We’d come to the amusement park’s opening weekend as a birthday treat for our older son, and were having a grand time. We walked past the ride we jokingly refer to as the Flying Hamster Ball, and nine-year-old Jake suddenly declared that today was the day: he wanted to ride the Slingshot.
I was stunned; he’s not usually the more adventurous of the two boys when it comes to thrill rides, but I was willing to give it a try.
So here we were, after a long and agonizing wait, sitting in a large metal sphere being shot by a giant spring into the sky. We reached the furthest length of our bungee-like tethers and as we began the first descending bounce, we turned slowly over. We were now plummeting face-first toward the asphalt 200 feet below.
Which is when I realized Jake was muttering the Lord’s name repeatedly in near terror next to me.
When and where did he get that, I wondered. He’d recently become the bad word police in our house; chastising us for any swear word he heard. And yes, we do occasionally let out a bad word or two. And we’ve always taught our kids that there is a time and a place for a cathartic and well-timed h-word or d-word or even s-word, but that in most times and places they are vulgar and unnecessary. We seek to teach balance. But taking the Lord’s name in vain is off limits.
I didn’t chastise him; we were bouncing in a giant metal ball 200 feet in the air. But my heart hurt a little.
And that’s when I heard it:
Jesus Christ help me.
Jesus Christ help me.
Jesus Christ help me.
My irreverent 9-year-old, who struggles mightily to sit through worship, was praying.
The is the boy who asked, around age 3, “Where was I before I was borned?” And when I didn’t speak right away he answered his own question: “I was waiting in God’s heart.”
The same boy who stopped in the middle of the street once to pray for a lost dog that had run past us into the park.
I’ve been the Family Minister at our church since this child was 2 years old. He attends every church event and often helps set up and clean for them. He is equal parts feral church child and jaded minister’s kid; almost ridiculously at home in church even while he sometimes resents the constant influence of church on our familial life.
So why was I surprised to hear this child fervently praying? Maybe because we’ve lost track of daily prayer rituals at home as the boys get older.
It’s too easy, especially in the hectic pace of our day-to-day life with tweens and teens, to drop rituals like mealtime graces and bedtime prayers.
Even as a Family and Youth Minister, asking my boys to pray with me feels vaguely uncomfortable. Not just because I dread the rolling eyes and exasperation that are a staple of parenting this age group; because I fear making prayer just another thing we make them do, like homework and showers.
Yet I believe our kids need to know how to pray from their hearts. And we can show them the way. We can model the depth of vulnerability it takes to open ourselves completely to God’s mysterious power and presence, and the infinite peace that comes when God responds deep in our souls.
We can also talk about prayer: why we pray, what we believe happens when we pray, all the things we believe and hope but don’t know about how God listens and hears our prayers; and even our doubts about whether God is listening, and why praying might be a good idea anyway.
A few days ago, seemingly randomly, Jake announced that he prays – a lot – at school.
I wasn’t all that impressed at first; he attends a Catholic school.
But it turns out he wasn’t referring to Morning Prayer in class or weekly prayer in assembly or even the mass he attends several times a year. He was talking about impromptu prayer, extended straight from his heart to God’s.
We don’t do Morning Prayer or Compline at home. We’re inconsistent about grace at the dinner table. But we pray when we feel lost, afraid, sad, and grateful. We talk frankly about God’s grace and the great gifts of God’s creation.
Jake understands and believes that he can turn to Jesus in a moment of trouble and he will be helped, held, protected. In his heart, my son has a deep and abiding faith that God is, that Jesus loves him, and that the Holy Spirit is at work in his life.
Thanks be to God.
Has a child ever surprised you with prayer?