For the past 8 weeks or so, I've been running a guest series by adults reflecting on the way the children in their lives have prompted their own reflection and growth. Next week I will run a post that includes links and summaries of all these "Small Talk" posts. Today, Rob Moll joins us to reflect upon the intersection of prayer, faith, and two little boys drifting to sleep:
Every night, after reading stories to my two sons, I tuck them into their bunk bed. If I quietly leave after singing a song, inevitably their after-hours whispers turn into rambunctious play. But if I sit in the room, in the dark, they remain quiet and fall asleep. I used to spend those fifteen minutes reading email or playing games on my phone, but when a schedule change interrupted my usual prayer time, I began using these quiet moments to connect with God.
As parents, we train our children for adulthood without much assurance of whether our efforts will work. We have no idea, really, if the piano lessons will matter, if the homework assignment is vital, or if insisting on making an apology will actually shape a child's character. And though we pour our hearts and prayers into the spiritual training of our children, in the end, the decision to pursue God is theirs alone.
In those nighttime minutes, one of the things I pray for is that my boys would discover for themselves an inner life of prayer. They know that I am praying as I sit on the floor in the quiet. Sometimes I ask if they have anything I can pray for. Sometimes I whisper loud enough that they can hear. As their breathing slows into a steady sleepy pattern, I quietly enjoy the presence of God and the resting little bodies at my side.
One night I got up to leave after finishing my prayers. My oldest boy was still awake, and he asked me to come over to his bed. “I’m afraid of scary dreams,” he said. He’d been waking up at night a lot recently. “I keep asking God to take them away, but he doesn’t.”
I have my own trouble with asking God for things that don’t turn out the way I wanted. My own career and health desires haven’t seemed to be the same as God’s. Perhaps my lack of faith or maybe my experience of prayer caused me to respond a little differently than I had on other occasions, when I might have more quickly encouraged greater faith or more prayer. “Sometimes God doesn’t take away things that we don’t like,” I said, “but instead he offers to be with us.” I then offered to pray with him. We prayed a simplified version of the Jesus Prayer, Dear Jesus, have mercy on me. We repeated it several times. “Thank you Daddy,” he said, “That helps. I feel better.”
Like many bedtime activities, this one has now become routine. I finish praying, and he wants to pray with me before I leave the room. In the darkness, I lean close to his top bunk and we whisper a prayer together.
It is humbling—terrifying maybe—to see how quickly and easily a child can adopt for himself the behaviors we model. Even prayer. For all of the good I hope to model, who knows what bad habits and sins I am passing on? Nevertheless, I find it assuring to see that something so important yet so intangible as faith can be shared and, Lord willing, passed on from generation to generation.
While I initiated the nightly prayer routine, my son has made this time uniquely his own. Instead of the Jesus Prayer, he has created his own prayer adapted from the story of Jesus calming the waters. (Perhaps not coincidentally, it begins with Jesus not paying attention to the disciples’ cries of distress.) He found the picture of Jesus calming things to be a comfort as he faced nighttime terrors. He prays, “Dear Jesus, calm the water of our bodies.” I pray the words beside him. I pray not just that they settle his mind now but that the truths of God's presence and care settle deep into his heart for his whole life.
Rob Moll is an award-winning journalist and editor-at-large with Christianity Today. His most recent book is What Your Body Knows About God (IVP, 2014). Moll serves World Vision as communications officer to the president and lives in the Seattle area.