Every night, either my wife Jessica or I take my three-year-old daughter through the infinitely long and sometimes excruciating process of picking out pajamas, putting on pajamas (yes, these are two separate processes), brushing teeth, saying prayers, reading a few books, and going to sleep.
While it only takes one of us to take our daughter through most of this process, the one exception is prayer time, at which point my wife, both daughters, and I will kneel at my three-year old’s bedside for prayers. Well, maybe it’s not always kneeling. For my three-year-old, apparently prayers can be said while rolling around on the bed, flailing arms and legs, and intermittently interjecting random thoughts about anything and everything that makes it into her head. Or maybe it’s said while lying prostrate on the floor, face buried in the carpet, kicking her feet up and down. Even so, she’ll say the prayers, which typically includes litany of things she’s thankful for, – a list of family, friends, rocks, trees, bugs, toys – rounded off with a “forgive us our sins, help us love our neighbors, bless us tomorrow, in Jesus name, Amen.”
Or as she puts it, “forgiveusoursinshelpusloveourneighborsblessustomorrowinJesusnameAmen!!!”
She definitely has this part down pat.
The reality is that I’m almost always completely exhausted by this time of day, and my patience has pretty much run out. And so, I’m fine with simply kneeling next to my daughter and repeating aloud whatever prayers she offers (which is generally how we go about it, our own family version of responsive prayer). In her own way, she’s keeping me accountable for my discipline of prayer (or lack thereof).
There’s always this small, unconscious part of me that wants her to “take it more seriously” or “focus,” but I almost immediately realize how ridiculous and potentially detrimental that is. Rather, I think, “fine, roll around all you want, go ahead, interject a couple of funny noises and giggles, list every different colored rock you threw into the pond today.” I want her to enjoy prayers, to enjoy this line of communication with God, and to enjoy praying with others. I don’t want her to ever remember a day when prayer was legalistic or moralistic, when it proceeded from anything other than the freedom God grants us in Christ.
In those moments, it’s crucial for me to remember that God is never going to be more impressed with her or my prayers as God already is. And that’s because we have a high priest, Jesus, who not only prays for us and intercedes for us in the power of the Spirit (as I’ve recently written here), but to whose very body we are completely united by faith. United to Jesus as his brothers and sisters, we may rightly call ourselves God’s own children, children in whom God takes delight, and whose prayers God hears with joy. We can make the astounding claim that God looks upon us, the baptized, just as the Father looks upon the Son at his baptism and says, “in you I am well pleased.” One of the truly radical claims of the gospel of Jesus is that God is never disappointed in his children, only gracious to us in our moments of sin and disobedience, merciful to us in seasons of brokenness and suffering, sharing with us in our moments of joy. This is perhaps why James can write, “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” It’s not that we need to identify the most morally upright person to pray for us. It’s that, in Christ, we all can claim his righteousness, and can therefore be confident that our prayers are powerful and effective.
To be sure, I think there are ways that we can all become more disciplined and focused in our prayer lives, and that there are perhaps new, unique, surprising, and unanticipated ways of experiencing the joy of our salvation through the life of prayer. God does indeed give such gifts to be enjoyed. But to whatever degree I’m able to pursue or discover such experiences in my prayer life, I don’t want to ever think that God is expecting that of me. Rather, our pursuits of God through prayer should proceed from grace and freedom. It seems that we only “improve” or get “better” or become more “disciplined” in our prayers when we first realize that if we don’t, God still hears us – and indeed still loves us – anyway.
I think my daughter gets this. I’m not sure I do. Such is the kingdom of God.