by Julie Coffman Hester
It’s Saturday at the church, the day before our annual Advent workshop for families. I make copies of calendars, locate last year’s Chrismon ornaments and check supplies. In the recesses of my office closet I find bags to put the candles in for Advent wreath kits: three purple and one pink. I sit on the floor to sort them. I prepare to answer the questions I always get from families: Which week is pink, and why? Is it the candle of hope, then peace, then joy, then love? Or is it the shepherds, the wise men, Mary and someone else’s candle? My answer this year just might be: Whatever you want, it doesn’t matter, just light the candles and sit in the dark.
I am way behind my usual schedule. We moved the event a week earlier to avoid the Thanksgiving holiday and lost some time by doing that. Somehow the election seems to have absorbed several weeks of prep time, both practically and emotionally. I am tired. But as I count out candles, something shifts in me. I remind myself to take a deep breath. I slow down, and say a prayer for the family who will light the set of candles I am sorting. Lord knows they need reminding, as do I, that the light shines in the darkness. I give thanks to God for the time we will spend together the next day, sharing Advent spiritual practices for the home. The Saturday preparation itself has become a spiritual practice for me.
A general understanding of a spiritual practice or discipline is the regular performance of actions undertaken for the purpose of inducing spiritual experiences and cultivating spiritual development. Our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) website makes a distinction between discipline and practice: “A spiritual discipline is a broad understanding of life choices that a person makes for the purpose of entering into deeper awareness and relationship with God. Practices are specific exercises or techniques one might employ in keeping with a more general discipline.” Rather than exercises that we think might make God love us, instead, they “open us up to hearing God’s love for us more clearly.”
Much of the congregation’s ministry with children and families is centered on spiritual practices, though we don’t often call it that. We busy ourselves with Sunday school, Mission Kids and Vacation Bible School. We prepare Bibles to give away, and teach baptism classes and workshops on worship and communion. We plan seasonal events for Advent and Lent. You can go all year and not hear us name something a “spiritual practice.” But when our ministry points people toward God, and helps cultivate opportunities to experience the love of God, that is exactly what we are doing.
The parents I work with at church are hungry for spiritual practices, both for themselves, and for their families. They seek to know God more, and to live out the baptismal vows they took to raise their children to know and follow Jesus. I’ve had women join my Presbyterian Women’s parenting circle study before they even gave birth. They are motivated and sincere about cultivating faith within their families. They want to answer the call of Deuteronomy 6 to love God with all their heart and soul and might. They want to recite expressions of faith to their children and “talk about them when [they] are at home and when [they] are away.” But they have two major worries about helping their children grow in their spiritual lives. They worry that they don’t know how. And they are sure that they don’t have time.
Ours is a culture of experts. We seek out coaches and tutors for our children. We sign them up for lessons and practices. Some of this is necessary. I wouldn’t begin to know how to teach my son to play the saxophone. And a chemistry tutor we reached out to in the last weeks of a semester saved my daughter’s sophomore year. But some of our anxiety about needing an expert is misplaced, especially about faith formation and spiritual development. Since the beginning, faith has been passed down within households as children learned at the knee of a parent. Jesus grew up practicing Sabbath and observing faith traditions along with his family. Centuries later, my great-grandmother stitched Bible verses into a sampler as she learned sewing skills. For decades, Christian spiritual practices were woven so naturally into the fabric of daily life that there was no need to name them or be taught how to share them. As the daily lives of families have gotten busier with work, school, multiple sports, travel and the ever-present distraction from technology, the natural place of spiritual practices within the family has too often been squeezed out. At the same time, faithful parents have begun to doubt themselves, and worry that they aren’t doing it right.
How can church leaders help introduce and nurture spiritual practices with parents and caregivers, so that they can encourage them in their children? I know if I were to hold a class or workshops on how to do that, I would have the same few people show up. Some would miss the email about it. Others would want to attend, but their soccer schedule wouldn’t allow it. They would ask me the next time they are at church, “Are you going to teach that again?”
For those parents, and for us all, there is hope. It’s found in worship. Faith formation leaders like C. Ellis Nelson, John Westerhoff and Maria Harris have written eloquently about the role the congregation plays in shaping a people of faith. The worship service of the people of God can provide a model and a framework for sharing spiritual practices with children.
Our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship says in the preface: “The community of faith, gathered in response to God’s call, is formed in its worship. Worship is the principal influence that shapes our faith, and is the most visible way we express the faith. In worship, through Word and Sacrament, the church is sustained by the presence of Christ. Joined in worship to the One who is the source of its life, the church is empowered to serve God in the world.” While attendance in worship is a spiritual practice in itself, the major movement of worship (gather, the Word, respond, send) and worship elements within those movements also provide touchpoints for adults looking to invite children into a deeper experience with God, outside the church walls and between services.
As children and families step into our places of worship, they are immediately reminded that both the space and the time are sacred. Symbols of our faith are displayed. Liturgical colors and seasons change. We use faith language and enact faith rituals. The gathering of God’s people, with the intention to worship, makes the time and space holy. Helping children find ways to mark time and space as holy outside of worship is a spiritual practice that will travel with them as they grow. We can ask parents: Where are the possible holy moments and spaces in your family’s day when two or three are gathered? Some are obvious. Bedtime with its rituals of tucking in, and possibilities for Bible-reading, prayer and blessing, is a prime opportunity. Mealtime, and that moment of quiet expectation just before digging in, which we can fill with words of thanksgiving, is another. Less obvious may be the time spent waiting in a carpool line, brushing teeth, or clearing the table. Our task as spiritual practitioners is not to rush through those moments, but to name them as holy, and invite the sacred into the ordinary in intentional ways, just as if we were walking into a sanctuary.
An ordinary meal gathering can become a spiritual practice with very simple changes. Light a candle, and thank God out loud for being present. Close your eyes and taste the food slowly, inviting children to name and give thanks for all that went into making it: rain, sunshine, farmers, factories, the cook. Call one meal a week the Sabbath meal, and set the table differently (or at all!) or serve a favorite food. Use some of the same faith language and rituals that show up in worship, and see how ordinary times of gathering can become a spiritual practice.
In worship we gather around the Word read and proclaimed. Spiritual practices with children must stem from and point back to that same Word. Sharing Bible stories with children is perhaps the most profound spiritual practice a parent or grandparent can initiate. These are the stories that shape us as God’s people. Savoring the narrative of God’s covenant promises with the people of Israel, fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and shared by his earliest followers, is the clearest way to open ourselves to God’s love for us.
Choose an age-appropriate Bible, with beautiful pictures, that stays true to the stories. Elizabeth Caldwell’s book “I Wonder: Engaging a Child’s Curiosity about the Bible,” is a resource for considering different Bibles and she shares how to make the Bible an integral part of a child’s developing spirituality. This year my Presbyterian Women circle of moms is discussing some of her insights, while also reading through Desmond Tutu’s “Children of God Storybook Bible” with their children. They are claiming the time as a spiritual practice as they invite conversation about the pictures and pray together the one-line prayers accompanying each story. We are paying attention to how children of varying ages reflect on the stories differently, and how what is happening in our daily lives affects what the stories say to us. Spiritual practices like Bible reading are never static. Bible reading can evolve into Bible journaling, or lectio divina, or retelling the story in a hands-on Godly Play way. Just as the Spirit of God speaks anew to us through the same old stories retold in worship, so our spiritual practices help us remain open to new ways God is speaking to us.
In worship our response to God’s Word takes several forms. We pray. We share the Lord’s Supper. We baptize and ordain to service. We offer ourselves and our gifts to God. We take what we have heard and enact it in concrete ways. We lift up ordinary things – like water, bread and wine – and recognize God’s presence and promises in them. Spiritual practices that do the same are powerful when shared with children.
Prayer is an endlessly creative response to God’s Word. In her book “Seamless Faith: Simple Practices for Daily Family Life” and on her blog, Traci Smith shares practical ways to pray with even the youngest children. Point to pictures in a photo album and say, “God bless Nana, God bless Papa, God bless [name]… Amen.” Make a prayer box or basket, filled with the names of special people and places for whom to pray. Use prayer beads as a tactile way to focus on prayer. Make a prayer flag to help remember the Holy Spirit, or to pray for the world. Take a prayer walk, use different prayer postures, or even listen for God to speak during a silent car ride.
In worship, we offer not just our prayers, but our gifts and ourselves to God as a response to the Word. Every parent I know desires to nurture a life of compassionate service in their children, where both God and neighbor are loved. Churches help us with that practice when, for example, families are encouraged to collect supplies for local ministries. The step that too often gets left out is the one where we talk about it and connect it to God. In worship we call for the offering, and then we pray over it. Sometimes we hear special speakers talk about why they give. Or we call mission trip participants forward and we pray for them and the outreach ministry they will do. Cleaning out a closet at home can become a spiritual practice if we pray a prayer of dedication for the giveaway box of outgrown clothes. Otherwise, it’s just a donation at the end of a productive day.
Recalling our worship offering leads us to the doxology. It’s impossible to talk about worship and faith practices without mentioning praise. Whether through music, prayer or readings, our words of praise to God are what help us know we are actually worshipping. Children imitate the actions of those around them. As adults model praise of God, children learn to do the same. If adults sing in worship, children learn to sing, too. If adults thank God for a rainy day to help the flowers grow, children will learn to do the same. Cultivating the spiritual practice of praise is a gift to children. Start a practice of gratitude with a child. Ask each other to name one thing you are thankful for each night. Write it down and put it in a jar you can fill up, or reread when you need reminding. Create a collage of pictures or words. Make it visual, or verbal, or put it to music. Take the language of praise outside the sanctuary, and children will naturally find their own creative ways to offer praise to God.
At the close of worship, we hear God’s blessing. Then we are sent out into the world to bless others, and to share the love of God we have heard and proclaimed. The simplest way I know to carry that worship element into daily life, as well as reinforce all the other elements, is the spiritual practice of Faith 5. Developed by Faith Inkubators and Rich Melheim, Faith 5 consists of five simple steps that can be done with any kind of group, in just a few minutes.
SHARE your highs and lows (What was the best part of your day? The worst?).
READ a Bible verse or story .
TALK about how the Bible reading might relate to your highs and lows.
PRAY for one another’s highs and lows.
BLESS one another (Share the peace of Christ, or trace a cross on a forehead saying “God bless you” or “God loves you and so do I”).
Faith 5 follows the same general flow of a traditional worship service.
Our weekly rhythm of worship has given us the basic tools we need to explore spiritual practices with children. Just as the internet has opened up a world of possibilities for worship planners, so it has for spiritual practice enthusiasts. Google “spiritual practices with children” and you’ll find a wealth of resources. Check Pinterest boards and Christian education blogs for more ideas. Then, when you start to feel overwhelmed, take a deep breath, slow down, light a candle in the dark and just show up to worship on Sunday. That’s a great place to start.
JULIE COFFMAN HESTER is associate pastor for children and their families at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.