Lately, it has occurred to me that my daughter may be teaching me how to pray. It's not so much her theology, which she certainly does not have nailed down at age seven. No, it has more to do with the spirit with which she approaches prayer.
For one, there are her singing prayers. Often, she wants to say the blessing for our meals and sometimes she will ask if she can do a "singing prayer." At first, I didn't know what to think of those. She will launch into her singing prayer with a lot of enthusiasm, making up the words and music as she goes, telling God the things that make her worry; things about her day, and thanking God for providing our food. Understandably, Linnea’s “singing prayers” can be a bit awkward to the occasional visitor to the Roberts home. But Susanne and I have come to love these prayers. As I thought about it recently I thought of the fact that many of the Psalms, which were Israel's hymn and prayer book, were originally sung. I have to be careful about applying my feelings to God, but I always smile during these prayers and imagine him smiling, too.
Actually, Linnea was five when she first taught me something about prayer. I was trying to wake her up one morning to go to her pre-school and upon my second or third trip to her room to tell her it was time to get up she turned her head toward me and said, "shhh, Daddy, I'm praying." I walked away fairly convinced she had stumbled onto a surefire strategy for getting herself more time in bed, but I walked away just in case she really was praying. A few minutes later I went back to her room and she was on her back now with her hands folded like a steeple above her chest. Then I really thought she was working me. But just after I entered her room she said, "okay, I'm done," and climbed cheerily into my arms.
A few minutes later, as we were eating breakfast, she said, "Daddy, I'm sorry I took so long praying, but I was letting God and Jesus have a turn."
"Letting God and Jesus have a turn? What do you mean?"
"I was letting them say something. It's nice to let others have a turn, you know."
"It sure is. And what did God and Jesus have to say?"
"They said they want Uncle Rodney to feel better, too, and for your shoulder to feel better and for me to not be sick."
After that conversation I thought a lot more about my own prayers and how they were filled with my own speaking, in spite of the many things I had read about contemplative and listening prayer. It reminded me that prayer is supposed to be a two-way conversation but that too often my own prayers are the kinds of encounters I've sometimes had where a friend dominated the conversation and I hardly got to say a word.
I think it's Linnea's openness that often inspires me the most about prayer. As children do, she will say whatever she is thinking in her prayers, which, if the Biblical scholars I read are correct, is exactly what God wants us to do. It's modeled for us, not only in the Psalms, but in other places like Habakkuk and Jeremiah. It reminds me of the time, long ago, in the church I grew up in, when a new Christian prayed one night in our Wednesday evening prayer meeting. She hadn't been in church long enough to learn how to pray, fortunately, and she said all kinds of things—things we didn’t usually say out loud—that night that were beautiful in their honesty and simplicity. She changed the entire tenor of that prayer meeting. I remember thinking that night, "I would never say those kinds of things out loud but I really wish I talked to God that way." I still all too often offer up safe, tame, and completely boring prayers that fall far short of what is really going on inside me.
The other day we were driving home from our vacation through an Oklahoma construction zone and I hit a strip of metal. I groaned out loud about this and the likelihood that we would get a flat tire because of it. I said a quick prayer about it, but I was still pretty sure we would be pulling over soon with a flat. It never happened. The next morning as Linnea and I were driving somewhere she said, "Daddy, do you know why we didn't have a flat tire yesterday?"
"No, honey, why?"
"Because I prayed about it. It's what I'm made for. We wouldn't want to be stuck with a flat tire in Oklahoma where we don't know anyone."
Of course, one of these days she will need to learn the opposite lesson, of being stranded somewhere with a flat tire or broken down vehicle and seeing God's provision in that circumstance. (And God, if you could just let me know ahead of time when that's going to happen it would really be helpful). But what warmed my heart about that exchange was her statement about prayer: it's what I'm made for. It reminded me that I am, we are all, made for prayer. It's what God wants with all of us, an ongoing conversation as we move through the events of our lives. Years ago I read the fantastic novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It has stayed with me all these years, and the thing I was most drawn to in that book, and still often find myself thinking about, is the way Reverend John Ames prayed in that novel. He talked to God often, honestly, about everything.
I think God has left the thought of that with me to remind me that it's what he wants with me and that it's what I long for, too. And now he's using a seven year-old girl to remind me of it.