Praying with Penny
Just when we think we know what prayer is, God has a way of taking us back to square one--and sometimes He uses the most unexpected guides.
By Amy Julia Becker
A few weeks back, I got into a fight with my four-year-old son William. I can’t remember the details, though I’m sure it had something to do with getting dressed for school.
I know it had been a rough night of sleep the night before. I know my husband had left the house early. I know I yelled at all three children when they danced and bickered and lounged around instead of putting on their clothes. And I know that eventually I grabbed William and pulled him up from the floor, inadvertently creating a rug burn on the top of his foot. He sobbed. And then, after trying to comfort him, I put my face in my hands and started to cry.
My youngest daughter Marilee, who is almost two, couldn’t understand it. “Why Mommy cwyin’ ?” she was still asking 30 minutes later. William giggled uncertainly, as if he hoped I was putting on a show. But Penny, my eldest, knew immediately that this was for real. She came over to offer a hug, and then she said, gently, “Mom, should we pray?”
Penny was born seven years ago. Her delivery seemed unremarkable. My epidural had worked wonders on the pain, and since the baby weighed a mere five pounds five ounces, I pushed for only 20 minutes before she shot into the world. Her vital signs were good at birth, and she cried a hearty cry upon exiting the womb. For two hours, we experienced the euphoria of many a new parent—the relief that labor and delivery were over, the giddy excitement about what would come, the childlike wonder that we had been entrusted with caring for another human being.
But then a nurse called my husband out of the room, and when he returned, his eyes were brimming. “The doctors think Penny has Down syndrome,” he said. And euphoria turned to dread.
Penny’s birth and the doctor’s recognition that she had Down syndrome, a third copy of chromosome 21 in every cell of her body, rendered me silent before God. I was a seminary student at the time, so I had all sorts of theological resources on hand, but I was afraid to pray. It felt too risky, as if another unanswered or misdirected prayer might silence my faith altogether.
And so, for the first few months of Penny’s life, I depended upon the prayers of others. I felt no guilt or anxiety about my prayerlessness. I relied upon Galatians 6:2—“Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” It seemed as though God had given me permission to let other people do my praying, and we could sense the Spirit’s presence within our home in the early months of Penny’s life. She was healthy, with a few medical procedures needed down the road, but no immediate physical concerns. She was easy to take care of, sleeping through the night at seven weeks and rarely crying. And she was beautiful, with full cheeks, a button nose, and big blue eyes that reminded me of deep pools of still water.
A few months into my life as a mother, I knew it was time to talk to God again. My husband once remarked, “Every emotion provides an opportunity to pray,” and I surprised myself by beginning my prayers with anger. They were one-word prayers—a word I had been taught not to say as a child. I wrote it in my journal, dozens of times, and then wrote, Amen.
As I groped in the dark towards some language to use with God, the Psalms gave me permission to pray honestly. God had accepted the prayers of the psalmists who offered their hopelessness (see Psalm 88:18 NIV, where the writer calls darkness his “closest friend”), their rage (see Psalm 137, in which the psalmist hopes his enemy’s infants have their heads dashed “against the rocks”), and their desolation (see Psalm 22, whose opening line Christ Himself quoted on the cross: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”). God accepted my anger. And then my fear. And finally, as I got to know my daughter more and more, God accepted my prayers of gratitude and celebration.
Over the years, once I was able to pray again, and once Penny had emerged from infancy into a chatty toddler (first with sign language, and then with spoken words), we began to pray together. And, in an unexpected turn of events, Penny began to teach me about prayer. By the time she was three, she bowed her head and closed her eyes whenever she heard sirens outside, and she often initiated prayer for friends and family who I only later learned were in need. There was the time she asked to pray for my grandfather, whom she hadn’t seen in two months.
My mother called the next day to tell me he had broken his leg. Or the time she asked to pray for two of her friends. She didn’t know that their dad had just said goodbye to his 39-year-old brother, who was dying of cancer. I still don’t know exactly how she knew to pray for them, but she increased my confidence in God’s desire for us to intercede on behalf of others. She increased my faith in the truth that prayer matters.
Then there was the phase, when she was four, in which Penny wouldn’t tell me much about her day, but she would curl up, with her head to her knees on the floor, and talk and talk and talk to God. She told Him everything. And I yearned for that same abandon before the Lord, that same willingness to pour out my memories and experiences and hopes.
That was the year she and her brother started giggling a lot as they prayed. I recorded one time when Penny squeezed her eyes shut, tucked in her chin, and said, “Thank You for every people in our lives. Thank You for our family.
And help us be kind to each other at the ballet becital. And the cow jumped over the moon. And three little bears sitting on chairs.” (Giggle) “And a hat.”
Peter and I shared a bit of a sigh, and he said, “Penny, do you think God likes jokes?”
“Yes,” she replied.
We looked at each other again, and we knew she was right. She had taught us about prayer once more.
Now that Penny is in first grade, her prayers have become more conventional. She thanks God for various aspects of her day and for her friends and family. But she is still teaching me.
For a long time, we’ve explained to her that whenever she feels frightened or alone, she can pray, and God will be with her. Just last night, we were together at a concert and the music got too loud. Penny covered her ears through one song and then asked me if we could leave. I escorted her home, and once she was safely under the covers, she asked, “Mom, can we talk about the concert?” I told her how proud I was that she had been brave, that she had covered her ears and calmly asked for what she needed. And she told me, “Mom, God was with me.” In the midst of her fear, she had prayed, and God had answered her.
Seven years ago, I didn’t know when I would pray again, or how. I certainly didn’t know that my daughter would be the one to teach me about paying attention to the whispers of the Spirit when others are in need, or that she would show me how to pour out my heart or giggle with God. I didn’t know she would demonstrate persistence in prayer and testify to God’s faithful response.
Seven years ago, I didn’t understand what a gift—what an answer to prayer—my daughter would be.
Amy Julia Becker is the author of A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny.
Photography by Christopher Capozziello