As a child, I loved “popcorn prayer.”
It’s what my church called it when many people in a group just popped out little prayers spontaneously. Some people prayed longer prayers–even as part of popcorn prayer–but the idea was to have them be brief. I loved it because I could join in with the grown ups. This way I felt less awkward about praying out loud with others.
The great thing about popcorn prayer is that no one has to perform a beautiful prayer. It’s sort of not allowed. People can pray as frequently as they want to, but they need to give everyone a chance to join in. My daughter does a kind of popcorn prayer with her toddler. While she prays out loud, he adds in people and activities he’s thankful for or people he wants to pray for. At first it surprised me to hear him talking during our prayers. But when I realized what was going on, I thought it was beautiful.
Popcorn prayer usually gets easier as kids get older. We used to do it as a family in the car before each trip. But unplanned occasions for popcorn prayer can be when someone is upset or scared about something coming up. Sometimes these occur with hurting friends after church as we gather, having heard the pain. At home before meals could even be considered popcorn prayer at our house, as each person adds a little bit to the opening prayer.
But much more common for us are arrow prayers: those little “Help me, Jesus” prayers.
Those are probably the prayers we pray most frequently. A child cuts herself badly, our car is sliding on the ice, or someone shares something beyond awful that we do not know how to respond to appropriately. We call out for Jesus’ help and continue to ask for it as the crisis continues. Our children may not think to pray to Jesus every time something scary or unexpected happens. But they can learn to. A close friend shared with me her joy in learning that her teenagers had cried out to Jesus as they saw a falling telephone pole start to crash onto their stranded car. Her joy came first at her gratefulness for Jesus’ saving her children from sudden death. But her spiritual joy came from seeing her children know where to turn in danger. My friend has prayed with her children faithfully and now rejoices to see them own their faith.
My mom too had taught me to pray whenever I was scared or uncertain what to do, like when trying to befriend an ostracized schoolmate. I don’t think I remembered her advice often as a young child, but eventually I learned. Praying with my parents was initially much more comfortable than praying on my own.
Vivid memory of arrow prayers.
My personal first searing memory of shooting lots of arrow prayers at God was during a stay at a friend’s cabin in the woods hours from our house. Spending the weekend with a new friend and her parents, I did not expect to get my period and horrid cramps. At thirteen, I was too awkward with the facts of life to explain the situation to my friend’s crusty old mom. So I visited the outhouse frequently, curling up and crying out to God in pain. I did NOT want to have to ask my friends to drive me back home because of my pain. I also knew nothing yet about pain relievers for this distress.
Oddly, I remember a clear sense of embarrassment that I was praying to God about such an intimate matter. It makes me laugh now to think about it, since God’s the one who created my body. But thirteen-year-olds are young. I also remember God’s answering those prayers–not immediately–but much more quickly than was natural. It’s now clear to me that God used my little crisis to teach me the reality of my dependence on him. My pain made me see that dependence and cry out.
Attempts to grow.
Decades later, I’m trying to increase my arrow prayers during my time with my grandson. For example, instead of just kissing it to make it all better when he hurts himself, I’m trying to pray for healing or thank Jesus for healing in that moment. I figure the more often he hears me pray with him, the more natural it will become for him. That certainly continues to be true for me.
Children meeting Jesus in bedtime prayers
Who knows where children first meet Jesus? Some lifelong Christian friends have told me they learned to love Jesus in the same way they learned to love their parents. Others have said loving Jesus was in the air they breathed as children. But they all remember bedtime prayers with their parents. Bedtime prayers with parents allow children to meet Jesus as their parents’ Lord and Savior and as theirs.
Early prayers will likely be extremely simple. They should be. But they can grow as children’s vocabularies grow. One thing I wish I had done more of when my children were little was praising God first of all. I wish I had emphasized more when they were little how awesome God is. I’m sure they would have been very helpful in thinking of many of God’s attributes to praise him for. But they met my loving Jesus, nonetheless. However we meet Jesus with our children, they will see. And God will use those times.
Children meeting Jesus at mealtimes
Mealtimes are both easy and difficult times for children to meet God. They’re easy times to remember to pray. But they aren’t necessarily easy times to actually see God and his work. It may be too easy to thank him for the food quickly and move on to eating.
I remember as a small child preferring my mom’s prayers to my dad’s because they were shorter. I was not focusing on the prayer much at all. And yet those prayers allowed me to grow up in a world in which honoring and thanking God was normal and expected. I knew it was part of my world being right.
Children meeting Jesus in restaurants?
It’s easy to tell ourselves that we don’t need to pray with our kids in restaurants or when unbelievers are eating with us, “because we don’t want to offend them.” But choosing not to pray then can deny ourselves an important place of witness. And not praying then can be an offense to our children, who might come to understand relationship with Jesus to be optional—or only for times it’s convenient. Besides, God can use those prayers to open others up to the reality of Jesus as they hear us talking to him. As we talk to him as naturally as we do to the people around us, unbelievers can realize how alive God is.
My husband and I have a family we were good friends with—and even traveled with—for years before they became Christians. They were quite open unbelievers, having experienced hurt from the church in prior years. We always asked permission to open our meals in prayer, and they were fine with that. We kept the prayers short but often included thanking God for our friends and praying for their needs, as it seemed appropriate. After several years, the mother and two daughters gave their lives to Christ, and the father grew much more open than he once was. We still pray for him.
What a huge blessing in our lives! But it blessed our daughters too. They saw prayer at meals serve as a witness to others of the importance of Jesus in our lives. They saw God work through that in bringing others to himself.
Children meeting Jesus in moments of crisis
In my life and in my daughters’ lives, crises have been important times we met Jesus. Situations involving tears and long explanations definitely require prayer. So too do times when people are fearful of something about to happen.
Crisis situations often revealed themselves at night during our family prayer time. Or, if they had come up earlier in the day, we certainly prayed about them as a family again at night. Uncertainty about my husband’s job, a difficulty between a daughter and a friend, or a difficult test in school—all were opportunities for us to meet Jesus as a family. Our daughters experienced the living reality of Jesus in those moments even as their parents did.
Children meeting Jesus all day long
Of course, what we hope for is that our children will meet Jesus all day long, as we hope we ourselves do. Though we don’t always see him and certainly don’t look to him often enough, we know he’s there with us. We long for that to become a reality for our children too.
One way I tried to encourage that with my girls was asking them each morning as they left for school, “How can I pray for you today?” Though one daughter often just answered, “That I have a good day,” I usually got much more specific answers. My hope was that as the day progressed, the girls would be looking for God’s work in their daily activities.
So where do children meet Jesus? It all depends on where they are when they look to him.
It’s Too Scary!
When a small child says, “It’s too scary!” we comfort the child. Sometimes we cuddle, sing, or read a story. We try to rescue the child in some way.
But what if it’s fear itself that makes life too scary? What if being scared is a primary mode of operating? As adults, we recognize anxiety as an enemy that causes us harm. But we are likely to see anxiety in a small child as simply caused by something they don’t understand. Perhaps.
I remember being afraid of shadows in the night, especially moving shadows. I didn’t know that headlights outdoors were causing shadows on my wall to move. So I was scared. Later, when my mom explained how it was happening, I was fine.
But some fears refuse explanations.
A toddler I love finds a clown jack-in-the-box fascinating. But he wants to watch it from very far away. “It’s too scary.” Explanations and close-up examination do no good. It’s still too scary.
When my girls were little, all three of them went through periods of nightmares. Comforting and cuddling worked temporarily, but the nightmare might come back again the same night. That only stopped for us when my cousin explained how she had had to pray Satan would stop giving her son nightmares, out loud, “in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Calling on Jesus to help in the moment.
After hearing her stories, my response to nightmares changed. I explained to my daughter that Jesus was stronger than anything that was bothering her sleep. I then prayed aloud, “Satan, in the name of Jesus Christ, leave my daughter alone!”
Every time—the nightmare was gone, and my daughter was able to sleep peacefully for the rest of the night. With one daughter we needed to repeat the process several nights in a row. But with the others it was only one or two nights. Amazing.
Jesus promises us his peace, and he gives it. But we need to look to him for it.
Unfortunately for us, Jesus does not promise to remove whatever is scary from our lives. He simply promises to be there with us and protect us from it. Psalm 91, probably my very favorite psalm, deals with fear head on. In fact, in it the psalmist shares his faith with other people by saying that the Lord will surely deliver them from all their fears as he has delivered the psalmist. He concludes with these powerful words that God will say about his children: “Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation” (14-16).
These words from the psalmist centuries ago fit perfectly with John’s words in the New Testament. He tells us to look to Jesus because “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (I John 4:4). Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit to live within us, and he lives within our children as well. But as adults, we need to remember that and keep reminding our children of Jesus’ spirit living within them.
Too little to understand?
Perhaps a two-year-old is too little to understand. He is suddenly afraid of ghosts because of seeing a little monkey in Curious George scaring people by looking like a ghost. But when I ask him, “Do you know that Jesus is stronger than ghosts?” he is comforted. His fears will certainly return. But my reminding him that Jesus can protect him from ghosts comforts him. And it helps him put his trust in the right place.
Those reminders are good for me too, even though my fears are of things quite different from monkeys covered in tablecloths.