We've been trying to teach Sadia the discipline of prayer. We began this endeavor with your basics: blessing food, and before bed. Once Sadia understood these basic prayers (as measured by her initiation of these prayers before eating and going to bed), I thought I'd introduce a different kind of praying to her. Since praying over food and the bed time prayer tend to be more common and self- centered, I wanted her gained exposure to others-centered prayers as well.
To illustrate my point, Sadia and I began reflecting on prayers that we'd heard over the week. I hoped she would notice that the subjects of the prayers were unrelated to the person doing the praying. For example: Pastor Carrington prayed for all of the people who were sick, though he was not sick himself; Ms. Pam prayed for the people who didn't have a place to sleep; and so on...
At some point, I got this novel idea that Sadia understood the principle of praying for others, so I decided to put it to the test. One morning while listening to the news on the car radio during our morning commute to work and preschool, I listened to a journalist describe the destruction that was left behind in the wake of hurricane Ike. Wanting to capitalize on the teachable moment, I quickly turned down the radio and explained the catastrophe that hit Texas in words that my 3 year old could understand. Basically, I told her that there were people who didn't have a place to sleep, or food to eat, because of some really bad rain. I figured she would connect to the power outages, since she is sometimes afraid of the dark, so I told her that in some places the lights are not working. There was an immediate connection.
Moments later I suggested that we should pray for these people. She nodded her head in agreement, and then I asked her to lead the prayer. I could tell that she had a genuine concern for the people because she was careful to mention all of the details that she had heard me describe, right down to the lights not working. She even prayed empathically when she mentioned how scared the people might be because the lights were out. I was extremely proud of her little prayer. Clearly, she had understood what I had been working so hard to instill in her: the importance of praying for others. But, perhaps my celebration was a bit premature, as it most certainly was short lived.
Not long after her prayer, that's when it all went awry.
"Mommy?" Sadia said while staring out the backseat window, her eyes glazed as she attempted to put her thoughts into words.
"My prayer was long, huh?"
"Well.., yes. I guess it was." I replied uncertain of the exact length of the prayer. "Why do you ask?"
"Because," she said ecstatically, "the good prayers are the long ones!"
Immediately, my discernment was taken down a few pegs. The reality is that Sadia understood one thing about those prayers I had dutifully pointed out: they were toooooooo loooong.
While the people prayed, she stood listening to the prayer for what must have seemed to her an eternity. With her curious tiny toddler head tettering and her nosey 3 year old eyes closed, busy bee mischief mounted. She hadn't connected to the concept of praying for others, because she had keenly recognize what so many of us have separately observed about communal church prayers ourselves--they go on forever.
Despite this shared observation, I eagerly sought to curtail her association between "long" and "good" prayers to a more honest tie-in, such as the connection between "good" prayers and prayers that come from the heart.
"Ya-yia," I said endearingly. God doesn't care whether our prayers are long or short. What matter most is that you pray from your heart. Prayers from your heart are good because you are talking to God about whatever you're thinking about.***
After my feeble explanation, I was unsure of whether Sadia understood. I was convinced that I would need to hear another prayer to set my mind at ease. However, I knew this next prayer would have to emerge naturally, and not out of a manufactured case. So, I kept my eyes peeled and my ear to the ground to seize the next teachable moment. Little did I know that this unique chance came just one day later.
Around 8:15 the following evening, Sadia was asked to lead her fellow choir members in a word of corporate prayer. She anxiously accepted the invitation, and walked quite confidently up to the front of the room, took the microphone in her hand and asked the children to bow their heads and close their eyes. I wondered whether she would apply her new understanding.
At that moment, the needs of various family members and friends--each having a prayer request that I shared with Sadia at one point or another--synced to my brain like an ipod to the iTunes library. I was sure that she would recall these conversations as she took advantage of an opportunity to pray from her heart. I couldn't have created a more candid climate if I had manufactured the moment myself.
"Dear Lord, we thank you for today. We ask that you touch the people who are sick and the people who are in the hospital who are sick. It's going to be my birthday tomorrow on October 22nd, and we're going to have a lot of fun, and i hope that a lot of people come to my birthday, and we're going to have a lot of fun..."
As you can imagine, the children--the whole lot of them-- came unglued, and despite their best efforts composure gave way to an irruption of giggles and guffaws. Sadia was immediately caught off guard by the sudden burst. However, the chorus of laughter was abruptly curtailed with an attempt to refocus their attention.
"Be quiet! I'm praying!" Sadia said, and with the utmost seriousness. Then, as if she had never missed a bit, she continued her fervent prayer"
"So, it's going to be my birthday, and in Jesus' Name, Amen."
Here's the bean: There is a thin line between ritualistic prayers, and prayers form the heart. The painfully simple truth of it all is that one must earnestly search one's own heart.
In my efforts to be "Christian" I sometimes manufacture the prayer that I think God wants to hear, rather than what really consumes my heart. When I empty my heart before God, then He can fill me up with His will, His views, His perspectives, those things which matter most to Him.
Sadia's prayer was a undoubtedly a matter of the heart. She pulled from her heart what was most important to her, and at that moment, her birthday was all she could think about. It consumed her. Those who would, and those would not attend saturated her thoughts, such that all that spilled out during her prayer were her concerns about her birthday.
I often look back on that night and wonder if in fact her prayer was "good", since it was basically a self-centered one? However, I take comfort in knowing that Sadia is loved by God in heaven. Her understanding of what it means to genuinely seek God is growing everyday, and of one thing I am certain: She will know how to go to God uninhibited by whatever is on her mind. Her's is a freedom that is all too rare.
*** (The nickname Ya-yia is derived from Simone's failed attempts at pronouncing Sadia's name. Where the "S" and "d" morph into the "yuh" sound.)