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 along the American River, when I practice yoga at Zuda, 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, which happens at The Table United Methodist Church on H Street for me.
Author Anne Lamott says the three best prayers are Help, Thanks, Wow (and she has published a book by the same name), 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 and the ideas don’t even always make sense. Sometimes, there are no words at all, not even silently in my head. Sometimes I just try to listen, to feel the presence of something bigger than me. Perhaps this is what some traditions, both faith based and agnostic, refer to as meditation. Just as I am unconcerned with finding the right words within my prayers, I am equally unconcerned with finding the right words to describe them.
But from these prayers there is something in my heart 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 key to that trap door in my heart. Some days I find it; some days I don’t.
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 spirit that scattered the stars in the sky (or at the very least, sparked the sense of wonder in my heart that appreciates the stars in the sky in the first place)?
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 what I believe: that the same God who created that created them. The strength of the Sierra, the power of a waterfall, the persistence of a weed, the steadfastness of the Pacific, the beauty of Lake Tahoe, the chaos of a storm, and the grace of a bird in flight; I want them to pray to the one who created all of that. I want them to feel a part of it, 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 displayed in the world around us in terms I hope they understand and with repetition I hope will help their understanding stick. I tell them that these are my favorite places to pray. I tell them that 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.
In these elementary school years, it is a constant effort to teach them that the world doesn’t, in fact, revolve around them. That kindness does not demand a reward. That our actions have consequences, for ourselves and for others. That manners are more than just saying “please” and “thank you.” That gratitude often looks like stewardship. That love often looks like sacrifice. That not every family looks like ours, or is experiencing life like we are, or subscribing to the same ideologies as we are. These lessons all make more sense to me when we are put in our place; when we feel connected to something but wholly incapable of controlling it.
So for now, we have bedtime prayers. I’d be lying if I said they didn’t feel a little sacreligious 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. I want so badly to impart on these impressionable children all that can happen when we turn our attention off of ourselves and onto something bigger; just how profound it can be to say “help” or “thanks” or “wow.” 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 the creator of heaven and earth and Legos and grandma and the railroad museum and birthdays. For now, there is this meal, this family, this day. And when my 5-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, praying the truth of his tiny heart. Amen.