Book Resource: Imaginative Prayer

I’ve been looking forward to Jared Patrick Boyd’s release of Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide for your Child’s Spiritual Formation for months now as my older sister (who lives and breathes theological conversation) has been gushing about how the project provides a resource for parents and teachers to connect children’s active imaginations with solid theology and spiritual formation.

It’s no secret that I believe the Holy Spirit works in the lives of childrenimagination is important for children’s faith formation, and children’s formation is vital to congregational health.  It’s also not a secret that I’m generally not a fan of devotional books, much preferring that families struggling to figure out how to worship and learn together start with reading the Bible. 

Imaginative Prayer is a much-needed exception to that rule- in fact, I think it provides a framework for the whole family to learn how to engage the Scriptures with hearts open to the Holy Spirit’s transformation. I’m quite sure that after a year of practicing imaginative prayer methods, parents and children will have re-learned how to wonder about the text with excited curiosity, seek knowing God and God’s character more fully, and want to pursue knowing God through Scripture more regularly.

Occasionally people tell me that their child can’t possibly keep track of Bible stories or theological concepts… and then a few weeks later this same child proceeds to talk at me for 30-minutes of set-up about their research into black-holes or galaxy formation, Ninja Turtles or Nemo, complex book series’ with sequels and prequels and spin-offs. These many and varied things that capture children’s imaginations prompt their curiosity and self-propelled learning. Shouldn’t we seek ways to connect that imagination-driven curiosity with studying Scripture and seeking to know God?

Imaginative Prayer Book

Imaginative Prayer is organized in 36 lessons that follow six sections of Boyd’s Creedal Poem: God’s Love, Loving Others, Forgiveness, God as King, the Good News of God, and the Mission of Christ. Each lesson will take about 30-minutes and includes imaginative listening, thoughtful guided response, creative engagement ideas for the parent or mentor, and a journaling prompt for the child to write or draw a reflection. You could do it as a family after dinner, one-on-one at bedtime or after a parent-child date once a week, or it could be easily adapted for a mentoring program, Sunday morning or mid-week ministry.

My congregation has been talking consistently over the past year about how our habits and life rhythms inform our longings, and this book helps parents and mentors use Scripture reflection to help guide the formation of longings from childhood. I could not be more thrilled that one book- no supplements or memory cards or plastic figurines or laborious workbooks- is focusing on the Christian formation of children in the context of their family or church communities rather than their acquisition of knowledge, behavior control or entertainment.  And, I’m thrilled that I finally have a book I can hand out to families!

Hymns on the Train: Christian Vocabulary, Generations, and an Amtrak

This morning on the Amtrak to Chicago, I shared my car with a group of Amish families including about a half-dozen children. A four-hour drive starting at 6am, most of the car stayed quiet for the first few hours with just a little murmuring and a few stories read aloud on the seats in front of me. During the last hour, though, the children began to sing. Whispery voices sang 3, 4, 5 verses Fairest Lord Jesus, O for a Thousand Tongues, and Amazing Grace in imperfect harmony.

My seat-mate, whom I had just met at the luggage rack, turned toward me

 “When was the last time you heard children sing?”
“Well, my career is with children at church…”
“It’s just so beautiful, so simple. We don’t have any children at my church.”

I lost my words at that last bit. What is a church family without children?

While she reflected on the presence of children, I considered the community that formed them.  I don’t know a whole lot about Amish communities, and as much as I enjoy living simply in some things, I enjoy the connection, efficiency, (and even simplicity) technology brings to my life. Young children (I’m guessing the oldest here was 7 or 8) don’t learn all the verses to hymns by sitting in a church service once a week with a hymnal, their little impromptu concert purely for their own enjoyment grew out of continual exposure to hymns over time.

Songs on the Train (1)

I’m not really interested in putting together a curriculum for “8-Weeks to Teach Kids Hymns”, but my observations challenged me to reconsider the preemptive vocabulary children from my congregation are equipped with through song, memorization, and story. These children sang songs they enjoyed, and these songs included verses about trials, death and eternal life. Even if they don’t know the depth of these truths now, the lyrics equip them with the words and art to express the depths of joy and pain of life.

In Teaching Godly Play, Jerome Berryman teaches extensively about the goal of the storyteller to equip children with Christian language to express their experienced spiritual formation. Many people carefully, imaginatively consider and reform the ways this works its way out in churches across the globe. As we move forward with new ways, the children on the train encourage me to also hold on to traditional ways, like singing. No children’s ministry program can sing with children as they complete chores, meals, and train rides, but congregations together can equip families and communities across generations to reconsider the role of music as a great catechetical tool.

Lent in Present Tense

I woke up early the morning after Ash Wednesday anxious about Lent.

Why had I voluntarily complicated my life?
Would I actually be uncomfortable?
Surely Jesus doesn’t want me to be uncomfortable! 

I’m okay with doing complicated things, but I’d like to do them from as comfortable a space as possible. Comfort during Lent is designed to come from Jesus rather than ephemeral pleasure, though.

Approaching Lent in present tense- that is, not dreaming about how it will look next week or next month, but how it looks right now today- has been helpful. Practicing Lent diverges from achieving or perfecting it.

As I was Pinterest-ing resources for our children’s ministry observance of Lent a back in February, I ran across the admonition to pause the crafting, coloring, printing, and gathering resources for Lent and just start observing it. Just do Lent. Resources are helpful (and I’m all about integrating reminders and illustrations into daily life!), but they are not the central thing. The focal point of Lent is dependence on the sustaining work of God.

So what might help us live Lent in the present-tense?

Remember your Fast:  

A fast as described in Isaiah 59 is about solidarity in suffering, both with people who suffer around the world and with Christ who suffered on our behalf. Does my fast encourage compassion toward someone in my community or around the world? Spending time in remembrance and prayer for that group and considering whether there is an action of compassion or justice that I can take with the time, energy, or resources preserved from the fast helps refocus hearts and minds.

Ash Wednesday Watercolor Project

A few of our Ash Wednesday watercolor paintings from the three, four, and five year olds at church.

Meditate on the Love of Christ: 

The message of the Gospel is that Christ has suffered on our behalf to purchase reconciliation and freedom. It’s quite possible to fast with justice in mind and overlook the central gift of Christ. Reading various accounts of the Holy Week (in the different gospels or different Children’s Bible Storybooks), reflecting on the Stations of the Cross, or singing hymns that retell the gift of Christ can redirect a heart toward the source of our hope and compassion.

Lean into the Quiet, Slow Pace: 

When we  say “no” to something because it’s related to a Lenten fast (a snack, a TV show, etc.), point to a different form of observance. For children, this might look like saying something along the lines of, “We don’t have dessert this week, but why don’t we put on some special Lent music to listen to while we eat crackers and cheese?” or, “We’re not watching TV right now, but would you like to light the candles on the table while you color a card or read after dinner?” Learning to slow down takes practice, encouragement, and intentionality; Lent is a natural time in our church year to lean into these slower rhythms of reflection.

 

 

 

Teaching as Spiritual Formation

When my friend who teaches has anxious dreams, it’s about her students at school revolting in absolutely ridiculous ways. When I have anxious dreams, it looks like calling volunteers for Sunday morning help, or showing up on Sunday under-staffed. Lucky duck that I am, I’m pretty much guaranteed all my dreams will come true.

Teaching as Spiritual Formation

I often frame my struggle with volunteer recruitment as a loss for children- a loss of their knowing and learning from the older brothers and sisters in their spiritual family, a loss of continuity, a loss of class offerings. Over the past year, though, I’ve begun to realize more fully that it’s not just the children who miss out, but the adults. If a critical mass of adults are not consistently spending time with the children of the congregation in the context of worship, the whole adult community misses out on the gift of their presence.

Articulating faith and worshipping with children has been the single most spiritually forming process of my life. I started helping with the 2s class when I was 8, so it’s been awhile. Exploring a text with children, hearing their questions, and listening to the Lord alongside them challenges me to put practical application and simple articulation to truths that I easily forget that I believe.  No matter how many times I plan or run through a story, it’s not entirely uncommon for me to have a pause in my heart mid-lesson and catch myself silently renewing my faith.

Do I actually believe that Jesus raised the girl from the dead?

Do I truly trust that Jesus can calm the seas?

Do I seek the church with a doggedness that comes from trusting that God established her through a miracle of the Holy Spirit?

Initially, teaching is more exhausting than invigorating. I rarely have a lesson go as planned, and there are always a few awkward moments- hesitations, pauses, missing resources. The greater inconvenience, and the eventual catalyst for growth, is that it prompts internal spiritual work of the best kind. Some of this extends from working with any group of people who think and learn differently:

  • Why does that child’s question bother me?
  • Why am I feeling impatient?
  • What questions are they going to ask?
  • How do I thoughtfully engage a person who thinks differently so we can both learn more?

Other times, it extends from listening to the spiritual insights of children who Jesus himself said enter faith communities with simple and childlike faith:

  • How do I approach this application with the same joy as that child?
  • Where have I short-changed myself by making an issue more complex than necessary?

Ultimatums are rarely a good idea, and there are some very real reasons why some people shouldn’t serve in children’s ministries. I would argue that across a congregation, an adult spending time with the children of a church should be more the norm than the exception.  Maybe not weekly or monthly, but in some intentional capacity beyond parenting their own children. God often calls people to ministry in ways that they don’t expect, and serving with children is not “missing out on church” but an opportunity to know the church and the God of the church more deeply and fully. Growing alongside children does more than introduce the generations to each other, it provides another angle or facet through which to know God more deeply.

 

Talking about Race and Ethnicity with Kids

September 2014 I attended the 26th Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) Conference with some of our church staff and thousands of Christians from around the world.  Learning to celebrate the breadth and depth of The Kingdom of God in a world of inequality, brokenness, and prejudice is an integral part of Christian living. CCDA centers around 3 main areas of change, accessible for even children to live into:  Relocation, Redistribution, and Reconciliation.

Relocation: Relocation means choosing to live daily with people of different backgrounds, oftentimes those who have not been afforded the same opportunities. Specifically  this means people who experience oppression or lack social mobility. We see our greatest example of relocation in Christ himself, who came as an infant to a lower-class family and spent part of his childhood as a refugee in Egypt. While the CCD commitment to relocation means choosing to move into under-resourced areas, relocation is happening all over the United States; it’s probably happening in your neighborhood.

In Wake County, NC, over 7,000 new students enter the public schools each year, many from countries other than the U.S. These children have relocated. Although only 25% of Wake County as a whole is non-white, over 75% of the children entering as new students are ethnic minorities. These students are entering a predominantly white, affluent county and are learning to reconcile their culture of origin and home culture (not necessarily the same thing) with the culture of Raleigh and of their elementary school. Not every child of a non-white background is under-resourced, but they will all face some level of racial profiling, and many will experience prejudice. At a very basic level, they are experiencing, perhaps for the first time, life as a minority culture.

All too often, children pick up on “different” and make a negative association such as “weird” or “wrong”. It’s important for parents and other leaders to initiate conversations with children about some of gifts diversity offers our city: different languages, music, art, family traditions, and experiences in other cultures all combine to make a city more wonderful! Talk about what you would want to share about your own culture if you moved to a new culture- are their favorite foods, traditions, or values that you would like to share with someone in a new place? How could a new friend make you feel more at home?

If your child is educated in setting without this rich diversity, consider making a point to spend regular time in diverse settings. Playing at a public playground downtown, participating in park district programs, or shop at stores in more culturally diverse areas of the city. Creating opportunities for positive exposure celebrates gifts and emphasizes that there is a wide variety of people who claim our city as their home.

Redistribution: Many people hear “redistribution” and think “handouts”.  CCD practitioners will be the first to say that the last thing we need is to create a top-down, handout-dependent program. Instead, think of redistribution as a sharing of power and resources. Jesus surround himself by 12 men with varying backgrounds, levels of education, and understanding of the Scriptures, investing his time and equipping them to move forward with an important task!

Childhood is full of opportunities to become equipped to be responsible adults. When we give people tasks and opportunities to exercise their personal responsibility and display maturity in a thoughtful environment, we equip them with the experience to make future wise decisions. We regularly redistribute power in our families and communities to welcome children into the privilege of ownership in community life through chores, service project opportunities, celebrations of achievement, and verbal affirmation.

The unfortunate reality is that even among children, there is a power differential that labels some children of privilege as those who possess power, and some children as the recipients of these power dynamics. When our primary exposure to people of diverse backgrounds is in programs where the person who looks different from us is also the person we are going to help, we are still holding all the power! Instead, consider what it looks like to be in a place where mutual transformation is happening, and you are learning alongside each other, or helping each other.

Redistribution of power in the lives of children can look as simple as advocating patience while a classmate learns a skill that your child has already mastered, or extending an invitation to a child without social capital to spend time together at lunch or recess. Being included and welcomed shares a child’s social power and helps build confidence for future situations. Starting in elementary school, the social dynamics of inclusion and exclusion speak powerfully into perception of self-worth. Championing inclusion by extending friendship, patience, and hospitality to classmates is an easy yet radical way to begin to redistribute social power in elementary classrooms.

Reconciliation: Many people mistakenly state that “children are so wonderful- they’re colorblind! They love everyone!”. The sentiment that children don’t make associations with race is false; many studies confirm that children perceive race from very young ages and make choices informed by how they’ve seen (or not seen) that race represented in the media, their home, or community. Under-exposure (not being surrounded by people of other racial backgrounds) can lead to children being uncomfortable in diverse settings, or speculation that “difference” means “unsafe”. For a deeper look, take 10 minutes to watch this video.

Racial reconciliation includes having conversations to teach how to recognize racial differences without assumptions or limitations. It also means educating against cultural, systemic racism in child-appropriate ways. Race has no inherent effect on intelligence, personality, socio-economic level, interest, or family status! Child psychologists (in the video linked above) note that children who are taught about racial equality are more quick to celebrate equality, while children who are assumed to be a “blank-slate” are often making uninformed racial assumptions.

Unfortunately this is an area that will take continued guidance because of how inherent it is in our culture. When you hear your child make an association based on race (even if it is a positive association!), encourage them to rephrase their sentence to make their association with the individual person instead of with their race or ethnicity.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is centered on the reality that reconciliation is possible between sinful people and a holy God, and that this reality of reconciliation is open to all people. When we are born again, we are born into the family line of Christ, and our identity is first and foremost found in him. Because of this reality, we are called to take these values seriously and do the hard work of exploring them intentionally and inviting our youngest brothers and sisters into the richness of a diverse Kingdom.