As a kid I attended Sunday School as a matter of course. But it never connected with me. Teachers seemed to talk down to us, treating us as, well, children. I couldn't take them seriously. During those years I guess that I prayed by rote.
There was something unreal about it. I was somewhat like the kids in the movie "Toy Story 3." Certainly my toys (inicluding my favorite teddy bear) were closer to me than anything else. However, very, very serious things were continuing to hammer at my life. My parents divorced. Our home broke up. Grandma died. So did my closest school pal. Laddie, my dog, was killed by a car. Lord knows, I needed to pray.
But I had new interests. I remember interviewing lots of different people when I wrote for my middle school newspaper. I continued writing in high school, especially doing all the "think" pieces that were more grown up than the other stuff. In addition I worked on my stamp collection and faithfully attended church on Sunday mornings. The latter included singing in the choir (until my voice changed) and serving as an acolyte. Yet prayer continued to elude me in a personal sense. Who was God? How could I relate to Jesus in prayer? What was I praying for anyhow? It didn't seem fair to pray for some things when othelr people didn't have anything.
Going away to college meant not praying at all anymore or attending church. Religion seemed archaic, totally irrelevant to my demanding and exciting new life. It would be another decade before the deep question of life's meaning finally permeated my consciousness, gradually drawing me back to a serious church experience.
However, I maintained a loose contact with the priest of my childhood, a saintly man who remained a symbol of strength, honesty and extraordinary perseverance. He never failed to be an authentic presence in my life. He combined keen intelligence, a remarkable sense of humor, the deepest possible example of faith, and a warm embrace of human life. When his own son died in a car crash, he conducted the funeral. I never forgot the incredibld experience of that event. It was shattering in its example of simple and pure faith. It was gentle in its eloquence.
I learned that a mentor, a role model -- someone who specifically actualizes the meanings of prayer in one's life -- can be far more an influence on one's own spiritual life than an abstract example of prayer. In other words, I found that prayer became real. During the 1950s I worked in Holllywood in the motion picture industry and as a pioneer in television production. At 29, I felt called to make a major change in my life when I began studies in preparation for ordiination to the Episcopal priesthood. Later, I served parishes and chaplaincies in Indianapolis, Colorado, Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Santa Monica, Calif. I played an active role in civil rights and the antiwar movement.
To my surprise, I wrote a number of books, including a bestseller collection of contemporary prayers, "Are You Running with Me, Jesus?" I've experienced prayer as social practice and life experience, as a public expression of faith and also a personal practice of it. I've known prayer in words, in actions, lots and lots of different ways. But I was startled not long ago when -- out of the blue -- a friend asked me if I'd write a short Child's Prayer for his young son and daughter. What could that be? Was there any link between my childhood and me now? I thought about it. I deliberated over it. But then it seemed simply to write itself:
God, the world seems so big. This room is big. People are big. I try to look carefully, figure out things and see people. Sometimes everything moves too fast. Please hold me when this happens. You don't need to say anything. I need your strength and warmth, especially when people are too busy, too hurried. I'm scared when they don't hear me even when I'm speaking to them. I'm afraid of the shadows when they come. It hurts when the ice is very, very cold. I need you so badly. Please teach me how to love you.