Waiting Songs for Children in Lent: An Interview with Sandra McCracken and Flo Oakes
Rain for Roots is a collaborative project of Nashville singer-songwriters Sandra McCracken, Flo Oakes, and Katy Bowser. Waiting Songs is their third album for children and is an album for Advent. But with songs on it like, “Come Light Out Hearts,” which repeats “For you, Oh Lord, Our Souls in Stillness Wait” or titles like “Every Valley (It’s Hard to Wait)” and “Weight of the World,” much of this album works as a way to teach children about the texture and shape of Lent. To be clear, a few songs (like Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel) don’t quite work, but there are many that do. Since Advent has historically been called “Little Lent,” it makes sense that Waiting Songs could serve families in their practice of both penitential seasons.
As a priest and a mom of two, my current fascination is how to introduce and involve kids in Lent, and so we are listening to Waiting Songs. This is the first year that my eldest (who is 5 years old) seems able to keep Lent with us, so we are trying some new stuff: 1.) Each day of Lent, we are putting a dry black bean in a jar on our table as a prayer, which will “transform” into jellybeans on Easter morning to help us remember how Jesus makes all things new. 2.) We are curtailing screen time as family, a practice which I have been surprised to find my kids embrace with gusto. And 3).
I caught up with Flo Oakes and Sandra McCracken to talk about their new album and bringing children into the practices of Lent:
Hey guys, so why did you want to take on an album about waiting, preparing, and liturgical time for kids?
Sandra: There is so much waiting in life. My mom used to encourage me often as a little girl, telling me how patient I was. In retrospect, I wonder if she was speaking that into me rather than observing it in practice. In every season I have wrestled with waiting on the Lord and keeping my heart open to his purposes and his timing. He is patient. Love is patient. I’m still learning.
Flo: We had originally planned on writing a Christmas album. There was a lot of support around the idea, and we even had a few carols in mind, but as our studio date came closer, everything we gathered up seemed more appropriate for Advent. The theme of waiting was one that the three of us had all struggled through recently and vividly in one way or another, so the songs we were writing were as much for ourselves as they were for our kids. And at the same time, children feel like they have to wait for everything—for their turn, for Christmas, to grow up—that idea is already etched into their reality. So it made sense to give space to what they were already thinking and feeling, and to help them connect that to the Advent season.
How do you approach the writing process? Do you write songs together or individually? Do you collaborate or divvy them up?
Flo: For our first album, Big Stories for Little Ones, we worked with Sally-Lloyd Jones—we each took two of her poems and divvied them out early on. We approached our second album (songs based on the parables) similarly. We each took a couple of parables and wrote about them. But this album was unique in that we wrote a fair amount together and spent a lot of time in the studio with each other. There were some individual songs (including a few that we had written a few years ago), but we wrote Isaiah 11 and Mary Consoles Eve together—all of us in a room together reading scripture and throwing out ideas. It wound up being a really sweet time for us.
Sandra: Several of these songs were written before we came into the studio for ‘Waiting Songs’ making for an unexpectedly fast process from start to finish on this time around. Our collaboration on this one also was more efficient because we just had so much momentum in the creative process.
Even though this is created as an Advent album, tell us how the album can help kids honor Lent and wait for and prepare for Easter.
Flo: I immediately think of Katy’s song, “The Weight of the World,” which talks about how Jesus is strong enough to carry it all—our burdens, our sin, our doubt—and Easter is what makes that true. I also think there are a lot of families (and kids) who may not be totally familiar with the practice of Lent and the spiritual practice of waiting, but I hope that these songs make that idea accessible. When I talk about Lent with my own kids, we speak in terms of making space in our hearts for God and what He might want to say to us. I hope that these songs can be a way to foster that.
Sandra: One of the features of the church is how we are formed by habits and by the embodiment of our faith. Lent and Advent are opportunities each year to remember and lean-in to our longing and expectation before the big seasons of celebration (Christmas and Easter, respectively). Thoughtful practice makes the celebration that much more rich.
Why was it important to you to talk to kids about waiting? And, in general, to help kids not just into celebration but also into seasons of preparation, repentance, and waiting?
Flo: From the very beginning of Rain for Roots, we have always made a point of taking children seriously. We have wanted (hoped) to write music and words that don’t condescend or patronize. Since waiting is inevitable, and repentance is essential, these are realities for our kids anyway—even the littlest ones. We wouldn’t be doing our kids any favors by ignoring them. I think it’s G.K. Chesterton who writes in defense of darker elements in children’s stories, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” Even more so with the word of God. The Bible doesn’t make light of pain. Jesus offers the hope of eternal joy and the promise that the dragon will be slain, but for now, He still weeps with us. This, to me, is what Advent is all about. And I have found with my own girls, that diving into the darkness and giving them space to feel those things really makes the celebratory seasons so much sweeter and much more powerful.
I love the song, Every Valley (It’s Hard to Wait). How did that song come about? How did you decide to address the pain of waiting and also bring it down to such tangible examples?
Flo: Thank you! I wrote the verses to this one in the car one day as I thought about all the ways my own kids struggle with waiting. Even a small thing, like waiting for your friend to write you back, can be huge to a kid. We live across the country from grandparents, and my girls (and the grandmas) cry all the way home from the airport when we have to say goodbye. It feels like forever between visits! That ache that they feel—I want them to know that it is valid, and that there is a reason for it, and that it is not that different than the ache I feel for all things to be made right. The Isaiah passage that promises that “There will be a day,” is a beautiful and real hope. But it’s also really, really hard to wait.
We went to church together in Nashville. And when I met y’all years ago, liturgical worship was pretty new to you. How has participation in the liturgy and in the liturgical year influenced you or impacted you as writers and artists? How has it shaped you?
Sandra: I am still learning about the church calendar and liturgy but in recent years experiencing the structure of the prayer book and the liturgical habits has provided so much space for creativity and flourishing. Boundaries, like discipline or training, are not meant to restrict us and inhibit our movement but to aim our affections. When structure is applied with love, the practices of faith make life surprisingly good and fruitful. The liturgy has been for me and my kids a helpful framework to experience our faith in practice.
Flo: Oh goodness—I would not be here writing Advent songs if it hadn’t been for the Anglican church. We started going to an Anglican church a few years ago right in time for Advent, and it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. For the first time, the season didn’t seem rushed and just about getting to Christmas and getting it over with. Then came Lent and Easter, and I bawled my eyes out on Easter day because everyone around me was so full of joy—after those forty days of penitence and waiting, and the wait was finally over. What a picture of what is to come! Often in my writing, I am afraid of entering into darker themes (especially Christian circles) because the church I grew up in was mostly concerned with the peppy/happy “positive” story of faith. Lent and Advent validate writing about the harder aspects of my faith. It’s okay to let some songs (like “Hard to Wait”) sit there, a little uncomfortably without tying everything up with an immediate happy ending.
Yeah, people can find Lent to be rather dark or depressing. Why do you think it is important for kids to enter into Lent? And are there any Lenten practices you want to recommend to help kids learn about repentance and “remembering that we are dust?”
Sandra: In our culture it seems like there is a perpetual need for space and permission to lament, both personally and corporately. There’s a difference between sentimentality and lament. Giving ourselves and our children room to feel what we feel and to ask the hard questions is a critical part of training them and recognizing that we each have our own relationship and ongoing conversation with God. There’s something ‘hands off’ about that in parenting. Making intentional space is one of the best gifts we can give our kids.
Flo: I’m a mom of tweens, which means I see a lot of instagramming. I hear girls talking about how many “likes” their photos got and trying to create these personas for themselves so they can be known. It’s a weird sort of fame, and pretty much the opposite of “remembering that we are dust.” I certainly want my girls to be confident and to know that they are valuable, but I want them to know this and to be secure in this because of what Christ has done for them, not because of a weird social media platform. I have to remember this myself, quite honestly. So when we participate in Lent this year, we’ll be talking a lot about humility and service, about how we can point others to God’s love instead of to ourselves. As in Advent, we will be looking for ways to make space in our hearts for Jesus. I’ve actually been thinking of giving up social media for the season—and it scares me! Maybe all the more reason to do it.
Thank you Flo and Sandra and a blessed Lent to you!
You can buy “Waiting Songs” at www.rainforroots.com If you buy it now, it will serve your family in Lent and you and your kids will know all the words by next Advent.
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