Animating The Atonement (Where the Beams Meet)

I heard a speech coach once describe the art of story-telling as giving each word its own time in your mouth. As a lover of words I savoured the illustration, especially for words that bear great import — words of truth, of life and of Biblical doctrine. Words like incarnation and atonement, covenant and communion.

Both avid lovers of stories and conversation, my husband and I did not spare our children the joyful exercise of wrapping their young tongues around words, even big words. Thankfully, I also discovered that children like big words, as well as a hands-on approach to learning anything, and I enjoyed finding ways for them to touch, taste and handle the Words of Truth and Life that comprise the Gospel and a Biblical worldview, without always sticking in a DVD, though we did not hesitate to use these whenever helpful ones became available.

Atonement was an especial favorite of mine and I wanted to give it time in my children’s mouths. I delighted in finding ways to illustrate and build to the days of both crucifixion and resurrection each year of their discipleship. More than just touching their palate, through the reading of the Bible stories and other books, I wanted to help them savour its fullness and know lasting satisfaction through employing every sensory aid:

Introducing Children to the Easter Story

My Jamaican heritage was a big boon as I came into marriage and parenting already equipped with a tradition of baking Easter buns for Holy Week, a descendant of the British ‘Hot-Cross Bun”. The entire Lenten season had been culturally ingrained, from my primary school days, when the bell of St. George’s Anglican Church next to our school would toll at noon, bringing all play to a silent halt, as we were required to stop and offer up prayers for a few moments…on pain of punishment! Though I thus learned the folly of trying to instill genuine piety by draconian measures or force of any sort, there was still something special about the ‘big deal’ made about the season: the way the school schedule was altered to accommodate Friday Lenten assemblies in the mini-gothic styled chapel with its resounding pipe organ. The seasonal observance of eternal verities represented in the church’s liturgical cycle were socially and culturally grounding. Silently filing across the alley, grade by grade, into the cool dark-stained pews with our mantillas or jippa-jappa straw hats in place, the grand worship anthems, the Scripture memorization, even the rectors unusual garb and high sounding words, secured us and steadied our world.

Though I was “not in Kansas any more” I wanted to give my best shot at providing our children the same foundation in a world that was already beginning to reel dangerously off-course. I definitely went for ‘winsome’ in establishing Easter/Lenten observances in our home and schooling. So, the year that Ray Boltz’s song “Watch the Lamb” was popular on christian radio, I designed a bulletin board as a green landscape on which we added tufts of white cotton-balls and black mini- pompoms, representing sheep, for all forty days of Lent until Holy Week when the One Perfect Lamb (Jesus) came and died and would be represented by the cross atop the display’s green hill. Another year it was construction paper stepping stones, tracing the path of Christ’s Passion through the streets of my stylized sketch of Jerusalem, inspired by Sandi Patti’s “Via Dolorosa”.

As we waited in a motel for our home to be built one year, with the children all under 10, we memorized great hymns such as “O sacred head now wounded” and “A mighty fortress is our God”, having listened to the story of their writing and Joni Eareckson Tada’s rendition of it on CD. Another favorite activity around music, which I borrowed from Rebecca Hayford Bauer, was to illustrate hymns: One particularly suited to this was,

There is a green hill far away, without the city wall

Where the dear Lord was crucified Who died to save us all.

I would write the hymn out on ruled, over-sized flip charts (available from teacher supply stores) and leave blank spaces for the children to draw in ‘picturesque’ words like ‘green hill’ and ‘city walls’. It was then great fun to sing from our self-illustrated charts for the rest of the season. Not to mention the teachable moments afforded by having to explain things such as, why you may not draw a brown ‘bear’ for the line,

We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains He had to bear,

As the children matured, I searched in catalogues and Christian bookstores for more personally engaging activities and certainly took advantage of prepared activities such as the now common known Resurrection eggs. But beyond such aids I encouraged activities such as painting of any scene from the Passion of Holy Week, making sure to engage in the activity myself, as well as encouraging Dad to do the same. Deep and meaningful conversation came from this as we discussed choice of drawing styles, colours, perspective and the significance of selected scenes, at dinner and at other times of reflection throughout the season.

It’s also a good idea to make sure to offer media in which everyone can have opportunity to shine and for all to be affirmed in their gifting—writing a poem or a song, doing a dance or dressing up in a representative costume, creating a Lego figure — keeping the theme and message of the season a priority.

An important message I have found to give to children, especially in these fractured times of our society, is that of the oneness of the Church around the fact and significance of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection:

*Animating The Atonement

Visit other churches during Lent and Holy Week—find the Passion plays, the Maundy Thursday services re-enacting the Last Supper, hosting Jewish Seder meals with the goal of highlighting how Christ’s atoning work was pre-figured therein; or the Tenebris service in which more traditional Methodist churches still cover all decor, lighting, altar and communion table items with black cloths to mark the Light of Christ being gone…until resurrection Sunday when all is flower-bedecked and glorious! Other churches go ‘all out’ re-creating the locale and period of ancient Jerusalem, producing elaborate musical re-enactments with live animals and special visual effects, culminating in a Gospel presentation.

Our family discovered our current place of worship and fellowship through one such community outreach Easter event: Each Holy Week members decorated the Fellowship Hall, transforming it into a space with stations that represented aspects of Christ’s Passion during Holy Week— A circle of seats with basins and towels and members willing to re-enact Jesus’s example of humble service in washing the feet of others; a Garden created by potted palms and other shrubbery, re-presenting Gethsemane, provided a quiet scene to pray through deeper surrender to Christ’s lordship; a table with crowns of thorns, or large nails, table-top crosses… etc. Additionally, each spot was supplied with copies of a relevant prayer guide for the activities at the stations.. By far the most popular station was always the massive cross fashioned from two railroad ties, on which participants could nail notes where they had written down besetting sins or other burdens they wished to ‘leave at the cross’. The periodic sound of the mallet pounding nails into the cross reminded all in that hallowed space of the fact of our forgiven sins and the lavish price Jesus had paid.

Having the chance to serve again one year, I was assigned a place to hand out the prayer activity guides and from that vantage point had opportunity to observe folks nailing their notes of sin to the cross. As I prayerfully watched I noticed the determined efforts of a friend’s young daughter to nail her note to the cross, and thus having gained fresh perspective on the Atonement, I wrote:

Where the Beams Meet

She gently knelt where the beams met,

Pink hair-band restraining black hair.

The yellow ‘Post-It’ she carried

Held words she had written with care:

‘t’s and ‘i’s crossed and dotted,

Confessions of a seven year-old;

“Bring them all to the Saviour;

Lay them down; nail them there”, she’d been told.

She selected a nail and a mallet,

A struggle disfiguring her face:

How to juggle it all in two small hands;

Fill this task, ‘leave your sins at this place’.

She laid down the pen and her Bible,

And on a spot not yet claimed,

She set out to post her own sin-load,

On the rail-ties now crucifix named.

The mallet proved unwieldy;

Its weight too much to bear?

But no, she was determined

To nail her sin-load there.

Again and again she attempted,

The nail slipping this way now that;

Its tip barely entering the rough wood—

Barely making a scratch.

She repeated her effort till finally

The large nail stood upright,

The note pierced, frail and helpless

Lay precarious, but held tight.

She rose with a smile of contentment,

Surveying the work at the cross.

Never that day realizing

The sermon her actions had taught:

I considered how daily I wrestle

To mortify deeds of my soul—

How like an inadequate vessel

What’s poured out ne’er quite fills the hole.

My efforts to earn my salvation

Futile and frail limply lie,

When already, through Jesus, my pardon

Stamped and sealed sits eternal on high.

In the examen of my evening,

Do I proudly my hands dust clean,

Thinking, “There, my atonement’s accomplished”

As I, satisfied, view the scene?

When His last “Tetelestai”

Is what accomplished the task.

All I need do where the beams meet

Is humbly bow low and ask.

– DSA (Lent 2018)

1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness

And all this before the glorious culmination! — the Father’s gracious act of acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice—the Resurrection! This Easter may you lead your family and friends into the glorious art of telling the Story again and again: articulating and animating Truth, Life and Light, in the dark places of this world that God so loves.

*Re-presented for Easter 2020 with audio of the final segment