When Anna was about 18 months old, I was invited to a service called “The Crossing” that a family from our church put together for their 13 year old son. As Christians do not have a particular rite of passage like in the Jewish tradition of having a Bar Mitzvah, they wanted to mark this time in his life of turning 13 and entering adolescence with a significant ceremony. The year leading up to this event was one that involved a year-long service project, a retreat with some significant people in his life, a father/son trip, and a service at our church. They also gathered a group of people when their son turned 12 and asked them to commit to praying for their son through the year up until his 13th birthday, and then these people gathered around his 13th birthday to speak words of blessing to him. Since they took the whole year to do all these things, it was not overwhelming, and their intentionality helped to make this a very memorable rite of passage.
Going to this event made such an impression on me, and I began scheming, reading books and gathering ideas to make plans for when our children turn 13 of what this might look like. After we moved back to Seattle, I got together with Daelene, my wise friend who hosted “The Crossing” to hear her reflections almost ten years later after hosting this. She told me that the event itself was not as significant as the experiences through the year. During the year leading up to her boys’ 13th birthdays, they read books together that allowed for good conversations such as The Giver and To Kill a Mockingbird. I loved this idea of making a list of books that I wanted to make sure that Anna and Taylor would read before they leave our house and find some titles of classics that I wanted to rediscover with them.
In line with this (but a bit scaled back from the other events mentioned above), we have some friends in Nashville who hosted a big dinner for their son when he turned 13. They invited mentors and older friends (not peers) who could speak wisdom into his life. Each guest was asked to bring a symbolic gift and to write a letter explaining the significance. The boy went on a walk after dinner and each guest was somewhere on the trail with the gift. He would walk from person to person collecting the gifts and listening to their insights, advice and words of wisdom.
One other idea that I heard about was an "affirmation dinner” put together for this family’s just-turned-13 year old daughter, at which many relatives and close friends spoke blessings over her and/or prayed for her. One great thing was that they used Skype on a couple of different computers to bring everyone together, since many of those they are closest to live in Hawaii, where they also lived up until a few years ago. Despite the time difference, the Hawaii contingent gathered up on their end to "show up" at the dinner on this end, and that way everyone got to be at the party. What fun to have this global gathering to celebrate this girl's 13th birthday!
In addition to these birthday dinners gathering significant people in the child's life, one woman shared with me that she took ideas from the Jewish tradition of memorizing prayers and parts of the Torah, and they had their son memorize Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 29:11-13. He recited these at the gathering they hosted for their son's 13th birthday.
Over this past year, I have taken all these ideas and tried to create something that would fit our family well and be something that would speak to Anna's heart to help mark this "crossing" year. We wanted Anna to know that as she turned from 12 to 13 into the realm of being a teenager that she was not doing this alone. We wanted her to know that she has a team of people who are with her, cheering her along the way. My friend’s church calls mentors “COWS” which stands for “cloud of witnesses.” So during the months leading up to her birthday, we identified a number of women who are influential in her life. (But I must admit that my dear friend and roommate from college told me that she was not too sure how she felt about being called a "cow!") We talked to each of them asking if they would be willing to spend some one on one time with her during the coming months. In addition to that time, we also asked them to write a letter that had the following instructions:
Thank you so much for being among Anna's "cows" group this year- I could not ask for a better cloud of witnesses for our almost 13 year old!
I am asking for you to bring TWO things to the event (or to send these to me in advance if you cannot come):
1) Please pick a verse that has been meaningful to you or one that reminds you of Anna. We will be reading these to her before we have lunch together.
2) Also, please write Anna a letter of encouragement and highlight things you see in her character, ways you see God calling her to participate in His Story, and challenges for her to grow. If you have any advice or guidance for Anna that God brings to your mind, please feel free to add that as well.
We will be reading a part of these letters to her at another point in our time together.
I am so grateful for how you have invested in Anna and for the voice you have in her life. My hope is that through these letters that she will be encouraged by and reminded of God's provision of community in her journey.
I loved the idea of having Anna work on a "pay it forward" service project this year, and she has been working on sewing on occasion for a project called Days for Girls with Jason's mom. They have been sewing cloth pads for feminine hygiene kids that are shared with girls around the world.
We chose to read two books together this year: To Kill a Mockingbird and Out of My Mind, and the discussions about these books were so rich in talking about the danger of stereotyping and the importance of trying to see things from others' perspectives.
I saw a video on YouTube of a woman who wrote the words “In God’s heart I am…” on a small board and placed it next to a big white sheet that was hung for people at a park. There was a bucket of paint and some fun paintbrushes inviting people to write down words that they thought of when seeing this prompt. Words like “loved, unique, joyful, work of art, beautiful, enough, etc” were painted on this sheet. When the woman came back, she had her daughter with her, and she wrapped the sheet around the girl who then tied it around her neck and ran through the park with it flying like a cape behind her. What a picture of the blessing we want to give to our children! I showed this video at the beginning of our "Crossing" gathering and had a sheet that our guests were invited to write on with a permanent marker so that Anna can have this as a reminder of who she is in God's heart when she tucks into bed.
Anna and I chose 6 scriptures (one for each month) between May and November and she memorized these before the Crossing gathering that we had. During the time we gathered, we shared the significance of each scripture and she was able to recite the passages. With the longest passage she memorized (Psalm 139), we used the Lectio Divina practice of listening to scripture with the group as I wanted this to be a time where we all could listen in to what God was saying to us. Anna recited it for the first reading and we listened for a word or a phrase that stood out to us. For the second reading, I read the psalm in a different translation and we listened for an invitation and a response to the words spoken. Then for the third reading, I played a song with the words of Psalm 139 and then we took about 10-15 minutes for quite contemplation and journaling. It was beautiful to come together and hear some of the things that God had spoken to each of us during that time.
After we had our time in the Scriptures, we gathered back together to read a birthday liturgy together:
First Reader: As we gather together to celebrate your birthday, Anna, we want to thank God for giving you to us, and we want to encourage you in fulfilling the purpose for which God created you.
(light candle in the middle of the table)
Second Reader: We light a candle to remember that God is our light and that He is with us. This light also symbolizes that He is the source of your life, not only because He made you, but because He constantly gives you spiritual life.
Third Reader: The Bible tells us that you were created with God’s personal attention. Psalm 139: 13-16 says:
All: For you created my inmost being;
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Fourth Reader: Psalm 22:9-10 tells us that God watched over you when you were young and helpless: “You brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth, I was cast upon you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.”
Fifth Reader: And now we want to give you some nourishment from the scriptures to strengthen your trust in the Lord and your commitment to fulfill the purpose for which He created you. Each person reads the verse they have brought for Anna, going around the table. An unlit candle is passed from reader to reader as the verses are read. After all the verses are read, the unlit candle is placed in Anna’s hands. The following is then read:
Sixth Reader: We ask you, Anna, to light your candle from the Christ candle to signify this crossing into another year of life, your thankfulness for God’s gift of life through Christ, and your desire to give all that you have and are to God in this coming year.
(adapted from Why Not Celebrate by Sara Wenger Shenk)
We shared a meal together and had two things left in our day before we closed. The first was a trust fall for Anna. I explained that this was a chance for Anna to consider how she may want to trust God more or to think about something she wanted to put in God's hands. I also wanted her to know that the people gathered in this room had her back (literally) and were here for her to support and love her through the years. This trust fall was a bit different than ones I have done at camps before because it was done in a spirit of prayer and the person who fell back was then held by the catchers for a period of time before being gently lowered to the ground. When Anna fell back, she then looked around her "cloud of witnesses" who were the "catchers" and then we all lifted her up as well. The thing that struck me this time around was the privilege of getting to be a catcher. I loved the way this embodied prayer (literally) and how I felt like I was able to experience lifting up Anna in a very tangible way.
The final part of our day was something we called the "crowning". We had a small crown we put on Anna, and as each woman read part of the letter she wrote to Anna, she put a flower in the crown and then marked Anna's forehead with the sign of the cross with a dab of scented oil on her finger. This "Crossing" day was a metaphorical crossing from one stage to the next, but through this mark on her forehead, it was also a tangible crossing too as a reminder that she belongs to God and she is crowned with love.
It was a rich day indeed, and I am so grateful for this whole year of love poured out on Anna through each of the women who spent time with her and who have invested in her life. There is no greater gift than such a cloud of witnesses surrounding her!