–by Sara Zarr

When I was a child, I prayed like a child.

I chattered to God while walking to and from school, in the hours alone as a latchkey kid and when going to sleep at night. Often these prayers sprang from joy, or at least the kind of good mood one seems to possess without effort as a child. Sometimes my prayers came from fear or a search for comfort, especially at bedtime: Please don’t let that shape in the corner be a monster. Please don’t let the devil get me. Please surround me with angels. Let angels be true.

Sometimes I had specific, childish requests: Let me see Santa Claus. Let there be a pony in my room when I open my eyes. Other requests may have been just as fantastical, but I believed in God’s ability to grant them. Surely God would want to make my father stop drinking and come to church. Surely God would want sick babies healed and kidnapped children found.

I grew up in the evangelical church, where I heard prayers around me at church, in Bible studies, at mealtimes. Prayer changes when it’s something people hear you doing. Even as a child, I was conscious of wanting to sound smart or holy. As I grew into a teenager, I didn’t want to sound too holy or too smart. I didn’t want people to think I thought I was better than them.

I have not lost my desire to communicate with God.

I absorbed a lot about what God was like by listening as other self-conscious teenagers and adults prayed. God was holy. God was bigger than our problems. God also could find you a parking spot, a job, a good deal on a used car. God hated sin, and sin could be murder and adultery, or swearing, skipping church and dressing immodestly.

As I grew older and developed more conscious thoughts about God, my private prayers lost the joyful magic I’d experienced in childhood. Public prayers—mine and most everyone else’s—felt performative. I assumed the problem was me. In college I read a book called Too Busy Not to Pray. I tried harder. Deep down I thought I must not love the Lord enough, if prayer felt like such a chore.

If salvation through Christ was about a personal relationship, and Jesus was always right there inside my heart, why did it feel like homework to simply talk to him?

In my 30s, I had more exposure to liturgical prayer. My mother sent me an old version of the Book of Common Prayer used in the Episcopal Church. The worship service at my in-laws’ Lutheran congregation used sung, chanted and spoken prayers. I made Catholic friends and learned that for centuries believers had used prewritten, memorized prayer and everything was fine.

Or was it?

This article is excerpted from the July/August 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.

Sara Zarr is the author of six novels for young adults. She lives with her husband in Utah.