There’s nothing quite like reading picture books to our little ones. They snuggle in tightly, nestle close to the heart, trace pictures with chubby fingers and beg for “one more”. But what happens when the little ones grow into lanky teenagers?
My middle-schooler no longer fits in children’s clothing, but must shop in the men’s department. As his body transitions from that of a child into that of an adult, so does his world. His calendar rivals mine. Discussions of college have begun to pepper our conversation and our planning for the upcoming school year. Conversations about world events have reflected the despair and depravity that are impossible to avoid. And then there is the dreaming together. The discovery. The hope.
I was reminded this week that despite the “necessities” that demand our time – the pivotal conversations, schoolwork, music lessons, sports and the myriad of activities that make up our days – our older children still need us to read aloud to them. Maybe as much or more than they did when they were toddlers.
As a family, we’ve been reading The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom, aloud. There is tremendous power in the story. In the realities presented. In the faith lived out that no human could conjure in his own strength. No doubt, there is great value in reading such a book alone. Yet each time we embark on the adventure of reading as a family, I continue to be surprised. Not so much by the power of the story – I’ve come to anticipate that. But I continued to be amazed at the potency of the conversations that flow from our reading together. I’ve discovered through the years that to “teach” breaks the spell woven by the language and the story. Rather, I’ve learned to guide our conversations – by opening doors of possibility, listening, and doing the hard work of seeing through the children’s eyes. As a result, not only are their souls stirred, but I’m given the indescribable privilege of baring witness to their personhood. It’s holy ground.
To attempt to distill such rich time would be futile – I’m not gifted enough as a writer. Yet I want to share a few snippets of our discussions. If for no other reason than to chronicle for posterity.
As The Hiding Place unfolds, it becomes clear that the most treasured possession is not a vial of precious vitamin oil or the blue sweater from home smuggled under the prison uniform. Rather, the most precious object in the prison camp is the small tattered Bible that hangs around Corrie’s neck. The role of Bible grows in importance through her captivity and practically becomes its own character. One day after we read, a child paused thoughtfully, then asked if I thought it had been “just a regular Bible” to the prisoners before they had entered the concentration camp. I could see his wheels turning. We have several Bibles. Always have. No big deal. Or perhaps it is a bigger deal than we can begin to comprehend.
Items present in our everyday that hold little or no significance take on new meaning. Like bread crumbs guiding Hansel and Gretel, a sparse trail of beauty offer hope in the midst of tragedy. Corrie uses scavenged threads to create a masterpiece of embroidered flowers on her pajamas. The singed remains of tulips offer promise. Color is more than symbolic for life – it infuses life to the deadened imaginations and despairing souls. The book ends with the following words:
“Windowboxes,” I said. “We’ll have them at every window. The barbed wire must come down, of course, and then we’ll need paint. Green paint. Bright yellow-green, the color of things coming up new in the spring.”
As we prepare our questionable garden (not enough sun and relentless dear threaten its success), as the children sketch on lazy summer days, and as we make simple choices to bring beauty into our home, this same trail of hope is offered to us. Our conversation will continue through these everyday observations. “Remember when she wrapped the light with red paper to decorate her cell?” We don’t live in the unthinkable environment of a concentration camp, but our souls are assaulted daily. Just more subtly. We need the same life-saving medicine of beauty.
I first read The Hiding Place as a young adult. I remember the shock and horror, but not much else. This time around, life experience had given me much broader vision through which to take in such a story. My children, although lacking years of experience, bring their own unique perspective to our reading. For them, much of that framework was the result of the myriad of stories they’ve ingested. The prisoners in the concentration camp were referred to only by numbers, not by names. “Mom – that’s just like Les Mis” interjected my son. He’s right. The conversation meandered down a path leading to our interactions with the local refugee community and how hard it was to learn and remember a person’s name. But knowing a name is important. We treat others like numbers everyday when we fail to look into the eyes. To Listen. To develop a posture of curiosity.
As we finished The Hiding Place, the children talked about what they would remember about the book. God’s provision in the midst of a horrible situation. The difference between the kingdom of the world and the Kingdom of Heaven. But the response that stopped me was when one of them said, “It helps us imagine what it looks like to trust God when really hard things happen.” I saw it happen. In my living room. My child is developing what my friend, Sam, calls “Holy imagination.”
Life is full of wonder, adventure, and beauty yet to be discovered. But life can also be ruthless. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and I can’t protect my children from the realities of the world. But I’m grateful that I can do something. I can continue to feed their minds, souls, hearts, and yes – imaginations. So if and when the unimaginable happens, they’re not taken completely off-guard. Through our reading, they’ve witnessed injustice and loss. They’ve practiced empathy, trust, choosing others over self, and belief that in the end, good will undoubtedly triumph over the most heinous evil. In reading as a family and leaving space for discussion, we have the great privilege of offering them a training ground for hope.
There’s nothing quite like reading to older kids. They leave behind their schedules, assignments, and social engagements. If even only for a brief period of time, they hang on every word we say. And if we’re lucky, they still snuggle in tightly and nestle close to the heart.