Faith at Home will help parents learn this "second language" and introduce it to their children in simple, meaningful, concrete ways. Parents often ask: How do we introduce prayer to our children if we do not necessarily believe prayer changes outcomes? How do we approach reading the Bible with our children when our own relationship with it is mixed or complicated? How do we talk about difficult things and where do we find God in the midst of them? How do we teach our children to make a difference in the world? How do we connect what happens at church to what happens at home? These questions and many more are addressed with talking points, practices, and resources provided for each subject.
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Faith at Home
A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents
By Wendy Claire Barrie
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Wendy Claire Barrie
All rights reserved.
Talking about God
The Lord said, "Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by." A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn't in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn't in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn't in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave's entrance. A voice came to him and said, "Why are you here, Elijah?" 1 Kings 19:11–13 (CEB)
"Oh, sure," you're probably thinking, "people talked about God and with God all the time in those days, and everyone agreed on what God is like. Nobody doubted or struggled with their faith. It's so different from today and my experience." Stay with me here.
The passage from the first book of Kings that begins this chapter has always fascinated me. Here's the backstory: The prophet Elijah has called on God's power and witnessed more than his share of dramatic miracles — enough food in famine, fire from heaven, answered prayer in the form of drought-ending rain, raising a child from the dead. At this point in the story, though, Elijah has given up on God. That it could happen to him shows that it can happen to anyone. He runs for his life and hides in a cave, defeated and depressed. What next? God comes to Elijah, not in the stone-breaking wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire. God comes to Elijah in silence, in what the King James Version calls "the still small voice" of God. Just when we, in our disheartened disbelief, think we have God all figured out, God is in what we do not expect. As surprising as it may seem, as one mainline denomination puts it, "God is still speaking."
Let's talk about God, or say — at least — that we want to, if not in public or with our friends, then at home with our kids. Many of us, even those who count ourselves believers, do not talk about God. It's easier and more comfortable and a lot less dangerous that way. However, let's take the risk. Let's agree that we can talk about God without trying to prove the existence of God. Doubts are welcome here. Let's also name that talking about God in this day and age is complicated by the fact that many of us don't agree on who or what God is. What we are trying to articulate for our children may be drastically different from the understanding of God that we grew up with. Our thoughts and beliefs may not be what are commonly accepted in popular culture, or even in our extended families.
Where do we start? It's easy to understand why we personify God, why we make God like us, only bigger, stronger, more powerful. There are consequences, however, to trying to make God more relatable. American teenagers overwhelmingly view God as "a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist" whose job is "to solve our problems and make people feel good," according to Christian Smith, the principal investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion. The research tells us this is not simply a matter of misunderstanding. This is the God that we, their parents and their churches, have given them. We have failed to introduce them to the God of invitation and imagination, the God of the burning bush and the still small voice, the God of living water and rushing wind, in whom "we live and move and have our being."
Talking the Talk
The first problem Smith and his collaborator Melinda Denton identify is that most U.S. teenagers are "incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives." Why? "Religious language is like any other language; to learn how to speak it, one first needs to listen to native speakers using it a lot, and then one needs plenty of practice speaking it oneself." In other words, our kids first need to hear us talk about God, what we believe, and why it matters.
So how do we talk about God? The theologian Elizabeth Johnson offers three ground rules from early Christian thought:
1. God is a mystery.
2. No name or image of God should be taken literally.
3. There are many and varied expressions of God.
Above all, Johnson encourages us to speak of "the living God," not "this invisible, greatly powerful grand old man in the sky." God as super-parent who must be obeyed is especially unattractive to young people, she points out, who may be rebelling against parents in general. (Imagine that.) The living God, an image found throughout the Bible, is creative, active, present, and new. The living God is the one I want to talk about, the one I love, the one who is Love.
Metaphor and Mystery
What is God like? Images of God for Young Children by Marie-Hélène Delval chooses forty among the hundreds of biblical images in child-friendly (though frequently male-gendered) language and bright, evocative illustrations. Two perennial picture book favorites are Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso's In God's Name, perfect for kids in preschool and early elementary school, and Old Turtle by Douglas Wood, excellent for older elementary ages. In these books, God is revealed in ways that are familiar and surprising, personal and wondrous.
We get stuck when we divide up the world and everything else into what we know and what we believe, the rational and the miraculous, the ordinary and the holy. Christians should know better: Jesus embodies both. As pastor Rob Bell puts it, "When we talk about Jesus being divine and human, what we are saying is that Jesus, in a unique, singular and historic way, shows us what God is like." If you have trouble talking about God, try talking about Jesus. We've had some success with that.
One afternoon at home when Peter was seven, the phone rang and Peter came running upstairs while I was chatting with the caller. He was breathless and impatient, hopping up and down from foot to foot. When I hung up, he asked with great excitement, "Mommy, was that Jesus?!" Puzzled, I told him no, it was a priest calling from another church. What made him think that? He was crestfallen, "The caller ID said 'Good Shepherd.'" That image of Jesus so real to Peter was one he recognized from both Sunday school and the Bible: the Good Shepherd who calls us each by name, whose voice we know and follow, who lays down his life for the sheep.
Let's talk about God in metaphor and mystery, in simple concrete ways: as a mother hen, a friend, a gardener, as artist and builder, as light and rock. Let's talk about what we imagine when we say "God." Words will fail us here. That's a good thing. It is where we start, but not where we end up. The living God is calling us, moving us forward, inviting us to help bring heaven to earth, "reclaiming the planet an inch at a time" as Sister Joan Chittister says, "until the Garden of Eden grows green again."CHAPTER 2
Talking with God
I have never prayed more often or more simply than when I was pregnant. My constant prayer before Peter was born was "Please." Afterward, for nearly as many months, my prayer was "Thank you." It was all I could manage, and all that felt necessary. I don't know how prayer works. I don't believe that prayer changes outcome, but that has never kept me from praying. "The prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays." Prayer understands the importance of naming that which is too hard, too awful, too wonderful, and giving it over to the power which is beyond us.
What is prayer? Anne Lamott in her terrific book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers defines prayer as "communication from one's heart to God." Communication is key here. Prayer is conversation. It's not just us, talking or asking. We are also deeply listening with our hearts. Sometimes it's helpful to talk about what prayer is not. Prayer is not a Christmas list, and God is not Santa Claus. Prayer is not about what we want or even what we wish for, although it might be about what we really need, or what we most deeply hope for. Prayer does not assume or expect answers. That's the hardest part. Why, then, do we pray? Prayer brings us close to God. When we pray for someone in need, we are lifting them to God's presence. When we pray for our own needs, we are giving them over to God.
How do we pray? When do we pray? The Book of Common Prayer (which is full of great stuff — you should definitely get one) says that prayer is "responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words." That's from the Catechism, an outline of the faith found at the back of the Book of Common Prayer that is a basic summary of what is broadly taught in Episcopal churches. What a tremendously freeing description: responding, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. This means prayer can be just about anything, any time, anywhere. We don't have to be in church or around the table or kneeling beside our beds. We don't even have to be still. We don't need a book or a script or words at all. Prayer is about intention: Set aside the time, make a space for God and for sharing what is on your heart or mind. You don't even have to call it prayer. You can call it family time or quiet time, and then together reflect on how it was also time spent with God.
Prayer can be silence, even for children. Ring a bell or strike a chime and keep silence sitting together, feet on the floor or seated on a cushion until the sound fades away. Gradually stretch the time of keeping silence to three minutes, five minutes, ten minutes. That's when it gets really interesting. Meditation and mindfulness techniques are great for all ages. They help us become more attuned to the presence of God, letting stillness and silence heighten our awareness, diminishing the sounds of the noisy world and the distractions of our own thoughts, which separate us from our true selves. This is time and space apart.
Music can be prayer. According to St. Augustine (354–430 CE), to sing is to pray twice! What songs or pieces of music bring you close to God? Ask the same question of your teenager on a regular basis because they will have new responses each time. You could make a mix of tunes for family listening with closeness to God in mind. It could be Bach, jazz, reggae, or rap. Does this mean going to a concert can be prayerful? Absolutely. So can going to church, even if one goes "just for the music," which is sometimes the reason my son, who sings in the choir, gives. We have been known to sing at bedtime. It can be a hymn, a lullaby, or Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" — all gentle tunes to calm the busy day.
Praying with our Bodies
Making the sign of the cross (by touching the forehead, sternum, left shoulder, right shoulder and sternum again) is a body prayer, which I have long understood as a way of drawing God into us. Yoga and tai chi are ways of praying with the body. Although they come from other religious traditions, they can be equally prayerful for Christians. I asked a friend whether she saw a connection between her son's karate practice (rigorous, several days a week) and prayer. When she asked him, Harry (age eleven) immediately responded, "I can't explain it, but it connects me to God somehow."
Our bodies are in touch with the holy in ways words cannot explain. Dance can be embodied prayer. Please search online for Stephen Colbert dancing to "King of Glory, King of Peace" and know that laughter, too, can be a way of praying.
Walking and hiking can be ways to pray. When you walk, take care to notice the presence of God, which will be obvious in nature. Waterfalls, streams, the ocean, trees, meadows and mountains, the sunset, and the starry sky all tell us of the glory of God. As you walk, your kids might collect acorns, colored leaves, or interesting stones to set in a shallow bowl in the center of your table, or wildflowers to put in a jam jar. Preschoolers can be given an egg carton with a different color painted in each recess and asked to find something from God's creation to place in it. Older kids can take photos (with a smart phone?) of where they find God in nature, or in the neighborhood. On a city or suburban walk, notice which people (the dog walkers, the grocery baggers) or places (the car wash and all who drive through it, the diner and those who prepare the food we enjoy) can be included in your prayers. Notice, too, where prayers are being answered: The soup kitchen? The hospital? The art museum?
Walking a labyrinth is a wonderful way for adults and kids to pray. Labyrinths are different from mazes: there is only one way in and one way out, so you can't get lost. It's a journey to the center and out again, providing a clear path and a walking rhythm that promotes inner calm. Find out if there is a labyrinth near you. Churches and cathedrals are obvious locations, but they turn up in unexpected places such as children's hospitals, too. There is a labyrinth at the tip of Manhattan in Battery Park, created to commemorate the first anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy.
If you are feeling adventurous you can draw one with sidewalk chalk or mark one on a lawn with stones or pool noodles. Last summer at a medieval-themed summer camp we laid out a labyrinth on the auditorium floor with masking tape, dimmed the lights, put on a CD of Gregorian chant and sent mixed-age groups of six- to eighteen-year-olds through, with about thirty seconds between each participant. The teenagers were shocked by how quiet and reverent the young ones were, and how many times they wanted to walk through slowly and in silence. Afterward, when I asked them what they noticed about the experience, an eight-year-old told me she came close to God there.
Coloring and Doodling
Making art, coloring a mandala, even doodling can be prayer. Set up an art corner, or if you live in a small space make an art box and fill it with heavy white paper, scraps of ribbon, old greeting cards, colored pencils, marking pens, glue sticks, a pair of scissors. My favorite art activity is to make collages — small ones, about the size of a postcard — just right for a prayer card, a get-well card, or a thank you card to give away. There are amazing coloring books available now that are perfect for praying: intricate patterns, nature designs, and symbols of faith. Sybil MacBeth found herself unable to concentrate, short of words, and needing to pray. She took a pad of paper and a basket of markers out to the porch, drew a leaf shape and wrote her friend's name inside it. Soon her page was covered with shapes and names, colors and designs. Sybil had discovered prayer through doodling and subsequently wrote a book about how to do it:Praying in Color. When I introduced this form to a group of middle school choristers, twelve-year-old Eli turned to a friend and said with surprise, "I never knew praying could be so much fun!"
Praying with Words
Some people are completely comfortable praying aloud extemporaneously, finding in the moment the just-right words that are needed for a given situation. I am not one of those people. Praying aloud off the top of my head or even from my heart has always seemed a little weird to me. I can pray without words or silently while standing at the kitchen sink or under the shower or at the beach (there is something about water that puts me in mind of prayer), but I find myself profoundly grateful for other writers when it comes time for me to pray in public. This, as you might imagine, has been an occupational hazard. So I write prayers to read aloud on special occasions, and widely borrow them from others. I don't want to discourage you from praying off the cuff; I only mean to say that if it doesn't come easily, you are not alone.
The Lord's Prayer
When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he gave them one we still use, the Lord's Prayer. It's a very good one to learn because it can be used for any occasion:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever. Amen.
What does the Lord's Prayer mean? We pray to God, parent of us all, who knows us better and loves us more than anyone else. God's name is holy. Bringing God's kingdom to earth makes the whole world holy, too, as God means for it to be: a place of peace and harmony and justice. We ask for what we need. We tell God we are sorry when we "trespass" or cross the line and we share the forgiveness God gives us with others. Keep us from the wrong path, protect us from harm. Everything comes from God, and in thanks for all we have been given we return praise to God. There is a wonderful rhythm in this, a pattern for our prayer life: giving God praise, dedicating ourselves to God's good work, petitioning God for what we and others most need, and confessing our wrongdoings are all embedded in this one prayer.
Excerpted from Faith at Home by Wendy Claire Barrie. Copyright © 2016 Wendy Claire Barrie. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Talking about God 1
2 Talking with God 7
3 Bible Stories 21
4 Why Church? 33
5 Seasons and Celebrations 49
6 Making Home Holy 75
7 Finding God in Difficult Times 95
8 Meeting God in Others 107
What Next? 115
A Note to Clergy and Church Educators 117
Recommended Resources 127