Every Sunday, we take our almost-three-year-old daughter Elizabeth up for communion. In our church, baptized children are welcomed at the altar even before they understand what’s going on. Grace is, after all, a gift.
And every Sunday, Elizabeth’s rapidly growing mind takes in more and more of her surroundings. Yesterday, as we knelt by the altar rail, she started telling us what to do next, parroting the whispered instructions we’d given her countless times before: Don’t eat the wafer yet. Wait for the person to dip it in the cup and give it back to you.
Afterward, we were talking with our priest during coffee hour (a tradition every bit as sacred to Episcopalians as potlucks are to Baptists). Elizabeth had a cup of goldfish crackers; and right there with the three of us, she began reenacting the ritual she’d just been a part of, solemnly handing each of us an orange, fish-shaped wafer.
Our daughter is noticing. Absorbing. Processing. Becoming an active participant in this ancient and slightly bizarre ritual.
Someday soon, she’s probably going to ask why.
Christians of a certain stripe have long been preoccupied with getting kids to make a decision about God as quickly as possible. From an early age, we start peppering our kids with answers to questions they haven’t even thought to ask yet.
The truth is, we’re scared.
We’re scared something bad might happen to them before they make a decision about God. Which probably says more about our notion of God than anything else.
So we settle for methods that short-circuit our kids’ natural sense of curiosity, imagination, and wonder. We reduce faith to a decision, a transaction, an exchange of goods and services.
Is it any wonder, when we rob faith of its ability to capture the imagination, that it has so little staying power in the lives of our children?
The rituals prescribed in the Torah — Passover meals, phylacteries, mezuzahs — served many purposes, but one was made explicit to the ancient Israelites on at least two occasions in scripture.
In Deuteronomy 6, the Israelites were told to etch the Torah onto their hearts, bind it to their foreheads (hence the phylacteries), and scrawl it onto their doorframes (hence the mezuzahs).
Parents were also told to “impress” or “engrave” these laws onto their children. To teach them in such a way as to make a lifelong impression.
So let’s all break out the spiritual hammers and chisels then?
Not quite. The text goes on:
In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”
A similar decree was made concerning the Passover meal in Exodus 12:
And when your children ask you, “What does this ceremony mean to you?” then tell them, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes…”
The best way to make a lasting impression on your kids? Nurture their curiosity. Honor it. Allow questions to sprout and take shape in their minds. Wait to be asked.
I don’t mean sit back and do nothing. After all, something has to spark our children’s curiosity. Something like kneeling with them at an alter and receiving a round wafer dipped in wine from somebody wearing a white robe.
Something like watching a priest sprinkle water over a child’s head while onlookers clap, cry, snap pictures, and promise to support that child in their newfound life in Christ.
Something like practicing justice and mercy, loving our neighbors (even the difficult ones), welcoming outcasts, relinquishing power, serving others.
Rituals and practices like these are not likely to go unnoticed by our kids. They observe and absorb more than we think.
So maybe all we have to do is nurture their curiosity. Maybe we don’t have to butt in with answers to questions they haven’t even asked yet.
Of course, this begs the question: what should we tell our kids when they do ask?
Four Spiritual Laws. Romans Road. The Wordless Book. The sinner’s prayer.
All of them methods, tools, or techniques for extracting a decision from people.
The Torah suggested a rather different approach. When parents were asked the meaning of all the laws and rituals they followed, this was the answer they were to give:
“We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”
Instead of using abstract concepts or clever techniques to cajole a profession of faith from their kids, they simply needed to share their story.
Of course, there was always the implicit invitation to enter the story, to activate it, to make it your own story. And of course, doing so means there is a decision to be made at some point.
The question is how.
Do we go about introducing faith to our kids in ways that respect their personhood, nurture their curiosity, and engage their imaginations?
And if we did so, would they be more likely to make a decision that lasts?