When I was very little, I learned that prayer was “talking to God”. I think it was a Sunday School teacher who encouraged us to “talk to God as if He was your friend”, but I’d already learned from my parents that “Hey, what’s going on? I heard a funny joke today” wasn’t considered an actual prayer. We were expected to be reverent, serious, with eyes closed and hands folded, and any silliness would have been unthinkable. After all, we were talking to God.
It was wrong to give Him a laundry list of requests, especially if they were for ourselves. My mother would remind us, in her humorous way, not to pray like the boy no one really knew who supposedly prayed, “My name is Jimmy; gimme, gimme, gimme.”
We were supposed to avoid praying by rote, but we did have a few formula prayers, mainly grace before meals. (Why is that prayer called “grace” anyway?) My bedtime prayers, for years, ended with me asking God to protect me from fire and flood — because fire terrified me, and I couldn’t swim. After my first earthquake, I added that.
Since my mother listened to those bedtime prayers, I felt somewhat inhibited about praying for some of the other things that scared or troubled me. How could I complain that I thought my parents had been unfair about something, or ask God to change their minds about something they had forbidden me to do? How could I confess something I didn’t want to get in trouble for? How could I ask God what to do about the weird, stinky boy who shared a desk with me at school? How could I admit my childish doubts? Somehow I got the idea that prayer had to be sanitized and proper, and meet with my parents’ approval.
Then, at age 10, I read the Psalms.
I was shocked some of them were in the Bible. All that lamenting and questioning and complaining! Why hadn’t God struck David dead for talking to Him like that?
That was the summer that I read straight through the Bible for the very first time. I was constantly bombarding my father with questions — and suggestions for how the Bible should have been written, to make it more understandable to kids. (For example, I wanted more editorial comments in the Old Testament, along the lines of, “Children, this was very wicked and evil, so don’t even think about ever doing anything remotely like it.”) Luckily, my father just so happened to be a pastor, with a scholarly bent — along with a great deal of patience with me — and he seemed to delight in answering my questions.
I still remember the twinkle in my father’s eyes when I expressed my outrage over the Psalms. “Oh, baby girl,” he said affectionately and with almost a chuckle, “you’ll understand when you get older.” Knowing that answer would not satisfy, he went on more seriously, “What you need to know is that you can come to God with anything. He can handle our toughest questions, and whatever we throw at Him.”
It took me years to learn that…really learn it.
In the meantime, I grew up with two praying parents, and heard about — and experienced — many answers to prayer. But I would often wonder how prayer worked. Why were some prayers answered and not others? What role did faith play? Could we actually get God to change His mind? If not, why pray at all?
I grew to appreciate this quote from C.S. Lewis:
”I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time — waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God — it changes me.”
However, it didn’t — and still doesn’t — answer all my questions of why…and how…