2019 Advent Devo: Just Pray

In the evenings, I kneel beside my daughter Riley’s bed; the carpet stamps my knees.  Riley gently drapes an arm around my shoulders, awkwardly gathering me in, and we pray.  I try to change it up, because conversational topography should vary like the relational landscape it represents, and because I know that maybe especially because she Autism, Riley tends toward endless repetition.  Kevin and I have always done this; we teach our children to pray by praying with them. We start where they are; we gently tug away any barriers that could hinder their spiritual growth.

For each of our children, this teaching happens differently, though the process begins in the same way.  Before my son Adam, who also has Autism, could string any number of words together to communicate, we created a simple prayer, unique to Adam, for him to recite at bedtime:

Dear God,

Thank you for my family.

Thank you for music.

Thank you for school.

Amen.

We chose just a few ideas we thought Adam might understand, but what we most wanted was to build was the foundation for a relationship between our son and the God who loves him.  For a while, we recited this prayer and Adam repeated it after us word for word. Then gradually, Kevin and I began dropping words, leaving empty pauses, waiting for Adam to fill them in.  Adam quickly caught on, but almost always filled the words in exactly as we had taught him. Then one night, Kevin decided the time had come to encourage Adam to pray on his own. He knelt beside the bed, nodding toward Adam, and said, “Okay, go ahead and pray, buddy.” Kevin offered no model prayer, just an invitation to pray.  Adam, who loves music and, we believe, finds it more understandable than plain speech, prayed aloud the entire chorus of the Casting Crowns song East to West:

Jesus, can You show me just how far the east is from the west

‘Cause I can’t bear to see the man I’ve been come rising up in me again

In the arms of Your mercy I find rest

‘Cause You know just how far the east is from the west

From one scarred hand to the other

At this point, Adam still wasn’t speaking to us in sentences.  Kevin left the room in tears, taking with him our first sign of a God-gifted relationship between our sweet son and his God that surpasses the limits of language.

In Christian history, the Lord’s Prayer, as we’ve long titled Jesus’ primer prayer for the disciples, remains one of the most memorized and oft quoted liturgical prayers.  In childhood Bible classes, my Restoration-roots teachers taught us kids that The Lord’s Prayer was just an example and not really something Jesus intended for us to memorize or learn to recite.  Later, discovering my own spiritual Autism in my children’s challenges, I wondered about that. As part of the lesson, these sincere, dedicated teachers often asserted, not inaccurately, that recited prayers can become impersonal.  God wants a relationship with us.  This, of course, is exactly my thought when I opt for an ever-changing dialogue with God beside Riley’s bed.

Right now as I pray, Riley pats my back rhythmically with her hand in much the way that she lightly pats the doors in our home with her fingers as she repeats comforting checklists under her breath.  Okay, the door is open, and yes, the lights are off, I sometimes hear her whispering repetitively, each word another pat.  Even though I use all kinds of different words, there are certain petitions so significant to Riley that she insists I pray them aloud by her bedside every night.  I know it’s these she’s patting out against my shoulder while I creatively chat it up with God. She’s polite enough not to interrupt, but I feel fairly certain that inside her mind and heart, over my sometimes incomprehensible speeches, she’s whispering, “Please God, keep me seizure free and headache free and anxiety free and side effect free,” over and over and over.  And the thing is, I don’t know a prayer warrior more fierce or more supplicating than Riley.  When anxiety grips Riley’s heart, nothing frees her except prayer. When she’s struggling, she’ll openly ask everyone she knows to pray for her.  More than anyone I know, Riley perseveres in prayer.

Right after Jesus, at his disciples’ request, teaches them to pray using what has become to us The Lord’s Prayer, he goes on to instruct them to try to drive God nuts by asking repeatedly for what they need.  Jesus tells a crazy story about an annoying neighbor who clearly failed to prepare in advance for the potential for company and who interrupts some poor family’s sleep for who-knows-how-long asking for bread. Jesus says the neighbor will finally get help not because of friendship but because they have been audaciously annoying, and then he encourages, “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you (Luke 11:9, emphasis mine)”  Then Jesus makes the point that God actually loves us better than a neighbor or friend, better than any human Father loving his kids, and I hear an implicit comment about the explosive collision of our childish persistence and God’s unconquerable love for us.

I pray now, teaching Riley, and I realize my children have also been teaching me.  I think of Adam, how he used a model prayer–a different one than ours–in a language he could understand, to express a relationship we could not.  I feel Riley’s persistent patting petitions now, and I understand that while sometimes for some of us repetition loses its meaning, sometimes for some of us it expresses clearly and persistently what matters the most.  Whether we read Luke 11:1-13 needing to repeat and repeat and repeat Jesus’ model prayer or teasing substantial Kingdom-focused sentiments from its compact layers, we can’t miss that what Jesus models for us is a consistent, reliant, boldly persistent, submissive and conversational relationship between God and his children.  At the heart of the lesson seems to be the truth that God loves us and will always love us well and that His Kingdom has come–this after all, is the resonant good news of Advent–and so we pray and we pray and we pray again, seeking Him in never-ending supplicating conversation, first and forever.

You are loved!
Elysa Henegar


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