As a general rule, I don’t pray out loud. It’s not that I have anything against communal prayer, it’s just that I can never seem to do it honestly. I’m always thinking about who’s in the room, who’s listening, what they might want to hear (or not want to hear), what word choice will most effectively convey the prayer at hand. Thank you for this food, for these people, for this moment. Protect these people, heal that person, send a miracle. The idea in my heart is often so simple, but once I open my mouth I always seem to complicate it for the sake of the listeners. And that feels downright blasphemous sometimes. To call it a prayer when, if I’m honest, I’m treating it like a performance.
I pray often, and deeply, but silently. I pray when I run, when I practice yoga, as I drift off to sleep, when my kids relax into my lap and let me smell the tops of their heads, and yes, at church. Anne Lamott says the three best prayers are Help, Thanks, and Wow, and nearly all of my prayers fall under those themes. When I am at my most honest, they are clunky and raw. The words don’t flow together, the ideas don’t even always make sense. But from these prayers there is something in my heart that connects to the Divine, that opens a trap door to let God inside in a way that I cannot easily do when the words and ideas are subject to human inspection.
So I politely decline the call for volunteers to bless the meal at family gatherings or to pray aloud at church. I bow my head and close my eyes and listen, but really I am fumbling for the keys to that trap door in my heart.
My kids do not decline this invitation. With some encouragement from loving grandparents and enthusiastic Sunday school teachers, they occasionally raise their hands. They pray the things they have heard: Thank you for this meal, for this family, for this day. Help so-and-so feel better. Amen. They are earnest and nervous and proud, and the sound of their small voices praying to such a big God puts a lump in my throat more times than it doesn’t.
But I worry that by the very nature of these prayers we are failing to teach them just how big God is. They are often praised after their prayers, given literal pats on the back for “a good prayer” as they finally dig into their dinners, sheepishly beaming at a job well done.
But by praising their good prayers, are we teaching them that there are bad prayers?
By patting them on the back, are we baiting them to seek out our affirmations as they choose what words to pray?
By attaching prayer to dinner time and bedtime, are we failing to encourage spontaneous prayers in awestruck real time?
Are we putting it all into a neat and tidy box of the right words at the right times instead of offering them the rusty keys to a mysterious trap door in their hearts through which they can access the God of the universe?
Are we giving them a small and convenient God?
Are we selling our children short? Am I selling my children short?
I want them to go outside, to see the big and wild and miraculous world, and understand that the same God who created that created them. The strength of the mountains, the power of a waterfall, the persistence of a weed, the steadfastness of the ocean, the beauty of the sunrise, the chaos of a storm, and the grace of a bird in flight; I want them to pray to the God who created all of that. I want them to feel a part of it, to believe they were created in God’s own image, and to marvel at the paradox of their power and their smallness.
Like most parts of parenting, I’m not quite sure how to pull this off.
I take them to the dirt and I point them to God. I point out and explain these characteristics of God as displayed in the world around us in terms I hope they understand and with repetition I hope their understanding sticks. I tell them these are my favorite places to pray, because I see God here. I tell them I don’t even need words to pray sometimes, that the wonder and awe I feel in these beautiful places is its own kind of prayer. They nod and ask for another snack. I have no idea if they’re listening.
It has to start somewhere, I suppose. They crawled before they walked. They subsisted on milk before baby food and baby food before solids, from breast to bottle to sippy cup to the same glassware I use now. We give them what they need when they need it, shepherding them along until they are ready for what’s next. This is the work of parenting.
So for now, we have bedtime prayers. I’d be lying if I said they didn’t feel a little sacrilegious sometimes; wildly inadequate and superficial and unoriginal. And I’d be lying if I said that praying out loud, even with my children, doesn’t feel a little awkward and showy sometimes. But I have to give them a starting point. Even—maybe especially—when it’s out of my own comfort zone.
And in spite of myself, as only children can, they show me the way. They offer up a new prayer, honest and pure. Prayers of thanksgiving for favorite toys teach me about contentment. Long-winded prayers blessing every person they can think of teach me about community. Prayers for the little things that are on the tops of their minds teach me about simplicity.
These are the prayers of their hearts. These are the words they know. This is their understanding of God, creator of heaven and earth and LEGOS and grandma and birthdays.
Someday they will need a bigger God. There will be heartaches to heal and miracles to acknowledge and diagnoses to fight and love to make sense of. Someday they will need the God of mountains and oceans and sunsets and soulmates.
But for now, there is this meal, this family, this day. And God is here for it, present in it, present in us, beleaguered as we are by the everydayness of it all.
And when my five-year-old volunteers to bless a family meal, and somewhere in the middle of the lines I’ve heard so many times before he adds earnestly, “Thank you for this wonderful life,” I no longer need the keys to the trap door in my heart. It opens effortlessly at the sound of my son’s voice, speaking to the God of the universe, praying the truth of his tiny heart. Amen.
Photo by N'tima Preusser.