A few weeks ago we read the gospel of Luke in which Jesus heals a group of people suffering from leprosy. I teach our small church school for the younger children and struggled for a while to find ways to make the sermons more accessible to the kids. I started by trying to have my husband read the weekly scripture to the kids on the way to church in the car. I’m the driver since I get quite carsick. Then I’d whisper key phrases in my 5 year olds ear – “Listen! He’s talking about the fisherman”. This was hard though. Much of the language of the gospel feels so above our children’s heads (and even our own at times). And then – alleluia – I heard the promo on Ancient Faith for the beautiful podcast “Let Us Attend”. Probably many of you already know about this, but in case you were also in the dark – the podcast retells each week’s gospel reading in a more age appropriate way with some questions after that are read slowly so you can pause and have your children reflect. To go further you can look up their website at the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education and get handouts and a coloring page. Brilliant! I have struggled to keep my 3 year old engaged and at the table during Sunday School and, turns out, a coloring page is all it takes. I know many Sunday schools have a curriculum, but I have found for ours that letting the curriculum come up through the cycle of the church year works nicely. This can also allow for spontaneity – allowing the conversation to go where the kids want to take it or where it seems to flow naturally.
Introducing the Concept of Miracles
So recently in our group we were discussing miracles. We got to all think together about other miracles we know from the bible – giving the blind man his sight, raising Lazarus and the young girl, the feeding of the 5000. Some of the slightly older children present (6 and 9) knew some lives of Saints and that brought us into other stories of animals and the three innocents in the fire. It was a truly rich and animated discussion.
As parents, living with children and being present in their lives, we begin to understand how they think and learn and what resonates with and engages them. Pattern recognition is incredibly powerful, especially at the younger ages. Younger children are just beginning to make sense of the world. Once they are able to create a category in their mind like “miracles” – then they can begin to start collecting and remembering stories and noticing when miracles happen. In our secular fact-based society, miracles are especially tricky things to contemplate and understand. Really the only places where miraculous things exist in children’s lives are in storybooks or with Santa Claus and the Toothfairy. And all children come to the age where they learn that those things just don’t exist. Or worse still they can become so entranced with the fantasy world of films and games that they become immune to wonder at the true God-given miracles.
Bolstering our Childrens’ Belief in the Miraculous
So how do we help bolster and keep alive our children’s sense of the miraculous in a way that can grow with them into adulthood? As for Santa Claus and the Toothfairy (etc.) I know there are different opinions and I have seen pious families go both routes, but with our family we talk about the fact that God didn’t make those things and that they aren’t real. Going into the why is a bit beyond this post but another lovely Orthodox Mama blogger sums it up nicely in her post Why We Don’t Do Santa. It was a difficult decision, first, because seeing your children experience these mini miracles is really quite beautiful and, second, because I worried (and worry) about my children spoiling the fun that other people are trying to cultivate in their families.
In truth, our rich Orthodox Faith has more than enough miracles we witness throughout the church year and even in the eucharist each week that we needn’t mourn the loss of Santa (if we are losing him). Personally I have always felt that our Orthodox Faith stands apart from other religions in it’s retention of the mysterious. In Orthodoxy the term “mystery” is used to discuss the sacraments (baptism, marriage, holy unction, eucharist, etc). Secularly mystery, as defined by Marrion Webster dictionary, is “something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain” and this too remains alive and well in the Orthodox Faith. Anyone who walks into an Orthodox church recognizes the mysterious qualities – the incense in the air, the icons as a cloud of witnesses, the candles and chanting.
So back to miracles – once we have created this category we can begin to create a miracle “bank account” – each new gospel story or life of a Saint with a miracle goes into the miracle account. We can talk about why Jesus performed miracles and faith as big as a mustard seed moving mountains. And we can start to notice when small miracles happen in our own lives – a tree falls just behind someone walking past, two cars crash but no one is injured, the rain clears just in time for a birthday party. And we can notice the tiny miracles happening everywhere that we take for granted – a baby being born, dew drops forming on a plant, the feeling of our hearts beating inside our chests, a brilliantly red cardinal perched against bare shrub branches.
Allowing space for noticing miracles everywhere
As a last thought we can limit screens and distractions from our children’s lives as much as possible so that this complex and intricate creation we live in can be truly seen and appreciated by our little flocks without comparing with a non-real world and the fast pace of most things digital these days.
I have strong opinions on screen time – as a parent and a doctor, and I’m sure more will come out in future. (And a disclaimer that I grew up on LOTS of TV.) For now to say that we do watch TV together about once a week – “Nature program” – and we watch nature documentaries which are filled with the wonder of God’s creation in such stunning variety, detail and imagery that as I cuddle with my two oldest (and the littlest sleeps) and watch their faces as nature unfolds, I can see these mini-miracles registering and pray that these moments of wonder can tap into a deeper well that will fill them with gratitude and awe and humility and a sense of the incomprehensibility of creation – all things needed to leave room in our mostly rational brains for the miraculous to exist.
Now your turn – please tell me what you do in your family? What have you tried? Successes or things you learned from?