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.
Christmas traditions can be fun, exhausting, or family-focused. Or they can be Christmas traditions highlighting Jesus. Or they can be all of the above, even at the same time. Our family’s best Christmas traditions varied with our time of life. And one fun one has no focus on Jesus and originated in my needing to save time.
One Christmas Eve, I had been too busy with Christmas errands to make dinner. So I suggested to my husband that we make a fire and roast hot dogs. It turned out to be great fun. The next Christmas Eve, as I was making my girls’ favorite spaghetti dinner, my oldest said, “Aren’t we roasting hot dogs? We always roast hot dogs on Christmas Eve.” I laughed at the notion of our sudden tradition but was glad to keep the spaghetti for another night.
Our roasting-hot-dogs tradition is not one of our Christmas traditions highlighting Jesus. It could be a tradition for any night of the year. But it’s one our family has chosen to keep for decades, because it’s something that begins the evening in an unusual way. And it’s our personal family tradition now.
One of our first family Christmas traditions highlighting Jesus was introducing our little ones to the story of Jesus’ birth through pieces they could play with. My first set was made of wood, hard to break and fun to use to tell the story. Our little ones later enjoyed telling using the set to tell the story too. I look forward to having my two-year-old grandson celebrate with the same set. As they got older, the girls enjoyed nativity sets from various countries, some tiny enough to be Christmas ornaments. Later they even enjoyed finding good places to display each one.
Birthday Cake for Jesus
When our girls were elementary aged or younger, they loved making a birthday cake for Jesus. The recipe we made was similar to this one and ready to share with others. Each year we made one cake for ourselves and one for neighbors or friends we wanted to share Jesus with. The recipe used three cake mixes and made two three-layer cakes. The chocolate layer designated our sin. The red cherry layer symbolized Jesus’ blood shed for us. And the green pistachio cake celebrated our new life in Jesus.
We frosted the cake in white for Jesus’ righteousness, which he gave to us through his death and resurrection. The decorations highlight Jesus’ role as Jewish Messiah, by having a gold foil Star of David in the middle of the cake. Through that a red candle stood, revealing Jesus as the light of the world. Circling the top of the cake, round like the world, were red heart-shaped candies. These candies represented Christians standing together, united around the world. I know of no better Christmas traditions highlighting Jesus.
Reading the Bible Story Aloud Before Opening Presents
A tradition that we included for many years was reading the story of Jesus’ birth as the beginning of our celebration. In the early years, we read the story from a good storybook Bible. When the girls were older, we read the account from Matthew 2. We wanted to set the gift giving in context. As the girls got older, they often took turns reading the story out loud.
Recently, I learned from a new friend about another great way to tell this story with tiny ones. She reads the story from a book which comes with six key figures wrapped in special boxes. A child opens each one as that character is introduced. Unfortunately, I can’t find that set to purchase for myself this year. So, I’m planning to act out the story with my grandson with a nativity set, while my husband reads it out loud.
Taking Turns with Giving
One tradition our girls will never outgrow. Many years ago, we began emphasizing the importance of giving gifts. We began taking turns to give, rather than taking turns to receive a gift. It changed the focus instantly. Our girls already knew that we gave gifts because Jesus is the ultimate gift. They knew no gift was greater than salvation. They also knew that Christmas was not about the gifts they received. But up until this change, it was sometimes too easy to focus on who was receiving what.
Once we switched to taking turns with giving,their excitement was contagious. Immediately, they clamored for the privilege of giving the next gift. Now as adults, they also look out for who hasn’t received one recently. But even when they were young, changing this tradition changed the focus wonderfully for our whole family.
These days I eagerly look for new traditions—and resurrect old ones—as I seek to pass on to little ones the joy of Christmas and of Jesus as the reason for the season. I would love to hear about your Christmas traditions highlighting Jesus. This year I am going to make a small simple cake for Jesus. My grandson is not yet old enough to understand or remember the symbolism of the many-colored layers. But he LOVES singing “Happy Birthday,” and this year he’ll sing it to Jesus.
Making Conversations Matter with Kids
As parents, we have countless very brief conversations with kids, because our lives are busy, busy, busy. And if they’re older kids, they’re very busy too. So casual conversations may rarely touch on matters of faith. Does it have to be that way?
One Young Mom’s Plea
Recently one busy, young mom with an unusually hectic schedule listened with interest when I told her about my blog. She sounded excited about the topic: talking to kids about who Jesus actually is. But then she stunned me. She said my blog would probably be most effective for grandparents. “Because parents just have no time to talk to their kids. We’re too busy.” Ouch!! She did not seem to see my shock. I’m glad I was able to prevent it from showing, as we each moved to our next segment of the event. And I wish ours had not been such a brief encounter. But I haven’t been able to forget it.
Obviously, this young mother talks regularly to her kids about everyday things. But she’s too busy to figure out how to talk to her kids about the person who matters most: Jesus. So she hopes the grandparents will do it for her.
Making little moments matter
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that faith conversations need to be significant in length or at an important moment. What we forget is that just as our faith informs our lives, it can season our conversations. Even brief conversations. In fact, a conversation we have with a child while in the middle of another activity may come through more memorably to them than something set up specifically to talk about our faith in Jesus.
Driving in the car together
Whether we are taking a walk or driving somewhere with a child, we can talk meaningfully about anything we choose to. We have a captive audience. Sometimes it’s even possible with multiple children at a time. We might comment on a cool thing that they just told us about and say how fun it is to see God working. Or if they express a concern, we might ask them how they’d like us to pray for them in it.
Asking how we can pray for them
Even without hearing a child express a concern, we can easily ask about specific areas in their lives and how we can pray for them. They might need to take a bit of time to think about it, but that’s okay. As parents or grandparents, we know enough about their lives to have some helpful guesses about areas they might appreciate prayer for. Even a simple “How’s such-and-such going?” can open up the possibility of meaning conversation.
Asking them to pray for us
Or we may choose to ask a child to pray for us in something specific. The more transparent we can be with our children in needing prayer for ourselves, the more they will see the reality of our faith. They will see Jesus as central in how we live our lives. Too often we want our children to see us as having it all together. Unfortunately, they probably are quite aware that we don’t anyway. Besides, it would be dangerous if they did think we had it all together and could live without the help of our God. We need to model dependence on Jesus if we want our children to learn it.
Responding to positive events by seeing God’s hand in them
Also, even if a child has not brought up to us a positive event that we see God’s hand in, we can help them see him as sovereign in their lives by calling their attention to specifics. Perhaps God gave one the ability to participate better than he had thought possible in a sporting event. Perhaps someone did really well on a test or a project. Especially helpful is anything we see God doing in shaping their character. If we can tell them we really see God growing them or shaping them in some way, they will likely remember it in a powerful way.
Whether our moments together are short or long, making conversations matter with our kids is totally worth the effort.