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.
Why won’t Jesus make me better?
One of the hardest situations I remember as a mom was having a miserable, sick child. Especially when the child asked me, “Why won’t Jesus make me better? I prayed, you prayed, Dad prayed. Jesus could do it, but he won’t.”
Obviously, it’s not a question only children ask. Basically Phillip Yancey’s Where is God When it Hurts? addresses the same question powerfully. And it’s not an easy question to answer. For ourselves or for our children. I’ve always struggled with that question. The hardest times were when the question came from our most black-and-white child. She was usually the quickest to assume Jesus would answer our prayers. But then she also was the quickest to wonder why when he chose not to answer the way she expected. Her disappointment was hard for me to watch.
My struggles to answer her.
I remember struggling to answer her. God answered prayers–I knew that. I even knew of miraculous answers to some prayers. But I also knew God’s answers are often not what we are hoping for. Yet, how do you explain to a child that God loves us immensely and still allows us significant pain?
With great difficulty. And great humility.
I remember saying “I don’t know” a lot. I also said that I knew sickness was one result of human sin. And that sickness is not a result of the sick person’s sin but the state of the sinful world. I remember thinking of the blind man Jesus healed, when my daughter asked me why God was punishing her. She wondered what sin God was punishing her for. I recalled John 9:1-12, where Jesus tells his disciples that the man’s blindness is not a result of someone’s sin. It was a vehicle for God to glorify himself through Jesus’ miraculous healing.
Of course, my daughters would have loved to be miraculously healed to bring someone to faith. Wouldn’t we all? The tricky thing is that God glorifies himself in different ways in different times and places.
God working in our pain.
The other thing that always struck me in those difficult times is the fact that God uses our pain to bring us to himself. As C.S. Lewis explains in The Problem of Pain, “[P]ain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Obviously, it would not have helped to share that quote with my four-year-old daughter. She was already looking to God. So she did not need his megaphone at that moment. She needed to be reassured of God’s love in her pain. But her pain was God’s megaphone to get my attention and to give me a teachable moment to share with her.
No pain in heaven.
What I told my daughter is a different part of that process. God also uses our pain to remind us that this is not our true home. Our true home is in heaven with him. There we will never be sick or hurting. I told her that being sick could help her value the knowledge that heaven would someday be painless. Honestly, if life on earth were painless, we would have a lot harder time longing for heaven. Pain and sickness are earthly results of the Fall that make us yearn for God and his perfect home.
Did that solve the problem for my daughter? Or for me? Obviously not. But it gave us a teachable moment and an opportunity to focus intensely on God’s work in our lives. It emphasized his sovereignty and his love. For me it also emphasized my dependence on God. I had no idea how to answer my daughter. So, I was forced to pray a lot while trying to answer her questions–and mine.
And isn’t that the point of a megaphone? It gets our attention. Every time one of my daughters asked me, “Why won’t Jesus make me better?” God had my full attention.
During my time of seventh-grade bullying, one girl was the primary cause. Supposedly a close friend, she instigated the incidents. Over the years I needed to learn the hard way that I couldn’t trust her. Originally I confided in her, trusting her friendship. Then she betrayed me. Repeatedly. Because she had been my first friend in my new school, it was hard to wrap my mind around the fact that she was acting as my enemy. Finally my mom got me to see, after far too many times of being betrayed, that I couldn’t trust my friend. Then my parents taught me the even harder lesson of loving difficult people by faith.
Loving difficult people by faith.
Loving by faith initially seems to contradict our definition of love. When we think of all the ways we use the word “love,” we usually associate it with pleasure. We love pizza. I love chocolate cheesecake, especially when I make it with Kahlua. Mmmmm. We love great books and great movies. And, of course, we love people. We love all the special people in our lives.
But what about the difficult people in our lives? Don’t we all have difficult people we love? And, if we’re honest, aren’t we difficult to love at times too? My parents taught me the importance of praying for difficult people. But here’s the most challenging part. We’re not allowed to simply pray that they stop being annoying or sinning against us. We need to pray for them in a way that cares about their needs being met. That meant I needed to pray that my frenemy would be happy, that life would go well for her, and that she would feel loved. That meant I could never complain about her to our friends.
God uses prayer to create love.
In his Love is a Feeling to be Learned, Walter Trobischer explains that the feeling of love follows the actions of love. Not the other way around. Infatuation can come first. Or an intense, sudden best friendship. But the feeling of real love follows our learning to love unconditionally, as God loves us. It also comes after we learn to love by faith. My parents gave me a tiny book by Bill Bright that changed my life and relationships: How to Love by Faith. This tiny book taught me how to trust the Holy Spirit to give me his love, as I prayed for the person who bothered me so much. What a revolutionary, biblical concept!
Prayer for others changes us.
To me what was most amazing about this process was that God used it to heal me. He took away my anger, my desire for vengeance, and even much of my pain. As I really prayed for this girl, I began to notice the ways she was suffering and saw that she was lashing out because of her own pain. My changed heart allowed her heart to change–slowly. I didn’t notice the change in her as quickly as I noticed it in myself. But God changed both of us, through my prayers.
Over the years, God has called me back to that lesson many times. Because I forget. When people act nasty toward me, my automatic reaction can be to feel hurt and angry. But each time God brings me back to his lesson of loving difficult people by faith, he brings healing. To me and to the other person.
Stay awake and pray for the baby!
One of my most memorable experiences from childhood is thinking that my baby sister was going to die. It was Sunday afternoon, an afternoon my parents usually rested. My two little sisters were also napping. But I was not sleepy. I was scared. That afternoon, when I told them I wasn’t sleepy, my parents told me, “Stay awake and pray for the baby while we try to sleep.” So I did.
My till-then healthy baby sister had recently enjoyed supplemental bottles of juice, which she liked better than nursing. She had decided she preferred this easier way of feeding and refused my mother’s breast. I remember vividly the scary time of my mom trying formula after formula with her, trying to end my sister’s hunger strike. She seemed to be allergic to everything. And she refused to return to the breast. Allergies have become so much more understood now, but they were unknown territory for my parents.
This was fifty-five years ago, and my baby sister was dying of constant diarrhea.
She was dehydrating. Finally, the doctors told my parents they needed to keep her alive by feeding her rice water until her little system calmed down. Rice water. The rest of the family seemed to eat endlessly the rice this water had boiled.
I remember having permission to sit in the living room, normally off limits for me and saved for guests. Because of its big clock, I was allowed to sit there. I needed to pray until the clock registered the appointed time for my family to wake up.
I watched the hands of the clock continuously, and they never seemed to move.
Though I saw that the hands somehow moved to a different place on the clock, I could not catch them moving. It was perplexing. And fascinating. I moved closer and closer to the clock, studying it. I needed to see the hand move. In later years those minutes that seemed everlasting during that hour or two have reminded me of my adult prayer life. How often doesn’t it feel that God is taking forever to answer a prayer? And since we can’t know at first if he’s saying no or saying to wait, the waiting feels the same.
That day when my parents told me to stay awake and pray for the baby, I’m sure they were needing to occupy their five-year-old. But whether I was able to pray effectively or not, my parents taught me the importance of prayer to them. My staying awake and praying had no huge significance like the disciples who were asked to stay awake and pray with Jesus. But it did have the significance of reinforcing the truth that God is sovereign. Only he could heal my baby sister. The doctors’ earlier attempts had not been successful, and my parents knew God was in charge. That day I watched the clock more than anything else, but I did stay awake and pray for the baby.
My baby sister did recover, and I never forgot the day I was the only one in the house awake praying for her.
One-Time Comments Have Lasting Impact.
Telling kids that only sticks and stones can hurt them–not words–may make speakers feel better. But both kids and adults know it’s a lie. Fortunately, positive one-time comments have lasting impact too. In this world of physical bullying and cyber bullying, it’s more important than ever for adults to speak words of hope to the kids in our lives.
Girl dancing in church expresses her praise.
Parents have lots of opportunities, but any adult can bless a child with words of lasting impact.
Even our brief conversations with children at church during greeting times can affect them powerfully. Negatively or positively. I mentioned before my twelve-year-old daughter’s horrid reaction when an older woman told her to enjoy her childhood, since these were the best years of her life. The well-meaning elderly woman had no idea of the negative impact her words conveyed and that my daughter would never forget that one comment.
At the same time, a sincere question to a child about to start a new school can be powerful. It affirms the child’s importance and the significance of that time in life, because the grown up acknowledges it. Hearing that an adult they don’t know well is going to pray for them in this time validates their membership in the body of Christ. It points to the fact that they are valuable human beings and not simply partially formed adults. We can help our church children to feel embraced by the Body of Christ, so that they can open themselves up fully to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
One woman I know overheard a nine-year-old say something to her mom about the sermon reminding her of her recent nightmares.
She told the girl she had overheard and remembered her own children experiencing nightmares. Her children had been blessed by having her come in and pray with them. She had simply prayed, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I command you, Satan, to leave this child alone! Lord Jesus protect this child from further attack and give your peace.” Instantly, the child had experienced the peace of Christ and freedom from nightmares.
This woman asked the girl if she could pray with her right there. She eagerly accepted. After praying for her, she reminded the girl of 1 John 4:4 “because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” She also reminded her of the power of the name of Christ.
The next week the girl initiated conversation. She told how she had needed to pray that on her own one night. But since then, she had been nightmare free. The woman now tells of how this girl she didn’t really know, and still doesn’t really know, has a special bond with her. Because one-time comments have lasting impact, they share a special greeting each time they see each other at church. She knows the girl feels the certainty of being a part of the Body of Christ with her.
Sunday School teachers have special opportunities.
In talking to friends lately about our faith journeys, I’ve realized how many of us remember something an adult said to us decades ago. Just once. I remember being struck by my Sunday School teacher telling her fifth graders that God had no grandchildren. To adults, that may seem obvious. But to me as a young child, it was striking. She challenged us that we were not automatically part of God’s family just because our parents were. We needed to make our own choices.
Though I’m sure my parents tried to convey this same idea many times, no memory of it stands out. But Mrs. Bruizeman’s fervent conversation with us struck a chord. I’ll never forget the earnestness in her voice. I knew it was important to her personally that we each take God seriously and accept Jesus as personal Savior. It changed me.
A friend has a similar experience. She remembers her Sunday School teacher telling a class of eleven-year-olds that each person had to make a personal decision to accept Christ, not just assume it because of parents. And she told them they were old enough to do that for themselves. She also challenged them that they were old enough to read their Bibles daily on their own. My friend felt surprise. She also felt the challenge and a sense of responsibility she never forgot.
I pray each of us seeks these opportunities and remembers that one-time comments have lasting impact.