Posted by: sarahkennedy33 | May 5, 2006

The Liturgy of an 8 Year Old

I think God might be trying to teach me something about prayer, as sometimes, when He is trying to make a point, He is not very subtle. At chapel on Monday morning we had the privilege of hearing Dale Bruner, one of the best teachers in the Presbyterian Church today, come and share with us on the Lord’s Prayer for an hour. I am not going to re-write Dale’s message, yet I do know that he has inspired me to take this prayer to heart–he has encouraged me to make this prayer one of the central components of my time with God and let the rest of my conversation with God flow out of these words that Jesus himself gave us.

So Monday night, I pick up this incredible book that I am reading, Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner. The chapter I had left off with the night before and was to pick up on Monday night is entitled “prayer.” I kind of laughed and thought “ok maybe God’s trying to teach me something…” and I started reading. Her words on prayer and on liturgy spoke so powerfully to me. Lauren started by talking about how in the Jewish tradition one receives a prayer book and one prays set prayers at set times during the day. Now that she has converted to Christianity, the prayer book isn’t as prominent, yet for her, those words became such a part of her soul that now her prayers often feel like they are lacking something. She recognizes that praying a liturgical prayer written by someone else sounds so confining to a lot of Protestants, and here is how she responds to that:

“I have sometimes set aside my prayer book for days and weeks on end, and I find, at the end of those days and weeks, that I have lapsed into narcissism…it is returning to my prayer book that places me: places me in words that ask me to confess my sins, even when I can’t think of any red-letter deeds recently committed; words that ask me to pray for presidents and homeless Charlottesvillians and everyone in between; words that praise God even on the mornings when I wonder if God exists at all…sometimes it is great when, in prayer, we can express to God just what we feel; but better still when, in the act of praying, our feelings change. Liturgy is not, in the end, open to our emotional whims. It repoints the person praying, taking him somewhere else.”

I love Lauren’s point. Sometimes we just don’t “feel” like we believe in God or we don’t “feel” like praying or don’t seem to know what to say. Liturgy helps us to begin the conversation, and just because the words have been around for hundreds of years does not mean they are invalid or not worth integrating into our daily lives. Scripture has been read, memorized, recited and integrated into lives for a couple thousand years and that doesn’t negate its importance or power; yet often our churches are so quick to toss out anything that is “old” or out of date, which I think is tragic. We’re creating an entire generation of Christians who have no idea where they’ve come from or the history of their faith.

Ok so I’ll get off my soap box in a second. I think this topic is so important for me because it touches so close to home. I grew up reciting the words of the Lutheran liturgy every Sunday for my entire childhood and then as I began being exposed to other churches and other aspects of the evangelical church when I was in high school, I began to believe that the way I was raised in regards to faith was somehow wrong or invalid. My later years of high school consisted of a lot of questioning—which I think is good and every young person needs to go through a time of that. Through that questioning though, and through more exploring in college, I realized that while I do love singing “contemporary praise music” and worshiping in more informal settings, it is when the words of a familiar liturgy are said that my heart jumps to life. They are so deeply rooted in my heart and soul that as soon as I hear them something inside me says “pay attention, we’re standing before the Lord now!” I’ve seen some powerful examples of the way that pieces of liturgy (most specifically the Apostle’s Creed & the Lord’s Prayer) have helped people pray when they did not have the words on their own. Lauren tells us of meeting her boyfriend’s grandfather for the first time. Dr. Gatewood had lost most of his memory, he couldn’t even remember his grandchildren’s names any longer, yet their first meeting was in church on Sunday morning. Lauren sat next to him—to this man who had no idea who was sitting around him—and she said the most amazing thing happened. As soon as the congregation began the Lord’s prayer, he joined in. Here’s how she described it:

“Dr. Gatewood, who might not even remember how to count to ten, remembered how to pray. The Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed were somewhere in the foundation of his memory, beneath even his grandchildren’s names…these words of prayer are among the most basic words Dr. Gatewood knows. When he has forgotten everything else, those words are the words he will have. Those words have formed his heart, and—regardless of what he feels or remembers on any particular morning—they continue to form his heart still.”

When my own great-grandmother was living her final days here on earth, she was often in and out of consciousness, but when she was awake, my grandma prayed with her. Oma didn’t always know what was happening around her but when Grandma began praying the Lord’s Prayer, Oma joined in—in German—her first language that she hadn’t spoken in years, but that was the language she learned the Lord’s Prayer in first, and it was so deeply rooted in her heart that when she no longer had the words to engage in conversation, she had the words to pray.

Lauren writes that “liturgy happens any time we repeat one prayer over and over week in and week out…even the little child laying herself down to sleep, praying the Lord her soul to keep, is praying a liturgy.” This where it hit home for me the most. My parents prayed “Now I lay me down to sleep…” with Megan and I every night until we were in high school, any anytime we would visit any of our cousins or grandparent’s, whichever adult was tucking us in that night would pray the same prayer with us—those words and that prayer is rooted in each of my cousins and I. They don’t seem very sophisticated now, or theologically complex, in fact, I hadn’t thought about that prayer in years until I read what Lauren wrote. But, those words were my first liturgy.

So Monday night, after hearing Dale Bruner speak about prayer, and after reading what Lauren had to say, I turned off my light and lay in bed thinking “I really should pray.” And, much to my dismay, I didn’t seem to have the words. I know I don’t need fancy words to approach God, I know that He wants us to come before Him and just tell him what is on our hearts, but at that moment, my heart was so full that I could not put into words what I was thinking. So all of a sudden, I found myself saying “now I lay me, down to sleep…” and immediately after I concluded that prayer I found my mind saying something else—words I had forgotten were a part of me. You see, after my parents had said the Lord’s Prayer and Now I lay me… with me, and they turned out the light and left every night as a child, I had a prayer of my own that I always prayed. I don’t think my parents or anyone else ever knew this, but I would fall asleep every night as a child, probably from the time I was 7 or 8, saying the words to my own prayer that I had written. Each night, with the exact same words as the night before, I would ask God to please be with mommy and daddy and with Megan and that he keep them very very safe, very very healthy, and very very happy. And then I would ask for whatever else was on my mind that day, and I would close by telling God that I loved him, “very very very and infinity more very’s much.” Don’t ask me why I felt the need to add that “infinity more very’s” line, but I did, every night. It was a piece of my liturgy as an 8 year old, and I remember lying in bed never ever doubting that God was listening. I remember imagining Him bending down from heaven over my bed every night, listening to the words of my eight year old heart.

Why is prayer so much more difficult for us now? I have talked to countless Christian friends who all struggle in the same way I do—we don’t pray! It is so difficult for us to somehow quiet ourselves before God and come before Him with the faith of a child. Instead we try to analyze him, or try to pepper our prayers with sophisticated language etc. When did it get so difficult? Last Monday when I was laying in bed and had finished “now I lay me…” my eight year old’s prayer came back so clearly, as if God were reminding me, “Sarah! Start here! Don’t make this so difficult, go back to the things you believed and trusted in as a child! I haven’t changed, I’m still bending down over your bed, waiting to hear your now-24 – year old’s heart!” And all of a sudden, after praying that God keep mom and dad and Megan safe, healthy, and happy, I could pray again.

Those words of my prayers that night came out of words that were so deeply ingrained in me that I had become unaware of their presence anymore. But they were there, waiting to help me begin a conversation with the creator of the universe. So, Mom & Dad, Grandma & Papa, if you’re reading this, thank you. Thank you for taking the time to patiently sit with all of us kids as we learned the words to bed time prayers, table prayers, and the prayer that Jesus himself taught us. And once we learned it, thank you for realizing your job was not over. Thank you for continuing to pray with us night after night for years, as together we invited Jesus to come watch over us as we slept.

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