Someone You Should Know: A Conversation With Laura Alary about Atonement Theology and Making Room During Lent

Make Room: A Child’s Guide for Lent and Easter is a primer on Lent and Easter for young children. It’s part poetry, part practice and part storytelling. It’s divided up into four parts, making time, making space, making room and Holy Week.  It describes difficult concepts such as sacrifice and emptying in ways that are friendly and appropriate to children. I noticed it when I was looking at Lenten Resources that might be appropriate for my family and for families who appreciate the type of children’s ministry resources I share on Treasure Box Tuesdays, and so I asked Paraclete Press if I could take a look. I fell in love with it, instantly. Paraclete was also kind enough to put me in touch with the author, Laura Alary, who graciously agreed to drop by my virtual office here and chat about her book. I’m really excited! 

Traci: Laura, thank you so much for chatting with me about your book. When I approached you about how much I loved it, I started to get nervous about how much I was gushing about it, but that’s mainly because I just love this book so much! You assured me I could feel free to gush away, so here I go: I love your book a WHOLE LOT. Here’s an example of the type of writing I love: 

This is how to make space:

If you have done wrong,

tell God you are sorry.

Sweep your heart clean and start fresh.

Be kind to all people,

not just the ones who like you.

Open your heart wide

If someone hurts you

ask God to help you forgive.

Do not store up angry thoughts.

Let them go.

Make space inside for better things.

Share so that everyone has enough.

If you have two coats

give one to someone who has none.

Why clutter up your life with more than you can use?

Make space for what really matters. (p. 14 & 15) 

Traci: I think what I love about it is that it’s profound enough for adults to feel spiritually challenged, but yet simple enough to touch the hearts of little ones. It’s also so beautifully poetic. What was your vision for this book? What inspired you to write it? 

Laura: Thank you for such lovely and supportive comments, Traci. Children deserve writing that has real depth. My challenge is always to distil big ideas into a simpler form that retains their essence, but uses language and imagery that children can grasp. Although children are my primary audience, I am always glad when I hear adults say they feel fed by my books too.

I wrote Make Room because I was looking for resources to help me guide my own children through the season of Lent, but was not satisfied with what I found. Some books focused so exclusively on the death of Jesus that his life and ministry seemed like an insignificant prelude. Others put forth particular theological interpretations of the death of Jesus that I found troubling (more on that later). A few were disturbingly graphic in their portrayal of the crucifixion. I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted, but could not seem to find it. That was my cue to start writing.

My own experience of Lent was always characterized by limits and restrictions. The whole season was dominated by death, suffering, and renunciation. To be honest, as a child I found Lent quite scary, especially the notion of having to lay down my life—to renounce my self—in order to follow Jesus. Whether this was actually what I was taught, or whether I just interpreted it this way, I saw this as a call to obliterate my own identity and give up all the things I enjoyed and was good at. This made me both frightened and resentful. By the time I had children of my own, I was determined to introduce them to this season in a more constructive way.

One year we were experimenting with different ways of praying, and I came upon the book Praying in Color by Sybil McBeth. When I tried it with my three young children I was really amazed at how absorbed they became in their prayers. They had lost themselves in the best possible way. For the first time it dawned on me that losing yourself is not necessarily about death; it is also about love, and transcending self-centredness. That was the genesis of my new perspective on Lent.

The more I pondered the biblical texts for the season, the more I noticed the quality of space. This is epitomized in the story of Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus goes out into the desert to get away from clutter and distraction and to open himself to guidance about his identity and direction. But the same theme is evident throughout his ministry. The way he chooses is all about making space for others—especially those considered outsiders. He makes the circle bigger in so many ways. His whole life is characterized by generosity and self-emptying—he does not cling to anything. This same pattern is revealed vividly in his death.

This integrated view of the life and death of Jesus made a lot of sense to me. And I thought it also offered a pattern for others (including children) to follow. I started to think about Lent in terms of transformation—consciously imitating Christ and cultivating those qualities of generosity, hospitality, openness, trust, and self-giving.

Along the way, I wrote another book about non-clinging. Jesse’s Surprise Gift is about a little boy who keeps crossing paths with people in need and having to decide whether to hold on to what he has, or take the risk of letting go of it to help someone else. It’s a simple story, but it helped clarify my thinking and prepare me to write Make Room.

In a nutshell, my aim in this book was to present a positive view of Lent as a time of transformation, and to invite children into the meaningful work of following and imitating Christ.

Traci: If I’m understanding your publication date correctly, this is only the second Lent/Easter that the book has been around. What feedback did you get last year about how people were using it and what they enjoyed most about it? 

That’s right. Last year was it’s first year and the response was very positive.

It’s a strange sensation to send a book out into the world, not knowing how it will be received. So it means a lot to me when people let me know how they used it. One person shared with me how she used the book as the basis for an intergenerational service for Shrove Tuesday/Ash Wednesday. She wove together passages from the book, congregational responses, and some symbolic actions, and created a very meaningful worship service.

One comment I hear frequently is that although the book is written in simple language, it is not simplistic. There is real depth to it, which means it can be shared with children, but still offer something nourishing for adults. I suppose that’s why it works well in contexts involving all ages.

Speaking of intergenerational worship, I have written a similar book about Advent (Look! A Child’s Guide to Advent and Christmas). This past year I turned it into a script for our congregational Christmas Play. I have toyed with the idea of doing something similar with Make Room and presenting it in the weeks leading up to Easter. There are all sorts of possibilities!

Traci: I intend to use this book with my own family this year during Lent. My children are 6, 5 and 1 — right in the target age for this book, I think. What suggestions do you have for how to use it? Is it the sort of book that parents read with their children in one whole chunk, or do they read a little bit each night? 

The structure of the book offers many options for reading. As you described earlier, the book is divided into four main sections: Making Time, Making Space, Making Room, and Holy Week. The first three sections are my interpretations of the traditional Lenten triad of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. But the book also consists of two intertwined narratives: elements of the story of Jesus; and a first-person account of walking through Lent from the perspective of a child.

So, you could read one section at a time, and talk about the particular theme developed there. Or you could read each narrative as a distinct story. I have to say, though, I think the back-and-forth quality of moving from scripture to contemporary observance sends an important message. It roots our Lenten practices in the story of Jesus and encourages conversation and reflection.

I have, on different occasions, read the entire book aloud at once. But it takes at least fifteen minutes and is a lot for young children to process. I would recommend taking it in smaller bites and wondering together about each section as you read.

Traci: One of my own frustrations with Lenten resources for young children is the way in which they deal with the death of Jesus in inappropriate ways. Not only does your book have very simple visuals for this, but the wording is simple as well. Truthful, but not lingering on violent details. It says, 

On Friday we come to church again.

We hear how people who did not like Jesus came

and carried him away.

They made fun of him, bullied him, hurt him.

They took everything from him, even his clothes.

They nailed him to a cross.

Jesus died.

As we listen to this story

everything around us changes.

The candles on the altar are snuffed out one by one.

Darkness creeps in.

All the colors are carried away.

The cross is draped in black.

The church is not dressed in purple anymore.

It is bare and sad and full of shadows.

Outside on the street I hear people laughing and talking.

It seems wrong.

Don’t they know what has happened to Jesus?

Traci: Tell us a little about your view on violence and the cross. Was the decision to be simple and understated with these details a deliberate one? How did you handle deciding how much detail to go into? 

Laura: Ah. Good question. I could go on at length about this.

Yes, I was very intentional about keeping this part of the story as spare as possible. I wanted the elements of the biblical narrative to stand alone with minimal interpretation. Jesus died. I don’t say why, or how, or for what purpose. It is powerful enough to state the fact simply and let the reality of it sink in. Ann’s artwork helps. It is sombre and simple.

So many books for children impose a specific theological framework on the death of Jesus. Many of the books I looked at used the language of substitution (Jesus suffered and died for us, or in our place). While this is certainly one way of understanding the death of Jesus, it is not the only way. Furthermore, as I see it, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is fraught with problems, not least of which is its assumption that violence and punishment—in particular the punishment of an innocent victim—are necessary to salvation.

I remember as a seven-year-old protesting to my Pioneer Girl group leader, “But that’s not fair! Why couldn’t God just forgive people? That’s what Jesus taught us to do!” Although many years of study have allowed me to articulate my concerns in more sophisticated language, the heart of problem remains much the same.

The claim that suffering serves a redemptive purpose is complex. Who can fully comprehend such a mystery? To offer children a facile explanation of how the cross “works” feels false to me. I would rather follow the lead of the biblical writers and tell the story as a drama, rather than a work of systematic theology.

I wanted to draw the children into an emotional experience of Good Friday. At the time, no one comprehended these events intellectually; they just experienced them in all their terrible mystery. When I think back to the Good Friday services I attended as a child, what stands out in my memory are sense impressions: the gathering darkness as the sanctuary lights were turned out one by one, the ominous rumbling of the biggest organ pipes as the last words from the cross were read aloud. My intention was to pull children into the pre-Easter experience of the disciples and allow them to feel the shock, sadness, emptiness, and confusion. This is more powerful than moving too quickly to the post-Easter task of trying to interpret and find meaning in these events.

Some readers appreciate this open-endedness. Others think I have really strayed from the path. A few of the online reviews are quite negative about this specifically. Some readers come to the book wanting a very specific interpretation of the death of Jesus and they are not hearing it. But I am content to disagree. The most important thing for me to convey is that God is a God of love, not violence or retribution. Personally, I see the death of Jesus as an embodiment of that love—a love that shocks and disturbs and stirs opposition.

And really, when it comes to doctrines (plural) of atonement, there is no single monolithic orthodoxy. Even within the New Testament itself, there are many different interpretations of the cross and they are just that—interpretations.

So I choose to let the story stand on its own.

Traci: I am just nodding my head like crazy to read what you wrote about the atonement and children. I believe this with 100% of my being and am also writing about it. We need to re-evaluate the way we present the atonement to children (and adults for that matter.) We are absolutely on the same page in that, and I think it’s one of the reasons your book resonates with me so profoundly. I love so many different portions of your book. Do you have a favorite passage? 

Laura: I have a few favourite passages.

I quite like the opening description of the earth slumbering and seeds and bulbs “dreaming in shades of green.” A few people have commented that they don’t like this because it connects Lent too tightly with a particular part of the world (that is, places where the transition from winter to spring is taking place). But I need to write what I know, and for me, it has always been very meaningful to feel the natural world waking up and coming back to life as Easter approaches.

I have always believed that the shortest route to the universal is the particular, so it is my hope that people in different places and different climates will use the “strangeness” of this description as a catalyst to think about how the sights and smells of the natural world in their own places inform their experience of the Lenten season. I’m sure there are different messages to be heard, and I would love to know what they are.

(By the way, my book about Advent is similarly rooted in a northern setting, so if this bothers anyone, be duly warned )

Another one of my favourite parts is one of the lines you quoted: “Outside on the street I hear people laughing and talking. It seems wrong. Don’t they know what has happened to Jesus?” I think the simple question (“Don’t they know what has happened to Jesus?”) captures the natural empathy of children. It also reminds us of the raw grief of those first disciples.

When I wrote those lines I had in mind the strange dissonance I feel whenever I walk out of the solemnity of a Good Friday service into a bustling world full of people going about their business as usual. But I was also thinking about the experience of being in a state of anxiety or grief and feeling a sense of incredulity—even indignation or resentment—that other people are having perfectly ordinary days.

Strangely enough, as I jot down these words, I am sitting in a hospital waiting room, one eye on the clock, while my fourteen year-old son has surgery. All around me other families are living our their own private dramas. But outside this building, the streets are bustling with people for whom this is simply another Sunday night. So I guess that phrase in the book has particular resonance for me in this moment.

One final favourite bit is the line which speaks of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples: “That is who Jesus is. He pours himself out like water from a pitcher. He touches what is dirty and hurting and makes it clean and whole.” If I do say so myself, I think this is a very simple yet vivid depiction of the identity and work of Jesus (healing, cleansing, forgiving, loving) that broadens the idea of sacrifice beyond his death. This is what I mean by an integrated portrait of the life of Jesus. We are used to speaking of his death as a sacrifice, but his entire life and ministry was sacrificial—an outpouring and an offering of love.

Traci: I’m endlessly fascinated with beautiful illustration, and the illustrations in your book are fantastic. Tell us about your collaboration with the illustrator and how it worked? 

The relationship between author and illustrator is a bit like an arranged marriage. We don’t choose each other; rather, we trust in the wisdom of the publisher to make a match that will work!

I was familiar with Ann’s work from a book on Centering Prayer she had already illustrated for Paraclete Press (Journey to the Heart by Frank Jelenek). There is a very calm and restful quality to her painting that suits my writing style. Ann had a few specific questions for me (like “what do ‘pretzel arms’ actually look like?”) but most of her communication was with the fine people at Paraclete Press.

I think Ann’s work is stunning. I was particularly delighted with the cover. I had simply assumed it would be purple, and instead it turned out to be this vivid spring green—one of my favourite shades. I thought it was a brilliant way to capture the emphasis on growth and transformation that is so essential to the book. I love it.

Traci: Where can readers go to learn more about you and your work? 

I have a personal website ( where I post descriptions of my books, guest blog posts, reviews, articles, and news items. This is the best place to get a taste of what I write. There is also a brief biography on the website.

I also have an author Facebook page (Laura Alary, Author) and always welcome “likes” and new followers.

My next big project is the publication of a children’s bible: Read. Wonder. Listen. Stories from the Bible for Young Readers will be published very soon by Wood Lake Books. I expect it will be ready to ship by April. It has been a labour of love for me and I am very excited about it!

Traci: Me too! Sounds fantastic, and I can’t wait to read it. Congratulations on Make Room, and thank you so much for stopping by my virtual living room to chat a little about it!  

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing a review copy of this amazing book. I review and share only products that I love and believe in, and this one is WAY high on the list. Goodness. So good. All links in this post are affiliate links which means that I receive a small commission for products purchased through them. All proceeds cover hosting and other costs for Happy shopping!

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