Wednesday, September 16, 2009

teaching the Psalms to our children

Picture my husband and I sitting side-by-side on the couch in the 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?”


“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 darknesss.

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 very darkest moment, while inside the smelly cave of a 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'm inspired by Jonah's example to continue the task I began many months ago—to teach 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, from five to 40-year-old—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 prayers after God's own heart. I want God's great prayers to fill my children's minds when things go bump in the night.

reprinted from my post "Teaching the psalms to your children" published on Sola Panel last week

image is by Amydeanne from flickr


Sharon said...

The songs of "Sons of Korah" are a great tool in this regard as well, because they are almost all taken pretty much word-for-word from the Psalms.

Recently, memorising Psalm 103 has been a great help to me in my own personal situations as I brought it to mind.

~ Sharon

Jean said...

How about that? I, too, have been particularly encouraged recently by Psalm 103, which was one of the first psalms I memorised. I've been feeling pretty down recently, and this psalm gave me words to keep thanking God and remembering his blessings as I've struggled with despondancy.

April said...

A question:

How are we to understand the psalms today? Are they promises for us? eg. how do we explain to our children "The Lord will keep you from all harm..." (121:7)
I think I hesitate to teach whole psalms because I find this tricky!! I'd have no problem confidently telling them v1, 2 and 4 and 8, but what about the other bits?

Jean said...

That's a fantastic question April! And I must admit a similar question has occurred to me at times: can I speak these psalms as my own?

I think Jonah's example shows that I can (for he's not in exactly the same situation as the psalmists, though much closer than us!) - and so can my children - but with care for the theological context. So "Take not your Holy Spirit from me" in Psalm 51 is a prayer for a king of Israel (for God's Spirit came on those who were set aside by God for kinship for the period of their kingship) not for me (for I never lose God's Spirit if I believe in Christ) - but the rest of the psalm translates easily to my context.

And, as you say, the "blessings" psalms are spoken in an OT context - under a different covenant when the blessings promised to Israel were physical as well as spiritual, and contingent on national obedience - so I need to take care when I read and speak them (although even in OT Israel the psalmists struggled with the fact that the blessings didn't always come to the righteous!).

But I will still teach the psalms to our children, while explaining what needs to be explained. I think it's important that God's word lives in them both now and in the future, and that they learn to handle God's word carefully, but also suck all the comfort and help they can from it! My kids and learn God's word together, and we talk about how it applies to us now, and how we might understand some of the more difficult passages.

So we're learning the 10 commandments at the moment. But this is only in the context of teaching them - in Sunday School and at home - that we're no longer under the law, but that it shows us the shape of love.

And when I come across a promise in the psalms, such as "I will keep you from all harm" or "I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety", I teach it to my children, but I also explain what it means - that bad things may happen to us, but that God is loving and sovereign and uses all things for our good, that nothing can separate us from his love, and that even if the worst should happen - death! - they will be with God forever.