By Nick Vander Kwaak, M.Div., Th.M.
a little fellow, frightened by lightning and thunder, who called out one dark night, "Daddy, come! I'm scared." "Son," the
father said, "God loves you and will take care of you." "I know God loves me," the boy replied, "but right now I need somebody who has skin on."
This lovely little story by
John M. Dreschner (Readers' Digest, Feb.
'81, p.l04) presents us with the essence of the spiritual development of children. The boy refers to a truth that he has learned: God loves me. No doubt he often heard this truth confirmed by his parents or pastor. He may have learned the song in Sunday School: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!"
But besides the truth he has
learned with his developing intellect, he also refers to the experience of this truth. He needs a close protecting relationship with another human being (Dad, in this case)
to help him feel the presence of God's love and care in a concrete way.
I believe these two factors
are interrelated in the spiritual development of a child: truth learned and experience gained. Both are important in filling a child's need for a meaningful connectedness with God.
Consider the Biblical emphasis
on truth learned and the secret working of the Holy Spirit in creating faith. In Romans 10:17 we read: "...faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ."
Children learn the truth of
God's message through Bible stories read or told to them by their parents and teachers or other caring adults. Young children are
open to receive the truth of God through the stories of the faith because they have a great need and craving for love. The stories introduce them to a God whose love is infinite and whose people are nurtured in many blessed ways with God's presence.
It seems that God has something very special going with young children. Jesus often referred to children's spontaneity in expressing praise
(Matthew 21:16) or receiving the gifts of the kingdom of God (Mark 10:15).
As adults, we can nurture the gift of faith in our children with the stories about Jesus and his love. As we read and tell these stories, the Spirit of God accompanies the words. The power of these stories is amazing.
Through them, God works faith, the blessed gift to children as well as adults. "For it is by grace [God's unconditional love] you have been saved, through faith it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8). It's most helpful to the child's understanding of God to use Bible stories instead of abstract summaries of Christian doctrines. They will be more ready for those in their adolescent
years. In childhood, the stories speak more meaningfully.
It may not be necessary to
explain or clarify every detail. Allow room and time for children to enter imaginatively into the stories and express their
opinions or insights. We can wonder with them about the meaning of the stories.
I tell the parable of the
good Samaritan to our young patients, using cut-out pictures of the road, the rock, the characters, and donkey. I refrain
from explaining the different characters but let the children wonder with me: "Where did the Samaritan learn to be kind? Who
does he remind us of?" The children's answers are intriguing and surprising. Children can understand the stories and apply them to their lives in marvelous ways.
While nurturing children's spirituality is a matter of truth that must be conveyed, it is at the same time a matter of relationships with other people, especially
caring adults. This explains why the little boy in the story asked for someone with skin on to be there with him during the
Rachel was a 13-year-old runaway,
living mostly on the streets of a western city. Her sad comments to a news reporter illustrate the negative impact of relationships
on the spiritual formation of a child:
My mother died when I was
four. I have been in eleven different foster homes since. Then they put me in a church home for girls, and they were real
mean. So I ran away with my girlfriend. We were locked in our rooms at night. The windows were locked. It was so hot. You
couldn't get water or nothing. If you were bad, they locked you in "isolation"- sort of a closet, all dark. They kept you
there all day. They kept preaching at you about Jesus, but I don't think Jesus would treat little kids that bad" (Parade Magazine, Aug. 18, '85, p. 5).
You are right, Rachel. Jesus
would not treat children that bad at all. In fact, we read about Jesus in the Bible: "And he took the children in his arms,
put his hands on them and blessed them" (Mark 10:16). Jesus knew that the
truth ("God loves you") conveyed by words and stories must also be demonstrated in loving ways to children through caring relationships. These relationships reflect our high value for children and our respect for them as God's very special people. Our Lord becomes a model for us in showing God's love to children.
A religious educator, John
H. Westerhoff III, believes that a child's faith development is enhanced by experiences in nurturing relationships with adults. "Experience
is foundational to faith. A person first learns Christ not as a theological affirmation [meaning a truth taught]
but as an affective [meaning feeling level] experience. For children and
adults, it is not so much the words we hear spoken that matter most, but the experiences we have which are connected with
those words" (Will Our Children Have Faith? p. 92).
If someone feels used or exploited
when the word "love" is used, then the word "love" takes on that negative meaning for the person. For example, if Mother often tells her lO-year-old Lori, "I love you," but then overburdens her with family chores or responsibilities, Lori receives a mixed message about the meaning of love. She equates it with being taken advantage of.
The power of the word "love" can only be changed and become positive when it is accompanied by a caring, respectful relationship. The Bible puts it in these words: "Be ye doers of the word..." (James 1:22, KJV).
responsibility of Christian parents is to endeavor to be Christian with their children, and the responsibility of all Christians is to strive to be Christian with all others," says Westerhoff (p. 93). It is important for us to ask ourselves: What is it to be Christian with my son? Is my daughter growing up in a home, church, or community
environment where she feels loved, secure, and is regarded as a V .I.P., a very important person?
In such an environment - where
adults are sensitive to the child's emotional needs and where they practice Christ-like relationships - the child experiences God's love in action. Where people can be trusted and relied on for care and support, basic trust will grow in the child. This ability to trust will develop in the child and can flourish later on into a meaningful relationship of trust in God.
In such an environment, children
will also experience grace. Grace is feeling fully accepted and loved, despite your mistakes or sins. My young friend who told me, "God cannot love me, I'm bad" had not understood the meaning of grace. By both my words and actions as I accepted him, spent time with him, praised him for his achievements, and enjoyed his friendship, he learned to understand the meaning of grace. And when he hears the Word that says, "by grace you have been saved," he is ready to receive it with
a broad smile that says: "Thank you, Lord. I can't be good all the time even though I try, but you love me anyway!"
As we teach and live the Christian
faith with our children, we can remember that nurturing children's spirituality is one of the greatest and most challenging tasks God gives us. Let our efforts be accompanied by much prayer, asking God to plant and nourish the seeds of faith in precious children who view us as God's love "with skin on."
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10 Ways to Nurture
Your Spiritual Life
by Deepak Chopra
Intention is the starting point
of any spiritual path. Intention includes will and purpose, aspiration and highest vision. If you set your intention toward
material existence, that will grow instead. Once you plant the seed of an intention, your soul's journey will unfold automatically.
Here are several basic intentions that mark a spiritual life.
*I want to feel God's presence. This intention is rooted in the discomfort of being
isolated and separate. You can mask it by developing friendships and family ties. Ultimately, however, each of us needs to
feel a sense of inner fullness and peace.
*I want God to aid and support me. God's
presence brings with it the qualities of spirit. At the source, every quality - love, intelligence, truth, organizing ability, creativity - becomes infinite. The growth of these things in your life is a sign
that you are getting closer to your soul.
*I want to feel connected to the whole.
The soul's journey takes a person from a fragment state to one of wholeness. Events start to weave into a pattern. Small details
fit together instead of being scattered and random. I want my life to have a meaning. Existence feels empty in separation.
This gets healed only by moving into unity with God. Instead of turning outward to find your purpose, you feel that just being
here, as you are, is the highest purpose in creation.
*I want to be free of restrictions.
Inner freedom is greatly compromised when fear exists, and fear is a natural outcome of separation. As you come closer to
your soul, the old boundaries and defenses start to melt away. If these basic intentions are present inside you, God takes
the responsibility for carrying them out. Everything else that you do is secondary. However, you can still exert a great deal
of influence through your everyday conduct.
Here are the ground rules for spiritual
life that have proved effective for me personally and that I feel will work for many people.
1. Know your intentions.
Don't let your false intentions remain masked. Root them out and work on the danger and
fear that keep you attached to them. False intentions take the form of guilty desires: I want someone else to fail, I want
to get even, I want to see bad people punished, I want to take away something not my own. False intentions can be elusive;
you will notice their existence by the feeling connected with them - a feeling of fear, greed, rage, hopelessness and weakness.
Sense the feeling first, refuse to buy into it and then remain aware until you find the intention lurking beneath.
2. Set your intentions high.
- Aim to be a saint and
a miracle worker. Why not? If you know that the goal of inner growth is to acquire mastery, then ask for that mastery as soon
as possible. Don't strain to work wonders, but don't deny them to yourself either. The beginning of mastery is vision; see
the miracles around you, and that will make it easier for greater miracles to grow.
See yourself in the light.
- The ego keeps its grip by making us feel needy
and powerless. From this sense of lack grows a hunger to acquire everything in sight. Money, power, sex and pleasure are suppose
to fill up the lack, but they never do. You can escape this package of illusion if you see yourself not in the shadow fighting
to get to God but in the light from the first moment. The only difference between you and a saint is that your light is small
and a saint's is great. You are both of the light.
4. See everyone else in the light.
- The cheapest way to feel good about yourself is by feeling superior to other people.
From this small seed grows every manner of judgment. A simple formula may help here. When you are tempted to judge another
human being, no matter how obviously he or she deserves it, remind yourself that everyone is doing the best he or she can
from his or her own level of consciousness.
5. Reinforce your intentions every day.
- Everyday life is a kind of swirling chaos, and the ego is entrenched in its demands.
You need to remind yourself, day in and day out, of your spiritual purpose. For some people it helps to write down their intentions;
for others, periods of regular meditation and prayer are useful. Find your center, look closely at yourself and do not let
go of your intention until it feels centered inside yourself.
6. Learn to forgive
- We all fall into traps of selfishness and delusions when we least expect
it. The chance remark that wounds someone else, the careless lie, the irresistible urge to cheat are universal. Forgive yourself
for being where you are. Apply to yourself the same dictum as to others: you are doing the best you can from your own level
of consciousness. (I like to remember one master's definition of the perfect disciple "One
who is always stumbling but never falls".)
7. Learn to let go.
The paradox of being spiritual is that you are always wrong and always right at the same
time. Life is change; you must be prepared to let go of today's beliefs, thoughts and actions no matter how spiritual they
make you feel. Every stage of inner growth is good. Each is nurtured by God.
8. Revere what is holy.
- Our society teaches us to
be skeptical of the sacred. But every saint is your future, and every master is reaching over his shoulder to look at you,
waiting for you to join him. Human representatives of God constitute an infinite treasure. Dipping into this treasure will
help you open your heart.
9. Allow God to take over.
- Most people are addicted to worry, control, over-management and lack of faith. Resist the temptation to follow
these tendencies. Don't listen to the voice that says you have to be in charge, that constant vigilance is the only way to
get anything done.
Let spirit try a new way.
Your intention is the most powerful tool at your disposal. Intend for everything to work out as it should, then let go and
allow opportunities and openings to come your way. The outcome you are trying so hard to force may not be as good for you
as the one that comes naturally. If you could give one percent of your life over to God every day, you would be the most enlightened
person in the world in three months. Keep that in mind and surrender something, anything, on a daily basis.
10. Embrace the unknown.
- Over the years you formed
likes and dislikes; you learned to accept certain limits. None of this is the real you. The unknown is awaiting you, an unknown
that has nothing to do with the "I" you already know. Some people reach the edge of illusion only at the moment of death,
and then with a long look backward, one lifetime seems incredibly short and transient.
The part of us that we know
is the part that flickers out all too fast. When you feel a new impulse, an uplifting thought, an insight that you have never
acted upon before, embrace the unknown. Cherish it as the newborn baby. God lives in the unknown, and when you can embrace
it fully, you will be home free.