The first prayer I remember being taught goes like this:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
And if I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take
Perhaps you’ve heard it before. You may have even prayed the same prayer as a child, or you may have even taught that prayer to your own children. That’s the prayer my mother taught me, and with it, I began to consider my own relationship with God.
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One night at my first year of church camp, we were getting ready to close out our nightly devotional, when the counselors asked who wanted to give a closing prayer. One boy volunteered, but he said he didn’t know how to pray. The counselors assured him that that was alright, and that he should just talk to God. So, he did. He just started talking. I don’t recall most of it, but I remember him saying, “I’ve made a lot of friends God.”
I was young, but it struck me as odd that he said he didn’t know how to pray. His prayer seemed fine to me, even though it didn’t sound like the prayers I’d heard other people pray, but still the moment stuck with me.
My own experiences with prayer shaped my understanding of God, and I’ve already seen this happen in my oldest son’s life. One night, back when he was still too young to say many words, I asked him when he liked to pray, and he said, “Momma, Dada, bite bite,” which we took to mean that he was talking about our prayers at the dinner table. I told him that we can pray all the time, but it made me think about what he is seeing. Even if I’m in constant prayer throughout the day, he might only see me praying at dinner, or before bedtime. Our prayer lives are shaping his, and that’s shown me that he needs to see it more, and that prayer has to become a living thing that can be seen and heard in our house at all times.
Something I love to do is associate words and phrases with the people that used them the most or that use them in memorable ways. This happens in prayer just as much as it does in general conversation.
My grandfather used certain phrases in his prayers like “stand beside us” and “heaven save us.” My wife, when praying for a specific person, always asks God to “wrap His arms around them.” The men in my church say phrases like “We’re indeed thankful” and “Help us to always do that which is right” and “This is our prayer.” And then there are phrases that every man seems to know and/or use, like “Guide, guard, and direct us” or “Help us to take this in a manner well-pleasing.”
I posed some questions about prayer to a Wednesday night class once, and one of our elders spoke up. He’s a man who to me represents all that is memorable of the men from his generation, in that he reminds me of so many others of his age that have passed on, men whom I greatly admired. In addition to that, I also love to hear him pray. His prayers are slow due to his age and shortness of breath, and they’re often very similar, perhaps even word-for-word, but when I listen to him, I’m reminded of the firmness of his belief. I don’t mean to say that he’s never had a doubt, or that his beliefs have never changed. I simply mean that he shows me something that I deeply admire, which is contentment.
Imagine my thoughts when I heard him comment during class that he has the same reservations about public prayer that I have.
Jesus spoke negatively about men who only prayed in public places so that they would be seen by others. He taught his followers that they should go into their rooms to pray in private, so that the Father, who sees in secret, would reward them. Having said this, he also knew that there would be times where they would find themselves praying with others. In those times, he taught them to keep their words short, saying that the Father knows all things even before we ask him.
I’ve thought about those teachings many times in reference to public prayer. I’ve noticed that my own prayers are sometimes different depending on who I am praying with. There seems to be pressure when praying in public, particularly when one is praying for another who is suffering. There’s pressure to somehow say the right things that will help that person heal, as if their healing is dependent on the right words being said. What I have found is that we—or perhaps I—often view prayer as something that is merely situational, or more to the point, as something that can only be done when there is a certain goal in mind or when there is something specific that needs to be prayed for. We pray for a meal in order to ask for a blessing over it. We pray for someone who is suffering in order to ask for healing. We pray for guidance when faced with challenging decisions. We pray for peace, or for patience, or for safety. And yet, when Jesus’ own disciples asked him how they should pray, he taught them the simplest of prayers. “Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name…”
When I think back on the first prayer that I was taught, I can remember the fear that followed once I took it into consideration that I might actually not wake up in the morning. People talk of the “fear of the Lord” as something that should be thought of as reverence, meaning a fear of respect rather than actual fear. But that’s not what I experienced as a child. When I considered the fact that I might not wake up in the morning, I was more than afraid—I was terrified. The Proverbs writer wrote that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” When I think of my own childhood experience of learning to pray, I can’t think of any better way to describe it. It was not merely respect that taught me to trust in God—it was fear. Fear that I might not wake up. Fear that I couldn’t comprehend eternity. For me, prayer was the only comfort. I didn’t quite know how to pray or what I should pray for. I only knew that prayer was my direct source to God, and that He was the only one who could protect me in eternity. For me, fear truly was the beginning of wisdom.
Back then, I was unfamiliar with the Scripture that speaks of how the Spirit intercedes for us when we do not know what we should pray for, how He prays with groanings that cannot be expressed with words. I only knew that prayer was all I had, even if I didn’t quite know what to pray for. These days, not much has changed about that. And yet, we are told that we should approach the throne of God with boldness, “so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
For we have a Great High Priest who always lives to intercede for us.