true. Oh, and a mix cd. Each year has its own mix cd.
While we're together at "Cabin in the Woods" we practice a "Goodnight Circle" - each sharing what we are glad about, and what we are sad or worried about from our day, and then praying for one another. We walk a labyrinth a few times a day - a remarkable feat (and great risk) with short legs in the snow, where monkey business or carelessness could ruin the whole design. But from the first time, these children held a sacredness to the practice - even when run with speed and playfulness, they respected the common experience and rejoiced in the rhythm. This year the snow labyrinth at the retreat center was not maintained, and the children missed it so much that we decided to create our own. We found a book with instructions, and what followed was a poignant, joyful project that I will never, ever forget.
Most days we follow a trail to a prayer gazebo, where we light a candle and everyone "writes" prayers on small papers and shoves them in the cracks between the rocks. Their paper prayers have gone from scribbles to single letters to whole words and now sentences as they quietly add their message to the silent, faded joys and griefs of visitors gone before. Then we must sneak down the trail past the hermitage where someone is tucked away in silence and solitude with God, either blissfully unaware of, or mirthfully peeking out at, the parade of tiny, simultaneously sweaty and cold pilgrims in snowsuits and boots trudging through the trees.
Every day we eat lunch in the lodge, startling, overwhelming (and delighting?) solitary adult guests who are staying in retreat. There the children fall into the lunch rhythm, which includes a reading - for which they must sit silently, and concludes with singing the World Peace Prayer, which in theory is sung by people at lunchtime in every timezone making it an endless prayer for global peace.
Bread is important to our time, for every meal and snacks, both because it is delicious and because the variety of heathy, organic vegetarian meals does not include anything remotely like pizza or chicken nuggets. (Wine is also important for the mommies' late night chats when all the kids are snoring under handmade quilts). Mandy and I give each other breaks from the chaos; one of us will stay in the cottage with the kids while the other spends a couple of hours in the lodge for adult conversation, silent prayer, or to check email and Facebook. And we end every night by the fire with our feet up and the deep forest darkness wrapping the cottage in stillness.
Somehow this crazy little trip to the last place you could ever imagine bringing children (winter, Northern Minnesota, a generally adult retreat center) has become an annual Sabbath ritual for us that we cannot imagine our lives without, and which has impacted us and our families in profound ways.
Whether it is the kids' requests for the World Peace Prayer or ARC bread for dinner, the way the goodnight circle lingers in our evenings for a few months and resurfaces from time to time after that, the labyrinths they draw or are drawn to in worship settings, or the freedom with which they talk about God hearing their prayers, the power of this ritual has permeated our children.
And it has shown me that maybe one of the greatest spiritual gifts we can give our children is ritual. Bedtime prayers, mealtime candles, Advent calendars and deep woods walks - helping our kids notice and experience God in ways other than speaking and listening, frees them. It, paradoxically, helps to give them words. It loosens up questions and opens up connections. It helps them see the sacredness of the world and the mystery of their place within it. It gives them permission as children to create patterns for themselves - (my daughter demands the Doxology as her bedtime song and my son collects prayer stones and shells). It places their experience in church -- the lessons in Sunday school, the hymns in worship, the passing of the bread and cup -- in a wider, more generous context, and calls them personally to engage. It reminds them that they belong to God, and that God is always with them.
And as parents, it gives us greater permission and courage to talk about God with our kids. Ritual provides shared experiences and contexts from which to raise questions and tell stories. Impromptu praying or talking about God's presence in world events and frightening circumstances, struggling together with ethical issues and wondering what difference Jesus makes in our daily life and relationships becomes easier because we have shared in a common spoken and unspoken language of faith. And for Mandy and myself, whose vocation is to speak about God ad naseaum, these simple rituals give us an alternative way to express faith, and to encounter God, our children and ourselves.
Most importantly, practicing simple rituals with our kids reiterates the oft-forgotten truth that faith in God is not a destination but a journey. Faith is not about learning right answers or correct beliefs. It is about learning to trust ever more in the Creator of all who came to share this life with us -- birth and death and everything in between. Faith is about discovering ourselves in the hands of the one who overcame death with life, and who is moving and breathing hope in the world even now.
And that is a journey we can share together.