Imagine yourself as a five-year-old boy on your first day of kindergarten. Your mom drops you off at school. You find your desk in a classroom full of other boys and girls, your friends from church. Your teacher, Miss Waters, quiets the class and then says, “Shall we begin our day in prayer?” You look at her and think—she prays too? From as far back as you can remember your mom has prayed with you each night before you go to sleep. Her soft, gentle voice showing you what to pray for and teaching you the words: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Your father prays before and after every meal. His voice is deep and strong. Sometimes the words he says you don’t understand, but then he explains them to you. At church your pastor prays for a long time using even bigger words than your dad. The elders even come to visit and they too pray like your father and minister. And now at school you are praying with your teacher. She prays a lot like your mom with her quieter voice and words that are easy to understand. She prays for God to bless us as we begin to learn and make friendships. She prays for our parents at work, our minister, and our church. She prays for God to help each of us study hard and be nice to each other. She asks God to forgive our sins and keep us from sinning. Then she tells God that we love him for his sake. This is all very familiar to you. It is the same way your parents have prayed with you and you now feel comfortable in the new environment.
The foundation of prayer is started in our homes and then confirmed and strengthened through our schools and church. Prayer is direct communication with God. It is necessary for Christians because, in the words of the Heidelberg catechism question and answer 116, “Prayer is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us.” We are thankful because we are saved! (Eph. 2:8). We have hope, the only hope possible in this life, the hope of an eternal rest. The only way that we can teach our children to pray is by ourselves knowing how to pray. Then, through the example of prayer in the home, school, and church, we will teach our covenantal children, our heritage, how to pray. They will learn through our prayers by seeing when we pray, hearing how we pray, hearing what we pray, and seeing why we pray. These are the points we are teaching our children through their hearing of our prayers.
Children must see when we pray. ‘When’ refers first to the time at which you pray and second to the situations that bring you to prayer. The ‘when’ of prayer is seen and taught to the child mostly through the role of the parents. At what times during our day do we pray? For most of us, the answer to that question is before and after each meal, when we wake up in the morning, and when we go to bed at night. Are we teaching our children in our homes to pray at these times and explaining why we do this? Many parents of the Protestant Reformed denomination require their children to recite a short prayer after their father or mother prays at the beginning and end of each meal. The prayer is often (as little children), “Lord bless this food and drink, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.” Looking back after having prayed this prayer as a child, I have questioned the rationality behind this requirement of my parents. Rarely did I take this prayer seriously or think hard about what I was saying. It was often a game to see who could say it the fastest without getting yelled at. Now as I look back I see that my parents were teaching me a very basic concept that would always stay with me. They were showing me as a child the source of our food, teaching me at a young age that all came from God. They were also teaching me a good time to pray to God during my day—when pausing from our work to eat. They were saying, wherever you are, take a minute, or even a few sentences to thank God for the food you’re going to be eating, to commune with him and ask his blessing. We notice that even Jesus, before he feed the five thousand, took time and gave thanks to his heavenly Father (John 6:12).
Another time that we regularly pray is in the evening before we sleep and the morning when we awake. “My mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips: when I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate upon thee in the night watches” ( Psalm 63). From as far back as we can remember, our parents prayed with us before we went to sleep. They taught us verses such as “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If is should die before I wake. I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Through this they taught us that before we face anything, the day or the night, we must come before him who created the day and night and everything in them. “Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice” (Psalm 55:17). Are we teaching our children this by the regular times in which we call upon God?
The “when” of prayer also includes the situation in which we are placed by the providence of God. Do our children see us coming before God regularly not only when we are in trouble and suffering extreme hurt but also when life runs smoothly? Can they say, yes Mom and Dad come to God when they are weary with the burdens of life, but at every time they come with thankfulness, always thanking God for his blessings, even when my grandma has died or my aunt’s new baby is born with mental handicaps? Are we consistent in our prayers before them even when life is going smoothly? The reasons we come to God and what we pray for impacts how we teach our children to pray.
Our covenantal children must see how we pray. What does our posture and attitude reflect? The way and manner in which we come before God and talk to him greatly impacts the way our covenantal children view prayer. One place we see this is in church and its role of the church in teaching our children to pray. In church, do our children see us and the other members of the congregation slowly slouching into their seats as the pastor begins the congregational prayer (or better known to our children as “long prayer”)? Do they see us trying to catch that extra ten to fifteen minutes of sleep we missed that morning, down in our seats, our heads in our hands, suddenly jerking up when our head falls too far? Or do they see us joyfully longing for that time where together as a congregation we are united in prayer, in direct communication with God! Psalm 100:4 clearly reflects this desire of the Christian’s heart. “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him and bless his name.” This refers especially to the young people of our congregations, the ones the children watch with wide eyes and open hearts. Our posture and attitude during prayer as well as the whole service is what the covenantal children of the congregation are looking to as their guideline. Are we being good examples of what it means to come before God in his house? Isaiah 56:7: “Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine alter, for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.” As members of the church we do well to ask ourselves: is this the way we are teaching our children to view prayer?
As parents and teachers, our prayers must not leave the impression with our children that prayer is something we have to do, so let’s get it over with quickly, but rather as something we want to do, and deeper still, prayer must be seen in us as our great need, something we cannot live without. We come before God reverently, teaching our children to sit up, close their eyes, bow their head, fold their hands, and come with reverence. Our attitude in prayer reveals our attitude toward God whether it is flippant or intimate. Prayer shows the sincerity of our relationship with him in our lives (Daniel 6:12). Then too, the words we use will not be terms that we might refer to our friends as: “You up there,” “just bless us man,” or “Lord I just wanna,” etc. We will come before God with words of wisdom and understanding and through this teach our children the respect and reverence God deserves.
Understanding our attitude in prayer and how it teaches our child, we can then ask, “What do we teach our children to pray?” We must teach them the content of prayer. They hear us pray. What do our prayers say? Most of them start with thanking and praising God. This is what prayer is, as we have seen from the catechism. It is the chief part of thankfulness to God—our thankfulness for our salvation. This is why it is so beautiful that we are teaching our covenantal children to pray, for the promise is “unto you and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39). The most important aspect of prayer is our thankfulness, because without him we are nothing. Second, we teach our children to ask forgiveness of their sins. We teach them to confess their sins to God and repent of them (Heidelberg Cat. LD 21 Q and A 56). Thirdly, we teach them to pray for deliverance from their sins, their flesh, the devil, and the world (Heidelberg Cat. LD 52). As parents, we see children and their sins. At a young age they sin mostly by disobedience. And so we pray with them particularly for that sin. We make our prayers understandable and applicable to them. Then fourth, we teach them to bring their petitions before the Lord. For so many of us, this is first. We always get to the petitions in our prayers, but rarely to the other three. We must teach our children that only in the way of thankfulness and assurance of our forgiveness can we bring our personal needs before God. We show them they can bring their struggles, what is on their mind and heart before God whenever they want. They can pray for their friends and family. We teach them what they should pray for and what they should not—such as a sick cat or dying fish. Through our prayers they must see that we bring before God the church, the pastors, elders, our church family, the sick and widows, other peoples public needs or, as teachers, the needs of our classmates and their families. We teach them how to pray through our prayers and what we pray.
Our covenantal children must see why we pray. What do you say when your daughter asks you, “Why are you praying, Mom?” What is the basic, clear answer? Because Christ has died on the cross for my sins, and yours. We have hope then, the hope of eternal life, that blessed assurance that as covenantal children of God we have a heavenly home awaiting us.
All these points, the when, how, what, and why of prayer, are not things we sit down and tell our children in one setting. As the physical growth of our children is gradual, so also is their spiritual growth. It requires daily care and constant feeding. The need for instruction in prayer never ends. We are teaching prayer to our children even as they become young adults. In every moment of our lives we are, through our personal walk with God and our own prayer life, instructing others in prayer. This is how children will learn to pray.
At a recent retreat, Rev. Cammenga shared this story with us. I would like to conclude with it. He told the story of visiting an elderly lady in his congregation in Loveland, Colorado. She was near death. He had visited with her, read the word, prayed with her and was preparing to leave. As he was walking out of the door, she called behind him and said, Reverend, you want to know what I pray now before I go to bed at night? “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” In her dying days she had returned to the prayer her mother had taught and prayed with her as a little girl, the first prayer she had learned as a child. The prayers we were taught as covenant children by our parents from our earliest years are a great power of God to teach us how to pray. They who learn to pray from childhood will, with God’s blessing, live a life of prayer.