What do we tell children about prayer?

DEBATE in the United States Senate over prayer in schools has brought some pointed public exchanges on a very personal subject - when to pray, what to pray , how much time to pray. There's one question public debate can't settle. It's worth considering, whether we think of ourselves as religious or not: What do we tell our own children about prayer?

Do we tell them prayer is a ritual repetition of familiar words, that it's an exercise of willpower, or a way to quiet nerves or to get special favors? Do we tell them that if they're smart enough and work hard enough, they don't need prayer?

Something I was told as a child has made all the difference in my view of prayer: True prayer is based on understanding; it's not blind.

By the time I was eleven years old, I'd been exposed to many views of prayer. My grandfather, who lived with us, was a warm and wise man who happened to have little use for religion. My parents were of different faiths. Mother was quite religious. My father had a quiet love for God, but he wasn't very active in his church. We lived in a neighborhood with a mixture of children of several faiths as well as those with no religious leanings. From time to time the question of whether or not there was a God and how to worship Him came up when we were playing in somebody's backyard.

I had been going to the Christian Science Sunday School for a while, and I was learning about God and how to pray. I was told that prayer includes recognizing God as all-powerful and myself as His spiritual creation - whole, good, indestructible. Although I was just beginning to understand this, I knew prayer was powerful, because it meant letting God govern my thought and life.

Like most kids, I loved to dance. Those were the early days of rock-and-roll; things could get pretty fast on the dance floor. I had a favorite partner, and we looked forward to the dance contest at the end of Saturday dances.

One Saturday morning I sprained my ankle badly. I had done this several times before and had been unable to walk for a couple of days. No dancing. Then I began to think quietly about and listen to God. I was listening to what was true about me - that wholeness and goodness God created, that spirituality I had learned about. Within a short time I was able to walk again without difficulty. That night my partner and I won the dance contest.

I never thought for one minute that God answered my prayer by helping me win the contest. The answer to my prayer was better understanding - the understanding of God as Spirit, as the one infinite good, who could be heard in the quiet of my thought and expressed every day. And this understanding brought healing. I was seeing something of what Christ Jesus must have meant when he said, ''Enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.'' n1

n1 Matthew 6:6.

Real prayer isn't human willpower. It's the exercise of our spiritual capacity to understand God. We may temporarily ignore prayer. But the capacity to pray silently, to love God and man, to hear the truth, to declare God's goodness with our very lives, can't be stifled. We cultivate it as we yield our personal designs, fear, hatred, and recognize God as our source and our strength.

Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, begins a chapter entitled ''Prayer'' in her book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures this way: ''The prayer that reforms the sinner and heals the sick is an absolute faith that all things are possible to God, - a spiritual understanding of Him, an unselfed love.'' n2

n2 Science and Health

The question of what prayer is won't be answered in a legislature. It's answered in the hearts of each of us. It's answered by God, whose care is intelligent, tender, and all-powerful. We can't afford not to tell our children that. DAILY BIBLE VERSE Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms. . . . The prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up. . . . The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. James 5:13, 15, 16

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