One Good Phrase: Amy Lepine Peterson (and joy deep down inside)
I’ve said this before, but one of the sweetest gifts of this whole blogging world has been the privilege of finding My People, those (mostly) women who see the world the same way I do, whose spiritual journeys have moved along similar paths, many of whom are deep in the work of understanding themselves and the Church and the world in light of their identities as moms and believers and lovers of words. I’m grateful Amy Lepine Peterson is one of those people whose writing I’ve come to trust and seek out. And I’m grateful she’s here today.
I don’t remember what he said, every night when he prayed for my sister and me in our double bed, except for one thing: Daddy’s prayers always ended with the same request.
“I pray that they would wake up in the morning,” he’d say, “with smiles on their faces, and songs in their hearts, and joy deep down inside.”
We weren’t a liturgical family. We shied away from all that denominational mess in favor of The Bible. My Sunday School teacher Miss Janie created her own curriculum, taking us through every story in the Book, even (and memorably) the one where Jael hammered a tent peg through Sisera and the one where Ehud’s sword was swallowed up by Eglon’s rolls of fat. On Sunday mornings we sang praise choruses and old Baptist hymns to the rhythm of acoustic guitar. Once a month we passed around plates of oyster crackers and plastic cups of grape juice, and when it came time for baptism, Daddy did mine, out on the Frio River.
I loved God, and the church, and the stories I learned. But as a teenager I began to yearn for tradition and liturgy. I found an old copy of the Book of Common Prayer on my parents’ bookshelves, and kept it in my room, trying to navigate its unfamiliar pages. After college I attended Anglican and Episcopal churches, steeping myself in the poetic language of prayers and creeds that followers of Christ had been reciting for centuries, anchoring myself to their witness when other parts of my life seemed ready to come unmoored. When I couldn’t form prayers myself, I was grateful that the words were already there waiting for me.
I don’t remember how old my daughter was when we started praying for her before bedtime. She wasn’t a good sleeper as an infant, and so most of my prayers fell along the lines of “please let her sleep for more than three hours this time.” Real bedtime prayers probably started around the same time that bedtime stories started, somewhere between her first and second birthdays. The stories were natural for me; I had favorite books to pull out, and then we had the Jesus Storybook Bible, too.
But bedtime prayers weren’t as easy. How was I to model approaching the throne of grace with confidence? What would she hear when I asked God to grant my requests for her? How could I communicate the truths of the gospel through my prayers, so that my daughter would hear that she was deeply loved, but also that she needed grace, and God’s providential care? What theological tenets would I unintentionally communicate?
When I prayed, though, the words came almost immediately, without forethought or intention. I prayed, of course, that she would wake up in the morning with a smile on her face. A song in her heart. And joy deep down inside.
I thought I had grown up without liturgy, but there it was, the rhythmic words of our family liturgy emerging from the depths of my memory like the truest collect from the Book of Common Prayer.
I wondered what our little liturgy might communicate to my daughter. It’s certainly a parent-friendly prayer — who doesn’t want their kid to wake up in a good mood? — but what would it say to a child’s heart?
In the Jesus Storybook Bible, there’s one story that always makes me cry. It’s the telling of the prodigal son. Sally Lloyd Jones begins it: “Once upon a time, there was a boy and his dad. Now, one day, the boy gets to thinking, Maybe if I didn’t have my dad around telling me what is good for me all the time, I’d be happier. He’s spoiling my fun, he thinks. Does my dad really want me to be happy? Does my dad really love me? The son never thought of that before. But suddenly he doesn’t know anymore.”
It’s a story of a child’s sudden fear that his dad doesn’t love him, and of a father’s desire for his son to find true joy. It’s the story of our fear that God doesn’t love us or know what’s best for us, and of God’s desire for us to be truly, deeply, happy in him.
When my dad prayed every night that I would wake up with a smile on my face, and a song in my heart, and joy deep down inside, I heard that he loved me, and wanted me to be happy, filled with the kind of joy that withstands trying circumstances and is guarded by the peace of God. His love reflected the love of God for me.
In this prayer, I hope my daughter hears that love too. I hope she hears that what matters to God, and to me, is that she finds joy deep down inside. That’s our family liturgy, and gospel truth.
Amy Lepine Peterson teaches ESL Writing and American Pop Culture at Taylor University, and spends most of her time making a home for her best-friend-husband and their two (frankly adorable) children. You can find her in the cornfields of Indiana, or online; she writes weekly for Christ and Pop Culture as well as at her personal blog Making All Things New.