This is my 3 1/2 year-old son’s favorite prayer: Dear Lord (pronounced “Wowd”), Thank you for riding on steam train. Thank you for riding on trolley train. Thank you for riding on Thomas. You are my pray. A-men!
I have heard this prayer for some time now at mealtime and bedtime, and it never fails to make me smile. Although it sounds a bit like my son is thanking God for being a divine train passenger, he is in fact thanking God for his own various memorable train-riding experiences over the past year and a half or so. I’ll admit I’m not sure what exactly he means by “You are my pray.” I’m inclined to think it’s along the lines of something he and I like to tell each other, “You are my precious,” but when I ask him, he smiles his enigmatic and slightly crazed three-year-old smile and changes the subject. So I’m not sure if he knows what he means by it either.
What I do know is he loves to pray and he is enthusiastic and grateful about the whole thing, and it does my soul good to hear his prayers. Every time. I love it even more when he occasionally changes it up, such as last night when, after reciting his usual prayer, he announced that he wanted to pray again, and added, “Thank you for my new bike helmet!” The best is when he or his 6-year-old brother prays for another person without being prompted. Or surprises me with a new thought or question about God in our prayer time.
I remember when my older son was still learning to talk and every once in a while he would pop out a new word or phrase I was certain I hadn’t taught him. My first reaction was always surprise and a little uneasiness. Where had he picked that up? Who or what was influencing him that I wasn’t aware of? But my next reaction was a sense of liberation and of letting go. What a relief to realize that I wasn’t responsible for teaching him every single last bit of knowledge that he needed to know to make his way in the world. Some small part of me had indeed labored under that misunderstanding, and occasionally I still fall prey to it.
The truth is, of course, that both my boys are going to learn a whole lot of things from people other than me, and thank goodness for that because there are a lot of subjects I’m not all that up on. (I still don’t know who’s going to help them with their math homework after, say, fifth grade, and they’re definitely on their own if they decide to learn a foreign language other than Spanish.) Not only have I come to accept and, on my better days, celebrate, how much they are going to learn from people other than me, I’m still amazed by how much I learn from my boys.
When it comes to praying with them, I so often start from the point of view that it’s all about me teaching them. Along the lines of Let me impart you with my theological wisdom, O small children.
I do have some theological wisdom and experience to share with them, and yet the intensity and the wholeheartedness of their prayers, the interesting questions they ask, all of these things teach and strengthen me. In Athanasius’s On The Incarnation, he asks why Jesus took the form of a human rather than a moon or star. It would simply never occur to me to even wonder such a thing. And it’s the same with some of the questions from my children. When they ask them of me, such as the other night when my older son asked me just how Jesus could be God’s son and God too, I have to sift through my own thoughts on the subject, at times dust off some long-ago-learned theology, and at other times simply marvel at their take on a subject about which I have ceased to wonder, to my detriment.
Praying with them is theologically interesting and faith-strengthening. More often than not, I find praying with them to be the most connected I feel to God all day. They just give me so much for which to be grateful. They remind me of all the things that are right with the world and the blessings, and they even help me to get upset about some of the things that are wrong. When my older son passionately declared the other day that we should all live in trees so we could avoid tearing down all the forests, OK, it made me smile, but it also made me think about sustainable living and what kind of job I’m doing with that, what kind of example I’m showing them.
I’ve also realized that the prayers I pray with them, far from being some kind of watered-down “example” prayers to show them how a good Christian might talk to God (as I’ll admit, I probably started off viewing them), have more clarity and purpose and purity than most of the prayer I do on my own. And it’s not such a far leap to say that they might be more effective too.
Richard Foster describes the “unusual effectiveness” with which children pray. I often recall a story he shares in Celebration of Discipline about praying for a baby girl to be healed with the girl’s four-year-old brother . Richard and the little boy visualized Jesus in the room with them, putting his hands over theirs, and letting his healing power flow through them. The next morning the little girl was better. I probably would have struggled to visualize such a thing or felt self-conscious or awkward or worried that my words were inadequate or unimpressive or all of those things. Small children are blessedly free of such restraints. It’s no wonder we are directed in Matthew 18:3-4 to become like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.
It’s funny, isn’t it? I spend so much time trying to make my boys more like me, and a surprising amount of the time, I end up realizing that I should try to become more like them.
It’s like the last thing I like to pray for them at night, that they grow into the persons God wants them to be. I should be praying the same thing for myself. Because the hope, of course, is that all three of us are changing, collectively and individually, being shaped by God into the people God wants us to be. At least as long as we’re open to the process, which, frankly, is less of a straight line that I sometimes want it to be.
And something else is at work here. Each unique prayer and question from my sons reminds me that each boy is his own person and has his own relationship with God. I have a part to play in this relationship, but it’s only a supporting role. And like so many things about parenting, that’s incredible and terrifying.