The Battlefield

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I just watched two Canada geese, with their feathers ruffled and necks stretched straight ahead of them, chase two other geese who were hoping to get some bread from me. Even though I didn’t have any bread and wasn’t planning to feed any of the geese, I was angry at the two aggressive Canada geese since I dislike all forms of aggression. It is no surprise, then, that I tend to pass over Bible verses that talk about the spiritual battle we are engaged in. Lately, however, I have been thinking about them more frequently and I am beginning to realize how much they reflect our reality. Whether I like it or not, we are living in the midst of a battlefield where the forces of evil are doing everything they can to diminish the glory of God and to destroy His beloved children. Of course, we do not need to fear because God has already won victory through the death of Christ but, in this time between Christ’s death and the final restoration of His kingdom, the battle still rages on.

I recently read something that helped me to realize that, in me, the battle is most apparent in my distorted thoughts and feelings. Too often, I find myself thinking that the world is out to get me, that I am not good enough, that I am deprived of something, or that life is not fair. Not surprisingly, these thoughts quickly lead me to feel depressed, frustrated and bitter. *

I have to remember that the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44) and that He loves to pull me away from God’s truth by getting me to believe untruths about my reality. If instead of believing the devil’s lies, I choose to believe the truth of God’s love and abundant graces, my feelings of depression, frustration and bitterness quickly change to joy and thanksgiving. Ephesians 6:11-12 and 14 says: “Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in heavenly places…Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth…” Of course, the most powerful of God’s truths are found in the Bible: we are His creation (Genesis 1:26; Psalm 139; Acts 17:26-28), we are deeply loved (John 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:4-5; Romans 5:8; Romans 8:38), He is intimately involved in our daily lives (Proverbs 16:9; John 15:5; Romans 8:5), His plans for us are good (Jeremiah 29:11; 1 Corinthians 2:9; Romans 8:28), we serve an important purpose (Matthew 5:13-16; Romans 12:1-5; 1 Corinthians 16:12-20; Acts 1:8), and we are saved (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 8).

Ironically, some of the lies that I believe are so simple that I can easily refute them with logic when I spend time actually thinking about them. For example, today I was feeling sorry for myself because of the many “challenges” I face. Yet, when I spent a moment thanking God for the blessings in my life, I quickly realized that the blessings greatly outnumbered the difficulties. In fact, I am so blessed that when I tried to count my blessings, I couldn’t do it!

There are other lies, however, that are much more powerful and can only be refuted by clinging to God’s Truth. One of these is the lie that the story of my youngest daughter, Noemi, is entirely and only sad. While her story absolutely contains sadness, it is saturated with joy! Joy that God chose to create her – a unique person with a beautiful body and her own special soul. Joy that God chose us to be her family. Joy that we had eight months to have her in our lives here on earth. Joy that our belief that she was a tiny person allowed us to accept those months as her life. Joy, unbelievable joy, that she still is, that she brings God glory, and that we will be with her again.

A few weeks ago, I went to Noemi’s grave alone and, for the first time, rather than petitioning God to take care of my baby and allowing me to see her again in Heaven, I found myself thanking Him for Noemi and her story. As I stood there, looking at the ground where I had laid my baby’s body, I was overwhelmed with gratefulness for her life and eternal story. I felt God’s sweet victory which won, not only my daughter’s eternal life, but also my freedom to embrace the Truth and to conquer the lies that the devil had strewn across my battlefield.

*Our emotional struggles are complex. I absolutely believe that the battle between Good and evil is waged largely in our minds and hearts. As a result, our feelings and mood can often be heavily impacted by this battle. That being said, I also firmly believe that there is both a physical and a chemical basis for our mental health. Fortunately, God grants us insight into the biological bases of mental distress through the fields of psychology, psychiatry and neurology. I would never want my words to diminish the importance of these fields in helping those who suffer or to make someone feel that their mental health difficulties are somehow their own fault. 

Greater Than Our Blunders and Sins

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Today I lost my new friend’s son. Fortunately, a librarian found him wandering around while I diligently watched another little boy who, apparently, wasn’t my friend’s son. Still, I panicked when I discovered my mistake and I am sure that my anxiety didn’t even come close to what my friend felt when she looked around the sing-a-long and didn’t see her little boy. I can easily say that this was my biggest mistake in a long time; however, I made several trivial mistakes this morning, too. Someone aggressively beeped at me, so I must have done something wrong. Then someone else beeped at me because I was driving too cautiously. After I got safely home, I spent hours trying to negotiate with our prescription insurance after I made the mistake of waiting too long to begin trying to refill a medication. All in all, it was a morning full of blunders, not to mention the countless sinful, angry thoughts I had.

I could say that this was an unusual morning, but (apart from losing a kid) it wasn’t. Each day I make multiple mistakes, think terrible thoughts, forget to do things that I should do, and do things that I eventually wish that I hadn’t done. Sometimes these are sins, sometimes mistakes, and sometimes they just don’t measure up to the standards that I have for myself. Each time I make a mistake or I sin, I am reminded that I am an imperfect, finite, blundering sinner. In fact, the truth is that if I didn’t know God and how much He loves me, I don’t know how I could bear myself. Yet, because I do know how much God loves me, I am able to love my flawed self, even on days that I lose my friend’s kid.

You see, God’s love is transformative. It doesn’t overlook our blunders or even our sins. It sees us as we are, flaws and all; however, God’s love “never fails.” No matter what we do or don’t do and regardless of what we mess up or how often we give up, God’s love “always perseveres.” Consequently, when we come to recognize that a perfect God wants to embrace our far-from-perfect selves with His boundless love, we are driven to surrender ourselves to Him.

We see this theme repeated throughout the stories of the Bible. Some of our spiritual ancestors made silly mistakes that were recorded for us so that we could see the way in which God embraces our imperfections and does not allow His plans to be thwarted by them. For example, Joseph dreamed that God would bless him and give him a role that was more important than his brothers. His choice to share these inflammatory dreams with his brothers enraged them and resulted in his being sold into slavery. However, God was with Joseph and, through his mistake, God brought about the very plans that Joseph had prophesied. * Centuries later, Jesus’ disciples tried to guard their Leader’s time by turning away children who were trying to see Him. Rather than turning away from the disciples in disgust, Jesus used their mistake as an opportunity to unveil the tender nature of His love when He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

Other Biblical men and women committed sins that were documented in the Bible. Many of their stories reveal the power of God’s unaltered love. For instance, God’s love did not turn away from a Samaritan woman who had been married to five different husbands and was currently living with a man she was not married to. Instead, it revealed God’s truth to her and used her as a vital instrument in others’ salvation (John 4). His love didn’t shun a man who was afraid to be identified as a follower of Jesus, but made that man the foundation of the Church (John 18:15-27 and Matthew 16:18). The father’s love didn’t even reject a man who “was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1) and who wrote of himself, “I am the worst sinner of all.” (1 Timothy 1:15) Instead, it transforms him into one of the fathers of the church and a man who “was an example for those who would come to believe (1Timothy 1:16).

My guess is that we all have times when we feel guilty or just plain not good enough. Whether it is because we see our innocent human imperfections or because we are overwhelmed by the weight of our sins, these feelings can do one of two things: push us away or draw us in. Too often, we let our sins and flaws push us away from the God and cause us to hide from Him. Like Adam and Eve, our inadequacies and sins make us feel naked and vulnerable before a perfect God. They tempt us to say, like Peter, “Lord…you shall never wash my feet” (John 13:6-8) and they keep us from knowing His boundless grace, love and forgiveness. However, if we lay ourselves bare before God, His loving response to our sins and short-comings can become powerful motivators to run into His open embrace. His unconditional love and forgiveness can remind us that we are His dearly beloved creations, that He made us, and that He is remaking us “fearfully and wonderfully” (Psalm 139:14). It can fuel our desperate longing to “go home” to our Father and cause us to realize that we can’t do this life on our own. It can make us dependent upon Him.

This week, I’ll close with a poem that is based on the story of the Prodigal Son which is found in Luke 15:11-32. The story is, among other things, a wonderful reminder that God is our Father, that He deeply cherishes each of us, and that, no matter what we do, His desire for a loving and intimate relationship with us never wanes. I hope that the words of this poem encourage those of you who already know this love to see yourself through your Father’s adoring eyes, regardless of your failures and shortcomings. If you have not yet run into God’s embrace of love, I hope that my words will nurture your heart’s desire to surrender yourself to the One who calls you Beloved and Whose whole being longs to be reunited with you – flaws and all.

Beloved**

I walk the hard dirt road – alone.

I know no one and no one knows me.

My life is bleak and barren,

My body is weak and weary.

I have nothing in this world,

It is all sin and guilt and shame.

I weep as I wander the road, yet, I hope.

I hope because I am traveling to you

And because I know that you can use a hired hand.

I hope because you pay your workers well:

I have a chance to survive.

As I near your dwelling, you see me approaching.

I am too far to see your face.

I fear it holds anger, hurt and rejection.

But, suddenly you race towards me

And we weep together as you take me into your pure, perfect arms.

 

*You can read more about Joseph’s story in the Bible. It is found in Genesis.

**Poem by Ariane Sroubek, first published by the Live Poets Society of New Jersey in Of Faith and Inspiration (2003)

Uncomfortable Truths

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Here’s a little uncomfortable truth about me: even though I don’t play dress up anymore, I still want to be a princess. Not necessarily a poofy gown and glass slippers kind of a princess – that sounds like way too much work. No, I just want to be the kind of princess who has people to take care of everything she doesn’t want to deal with, unlimited financial resources, and a home with every latest convenience. Also, I’d like to be the kind of princess who doesn’t have to struggle to make herself heard in the world, because she was influential at birth. In fact, if I’m really honest, up until the day that my husband became a U.S. citizen and renounced all of his titles, I secretly imagined that my in-laws were really royalty pretending to be commoners. I figured that they could possibly have done this so to ensure that I really love their son and not his status as a prince.  In fairness to myself, I only dwelled on this fantasy when I  had a really bad day (think horrible morning sickness mixed with defiant yet clingy preschooler), but the desire was there.

Now that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has forced me to face the reality that I am not, and never will be, royalty, when I find myself having an “I can’t believe this is my life! Where is my fairytale?” kind of moment, I hear this tiny voice in my head saying, “Okay, you aren’t married to the long-lost prince of the Czech Republic, but you are the daughter of the King, which makes you a princess.” The problem is that “daughter of the King” princesses often don’t live very princessy lives. As I recently heard someone say, just look at the life that God gave His son’s mother and you will see that having servants and luxuries are usually not part of the “daughter of the King” deal. In fact, the woman who was “highly favored” (Luke 1:28) by God didn’t have maids, cooks or a nanny waiting in the shadows to meet her every need. As far as we know, she had the responsibility of changing her sons diaper cloths and washing them, too. Presumably, she woke in the middle of the night to nurse her wailing son and I can’t imagine that Joseph could have been much help on that front since they lived in the pre-breast pump era. In addition to all of this, Mary probably got to do all of the other daily tasks that common women did in ancient Isreal. Maybe she carried water from a distant well. She probably had to cook all of the family’s food over not very convenient fires or in primative ovens. Perhaps she even had to make her family’s clothes. Of course, Mary’s unprincessly life would become even more difficult when her Son was rejected by the people of His town and later brutally crucified. Mary’s life was very real, it was relatable, but it was by no means a fairytale!

And then there’s His Son. It would make sense for Jesus to get to live the life of a prince, but no! God had him enter the world at a time that was inconvenient for His parents – He was the long-awaited Messiah but not their long-awaited baby. As an infant, He was a refugee who fled from a king who wanted Him dead. He was rejected by many, lived the life of a wanderer, and even faced a mob that wanted to stone Him. Sure, He had some good friends, but all of them abandoned Him in His time of greatest suffering and one of them handed Him over to be killed. He was wrongfully accused, brutally beaten, mocked, and crucified. Then, He was hastily buried in a borrowed tomb.

The lives of God’s princes and princesses tell me something about God: the things that He deems important about our lives are different from the things that the world thinks are important. This shouldn’t be a surprise to us since Matthew 6:19-20 says, ” Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where theives break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where theives do not break in and steal.” The uncomfortable truth is that God cares about our lives and He cares about our pain, but, ultimately, He cares most about the salvation of His creation and He is willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to bring it about. As a result, He is much more focused on building our love for Him, our love for those around us, our patience, our gratitude, our faithfulness, our trust, and the countless other ways He wants to shape our souls than He is about showering us with earthly comforts.

That might mean that, in order for Cinderella to grow the servant heart that she was made to have, He asks her to spend the rest of her life sweeping ashes and she will never sit on a throne; however, if she lives her simple life well, the Creator of the universe will be pleased and the world will be a better place. It could mean that there is some working man outside of the Beast’s castle that He wants Belle to fall in love with instead of the Beast and, as a result, she will never be the mistress of a castle; however, if she learns to be grateful for the things she does have in her life, she will discover true happiness and satisfaction. Or it might mean that Prince Eric never falls for Ariel and that she has to live a life that is very different from the one she had dreamed of; however, she will eventually find that God loves and cherishes her far more than a voice obsessed prince ever could. Whatever the case may be, God is intimately aware of the details of His princesses’ lives. Often, those lives aren’t very princessy, but He is in the business of using them for amazing good and embracing His plans can bringing us more abiding joy than our worldly dreams of “happily ever after” could.

So on those days when the vacuum backfires and spits dust all over your newly cleaned kitchen, or those nights when you never get past “barely asleep” before being woken by a sick child, or during those times when the one horror that you couldn’t bear to imagine actually happens, remember that you are still the deeply beloved child of the King and His plans for your life are exactly right.

What Am I Called To Do?

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Last week, I shared about my failure to prayerfully seek God’s plan for my Lenten journey. I realized that, while it is easy to enter into seasons of intense prayer when I am faced with a major decision, I rarely pray for discernment about the daily tasks that God has assigned to me. For example, how often have I asked God how He wants me to feed my child, clean my kitchen, dress for my husband?

When I was trying to choose which college to attend, I spent many days praying for God’s wisdom. One Saturday morning, my father took me on a walk so that we could discuss my thoughts about my future. After listening to me talking anxiously about the pros and cons of my two top choices, he said, “I think maybe God doesn’t care so much about which school you choose – He can work with either one. I think that He is more concerned about what you do wherever you end up going.”

At the time, this idea was simultaneously world-view shattering and a huge relief. Yet, in the years since I have become increasingly aware of the wisdom behind my father’s words. Often, we get hung up on big decisions that we, from our limited human perspective, see as life-altering. Yet God is just as concerned (perhaps even more concerned) with those little decisions we make each day that draw ourselves and others closer to Him. In the same way that we ask God to guide us to the right schools, jobs, spouses, retirement plans, we should be asking Him to guide us through each of the tasks that He assigns to our daily lives.

In light of this, I would like to offer some of the questions that I find helpful in discerning the ways that God wants me to fulfill my various roles. Please know that I am greatly challenged by these questions myself. I offer these questions to you, not because I can honestly answer yes to all (or even any) of them, but because I hope that they will help you to reflect more deeply on the daily tasks that God has assigned to you.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the length of this post! Many of the roles I play will not be applicable to everyone and I encourage you to skip over the roles that you do not play and use only the questions that correspond to the roles that you do. Don’t stop at just answering the questions! Use your answers to guide your prayers for God’s direction in your daily life.

As a child of God, am I: 

  • Ensuring that I have not let anything become more important to me than God?
  • Repenting of my sinfulness and praising God for my salvation?
  • Thanking God for each of the good gifts that He has given to me?
  • Trusting God with all of the scary, painful and difficult parts of my life moment-by-moment?
  • Turning to God in prayer with all of my doubts, questions and anger?
  • Honest with God?
  • Taking time to pray and nurture my spiritual growth through books, retreats, bible studies, etc?
  • Open to changing my plans if God leads me to do something different from what I had expected?
  • Using each of my relationships to share God’s love and story of redemption so that God can be reunited with all of His children?
  • Participating actively in a faith community that proclaims the Gospel in a way that reflects God’s amazing love for all of His created people?
  • Looking for the needs of those around me and making it a priority to meet them?
  • Striving to see the image of God in those around me? Quick to forgive? Slow to anger? Offering love?
  • Participating in activities that bring God glory and focusing on things that are good, rather than allowing negative and ungodly thoughts and activities to take up my time?

As a wife, am I: 

  • Praying for my husband each day and throughout the day?
  • Praying with him regularly?
  • Encouraging my husband in his faith and challenging him to grow spiritually?
  • Making time available to be with and available to my husband?
  • Thankful for the gift that my husband is, for the things that he does for our family, for the amazing ways that I can see God’s craftsmanship in him? Do I let him know this?
  • Gentle when I need to address a problem and willing to accept blame?
  • Quick to forgive?
  • Eager to change the things about myself that breed conflict?
  • Carrying out the tasks that I have agreed to complete around the house as loving gifts to my husband?
  • Making his physical, emotional and spiritual health a priority in our family?
  • Speaking of him with respect when I talk about him with friends, family and our children?
  • Trying to look nice and fulfilling the physical aspects of my marriage vows with excitement and passion?
  • Ensuring that I do not let anything or anyone besides God become more important to me than my husband?

As a mother of a living child, am I: 

  • Praying for my child each day and throughout the day?
  • Praying with her regularly?
  • Helping my child to know and love God?
  • Encouraging and guiding my child on her journey through this world?
  • Nurturing a longing for Heaven in her heart and giving her an eternal perspective?
  • Demonstrating God’s love to her through my own care and enjoyment of her?
  • Keeping her safe physically and mentally?
  • Helping her to use and value the gifts God has given to her?
  • Teaching her to accept the things that God has not made her to excel in with grace?
  • Giving her the academic and social skills to thrive in our society?
  • Modeling how to interact with those around her in a way that reflects God’s love?
  • Providing a clear understanding of right and wrong?
  • Communicating freely and being available to her whenever possible?

As a mother of a child in Heaven, am I: 

  • Thankful for the time that I had with my child?
  • Praying that my child will bring glory to God even through her death?
  • Trusting God for my child’s eternity?
  • Willing to share my pain to help others who are also suffering?
  • Living in the hope of Heaven?
  • Doing everything I can to help my husband, living child and I be reunited with my child someday?
  • Allowing God to teach me, through her death, that life, even when it never breaths outside the womb, is incredibly valuable and was created for Heaven? Open to bearing that life again?

As a daughter, am I: 

  • Praying daily for my parent’s and in-law’s physical, spiritual and mental health?
  • Encouraging them to grow in their faith?
  • Communicating with them regularly and listening to their needs? Trying to meet their needs whenever possible?
  • Expressing my gratitude towards them?
  • Sharing my life with them?
  • Open and honest in my communication with them?
  • Talking respectfully about them in all situations?
  • Doing whatever I can to encourage my living child’s relationship with them?
  • Seeking to learn from them and appreciating their wisdom?
  • Slow to take offense and quick to forgive?

As a sister, am I: 

  • Praying daily for my brother and brothers and sisters in-law?
  • Making communication with them a priority?
  • Opening our home and immediate family to them and welcoming them into our lives?
  • Doing whatever I can to encourage them in their own spiritual walk?
  • Honest with them?
  • Enjoying them and appreciating their many gifts?
  • Accepting their decisions and encouraging their dreams?
  • Willing to meet any needs that arise?

As a granddaughter, am I: 

  • Praying daily for their physical, spiritual and mental health?
  • Prioritizing time with them?
  • Communicating regularly?
  • Sharing my life with them?
  • Honest with them?
  • Encouraging them in their faith?
  • Slow to anger, quick to forgive?
  • Respectful?
  • Gently caring for their physical needs while doing everything I can to maintain their pride and independence?

As a friend and cousin, am I: 

  • Praying regularly for them in general as well as for each of the specific requests they have shared with me?
  • Communicating with them as often as possible?
  • Thinking about their needs and doing what I can to be a blessing in their lives?
  • Being open about my life and faith?
  • Meeting them and encouraging them wherever they may be on their journeys to find Truth?
  • Generous with my time, possessions, energy, money?
  • Assuming their best intentions and quick to forgive?
  • Helping them to raise and care for their children and demonstrating God’s love to their children whenever I interact with them?
  • Available in a crisis?
  • Willing to interrupt my routine to help them with any needs they may have?
  • Forgiving and forgetting?
  • Encouraging them to be the people that they were created to be?
  • Telling them the ways I see God in them and the things I appreciate about them?

As a teacher, am I: 

  • Keeping God and His word at the center of all of my lessons?
  • Instilling a love of learning about God’s creations, the way His world works, and the history of that world?
  • Making sure that I provide a quality education that prepares my child/the children in our Co-op with the skills and knowledge she/they need for the plans God has for them?
  • Encouraging exploration of personal interests, even if I do not share them?
  • Patient and encouraging? Do I speak words of affirmation? Do I work gently with areas that are challenging?
  • Meeting physical, spiritual and emotional needs before expecting learning to take place?
  • Seeing myself as a gardener who tends the flowers God is creating and not as a creator who determines who or what grows?
  • Teaching about the whole world and not just those people and topics that are familiar and comfortable to me?
  • Helping my child develop the skills she needs to address difficult situations and problems rather than avoiding them?
  • Discouraging the need for perfection and encouraging an understanding of effort and process?
  • Willing to let someone else teach my child if God leads me that way?
  • Delighting in the gift of teaching?

As a writer, am I: 

  • Using my words to point others toward God?
  • Genuine, candid and honest in all I write? Living with integrity and striving to allow the lessons I share to take root in my own life?
  • Praying for the people who will read my work and for the wisdom to know what it is that God wants them to read?
  • Refusing the temptation to become discouraged and clinging to the belief that if just one person draws closer to God because of something I have written, then it will all be worth it?
  • Making it a priority to put my best work forward?
  • Taking time to feed myself spiritually before seeking to feed others through my work?
  • Seeking opportunities to share what I write, not because of pride or my need for success, but because I genuinely want others to know the lessons that I share?
  • Willing to express deep, painful, and embarrassing things in order to help others know God in new ways?

Discernment

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I had high aspirations for this Lent. I planned to do a bread and water fast for one meal each day in order to physically demonstrate my love for God, remind me to petition Him regularly for a healthy baby in the future, and assist me in overcoming my habit of turning to food for comfort and boredom. I figured that God would help me to get through the fast since my reasons for fasting seemed valid, even though I had come up with the plan with little prayer and it was more something that I wanted to do than something that I felt called to do.

In light of my confidence, I was surprised to find myself getting increasingly dizzy and confused as my second day of fasting progressed. I thought I might be dehydrated so I made myself some tea and then continued with my day. An hour later, I returned to the kitchen and found the teapot removed but the stove burner still burning and realized that, however good my intentions might be, God would not want me to put my family’s safety at risk to complete my fast. Eventually, I settled on a much safer way for me to participate in Lent this year.

Still, I was bothered that I had not been able to complete what I had set out to do. As I reflected on my two days of fasting, I realized that, while my intentions had been good, I had come up with them on my own rather than prayerfully seeking God’s desires for my Lent. Then, I had relied on God to sustain me through plans that I had devised without His input. As I read an Anxiety Novena that night, I was convicted by the following sentence: “You are not sick people who ask the doctor to cure you, but rather sick people who tell the doctor how to.”  That is exactly what I was doing! I basically told God that I wanted to draw closer to Him, to have a healthy baby, and to overcome my dependency on food and then told Him that the way I expected Him to achieve those things for me was by sustaining me through my Lenten fast. Instead, I should have been asking Him how He wanted me to grow during Lent and what sacrifices He desired me to make.

I want to be clear that what I learned really had nothing to do with fasting at all and I certainly believe that fasting has an important role to play in our lives. Instead, what I learned had everything to do with our need to seek God’s will for our lives even in the mundane acts that we are called to fulfill each day. Evidently, this Lent God was more concerned about refining my dependency on Him than on eliminating my dependency on food and, while I would love to be thin and healthy again, my spiritual health really is far more important.

*If you would like to try the fasting rolls, you can find the recipe here: http://catholiccuisine.blog-spot.com/2011/03/fasting-bread-for-lent.html. Even if you are not fasting, making them is a great activity with kids because of the symbolism of the ingredients that is described at the end of the recipe.