Prayer is not a part of Christian life. It is Christian life. It’s what your conversion was about: union with Christ. It’s your side of the conversation, your participation in the divine nature (II Peter 1:4). And so many of us suck at it.
That’s the problem most of us have in teaching our children to pray. But it’s no excuse—we teach children every day those things we may not be so good at ourselves: be patient, don’t yell, say you’re sorry (and mean it). We don’t want to hinder these little ones from coming to Christ. So, when thinking about how to teach them to come to him through prayer, we should first think about what hinders us? Some possibilities:
- Bullet-point lists (excuse the self-referential irony). “Five tips for improving your devotional life.” “Top ten secrets of success from the experts.” “Six ways from Sunday.” Goal-oriented people can’t resist a list, but their neatly-numerated charm is deceptive. If a human being were a collection of parts that could just be oiled up occasionally we’d be easy to operate, but we’re no more likely to put a numerated tip into practice than a well-spoken word from mom or an insight from C. S. Lewis.
- The automated head-tip. If you were brought up in a Christian home you should be familiar with the posture your body assumes at the words, “Let us pray.” We’re accustomed to bowing heads and closing eyes at meals, bedtime, before the sermon, after the sermon, all during communion. This is not to be despised, but it creates a ritualized fog around something that should also be personal and intimate, and the longer we’ve been in church the more automated our prayer life can get. When your head bows, does your mind go on auto-prayer?
- Our Martha mode. We’re “anxious and troubled about many things” (Luke 10:41), including how to pray. Sometimes the prayer guides and books make us even more anxious, because the suggestions don’t seem to “work,” or what helps for a while doesn’t hold up. The Lord’s gentle reminder about “the better part” doesn’t always help either—easy for him to say!
- Endless distraction. I wonder if it was easier for the saints of old to pray when their lives weren’t so crowded with entertainment, shopping lists, stuff to buy and stuff to get rid of, places to go, errands to remember—they pop up in our prayers like ads on a website. (And if those annoy us, just imagine how God feels about it!)
- This weird, other-worldly relationship. You’ve heard the comparisons: if you had an appointment with the President of the United States, or even the president of the local PTA, you would have something ready to say and the proper attitude with which to say it. But if you were married to the POTUS, or the boss of the PTA was your mom, every encounter would be ad lib and subject to the emotions of the moment. What we have with God is intimate transcendence, invisible presence, everyday awesomeness . . . come up with your own oxymoron, and you probably wouldn’t be too far from the truth. But then, the whole Christian faith is stuffed with these alarming juxtapositions (that we could not have made up ourselves).
- Lack of faith that God is really there and really listening. Is that really what it comes down to?
The good news is that grownups and children are on this journey together. We grownups actually never stop being children in the Kingdom of Heaven, and having actual children in the house gives us a chance to revisit those lessons we didn’t fully learn the first time.
My main suggestion, for lack of anything wiser, is to become just a little more intentional about prayer as the kids grow up. Bullet-point list coming up! Some of these ideas may help; if not, they may be useful as a stepping stone to other ideas for weaving prayer, or an attitude of prayer, into the hours as they pass.
- The old ACTS formula—prayer consisting of four elements of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication—makes a helpful outline for instruction. At prayer times (family devotionals, bedtime, grace at meals), you might emphasize one or two of these (not all four): What can we praise God for today? What should you ask forgiveness for? Is there anyone we can ask God to help?
- Speaking of bedtime prayers, this is a great time to review the day. Talk about things that might be troubling them or things they might be especially happy about. Share things you’re thankful about, discuss ways God can help with problems, probe for faults that need to be forgiven, etc. These topics may pop up naturally at the end of an outstanding or traumatic day, but if it’s just ordinary, ask a leading question or two to draw out prayer material: What was your favorite part of today? What would you like to do tomorrow? Who do you know that needs help? Keep these conversations brief, unless some issue comes up that needs to be talked out.
- If you have more than two children, spending time with each at bedtime may not be possible. That’s okay; just try to arrange time for an evening chat twice a week, or every other day. If something comes up with a particular child, the schedule may have to be rearranged, but flexibility is a skill worth learning.
- Remember Jesus. If you’ve ever read Mere Christianity, you may remember Lewis’s discussion of prayer as a kind of trinitarian group project. When we pray, it’s the Holy Spirit within prompting us, God the Father before us, and Jesus beside us. I’ve drawn great comfort from two verses about Christ’s intercession: “Who is there to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died and was raised and is now at the right hand of God interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34). Also Hebrews 7:25: “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” These passages would be good to memorize, and frequently thank Jesus for being there “Before the Throne of God Above” for us.
- In times of crisis, don’t pray alone! When appropriate, include the kids in lifting up Grandma’s cancer diagnosis, Dad’s unemployment, big brother’s emergency appendectomy. Use your judgment about this, though. Don’t bring the kids alongside your marriage problems (they need Mom and Dad to at least appear unified) or burden them with too much trauma. Just show them that you, too, carry burdens that Jesus is willing to share.
- Speaking of crisis, let prayer come naturally when you’re in a jam. Several years ago, during a car trip from Texas to Missouri, the alternator in our old station wagon went out. I didn’t notice the battery light, so we just ran it out until the vehicle simply stopped, giving me just enough time to pull over. Since my husband wasn’t along I was the only responsible adult, and my first impulse was blind panic (What do I do???). But the Holy Spirit prompted me to say, “We’re going to pray about this.” So I did, and within a minute after Amen a highway patrol car pulled up behind us. (My sister has a similar story about getting hopelessly lost in New York City.) Such a prompt reply is not necessarily going to happen every time, but pray anyway, and God will take care of the rest.
- Make prayer a conversation. Even in informal settings, we tend to take turns, keep our heads bowed (furtively peeking when someone gets up), and if someone starts her turn the same time we do it’s so embarrassing. No one conducts conversations this way, unless it’s by the aid of a shaman-esque talking stick or mic. A group free-for-all wouldn’t work, but if it’s just you and Molly and Dan (for instance), you shouldn’t be afraid to ask a question in the midst of a prayer (“Who was that lady you mentioned?”) or add a coda (“And thanks for Molly’s first time on the big slide—that was fun!”). You may not even feel the need to bow your heads: hold hands and look up occasionally, or sing a short praise chorus or Psalm. (And singing during prayers is perfectly fine!)
- If you have family devotionals, you might do occasional popcorn prayers, where you ask each child (and include Mom and Dad) to make a specific petition, offer a particular praise, thank God for something that happened during the day that made you happy, etc. You might even put slips of paper in a jar for each family member to draw out. That’s their prayer “assignment” for the evening. And it’s okay to swap.
- If we’re in too much of a hurry to get to petitions, praising gets neglected. Cultivate a habit of praise during the day: if you hear a beautiful piece of music, enjoy a clear blue sky and a fresh breeze, witness a perfect figure-skating maneuver or home run, comment on it, and remember to praise God for it during prayer time. It’s fine, of course, to praise God for it in the moment, as long as the praise sounds natural and not calculated.
As I hope you can tell, all this is more attitude than checklist, habits of thought before action. I can’t tell you or your kids how to pray. Only God can do that—keep asking him.
(This post is a continuation of “Hinder Them Not“)