When I was a kid, I attended a local summer Bible Camp, at which a youth pastor held an altar call. An altar call, for those relatively unversed in pentacostal and evangelical practices, is an event toward the end of a prayer service in which the leader invites anyone to come forward, be prayed over and then offer their heart to Christ for spiritual conversion. Not a bad thing, but perhaps not the best thing to offer a group of 8 year-olds who are coming from many different religious traditions. His language was pretty specific...if anyone in the group had not yet "received Jesus into their heart" and "wanted to avoid eternal death" they were welcome to come forward. Of course, being a literal-minded child, I was made quite nervous by these two statements. I knew that I had been baptized. I knew God loved me, in the person of Jesus to boot....but had I accepted Him into my heart? I didn't remember ever having done just that in the past...and if not, then did I risk "eternal death?" Of course, I went up....and received Jesus into my heart that night-with a caveat. The preacher told me sotto voce that I needed to say a prayer to Jesus every night before I went to bed so He wouldn't leave my heart. Yikes!
The prayers came pretty easily each evening after that, for a time. I managed a couple of days before my 8 year-old brain ran out of things to say to Jesus. At that point, that one evening, I refused to go to bed. I didn't want Jesus to leave my heart because I did not have anything original to offer up in my prayer. I still remember my dad coming into my room and assuring me that God still loved me, that Jesus was not going to leave my heart unattended. In fact, he even offered up a fail-safe, go-to prayer that I had already learned in Sunday School a couple of years before. In that he was reminding me that Jesus himself had given us words to offer up to God when our own, original words fail: "Our Father, which art in heaven...." (1928-style, remember that this was pre-1979 BCP!)
That memory comes up every time I come across the prayer Jesus teaches the disciples, and us, in Matthew and Luke. In Sunday's readings, the prayer is appended to a passage that also includes Jesus speaking to persistence and perseverance in prayer...."Ask....Seek....Knock...." Simple concepts, and yet the impact on us in our lives can't be reckoned. To take this posture in prayer, to be formed and forged by the willingness to "Ask, Seek, Knock" is to be willing to take ALL our concerns, really our whole selves, to God as an offering and oblation for God to do with as God wills. It is to release our agenda by entrusting to God every single shred of our hopes, desires, needs....fears, hurts, prejudices and anger. When we hand it all over to God...says Jesus...then it will all be handed back to us, transformed by God into righteousness itself.
I think that was the preacher's intent for us...to have us little ones begin to form a practice of praying sacrificially to God...but what does an 8 year old know how to sacrifice? My toys? My baby sister?
It is a long way off for one so immature to realize that real, honest prayer rendered faithfully to God does two things: 1) it reminds us that we are formed by what we say and do, and by what we say we are going to do; and 2) that God is revealed in the heeding and answering of our prayers. It also a great journey for a human soul to come to the realization that ALL prayers are answered by God (just remember that sometimes the answer is a very holy "No.")
There is another wrinkle in this Sunday's Gospel (Luke's version of the prayer taught to the disicples that we know as the "Our Father..."). In Luke's version, much simplified, we are told to pray for the forgiveness of our sins, even as we forgive those with debts against us (after acknowledging God's supremacy and grace, and requesting enough bread for today). One comentator I was reviewing holds this up as a key element of being in prayer to God, and learning both just how much God expects of us, and how much God offers to us, in terms of prayers fulfilled. We ask God to forgive us our sins, sure...but the caveat is that we are committing to forgive the people who owe US debts. Not some debts, and not some people...but, tall those indebted to us. All.
A powerful and demanding call, but in answering that call, we are starting to hold up our end of the promise that God is continually making to us. Ask....Seek....Knock....and it shall be given....even as much is expected of us!
The Collect for this coming Sunday (the prayer offered at the beginning of the liturgy that "frames the day" in worship) speaks volumes about prayer and its place in our relationship to God and to the world as God's followers:
O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Too often, when it comes to prayer, or really life itself, we look outside ourselves for strength and expect solutions to be provided. Or, we might draw back from anticipated trials and/or exhaustion because we know and fear the feelings that are coming with that draw-down on our souls. The Collect, and Jesus in Luke's Gospel, are reminding us that really nothing can be accomplished without prayer...and that in prayer God becomes a player in the situation and a major force for change in our lives. "God give me strength...words...help....etc," is not just a quick little incantation of support from the One who dwells on high. It is a giving over of our cares, worries and agenda to our creator who is going to shape and form us into something holy and powerful, even as the Divine Will is revealed.
I pray very differently (with regard to intention) than I did when I was 8 years old...all of us do...but I realize that the same words continue to have a powerful effect on me, even as they did when my Dad reminded me of what I already knew about prayer when I thought I had lost it, and my access to God that night long ago. Praying is not about incantation, but about affirmation and truly allowing God, who was invited mind you, to act, to give and to deliver on what we asked for in the first place....