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.

 

 

 

Bookshelf: Bibles & Bible Storybooks, from age 0-10

Since I’m not a fan of most devotional books, I have a handy list of Bible storybooks and Bible translations that I recommend to families based on the ages and interests of their children. If your child is old enough to have an opinion on the matter, consider asking them their input about what they would like to read from! Most of these books I have also found at second-hand shops for considerably less than their online retail price.

bible-in-pictures-for-little-eyes0-2 The New Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes:

This updated classic includes a retelling of a story from Scripture with beautiful illustrations, a few interactive questions for parent and child, and a short prayer. While the publishers recommend age 4-7, I know two and three year olds that use this book one-on-one with a parent regularly.

3-6 The Big Picture Story Bible:

This 2014 release also utilizes pictures as a central part of retelling the overarching Scripture narrative. For instance, the page that shows Joseph’s twelve brothers who became the 12 tribes is laid out exactly like the page that introduces Jesus’ 12 followers. They look the same because visuals are how young children make connections! Rather than focusing on individual Bibthe-big-picture-story-biblele stories, this book shows how the stories fit together in a meaningful way.

I chose this text as the foundation for a kindergarten Sunday School class curriculum a few years ago. On the last day, when we talked about the new garden, one of the children piped up about the first garden, and a second commented that there was a middle garden at Jesus’ resurrection! To say that she connected in a meaningful way with the visuals was an understatement.

the-jesus-storybook-bible3-7 The Jesus Storybook Bible

I would be remiss not to include this new-ish classic on the list, though I suspect most families have a few copies. The strength of the text is in building anticipation for Jesus Arrival and the opportunity to be a part of establishing his kingdom. While some of the stories take a little more creative license than I would prefer, the benefits far outweigh my hesitations. The only downside is that some children I work with have heard this version on repeat so many times they are beginning to become bored with it!

7-11 The DK Illustrated Family Bible:dk-illustrated-family-bible

Once a child hits an age of independent reading and personal investigation, I highly recommend The DK Family Bible. Use it as a supplement to an actual Scripture text for family study, or let kids explore historical and contextual facts relating to each story on their own. This Bible storybook introduces children to the ideas of Scripture context and ancient Near East culture at a time when they are beginning to learn more about these things in school. Another benefit is that each tidbit of information is just a few sentences long, manageable for a reluctant reader.

8-10 The Bible for Children, Simplified Living Bible Text:  the-bible-for-children-fully-illustrated

I included this Bible on my list solely for the illustrations. Whenever I bring my childhood copy to teach, kids get excited because they know the illustrations are incredible. They’re sprinkled throughout the full-Scripture text every few pages, and provide realistic, dramatic, and highly detailed perspectives on the text. Few things shaped my childhood imagination in regards to the life of the ancient world as fully as the illustrations in this text. Unfortunately, the text is out of print (the Scripture translation was discontinued by Tyndale in 1996 in favor of the NLT), and the illustrations were gathered from scores of artists around the world, so there’s not likely to be reprint even with a different version (I’ve called the publishing house personally to voice my request). You can often scoop up a used copy off Amazon for $20 or less.

6+ NIrV:nirv-kids-study-bible

Once children are beginning to read their own chapter books (deciphering words on a page that has mostly text, not illustrations), I would recommend getting them a copy of the NIrV. Take them to the bookstore (or pull up a few online tabs) and let them choose their own copy- they can choose if they want illustrations, a specially designed cover, and what kinds of facts live in the margins. The great thing about this translation is that it’s the same NIV quality and methodology but with shorter sentences and clarified wording that places it at a 3rd grade (rather than 6th grade like the NIV) reading level. If your child is a reading fiend and can jump straight to 6th grade reading level, wonderful! Skip the NIrV and use whatever translation* is common in your church community.

*Note: The ESV is a 10th grade reading level and the NIV is a 6th grade reading level. There are many reasons to use the translation common to your worship community, so I wouldn’t discourage using ESV or NIV with children, but recognize that it won’t be as easy for them to understand the text in their personal study or recreational reading. If your child is integrated into a teaching time at church that uses the ESV or NIV, your family has a regular devotional or worship time together, or you feel strongly about memorizing the ESV or NIV, skip the NIrV altogether!

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.