Thursday, December 20, 2012

Teaching Her to Pray

As soon as Valerie was old enough to understand and participate in her bedtime prayers, my mind went through a million conflicting thoughts and ideas about prayer and children. I'm an overthinker; I can't help it. I try to find a good balance between giving thanks and making requests, and encourage her to come up with things she wants to pray for. But it goes deeper than that.

She only has the attention span to cover a few topics, and sometimes, it's tempting to "help" God look good by praying for vague things, like "blessings" on family members, or easy things that will probably happen anyhow (a good night's sleep, recovery from a cold or minor injury). But what about the hard stuff? Like the cousin who has been suffering from chronic illness for several years?

I made a deliberate decision to keep some of the hard stuff in our bedtime prayers. If I want to model a realistic prayer life for her, it's going to have to include the hard prayers, too. Sometimes, we pray for the same thing for months or even years, without seeing any change. Sometimes, it feels like God's not listening at all. But it's not up to us to pray only for the things that would be easy for God to answer. It's up to us to lift up all of our concerns, and trust him to take care of them, one way or another.

Valerie has a very vivid imagination, and I remember a while back when she started asking me to pray for a unicorn. I tried to explain to her that unicorns weren't real, but she insisted that God could make them real if He wanted to. Touché, kid. You're right, He totally could. And I found myself wondering: Who am I to tell her to only pray for realistic things, while at the same time encouraging her to pray for a miracle in her sick cousin's life? Sure there's a valid distinction in my mind, but to a little girl who is just starting to learn about a God who created the whole world and all the animals from nothing? What's one more animal? I felt a bit silly, but I prayed for her unicorn. Every night for weeks, I prayed for her unicorn.

I know prayer isn't about just getting the things you want, and that's a concept we're working on, too. I pray that we will learn to want the things that God wants for us. But these things take time. I've been a Christian for over 30 years, and probably half of my prayers are still selfish. It's a long process.

A few months ago, we found out that some church friends were expecting a baby. Valerie, who loves all things baby, was very excited. Then our friends found out that their baby had a life-threatening lung condition, and wouldn't be able to survive outside of the womb. Their only hope was a miracle. This wasn't one of those "Please guide the doctor's hands" kinds of prayer requests. The doctors had already said that there was nothing they could do. What this baby needed was a bona fide miracle.

So we prayed for a miracle. Every night for two months, we prayed for a miracle. But God didn't choose to do a miracle. This past weekend, that baby was born, and ten minutes later, she died.

I knew what I was getting into when I decided to make the hard things part of our nightly prayers. But that didn't make it any easier to deliver the news to my four-year-old. That sometimes terrible things happen, and God doesn't do miracles. That sometimes, God says no, and we have no idea why. That even though God can do anything, sometimes he chooses not to.

She accepted the news better than I had, hugged me (probably more because I was crying than for any other reason), and went about her play. And my heart broke a little bit more, knowing that one more thing had been added to the growing column of "Things God won't do."

I don't know if I've chosen the right tactic for teaching her to pray. Everyone needs to come face-to-face with the "Why doesn't God _______?" questions at some point in their lives. Some people choose to reject God, or not to believe in God, in the face of all those question marks, and I understand that. I've been through my share of questioning, and I came out the other side learning to trust God more than my own logic. But I was older when I went through those hard nights. At least a teenager, maybe even in college. Is a four-year-old even equipped to deal with those types of things? Maybe I should have just let her have a God who blesses her family members, heals colds, and gives us good nights' sleep; rather than a God who can, but won't, make unicorns or heal babies.

I do take comfort in the fact that my children's faith is ultimately in God's hands, not mine. I am so very imperfect. All I can do is model my faith as honestly and openly as I can, and trust that God will draw her to Him; in spite of me, if need be.

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