For all of us, and perhaps especially for families with children, the past months of pandemic and political challenges have been difficult. Children, like the rest of us, have faced a season of losses: of not seeing friends, being stuck at home, hours on the computer. This year, like no other, has exposed deep schisms at both the national level and closer to home, sometimes in our own families. Those in daily conversation with children under their roofs have no doubt struggled to find the words to talk about what we have seen in the news and about the church’s role in the midst of alarming circumstances: about racism, white nationalism, illness and death and fights over wearing masks, disparities in access to healthcare and so much more. How do we talk with children about this, make space for their ideas and challenging questions, give them room to breathe? How do we teach them a history that’s not whitewashed? How do we cultivate hope, compassion, a sense of God’s presence in each beloved person, of an interconnected world in which all creation has value? How do we help them learn to work for a better world, to see and acknowledge injustice without losing hope, to say, as inaugural poet Amanda Gorman put it, “there is always light … if we’re brave enough to be it”?
Having good resources at hand is one way. The right tools can help parents and teachers alike when they’re ready to address the heavy issues that matter to all people, including children. Those issues include racism, inequality and imperialism, and Rebecca Davis, associate professor of Christian education at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, has created a list of resources that can help kids, parents and teachers start to understand these complex topics in new ways. You can find the list at pres-outlook.org/booklist. It includes wonderful books such as “Antiracist Baby” by Ibram X. Kendi and “Who Counts?” by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.
Contemplative practices can also play an important role in the faith formation of children. Throughout my ministry, I felt that it was important to model and practice prayer with children; so several times a year I devoted children’s time in worship to a single contemplative practice. For example, I would ask them to listen to the long, sustained ring of my Japanese Rin Gong — an inverted bell that never failed to captive attention. As it rang, I invited them to bring to mind other children who might be lonely or hurting, and to imagine how much God loves those who are different or left out, and how much God wants us share that love with them. These were simple prayers, but it seemed important to model contemplative practice and its role in forming us for lives of compassion and justice. Jesus himself was a contemplative, sometimes praying all night (Luke 6:12) — not because he had a long prayer list, but because he consistently sought space to discern the compassionate and justice-seeking presence of God in his world. This reminds us that practices of faith involve the heart as well as the mind!
It is equally important to bear in mind that the teaching and learning entailed in Christian formation is not a one-way street — we have much to learn from children! They, too, have a vocation in the life of the church and can witness to faith in ways that are transformative for us. In “Calling All Years Good,” theologian Nancy Bedford contends that God can use children to speak to adults. Indeed, questions children ask often expose circumstances that adults overlook. For example, Bedford recalls that when they encountered a woman experiencing homelessness, her young daughter asked: “Does that woman sleep outside at night? Why? Shouldn’t we find her a place to stay?” She then insisted, “We need to find a place to live for those people that sleep outside … and teach the bad people to be good and share with the poor people.” On another occasion, after giving thanks for the food at dinner, her daughter raised another pointed theological question: “Does God give all people food or just some?” Children, it seems, often have an inner theological compass that can disrupt and transform adult perceptions of the world!
Make no mistake about it: Children are watching us and our world. They are being formed by what they see, and they can shape our own perceptions of the world around us. Thanks be to God for the vocation of nurturing children in the faith — and for the myriad ways in which they nurture us in return!