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.

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!

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

 

 

Watch/hear authors read stories for kids

Some of my nieces & many of my younger friends are now working from home with young children also out of school because of the COVID19 pandemic. Fun & nurturing activities for the young’uns are much needed in these dire times, so I’ve collected a few nurturing & informative videos that parents & grandparents can use when their own voices have gotten hoarse from so much reading aloud. Enjoy, order these books from local independent bookstores if they offer delivery–& stay safe.

If you have more to recommend or share, feel free to post in comments!

 

Maybe God is like that

Maybe God Is Like That Too, by Jennifer Grant

Breaths of God videocast, Rev. Matthew Titus

(Jen’s website)

 

Little Mole

Little Mole Finds Hope, by Glenys Nellist

(Glenys’s website)

 

Two stories by Carol Gordon Ekster!

Where Am I Sleeping Tonight? A Story of Divorce

&

Ruth the Sleuth and the Messy Room

(Carol’s website)

 

Suzanne Slade offers many videos for e-learning!

Suzanne writes kids’ books focused on science, especially space exploration, such as A Computer Called Katherine, Daring Dozen: The Twelve Who Waked on the Moon, & Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon.

 

 

 

Interview: Book Publishing from Beginning to End

I was interviewed recently by Eve Odum, student at the University of St. Francis, & her professor the poet Beth McDermott for a podcast they’ve been putting together. Book Publishing from Beginning to End focuses on the varying paths to publication for kidlit writers. I had a lovely time talking to these two smart, thoughtful women! It’s a great project. The podcast episode has been up for a couple of weeks, but only today did I have a chance to listen. We focused mainly on my picture book Adriana’s Angels, but along the way we also talked about writing & publishing poetry, the sting of rejection, the perils of social media for writers, how to cope with publication envy, the value of being rooted in a supportive community, & more. So make a big mug of tea or coffee, as the discussion runs for about 50 minutes. Then sit down & have a listen!

first spread.jpg

* * *

In the meantime, some short but very warm reviews have been coming in for Picturing God. I’ve linked to them on the Press page of this website (see tab above right). I’ve added Eve’s interview there too, so it’ll remain easy to find.

The winner, & notes on a favorite spread

Carol Gordon Ekster, a fellow writer of children’s books, was among those who shared my Picturing God book-birthday post on social media, & having drawn her name from those who did so, I’m about to send her a copy of the book. Hurray! Check out her website by clicking on her name above; she has some delightful picture books specifically for bedtime, which for most kids is the best time for reading with parents or other caregivers. At the foot of the page are links to a blog & to her other social media pages. Carol is definitely a kidlit writer worth watching. Warm thanks to you, Carol!

Now I want to give you some background on one of the images from Picturing God.

SM_images_PicturingGod_3

The art here is directly from Picturing God; the text is also a direct quote, but the designer made the letters larger for use online. It’s the right-hand page of the “God as clothing” spread, which wasn’t in the original plan for the book.

After reading my first or second draft, my editor turned out to be better at counting than I am (no great surprise there): she told me that my plan came to just 38 pages, not 40 as my contract stated. How exciting! I could further develop one of the God-metaphors I was already using, or I could add another.

I quickly decided on the latter, & Google led me to an excerpt from the splendid book Wearing God by Lauren Winner. I hadn’t thought of using the “put on Christ” encouragement from the New Testament, but it’s perfect for young children, for whom self-dressing involves numerous developmental milestones. Each mastery–pulling a shirt over one’s head, poking a button through the hole, getting shoes on the right feet, tying shoestrings–helps little ones to feel capable. So this would be another way they could picture God in everyday activities.

This was the spread where I figured out that good old corrugated cardboard would work fine for illustrating children closer up (those at some distance are done with ceramic pieces). The border at the foot of the page is also cardboard–the inner corrugations, painted gold by a good friend who is a splendid collagist. To make the boy’s hair (not shown here) I wrapped black twine lengths around a couple of metal mosaic tools, soaked them in runny flour paste, & let them dry. Curly hair! And the girl’s hair is special to me; it’s part of the fringe from a scarf I received as a gift, woven by a Wayúu woman from the Bahía Portete community in northeastern Colombia. I think of these people & their remarkable story every time I look at this page. (It’s a very sad story, but in more recent years they have returned & are working hard to create a new viable community in their native territory.)

I myself am like a little kid, only learning, watching how the big kids do it & trying to copy them, when it comes to putting on Christ.

By my editor!

Today I want to share someone else’s writing. My editor for both Adriana’s Angels & Picturing God has blogged about our process with the Picturing God art, which departed from the usual because this art is so concrete & textured. And what she says about how reading/contemplating the book affects her, & how her two-&-a-half-year-old toddler has responded to it, makes me cry: this is how I myself often felt as I was cutting, nipping, stitching, arranging, gluing. As if it was all drawing me into the beautiful mysteries of God. Here, read her lovely words.

SM_images_PicturingGod_1

Rocks & drips: Colombia Chronicles 2

In July I was privileged to tour Medellín’s Moravia neighborhood, constructed over a city dump. The original residents were garbage pickers, & some of them still live there. The dump itself has been built up into a grassy park with flower plantings, a large greenhouse (for flowers only, as the soil is too toxic to grow healthy vegetables/fruits), & a historical walking route with photo markers telling the community’s story.

(a) It’s a rather strenuous climb! (b) Images of the original dump. (c) Hillside garden. (d) The neighborhood is colorfully charming nowadays, though there’s still lots of poverty.

I was taken to visit a couple of preschools where children had heard & discussed Los ángeles de Adriana, my picture book about a Colombian refugee child & the guardian angels who accompany her. The Mama Chila school, named for its founder, was an incredibly inviting space. For my session with the children, the staff decorated with rocks because many of the kids were taken with the symbol of mean words as sharp little stones that “rattle around and hurt.”

preschool stones Moravia

Slips of paper were placed over some of the rocks. They bore quotes from the kids themselves:

  • The angels always accompany the little girl, because she can’t take care of herself alone.—Jampool (try pronouncing that in Spanish, but with an English-style J; you’ll realize that he’s named for a former pope!)
  • The rocks came into her from the children who didn’t want to play with her.—Dylan
  • I didn’t like the children who were treating Adriana badly, because they weren’t respecting her and their parents didn’t teach them to be kind.—Isis
  • Adriana’s angels always stay with her and help her to sleep.—Jhostin
  • The little stones fell off her bed because . . .—Valery; because the angels took them away!—Isis

These children had found a new way to talk about the pain that our words can inflict on each other. I am so happy to know that Los ángeles de Adriana has enriched their emotional vocabulary.

I also had the privilege of meeting a remarkable community songwriter, doña Efigenia, age 80. She is often sick, and her rustic little home is constantly filled with humidity because of drips from the roof. Hear an excerpt of one of her songs here, & consider donating to help put a new roof over her head. She lives in deep poverty & really needs our help. In dollars it won’t cost much at all!

Thank you for caring!