Prayer was a dress-up occasion when I was a child. We did it on Sundays in black patent-leather party shoes, white cotton socks, white cotton gloves, and freshly pressed linen dresses with puff sleeves, smocked bodices, and grosgrain ribbon at the waist. Organ music by Bach or Praetorius reached the loftiest spaces of the nave, and deep-voiced men intoned with piety: “Let us pray.” We wondered if we had forgotten something. Were we fully prepared to become fervent?
No, we must not have been, for our minds wandered. Our ears heard, “Hallowed be thy name,” but our thoughts strayed like children distracted from a well-trod path by ducklings in the pond just over there. And if we caught a phrase or two—“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”—we shrank back in shame; our hearts were not in it. “Thy will” must surely be something onerous, like being kind to our loathsome brother; keeping our room clean; befriending homely, awkward children; and putting all of our allowance in the offering plate. “Thy will” would never be anything pleasant or fun, according to our Sunday-school teachers, at any rate, whose own children were shrill and quarrelsome and picked their noses.
Our Sunday-school teachers described a judgmental Jesus, frightening us with too-frequent readings from Revelation and making a hash of the parables in the Gospels so that we thought we would burn in hell like the tares among the wheat, never mind that we didn’t know what “tares” were. Our teachers didn’t talk about the magnificent Jesus who loved us no matter what we did or, worse yet, what we thought. They didn’t quote John 16:33: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
We thank you, God, for helping us hang in there! We are grateful for the wise teachers who read to us from Romans 8:26: “…The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.”