Long before I started my journey as a Spiritual Director, I studied education and developmental psychology. Then, equipped with a university degree and a passion for families I started working with youth and families for a non-profit Missions organization. This led to partnering with other like-hearted organizations in the city and finally to joining a pastoral team of a church plant as a children’s and family ministry leader.
In all of these roles, I have always been intrigued by children’s spirituality, faith formation, and theology of childhood. And perhaps even more than that, I have always been compelled by inter-generational relationships and by their impact on the spiritual formation of all people, children, and adults alike.
I am not a wild, loud, energetic children’s leader or teacher (or anything!). And the idea of me trying to "entertain" children while adults are learning about God and experiencing God never sat well with me.
Based on my own experience, my observations of children, and the literature that I have come across, I am convinced that children are deeply spiritual by nature and long for the Holy. They long to experience the loving, real, personal God. (I use the verb "to experience" intentionally here instead of "to know", as a mere cognitive knowing just won’t cut it.) This experiencing surely can happen through fun, loud, entertaining, and high energy ‘for children only’ activities, but primarily it happens through simple, mundane shared life of faith and prayer with the family of faith.
Lessons of Prayer in Childhood
Children yearn for a connection – a relationship. They are desperate to be known, loved and desired. When we show children that we want to fill these deep longings that they have, we show them what God is like, and how He feels about them. By doing that, we teach them their first lesson in prayer, which will take them a life time to embrace: God loves them, He wants to know and be known by them, and desires every bit of them.
When we listen to children, we show them that they matter, and invite them to be known. This is their second lesson in prayer: Experiences, feelings, opinions and needs matter. They are worth listening to and what they share touches the person who cares about and for them. A psychiatrist Curt Thompson writes:
"Every newborn comes into the world looking for someone looking for her."
The third lesson comes in when we respond with love and grace toward them. They get a cuddle when they are sad. We tell them that we love them when they feel ashamed, lonely or unworthy. We give them food when they are hungry, guidance when they need direction, protection when they are afraid, and correction when they need to be reminded of the kind of people they were made to be. They are learning, "God is not indifferent to my aches, needs, and desires. I can rely on Him. He loves me and is capable of caring for all my needs."
Finally, as we open up our hearts to children and share our hopes, dreams, and desires with them, we teach them that we desire a relationship with them. We show them that we want to be known by them by entrusting personal things about ourselves to them, and by being generous with our wisdom and life experiences with them. Through this relational sharing, they start to take after our values, behaviors and beliefs.
Our reaching out to children shows them that God wants to be in a relationship with them. He wants to be known by them. Through the growing experience of Him, they start to take on His character, and learn to live, think and love like He does.
We teach children to ultimately trust God and not just us, when we allow them to see into our lives and hearts, even (or especially!) into our vulnerable, broken bits . When they see our weakness, and inability to love well, and yet that we trust in God, we teach them that God can be trusted even when we cannot. God will never fail them, although people will, guaranteed.
We learn the simple, yet profound foundation of prayer (i.e. relationship with God) from early care-giver and care-receiver relationships. Yet, many of us didn’t start to follow Jesus until a lot later in life although the foundation had been laid long before, whether that resembled the kind of foundation that God intended for us or not. Then life happened and threw its spins and twists to that foundation along the way. (Think of other intimate relationships that you developed as an adolescent and adult that changed the messages of your worth, identity, and your ability to trust and attach to people.)
We as adults can and need to learn prayer from children as much as children do from our relationship to them.
Prayer cannot be learned outside of human relationships.
Many of us lead extremely segregated lives from those dearest to us. We do most of our daily activities separated from our family members and people who are different age than us. However, regardless of our age our life of prayer grows when we take the time to intentionally nurture connection and intimacy, not only between God and us, but also between us and others. We need each other, young and old, in order to mature as people of prayer.
What are the moments in your day when you feel most connected to the people closest to you?
What would help you to grow spiritual intimacy with those who you care the most about?
If you want to find more resources and tools for your shared prayer journey with others check out my Instagram page for more updates and illustrations. And sign-up for the periodic newsletter above.
Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson
The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson