Dear Jesus: The beginning of an evangelical prayer as taught to children. In later years, the “dear” seems to drop, and only the name remains: Jesus or Lord God or Father. But still, there is always a salutation, a signal that we are entering prayer time.
In his room, the WalMart fan rattles and the yellow, 70’s-style-swivel-chair1 squeaks as we rock, rock, rock.
“Should we pray?”
“Pray?” Dane repeats, and he adds my inflection to the end of the word, so it comes out a question.
He is two. He speaks in fragments of our family language, each day repeating new words, forming phrases in the wrong order, sentences missing verbs, words missing letters or shortened into parodies of themselves.
I used to keep a list of his words as he learned them – Mama, Dada, Wa-wa, No! – but now they come too quickly and unexpectedly. Now his baby fat is gone; his legs are strong and scraped from his play.
But in his room at night, he folds himself into my lap, rests his head on my shoulder. His hair smells like sweat and earth. It is thick and blonde and it sticks to my face as I rest my cheek against his head and rock, rock, rock.
“Dear Jesus,” I say. “Thank you for this day. Thank you that you love us. Thank you that you’re always with us.”
They are not my words so much, but words I remember from my childhood, words my mom spoke at night after we’d been tucked under the covers. The short sentences, the phrasing—this is all hers, and I can hear my voice morph into her voice as I speak them now into the darkness of the room, Dane’s ear pressed against my collarbone.
I don’t know where the “Dear” came from—the salutation of a letter, applied to prayer. As if we are writing a letter to heaven. As if God is so far away that he can only be reached by mail.
I don’t know why I feel the need to create a beginning this way (“Dear Jesus”) or an end (“Amen”). Do I want to teach my children that prayer is something we do at specific times? A break in our play before eating, before sleeping? A ritual, a regiment? Or do I want them to believe that life is a running conversation with God. That he is present in our day, always available, always listening?
Or does, as usual, the answer lie in between, somewhere vague and gray that I will navigate sloppily through these early years of their lives?
Dane and I thank Jesus for the highlights of our day. We thank him for our friends. That we got to eat pizza for lunch. We thank him for these tangible things because this is all I know to teach my son about Jesus at age two: the lovely things are gifts from God.
I do not know what I will tell him about the terrible things in life or even the complex, but, it’s okay because he speaks in fragments, in concrete nouns rather than verbs. I am spared, for now, this difficulty, allowed to make my nighttime prayer a litany of thanks.
I hold him to me and say, “We love you Jesus. Amen.” I listen as he repeats, “Jesus” and “Men,” knowing not what the words mean but that they are part of our day, as sure as closing our eyes and falling to sleep.