listen to the trail: behold a sermonless sermon

A child is a walking appetite. They devour with their eyes, they take with their hands wherever their little feet rush to carry them. If it fits in their mouth (nose, or ears) it goes in.

The same is true of their hearts.

Devotions are to feed children with spiritual nutriment; to foster compassion, develop character and positive values. The Good Dirt devotional adds follow-up questions for children to ponder. The questions help children reflect upon themselves; upon their own emotional responses during the day. This helps my son. Picking out and naming the different colors of his emotional kaleidoscope is good for him.

In our family, devotions are a bedtime ritual. The nightly devotion involves dental hygiene, stories, cuddles, reflection and prayers. These nightly rituals are my wife’s creation. They are not my style. The practice of stopping the day to read scripture and pray feels unnatural to me.

As I am not from a Christian family, I do not have family traditions to incorporate into my son’s life. So I listened to my heart: when is the best time to commune with God? When is the best time to practice the devotional life with my son?

For me, the devotional life pulses in the solitude of a busy city crowd. The city bus, cafes and street benches foster the proper devotional space for me. Urbanscape, with its gray buildings and matching sky; where the city’s royalty parade past broken men sitting along metro stairs extending their hands—this is where faith, frustration and action take place. The devotional life needs daily life to make sense of its own faith-claims.

As a father, I have found the best place for shared devotions is outside, walking along a trail, at riverside, or near a pond. And there should be food, tuna sandwiches, apples and chips. We should carry tools too, pocket knives, compasses and flashlights. I carry one more item, a folded piece of paper with a psalm and a hymn.

Pic 1After catching tadpoles in the pond, my son and I sit together in the shade for lunch. I’ll pull out my creased piece of paper and read it to my boy while he brushes the mud off hands before he eats. We easily talk about Psalm 1 as there are many trees growing near the water. How exciting for a ring-neck pheasant to fly over while talking about the Creator, and to hear a cuckoo in the pines.

Along with a psalm, I carry a hymn. Hymns are the meat and gravy of faith’s music. Hymn writers give us simple labyrinths of the common and the glorious, to wander and meditate upon. My son needs to know these people and their stories. I want him to have so much respect for Fanny Crosby that he thinks she is the worship leader for G.I. Joe.

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Remember son, when I can’t be with you, carry a song of courage in your heart.

-Mark Liebenthal “plantingpennies”

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Forgive the Russians? But Dad!

We have a set bedtime ritual for our son: one more last wrestling match, teeth brushing, story time, devotions, prayer, lights-out; followed by an hour of chatting, cuddling and escape attempts.

We get a new stack of books each week, along with books I borrow from the school I teach at and the books we own. There is no shortage of printed words here. At bedtime, our son gets to pick two books for his story time. Last night he picked G.I. Joe comics.

In one issue*, the Joes are tasked with recovering a spy plane that crashed in Afghanistan. While on their way, they are intercepted by Oktober Guard, the Russian special mission team. A battle ensues and the Joes win the day with cunning ingenuity.

During our devotions, we read Jesus’ words about forgiving our enemies. My son looked confused.

“Even the bad guys with red stars?”

“Jesus thinks so.”

“But they’re the bad guys!”

The interesting part is that we have never explained what forgiveness is, but he inherently knows that it entails being generous with our enemies; we have to give a part of ourselves to malefactors.

It is a mistake for me to ever think family devotions are for my family. Nightly devotions with my son are not for him, they are for me. I am the convict; the one who is convicted. I need to hear the words of Jesus again.

Repentance and devotions make the parent and child partners in their devotional life, daily renewing their bond. Repentance is a sign of new life. Repentance is the pulse of faith. Devotions coupled with repentance make theology vibrant, keeping it safe from academics and in the realm of daily experiments in grace, prayer and obedience.

We aspire to find peace with God in an active devotional life. But we are not always able to discern between peace and complacency, and healing and mending—this does not matter until young faith asks questions of our devotions.

If we do not find healing in God, no matter the price, our children might not. If we have allowed other elements to mend us, such the passing of time, sex, or booze, then we have been nurtured by vice. This is idolatry.

Devotions with children remind adults to refocus their lives and practice the basics. Devotions give us a second chance to do a few things better.

Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.

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By: Mark Liebenthal

*G.I. Joe A Great American Hero, Vol. 1 issue 6, “To Fail is to Conquer…To Succeed is to Die!”

cityscape: skyline of faith and nightmare

How do you navigate? Where do you find home? How do you choose your maps? I bought my maps from two old Greeks and a Russian dissident. I ask a lot of questions of Nobel laureates, mostly poets. I’ve had many maps over the years, but I’ve only kept a few.

At some point faith needs to leave home and go on its own adventure, facing danger on its own. Faith needs to learn how to build a fire, make a shelter and find clean water. Faith needs to learn how to make a family, build community, engage commerce and, most importantly, faith needs to learn to keep watch.

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The faith that we want our children to have won’t really come from the devotions we’re struggling to maintain. The paper and the printed words aren’t what make faith great, or even viable. Faith comes with callouses, walking for miles, getting lost and finding one’s way home. Faith is found when we return home.

My wife and I have to raise a boy to be a man, and a better man than his father. My wife and I have different ways of doing the same thing. She is nurturing the deep, beautiful side of the spiritual life, while I take him down the alleys of the city. I take him to the Valley of the Shadow.

Quite often we walk together just to walk together. Sometimes I take him out early morning, sometimes late at night. I don’t like to have a reason for walking together, I like to discover the reason along the way. I want him to experience life unfolding; the city blossoming in the morning, or the city nocturnal, full of real shadows.

When we head out together, we always walk through the parking lot of a church building that has a large stained glass work of Jesus tending sheep. When we walk through here, we say together, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Having him say that on his own has been my only spiritual goal for him this year. Maybe next year we’ll add the part about not wanting. Maybe.

Many times we have walked among foreign gods, military machines, prostituted women, drunken men, and known criminals. We’ve been out in all kinds of weather and pushed the limits of wisdom, but always together. I led him. I held his hand. I carried him.

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You can teach a kid anything during playtime. They are vulnerable to facts and wisdom. During our walks, I lecture with my hands, opening doors for others, paying for everything I take from a store, cleaning my messes. He just thinks we’re walking to the park, but I’m teaching him along the way. I want him to intuit his surroundings as a seasoned pathfinder; mindful of who he is wherever he is. I want him to navigate with his blood, making decisions with his core, not his skin.

Are these devotions? Maybe. Certainly disciplines.

Right now the needle of your success-o-meter might be bouncing around. That’s ok. Someday he’s going to face all of this on his own (as will your children). I don’t want him to merely be ready, I want him to lead.

When we come home with muddy boots, Momma smiles because she knows we were doing our devotions.

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-Mark Liebenthal