Faith that Works

Teaching middle schoolers how to live and practice their faith

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When I teach the gospels to my seventh graders, we often make lists of the things that make each gospel distinct. For example, Matthew uses the literary form of midrash to show numerous connections between Jesus and the Old Testament promises God had made to the Israelites. Mark is the shortest gospel, and also all the cool Messianic secret references like “Son of Man”. John isn’t synoptic, and brings a very poetic point of view to the story of salvation. For Luke, we always include the line Gospel: The Musical.

In the first two chapters of Luke, any time someone is super happy, they sing or speak a “canticle”. Mary, Zechariah and Simeon all sing the praises of a God who keeps his promises, and these songs become a huge part of the prayer of the church in the Liturgy of the Hours.

Mary’s canticle occurs at the Visitation, when she goes to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. When the two women meet, Elizabeth immediately sees what is going on, and John the Baptist leaps in her womb. Her joyful greeting causes Mary to respond in joyous praise, just like a heroine would do in a musical, and this is the second time Mary speaks in the Bible. Mary’s song of praise is called the Magnificat, because it starts with the words “My soul magnifies the Lord.” The Magnificat is one of my favorite scriptures in the whole world, and you can find the entire text in Luke 1:46-55.

Here are some ideas for a week based on Mary’s “magnificat”:

Read the Visitation story in the Bible. Students could read the scripture and study it using the Lectio Divina scripture study method. I have a pre-made version in my Teachers Pay Teachers store, but you could easily do as a whole class bible study or prayer journal activity.

Learn the song “Holy is His Name”. This is one of my favorite songs, written by John Michael Talbot. You can watch it on Youtube here.

Use imagainative prayer to put yourself “inside” the Visitation. You can read more about praying this way in last week’s post on Fiat. But some questions for imaginative prayer for this scene include: Who are you in the scene? Mary? Elizabeth? Someone just watching the meeting? How do you feel as you hear Mary’s song of praise? What does Mary and Elizabeth’s friendship remind you of?

Learn about the Liturgy of the Hours. The Magnificat is part of the Evening prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours (which is also called the Divine Office). You could look up the evening prayers for that day (I use the Laudate App) and pray those as an end of the day prayer in your classroom, or send the prayers home for students to pray with their families.

Help local women in crisis pregnancy situations. Mary’s first instinct after learning of her own pregnancy was to go help someone else. This could be a great opportunity for students to reach out in service to your local community. Our diocese has a program called Prepares to help expecting mothers, and there are various ways students can get involved to help. One is to do a drive for supplies to donate to a specifc mother. Another would be to make cards and letters encouraging pregnant women and let them know that your class is rooting for them and praying for them.

Even more Mary and May ideas coming soon!

It’s May! This is the month devoted to Mary in the church, so it only seems fitting to dedicate the blog posts this month to learning more about our Blessed Mother. As I’ve been developing teaching resources for distance learning, I’ve been trying to deepen my understanding of Mary: who she is and what she does. And in my research, I’ve had some time to take a deep dive into scripture, one of my favorite things to do for prayer.

Mary only speaks four times in the bible, so it doesn’t take very long to dive into each of those four times. The first of these times is Luke 1: 26-38, at the Annunciation. Mary responds to the angel Gabriel twice, once with a question and once with a profound statement of faith: her fiat. “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” she asks, and when Gabriel explains God’s plan to her, she responds, “Behold, I am the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word.” This “let it be done” is often called Mary’s fiat, because that is the word in Latin.

For the month of May, I am brainstorming ways to use the four words of Mary as a theme in my classroom next year. Here are some ideas for a week about “fiat”:

Read the Annunciation story in the Bible. Students could read the scripture and study it using the Lectio Divina scripture study method. I have a pre-made version in my Teachers Pay Teachers store, but you could easily do as a whole class bible study or prayer journal activity.

Use imagainative prayer to put yourself “inside” the Annunciation. I’ve had retreat directors lead me through guided meditations on the scene described in the gospel of Luke. For some reason, I’ve always imagined that Mary was making bread when Gabriel appeared to her. This is the first image that came to my mind with this scripture and it’s been there ever since. I love to think of all the connections to Jesus dwelling within us as the Bread of Life. When leading imaginative prayer, invite students to close their eyes and sit comfortably. Read the story slowly, pausing often to allow for reflection. Use questions to invite them to imagine the scene.
Some questions I have used are “What does Mary’s house look like? Smell like? Sound like? What is Mary doing? Is she alone? Awake? Asleep? Do you see the scene from her perspective? Gabriel’s? Are you watching it like a movie?
After imaginative prayer, I often have students journal or draw what the experience was like for them.

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting of The Annunciation

Use images to do Visio Divina for the Meditation. Visio Divina is using sacred art to study God’s word. I did a quick google search and found many public domain images of The Annunciation. If you have a way to project large images, you could have a whole class discussion about what students notice about the painting, what it makes them wonder, etc. You could have students look for symbols, art techniques, color etc. For extension, they could create their own art of the scene.

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

Have students reenact the scene. Almost without fail, my classes LOVE to act out Bible stories. This would be a fun one to put time limits on- sometimes I give my students 1 minute to act out the scene and then we make the time shorter and shorter until they have to tell the whole story in 10 seconds or less.

Stay tuned for more May ideas based on Mary’s four words in the Bible!

Catholics do a great job at Lent. We fast, pray, and give like champs. For forty days we fill devotionals, give up things we love, and pick ways to help others. I love picking lenten devotions and planning my lenten promises. My classroom and home are taken over by the color purple and the symbols of the season. And then when Easter comes around: poof! Down come the stations of the cross, the purple cloths, the signs of sacrifice. It’s hard to find the same sort of support and planning to celebrate Easter in our homes and classrooms, even though it’s a much bigger deal!

For the last several years I’ve been on a mission to celebrate Easter even bigger and better than I celebrate Lent. I’ve found some of the best music of the season to play throughout the 50 days. I’ve taught my students about the Via Lucis, the Stations of Light, and prepped stations to display in our school hallways. I’ve studied the Acts of the Apostles with my 7th graders and planned activities for Divine Mercy Sunday. My goal is to eventually have at least 50 great ideas for how to celebrate this season, and I’m really excited for today’s idea: Easter Egg Psalms.

My amazing mother-in-law is the 3rd grade religion at my school, and she had this brilliant idea for celebrating the Easter season with her students. She has the third graders go through the Psalms and pick a few verses that sing the praise of God. They then copy these verses and put them in plastic Easter eggs, one for each day of the Easter season. The eggs are placed in a basket on the class prayer table and the students open one each morning and use the verse for morning prayer.

I love the idea of having students find and write the verses, but the reality of school this year is that asking a student to find 50 verses to share with their family might be a bit much to ask. Also, for home use it might be nice to have a set of 50 bible verses all ready to cut out and stuff into some plastic eggs. So at the end of the post you will find 50 verses for each of the 50 days of Easter. They are ready to use and share- even though we are a week into the season, we still have six more weeks to celebrate! It’s never too late to start a new prayer tradition with your family or class.

Happy Easter!

It’s still one of my favorite teaching moments. I was staring at the student saint requests for our living saints project. Five different students had requested to perform as St. Faustina Kowalski for our living saints performance on All Saints Day. For a pretty obscure saint with a hard to pronounce name, she certainly had a large fan group in this class. I remembered studying her life with the class the year before, but I wanted to hear from the students themselves why they wanted to perform her life for the school. The response I got from one of the girls was so inspiring she got the role on the spot.

“I feel like she just really listened to God, and because of that, she changed the way the world prays,” the student told me. Then, after a pause, she added, “I want to listen like that.”

St. Faustina has been one of my favorites for a long time now. I was first introduced to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy in middle school, probably around the time she was canonized in the year 2000. Since then, the prayer has been with me at all the most difficult times in my life. And St. Faustina has walked my faith journey with me. If our son had been a girl, he would have been named for her.

With Divine Mercy Sunday just around the corner on April 19th, I wanted to share some resources for you to share with students and families to help them learn about St. Faustina, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and Divine Mercy Sunday. Some links are to other blog posts, some are to free resources I have created and some are affiliate links to Amazon resources. Each link will be clearly marked with its type.

Links to Resources on Amazon:

(these are affiliate links- this means if you purchase a resource, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.)

1. The Diary of St. Faustina– one of the things Jesus asked St. Faustina to do was to keep a diary of their conversations. This diary is huge, but an amazing spiritual resource. One of my life goals is to read the whole thing straight through, but as of yet I have only prayed with portions of the text.
2.St. Faustina Kowalska: Messenger of Mercy– I love the Encounter the Saints Series from Pauline Media. They are easily readable books of about 100-125 pages geared toward middle grade readers. I still use them with my middle school students because it introduces them to in depth reading about saints at a level almost all of them can handle.
3. Divine Mercy Prayer Cards– The ten pack was the most economical way to find these on Amazon. They make great end of year or confirmation gift!

Other blog posts with St. Faustina:
Knowing the Saints
Five Prayers Every Catholic Kid Should Know (and why)
Five ways to have a Holy Lent
Books to Use During Lent

Free Resources:

I hope you and your family had an amazing Easter and look forward to hearing hor you celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday this week. Let me know your great ideas in the comments!

“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?

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

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