Encouraging Our Children’s Spiritual Lives

This is a talk I gave to parents of our church on August 27, 2009. 

The deepest function of parents in the lives of their children is to truly know them. Every human soul is unique — a distinct combination of strengths and weakness, fears and delights. To be known in that distinct individuality — and to be loved in that knowledge is the most profound gift a parent can give a child. Similarly, our most basic hope for our children’s spiritual lives is that they would come to recognize the divine love out of which God created them — the delight God takes in them; and in turn to come to come to an understanding that God likewise cherishes every other living being as well.
It is important to recognize that children already have rich spiritual experiences — God moments in which they experience awe, thanksgiving and compassion.  In fact, we can safely assume that children are having these experiences more routinely than we adults are.  Jesus said, “Unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.”  In light of this, I see parents as having two basic roles to play in the spiritual lives of their children:
1) To protect, and advocate for space and time in which these experiences can take place.  This would include limiting the time a child spends in front of TV, video games, computers, etc. human technologies which, in general, do not promote such experiences.  It involves guarding the times that arise routinely in our children’s lives when they are alone with their thoughts and feelings.  Our souls require such times.  If we see our children contentedly alone, it is not necessarily the case that interjecting ourselves, or another playmate, will necessarily enhance the experience.In the present age, children are growing up with what has been called Nature Deficit Syndrome; a discomfort with being out of doors interacting with creation because of the infrequency with which it occurs. As parents we play a crucial role in resisting NDS. There is something about being in a setting where human technology and control doesn’t dominate that is essential for encountering our creator. It is also important in this age to cultivate early on in a child’s life a sense of stewardship for God’s creation.

2) To assist our children in developing a language through which they can express and think about their spiritual experience. In this regard, it is essential that we not seek to substitute language for experience itself. Dead religion is what you get when you disconnect religious language from our experience. Consequently, it is important to attempt to introduce the language of religion in relation to, and not apart from, the experiences of awe, thanksgiving and compassion that arise naturally in their lives.

 In light of this, I would encourage parents to accept the idea that they will not have answers for all of their children’s spiritual questions. The mystery of God would certainly be certainly be diminished if we had the capacity answer all the big questions about God’s nature. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to tell their children that they don’t know the answer to a question the children ask. “That’s a really good question!“ is a response that conveys that some questions can be lived with over time, and that perhaps, in time, workable answers will evolve.

If parents can be sensitive to moments when their children are having “God moments” — experiences of wonder, awe and compassion, then at some point, and probably not immediately, the parent could introduce the concept of God. For instance, in a moment of great contentment, a parent might say, “Can you feel God loving you right now?” A moment of beholding beauty could invite, “Can you feel God’s delight in this flower? This bird? This sunset?” In a moment of seeing someone suffer, “What do you think God wants this person to know right now? How might we be God’s helpers with this person?”

Rituals help provide space for God moments, while providing a language for interpreting. As eating is so basic to life, it is good to pause to say grace before meals. (I have included a list of possible graces.)

People often justify avoiding public worship because there is no guarantee that at such times what I am calling “God moments” will happen. On the other hand, the simple discipline of learning to routinely providing space for God to come to us by gathering with the community of faith in worship is an invaluable lesson that often isn’t appreciated by someone until they’ve experienced a taste for “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that inevitably touch us all.

From early on it is important to clarify with our children that the “church” is the people who gather to worship and serve God; the “church building” is the place where this group of people gather to worship God. We do well to emphasize that although God is everywhere, there is something very special about experiencing God with others, and that consequently this place we gather with others to be with God invites a reverence that distinguishes it from other places. After departing from the gathering of the church, parents can open up blessed discussions by asking their children what they experienced while they were there.

Bed time provides a special intimacy for parents and children together, and as such, a special opportunity to introduce the language of God. All young children love to be read to, and are willing to go along with you in reading what you suggest (if for nothing else, to extend the time!) I encourage parents to take advantage of such time read and discuss together books for children that address spiritual themes or tell Bible Stories. (Our new Children’s Lending Library is for this purpose.) Bed time is, of course, provides time to talk about the events of the day, to give thanks to God for the good things that happened, and to pray regarding problems or concerns that arose from the day. It is helpful for parents to model spontaneous prayer — to counter the unfortunate notion that the words of prayers need to be polished and eloquent. It can, however, be helpful to close bed time with ritualized prayers, removing the burden of having to feeling the obligation to find the right words to speak. But it can also be helpful to memorize ritual prayers, removing the burden of having to put words together. (To this end I’ve provided a list of possible bedtime prayers for parents and children to memorize together.)
Advent and Christmas

In so far as Advent and Christmas are only three months away, it is not too early to anticipate how we will take advantage of the possibilities the season provides us with. Advent wreaths and calendars can be a great addition to our grace before supper.

Santa Claus is fun, but I would suggest not making such a big deal about him that he overshadows the story of the birth of Jesus. If too much emphasis is placed on Santa, the disillusionment that can come with the eventual doubts of his existence could be unfortunate.

Be warned that the way the culture works at Christmas is that the presents a kid receives each year become the precedent that they come to expect to least meet, if not exceed, the following year. Be careful of putting yourself in debt in order to pursue the demon of “more, more, more.” Be creative in creating opportunities for joy that don’t depend on expensive gifts.

The Christmas story with the baby Jesus being born to a homeless family invites consideration of the plight of the poor. It is important for our children to recognize their material fortune, and to recognize that a great many people in this world can not count on food, housing and adequate health care. If encounters with people less materially fortunate are possible, be sensitive to avoid attitudes of condescension. There is much to admire in the courage and generosity that is often present among the poor.

Only in recent years have human beings felt the need to hide death away. Prior to our modern avoidance, death was accepted as a part of life.
As I said at the outset, the soul of every child is unique. The sensitivities we bear to the fact of death vary, and with this in mind, it is not possible to set any rules regarding such questions as in what age is it appropriate to take a child to a funeral.
Dealing with Death with Children


The story at the heart of Christian faith invites us to look squarely at the reality of death. Jesus truly died; it was painful, and he and his disciples truly grieved. But the resurrection affirms that God’s love remains with us in death; that there is an exquisite new life beyond this life that is beyond our capacity to fully imagine. Though we speak with confidence of heaven, however, we need to honor the fact that our children will need to grieve when someone they love dies, just as we do. It is an invaluable lesson to learn that we can feel terribly sad, and then in time move on with life.

Try to avoid giving pat answers to the big questions that arise around death. For instance, when someone dies in a manner that can seem “way to early,” the question is often raised: “Why did God let him/her die?!” it is okay to say, “I don’t know the answer to that one. What I do know is that God loves the person we have loved, and that God loves this person still, and God is here for us as we feel sad that this person is gone.”

Possible Family Graces for Before Meals:
Bless the bunch that munch this lunch.

Come Lord Jesus be our guest, let this food to us be blessed. Amen.

For food in a world where many walk in hunger; For faith in a world where many walk in fear; For friends in a world where many walk alone; We give you thanks, O Lord. Amen.

For all we eat, and all we wear, for daily bread, and nightly care, we thank thee heavenly Father. Amen.

For food and health and happy days receive our gratitude and praise.

In serving others Lord may we epay our dept of love to thee

Amen Rub a dub dub; thanks for the grub; yeaaa God!

(With movements for little children.)
God bless us (hands on head) God bless the food (hands around plate) Amen(hands folded) God our Father, God our Father (or Mother). We thank you, we thank you,

For our many blessings, for our many blessings, A-ah-men, A-ah-men.

(Sung to the tune “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music”)
Bless our friends, Bless our food, come, O Lord and sit with us.

May our talk glow with peace; come with your love to surround us.

Friendship and love may they bloom and glow, gloom and glow forever.

Bless our friends, Bless our food, Bless all people forever.

(Sung to the tune of “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”)
O you who clothe the lilies of the field, and feed the birds of the air, who leads the sheep to pasture and the hart to the water’s side, who has multiplied the loaves and fishes and converted the water to wine, do come to our table as giver and guest, to dine. doxology


(Sung to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.)
Thank you for the food we eat, Thank you for the world so sweet, Thank you for the birds that sing, Thank you God for everything.

The Lord is good to me and so I thank the Lord for giving me the things I need the sun and the rain and the apple seed. The Lord is good to me. Johnny Appleseed-Amen!

Possible Bed Time Prayers
Variations on “Now I lay me down to sleep…:

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  Guard me Jesus through the night, And wake me up in the morning light.

… Praise the Lord my soul to keep  Angels waiting in the night to guide me thru to mornings light.

… I pray the Lord my soul to keep, Thy angels watch me through the night, And keep me safe ’til morning Light.

(These verses can be added over time:)
1) Teach me to always say what’s true. Be willing in each task I do.  Help me to be good each day, and lead me in thy holy way.2) I pray whatever wrongs I’ve done, You will forgive me every one.  Be near me when I wake again, and Bless all of those I love. Amen.

3) Father, now the night has come, all my work and play are done.  This has been a happy day, now I come to you and pray.

4) Bless the children everywhere, keep us in your loving care, while we sleep and while we wake, bless us all for Jesus’ sake.

Angel of God my guardian dear, To whom His love commits me here, Every each day be at my side To light and guard, To rule and guide, Amen.

Thank you, God for today, You blessed my work you blessed my play.

Gentle Jesus hear my prayer. Keep in in your tender care. Be my guide in all I do, and Help me live my life to you. Bless ….(family members and pets, etc.)With all that I do, and all that I say, help me to walk in Jesus’ way.

Dear God, I thank You for Your care.  You’ve been right with me everywhere:At school, at play, You’re by my side.  My special Friend, my loving Guide.  And when the sun has said goodbye  And little stars shine in the sky.  You’re still with me, not far above; Right in my heart, for You are Love. Amen



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