Monday, November 10, 2014
Many may remember this picture that went viral several years ago. A surgeon was operating on a baby in utero, when the baby's hand allegedly came out and grabbed the surgeon's hand. A lot of debate has surrounded the photo, but whatever really happened, it was enough to change the photographer from a pro-choice stance to a pro-life stance in the time it took to flash the picture. He was convinced of the little life reaching out to connect.
Children have souls as soon as they are conceived. Their souls have a capacity from the earliest moments to connect with others. I remember reading the book, The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, by Thomas Verny when pregnant with my first child. I was astounded by the research that has been done on babies in utero and their connection to their own mother's thoughts and feelings. They physically react to anxiety, especially if the anxiety is focused on them. Their movements change when their mothers speak directly to them. Children have even been able to access memories and things learned in the womb, such as music a mother was practicing while pregnant. And I know from years of praying for others that traumas that happen in the womb can affect a child into adulthood.
Once born, we know babies are connecting when they smile, when they look in our eyes, when they touch our faces...long before they can articulate thoughts about relationship. We know when babies are frightened, excited, feeling safe, knowing they are loved.
Why is it then, considering all this evidence of a pre-cognitive infant's ability to love and receive love, that we have little imagination for how they might connect to God? How often we have no expectation that they could have communion with God who created them and is constantly reaching out in love to them. I have been chided in many situations when I realize that my child grasps something about the Lord that maybe I might be still struggling to grasp.
All of this has the other side, too, which is that a child has a sinful heart and the capacity to rebel, to disobey, to reject God. But I think that we, as parents, if aware of their soul capacity to engage, can begin early on to point them to Jesus and to help them open their hearts to him, not just their minds. One of the first principles in nurturing a child's relationship with the Lord is to assume that they have the capacity to connect and respond to God no matter how young they are.
Jesus said for us to let the little children come to him. In the Greek, that actually says, "infants,"...let the infants come. Do not prevent them. Then he goes on to say that they are the prototype of who belongs in his kingdom. What is it about children and the way they relate to God that can actually instruct us? I wonder if it is actually their lack of self consciousness. A healthy child enters in to relationship with abandon. There is no calculation, no holding back. They ask the questions that pop into their heads, they run and jump into the arms of the ones they love, unbothered by what others might think. They have no distance between themselves and life; they are not watching themselves have an experience. As parents, we can learn from this trust and abandon...and encourage it.
Once we expect our children to have a connection with the Lord, we can lead them in engaging their wills to choose the Lord. I am a strong believer in bringing children into the family of the Christian faith, assuming they will grow up as Christians because that is what we have raised them into. At the same time, they have personal choices, and I have seen major heart changes in my children when they come to an age to choose with their wills to call on Jesus to make his home in them. We pray toward this kind of decision in their lives.
We would be wrong to assume that our children cannot be Christian even when their cognitive capacity cannot match their heart capacity, and we would be wrong to assume that they will be Christians simply because we are. We need to engage both their hearts and their developing minds to choose connection to Jesus.
This assumption that they can engage the Lord at every developmental stage, helps us avoid talking down to them. I Timothy says, "Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity." Children, too, can access the life of Christ to live as Christians. None of Christ's commands have an age disclaimer. We expect our children to live as Christians together in our family and in the world, to think of themselves as representatives of the Gospel.
So while we are disciplining our three year old who is misbehaving, we ask him to ask Jesus to help him have a tender heart. He is in a process of discipline until he can "change his attitude," which usually results in a very tearful, "I am very sorry..." to whomever it needs to be extended. When we have the confession of sin at church, I encourage all my children to ask the Lord to convict them. My seven year old recently told me that the leaders don't give enough quiet time at church during the confession for him to think of all his sins and confess them. I actually gave that feedback to the leadership. :) We all need time to be quiet and let the Lord speak to us...even children.
And I strongly believe that the Lord speaks to children and through them. One of our sons was eight years old and came to us one morning to share a vivid dream he had had the night before. It was about a pastor in our church who was standing behind the altar when a cloaked evil man came onto the stage and attacked the pastor. He then said that this pastor grappled with the evil presence and then threw him off the stage, where the demonic presence split in two and was destroyed. What my son didn't know was that that pastor had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor. We passed on this dream to our friend and began to pray that in the spirit this pastor could fight this attack from the enemy spurred on by the hope that this prophetic dream had shown us...that this enemy was coming against his ministry and would be destroyed. The tumor ended up being benign and removable. The Lord used this dream to give vision for how to pray. And it came through a child!
I would say, however, that it is important not to push our children or make them self-conscious by labeling them with more influence than they can handle. It is better for them to be expected to contribute but not lauded for their contribution. "You are so prophetic!" can make them feel they must perform on a regular basis. Instead, we can just say, "It seems the Lord really spoke to you so that you know how to pray about this" or "this word could really encourage that person." Thus, they are affirmed that they can hear the Lord but are not expected to "deliver."
We must, however, keep encouraging them to listen. When my teenagers are struggling with something, I ask them, "what is God saying to you about this?" Often, they are hearing something from the Lord but just need confirmation from us that they are hearing correctly...or not. Before they are aware of hearing from the Lord, they will start by saying, "I don't hear anything." That is when we remind them that the Lord speaks to us primarily by highlighting Scripture to us, enlivening it in the moment. They will grow into it. "My sheep hear my voice, and they know me, and they follow me." The sheep learn Jesus' voice by regular listening. Children will begin to recognize the voice of the Lord.
This presupposes that our children are having time with the Lord. This starts as family time in prayer. Do not assume that this will be easy or even greatly fulfilling at times. But it will form important habits, and children will actually welcome these times. Our children are taught to lead devotions and take turns. We use the Book of Common prayer, "Devotions for Individuals and Families" or "Compline" as a simple liturgy. It is mostly straight Scripture, and our children have memorized all of it simply from regular use. This enables even the non-readers to lead. Family devotions must be SHORT to handle short attention spans. We sometimes read missionary stories or study a passage of Scripture or simply have prayer time. We ask for prayer requests and expect the children to offer spontaneous prayers.
Our children are participants in praying for family needs and unbelievers in our lives who need the touch of God. The joy in them when one of the people we are praying for turns to the Lord confirms in their hearts the importance of their participation in reaching others with the transformational Gospel. When they see answers to prayer for financial provision or specific ways we need the Lord to meet us as a family, we all celebrate God's goodness together, and they learn how to take their own needs to the Lord, from friendship concerns to health concerns to direction for the future. They learn to take their anxieties to the Lord and see him respond concretely in their day to day lives.
As our children get to age six or seven, we teach them to take time each morning to be with the Lord. Before they can read, we have C.D.s or tapes of Bible stories or the Bible narrated for them to listen to. As they get older, we help them plan their devotional time with a Bible reading plan and a journal for prayer requests or what they hear from the Lord. The other morning I asked my three year old where his 15 year old brother was, "Having his prayers," he said. And I was so thankful that my preschooler could have the example of his older brother in prayer.
Children need to be raised to know themselves as belonging to Christ and his kingdom. Early on they must learn how to walk in communion with the Lord and in a transformational posture, always inviting the renewing presence of the Lord into their daily lives. This is truly possible, though it happens for different children in different ways and unfolds over time. If you see a child not engaging with the Lord, make every opportunity available, but mostly lean in to prayer on behalf of this child. We have had times of distress over different children when we have simply cried out to the Lord to intercept their lives in a real way. Expect the Lord to meet your children miraculously. Pray for spiritual breakthroughs in your children's lives, even if this takes time. We don't want just the appearance of a true Christian walk, we want it to be alive and real. And only God can do that.
Our prayer must ultimately be that as we cooperate with the Lord, he will fulfill the promise of Isaiah 54:13, "All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children." God is always reaching out to our children, even from infancy, to draw them into new life. God help us to know how to help them recognize the presence and the pull of God in their lives and to respond with an abandoned, "Yes!"