The other evening, I was calming down my mother-in-law over the phone because my five-year-old niece was getting baptized into the Church the next day. She has had virtually no exposure to Apostolic, historical, liturgical Christianity in any of its forms. She is a devout Protestant woman with the best intentions, but she was almost sobbing over the whole thing.
First the important thing is, as you tried, to comfort and reassure her that Orthodox Christians DO (or at least SHOULD) have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." There is too much Protestant fear in the Church (IMO) and many of us tend to downplay concepts like that for a time. Especially when we first come into the Church. But the truth is, we SHOULD have a personal relationship with Christ, and the Holy Trinity as a whole. The written prayers, are good, and beautiful and teach us to pray reverently, but there is at the same time NOTHING un-Orthodox about "just talking to God" or crying out "Abba father". That is what the Psalms were when they were written, cries and yearnings from the heart. Even our "written" prayers began that way. And the truth is, most Protestants, do admit there is a certain "model" of a prayer life one should have. They call the Our Father the "model prayer", because it consists of first saying "Our father" which is intimate, then blessing and praising His name, asking for His will to be done above all else, and then finally step 4 is petitions and requests. True there are some Protestants who talk to Jesus like He was just another friend, (with no reverence at all) but they are pretty rare in my experience.
Assure her you DO have a personal relationship with God, that is what the Church has taught for 2000 years. And if you, or I don't, or if we've neglected it, and have only "said our prayers" rather than "prayed our prayers" then we are in a spiritual mess.
Basically, she was more worried about the environment. Written prayers, long ceremonies and repetitive rituals
Like the environment Jesus and the Apostles, as 1st century Jews grew up in, and CONTINUED to exist in throughout the book of Acts?
Obviously for her, this is just lack of historical knowledge, context and where Christianity came from. Nothing a few decent books, or a short lecture from some scholar couldn't solve.
If she "just believes the Bible", and her main concern is that my niece has a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ", then where is this idea expressed in the Bible itself? Where are Jesus' teachings about how one should "just talk to God like you would any of your friends"?
They get much of that idea from the book of Psalms because the Psalms are "heartfelt" prayers (many of them anyway). But again, it's all taken out of context, not biblical context, but historical context. However I don't see anything wrong with "just talking to Jesus"...good gracious isn't that what prayer is? Certainly there is a "form" or "model" to follow, and certainly written prayers in our tradition are the foundation of our prayer life, but the foundation without wall and a roof, and furniture is just a hole in the ground with some bricks around the hole.
Also in the Gospels we see people running to Jesus, grabbing his clothes, crying out "Son of David have mercy on me"...we see women having "conversations" with Jesus begging Him to heal family members (the Cannanite woman)....the story of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Pharisee prayers (ie: recites) prayers while the tax collector just says "have mercy on me a sinner"...no fancy prayers, no Liturgical formulas, not even a "model" to follow (which all Jews would have had at that time) but just crying out "have mercy on me a sinner".....
There IS precedence in the Scriptures for "conversational" prayer, but obviously they aren't calling Jesus "homeboy" or talking to God in some irreverent manner either. And of course Biblical worship was always ritualistic and Liturgical, and this many Evangelicals, probably most, just are not aware of.
Wouldn't the perfect time to bring it up have been when the disciples were asking Him how to pray?
Indeed, but she probably sees the Our Father as something "outside" all that Old Testament "ritual"....when in fact it's smack dab in the midst of Jewish prayer tradition. But I'm sure she would argue that God is "our father" which is not just a nice term, but a term of RELATIONSHIP....but again, she doesn't see a "relationship" in the OT, only the new. For many Evangelicals the NT and Christianity is a decisive and clean break from Judaism, not a continuation of Judaism. (Ironic, Evangelicals are the biggest supporters of Israel, is it not?)
Where, amidst St. Paul's numerous theological expositions, is this simple point of having a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" explained?
it's not there, but it is, sort of. What they're doing is taking pieces and overemphasizing this or that and ignoring everything else. To suggest St. Paul did NOT have a relationship with Jesus Christ is anathema to Evangelicals, and isn't really correct from our POV either.
but where is the message about being cozy and casual in your own personal dialogues with God?
cozy and casual may not be what she means by "personal relationship".....some DO mean just that. But not all, and I'd say not even most. A few weeks ago we talked about Charles Stanley and other various Protestant Evangelists....and while Stanley, among others, would insist on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, he would NEVER say, or teach this relationship is just casual like your friends you have coffee with on Saturday morning. So while some Evangelicals have that, it's not the "mainstream" if there is a mainstream in Evangelicalism. And again, IMO this idea that every time we pray we have to use fancy words, "thou art the king, the creator, blessed art thou O God, teach me Thy statutes" etc...otherwise it's not "real" prayer, is dangerous. And that is what most Evangelicals are talking about.
Now, I say all this in regards ONLY to private prayer. Liturgical worship is something totally different, and I have little tolerance for the low, low Church worship not because it's not prayerful, or praising God, but because it's not "WORSHIP"....a prayer and praise meeting is seperate from WORSHIP in my mind, but Evangelicals have conflated the two into one. But that's only my opinion, I'm sure others have different feelings.
In the end, just keep in mind she only means well...just reassure her you DO have a "personal relationship" with God...tell her you can pray anywhere you want to, anytime you want to, and in any words you want to....this will probably reassure her. But again, I only speak from my experience, no one elses.