“Imaginative Prayer” is a yearlong guide for your child’s spiritual formation. Written by Jared Patrick Boyd, who is a “pastor, spiritual director and founder of The Order of Sustainable Faith, a missional monastic order for the twenty-first century.”
As I set out to do some of that hard work of allowing my own formational journey to shape my parenting, I noticed something that felt unsettling to me as a pastor; I had spent nearly a decade meeting with a spiritual director, I had been trained as a spiritual director myself and offered a listening ear to dozens of people each month as part of my pastoral ministry, and yet I seemed to only be using rudimentary tools for nurturing the spiritual formation of my own children. I had grown in paying attention to my own conversation with God. I was even getting pretty good at helping other adults pay attention to their life with God. But when it came to these kinds of conversations with my own children, I quickly reverted back to asking questions about belief in God, the Bible, and the cross.
I was reading stories from the Bible and answering questions that my girls would bring up. I was trying to ask some questions I had learned through my spiritual direction practice, but I was having a hard time facilitating for them the kind of connection to God that I seemed to be experiencing in my own life. I was still focused on getting them to understand and believe the right things. And then I read a book by James K. A. Smith, a philosopher at Calvin College. Smith writes, “Human beings are not only, nor even primarily, ‘thinkers.’ We are not as defined by what we know, as we are by what we love—what we long for.”
We are defined by our longings, and what we long for is at the root of spiritual formation.
I was having trouble connecting with my children around issues of faith because I was no longer focused on making sure I had everything figured out. I wasn’t really concerned with the questions and answers we typically think are important to pass along to our offspring. I had learned to embrace more mystery and tension than I was willing (or capable) of leading them into. I still, of course, believed things about God, the Bible, and the cross. But I was no longer connected to those things the same way; it seems that I had become connected to the vine, and all those questions that nagged my thinking self remained unanswered, though no longer central. My life with God had shifted from the importance of knowing to paying attention to what I was truly longing for. And what I longed for was the experience of God himself.
I wanted my children to connect with God, and I also wanted to connect with them in their experience of him. And yet we didn’t really have a shared vocabulary or a shared experience. I was reading Thomas Merton and Dallas Willard and finding that Wendell Berry was speaking to me as much about the gospel as anyone else had been. I had experienced some deep shifts in my understanding of my experience of God in places of silence, solitude, and imaginative prayer. I knew that I couldn’t expect my girls to become little mystics and plunge the depths of consolation and desolation. There are stages of faith to walk through, often with a more contemplative expression showing up later developmentally. We need seasons of certainty as much as we need what follows, which is often the tragic anguish when what we once held certain begins to trickle out the cracks in the façade of self.
But surely, I thought, there is a way to nurture them toward an awareness that God is present and can speak to them. Surely it was possible for my own children to experience God in ways similar to how I was experiencing him. How can I introduce my children to bite-sized pieces of the contemplative life and the experience of God? How could I give my children a memorable experience of growing in their awareness of what God is like? How might I help aim their desires toward becoming the kind of people who intuitively understand the world in light of the gospel?
These were the kinds of questions I was asking, not only for my own parenting but as a pastor overseeing a kids’ ministry of close to one hundred third- to sixth-grade children. I was trying to think through how to reorient our kids’ ministry toward nurturing a connection with God and teaching parents how to ask the right kinds of questions so that our efforts as a church and parents’ efforts at home would reinforce each other. We were trying to create a culture in which parents understood that they were the most important spiritual influence in their child’s life. How do we help them connect in meaningful ways with their child’s spiritual formation?
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