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As a father of five children, and now a grandfather, I have spent three and a half decades seeking to pass down the Christian faith to the next generation. Let me deal with only one area of this vast work — one, I believe, that appears to have had some effectiveness in bringing up our little ones “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” so that now as adults they all confess Christ.
I take for granted the general atmosphere in which Christians are to raise their children: faithful church attendance, some kind of daily family worship, love of parents one to another and to the children, a sincere and arduous effort to live lives of integrity (including the honesty to apologize when we are in the wrong), time spent talking to our children, instructing them in biblical truth (and perhaps the Catechism), as well as playing with them, and taking them to visit extended family and other friends — including needy people in the region. This kind of practical, active familial piety forms the necessary background for the opportunity I wish to raise here for all who desire to communicate the faith to the next generation.
It is this: taking some individual time each night, with each child, after they have gotten into bed, to tell them some kind of story that might be of interest and encouragement to them. If you do so, you will have this natural advantage: every child is glad to postpone for as long as possible having to go to sleep, and so will follow your story with interest, and will probably interject further comments or questions in order to postpone the inevitable!
What kind of stories will we tell them? That depends of course on the experience and interests of the parents. It goes without saying that the story is to be adapted to their level of maturity, so that it will hold their attention, and might — at least in an indirect and long-term sense — become part of the “mental furniture” that shapes their inner life. It is unnecessary, and possibly counterproductive, always to append an immediate moral lesson. Let them pass it through their imaginations, and then the story teller quietly trusts the Holy Spirit to use it in due season to refine their insight, and to draw connections that may be far better than anything the parent could have done. This sort of parental effort is subject to the law of gradual growth: “first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.” Our trust in the Holy Spirit, our affection, and our patience form the healthy context in which the seeds we plant in these evening stories take root, and, by and by, produce beautiful fruit.
As for me, coming from an old Christian family that had lived on the same land for some 250 years, where we were surrounded by old houses, moldy books, faded documents, family cemeteries, and a vast cousinage in the district, we may have had a tendency “to live in the past” (as my wife remarked after she came into the family), so it seemed natural and easy for me to tell each child some kind of story from the huge treasury of family history. My parents, grandparents, and elderly cousins had done this to me from earliest memory, and never having moved, nor having had our houses and papers burned in the various American wars, the store of all kinds of personalities and events was so large that it kept me going from the time my children were three or four, until they reached their early teens, when that sort of work has reached its conclusion.
Every family has its own experiences, and these will usually be of interest to your offspring, simply because they perceive that we are part of our ancestors and our ancestors are part of us. It does not have to be anything grand or sublime, but just tell them about what your people were like: good and bad experiences, prayers that were answered, difficulties overcome, or weaknesses that need to be avoided. Tell them about marriages, births, deaths, wars, depressions, good and bad crop years, wonderful relatives and morose ones. Pass on sayings that have been handed down over the generations. Family lore can be used for a higher purpose: to convey in a very tender way the divine call in Proverbs: “My son, give me thy heart.”
I told them about an ancestor in 1790 who stepped on a log to cross a small Carolina stream and suddenly saw the eyes of a black panther glaring at him. He had a muzzle loader, dry powder, and one ball, and was swift and accurate enough to bring down the beast. I told each child that if the panther had killed this ancestor, none of us would be alive today (for all his children were born after that experience). I told them about another ancestor who was disciplined by the church for profanity, and about a grandmother who reported seeing Christ before she died in childbirth.
Is not story telling a way of calling our children to share in the long family heritage of Psalm 16:8? “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.”