Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Grace to say "Our Father"

I gave the first in a series of children's talks at our church on Sunday in which we will be trying to memorize and understand the Lord's Prayer. It went something like this:

I put on the wall the first line of the prayer, with the opening address omitted, and asked: "So who is in heaven?" I was holding a felt pen in my hand, and was interrupted by my near-two-year-old, who wanted said pen. I gave it to him, because I had another. But my other near-two-year-old wanted that one. So I gave it to him. I would have to borrow it back when I had the answer to my question.

"Who is in heaven?" I repeated. Now, as I'm sure you know, sometimes you can hardly contain the children and sometimes you can hardly get a word out of them. Sometimes I think that, like adults, they are less likely to answer out loud the more obvious the answer seems.

In this case they did not answer. Blank stares. Look up at the congregated adults. Blank stares.

Okay, I committed the classic blunder of the teacher: A dumb question.

Or was it? For some reason I rolled with the silence, and said something that I doubt I would have thought to say if I hadn't spent the last year reading Barth:

"Actually you are right, in a way. We don't know! We don't know who is in heaven unless Jesus tells us. Has anyone been to heaven and back? How would we know who was in heaven, or even that there is a heaven, unless someone from heaven came to us? That's what we believe Jesus is: The Son of God come to earth to tell us who is in heaven. His Father, God Almighty, is in heaven, and He and the Father are One, and God has come to us and has given us permission to speak with Him. So already in the Lord's Prayer we have a miracle. The Son of God comes to us and invites and enables us to say together: 'Our Father, who is in heaven...'"

We went on to talk about "Hallowed be thy name", and I tried to segue from the "fright" of Halloween to the "reverent awe and wonder" of "hallowing" the name God gives us to speak to Him by -- but I can't be too sure how much they were following me. I am glad, however, that I didn't skip over this first line. I imagine they'll have to keep hearing stuff like this to have it sink in, but it seems to me that this is exactly the kind of teaching about God that Christian children need to hear. My kids recently told me that they used to think they prayed before meals in order for the food to cool down.


Tony Tanti said...

ah the two fold purpose of pre-meal prayer

I remember a certain brother of mine telling our parents that pre-meal prayer was pointless because nobody really meant it

Jon Coutts said...

perhaps said brother thought he was Martin Luther stamping his thesis on the doors of the establishment, but he is older and wiser now, and no longer thinks that meaning it is where prayer finds all its meaning. he also would have been wrongly assuming that nobody (even the seemingly most tired adherents to the liturgy) really meant it just because he didn't.

that said, your brother probably had a decent point, and heaven forbid that our prayers become meaningless babble. but the point is not a crushing one. we often need a liturgical event to orient our "meaning", and to kindle in us the crisis once again of asking ourselves whether we mean it.

stewart said...

sometimes if the hearts not in it we need the discipline of the head to bring it along. that can lead to rote and formalism i guess but better to take a stab at something worthwhile than sink into never praying at all.

Tony Tanti said...

well said, I assumed (and hoped) your view would have changed in all these years, just thought it was funny to bring up.

Jon Coutts said...

I might still say that same thing today. So I don't know that my view has changed so much as nuanced and seen the merit in the alternative.

Chris E W Green said...


This is a beautiful story, and I very much appreciate your willingness to take that moment so seriously. We are in full agreement: this is exactly the kind of teaching about God that Christian children need to hear.

About pre-meal prayers: I suspect our children learn so much more than they or we can anticipate or articulate in those moments of 'saying grace' -- even when we allow them to simply go through the motions. Jamie Smith's talk of 'Christian social imaginary' proves helpful in this connection; there's something about the habit (Aquinas!) of pre-meal prayer that embeds in our children an awareness of God.

Of course, that awareness remains inert until Spirit-empowered teaching of the Gospel opens their hearts to the God of whom they've been made aware. Nonetheless, the pre-meal prayer, in all its everydayness, is indispensable to their (and our) spiritual formation. Saying grace is in fact a means of grace.