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A Feature Review of
Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide for Your Child’s Spiritual Formation
Jared Patrick Boyd
Paperback: InterVarsity Press, 2017
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Review by Erin F. Wasinger
The first session, we were flying.
After welcoming the Holy Spirit into our prayer time together, my three elementary-aged daughters and I sat on the living room floor and imagined ourselves in the air.
Reading from the guidebook in my lap, Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide for Your Child’s Spiritual Formation(InterVarsity Press), I led us from the ocean floor to outer space, each time pausing to admire the beauty of God’s creation.
“There is so much here that God loves,” I read to my girls, then paused. The pattern of reading aloud and silence, of being guided and then left free to wonder for a few moments, is the masterpiece to the imaginative prayer sessions written by author Jared Patrick Boyd, a Vineyard USA pastor, father of four, and spiritual director.
Our family personally loved the experience of pausing our bedtime routine, of closing our eyes to imagine ourselves flying, or being knit together; another time, lost in the woods. One of my daughters smiled as I suggested picturing Mars; picturing a jungle.
Boyd fills a void on bookshelves with the unassuming but powerful Imaginative Prayer: it’s neither inspirational book nor do-it-yourself manual. None of it instilled a sense that we as parents weren’t doing enough to nurture a relationship between God and our children.
Moreover, it’s not a formal curriculum, though sharing the vocabulary of experiencing God, as Boyd says, would be strengthened by a children’s ministry or family life group using the book together each week.
Instead, Imaginative Prayer functions as a practical guidebook. Following a brief introduction (main thought: how do we affect our children’s spiritual formation?), are all the actual prayers, thoughts, and activities.
Boyd’s book is a gift for those who’ve ever read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Henri Nouwen’s catalogue and then wondered can you, how do you teach this stuff to kids? Moreover, for those of us who’ve only recently discovered the disciplines, he’s given a guide to teaching what we adults are ourselves just learning. Beyond giving our children a key into our spiritual world and vocabulary,Imaginative Prayer allows us to be shaped together by the Holy Spirit. Adults are both oblate and novitiate, co-experiencers of this holy time.
But, lest I make it sound as if I’ve found the one spiritual habit that is easy and painless, reality was tinged with, well, reality on our first few forays into imaginative prayer. During our first prayer time together, one child wailed after being hit by her sibling’s flapping “bird arms.” Another attempted to somersault across the room while my eyes were closed. One was asked to leave the space after interjecting sour opinions over my voice.
Boyd warns in the introductory words to Imaginative Prayerthat creating the reflective atmosphere experience takes time: “You may find that your child seems engaged in the imaginative prayer sessions. Or not.” (For sure, keeping our cool in the middle of an imaginative prayer session is also a spiritual discipline.)
And herein is the only weakness I’ve discerned from the guide: how can we, in meaningful ways, offer this time for relationships with the children who are unimpressed, unruly, or just plain busy-bodied?
I concur with Boyd that channeling our energy to this other, simpler method of sitting in the presence of God is far superior than efforts to compete with video games and high-budget ministry productions. But, as Boyd stresses in the beginning of the book, “if we can’t figure out how to pastor parents of kids like (a “typical” fifth-grade boy), and if we can’t figure out how to pastor (this child) — to help him grow up to be someone who is intrigued by Jesus and wants to follow the kind of life that Jesus invites us to — then we need to keep trying (emphasis mine).”
What does it look like to keep trying, if this is a chore? What does steadfastness in this practice look like, if adults don’t want to make a spiritual practice drudgery for themselves or the child? Missing is a script for dealing with difficult or obnoxious behavior during prayer time: how compelled will adults be to continue the prayer sessions if the children are somersaulting or throwing elbows every time? If a church’s children’s ministry uses Imaginative Prayer, in what ways can families feel supported through guidance about this?
Perhaps a strength of dealing with challenging behavior, then, is the book’s yearlong plan; routines are often a large component in managing expectations and behavior, and a year is considerable in terms of kids’ abilities to sustain attention.
Intriguingly, too, Boyd has set up the series of prayers in six compelling units — God’s Love, Loving Others, Forgiveness, Jesus is the King, The Good News of God, and The Mission of God. Each is broken down into six weekly imaginative prayer sessions, plus a review week. The themes compound an invitational spirit: children can begin to wonder what their individual role in God’s Kingdom looks like through these stories and the Holy Spirit working in their imaginations.
Each prayer session includes a guiding thought for adults, the imaginative prayer script, and question-and-answer statements that collectively make up the Imaginative Prayer Creedal Poem. For instance, the question in session one: “What’s the most important part of the story?” leads to the first line of the poem: “The most important part of the story is that God loves so many things.” The creed, Boyd writes, should be used more like a “poetry slam than any sort of test for proficiency.” Nonetheless, I’m struck by the simple truths: “Love looks like taking care of people when they need help,” and “Forgiveness means we can forgive the sins of others”; “Jesus is a faithful king, even when we don’t have faith.
Questions and suggested reading or activity ideas end each week’s chapter (“how is God loving you this week?” “Read Mark 10:46-52 a few times this week,” etc.).
The work of the adult throughout this book is to create and maintain the time to pray together like this. Adults must also be comfortable with not foreseeing an outcome: unlike knowledge, which can be tested, we’re welcoming our kids into a relationship. How well they will become acquainted with God isn’t measurable.
Our job, too, is to participate. We do this to a specific end: As we slow down enough to sit and daydream with God, the Spirit guides us. The parable of the lost sheep makes tangible sense when we imagine ourselves lost in a dark, rainy woods. If we can almost feel ourselves shiver, and if behind our closed eyes we envision ourselves huddled under a tree after wandering away from the crowd — then can’t we better feel the relief when Jesus finds us?
After that particular prayer, our family said the line from the creedal poem aloud, When I am lost, God will come looking for me. We could take this truth as more than new data about God: we had felt the need, the loneliness, because we’d taken on that skin and walked around in it for a while.
The simplicity of the creedal poem and the times — however brief — of a child and a parent engaged with the Spirit of God in imaginative prayer are rich. The experience prepares both adult and child in growing in the desire, and the ability, to sit and be still before God.
Erin F. Wasinger is the co-author of The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us and also leads the children’s ministry program at her church in Lansing, Mich. She writes at erinwasinger.com.