Praying With Kids: An Interview With Rev. Rachel Hackenberg

You'd already written "Writing to God: 40 Days of Praying with My Pen." What led you to develop a "Writing to God: Kids' Edition"?

Rachel Hackenberg: The idea for the "Kids' Edition" was a collaboration between myself and the publisher. It's the logical "next step" to "Writing to God," especially given my own childhood experiences of struggling with prayer. In the book's introduction, I note one of the ironies of growing up in the church and in a religious family: that, despite being surrounded by prayer, I never learned how to string my own words together in a prayer. "Most of the time, adults did the praying for me. My dad prayed at dinner. My pastor prayed during church. My teachers prayed in Sunday school." We -- the publisher and I -- wanted to give kids an invitation to use their own words to talk with (or write to) God about their everyday experiences.

How would you describe the process of working with the prayer lives of children?

Elementary-aged children are still learning but are not yet fully accustomed to "church language," so their prayers are not encumbered by doubt over using the right church words. By church language and church words, I mean the words that we use almost exclusively in church settings -- like "blessed" or "hallowed" -- which have no external context for children to understand them; or words that kids hear everyday -- like "light" or "gift" -- which have church-specific definitions and allegories. When children pray, they are blunt: they pray about tangible experiences, they don't shield their emotions, they marvel over everyday joys and they deeply lament over pains that adults skim past. Inviting kids to write original prayers for "Writing to God: Kids' Edition" was a real joy for me; the 20 prayers that were contributed to the book range from "Water is such a great idea, God!" to "I get scared sleeping all by myself."

What can adults learn from children's prayer lives?

Adults can learn from children's honesty and freedom in prayer. I've met so many adults who feel inhibited by church language in prayer, by the sense that there must be a "right" and a "wrong" way to pray, that their overall experience of prayer is plagued by doubt and disconnect. It's difficult to experience God in prayer when we're preoccupied with choosing our words! But more than that: it's not only hard to connect with God in prayer when we're self-editing, it's also challenging to be genuinely ourselves if we're simultaneously stepping out of the moment to critique our own prayer practices. Children haven't yet learned how to step back from themselves or to edit their words (for better or worse), so their prayers are naturally uninhibited!

It was interesting to invite my own children (ages 11 and 9 at the time) to write prayers for the "Kids Edition." they have the PK (Pastor's Kids) Syndrome -- their lives are so inundated by church and by a published prayer-writing mother that they have already started to suspect that there is a right way to pray. We had several conversations as they created their prayers, in which I said, "Really! Just tell God in the same way that you would tell a friend at school!" and their response was, "Right now? Should I say 'Dear God' first?" Adults have the same sticking point: "Right now? I don't have enough time! My words are a mess!" Yes, right now, take a moment to stop and tell God that the cherry blossoms are gorgeous even though they bother your allergies, or that your body hurts but you need to power through the day, or that the world's current events scare you.

Who's your primary audience here: children, their parents or faith communities?

Yes! All of the above. "Writing to God: Kids' Edition" is perfect for kids, families, adults and faith communities. Young readers will be able to use the book themselves. It can be a "lap sit" book (my mother's phrase for a book that adults and children sit down to read together) for parents and grandparents to use with their young ones. It's a conversation-starter for families at the dinner table: "Let's use Idea #6 from the book and talk about how God is like our favorite colors." It's an engaging book for adults to give to themselves as a creative tool for praying more simply and candidly. And it's a beautiful resource to compliment religious education programs in congregations.