As a child, when I would visit my grandparents on school breaks, there were a few things that I could always count on: my grandpa smelling like Old Spice, my grandma cooking entirely too much food, and devotions/prayers at the end of breakfast. Every morning my grandpa would take out his Bible from the hutch to his right and leave it out, ready to be gathered up when he was finished eating. He would move his plate to the side as he placed the Bible on the placemat in front of him, opening the onion skin pages to the saved location. Using Our Daily Bread as his devotional roadmap, and with the table sitting in silence, he would begin: “This morning’s passage comes from…”
After the scripture came the devotional, followed by an ever so brief pause before moving into prayer. While the last time I witnessed him do this was nearly thirty years ago, I can still remember that he would have very specific prayers: we would heed the day’s message; God would be in the world and lives of those who were suffering, troubled, or alone. He would pray specifically for a few families that he and my grandma had known, as well as for the salvation of others who had not known Christ. All told, the experience took less than ten minutes and we would soon be on to other tasks: catching lizards or fish, weeding gardens, carrying firewood, shooting magpies.
In my immediate family’s home, we weren’t quite put together in the mornings, so our main prayers as a family were at dinner led by my dad. These prayers were not particularly long, nor were they detailed, and they were definitely not eloquent. Similar to my grandfather’s prayers, my dad prayed for specific people, but my dads’ prayers varied more than my grandpa’s. But there was a phrase in my dad’s prayers that has been burned into my mind, and it’s one he still uses to this day: “Thank you for this food before us, bless the hands that prepared it. Let it nourish our bodies so that we can continue to serve you.”
While I wish that I could say that this dedication to prayer is genetic and that I, too, am approaching God in daily conversation, I must admit that I am the worst pray-er. I’ve written before about how I’m terrible at regular prayer, and I’m terrible at praying when asked to do so, but since I’ve been in seminary there have been two practices which have helped me in my prayer life.
A rather simple and intentional practice has been for me to remove my eyeglasses when I pray. At first it was all spiritual and intentional: By removing my glasses when I pray, I am acknowledging that God is my true vision (if you read this in a snooty, pompous voice, you’d be correct). While this was the intent of the practice at the onset, it’s moved beyond that, and now is a physical movement to signal my body that I’m doing the thing: Hey – we’re praying! Stop doing everything else! Let’s do this!
The other practice I’ve been working with is using a komboskini – a Greek Orthodox prayer rope. Moving slowly from knot to knot as I pray, the small woolen rope has allowed me to focus more intently as I pray. My brain has this awesome ability to lose focus of the task at hand, but as I have been using this rope I have been able to have more intentional prayer times. [The practice of using the komboskini is usually linked with the Jesus Prayer, but I have found this rope to be useful in much more broader senses of prayer]
While I’m thankful for these tools and practices, I need to remember that they are merely tools – the actions are not the moments of prayer. And there’s a real danger in that practices can become idols: am I praying to God or to this rope…am I worshiping God or am I worshiping God’s Word in the form of this book?
That First Thessalonians type of praying is difficult. Praying continually just isn’t always possible, convenient, or desirable. I take comfort in knowing that the regimented praying grandpa I knew developed over decades of failure. I take comfort in knowing that my father continues to pray those same words day in, day out, not out of habit but out of genuineness. Prayer takes practice. It takes work. It takes successes and failures.
May God give me grace and leeway for learning how to pray, and may I continue to practice while moving towards perfection.
much love. sheth.