I’ve recently started the practice of praying with my one-year-old son before bed. We’ve had mealtime prayers going for a while now, usually in the form of a song, and at night I usually sing to him, too. Now that he’s starting to learn some words and showing evidence of understanding more and more of what we say to him, though, I thought it seemed like a good time to take up the spiritual practice of a spoken bedtime prayer with him; after all, it’s never too early to start a good habit!
The classic children’s bedtime prayer is of course this one: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” It’s short, it’s simple, it rhymes – and it’s full of theology that I find questionable at best! Aside from the impracticality of scaring kids by reminding them of their own mortality right at bedtime, this prayer also presupposes that salvation is disembodied and all about my individual afterlife, not what we do or how we treat other people in this life. Needless to say, this isn’t what I’ve chosen to pray with my son every night, cause I think it’s important to be careful about what theology we’re teaching children through the prayers and Christian stories and songs we share with them.
When I was growing up, I was encouraged to skip the memorized prayers and make up my own prayer at bedtime. I’m not sure if my parents taught me to structure my prayers in this way, but as long as I can remember, my night-time prayers have had three parts to them: they start with thanking God for the day or specific things, then they move to praying for God’s help for/presence with other people and myself, and then they close with asking for forgiveness for any wrongdoing. Interestingly, these three components overlap with the three kinds of prayer found in the Psalms, the biblical prayer-book. According to scholar Walter Brueggemann, these are the “Psalms of Orientation” (or Praise), “Psalms of Disorientation” (or Lament/Asking for Forgiveness or Deliverance) and “Psalms of New Orientation” (or Thanksgiving for Forgiveness/Deliverance) (see this book: http://books.google.ca/books/about/Spirituality_of_the_Psalms.html?id=oAAM5QxJv1MC).
As I begin praying at bedtime with my son, I’m roughly keeping to these three components because I think they emphasize gratitude, generosity, and empathy as important aspects of faith in a generous and loving God. As you can see, though, I’ve altered the part asking for forgiveness, since my son, like all children, is still too young to be accountable for wrongdoing/sin according to our Anabaptist-Mennonite theology. So this, or something similar, is what I’m praying with him every night:
“God, we thank you for this day, for all good things, and for our family.
Thank you that we have enough of what we need, and help us to share what we have with others.
Please be with all our family and friends, and with those who are sad or lonely.
Please help us to be who you want us to be, today and every day. Amen.”