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.
God sightings: helping kids see him
Years ago, one of our church series focused on “God sightings”–specific places we saw God working. For quite a while we were diligent in asking each other for God sightings during prayer time. It was fun to see our girls recognize God’s work in answers to their prayers. It was even more fun to see them recognize God’s presence in areas we hadn’t thought to pray about. Yet God was blessing us specifically in those areas anyway. Ahead of our prayers. He knew our hearts. We used to say, “Wow. I hadn’t even thought to pray about that yet.” But after a while, we forgot to look for these special moments, those God sightings.
We need God’s reminders.
The people of Israel were like us. For a while they noticed God’s blessings and talked about them. Then they forgot. God knew that would continue to be true, so he used a pile of rocks to help them remember:
21 [Joshua] said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. 24 He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.” (Joshua 4: 21-24)
We don’t live in a rocky country with a huge pile of rocks to stand as a national memorial. In fact, conservationists tell us that we might cause problems in certain habitats when we do leave piles of rocks behind to show that we have been there. So, what reminders can we set up for ourselves? More importantly, how can we point our children to the ways God is working in our lives and in theirs?
Not all reminders need to be physical.
Our traditions can be reminders. Even our daily habits can be reminders of who Jesus is and what he did for us and continues doing for us. Praying before meals, reading the Bible together as a family, praying for each other during the day–all these behaviors God uses to remind us and our kids who he is today. Can we ignore these reminders? Obviously. Did the Israelites sometimes walk by those rocks without thinking? Absolutely. But God does call us to create our own reminders and our own ways to tell our children about who Jesus is and that he is an active part of our lives today.
We need to be living reminders of the reality of Jesus Christ.
God told the Israelites they needed to love him with all their hearts and talk about him continually with their children (Deuteronomy 6:5-9 NIV). In the same way, he tells us that we need to season our conversations with the reality of Jesus Christ (Colossians 4:6 NIV). To our children, we are the most powerful reminders of Jesus they have. We need to make intentional choices in being those reminders. My husband and I chose family prayer time before the first person went to bed. For us, that has been a lasting legacy for our family–and a powerful stimulus to our faith.
I challenge you to choose either family prayer time, talking to your children daily about God sightings, or some other special tradition to become your spiritual legacy in conveying the living reality of Jesus Christ.
Sharing food together as a family does not need to wait for special occasions or for elaborate preparation.
It might be food from a box or take out—or leftovers. It may only involve one parent and one child–whoever is home for that meal. No matter what, eating it together while talking adds value for us all. Especially for our kids. It’s a kind of family communion. Does it feel like family dinnertime belongs to another era? Maybe with June Cleaver and Leave it to Beaver? Or that it’s something for special occasions?
But how do we connect with the whole family if we rarely see everyone in one room looking at each other?
Can it work when older children have late sports practice? What about if one parent nearly always has to be at a job during dinnertime? And what if kids are big enough to protest that they don’t want to eat with the whole family?
Family dinners are not always a joy, but they don’t have to be pure joy to be family communion.
Neither were they when I was a child. I’m sure my mind chooses not to remember the less fun times. And they certainly do not require the whole family to be there for them to be valuable. But coming together as a family for supper provides built-in connection and communion, plus the opportunity for spiritual time as a family. In my birth family and in the family I parented, we had prayer time before and after dinner. And we had Bible reading–or Bible story reading–after dinner. Sometimes I know those dinners were a chore, but they provided inestimable blessings as well.
Chances are your household enjoys fewer family dinners than you did growing up and far fewer than your parents did growing up.
It’s a blessing that our culture lets us easily connect online, with people nearby and with friends and family who live far away. Whatever device we choose, we can allow our children to see faraway people regularly. Yet this continual connection to the internet can also be a curse. It’s not limited to just loved ones. Mealtimes these days are typically interrupted by repeated dings, connections that are immediate but not really urgent. Or by something we’re watching—either as a group or solo. Complete strangers, Facebook “friends” we hardly know, and even celebrities can clutter our lives and interrupt the times we plan to spend with our families.
Is dinner something you just need to power through with as little hassle as possible, or is there time to enjoy it?
For me and my husband, dinner times with our children grew from being a bit of a pain—when one parent had to stand holding a baby—to being positive events. But I can hardly overestimate the opportunity those times gave us to bond and to read the Bible as a family, discussing our questions together. Sometimes the kids had questions we parents needed to check out. Continuing the process even with a parent or children unable to be there was important for us.
One of my favorite memories of my own mom is of her laughing so hard at the dinner table that she needed to get down onto the floor to avoid falling off her chair. We called those “Mom with her paws in the air” moments.
What are your memories of dinnertime as a child? What is dinnertime most frequently like for your family? Do you grab dinner as you get time? Or do you eat together often? Have table-time devotions worked for you as a family? Could they?
My mom had many moments of desperation parenting! As I have.
In my mom’s desperation parenting of me, she completely changed her focus in ways that I did not understand at the time. I only knew that Mom started telling me daily what she was talking to Jesus about and how he was answering those prayers.
My mom’s telling me of her first-person encounters with Jesus nourished my faith.
And it grew!
No one-time moment of conversion followed, but I became a believer by seeing her relationship with Jesus and following in her footsteps.
Many years later, a similarly panicky scenario unfolded for me. Though my daughter had publicly professed her faith in Jesus at a young age, preadolescence brought a crisis of faith.
In childhood she had experienced God’s nearness in profoundly personal ways, which she was no longer experiencing. Because of this change in her experience, she began to seriously doubt the existence of God.
My own panicky-mom time followed. For about six months I agonized and prayed. My husband and I prayed together for her faith continually. I also prayed with her regularly before bed, after asking her how she was doing. These conversations involved her telling me her frustrations with not hearing God’s voice and not being sure he was real. After that, I told her stories of my own and others’ experiences of the seesaws of spiritual journeys. I even told her the story of St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul” experience.
In my desperation parenting nothing seemed to help.
Feeling like a total failure as a mother, I just kept trying. Night after night I prayed with her. She did not pray, but she did not object to my praying with her. But she was used to it, having grown up with nightly family prayer time.
Somewhere during our struggle, I began crying out to God, “Please, Lord! Show her who you are. Don’t leave her in the dark! Show her how real you are. Allow her to see you for you are, as she used to do! This is your beloved child. Do not allow her to wander away from you in her pain. PLEASE show yourself to her!”
At some point, she started telling me she was “doing better,” so we stopped having these conversations. But I kept praying for her.
A year or so later she said to me, “Mom, do you know how I finally knew God was real?”
I was stymied. But I had always wondered.
She explained, “Because when I don’t know what to do, I go to you. And when you don’t know what to do, you go to God.”
A wave of relief and amazement washed over me. God had used me—his broken vessel—to show his power through.
Is God using your experiences of doubting as a child? Or of having a child who doubts? Is there a way you can make that more likely?
My Haystack Rock memories are among my best.
As a child, I loved it when it was a year my parents chose to take us to Cannon Beach for vacation. It was a Christian family camp, so they had wonderful lectures and group activities for all ages. But best of all in my experience were our Haystack Rock memories.
My just-younger sister and I were old enough to opt out of children’s activities, so we got to be free-range kids at the beach.
What could be better? We wandered the colorful streets, looked in store windows, bought ice cream sandwiches from a vending machine. A couple of times we walked all the way to the beach and saw Haystack Rock. I’m not sure the two of us actually ever walked without our parents the whole two and a half miles to the big rock and back. But we loved going to the beach at low tide and examining the new world available for us to see there.
Years later, my husband and I got to return with our daughters to make new Haystack Rock memories.
My husband and daughters loved it as much as I did. This time the kids didn’t get opportunities to range free of us for a half day at a time, as I had. But they also loved seeing a different, more creative side of God in the marine life exposed at low tide.
Memories of low-tide near Haystack Rock
Together we reveled in examining the tiny creatures clinging to the wet rocks. We investigated tiny pools of fish temporarily cut off from the larger ocean. We marveled at all the starfish on the wet sand that survived till the tide came back in. And each night we watched the times of the tides according to the published time table, amazed that every day was different but always on a predictable schedule. God’s timing is beyond our imaginings.
During family prayer time that week, we thanked God often for the beauty of his creation.
Looking at the complexity of marine life we were able to see gave us a renewed appreciation for how big our God is. And how amazing it is that such a big God still cares about our daily needs.
Even more amazing is that the Lord Jesus Christ we regularly pray to created the world. We so often envision the Father as the creator and somehow think of Jesus coming on the scene as a baby. Obviously, that is when Jesus appeared as a human being.
But Jesus, the Son of God, was present at creation and participated in it. I love imagining the possibilities of the Triune God discussing together what to create next. God created us in his image–in community. Because he, our creator, is himself a community.
How cool is that!
No wonder he loves to have us talk to him and want to spend time with him. That’s at the heart of what community means: enjoying being together. Enjoying being together and enjoying the marvels of creation are what make my Haystack Rock memories the best!
Are we broken reflections of God’s character?
When our children were little, my husband and I tried to teach them well. We tried to teach them to love Jesus, to behave well, to be nice to each other. Many times that worked well. But what we did not realize until years into this parenting gig is that children do not automatically accept our values. We know that’s true of teenagers. We brace ourselves for that during those years.
But I did not expect it so early. I did not think of the possibility that my five-year-old would not accept the values of honesty and respect of others’ property.
The fact that lying and stealing are wrong does not necessarily matter to a five-year-old. And every carefully thought-out punishment cannot change that. Believe me–we tried everything.
Then I read Josh McDowell’s Right From Wrong–a book based on extensive surveys of churched and unchurched teenagers. Wow! He was right. I too had been trying to teach my daughters right from wrong through turning biblical principles into behavior.
I had been missing the why. The perfectly righteous character of our God is the reason we need to act justly in love and truth. As his children we need to reflect his character to those around us.
But too often we are broken reflections of God’s character.
As are our children. But when we focus on their behavior, as McDowell’s book demonstrates, we reinforce for our children their desire not to get caught rather than their desire to be truly good.
I’m grateful my parents never worried to me about what others would think if my sisters or I misbehaved. But even so, I internalized too much of a focus on good behavior, rather than on the reason for the good behavior.
What I needed to realize is that my experience of living as God’s child should make me want to reflect his perfectly righteous and loving character. We seek to do good not to earn God’s love but to reflect the goodness of the God who loves us.
Reflecting God’s character also needed to be the motivation for my children.
I will never forget the night I sat down with a seemingly incorrigible young daughter–and talked about reflecting God’s character.
This evening after a series of misbehaviors, I asked her, among other things, if she was a child of God. “Yes,” she answered grudgingly. I asked her if God ever lied. “No,” with eye rolling. Did God ever steal? “No,” in an even more exasperated voice.
Then I asked her if children usually look like their parents. Then if she, as a child of God, wanted to look like God. All her answers were easy until the last one. The question that changed her was “What would it look like if you as a child of God were to look like God?”
She probably took two solid minutes to think that over before answering in a bewildered voice: “Not lie. Not steal.”
After she told me she wanted to look like God, we prayed together that God would give her his power to change. God answered that prayer powerfully. The family could hardly believe the change in her behavior. And that it lasted.
But God changed me through that exchange as well. I realized how important it is to strive to minimize broken reflections of God’s character by focusing on him more than on behavior.