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Letter to Nancy
A seven-year-old girl named Nancy asked her minister, "What prayer shall I say when I go to bed?" He wrote her back this answer.
You may not have realized it, but when you asked me to suggest a bedtime prayer for you, you raised a very important question. It is a question which people have wondered about and argued about for thousands of years. It is a question which many people think they can answer, but they answer it in different ways. It is a question which many other people are not sure can be answered. The question is this: is there a God who can change people and change things if asked to?
Some believe God can give them presents or make it rain or cure their troubles if they ask God in the right way. Some people believe asking God for help is a way of feeling closer to God; no matter what happens in response. Some people believe God will do what is best for everybody and that to ask God for special favors is selfishness. Some people believe God is the force of nature, so we cannot pray to God any more than we can pray to a tree or a stone. Some people believe we ought to think only about people and not about God at all.
As you learn more about the world and about others' beliefs, you will have to decide what you think about all this. With your parents' help, and with the help of others, you will form your own beliefs.
But you have asked me a question which can't wait until you have learned more and thought more. You want me to suggest a bedtime prayer. I think I can help, if, for the time being at least, you think of prayer not as asking God for favors, but as an honest expression of some of your feelings. I especially mean three kinds of feelings. Sometimes you feel thankful for nice things which have happened to you. If you express your thanks at bedtime, you may enjoy them all over again. Sometimes you feel sorry for things you have done or said. If you express your feeling of being sorry before you go to sleep, you may feel much better. Sometimes you have hopes for yourself and other people. If you express your hopes in prayer, you may see what you can do to make them come true.
I am suggesting that each night you make up your own prayer. It could begin "Tonight I am thankful for... ," and then you could think of the most important things you are thankful for. It could continue "Tonight I am sorry for..." and then you could think of the most important things you are sorry about. Your prayer could then end with "Tomorrow I hope... " and you could think of some of the most important things you hope for and think how you can help to bring them about.
When you do this, if you want to pray by thinking you are talking to God, go right ahead. But it doesn't matter as much as it does matter that you really mean what you say. I think you will discover that if you pray like this at night, it may not change God or change things or change other people, but it will change you and change how you think and feel about God and things and other people.
I hope you will want to talk with your mother and father about all this. You may want to talk to your friends of other religions to see what they think. Perhaps you will want to talk to your religious school teacher or your minister. But whoever else you talk to, you will have to decide for yourself. How you work out your thinking and feeling about all this may well be one of the most important things in your life. But don't let that scare you. Understanding your feelings of gratitude and regret and hope is a wonderful process.
Thank you for asking!
(Written by UU Minister Christopher Raible, who served as minister of the Unitarian Church West in Brookfield, Wisconsin from 1962 to 1970. Adapted and used with permission.)