There’s a temptation to teach children. In the occasional adult-child conversations about our inner lives, the adult’s focus is rather to continue opening space for the child to experience God’s unconditional love.
Starting in early childhood and continuing throughout their lifetime, children have plenty of things to go to God about. Their questions, prayers and encounters with the Lord, along with the feelings produced, form the foundation of real relationship.
Main idea: For young people who approach God by using logic, you distrust easy answers to your spiritual questions and doubts.
Meditation: “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” Mark 9:24. Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who…carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest….Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart.” Matthew 11:28-29.
Let’s talk: What is your reaction to how God accepts you and your doubts?
When children feel disappointed and upset, we listen and comfort. If the child also believes in God, how can we bring God into the situation? Their attitude might become more hopeful and calm as they trust that God’s unfailing love is one thing they can always count on no matter how upsetting the circumstances.
Main idea: When you feel upset, use your faith to keep trusting that God loves you and watches over you and all that concerns you.
Meditation: We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield…May your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord, even as we put our hope in you. Psalm 33:20-22
Let’s talk: Tell about a time this past week when you clearly told God what was upsetting you. How did you experience God’s love for you afterwards?
“Who can tell us what Hanukkah means?” asked Ms. Simon my third-grade teacher one long ago December day. My hand shot up eagerly and I started into the story of how Judah Maccabee led a revolt against the Syrians. I continued with descriptions of the dreidel game and the nine candles on a menorah. She was impressed enough by my knowledge of the holiday that she mentioned it to my mother at the next parent-teacher conference. That’s when Ms. Simon admitted her astonishment that we are not a Jewish family.
A seed planted: Respect
During the four years we lived in that Los Angeles neighborhood, I assimilated both Jewish and Christian traditions into my childhood spirituality. You know how kids are: I thought this was something every family did. For me, it wasn’t a matter of learning to respect. Respect for a different tradition was the norm in my home so I did it.
A seed planted: Find the common denominator
In my teen years my mother, a gifted teacher and storyteller, decided to offer a holiday program to area churches which were planning a December social event for their members. Her theme was common ground. I remember only five points in her outline — significance of light in both holidays, back stories, gift-giving, use of traditional foods, for instance, latkes or eggnog, and music.
My guitar and I went along to these popular events to entertain. But more was going on in my spiritual formation during these Christmas-Hanukkah programs. I caught the importance of a focus on how we are alike rather than different, though our theological differences are not insignificant.
Seeds sprout into Child-Centered Spirituality
It was a natural outgrowth of my upbringing to envision a book for families of any religion or no religion. In it, my coauthor Tara Miller and I pass along practical ideas and suggestions to assist family members in the spiritual development of their children to the same degree that grandparents, aunts, uncles and parents encourage emotional, social, intellectual, physical development.
Childhood spiritual development is occurring for the children you love during this 2018 holiday season. What part do you want to have in facilitating it?
Tweetable: My parents’ choice to celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas planted a valuable seed of respect in me. Read the positive effects here. Click to Tweet
Give everybody what they want for Thanksgiving: Offer one harmonious moment of silence and they will thank you. Gratitude expressions–inclusive and authentic–add deeper meaning to the holiday.
If you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner and your table will include non-religious and religious people of different faiths, you may want to take a look at the Quaker tradition of “silent grace.” It doesn’t exclude anyone. It allows space during the holiday festivities for reflection and thanks. It brings people together.
“Silent grace” before the meal is an inclusive practice.
All present join hands in a circle around the table, and are silent for half a minute or so as they pray, meditate or collect their thoughts. Then the host gently squeezes the hand of the person seated adjacent; this signal is quickly passed around the table and when it returns to the host, people then begin to eat and talk.
You can try variations on this simple idea:
- The host ends silent grace, “For what we are about to receive we are truly thankful.”
- A guest is invited to end silent grace, “For the meal we are about to eat and for those with whom we are going to share it, we are thankful.”
Tweetable: Having religious & non-religious guests around your Thanksgiving table? Here’s an inclusive way to express gratitude. Click to Tweet
Mitali Perkins, award-winning author of books for young readers, shares a heartbreaking adolescent experience and losing her way spiritually:
“I was raised in a Hindu home, where Dad taught his children that God was a divine spirit of love. Dad’s job as an engineer took us from port to port, so that by the time I was 11, we had lived in India, England, Ghana, Cameroon, Mexico, and the United States. No matter where we were posted, Dad led us in a daily practice of gratitude to God.
I believed in this good God until high school, when a friend was killed in a car accident involving a drunk driver. Clayton’s death opened my adolescent eyes to a world of suffering. What kind of God would allow this and then, according to Hinduism, reincarnate us into a painful world? I grieved for my friend and put my questions—and God—aside for the rest of high school.”
In conversations with young people about difficult topics…
- Let them think, speculate, imagine. Resist the impulse to answer their questions for them.
- Mirror back their thoughts to them so that they can hear themselves and continue their conversations with you.
- Don’t minimize the complexity of the issues.
- Aim for spiritual growth, not answers.
Trust that God will show the way to greater resolution of a young person’s confusion and upset as they remain open to allowing God’s various ways of communicating with them.
Time and space to pursue understanding
Mitali Perkins did remain open-minded. Here I’m paraphrasing part of her article, “When God Writes Your Life Story.” In her junior year of college, she went to Russia where she toured cemeteries, prisons, museums, and churches. At the Hermitage, an English-speaking museum official was taking her group from room to room. She was deep in thought as she looked at the many religious paintings.
As her group was leaving, the museum official pulled her aside and asked quietly what she was thinking about so deeply. “A loving God. Human suffering. How can both exist?”
He spoke briefly to her about being at an intersection of choice. She went away determined to read the original source material for those paintings, the New Testament. What she found there carried her to a deeper understanding of the heart of God, newfound faith, and eventually to represent and champion the marginalized child in her writings.
Tweetable: Let young adults speculate, imagine and think their way through spiritual questions. You may set them on one path in early childhood (could be a path of no religion) but give them freedom to approach God in their own style. Great example here. Click to Tweet
Recently I spent time after school with a 5-year-old in my extended family. Her homework assignment that day was, “List at least five words that describe you.” After she gave her list I called out to her siblings, “Hey, do you want to do this too? And they did. Then it was my turn. I started my list of words describing myself when one of them added, “Mean—sometimes you are mean.”
Well, that was a new one for me! I’d never been called mean, at least not that I could remember. Selfish? Sure. Insensitive? Sometimes. But mean??? That’s pretty harsh.
“Sometimes you are mean.”
Overcoming a first impulse to be defensive, I began to investigate: “Tell me about the last time I was mean to you.” I listened without comment or criticism to several minutes of conversation, and the evidence became clear. I was mean anytime I said no to a request, or when I said “Wait and ask your mother; she’ll be home soon” to something the child wanted to do.
That’s a normal response to get upset when we’re told no. We all want life to go our way. So I simply acted as a mirror for the child: “You want me to say yes–not no or wait–when you ask for something. You seem frustrated with me.” There was a momentary silence (I’m inwardly hoping it was an Aha! registering in the child’s awareness) and then we moved on to something else. Just planting a seed.
It got me thinking…. Do some children believe God is mean, too?
Most children (and adults), at one time or another, want God to use God’s power to give us what we want. A child will pray. In the midst of upsetting circumstances, the child might pray with tears, “Don’t let my parents get divorced.” “Please make my cousin get well.” When the outcome is not what the child asked for, some children can turn away and accuse God of not loving them. Who wants to get close to a God who is mean? Other kids might conclude that there is no God.
Be aware and keep listening.
Encourage kids to tell you how they arrive at their conclusions about us, or about God. Let them speak without criticism or argument. The topic will arise again and I want to be a trusted listener when it does. Don’t you?
Tweetable: Do you sense that your child believes God is mean? Despite their outward compliance with your family’s religious beliefs, something else may be brewing under the surface. Click to Tweet