I know how to behave in a room better than I know how to be myself in a room. I’m a middle child, raised in the church, trained in a conservative seminary, and married to a pastor. I know how to be what you need to me to be in one million situations and most of all, I know how to behave in church. Being the child who knew how to behave, I never received an inner thigh pinch or earlobe twist for misbehaving. Only once I was glared at for passing notes in the choir stand. Learning how to behave in church intuitively informed a lot about how I behave in relationship with God—especially in prayer.
Leading prayer for me is like being a tour guide in a museum. I know enough of church and the Bible to walk you to a famous installation, give an adequately informed and warm ten-minute talk, flash a smile that matched the glimmer of my shiny volunteer name badge, and then walk to the next planned tour stop. So three years ago, when hosting a prayer group suddenly turned into leading a prayer group, I did not feel threatened nor did I feel excited. I felt prepared from decades of behaving.
When the ten or so women who attended the prayer group looked to me, I felt confident to create and carry out a plan. We met together monthly. And for a while, everything was going as expected.
At the same time, I was leading this prayer group, I began a personal study on the Psalms. After reading them over a few weeks, I became enraptured by them. God began to slowly wake up my heart to the beauty of the Psalms, but even more to the ferocity of them. The abruptness with which David asks for things, and even the gall to demand action from God, confused me. This was misbehavior in God’s house if I had ever seen it. David, bow your head, fold your hands, appear meek. Always begin a prayer with “Dear Lord” and end it with “Amen.” All good children raised in church know these are the rules.
I know the Psalms are not inappropriate or sacrilegious because they are God’s word, but my curiosity drilled me deeper in the Psalms every day. And I began to ask questions. They started with, “how can David possibly pray ‘Arouse yourself for me’ to God and still live? Who does he think he is to demand things of God?” Then, slowly, they journeyed into questions more about my relationship with God and prayer: Why can I never never imagine being so forward with God? Do I want that? Why don’t I talk to him like that? Over my year of reading and meditating on the Psalms, God planted dozens of seeds that began to burst. He showed me that he is, in fact, more beautiful and more terrifying and more powerful and more trustworthy and more just and more dedicated to his people than I could almost bear to believe.
How do I respond to a God who is dynamic in all directions? Who rescues me by placing me in himself and tears my enemies apart limb by limb? Who withers my heart and makes my bones cling to my flesh? Who knits me together while still in Margaret’s womb? I had not considered that I was allowed to raise my voice to him in prayer. I had not considered I was allowed to misbehave.
I think my kids get this. My children are pastor’s kids. When they come to church on Sundays they feel a freedom that makes me cringe as they careen through crowded aisles under the watchful eyes of many. Are they hurting anyone? No, but I was raised to behave in church, as if Sunday mornings were the only times God was paying attention to us. My kids have an entitlement in the church building that makes them comfortable to dig around in the kitchen refrigerators or the snack pantry looking for a treat. They run through the halls during the week and stop in every office doorway to announce their presence to every staff member, usually by yelling. They use an obscene amount of offering envelopes for their doodles when they feel bored. Are they misbehaving? Sometimes. But often their brazenness is really a comfortability to be themselves in a place they are known.
My children know how to be themselves in a room instead of just behaving. They are leading their mother. They take that comfortability and entitlement from church, squish it in their little hands, and carry it right into prayer and offer it to the father on the throne.
Without having studied the Psalms, my children know how to ask for what they really want from God. Sometimes they even try to manage a “thank you for poop” in their prayer as they peer out a squinty eye to see if I will approve. And we know that the kingdom of God belongs to the children. Jesus tells us that whoever doesn’t enter like a child won’t enter at all. I might not understand all that that encounter of the children with Jesus means, but I know they are welcome to come to him and be themselves. When the children approached him, the scriptures do not say that they readied themselves. They did not bow, they did not put on their “Sunday best,” they may not have even washed their hands, smelling like dirt and smudged with marker residue. They just came as they were.
After I saw my kids behave and misbehave over the past few months, I began to change the way I pray, both when I was alone and when I led our group meeting. I lost the name tag, the clipboard, and the well-knowing and always perky sensibility. I often cried when I prayed. I pounded fists. I opened my hands, bowed prostrate, and once worked really, really hard to keep an f-bomb from flying out.
Once I began to know and see the God of my salvation on his throne, walking around in the cool of the day, sustaining trees, refilling dried streams, and caring about very small and particular parts of my life, I began to misbehave a little bit in the throne room. I am his daughter, and therefore a little entitled. I know his promises to me and I know I can ask for things that were never promised. Sometimes he delights to give above even the mountainous generosity that he always displays towards us who believe.
Cover photo by Jordan Whitt.