Holy Week Series: I am the true vine

“I am the true vine.” John 15:1

Growing up in New Jersey, I didn’t have a lot of experience with vineyards, although the wine industry is really taking off there now. However, moving to the heart of Washington wine country has taught me a lot about agriculture in general and given me a new insight into this particular I am statement. No one plants a vineyard and then just leaves it alone to see how it does. Vines require a lot of labor, pruning and science to produce the very best fruit possible. Grapes (or really anything a farmer plants) are a huge investment of time and of money. Farmers are incredibly attentive to their crops, sometimes rising in the middle of the night or working through multiple days to tend to their plants.

Jesus and the Father are that way with us. Jesus is a true vine, filled with all the nutrients we need to grow in faith, hope, and love. God is a good vinedresser, attentive to each branch, pruning where needed and nourishing as well. Sometimes part of our branch needs to be cut off to ensure the health of the plant, and even though that feels painful and unnecessary to us, God knows what we need even when we can’t see the whole picture of the vineyard from our place on the vine.

Looking back on my faith life since I really became serious about loving God when I was twelve, I can see many times where I was being pruned. Now it’s easy to see some of the ways God was working in my life, both as the pruner and as the shelter of a true vine in times of difficulty. But sometimes in the moment you don’t know that you are being pruned. Or sometimes you do and you hate the way it feels anyway. That’s ok. Take that fear and discomfort to the true vine. Jesus knows what it is like to face pain and fear. He won’t leave you to face it alone.

For today: I will think back on the last 5 years (if possible) of my faith journey. Where has God been active in my life, both at the true vine and also as the vinedresser? Are there any places I can see the evidence of pruning?

Holy Week Series: I am the way, the truth, and the life

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” John 14:6

Praying the Stations of the Cross has always been one of my favorite Lenten practices. One of my earliest school memories was gathering in the auditorium on the Fridays of Lent to pray through the stations together. As we walked from station to station, our voices would join together in the Stabat Mater, the beautiful Marian hymn that begins with the words “At the cross her station keeping.” To this day, when we have a more normal lent in school, teaching my students how to pray the stations is one of my top priorities.

This I am statement reminds me that the way of the Christian is the way of the cross. When we say yes to Christ, we are asked to pick up our cross and follow him. While I’ve heard all sorts of cutesy stories about God tayloring our crosses to us, they don’t match the way I see God. I don’t see God and Jesus poring over my life looking for the perfect way to strengthen me through hardship and pain. Instead, because our world is broken by sin, I see a God who knew we would deal with much hardship and pain, so he became one of us to show us the way through our suffering, the truth about how much he loves us, and the life he has planned for us.

In this I am statement, Jesus reminds me that while finding my way in life can feel murky and unknown, as long as I know him, I know the way. I just need to keep living and loving and trusting. When the world offers me many versions of “truth” I can remember that truth is a person, and he promises me that knowing the truth will set me free (John 8:32). And like he said just after the previous I am statements, Jesus came that I might have life, and an abundant life in him. Jesus offers me a path of clarity and renewal. All I have to do is follow.

For today: I will look for the ways Jesus is with me in this time of hardship and quarantine. I will celebrate the abundant life I have by gratitude and time with my family. I will pray the Stations of the Cross with my husband and son.

Holy Week Series: I am the Resurrection and the Life

“I am the resurrection and the life.” John 11:25

The last few years have been filled with a lot of loss in our family- my father-in-law, a dear friend from grad school, my husband’s aunt, my friend’s daughter, two friends from our parish, and a much hoped for baby. Many times in the last two years I’ve found the words of Mary and Martha in this bible story- “Lord if you had been here…” Both sisters know that God could have spared them this pain and don’t know why he didn’t. But Martha’s next sentence is truly inspiring- “But even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” A few moments later Jesus gives her the promise of this I am statement: resurrection and life.

To truly understand and believe the promise of Jesus’s words, I need to have Martha’s faith first. Even now, Lord, I believe. Even in the pain, I believe. Even in the uncertainty, I believe. Even in the heartbreak of loss, I believe. The hope of eternal life is an incredible promise, and certainly a large part of how I see this I am statement. But I think Jesus also promises that we will have resurrection and life in the present moment. Through the loss of my friend, I reconnected with many amazing people who I hadn’t seen in years. It resurrected old relationships I didn’t even know I was missing. God gave our family new life in a baby due at the end of the summer. I’ve seen the people I love building lives around the empty spaces left by their losses and ministering to so many in the process. Jesus really is the resurrection and the life, both in this life and the next.

As I go through the rest of Holy Week alone at home with my family, I am going to keep both sets of words with me…even now I know that in this time of sickness, pandemic, fear and lonliness, you are here, bringing resurrection and life. Already I’ve seen a new level of appreciation for my neighbors and neighborhood. Already I’ve seen new life breathed into struggling relationships as we seek to connect with one another. I am looking forward to celebrating the Resurrection at the very first mass I can attend after quarantine. Even now Lord, I believe that you are the resurrection and the life.

For today: I will reach out and call, text or write to someone in my life who is experiencing a loss. I will pray for all the lives being loss to sickness, hunger, and violence throughout the world. I will pray for those who are struggling with doubt in the face of grief.

Holy Week Series: I am the good shepherd.

“I am the good shepherd.” John 10:11

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Salamanca, Spain. One morning, super early, I woke in my dorm room in an old Carmelite convent to a very loud, very unfamiliar sound. When I made it to the window, I saw something I had never seen before. Thousands of sheep were making their way down the street right below my window, right through the middle of the city. With them were dozens of shepherds making sure that they navigated this strange new environment safely.

While it was certainly incongruous to see sheep running through the middle of a city, the image reminds me a lot of what Jesus the good shepherd means for us today. Often the images that accompany this I am statement are of an idyllic hillside with sheep peacefully grazing. Only rarely do you see sheep in a storm, or fleeing from predators, or in the middle of a city or town. But in reality, being a shepherd requires being with your sheep ALL the time, not just the peaceful times.

And that’s what Jesus promises us. Not that we will be his peaceful sheep on the gorgeous pastures all the time, but that he will be our good shepherd. When we face danger, we can turn to him and trust that he will lead us safely through peril. When the environment is new and frightening, he will show us the way. A good shepherd keeps his sheep from wandering off, and if we trust him, Jesus will keep us close to him. As a good sheep, I want to be honest with Jesus and others about the ways I am struggling with fear and anxiety, or when I have stepped off the path the shepherd has chosen for me.

For today: I will try to trust Jesus completely, especially in the areas of my life that cause me fear and anxiety. I will share honestly with others about my struggles, not just about the peaceful times. I will ask Jesus the good shepherd for direction and discernment about the path ahead of me.

Holy Week Series: I am the gate.

“I am the gate.” John 10:7

This is the I am statement of Jesus that I probably know the least, and in my research for this post, I realized/learned that this I am statement is very connected to tomorrow: I am the good shepherd. They both come from Jesus’s words to the Pharisees immediately after healing the man born blind. The Pharisees have asked Jesus whose sin has caused the man’s blindness. When Jesus implies that their own sin is keeping them spiritually blind, the Pharisees are offended and Jesus launches into this extended metaphor of the shepherd and his sheep.

I learned an interesting thing about shepherds and sheep at the time of Jesus. At night, several shepherds would bring their sheep from the pasture and keep their flocks together in the same pen. One of the shepherds would sleep across the entrance to the pen, keeping the sheep from predators and thieves who would try to enter the pen by night. In the morning, the sheep, knowing the sound of their own shepherd’s voice, would follow him to the pastures, separating back into their own flocks.

In this I am statement, Jesus is telling me he will be my protector, provider, and guide. When temptations or fears sneak over the wall to try to steal my joy, I need to remember that Jesus is right there, ready to save me. He wants me to have an abundant life, and this abundance comes from believing in and following him. He will call me by name to the pastures he has prepared and provided for me.

Right before school closed on March 13th, my seventh graders and I had been studying the truth of God’s providence as revealed through the parables of grace. I am the gate is a beautiful example of God’s providence. Even when he appears to be sleeping, God has placed himself in the position to protect, provide, and guide. That’s a truth I am choosing to cling to right now.

For today: I will be aware of the fears, dsitractions, and temptations that make it harder for me to hear the shepherd’s voice. When I am afraid or distracted or tempted, I will say a quick prayer for trust. I will make a list of all the ways God is protecting me, providing for me, and guiding me during this difficult time.

Holy Week Series: I am the light of the world.

“I am the light of the world.” John 8:12

Right now the world is very dark. We feel alone, anxious, afraid. Some of us have been home for weeks, some for days, and some head out into the darkness each day, performing essential jobs under new and difficult circumstances. As I read the news each day, sometimes despite my best efforts to avoid it, one of my favorite bible verses comes to mind over and over again: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5. No matter how dark it gets, darkness cannot overcome light.

Many of my favorite books as a child focused on this battle between darkness and light- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe, The Dark is Rising, A Wrinkle in Time* are just a few of them. In all of these books unlikely heroes need to choose their side- light or dark? The choices look different for everyone- temptation, fear, and exhaustion are all reasons the characters in these books could choose the darker path, but in each, someone reminds them of the light and gives them strength to be the light themselves.

That’s what Jesus wants to do for us. Not only is HE the light of the world, but he also tells us in Matthew 5:14 that we are the light of the world too. He goes on the say that our light should shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and give glory to God. (Matthew 5:16) This is a big expectation that Jesus has for us, and once again, he doesn’t leave us to do it alone. He is the source of the light that we share with others. He is the light of the world.

One of my favorite moments of the Easter vigil is watching the light spread through the darkness of beginning of the service. If you’ve never been there, it’s truly one of the most beautiful moments of the liturgical year. The new Easter candle is lit, and one by one the light is passed from candle to candle until the whole congregation is bathed in warmth and light. That’s what this I am statement makes me think of- light spreading through darkness and cold. People choosing to follow the light of the world instead of being overwhelmed by the darkness in the world. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

For today: I will spread light by making a card for someone who is experiencing darkness in their life. I will read stories of people who are being the light in a dark time. I will reread a favorite story of light overcoming darkness.

*the links provided for the novels are affiliate links. This means that if you purchase the book using my link, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.

Holy Week Series: I am the Bread of Life

“I am the bread of life.” John 6:35

Happy Palm Sunday! Like me, many of you are probably spending this Palm Sunday in semi-isolation, away from your worship family. In our town, this will be our fourth Sunday without the ability to go to mass in person, our fourth Sunday without the gift of the Eucharist. And while this is difficult, and I appreciate the sentiments of loss and grief I see in the Catholic online community, this time away from the physical presence of the Eucharist, the bread of life, has given be some new perspective on the gifts Jesus gives us each and every day.

in Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul she talks about the day of her first communion as one of the most important in her life. She also writes of looking forward with eager anticipation to her second communion, which she alo remembers in detail. Throughout the book she talks about the occasions when she was able to receive communion. Being able to receive communion weekly, or even better yet, daily, is a very recent privilege. For Therese, she was only allowed to receive communion when granted permission by a priest or spiritual director.

We are so lucky that in normal, non pandemic circumstances, we can receive Jesus physically every single day! But even when we can’t, Jesus is STILL the bread of life. In the Lord’s prayer we ask God to give us this day our daily bread, and Jesus the bread of life is just that- our daily bread. Jesus is here to feed us, to fill us, to nourish us, every single time that we ask.

The image of Jesus as bread of life reminds me that bread brings people together. Almost every culture and feast that I know of has some type of special bread to it. In my community, I’ve been blessed to share pan dulce and fry bread with people very different from me. I’ve gotten to break bread with friends as a part of their Sukkot Shabat celebration. I’ve made bread and pastries for the feast of St. Joseph and shared them with students and coworkers. Jesus, the bread of life, wants to bring people together. In this time apart from others, I find a lot of comfort in that.

For today: I will pray for all those who are suffering from hunger and isolation in my community. If I can, I will make bread for someone. If that won’t work, I will donate to local food banks to help my neighbors who are struggling in this difficult time.

The link for Story of a Soul is an affiliate link- this means if you click through and buy the book using my link, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.

Holy Week Prayer Journals

Somehow, in the Lentiest Lent I’ve ever had, Holy Week snuck up on me. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been able to go to church in person for several weeks. Maybe it’s because my “classroom” is currently whatever portion of the dining room table isn’t covered with playdoh tools and watercolor supplies. Maybe it’s because I spend large portions of everyday with only a 3 year old for conversation. (3 year olds are not known for keeping track of dates in the liturgical year.) Whatever the reason, Holy Week is only days away and I’m not SURE that I’m ready. Scratch that. I’m sure that I’m NOT ready.

For the past few years I’ve posted daily reflections during Holy Week. You can read last year’s reflections on the 7 sorrows of Mary or the reflections from the year before about the 7 last words of Christ by clicking on the links. (You won’t find all seven there, but it will give you the starting point for the series.) My amazing coworker Corinne turned these reflections into retreat booklets for our students, which you are welcome to use with your teen or middle school student as a Holy Week journal. There are a few markers that will indicate our school or the year we used them, but other than that I hope that they will be a helpful resource for you and your family during this Holy Week at home.

Just a note- these were designed to be printed or photo copied back to back. When you first print them, if they are single sided, don’t be alarmed- they will form a book! Just imagine you are photocopying two sided and arrange the pages like that.

And this year, starting on Palm Sunday and going through Holy Saturday I will be reflecting on and writing about the 7 I am statements of Jesus that are found in the Gospel of John: I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the way, the truth and the life; and I am the true vine. In a time of isolation and uncertainty, I find the images of Jesus that he gave us in the I am statements to be very comforting, and I hope you will too.

Favorite Online Catholic Resources for Middle School

As promised, I want to share some of my favorite online resources for middle school aged kids. Many of the amazing resources floating around on Facebook right now seemed aimed at younger children or for other academic subjects than religion. So here’s what I’m going to be sending to my students in the days ahead.

Formed.org is a treasure trove of faith based movies, talks and books for Catholics of all ages. While you do need an account to access the information, many parishes and schools have this available for their students. My son and I are checking out their saint cartoons, and there are many beautiful prayers and reflections to listen to.

Magnificat magazine is a beautiful prayer resource, and normally not super cheap, but during mandated church and school closures, they are making the magazine free online. Each day features morning and evening prayer, a reflection (often from a saint), the mass readings, and often the story of a saint. It’s such a rich way to pray with scripture each day.

Look to Him and Be Radiant is an amazing blog by Katherine Bogner, a middle school teacher and DRE from the Midwest. All her resources span those middle grade ages beautifully- nothing seems “little kiddy” to my students. And best of all, her resources are totally free!

Dynamic Catholic is an online resource for short videos and books on faith formation. Some of the resources cost money, but a great many are free. Their Best Lent Ever videos and some of Matthew Kelly’s videos were big hits in my 8th grade religion class this year.

Busted Halo is a great website with all sorts of offerings- from podcasts to videos to articles, they have great graphic design to support their mission of “faith shared joyfully”. They also have a weekly newsletters and fun photo contests on Instagram- for your students on social media, a religious photo contest could be a nice change from TikTok.

For families with littles, I am going to cram my 3 favorites into one paragraph because I said that this would be resources for middle schoolers. But I am a mom to a three year old, so these merit a mention. Catholic All Year is Kendra Tierney’s blog about liturgical living, which could really help all of us homebound Catholics during this season without mass and the sacraments. Catholic Icing has tons of great craft and homeschooling ideas. Catholic Family Crate is a monthly subscription box filled with things to help your family live the Church year. It can be pricey depending on your budget, but it was a family gift to ourselves when I got a raise this year. Each month you get a box full of crafts, celebration ideas and a spotify playlist sent to your family. I love it so much. (By the way, I’m not getting paid to advertise them- they just are really wonderful and I want everyone to try it out.) Their special Lent and Advent boxes are even better and are also available as a separate subscription.

What are your favorite online resources? Share them in the comments to help families out in this tricky time for education!

How I Lent: Classroom Edition

One of my coworkers loves to retell the story of his first year at our school. After a jam-packed Advent season, I jokingly remarked to him, “Just wait- Lent is Advent on steroids!” While the two seasons are incredibly different, in the life of our school community, they follow a similar pattern. During Lent our school has its usual Friday masses and monthly rosaries, but we add a prayer service each Monday to help center us for the week and we also have a school wide penance service where each teacher and student can go to individual confessions. Often the second grade students make their first reconciliation during Lent, so that’s another chance to come together and pray.

Each Lent is something a little different at school, so in this post I am just going to tell you about some of the things we are doing this year to make the season meaningful for our students. At the end I’ll post some links to past Lent posts.

Holy Week Themed Prayer Services. This year we won’t be in school for Holy Week, which is a huge bummer. It can get crazy because I am also a church musician, but I LOVE spending Holy Week with my students, and it’s a beautiful way to introduce them to a lot of traditions they wouldn’t otherwise get to experience. But this year, Holy Week is also spring break. So the third grade religion teacher (also my mother-in-law) came up with a brilliant solution: each of our Monday prayer services will focus on one day of Holy Week. This way we can still introduce some of those traditions, but in a slightly different setting. My class has Holy Thursday, and I am getting some delusions of grandeur about a school wide Holy Hour. I’ll keep you posted.

Pray Fast Give Posters. This was an idea one of the first grade teachers found on Catholic Icing. Each building at our school will have a large cross poster with a bunch of small cut out symbols. We are using a cross for pray, a fish for fast, and a heart for give. Each time a student does one of these things, they will be able to add their symbol to the cross. Hopefully by the end of Lent our crosses will be filled with good deeds!

Extra prayer time. Of course we pray in every class throughout the day, but during Lent I try to add extra and richer opportunities for my students to pray. Our parish already has adoration of the Blessed Sacrament every Thursday, and the 8th graders have been going since the beginning of the year. During Lent, Friday afternoons are added as a time for adoration, so I can bring one of the 7th grade classes each week too. I work with the other 7th grade teacher to make it so each class gets to go every other week, because except for Fridays, I don’t actually teach 7th grade in the afternoon.
I also try to make sure that each of my classes prays the Stations of the Cross at least once a week. There are many ways to do this, but one is that our art teacher posts the Stations all around the hallway of the elementary school building. We also go to the church and pray there, and sometimes we pray a simple version in our classroom, using the Smartboard to project the images.

Pray Fast Give bulletin board. I came up with this idea last year, and I love it. I made pray, fast, and give banners for the bulletin board by my prayer table, and then I cut three swatch paint samples into tag shapes using our school’s di-cut machine. Each student filled out a tag with a way they were going to pray, fast, and give this Lent. We then filled the board with the colorful tags and kept our Lenten promises easy to see and remember.

For a great Lent playlist, check out my 10 Songs for Lent post. For a reading plan that will take you through the whole Old Testament during the Lenten season, check out my Lent Reading Plan. I also have a free Lent planning sheet to help students develop meaningful practices for each of the pillars of Lent: Pray, Fast, and Give. Here is a great list of books to use during Lent. What will your class be doing for Lent this year? Share your ideas in the comments.