Well, that may not necessarily be true. As far as I know, we might consider the cry she made in the birthing suite its own kind of prayer. So I should clarify: last night, our little girl said her first corporate prayer of her own initiative.
And another confession: we prompted her. We’ve started eating meals together as a family, feeding her the same thing that we eat, sitting at the table together. This is taking a great deal of coordination and planning; our schedules as two full-time working parents makes it much easier to tag-team feeding her in her high chair while putting off our own meal until after she’s gone to bed. But she’s far old enough for us to start modeling social eating habits, plus it frees up a good bit of time in the evening for us as well. So when we sit down to eat together, we hold hands and I say this blessing: “Dear God, thank you for this day. Thank you for this food. And thank you for my family. Amen.” It’s simple while still covering the bases of what I was taught a mealtime blessing should cover: gratitude for being able to live and eat with a loving family.
When we were done, she repeated loudly, “Amen!” This was adorable, so we laughed and generally affirmed her. But then, a few minutes into our meal, she held out her hands to both of us.
“Do you want to pray?” my spouse asked her.
So we held her hands. She looked at me expectantly, so I said, “Dear God.” A moment. “Will you say it with me?” I asked. “Dear God.”
“Thank you for this day.”
“Tankoo fo day.”
“Thank you for this food.”
“Tankoo fo foo.”
“Thank you for my family.”
“Tankoo fo fammee.”
Then as our little girl dove into her spinach tortellini, my spouse and I cried a little.
Clearly, this prayer was a function of our two-year-old’s penchant for copying and repeating everything she sees. (Seriously. Ev. Ree. Thing.) Prayer is a ritualized process for most of us, and you could argue that she was simply repeating the ritual without understanding the meaning behind it. I’d agree with that. I would also say that this in no way diminishes or subtracts from the meaning and power of what happened in that moment and what our little girl learned about prayer.
Prayer is a difficult thing to define. The Bible has far less how-to instructions on prayer than one might think, although there is plenty in it that pertains to the concept. As a Christian, the most often cited and helpful directive in the New Testament may be the Lord’s Prayer. (Although as a hospital chaplain, I can’t help but notice that the Lord’s Prayer does not ask for healing or comfort for other people who are sick.) The Lord’s Prayer was Jesus’ own instruction to his disciples about how and what to pray: Praise God’s sovereignty, a desire for the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in this world, a simple request for this day’s physical needs, our own forgiveness from God and the capacity for us to forgive others, and a plea for protection and salvation. It’s a great guide, really. I memorized it as a child even if I wasn’t raised in a tradition that recited it word-for-word with ritualized regularity.
Although there are plenty of other passages in the New Testament (not to mention beautifully poetic and powerful prayers all throughout the Old Testament), but I tend to return myself to Lord’s Prayer when wondering about what prayer is and what it does. As a person who has spent a large portion of his career praying with people in situations of dire physical need, I have long ago given up the belief that prayer is some kind of magical spell that, if we speak correctly or sincerely or frequently, will result in things happening our way. I have had enough experience praying with families who have lost loved ones in the most tragic of circumstances to believe that God is not a genie in a bottle who, if rubbed the right way, will grant us wishes by altering the course of the natural world. I’ve seen people who I believed unquestionably deserved to live die despite the earnest and sincere prayers of literally hundreds of people. That’s not to say God can’t or doesn’t intervene in the world. But God is not a vending machine that dispenses things we want after we’ve entered the correct amount of holy change, and to treat our relationship to the divine as such is arrogant and ignorant.
What does prayer do, then? Well, I’ll tell you what it does for me: it connects me. It connects me to the holy presence that I believe is everywhere but of which I am often woefully unaware. It connects me to myself in moments of anxiety and confusion. And, perhaps most importantly for me, it connects me to other people, which reminds me that I am not alone. I don’t believe that my prayers change God, but I know unequivocally that my prayers change me. And perhaps, just maybe, they might occasionally effect change in another person.
Which brings me back to my lovely little girl’s heartbreakingly beautiful moment at the dinner table last night. Do you know what I love so much about the Lord’s Prayer, what brings me back to it over and over again? It’s all in the plural. Our Father. Give us, forgive us, as we forgive. Deliver us. None of this “me” stuff. None of this “I come to the garden alone” stuff. No, we pray together. Even when I am physically alone, I am reminded that I have a community that surrounds me with love and a similar investment in the divine endeavors of this corporeal existence. The love I believe I have been called to demonstrate in the world is not something I can do on my own. It requires me to connect with others, both within my community and outside my community. For me, prayer is meaningful because it connects me with other people, and through that I am open to experience the love of God.
So last night, our little girl was acting out what she saw. Maybe she understood that we were invoking the divine presence with gratitude and humility; maybe not. But here is what she clearly did understand: that she is loved and that she is not alone. Most immediately, of course, are her parents whose love for her is fierce and wild. She reached for us, took our hands to hold in that sacred moment. But beyond us, of course, she has her grandparents and aunt and uncle and cousin. She has her church family, a congregation so devoted to loving its children that it brings tears to our eyes. And she has friends and peers she’s still meeting; teachers who devote energy and patience to helping her grow; and occasional strangers who will offer unbidden statements of affection. And, of course, she has a wonderful and loving Creator who delights in her and has wonderful and amazing things planned for her.
If the only thing she demonstrated in her act of repeating our prayer last night was that she knows she is loved and not alone, then I am proud to have taught her the meaning of prayer. And I am humbled and enlightened to have her teaching me its beauty and simplicity all over again. Amen, indeed.