Prayer Workshop - Jan-Feb, 2013

Listening and Praying with Beads

Just before bedtime one night, my son, Matthew, and I were reading a children's devotional book that encourages children to find time when they can slow down, turn off computers and digital music, and hear what God is saying to them. This topic was well-timed for our household. All three of us — my son, my husband, and I — love to spend time surfing the Internet or watching TV. With the added "noise" of our jobs and school, our church life, and our other activities, we often fail to hear each other.

The same can be true in our relationship with God. We can stay so busy that we fail to listen to God. Even when I slow down, turn off the electronics, and take time to pray, I may not be able to turn off the noise that comes from within me. Although I may start by praising God, soon my mind turns to my grocery list or a problem at work. Or I find myself instead planning my son's next class party or thinking of some other project. Even when I remain focused during my prayer time, I spend most of it talking and little time listening. As a result, I miss hearing what God is trying to say to me and who God is calling me to be. That's why I identify with the Bible story about Martha who, despite her best efforts and good intentions, forgot to listen. (See Luke 10:38-42.) Martha wanted to be with Jesus, inviting him into her home. But she got so caught up in the details of preparing that she missed out on listening to him.

Finding ways to help us listen can be important spiritually. For more than 20 years I've collected rosaries, icons, crosses, and similar prayer tools from around the world. I love knowing these beautiful objects were used to help people connect with God—but I didn't use them to pray. In fact, I wasn't praying much at all. I had always struggled with prayer; I felt awkward and didn't know what to say. All of that changed three years ago when I learned about Protestant (or Anglican) prayer beads. The format for these prayer beads was created in the 1980s by a group of people who wanted to recapture some of the prayer practices of the early church. Made up of a cross and four sets of seven beads, the design carries wonderful symbolism. I was captivated.

I began praying with the beads and quickly discovered many benefits. Holding them during my morning prayer or in times of great stress, I found the weight of the beads a tangible reminder of God's presence. When my mind began to wander, fingering the beads helped me refocus. Seeing the beads became a cue to pray, a reminder that God calls to me and wants to spend time with me. But there was more. The beads provided structure to my prayer time. I didn't have to worry about what to say. The first seven beads reminded me to praise God for seven specific traits or actions; the second set of seven, to confess seven places where I had failed or needed God's help; the next, to intercede for seven persons or situations; and the last, seven gifts or graces for which to thank God. Over time, I experimented with other ways of using the beads, such as praying with scripture. My favorite was to choose a short verse such as "Be still and know that I am God," and repeat it as I fingered each bead in turn. This allowed me to listen to God in a way I had not before.

Then my son, Matthew, became curious about the beads. I explained how he might use beads to pray, too. Together, we made a chaplet—a mini set of prayer beads made up of two sets of seven beads—for him. Immediately, he "got it." Matthew used the first set of seven beads to pray for people. "God bless Grandma," he said as he touched the first bead. "Please be with Aunt Mary," he said for the second. And so on. The second set he used to talk to God. "I got two cats today," was one bead. "My best friend, Nolan, came over to play," for another. Using the small, colorful beads, Matthew was able to connect to a God we cannot see. From then on, it was not uncommon for Matthew to say, "I need to tell God about that."
The beads were helping him to grow comfortable with prayer.

Using tools in prayer goes back to the Old Testament. God instructed the Israelites to make knots on the fringes of their garments to help them remember the commandments and "do them." (See Num. 15:37-41.) God understands how easily we get distracted and lose sight of who we are called to be. These knots were small, tangible, and handy—similar to beads. Building on this tradition, early Christians held pebbles or stones to keep them focused as they listened to God.

Each new year can be a time to find new ways of listening to God. Whether we experiment with prayer beads or some other aid, finding ways to block out noise can help us focus on who God is calling us to be. Several meditations in this issue suggest various ways of listening. You may want to read the meditations on January 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 13, 18, 21, 23, 26 and February 3, 7, 13, 17, and 20 to prepare for responding to these questions:

Questions for Reflection:

1. Where is the noise in your life? What helps you silence the noise and hear God?

2. When have you heard from God? What do you remember about these times? What did you hear? How did you
respond?

3. Do you ever struggle with prayer? If so, what makes it difficult for you? What prayer tools or practices might
make prayer easier for you?

4. How much of your prayer time is spent listening to God? How do you feel about being still and quiet? What can make you feel safer or more comfortable about listening?

5. The psalmist said, "Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts" (Ps. 85:8, nrsv). What does this verse mean to you?

6. As you begin this year, in what direction is God leading you?

— Kristen Vincent

Kristen Vincent has a Master of Theological Studies degree from Duke Divinity School and lives in Oxford, Georgia, with her husband, a United Methodist pastor; her son; two cats; and a dog. Kristen has been designing prayer beads, leading retreats, and blogging about prayer and prayer beads for three years. To learn more about Protestant prayer beads visit her blog at: www.abeadnaprayer.wordpress.com.