Picture my husband and I sitting side-by-side on the couch in semi-darkness, watching a DVD. There’s the patter of little feet on the floorboards. A plaintive voice says, “Mummy, I’m scared. I can’t sleep!” And as always, there’s the same response: “Do you want me to pray with you?” “Yes.” “Okay, snuggle up and we’ll pray.”
It’s at these moments that I’m grateful that I’ve taught our children some Psalms. For as I send them back to bed, I encourage them to say Psalm 23 or 121 out loud to themselves, or, in the case of my six-year-old son, to sing one of the hymns I sing every night by his bedside. I’m passing on my own weapon against fear: as a young adult, I used to lie awake, still fearful about things that go bump in the night, but with no comforting parents watching TV in the next room, and I would repeat Psalm 23 into the darkness.
I hadn’t considered that my children are part of a tradition that stretches much further back than one generation until I heard David Walter’s talk on Jonah 2 at the recent MTS Challenge Victoria conference. You won’t find this part of Jonah’s story in a children’s Bible; it’s the long prayer that Jonah says while he’s inside the fish. But it’s probably the most relevant part of the story for children.
Jonah cries out to God for help at his darkest moment while inside the smelly cave of the fish’s innards. But he doesn’t use his own words; he prays a series of scattered lines from the Psalms—smatterings of remembered knowledge. He prays the great prayers of God he learned as a child.
When children in Israel were taught to pray, they were taught the prayers of Israel—the Psalms of the Bible. They committed the Psalms to memory. They learned the great prayers of God, and were given words to speak their own prayers.
I’ve been inspired by Jonah’s example to continue the task I began many months ago—teaching my kids passages from the Bible while their memories are still fresh and receptive. We do it in the easiest possible way: on the mornings we get around to it (!), we read a passage out loud together. After a month or so, we all know it—with no testing, no pressure, no tears.
I want to soak my children’s hearts and minds in the Bible. I want the word of Christ to dwell in them richly (Col 3:16). I want God’s word to spring to mind when they’re tempted to follow their friends into sin, when they’re feeling sad and alone, and when they’re anxious and afraid. I want to give them words for their prayers so that they pray after God’s own heart. I want God’s great prayers to fill my children’s minds when things go bump in the night.