Last year, my friend Kara’s beautiful book Passing it On: How to Nurture Your Children’s Faith Season by Season was released by Upper Room Books. I jumped at the chance to take a crack at test-driving the family practices she offers, partly because I wanted to support her work, but mostly because I was hopeful that the impetus might be enough to build the daily family devotion time I’d managed to host sporadically at best up until that point.
I mean, let me set the bar appropriately low here. My late husband Chris and I were both ordained United Methodist pastors. My BIG THING was Christian Formation. And our “family devotions” (sporadic and chaotic) went something like this:
An Actual Attempt
Charleston, 2013; Children 6, 4, and 2
Chris (pulling me aside in the hallway): Okay, I thought we could do family devotions tonight. And guess what! We’re going to do a LOVE FEAST.
Me: What? Why?
Chris: Well, it’s tactile, right? And we can talk about communion.
Me: Oh. Well, okay.
Us: Kids! Time for family devotions!
Kids: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAA (running away)
Kid 1: No family debotions!
Kid 2: Nononononono
Kid 3: I thought we were going to have desserrrrrrrrrt!
Me: Oh! This is going to be kind of like dessert (grabbing 2-year-old with one hand and 4-year-old in the other) in that…you know, it’s sweet, and we’ll be eating something!
Kid 3: (suspiciously) We’re having dessert?
Me: Well, not exactly.
Kid 3: I WANT DESSERRRRRTTTT
Me: Okay, we’ll have dessert if you come pleasantly and do family devotions!
(fast forward to all of us gathered on our knees around a coffee table, with candles and juice and some sort of bread product in glass vessels)
Me (internally): don’t let them catch on fire don’t let them break the things don’t let them catch on fire sweet Jesus oh no (grabbing 2-year-old’s hand out of flame)
Chris: All right, guys. Do you remember what happens in the book of Exodus in the Bible?
Me: (incredulous dagger eyes)
Kid 3: I want ICE CREAM
Kids 1 and 2: Yeah ice cream!
Kid 3: (pointed stare at me) YOU told me we could have dessert.
Me: YES if and ONLY if you listen to your father talk about God! (pulling squirmy kid onto lap out of reach of the candle)
Chris: (tells Passover story…maybe…I can’t really remember much of this part. But he definitely mentioned…)
Kid 2: Blood? Is THIS blood? (spills grape juice on parsonage carpet)
Me: (runs to get paper towels with squirmy Kid 1 under my arm)
Chris: (says lots of words about blood and communion) Guys – pay attention!
Me: (mopping up juice) Children, listen to your father.
Kid 3: (eats all the bread before we notice)
Chris: Where did the bread go?
Kid 3: I WANT DESSERT
Me: Shall we JUST PRAY?
We tried something like this several times, and because it tended to go like the above, it was hard to motivate ourselves to make time and space for it…hard to imagine that anything life-giving was happening in that space we were – er – creating.
When Kara’s book arrived, we were in a different season, but not a less challenging one. We were living in Spartanburg, in the midst of Chris’s ongoing health challenges, in the midst of my own recognition that my capacities had been transgressed so far that I was not going to be able to keep functioning using the same internal emotional and mental patterns that had served me perfectly well until that point in my life. Chaos managed by gutted, frayed structures of stability was our daily food and drink. The children were 8, 6, and 4.
Here is something I wrote in the blurb:
“I have used this resource with my three children (who aren’t the type to sit quietly and receive instruction!), and the grace-filled times we share around our candle feel holy and healing.”
It was true. Never mind that we had had to switch out the evocative real candle for a battery-powered one, in deference to one child’s fear of fire. Never mind that some of us wanted to do it some nights, and some of us weren’t so happy about it. The times the book created for us to share were full of grace. I was not only deeply grateful – I was shocked.
The book offers four different four-week sessions of patterning for sacred family time, to be held in Advent, Lent, summer, and back-to-school. Kara, who is an experienced curriculum writer among other things, includes really helpful age-level responses to the reflections for preschoolers all the way through high schoolers. There are prompts to help caregivers and children integrate the learning throughout the day – for months, every time my middle child would see a circle, she would proclaim: “Look! God is with us!” The devotions are well-formed, thoughtful, and very do-able. It’s a great resource.
What I think I love most about it, though, is the way Kara equips and encourages the parents and caregivers who care enough about their children’s lives of faith to pick up this book in the first place. She says this:
“Parents, do not look down on your children because they are young, but let them set an example for you. Invite them into the activities in this book with gentleness and the expectation that you will teach and learn from one another. Your toddler may not sit still for a single Family Gathering, and when you ask her what she is thankful for, she may say “cows” every week. And that’s okay. Your elementary school child may bounce up and down the whole time or inject potty words into every prayer (if your son is like mine) and it doesn’t mean you should abandon your efforts. Your teenager may snarl and insist on having her cell phone within reach of every gathering. He may refuse to answer any questions or make eye contact for the entire four-week series. That is okay too…
Tell your children honestly and vulnerably why you desire that they have a relationship with God, know the stories of Jesus, and recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit. Model for them your willingness to try these practices each day and week even when it’s awkward.”
There are key tenets embedded here, and I want to highlight them:
1. In God’s economy, we are co-learners.
This doesn’t mean that adults abandon our role as shepherds and caregivers. But it does mean that we approach intimacy with God knowing that in that space, we are all learners, and according to Jesus, often children are wiser teachers than adults. This brings me back to:
2. We create pattern for the sake of presence, not for the sake of control.
Oh dear ones, I am so prone to this error. It’s a subtle difference, but an essential one: Holy patterns do not enable us to control God or each other. Holy patterns create space for us to be truly present with one another and to God. Hear the difference? I’m still learning it; I suspect I’ll be learning it in deeper ways for as long as I live.
3. It is infinitely more important that your children experience you as another pilgrim in the faith – vulnerable before God, learning, growing – than that you convey to them information about God.
When I was working with parents in the church, I heard over and over again, “I know my children need to learn about God, but I just don’t know enough to teach them.” The holy desire hogtied by feelings of inadequacy was always enough to break my heart.
Hear this, loves: passing on of faith is not not NOT primarily a matter of passing on a bloc of information. There are all kinds of informative tools and stories and hymns and pieces of knowledge that are useful; I’m not saying passing on information can’t be part of it.
But oh, parents, if I could tell you one thing – The thing, the main thing, the primary thing you can do is this: let your children see you practicing your own faith…which of course means that the best thing you can do for your children’s faith is to devote yourself to following Jesus – yourself. Let them see you on your walk. Pray. Not with the right words, maybe not with words at all. Search scripture. Not so you can tell them the order of the books of the Bible (although certainly go for it if you want to), but to hear God’s Voice breathing words of comfort or challenge or intimacy or devastation into your own soul. Serve. Not so your kiddos can build out their resume in approved post-millennial fashion, but to incarnate obediently and awkwardly God’s good news for a broken world. Question God and don’t give up with the first question. Not to shake your children’s faith, but so when they have their first questions they have seen you dig in and wrestle with God and not give up and enter deeper into relationship instead of walking away.
This is the kind of book that can help you with this lifelong work. It’s the kind of book that can provide you with the gentle patterns that make space for you to be present to your children and to your God as a co-learner, a co-journeyer, a co-searcher. It’s the kind of book that can create room for you and your children to share your respective wisdoms with each other.
So go give it a try. Figure out the patterns – whatever they are – that will make gentle, holy space for your family to be present to one another and God together.
And then probably have some ice cream.