No Need to Wait
by David D. Grafton (January / February 2000 — Volume 16, Number 1)
Some parents feel they need to put their "spiritual" lives on hold when they begin to raise their families. But these years can be opportunities to build spiritual disciplines for adult and child alike
During seminary, I remember taking a great class on Christian spirituality. Because I was going through a particularly rough period in my life then, this class was just what I needed.
The class wasn't a study of spirituality or a history of spiritual giants. Rather it was shaped to help students develop their own spiritual disciplines. Students spent 10 weeks doing the lectio divina, which involved reading a text and meditating on it.
After that class I learned to spend time each day doing my own spiritual workout. In addition to prayers, worship, and pastoral duties, I would spend time early each morning reading a text and praying over it.
These activities kept the business of the parish life from pulling me apart and helped me to make sense of my faith, life, and the world around me.
Impact of Children
But then my wife and I had children...
My children are early risers. I quickly found out, much to my frustration, that my time for meditation and prayer was no longer my time. It was my children's time.
As a pastor and a parent of two small children, I often wonder what it is that sustains parents' faith lives. I'm not just talking about helping parents to get through worship (without having a child "lose it"), but what helps parents develop their faith life throughout the week.
How do parents find the time to "meditate," read Scripture, or pray — that is, without falling asleep halfway through their prayers? (I must admit it has happened to me more than once at my son's bedside. )
After a day of taking care of the children, changing diapers, and getting snacks, lunches, and dinners together...After running to the grocery store or the preschool...After wiping tears from eyes, or bringing giggles and laughs from frowning mouths...After the daily struggle to brush teeth, and fill just one more glass of water before bed...what time or energy is there to attend to one's own spiritual life, let alone one's relationship with one's spouse, family, or friends?
For parents who spend the majority of their waking hours (and sleepless nights) attending to the needs of their children, have we equipped them with enough spiritual tools to strengthen their own faith lives? Or, are they simply left to wither away spiritually?
Many parents, I think, have come to believe that they cannot be "truly" spiritual until their children grow up and they are able to have their own meditative alone-time free from the distractions of art projects, packed lunches, and play rehearsals.
Consequently, until their children become old enough, parents may often feel frustrated and cheated about how to meditate or worship properly.
I believe the problem first arises when we somehow learn that there is only one kind of spirituality — that is, that quiet, meditative time away from others and the world to ponder God's Word. (Such times are a great treasure and needed, but they are certainly not the only way to develop spiritually. )
Usually this belief manifests itself with Sunday worship. Many times we parents either send our children to the nursery (so we can worship "properly") or stop attending worship altogether. We feel that once our children are "old enough" to "behave" in church (so that we will not be embarrassed), we can return like other "normal" people to regular Sunday worship and a healthy spiritual life.
But these feelings assume two things: one, that we can put our spiritual development on hold and easily pick it up again later; and two, that spirituality and faith development are purely for mature adults who can contemplate and meditate.
Our problem as parents is not with us, but with the spirituality we think we need in order to have a healthy faith life! Instead of lamenting our lack of meditative time throughout the week, we need to shift our understanding of spirituality to a family-type spirituality. We parents can become deeply involved in the spiritual upbringing of our children not just for their sake but for ours as well.
Children can see all too easily when our attempts to bring them up in the faith are half-hearted. When children sense that their parents are not sincere in their personal faith development, they begin to think that Sunday School, worship, and daily prayers are only for children, and not for adults who have put such "childish things aside."
If parents simply send their children to Sunday School, but have no intention of attending worship themselves, then children quickly learn that after confirmation they have "done their time" and slip away from the church.
I am convinced that my generation has stopped attending regular congregational worship in part because we learned from a very young age that it was not for us. We received both subtle and overt signals that once we were old enough to behave or "act our age," we could attend worship. The problem was that by the time we became "of age" to attend, we had no idea what we were attending or why.
Many congregations go through their should-we-have-Sunday school-during-worship debate. All parishes, councils, pastors, and parents struggle with — "Do I leave my child in the nursery so I and everyone else can really 'experience' worship this Sunday?"
But removing children from worship prohibits the whole body of Christ from experiencing the presence of God. It also does not take advantage of the multi-faceted purpose of liturgical worship. The liturgy is a wonderful place for children and parents to engage each other in faith.
There is much in the liturgy to include children: songs, motions, and recitation. The worship time does not have to be a time for adults alone, nor should it be. It can be a time for a family to interact and teach one another about faith.
I once watched a parent interact with his daughter during Sunday morning worship. He continually engaged her in questions about what was happening. "Why is the pastor folding his hands? Should we fold our hands?" "What color is the pastor's stole? Why is it white? No, I really don't know why it is white, that is why I am asking you!" "Can you sing with me?" "Would you like to put this envelope in the offering plate?"
On another occasion I witnessed a child open up an LBW and hand it to his grandfather. It was probably turned to the wrong page, but it was an incredible moment where the child said, "We are supposed to be doing this together."
Certainly this means that a parent will experience worship differently than an adult without children. For instance, one may never hear a complete sermon, if one at all. One Sunday afternoon after I delivered what I felt was one of my best sermons ever, I asked my wife what she thought of it.
"Didn't hear a word of it," she replied.
She had the kids with her. However, she may not have "heard" the message, but she and the children certainly participated in it. With baby bottles, snacks, crayons, or children's bulletins, one will certainly not have the luxury of meditating thoughtfully on the prayers.
But there is so much more to experience and participate in during the liturgy — to say nothing of the importance of merely being in the presence of God and the worshiping community!
The activity of families in pews during worship can be disturbing for others who wish to quietly meditate. I am not suggesting that the concerns of children or families outweigh those of older adults or singles. I am suggesting, however, that worship is a place for the whole body of Christ and can be planned to effectively provide for all segments of the community. I am also suggesting that we need to view worship more holistically and from a variety of perspectives.
Parents as "Bishops"
With the advent of children, parents become the "bishop" of the household parish, as Luther says (see "The Estate of Marriage" , Luther's Works 45:45). Parents need to join with their children in the daily and weekly routine of faith life as a family. This means that table prayers, either spoken or read from any children's prayer book or Bible become a mainstay of the family's routine.
Stories at bedtime can easily include a reading from the daily lectionary of the child's Bible. Hymns can also be part of the nightly lullabies. Sunday school projects can become works of art to display on refrigerators, windows, or even the front door. Finally, family attendance and presence at weekly worship is essential and provides a spiritual infrastructure.
A family-type spirituality enters one into the faith life of his or her child and family. This doesn't mean that one must take on a childish spirituality. On the contrary, one can develop a deep faith that incorporates faith into every aspect of daily life. You don't have to "dumb down" your own spirituality when involving your children. Rather than leaving our family's spirituality for a later date when everyone can meditate "properly" — the family works through the daily meditations and liturgy together like the monks of old celebrating the orders of the day.
A family-type spirituality recognizes that in a family with children, faith life takes on different forms, and that is okay! Table prayers, songs, children's Bible stories, bedtime prayers, and presence together in worship can become a wonderful regimen for deepening one's own spirituality, as well as the child's spirituality. They can become the orders for daily faith development.
Parents should throw themselves fully into this regimen expecting to be challenged, moved, and inspired by what their children can teach, what the family can experience, and what God can do through these special times.
David D. Grafton, an ELCA missionary, is pastor of St. Andrew's United Church, an international congregation in Cairo, Egypt.