Five eager hands shot up immediately, coming from among the ten children, mostly Hispanic and black, none older than 11, seated on one side of the classroom. The classroom was also occupied by 7 middle-aged WASP-y adults. At the head of the class was a rather large black man with dreadlocks and ghetto savvy drawl who looked like he could have been a bouncer at a nightclub. The occasion was the Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts at a workshop about developing community and church choirs, particularly children’s choirs. C.T. Grier, the workshop leader, related how at his church, responding to requests from local police for help in giving inner city children a positive alternative to street gangs, he had developed not one but two youth choirs, the “4C” (Core City Children’s Choirs). The “4C” has changed and enriched the lives of many children, and possibly kept them out of criminal trouble. And I might add also that “4C” sings like a host of Gospel Angels.
These 5 children, members of 4C, had volunteered in response to Grier’s request for someone to open the workshop with prayer. A 6 years old boy was chosen to lead in the prayer. Without hesitation, this lad rendered loudly and clearly a prayer that reflected not only reverence to his Heavenly Father, but also familiarity and ease in talking to that Father. His prayer expressed thanks and praise, and asked for God’s grace to be not only upon us but on all who needed to feel God’s love. The posture of each child present reflected their prayerful attitude. The boy’s “Amen” put the stamp on a genuine sacred moment in that room that was felt by every adult present. I know because I was there. Not only had these children been embraced in a group that kept them safe from risks of street life, and had given them a beautiful musical experience that included travel and performances (did I mention they sang like Gospel Angels?), but they had also learned to feel the love of God and the joy of communion with all of God’s family.
I was reminded of my own earliest recollections about learning to pray, when at age 3 my parents taught me my first table grace. Eyes closed! Hands folded! Speak slowly! “Lord, Bless this Food for Jesus Sake. Amen.” Saying this before every meal, I had a little trouble with the ending and kept saying “Jesus’ Cake.” But that was close enough! Because it did convey, to my childlike awareness, the truth of God’s gracious love. God not only provides the daily food (the broccoli) that keeps us alive, but the cake too! For all those wonderful things in our lives, the delights, the bonuses, the serendipities, even those things we would like to believe we achieved on our own, it actually is God’s Hand in our lives, at work in infinite and marvelous ways.
Later I would learn other graces, “Come Lord Jesus, Be Our Guest, and Let These Gifts to Us Be Blessed.” What child’s prayer could more beautifully express this spiritual truth and comfort. God, Whose Love ever surrounds us, nevertheless gladly responds as we invite His Presence to be our Guest in all our experiences, and will sanctify all things, even the food we eat, to nurture us and all of God’s family.
As time passed, the ”Lord’s Prayer,” a work of art in its beauty taught me, as a child, those petitions that keep me aligned with God’s Presence. And with maturing years came the understanding that all of life is prayer. Our words may help us focus, but even after the “Amen” is said, our prayer continues, because everything-- attitude, gratitude, delight, giving, receiving, communing, compassion, reaching out, resting, reconciliation, healing, response, and beauty, deepens our relationship with God. Words, thoughts, song, action, and stillness are all our prayers.
In this season of Lent, may our petition be, “Lord, Teach Us How to Pray.” Then go and have another piece of Jesus Cake.