Prayer is one of the most precious and sacred of all Christian disciplines. It is our way of sharing our hearts with our Creator. But there are many evenings at my house when our prayers are anything but sacred. Take our dinner prayers: Our 7-year-old tests his grip strength on my hand, our 4-year-old sneaks food. Inevitably, we end up with a case of the giggles.
Kids and prayer often combine to make for some, well, interesting moments. I heard of a woman who invited friends to dinner. At the dinner table she asked her 6-year-old daughter to say the blessing.
"I wouldn't know what to say," the girl replied.
"Just say what you hear Mommy say," the woman responded.
The daughter bowed her head and said, "Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?"
Despite the silliness that our children sometimes bring to prayer time, I still believe that a thriving prayer life is one of the foundations of a child's spiritual formation. I found help for laying that foundation in my own back yard.
Last fall I was planting bulbs; digging, breaking up clods of earth, carefully placing the bulbs in their new home. As I held the dirt in my hand, I pondered how we grow praying families. I realized that my garden provided a wonderful model for preparing the soil and planting the seeds that would produce fruit in the hearts of my children.
Preparing the Soil
My bulbs in the front yard came up better than the ones in the back. I'm not surprised; the back beds were full of clay. As much as I tried to break up the earth, the soil in those beds was still hard and lumpy. The front beds were soft and the bulbs flourished.
If we want to grow praying families we need to be diligent in preparing the soil at home. That means we need to create an environment where prayer is modeled, valued, and taught. You can do that in several ways:
Schedule time to pray. Children catch the importance of prayer by watching the prayer lives of the adults around them. Make sure your children see that prayer is a priority in your life.
My husband and I have a "Planning and Prayer" time after dinner on Monday nights. We talk about our schedules for the week, go over the kids' activities, and share prayer requests for ourselves and for our children. Then we pray. I'm grateful for this time to come before the Lord together. I am also grateful for what it says to our children about the importance of prayer in our marriage.
Take an honest look at your own heart. Is it hard or soft towards the Lord? When your children see you leaning on God in good times and bad, they are more likely to do the same. If you need to grow in your relationship with God, talk to your pastor, find a friend to pray with you, or start attending a small group through your church. Show your children what it looks like to seek God.
Take time to teach your children about prayer. On the surface, prayer seems like it should come naturally. But to be honest, most of us struggle with how to pray. One of the greatest temptations is to focus on what we need from God instead of taking time to praise him, thank him, and listen to his voice in our hearts. Our family has found it helpful to use simple acronyms like PRAY (Praise, Repent, Ask, Yield) to guide our prayers. There are many wonderful books on prayer that can help your family find a style that works for you (see sidebar).
Tilling the soil is hard work. It takes discipline and perseverance to prepare our hearts and grow a praying family. It would be easier to skip this step, but it's essential.
Planting the Seeds
I planted my bulbs in October, but I had to wait until May to see my tulips bloom. Sometimes we plant seeds in prayer but the answers to our prayers seem slow in coming. Prayer involves patience and the willingness to trust that God will do what's best. Like the garden, our prayers are filled with seeds that will grow when God brings them to fruition. That's why part of teaching our children about prayer is helping them learn to wait on God.
Here are some ideas to help your children see God at work in their lives and in the lives of others:
Keep a spiritual journal. Record your children's prayers, spiritual milestones, and answered prayers in a notebook. It can help all of you see God as a real part of your lives. It also helps children understand that they can trust God to care for them in good times and in difficult times. Someday this written record of their growing relationship with God will become a priceless treasure.
Volunteer as a family. You don't have to do anything formal to make a difference in someone's life. Help your children see their prayers as a way for God to point them toward someone who could use your help. Praying for Grandma and Grandpa can inspire children to befriend an elderly person in your neighborhood. When your children thank God for their toys or for cookies, ask God to help you find ways to share what you have with children who don't have many toys or good food to eat.
Talk about your own answered prayers. Be intentional about sharing the ways God is working in your life. If you're struggling to control your temper, let your children hear you ask God for help. Then, when you sense God helping you stay calm, thank him in the presence of your kids. Show them that God is an active presence in your life and they'll follow suit.
Providing Water and Sunshine
Both water and sunshine are essential to the growth of any plant. Our spiritual lives need nourishment, too, and the best food is God's Word. My children also love to hear great stories of faith from other Christians, whether they come from books, visiting speakers at our church, or extended family members. Prayer nearly always plays a part in the dramatic stories of the heroes of our faith, showing my children that prayer has been a powerful resource for generations. These testimonies are like Miracle Grow to their hungry hearts.
These ideas can help you offer your children spiritual sustenance:
Seek out faith stories. The Bible, missionary biographies, and books about the great revivals in the church are packed with thrilling stories of people who bravely sought God through prayer. Their examples can speak volumes to young children.
My son recently learned about George Washington Carver, best known for his work with the peanut. That prompted me to tell him a story I'd read about Carver's faith.
Carver was being interviewed by the U.S. Senate Ways and Means Committee in 1921. One senator asked, "Dr. Carver, how did you learn all these things?"
Carver answered, "From the old book."
"What book?" asked the Senator.
Carver replied, "The Bible."
The Senator inquired, "Does the Bible tell about peanuts?"
"No Sir," Dr. Carver replied, "but it tells about the God who made the peanut. I asked him to show me what to do with the peanut, and he did."
That story impacted my son in a way my own words never would. He wasn't just hearing about God from me, but from a famous man who changed his whole culture by listening to God.
Invite a missionary to dinner. There are real living heroes of the faith right in your church, so get to know them. If you can't find a missionary, ask your pastor, a lay leader, or an elderly person from the church. Ask them to tell you about their life with God and how prayer has helped their faith. Every Christian has a story to tell and you'll all be amazed at the work God has done in the lives of seemingly ordinary people.
Watching God Produce Growth
No matter how much time and effort I put into my garden at the beginning of the season, it will only grow with continued attention and care. If I ignore it, it's only a matter of time before the weeds take over and my beautiful plants whither. For prayer to remain an essential part of your family life, you'll need to keep tending to the weeds of busyness and boredom that can easily take over.
When our prayers start to feel rote, or we find that we've gone a few days without a mealtime blessing, we've found that we can quickly get back on track with a creative approach to prayer. Here are some ways to pray that our kids have enjoyed:
Start a photo prayer journal. Take all the photos you receive at Christmas and put them in a flip photo album. We keep ours near the dinner table and each night we flip to a new family and pray for them before dinner. Not only does the album remind us to pray, it helps us feel connected to far-away friends and family.
Use Scripture to pray. The Psalms can become prayers of praise or a proverb can be used to ask for wisdom. Recently, our son got into the habit of using harsh words to express his anger and frustration. We used Proverbs 15:1 ("A gentle answer turns away wrath.") to guide our prayers asking God to help him. When you aren't sure what to pray, there's no better place to turn.
BLESS your neighbors. The organization HOPE (see sidebar) suggests using the acronym BLESS to pray for your neighbors. Here's how it works:
- BBody pray for their health, protection, and strength
- LLabor pray for their work, income, and security
- EEmotional pray for joy, peace, and hope
- SSocial pray for their marriage, family, and friends
- SSpiritual pray for salvation, faith, and grace
If you know your neighbors, let them know you're praying for them and ask if they have any specific prayer needs.
Adopt a leader. The Bible is clear that no matter how we feel about those in authority, we are to pray for them (1 Tim. 2:1-4). And leaders around the world certainly need your prayers these days. You can pray for a different leader each day or choose one leader and commit to praying for that person for a time.
When my friend Carol moved back into the neighborhood where she grew up, she discovered that her state representative just happened to grow up across the street from her! She and her family began praying for him and also calling him for prayer requests. He has often told her how stressful his days are and how much he appreciates their prayers.
I love watching my garden grow. When I stop and look at all that God has made, I am overwhelmed by his creativity. But I know that I had to be willing to commit to planting and tending to those bulbs and seeds for the flowers to flourish. I pray for that same willingness as I nurture the tender shoots of faith growing in my children.
Susan Sorensen serves as the Education Liaison for the National Day of Prayer Task Force. An author and freelance writer, she lives with her family in Ohio.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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