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Transcript: Get Your Spirit in Shape: Family Devotions

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Jenny Youngman, Kara Oliver, and Joe Iovino in the studio

Jenny Youngman, Kara Oliver, and Joe Iovino, share a wonderful conversation about celebrating our faith with our children through family devotions. Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist Communications.

Joe: Ready to get your spirit in shape? My name is Joe Iovino with United Methodist Communications. For the next 30 minutes or so, I invite you to listen along as we hear ideas to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies.

Today we’re going to be talking about family devotions.

Many of us would love to have a time to come together as a family for worship and prayer, but we just don’t know how. Fortunately, we are joined today by two authors whose books are designed to help us get into a routine of sharing our faith as a family. Kara Oliver, the author of Passing it On: How to Nurture Your Children’s Faith Season by Season is with us today. Welcome, Kara, to the podcast.

Kara Oliver: Thank you.

Joe: I know you’re an author and a speaker on children and family ministries, but tell me a little more about yourself.

Kara: Well, I started my ministry in youth ministry working for one of agencies of the United Methodist Church. There I tired of electronic communication, only being able to communicate with young people through email or phone calls.

Then I moved into youth ministry in a local church here in Nashville. During the time in youth ministry, I felt like the more vital part and necessary part of my ministry was with parents. I felt like parents were struggling as much or more with faith issues and the struggles and realities of family life than the youth themselves.

From youth ministry I was a stay-at-home mom for a while. Then our family moved to Malawi, Africa as Volunteers in Mission there in Malawi. Since then I’ve returned and continued work in publishing in Africa.

Still, always my heart has been pulled by parent, and the lack of confidence in sharing their faith with their children. They’re forming their children in so many important and beautiful ways, but when it comes to spirituality and faith suddenly there’s a drop in confidence, that if I don’t have a theological degree or if I am not praying every day, then I can’t do this with my own kids. I’ll send them to Sunday school.

So, that is kind of a summary of where I’ve been and what has...the seeds that have been planted and have prompted this book.

Joe: Great. What about your family? Tell us a little bit about your family.

Kara: I have 2 children. My daughter is a sophomore in high school, 15 years old, just got her driver’s permit.

Joe: Yes, exciting time.

Kara: So it is a new phase in our family life. My son is 9, almost 10, in the 4th grade. So there’s a big age difference in our children.

I told my husband that when our first child could tie her shoes and make a peanut butter sandwich I would be ready to have another one. That has worked out beautifully for us.

Joe: Wonderful. Also with us today is Jenny Youngman who’s the author of Scrambled Starts: Family Prayers for Morning, Bedtime and Everything In-Between. Welcome, Jenny.

Jenny Youngman: Thanks.

Joe: Tell us more about yourself and your family.

Jenny: Well, I describe my family in my book as sort of a moving circus in a minivan. That’s the stage of our life right now. I have a 12-year-old, a 9-year-old, and I have 6-year-old twins. Every one of them is interested in something, or more than one thing, and so we do a lot of driving to this or that.

I’m also married to a pastor. And I’m a worship pastor at a church. So, we’re just...we’re busy. We’re just in that busy season of life right now.

Joe: That’s a great place to start. I read a survey recently that talked about students in high school, and the ones that maintain their faith into early adulthood were the ones who had theological conversations or saw their parents practice their faith in front of their children.

So, how did you get started doing it in your own home?

Kara: Well, for us in a formal way it began with something that we called ‘sads, glads and sorries’ that Jenny describes in her book. It was simply sitting around the dinner table. For our family, dinner has been a priority. That’s where we hope we see each other every day, is at dinner.

We started by going around the table. My son was 2 when we started. And so my daughter was 8, almost 9. ...and simply asking, ‘What made you happy today?’ and going around the table, one thing. ‘What made you sad today?’ and then asking, ‘Is there anything that you need to say you’re sorry for?’ And since that is the simple place where we started. My husband Jeff and I tried to name where we saw grace in that, where we saw God in that.

So just starting with our daily experience and then helping give language to the children about.... One of your friends is sick at school? Well, we should pray for them. So, just starting where they were and then helping them see that God was in the midst of it. So that’s the simple place where we started and still today—my son is almost 10—but he is the one who now prompts us at dinnertime. “Hey, Dad. What made you happy today?” So it’s been an evolution of ownership and hopefully some depth, too, in where they see God in what they’re sharing.

Joe: Absolutely. Jenny, how was it for you?

Jenny: Yeah, for us it really coincided with our kids starting school.

It feels like school is something that happened to us. Like, the mornings are ridiculous and we sort went through....

Our oldest daughter was in school for a few years. Everything is fine. When you have one kid in school and only one at home, it’s... It can get dicey, but for the most part that’s manageable.

Then we had these twin babies, and then our older two were in school. And it just seemed like our morning routines just became a nightmare. From the minute our eyes opened, everyone was screaming at each other. We couldn’t find anything. And it just was this sort of comical routine that happened every single day. And we never changed anything about it.

I just remember feeling exhausted by that and defeated, like this is where.... This is just it. I had talked to other moms and had the same crazy morning crises that we had. And I just sort of remember feeling defeat about it, praying for an idea. God, just give me an idea to get a hold of this thing.

We just sort of said, We’re not going to do that. We’re gonna push against that. And we just.... I wrote it down. I said, At 6 o’clock our alarms were going off. At 6:10, this is happening. It took that kind of minute-by-minute in the morning game plan. At first it did. And we had to get everybody together and say, Hey, tomorrow morning this is happening.

It was great. And, you know, we’ve done it ever since.

I think it’s probably been 3 ½ or 4 years now, of just the pattern. It just sticks.

Some mornings it’s really deep and spiritual and the kids know what we need to pray about. They’ve got a test. Or they’ve got a friend who is struggling. And they want us to spend time praying about it.

Sometimes it’s like all we can do—we’re still in a hurry—and all we can do is gather in a circle in a huddle by our front door, and say, you know, “Thank you for this great family. We love each other. We’re cheering for each other’s day. Go with, God.”

You know, there’s nothing deep and super spiritual about it. But it’s just that I have the practice day by day by day. And not every day looks the same, but we keep doing it.

Joe: So there’s no typical day of what it looks like in the morning.

Jenny: No. You know people have asked me for pictures of our family praying at our table. I’m like... It’s not like Norman Rockwell. It’s not like you would look in our window in a morning and see like our sweet family and like my 12 and 9 year olds like hugging. There’s none of that. They’re still like, “He’s sitting too close to me,” and whatever.

But it’s authentic. It’s who we are, and we come before God every single morning. We say, “Thank you, God, for a great night of sleep. Thank you for this family, for this house, for this community.” We just ask God for whatever we need that day and oftentimes, you know, my kids are like, “Thank you for everything. Help all my stuffed animals have a good day.”

Not all of it is super deep, but it’s just a habit. And I trust that God is gonna take these habits and just keep shaping and molding them.

Joe: I think I hear you saying—so you can correct me if I’m wrong—that the habit is primary. The “what” that you do, or say, or any of those things, is kind of secondary. It’s more just getting into the habit and instilling those things. Am I right?

Jenny: Yes, I want the experience to be lovely and sweet and deep and spiritual. If I could do it with an agenda that’s what it would be. But you just can’t because kids are kids. Sometimes they’re right there with you, and sometimes they’re not.

So, yes, it is the habit of it. This is what we do as a family. This is our value. This is our identity. We come together every day. And for some, this is not going to be mornings.

So, for Kara, it’s not gonna be mornings like us. But it’s a habit. Every night at dinner we do this. Every morning we do this. And so,

That’s been my starting point in the book. It’s like it doesn’t matter what part of day it is. It doesn’t matter really what it looks like for your family.

But you’ve got to figure out what it looks like for you and make it a habit. Do it all the time regularly so that your kids expect it, and then your kids say, “Hey, Dad, what are you sorry for?” You know? We need to get them to have a habit, a family practice. Then they help...they help it happen.

Joe: Kara, your approach of passing it on is a little different. It’s a little more structured around the liturgical year. You talk about seasonally getting together to focus on what’s happening in the church year. Can you tell us more about that?

Kara: Sure. When I first met with the publisher they said, “How about if you do 52 weeks?” And I said, “No family that I know is going to do anything for 52 weeks of curriculum-type something. But there are seasons in every family that we can tap into.

So I wanted to draw on the church year. I think that is important for folks to realize that there is a secular calendar, but the church also has its own seasons. So I tapped into Advent and Lent. But then, every family, even with many children going to year-round school, there’s still some break in the summertime. So then I wanted to look at summertime and back to school.

I say in the book: We’re going to have 3 hopes. The first is that parents or any adult who loves children—it doesn’t have to be parents, it might be grandparents or godparents or aunts or uncles, neighbors. But parents, look for God every day. That becomes a habit for us as adults—that we are looking for God.

The second hope is that you will tell a child about it, wherever.... if that was the sunset on the way home from work, if that was a phone call that you received, if it was a good moment at work. Look for those moments where God is and tell a child about it.

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The third is to gather weekly to have time as a family to kind of review the week and say where was God? Did God go absent? And can we make some adjustments to our family life in the coming week?

But each week I provide a symbol. My theory was that if for children and adults, if there was something to draw our attention during the day, that would help us remember, ‘Oh, we’re looking for God.’

So those are my hopes, that as adults we would begin practicing looking for God and be able to articulate that. I think Jenny & I both talk about the language of God, that we want our kids to be able to name, that God is a part of whatever we’re seeing and doing, whether it’s the news, the election, whatever it is. How do we name God’s presence in that moment?

Jenny: You should tell that story of your nephew.

Kara: So my sister is in Indiana. And she’s not doing the whole program. The book has a leader’s guide component, but she’s just doing it by herself in her family.

Her son is 7, and it was the first week of back to school. The symbol was a heart: Remember that God loves us and we love each other.

He came home from school and he said, “Mom, (I will not give the name of his friend.) Mom, So-and-so yelled in my ear today. I wanted to yell back, but I touched my heart and remembered that I should love. And I let it go.’

I got that text message and just about started crying. I mean, that is my hope, that it’s just real moments where children remember God is a part of this moment and I can make decision because of that, to make different decisions—not yell at my friend, not punch my sister, whatever that is. So that’s my hope, to have something tangible, the symbol of the hope for something tangible.

Joe: That’s a lesson for all of us, no matter our age. Not only can a second grader do that, but all of us need those reminders of God’s presence in our lives every day. Have you heard stories of moms and dads or other adults saying, “Oh wow. This has caught my attention and suddenly I’m looking at things differently.”

Kara: My husband....

Joe: Are you going to get in trouble?

Kara: That’s right. It has been interesting to see just how enacting this model in our home with another group of parents… We’ve been traveling with another group of parents for the past 5 weeks and doing this. Again, mornings are not our family time. So there’s a comment that I would make...that I made one morning just a couple of weeks ago and Jeff said, “Is that how you would react with kindness?”

It was a point of accountability. Right? But it’s also.... We had this symbol on our back door so that we would see it when we left in the mornings. So it was totally appropriate for him to say, “This week we’re practicing kindness. Is that the way you want to respond?” See? And we are still married. ???

Joe: He used your own words against you?

Kara: Yes.

Joe: And you’ve seen it in your family as well?

Jenny: We are talking about language, a common language. What I’ve seen evidence of, and that people have sent me emails to say “thank you ‘cause I didn’t know what words to say. So thank you for giving me some words to say to pray with my kids,” or here I’m gonna hand a book to one of my reading kids and say, ‘Choose a prayer for breakfast this morning,’ or ‘choose a prayer for dinner,’ or ‘let’s do this family devotion.’ So it’s like a language and an awareness.

It’s words and it’s symbols, and it’s just an awareness that God is moving, and God is with us, and God is present. And we don’t have to have fancy words, and we don’t have to be experts on it, but just to teach families to pay attention.

That’s the main thing, I think, that is the takeaway from emails and feedback that I get from people that have read the book. They’re just like, “Thank you for giving me something that’s so easy, giving me words to say to my kids to help us be more aware of God’s movement in our lives.” And so that’s been really special to get those.

Joe: How do you squeeze it in? You guys talked about how busy life is and all of that. How do you squeeze in time for those family devotions?

Jenny: For us it was like I sat down with my DayTimer. That was a few years ago, when we had DayTimers. But I still actually use a paper calendar. I get made fun of; but whatever.

I had to say, this is our window because evenings for us are dance, and soccer, and church, and drama practice, and youth group, and all of that. So it really for us is morning time. We just have to get up extra early. But, you know, we just...we just had to say, this is a family value. It’s what we believe about who we are and we believe we’re better for it.

There will come a time—my children will just sort of...they don’t all go to school at the same time anymore. And so our mornings are… I can tell they’re gonna have to change. And I feel like what’s going to have to happen is that we’re all just gonna have to say, Hey, our mornings are changing. What time...what’s good for all of us? We need to....

They’re old enough now. We need to say, you know, Do we want to move it to dinner? Do we want to do 8 o’clock at night at bedtime before...before we’re going to sleep. So I feel like it’s gonna have to adjust.

Probably people with different aged kids and different dynamics, working parents who have different schedules. Every family just kinda has to say, This is where we can squeeze it in. We look at our calendar and we say, This right here. That’s the one time. Let’s circle it because it’s important.

Joe: But the times are not gonna just appear? Correct?

Jenny: They won’t appear, never. It will never appear. There will never be time if you don’t say, “We’re doing it at this time.” You know, you’ll never have time to do family worship. You’ll never have time to pray together ever if you don’t say, “This is the time we’re doing it. Everybody be there.”

Kara: And I think it is counter-cultural. What we want, what our desire for our families and trying to make this work in our families in fits and starts. It’s countercultural to say we might be 10 minutes late to soccer because we need to finish dinner without inhaling it. It’s always a balance of these responsibilities and commitments we have and the value that we really need to look for and acknowledge God’s presence in our midst.

Another mom that I met with.... You talked about the circus in a minivan. ... She’s decided the drive home from school is their time. They’re all buckled in. But for her it was kind of an aha moment.

I think it is beginning to look at your schedule and say, “When are we naturally together?” For this mom it’s the ride home from school. Right now her kids are at the same school. And so.... and it’s 15 minutes. It’s not a 90-minute call and respond, prayer and confession, closing hymn.

Jenny: Exactly.

Kara: It’s 15 minutes where she can say, Right now I want to hear how your day was and where was God? And you know what happened to me at work? I really feel like I’m gifted to be a nurse. And I want to tell you a story about what happened. You know? But it’s 15 minutes in a minivan.

So I think it is counter-cultural. It is not easy. And if that is what you’re asking God to provide, God will show you. This is the place for your family. This is the time for your family. So I think it’s just always a balance and being open to what God can do in your family in the chaos.

Joe: You talked.... I think, Jenny, it was you that said something about how if we looked in your window it wouldn’t be a Rockwell painting. It’s not like everything suddenly got magically beautiful because you were having this devotion time. What have been some of the challenges along the way or some of the surprises?

Jenny: Well, challenges? Saying you’re gonna do it in the morning. It’s mornings. So we’re half-asleep, and there are lots of things to be done prior to getting to car line and all that. So it’s a challenge to get everybody to the table with a good attitude and you know a compliant Spirit and open heart to the experience.

But what is always so beautiful to me is when my kids will talk about somebody they know who is struggling, a friend, and they want us together to pray for him or her. You know?

Or, a friend of their’s grandma is sick or a parent is struggling with cancer or something. My kids get the gravity of that. And those have been the most special moments, when they have understood the weight of one of their friend’s burdens and brought it to our prayer time to say.... I think that they understand that they can share the weight of the burdens of their friends and bring them. And they feel....

One of my kids is really extroverted, really outgoing. He’s gonna go back and say, “We prayed for you and I believe this is what’s going happen in that situation.” He’s a very bold kid.

But those are the most special, I think, for me is when just hearing the word come out of their mouths that they have heard in church, they have heard in their Sunday school time, they’ve heard their dad say from the pulpit, they’ve heard me say in a time of teaching or in worship, that come out of their mouth and they know what they’re saying.

They’re not just mimicking. They know what they’re saying. They’re bringing the weight of a burden before God in prayer. And those have been a really special moments.

And that still is not to say that from the window it looks beautiful. But you know, beautiful is not always perfect. It’s messy.

Kara: I tell this story in the book of when we lived in Malawi. My son was only 3. From the get-go he said he was not going to learn any Chichewa which is the native language in Malawi, one of them. Adamant. At church, at school, wherever he was he would not utter a single Chichewa word.

Then, when we flew home to the U.S., we got on the plane and he started singing a chorus from church in Chichewa, on key—which I do not have the gift of—but he sang it word for word: the rhythm, the melody. I thought, he was paying attention.

I feel the same way about passing on my faith. I can’t tell you yet what this has done in the life of my kids. My daughter is a sophomore is in boarding school, 7 hours away from me. And my prayer is that the seeds that we have planted, that they will blossom, that she will be one of the kids in this study at 19 years old that says, “I have faith because of what I saw my family model.” But I don’t know yet. I’m just trusting and praying that our best efforts really are planting the seeds that will give them the faith and the courage and the boldness that they need in the future. But I just don’t know. This is all an act of faith.

Joe: Sure. But it is like learning the song, right? You do it enough times and it just becomes part of who you are. Again, no matter your age when you begin to put those things into a routine and begin to have that, it just becomes a part of you.

So was there a time when—you mentioned that your son now asks for ‘sads, glads and sorries’—was there a time when everybody just kind of caught on and you didn’t have to ask them to come together, they just started to coming together? How long did it take to get to that point?

Jenny: Yeah, I mean, for us because it was so the same every day it was immediately. You know, we said, “This is what we’re doing,” and everybody was there.

Then I for sure upped my breakfast game because of it. But you know, it’s like, Well, let’s unite. So that helped for sure. But it was sort of.... For us it was like Day 1 this is what we’re doing, and it changed for everybody. But at that time my kids were young enough that it did, you know, they did what they were told.

Joe: How about you. Did it take a while?

Kara: I think it was novel at the beginning so people wanted to do it. But I think we had backslides just like in everything else. So we had a season where one ... myself or my husband was traveling, or nights when somebody or everyone is just too grumpy to participate. So I think it goes in seasons for our family. There are seasons where it is clicking every night. Then suddenly we find like, “Oh, we haven’t done that for a few days or a week. We need to get back on track.”

Joe: If we’re really excited about this and want to get started, immediately—before the book can come from Amazon—what are some things that you would suggest to do today, tomorrow, next week?

Jenny: I think the calendar bit is so key. Like, if you want to get started, then you’ve got to talk to your spouse. You’ve got to say, “Hey, we’ve got to get on the same page. Let’s pick a time. Is it gonna be every day? Is it gonna be at dinner? Is it gonna be once a week?” And name it and put it on the calendar and like declare it.

Kara: I think, too, almost immediately you have to come to peace with the fact that it’s gonna be awkward at first.

Joe: Okay.

Kara: So, when you turn off this podcast to decide, “Here’s one thing I want to tell my kids about what I believe about God.” It is going to feel so awkward when they get off the bus this afternoon and you say, “You know, I really felt God’s presence when I had lunch with your aunt.” And they’re gonna look at you like you are from the moon. What? So it’s gonna be awkward at first. I think to just say, “That’s okay.”

But to begin to have those conversations, to name what your faith means to you, why we go to church on Sundays, and the joy that you find in your faith, and the confusion. I think all of it.

We don’t always have the answers. You know, why is my friend sick? Babe, I don’t know, but I trust that God is with him. But I think just accepting the awkwardness and the rolling of the eyes and move forward anyway. Move forward anyway.

Jenny: I think praying for an idea. I think if you’re interested in this and you want your family to move toward this habit, I think you have to start yourself. Start the prayers. Start yourself personally praying for your family and pray for an idea that God would take ahold of your family and shape them and invite God to show you what in your family can go away to create some space for time with God. It’s.... God will honor that and speak, you know. I’m sure of it.

Joe: If we want to learn more, what are some places you would...things you would recommend to people?

Jenny: Oh, gosh. I have a long list of like favorite...none that are like necessarily about families. But I love any, you know, Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, spiritual formation workbooks, things like that. And yeah, what would you say?

Kara: I would say, well, The Upper Room website is a great place to go for.... they have an explanation of a lot of spiritual disciplines. Daniel Wolpert's Creating a Life with God is an excellent book that is just...maybe in 5 pages...the history of the discipline and how to practice it as an individual and how to practice it as a group. So I.... his book, one of the books that I have of his is just tattered and torn. I mean, it’s just my go-to book.

Joe: We’ll include links to those on the site so that people can get them. We’ll also include links to your books and...and where on line can people find out more about you?


Joe: And we’ll make sure we put a link on there so you don’t have to remember how to spell this.

Jenny: Mine is

Joe: Well, we really appreciate you guys being with us today.

So as we wrap up this episode I want to thank you, the listener, for spending this time with us. I hope you found it useful and encouraging. If you like what you heard, please consider doing a couple of things for us.

First, take a moment to head over to iTunes or wherever you receive this podcast and give us a really good rating. Excellent reviews will help more people find us and join us on this journey towards spiritual health.

Also, be sure to go to our webpage, In the comments section share your thoughts about this episode, questions you may have or ideas you have for future topics. You’ll also find my email address there, if you’d rather send your thoughts along that way, a little more privately.

Finally, share what you’ve heard today with others, anyone you think will benefit from this spiritual food and these exercises. Thanks again for being with us, we’ll be back soon with more ideas and encouragement to keep our spirits in shape.

I am Joe Iovino with United Methodist Communications. Peace.