I learn so much about how to approach the throne of God by interacting with my 3 year-old niece.
She lives next door. On weekends, she and her older brother spend hours playing outside with their cousins. When they want to come inside, she bangs on the door with both fists and smashes her face against the window until I invite her in. Once inside, she announces, arms akimbo, "I'm here. EVERYONE, I'M HERE." If you don't curtsy and bow, this will continue for a while. Always after that, she announces, "I'm hungry. I want snack," whereupon she heads directly into the kitchen, pulling off her coat, shoes, and socks, littered in a trail behind her.her Once in the kitchen, she opens both the freezer and refrigerator simultaneously, the snack cabinet, tupperware drawer, candy drawer, and kitchen junk drawer, wondering aloud, "hmmm, what you got?" Somehow, she locates the snacks that toe the line between completely mortifying her mother, but that aren't expressly off limits. She's got a keen sense for this line and it keeps me in a decent political position: if I give her these snacks, I am a good aunt and won't get into too much trouble with the sister-parent, if she finds out. I don't tell her. It's aunt-niece privilege, which is like attorney-client privelege except life-long and completely voluntary.
The niece goes into the pantry next, to find her favorite cup, I keep it on a low shelf, just for her. I picked up a mismatched set of cut-glass punch cups years ago at a thrift store for little children who want to drink out of fancy cups. She drags the stool across the floor to the sink to fill her cup with water. The stool screech-drone-drags across the floor. (There is no proper word for this sound in the English language.) I love this sound because it means she is here and her spirit is filling up my kitchen. She drags the stool over to the island then and sits on it. Feet swinging, she starts to talk to me.
"This is my cup," she says proudly, showing me.
"Yes, it is," I say. "It's a pretty cup."
She launches animatedly into a story I have no context for. I barely understand her.
I find myself repeating back half of what she says just to see if I get the meaning right. Most of the time I get it wrong and she patiently corrects me, repeating herself, enunciating carefully, like how I imagine it would be if some very patient Chinese person tried to teach me conversational Chinese. I would be awful.
After 10 minutes of concerted effort, I still don't understand a quarter of what she says. But I get enough to ask some open-ended questions, which always delights her. And me too. Inevitably, I don't understand what she's saying in response to my questions and we end up in the loop repeating ourselves again. We don't mind. She lights up because I'm there with her, in her moment, listening to her story, just drinking her in.
In this way, we understand each other perfectly.
When I started praying, I was so careful. So quiet. So wanting to think or say the right thing in the right sequence. But not anymore. Not since life became brutal and beautiful off camera. Now, when I pray, I think of her. I'm a lot more like her. Demanding entrance, leaving a trail of things I don't need anymore behind me, demanding nourishment, rifling through places and things that I wasn't invited into. Not making any sense and yet making all the sense. Maybe my words and thoughts are garbled, but the relationship and intention is very clear. I am here, please take care of me, please know me, please understand me. Please talk back. It's very childlike, to pray like this. I'm not so careful anymore. Not so quiet. Not trying to make a lot of sense.
Because prayer is really a conversation that happens continuously over time.
I wonder about Jesus in the garden, talking to his father about his cup. Because he took it, the cup he didn't want, I get to choose my cup—the pretty one—and sit in the presence of the Father and jabber away.
I get the sense that God is a lot more patient and delighted with my presence than I am with my niece's. And I am sublimely delighted with my niece.
I get the sense that he's just talking back to me, sometimes, trying to help me learn how to say what it is that I want to say.
It's not always like this when I pray. Sometimes it's silence and absence. Sometimes it's a holy, crushing, overwhelming presence.
But sometimes, it's Zelda at the kitchen counter, feet swinging, water splashing out of her cup. She's eating a bowl filled with stale corn chips mixed with M&Ms from 2 Halloweens ago topped with readi-whip and telling me something I really want to know.