My youngest grandson, Luke, has been spending some time with his Nonni and Poppy this Spring. He is three and a half years old, going on thirty.
He is at that stage where seemingly every question begins with “why,” his favorite exclamation is “Mine,” and every sentence includes the word “exactly” — as in “Poppy, that’s exactly what I wanted!” “Poppy, that’s exactly what I need.” The vocabulary of a three-year-old is a constant source of wonder with an occasional dollop of annoyance. Then there are times when you sit back in awe, and all you can say is, “out of the mouth of babes…”
Such an observation came to mind when we found a couple of dead birds in our yard this week. We have several bird feeders that attract these feathered creatures. Unfortunately, a stray cat has been known to stalk the ones that linger too long near the ground — hence, the occasional dead bird. When Master Luke discovered the fowl fatality, he came running to his Poppy, urging me to come and see. Sensing an opportunity, I explained in the most basic of terms that animals die, and we give thanks to God for their creation and beauty. Yet, inside that infantile heart was an innate sense that we needed to do something with the unfortunate fowl. And so, we held a burial service to honor each of God’s creatures, complete with a shovel, a hole dug, the respectful placement of the deceased, and a short prayer.
I thought I handled the opportunity rather well, and the matter was settled, that was, until bedtime.
Saying bedtime prayers with a three-year-old can be an adventure. Such prayer time needs to be short, sweet, and simple, as we want to encourage a prayerful habit and, especially, a sense of gratitude to God. As we began our nighttime prayer that evening, we thanked God for family and friends and prayed for a good night’s sleep. Then Luke, keenly aware of the day’s activities and a glaring omission in our prayers, spoke up and said, “Poppy, don’t forget to pray for the dead birds. Will God give them a new heart?” Silently, I prayed for wisdom…all the while hoping that young Luke would never lose his compassionate heart.
For several nights now, Luke has reminded us to pray for those birds, and so we have.
I guess one could argue about the doctrine of praying for dead things or debate the theological virtues of what to include or exclude from a child’s prayer list. Don’t be a Pharisee. I am delighted to include his prayer requests, even those for dead and buried birds. The animal kingdom is part of God’s creation, a marvelous wonder to be respected and honored. If young Luke wants to pray for dead birds, then we shall pray for the beauty of God’s creation and mourn their passing, if for no other reason than a simple lesson that life is precious.
Yet, I think there is more to it than encouraging a child’s prayer life. Modeling positive steps (like the burial), respecting Luke’s humble request to bury the birds and pray for them, expressing sadness at the loss of life (birds or otherwise), and giving thanks to God for the world He has created are but tiny steps towards cultivating a heart of compassion in the youngest of souls.
As a grandfather, I may not live long enough to see my grandchildren grow into adulthood. Nevertheless, I will not stop planting the seeds of faith and compassion in hopes that these grandchildren of mine will be like arrows shot into the future, impacting the world for good.
And if praying for dead birds is a step in that direction, then let the Amens ring forth — just as long as he doesn’t ask to pray for dead mosquitos and roaches.