It felt weird—to just sit there while being stared at…
When everything around my house is going According To Plan, I rise early before my wife and two daughters are up and start off the day by praying Morning Prayer on my Kindle from the St Bede’s Breviary along with a hot cup of coffee. After that comes twenty minutes of seated meditation. One recent Monday, I was trying to get things back on track. I confess that I hit the snooze button on my alarm several times—that got me out of bed late—but I got my coffee, did my prayer, and sat down for meditation.
About halfway through, sitting with eyes closed in the darkened family room, I realized I was about to reap the consequences of my alarm-snoozing sloth: I heard the distinctive sound of my 9-year old daughter’s tread from the upper level. Sure enough, the footsteps headed down the stairs, entered the room where I sat, and stopped. Then, I felt that sensation of being watched. I knew exactly what had happened; she had seated herself on the gold chair and was just watching and waiting.
I focused on counting my breaths.
The feeling remained.
After a couple of minutes, I finally said, “What is it, hon?” It was a relatively simple question about breakfast, she dealt with it, I finished sitting, then jumped into the morning struggle of getting two tween girls to school on time.
I was reminded of this episode while reading a blog post about children and faith. A lot of ink, digital and actual, gets spilled about what to do with children in church. For my part, I’m all for them. Have them in the same regular service as everyone else, and get them involved with reading, ushering, and serving at the altar just as soon their development allows. But as important as the place of children in worship is, it is only one piece of teaching children about faith.
In our house we try to be intentional about actively forming our girls’ faith. We do mealtime prayers. We do bedtime prayers. We have discussions in the car on the way to ballet and swimming about the school day or current events or pop music where faith and our beliefs inevitably make an appearance. I’m sure there are ways that we could do these things more frequently and better and with more wisdom, but—hey—we have a hard enough time just trying to stay on top of homework, keeping ahead in the laundry by one clean outfit, and making sure the kitchen doesn’t get gross!
Reading the article triggered a different thought in my mind, though, that led me back to that Monday morning meditation. Active teaching is an important thing. But so is passive observation. Children need to see adults participating in worship alongside them. But—again—there’s more to it than just church-service worship. Children need to see their parents engaging in their own daily practices and disciplines of faith. They need to know that these are ordinary and important parts of our lives. We could tell them how important faith is until we’re blue in the face, but if we proclaim its importance while they never see us doing it, we have given away a valuable reinforcement to our verbal teaching.
When I was younger and out shopping for Christmas presents with my mom, she told me that my dad needed a new leather-bound King James Bible because he had worn his out. Frankly—I was shocked. I knew that my dad was a person of deep faith, but I had no idea about this devotion. I’d never seen him do it. I didn’t even know he had a favorite translation. I felt that I had missed something important by not knowing this. I realize now that I could be in danger of this as well.
I need my private time with God. I need to have space to pray and sit where I’m not likely to be interrupted. I do take seriously the comments from Jesus about praying in secret to avoid the hypocrisy of praying for the sake of being seen and regarded as more faithful and more spiritual by others (Matt 6:1-7). And yet, there can be a value in the interruptions as well.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting that parents should stage “spiritual moments” for their children. But if we have habits and devotions, these will sometimes be seen. If your house is anything like my house, these devotions will be interrupted more frequently than we’d like! But, as jarring as the interruptions can be at times, perhaps we should try to see them as passive acts of faith formation, moments when our children (or spouses or friends) can observe us behaving with our bodies in the ways we try to teach with our words.
Derek Olsen lives in Baltimore with his wife, an Episcopal priest, and their two school-aged daughters. He earned a Ph.D. in New Testament from Emory University with an emphasis on the intersection between Scripture and the liturgy, and currently serves on the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music. His reflections on life and liturgical spirituality appear at The St. Bede Blog.