I believe it was in early elementary school when I found myself carrying a report card home for my folks to sign. I did at least two things: the first was to make up a story to tell dad that "F" meant fine. My buddies convinced me that even though my dad was an old man — by youthful standards — he wasn't dumb. The second thing was my fall-back plan. God always answers prayer. The preacher said so, Jesus said so and God does not take back promises.
There was a catch. The Bible said that I was to go into my room and pray. I slept in the kitchen next to a pot-belly stove along with several cats and a mangy dog. The next best thing was an old garage at the back of the property, so I snuck through the place where some boards were broken and began. "Oh, God, please change this "F" to a "C". While You're at it, just make it a "B" 'cause it's just a letter, so who cares? I'm not real smart and since you made me, why not give me a brain that remembers all that school stuff? I'll be a very, very, very good boy forever. Amen."
I got a double pounding when I got home. Mom started and saved what was left for Dad when he came home. Dad said, "I could understand if you failed Math? How could you get an "F" in study hall?"
I'm not alone when it comes to odd requests. St. Augustine wrote — or prayed — "Give me chastity, Lord, but not yet!"
I remember a young lady who left our church down in Florida because she said I did not teach her how to pray. I asked where I had failed and to please help me to be a better teacher. She replied that the minister at this new church she was attending told her, "God will answer every prayer if you end your prayers correctly!"
It seems that he had a sure fire formula that always worked. After the prayer, the name of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit were to be spoken in a certain order and a certain amount of times and ended with several amens.
I never have found such a formula and don't intend to try to manipulate God through some sort of sympathetic magic.
A colleague gave me a book recently entitled, "Sinners Welcome." It is written by Dr. Mary Karr, the peck professor of English literature at Syracuse University. She describes herself as a black belt sinner and a lifetime agnostic, but is really an atheist who has been recently baptized as a cafeteria Catholic. She is also an extraordinary poet, with colorful and foul language at times, who has been awarded numerous accolades for her well received books.
Let me mention a few of her words about prayer, which she likens to poetry. "Like poetry, prayer often begins in torment. In my deepest prayers, language evaporates and a wide and wordless silence takes over. Sometimes it's like talking into a bucket. Boy, do I suffer!"
She came back to the church because of a sign out front: Sinners Welcome! Her journey is capsulated in three short sentences, "I came to prayer. Prayer led me to God. God led me to church."
She also said she refused to kneel and grovel before God. She told this to a friend who told her, "You don't do it for God, you do it for you!" As an alcoholic, she said, "I prayed with belligerence. I said keep me sober in the morning. I said thanks at night." She discovered that she had been blinded by the big things in life, but soon she realized that the small, good things came in abundance.
Here's what she discovered in prayer. If you can become an instrument for love and pardon rather than wallowing in self-pity, your life will improve.
The last line of her book is theology in poetry. "That's why I pray: to be able to see my brothers and sisters despite my own agonies, to partake of the majesty that's every sinner's birthright."
Allow me to close with some words from St. Francis of Assisi: Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace, let me sow love, pardon, faith, hope, joy, light; for it is in giving that we receive, in pardoning that we are pardoned and in dying to self that we are reborn to eternal life.
Now that's a prayer!