So Many Ways to Pray with Kids

Praying with children is one of the most important things we can do to foster their life with God.

            My kids and I prayed before meals throughout their growing-up years, and spontaneously anytime they were hurt, frightened, or sick. But the most important time for prayer was bedtime. After I read a picture book or a middle-grade book chapter to them, and a Bible story, we took turns praying. Then I sang something peaceful as they drifted off to sleep. This practice calmed and nurtured all of us and bore sometimes surprising fruit.

            Our routine was modeled on my own experiences growing up in a large family with missionary/teacher parents.

Prayer in the Land of Gorings

Not all those early experiences of prayer were nourishing. Our dad would periodically decide to lead family devotions following breakfast. It always fell flat—I can’t remember a single time that morning devotions didn’t feel awkward and pedantic, with Dad posing schoolroom-type questions that failed to engage our lives or our struggles. The practice always petered out after a few dutiful stabs at this perceived obligation.

            Bedtime prayers were a whole other story. For years—beginning in our eldest sister’s infancy—little Gorings gathered in PJs each night for the enchantment of a poem or two read aloud, followed by a story or book chapter, a Bible story, humorous songs and a hymn or two, and finally prayers. It was our warmest time together; it grew our imaginations and helped to form an indelible family culture that keeps my siblings and me deeply bonded to this day. We have all remained in the faith.

Arrayed in our pajamas just before going to bed and starting the nightly ritual. That’s me on the left. Three more siblings were yet to come! And then my parents adopted two more when the rest of us had grown into young adults.

Bedtime is best

What makes bedtime a particularly rich time to pray with our little ones? I think there are a couple of reasons.

            First, as they become sleepy children’s normal defenses go down. Especially if the parent is unhurried and attentive at bedtime, children may get in touch with tender or sad feelings and blurt out things they’d not say in daylight.

            It is a gift just to find words for our feelings and experiences. Then they can be brought to God in prayers of thanksgiving and petition.

Two favorite photos of my kids in childhood

            Second, bedtime is a natural time to think back on the day and look forward to what is coming. Cindy Bunch’s Be Kind to Yourself (IVP, 2020) wasn’t around when I was a young mom, but if it had been, I’m pretty sure I would have used its simple examen questions—what’s bugging you? what’s bringing you joy?—to help my kids articulate hardships of the past day and places where they had sensed God’s presence.

Kid-friendly prayers

Prayer with children can take other forms too. My picture book Isaiah and the Worry Pack (IVP Kids, 2021) models an imaginative way of meeting God through guided imagery. It’s based on an experience my son Graham and I had together one night when he struggled with some big worries. Jared Patrick Boyd suggests ways to pray Scripture imaginatively with children in Imaginative Prayer (IVP, 2017).

            Memorized prayers can be helpful too. When I was a child, we often recited “Now I Lay Me.” Its mention of death would make it off-putting to many parents nowadays. But falling asleep is entering another country, mysterious and affording children even less control than they have over their waking hours. Maybe it’s not so bad to provide our kids a prayer that contains their fears within a little rhyme that expects God to hold them in both waking and sleeping, living and dying.

            Some lovely prayers to read and perhaps memorize with kids—in daytime as well as at bedtime—can be found in Traci Smith’s Prayers for Faithful Families (Beaming Books, 2020). And a great resource is coming soon from IVP Kids: Little Prayers for Ordinary Days by Tish Harrison Warren, Flo Paris Oakes, and Kathy Hutson (2022).

Singing as prayer

Singing can be a prayer practice too, of course. I adopted my daughter Claire at age one after she had suffered serious neglect and starvation in an institution during her first six months of life. As she grew, she became especially fond of the hymn “Children of the Heavenly Father.” For years she requested it practically every night, along with prayers that she wouldn’t have bad dreams.

Claire at 18 months, now in the US, with my mother, Susy Goring, who had literally rescued her from death.

            Years later Claire was at the National Registrar’s office in her birth country, Colombia. She’d entered to apply for her identity card so that her dual citizenship could be recognized. An encounter with the director of the new national digital population database led to an amazing bonus: printouts of the birth, ID, and death records of her birth mother!

            Holding these documents, Claire wandered out onto Plaza Bolívar toward the national cathedral while waiting for a friend to complete an errand of her own.

            Then from inside the huge church she heard music—the organist at this Colombian Roman Catholic cathedral dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus began playing a Swedish Lutheran hymn, “Children of the Heavenly Father.”

            Claire told me later that her heart began pounding in surprised awe. But she was also flooded with peace. Even though she’d just learned that she’d never meet her birth mother in this life, she might be able to track down other members of her biological family, now that she had her mom’s documents. And the hymn reminded her that the gentle, attentive Father she had met in bedtime prayers would be with her. All along God had been bearing her, as the hymn says, “in his mighty arms.”

Note: I have many stories of funny and extraordinary conversations about God that arose out of prayers with my kids. Too many to tell in one post! So I welcome you to subscribe (above right) if you’d like to read them in the coming weeks.

How I learned that God is for me

As Isaiah & the Worry Pack‘s launch day draws near–just 11 days from now!–I’ve been happily busy with writing and interviews about this book, worry/anxiety experienced by children, prayer, and my kids’ books more generally.

I’ve thought again and again of an experience during Lent 1991 in a little church in West Chicago. I had been introduced to guided-imagery meditation before then, through books and a therapist, but on this Wednesday night it changed my life.

My first (sad and abusive) marriage had ended, and I still wondered whether divorce was one of the worst sins, essentially a departure from the faith in which I had grown up. I had moved my kids across the country, and now I was in a church service with a bunch of strangers. The woman at the front invited us to close our eyes and participate in a prayer exercise called Garden of the Heart.

Picture your heart as a garden.

Mine isn’t even full of weeds. It is a patch of dry, hard, absolutely barren dirt.

My heart was rather like this barren ground at Abu Simbel, Egypt. Photo from Creative Commons.

Where are you in the garden?

Right in the middle, lying prostrate with my face in the dirt.

Now Jesus comes into the garden. What does he do?

I suppose he picks up a hoe and starts poking at the dirt to break it up for planting.

No! I see Jesus. He is right beside me on the ground, face down in the dirt.

I cried and cried that night—healing tears. God had come into my devastation, my life’s failure, and instead of hurrying to fix things was mourning with me.

My inner desert had become a place of intimate encounter—a garden for the sprouting of something beautiful, unforeseen, and utterly wild.

Wildflowers in City Park, New Orleans. Photo by Jami430 under the Creative Commons Share-Alike License 4.0.

New picture book: Isaiah and the Worry Pack!

Official launch is November 9, 2021.

Preorder here! Or through your favorite local or online bookstore.

This story was in my heart for many years–& I had written it down, but that was long before I had learned what I now know about picture book structure & pacing. I’m a late bloomer with picture books, but I keep thinking, I am so glad each book has come out when it has. Each needed to ripen in its own way.

Isaiah & the Worry Pack grew out of my years of seeking God intensely, partly because I just wanted a more experiential faith, & partly because my marriage was failing & I was in deep pain. I delved into practices of contemplative & charismatic prayer, & God drew near. Of course God had never left, but now I was learning how to listen & to see with the eyes of the heart.

I will write more about the experiences of those years in other posts; for now I just want to say that my own spiritual search nurtured my children’s spiritual lives too. One night my son, aged 10, & I had a meditative prayer experience together very like what the mom & son experience in Isaiah & the Worry Pack. It didn’t preserve him from all anxiety thereafter, but the guided-imagery prayer became a tool for him to use on his own when he was struggling to sleep.

In the story, Isaiah & his sister & mother are living far away from his father, just as we were. Kids in single-parent households are not doomed to become disconnected from God because of the trauma of separation or divorce. I feel pretty strongly about this!

I haven’t seen a picture book like Isaiah & the Worry Pack out in the world! I hope you will get copies for the young ones in your life, & I hope it deepens their own life of faith.

I met Jesus yesterday, and his name is Will

I was walking home from a backyard birthday party in my neighborhood—the first festive gathering I had attended in person since the covid-19 pandemic restrictions had begun sixteen months earlier.

I had been snapping pictures of beautiful trees and an inspiring front yard with rhubarb, a cloud of dillweed, and a sign with a Wendell Berry poem planted near the sidewalk. I walked under the Metro train viaduct and saw him at the Clark Street intersection.

The man was white with graying hair, wiry, and deeply bowed at the waist. He was pushing a bike and had stopped to catch his breath.

When I caught up with him, I asked if he could use some help pushing his bike. He demurred but then said yes, so I took hold. It took him a little while to release his hold—I think he wanted to make sure it wasn’t too heavy for me. I too am graying. Once he realized I was OK with the weight, he let go. A heavy bag hung from the handlebars, and another was fastened behind the seat.

As we headed north on Clark, he told me that he was heading to his girlfriend’s apartment near the Mexican bakery up ahead. She had been bedridden for eighteen months; I didn’t catch her diagnosis. Her mother had died of covid in October 2020.

He himself had been attacked and robbed on the Red Line months ago. He had undergone surgeries but was left with a wracked body. He thanked me for accompanying him. “My name’s Will,” he said.

“And I’m Ruth,” I replied.

He pointed to a gangway to enter his girlfriend’s building, on the opposite side of Clark. I suggested that we continue to the corner to cross at the light, but he veered into the street midblock. North-south traffic was stopped or slowed by red lights at the moment, so I followed him and waved to drivers who made way for us.

At the narrow gangway opening, he insisted on taking the bike. I followed him to a locked gate that held a row of mailboxes. He unlocked it and I helped steady the bike as he squeezed through, ducking under the mailboxes. He didn’t want me to enter the building with him, even though he’d be hauling the bike up three flights of stairs. So I said goodbye and continued my walk.

* * *

All my life I have struggled to respond ethically to people in need in public places. I have been urged not to give to those who panhandle, as they may be feeding a drug habit. I have been urged to give them a small amount of cash and acknowledge their humanity. Some people advise offering only food as a way to flush out those who want cash for nefarious purposes.

I haven’t figured it out. I advocate for government programs that would provide housing and meet other needs. I give to food programs. But these initiatives have not yet provided everything that’s needed, so I still meet struggling people on the street sometimes.

Viaduct in my neighborhood

Given Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 25, I have realized that I must recognize Jesus in prisoners, sick folks, and others who suffer need and oppression. People don’t have to be virtuous and free of drugs to be Jesus to me. And I’m not their savior, just their sister.

Sometimes I give some money and say “God bless you.” Sometimes I have no money and can only smile at them and pray. Occasionally I stop to talk. My city is full of Jesus.

Will was not panhandling; he was pushing his bike along without asking for help. I got to be his sister for a few minutes, marveling at his determination, his willingness to walk bent over, struggling for breath, to reach his sick girlfriend. And then I had to respect his boundaries as he insisted that I go on my way while he somehow pulled his bike up the stairs alone.

* * *

One way that I process my grief at news of catastrophic floods and fires, intensifying effects of climate change, is to walk in my neighborhood as often as possible. I take many pictures of flowers, trees, the lake, the sky. Earth is sick “through our own grievous fault,” as the Book of Common Prayer confession says, so taking walks is a way of fulfilling Jesus’s parable of instruction: “I was sick and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).

The whole earth is filled with God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3 and many other biblical passages). Given extreme economic inequities, pervasive effects of racism, and an oppressive criminal “justice” system, it is also filled with God’s suffering.

I want to be a friend who stays awake with Jesus in Touhy Park or crossing Clark Street. I want to keep my eyes open to Jesus’s presence in my neighbor’s riotous butterfly garden—cup plant and bee balm pushing toward the sun. And in the labored steps of a man named Will.

Happiness Comes to America

A story by my 11-year-old friend

Happiness (on right) with a friend

A few years ago my mom and dad, my two older brothers, and I moved from a refugee camp in Tanzania to Chicago.

Now I’m eleven years old. My name is Happiness.

One Sunday night I sat down on my usual pillow on the couch between Mama’s legs so she could fix my hair. She divided it into skinny braids and then pulled them into an elastic band on top of my head.

“OK, I’m done,” she said. (Sometimes she does talk to me in English instead of Kirundi.)

I ran to the bathroom and checked in the mirror. I felt sad . . .

by Happiness Neema

In winter 2020, a couple of months before the pandemic restrictions began, I got together a couple of times with my young friend Happiness to work through & write down a story she wanted to tell. The wonderful Stone Soup magazine, with writing & art for & by children & youth, was pulling together submissions from kids who were living in refugee camps or had done so in the past. We sent her story off & hoped for the best!

Now the magazine’s Refugee Project page has gone live with a few initial posts–including Happiness’s story! Click here to read the personal narrative in its entirety.

If you know creative kids/teens who have life experience as refugees, the project’s main page has links for submissions. Their voices are important!

Remember a year ago?

Here is a poem I wrote as covid-19 ravaged us. It was posted in the fine online journal Psaltery & Lyre on March 1, 2021.

So many of us have walked & walked to keep anxiety & grief moving through our bodies & try to maintain sanity.

I had never taken so many photos of trees & sky.

After George Floyd was murdered, one protest action called for by BLM Chicago was chalking sidewalks. So that weekend my walk involved scurrying around with a box of chunky chalk.

Lake Michigan was, & still is, a place to bring everything I’ve felt.

This was my first mask, sewed by a kind neighbor.

Now that I’m fully vaccinated, the rhythms of life are gradually changing. Next month my poetry critique group will meet at my home! There will be less solitude. But those “antiviral walks” will not go away. They allow my body to think & grieve & rejoice.

Of heartache & antiviral walks

During this period of working fully from home, I call my neighborhood walks & hikes “antiviral walks”–they keep me healthy & combat the anxiety & sadness that surge often as I live in physical isolation & read/hear news about the covid19 pandemic’s ravages around the world.

In late afternoon today I bundled up & went on an antiviral walk. Here are some observations of the day & my emotional innards.

When I feel an ache in my chest, it’s a sign that for both physical & emotional reasons, I am overdue for exercise. Movement is my best cure for sadness.

I am staying with friends in a western suburb while work is being done on my new-to-me condo in the city. Here I have access to the Great Western Trail, which used to be a railway line. It is not a beautiful trail, but it is a great place to walk, jog & bike. Some people ride horses along it–there was fresh evidence of one. And a bunny crossed my path.

Masks are comfortable in fall & winter weather–when I don’t need mine over nose & mouth, it serves as a neck warmer. I’m happy about the news that covid vaccines are on their way, & I intend to get one as soon as possible–but I’m going to keep wearing masks in public. They should help protect me from cold & flu & other viruses! And it’s fun to coordinate them with my other clothing.

I decided to walk about a mile to a Goodwill store to look for a winter cap & some gloves. Almost all my clothes are in storage right now.

I didn’t find gloves at Goodwill, but I found a cap big enough for my Goring watermelon head. And a purple scarf I can wear on Sundays during Zoom Advent services. I like wearing the colors of the liturgical season.

Sidewalks are good–I wish all streets had them. The road I walked on after turning off the trail doesn’t. On my way home I stepped into a hollow, invisible as the day darkened, & fell down. As I fell I called out a cheerful “Woooo!” as if letting a companion know that I wasn’t in danger, just playing. I wasn’t hurt. The grass was soft.

I kinda like falling occasionally because it reminds me that my body is still resilient.

Twilight is beautiful everywhere & in every season.

The friends who host me have gone all out on Christmas decorations–rather early, like many of my friends & relatives. This year we need abundant reminders of joy.

Postscript: This afternoon (day after the walk) I wanted to check my driver’s license in order to fill out a form. I became increasingly anxious as I searched everywhere, including the pockets of the coat I had worn on yesterday’s walk. Finally I realized that my wallet might have fallen out of one of said pockets when I fell on the way home.

GOOD thing about no sidewalks on that busy four-lane road: others were not likely to have walked there & picked up the wallet. Also I had received no bank alerts about suspicious credit-card use. I reminded myself of these & other consoling facts as I retraced yesterday’s route–on foot again, as there are few places to pull a car off the road & parking on it isn’t allowed.

The wallet was there, right beside a rather deep hollow in the grass (no wonder I had tripped!). I tucked it into a pocket–which I zipped shut this time–& made my way home rejoicing, meditating on the parable where God is pictured as a woman who loses a valuable coin (that’s any of us) & sweeps & searches her home until she finds it.

I am so grateful to be one of God’s treasures.

How we picture God affects everything

Wow. Scientific American has just published a piece by Daisy Grewal summarizing a research review by psychologist Steven O. Roberts & colleagues. Various researchers have investigated how people’s (including children’s) internal image of God relates to their internal image of an ideal boss or leader. A summary of their conclusions reads almost like an academic-style recommendation for Picturing God!

Our assumptions about who should rule in heaven strongly affect our preconceptions about who should do so on earth. Historians have argued that a white view of God has been prevalent in the U.S. since the 1830s and was actively embraced and promoted by white people in order to assert and justify their greater social power. Manipulating individuals’ conceptions of the deity appears to be an effective way to reinforce beliefs about who belongs at the top of the social hierarchy. And as shown by the study with children, these views develop at an early age and are deeply ingrained in our psychology. While troubling, this observation also offers hope that by exposing children to more diverse representations of God, such as through books or other media, we can reduce racial prejudice.

Our picture of God affects our racial attitudes, friends. Let’s be actively antiracist in choosing the books we share with our children.

If you haven’t yet gotten your copy of Picturing God, or if you need to give it to some of the children in your life, you can purchase it here!

Children of all races & backgrounds–not just children of color–need to develop their imagination about God through the many beautiful biblical metaphors instead of picturing God as an old white man.

Draw Deep from The Well

Today The Well, an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship publication for women in the academy & professions, published a poetry essay they’d solicited from me. The editors plan to feature poems by women throughout the summer, as an invitation to slow down & be nourished, & I had the privilege of orienting readers to a process of entering poems contemplatively–that is, approaching them with the same quiet openness they might bring to scripture reading.

My title, “A Quiet Fire,” was inspired by a poem by Luci Shaw that I link at the end of the essay. I also excerpt from poems by Lucille Clifton, Renny Golden, Mary Oliver, & Raúl Zurita to model a simple, openhearted way of approaching poetry.

I guess fire & well together make a very mixed metaphor. But I’ll just go with it. May you find refreshment in poetry & other art this summer, & may it fill you & fuel you.

I don’t seem to have a photo of a well, but . . .

Bahía Portete, La Guajira, Colombia.

Picturing God–among the baby goats!

The world & its plagues have me down right now. But a few minutes ago I stumbled upon this charming non sequitur of a reading of my own picture book (see previous post) in a goat pen, with 8-day-old little goats, & bigger goats climbing around & bumping the recorder, & it has me shaking my head & laughing, & crying just a little. Short video posted by a young woman named Lianna–no surname given. Enjoy! (See below, too, for reveal of full name & more details.)

Goat Storytime: Picturing God

Screenshot 2020-03-27 22.24.35

Edit Sunday March 29, 2020: Lianna Cornally introduced herself to me on Facebook! She is director of kids’ ministry at Sanctuary Community Church in the Iowa City / Cedar Rapids area, & this blog for families has been launched to help people stay connected despite social distancing. Here’s the post in which the Picturing God reading appears. With or without the children in your life, you may want to try the simple gratitude practices it suggests!

Sanctuary Community Church: Goats, God & Gratitude