It was a proud moment in the Ericksen household. The five of us sat down for lunch and my six-year-old boy said, Let’s pray.
This is every pastor’s dream. Usually I have to coerce people into prayer. Now my boy is offering to pray. With great pride and a smile on my face I said, Yes, my Son. Will you lead us in prayer?
He took a pensive moment and agreed. We bowed our heads, closed our eyes, and then … this happened, Hi God! I want something really awesome for Christmas next year! Please get me something really great! Okay. That’s all. Amen.
Both of my boys began to laugh. My proud moment was gone and replaced by a bitter sense of disappointment. I instinctively thought to myself, “Christmas! It’s February, Dude. I hope you have a lot of patience, cause you’re not getting anything remotely close to ‘awesome’ for at least another 10 months! That’ll teach you to laugh at prayer. And, by the way, you shoulda’ prayed for freakin’ world peace!!!”
Fortunately, I didn’t say that. Instead I gathered myself together, remembered what I’ve learned about prayer, smiled at the boy, and said with every ounce of appreciation I could muster, Amen. And thanks for leading us in prayer.
Before I met the theologian James Alison, I probably would have scolded the boy for making a mockery of prayer. But James has changed my understanding of prayer. In his online adult education course called The Forgiving Victim, James encourages us to honestly “pray our smelly little desires.” He emphasizes Matthew 6:6 where Jesus says, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
James asserts that the importance of praying in private is that you will not be run by the “social other.” That means that a boy praying in private won’t be run by the expectations of his biological Dad who might get very angry if he’s honest about his prayers. And the only reason that his biological Dad might get angry is because he is run by the “social other” ever more than his boy. The Dad is terribly afraid that his boy might be honest in his prayers during Sunday School and the Sunday School teacher will think he is a horrible Christian parent.
Not that I have ever known a Dad like that …
It’s hard to over-emphasize the importance of honesty with God in our prayers. Stifling that honesty in ourselves or in our children by demanding that he or she pray for world peace instead of an awesome Christmas present might make us feel better, but it can only stifle the spiritual growth of a child. It shames them into a prayer of submission. God doesn’t want submission. God wants our honest prayers of desires.
Something beautiful begins to happen when we honestly pray our desires. They begin to grow and flower into something else. James puts it like this:
Your Father who sees in secret doesn’t despise our smelly little desires, and in fact, suggests that if only we can hold onto them, and insist on articulating them, that we will actually find for ourselves, over time, that we want more than those desires but that we really do want something with passion … If we learn to give some voice to those desires, then there’s a chance over time that we may move through them organically until we find ourselves the sort of humungous desirers who throw ourselves into peace work in the Middle East, or to famine relief in Bangladesh …
So after lunch my boy and I had a come-to-Jesus-talk. I told him that he can be honest with God and with his parents. I told him to pray for whatever he wants and to pray as hard as he can and as often as he can. Then I told him that God will always love him, and so will I.
Photo: Portrait of a boy praying, Emin Ozkan / Shutterstock.com