The following is a post I wrote for Practicing Families on ‘spiritual practices with our children.’
‘Thank you God for your love. Thank you for your kindness. You are good and gracious. Alleluia.’
Now imagine that sung in a faltering monotone and you get the gist of our every meal grace.
My soon-to-be sixth grader now contributes his unreliable, pubescent voice to the effort, meaning whenever he can make it to the last note sans cracked voice the song becomes its namesake: an act of grace. An underserved gift from the Almighty.
My boys are 8 and nearly 12 respectively and we’ve sung that grace for as long as the former could speak and the latter could speak English.
Sometimes they sing it without thinking. Sometimes they sing it without feeling, that is, because we’ve forced them. Sometimes they really sing it without thinking, as reflexively as put the knife on the right side of their plates. There have even been times when they sing with surprising thoughtfulness and sincerity.
In other words, my boys engage the practice of saying grace exactly like grown-ups do.
It’s become a habit in the best sense of the word, a practice which over time, through God’s grace, and in spite of ourselves, Thomas Aquinas says, can cultivate the chief of all virtues: charity.
But my point isn’t the practice of saying the grace. It’s where they- we- first learned it.
5 years ago my boys started helping with one of our homeless ministries in DC, Sunday Suppers. It’s an incredibly simple, Jesusy ministry. Make a large meal in the church kitchen along with brown bag lunches for the next day. Drive the food into DC near Capitol Street. Set up tables and chairs in a parking lot. Kick on some music (Marvin Gaye is best). Invite the poor to come sit down and share dinner with us.
It’s not a ministry for the poor.
It’s a meal with them. As though we were all part of the same family.
It’s what I think of now when I hear that line from Luke about people coming from East and West and North and South to eat at table in the Kingdom of God. I think of the red, blue, green and yellow metro map that segments the district.
My boys learned the grace there, sitting across from a Chinese immigrant with lots plastic grocery bags and no English and a heavily tattooed, pierced homeless guy who wove grandiose conspiracy theories while the sun set in the shadow of the Capitol Building.
A lay person from my church taught the song.
We’ve been singing it since.
My boys have sung it too- with that same lay leader- as they’ve participated on our church’s mission teams to Guatemala, spending a week at a time in indigenous Mayan communities- serving along side grown-ups and teenagers from my church.
They’ve both been several times. They expect to go. It’s what they do.
More importantly, it’s how they’ve learned to do the faith.
Engaging hands-on, eye-to-eye, one-on-one with those the materially rich label ‘poor.’
Learning that our definitions of such things are all upside down in Jesus’ Kingdom.
Looking to find the face of Christ in the stranger.
Sure, my boys have had such opportunities because it comes with Daddy’s job and, initially at least, they participated precisely because it was my job. With nowhere else to go, they tagged along.
As with most gifts from God, the blessing of their participation has revealed itself only in hindsight and certainly does not reveal me as any sort of stellar parent with the sort of spiritual foresight that warrants my title (‘Reverend:’ one to be revered).
I didn’t intend the practice of engaging the poor to form my children’s faith, but I can with hindsight identify that it’s done just that.
A rock-solid observation from which I derive a few thus-and-so’s.
Too often in the Church we make the mistake of teaching our kids about the Word Made Flesh with nothing but words.
Coloring sheets, bible-based word finds, children’s sermons, Sunday School lessons, graphic-novel bibles and-horror- discussions.
Too often we don’t put flesh on all our words about the Word Made Flesh until our children are teenagers, at which point they’re no longer interested (and, truth be told, we’re more interested in them ‘serving’ the poor so they’ll come home ‘feeling grateful for their blessings’. Bleh).
The point is: too often by the time our children become youth we’ve bored them.
With all our words.
Or better put, our many words have made the Word boring with too many bible studies and too few bible do’s.
In too many ways, we ex-carnate the Word.
But the flesh is just as crucial as the words in knowing the Word Made Flesh.
The grace my boys sing is a means of grace not just for the words they sing but for the memories those words recall.
I’m a firm believer in spiritual practices and a poor practitioner of them, but I’m doing more than saving face when I point out how so many spiritual practices are words, words, words.
But with the Word Made Flesh the words tend to be active verbs:
go, do, eat, welcome, embrace, forgive, feed.
Whatever else we count as spiritual practices, I think the list has got to start with the verbs the Word Made Flesh gives us.
And just count them in your bible- there’s more than enough verbs to keep your children busy for quite some time. It’s easy in fact. Make a meal. Set a table. Kick on some music (Marvin Gaye never fails). Find a sinner, a stranger, or a poor person- none of which are hard to locate. And welcome them to a feast.
As a parent, I get how families are often reluctant to expose their kids to more than they’re ready and as a pastor I get that engaging the poor isn’t always easy and seldom does it abide our sentimental expectations.
It’s risky. I get that. But I also know the risk that runs in the other direction is no less bothersome: the risk they’ll grow up thinking the Word Made Flesh has no skin and bones- the risk they’ll think Jesus is boring.
But a dude who gets murdered by an Empire is, by definition, NOT BORING.
Yeah, it’s risky, putting your kids in situations you doubt they’re ready or old enough for, but as someone who’s watched my boys, I know kids are ready for it.
At least, they’re ready to do the kind of stuff Jesus did rather than just read and hear and talk about it. Maybe that’s exactly what Jesus meant when he said the rest of us need to become like them.
Maybe the spiritual practices of our children is one place Christians need to believe in re-incarnation.