This article also appeared in the January 2018 edition of Faith’s Foundations, the newsletter of Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
I’ve said it before, but I grew up with a terrible prayer life. In my house, saying prayers in the morning or at night just wasn’t a thing. We said grace around the dinner table, but eventually that faded as well.
I attended a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod grade school from Kindergarten through eighth grade where we had chapel every Wednesday. Combined with my regular Sunday attendance at my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation, I was praying a few times a week. But it wasn’t personal, one-on-one time with God. I was afraid of praying to God that way because I remember being taught that if one didn’t pray to God in the correct way, God would be upset (I distinctly remember the example of praying for a new bike being a prayer that would upset God). Or maybe that was just an excuse for my already poor prayer life.
Over the years I’ve tried different ways to improve my personal prayer life. I bought devotional books and would get two or three weeks in before giving up because I didn’t like them or they were too cheesy. I tried Lectio Divina (which I really liked) and other contemplative prayer practices, structured Morning and Evening Prayer, but I was never able to find something that held my focus and attention. So for the most part, I simply gave up on personal prayer outside of the random “God I could really use your help” or “Thank you God, that was awesome” prayers at appropriate times.
It’s easy for me to empathize with Jesus Christ’s disciples in the Gospel according to Luke when they beg their master and teacher, “Teach us to pray! John taught his disciples how to pray, can you teach us please?” Prayer isn’t something that always comes easily—not for disciples or even for pastors. Learning how to pray happens in two ways: it happens out of necessity, as in the case of the beloved spirituals of the African American community; or it happens because one is taught. What I needed was someone to teach me how to pray.
How ironic that in the 21st century, it was the ancient monastics who ultimately taught me how to pray. I used them in a sermon a few weeks ago, but I recently came into possession of a set of Anglican Prayer Beads (sometimes also called Protestant Prayer Beads). They were made by one of our lay school students who learned how to make and use them in a class on Spirituality.
Prayer beads have a long history in Christianity. By the 200s CE the desert monastics were using first pebbles and then ropes with knots tied in them to help them count and keep track of their prayers—most often repetitions of the Lord’s Prayer or the Jesus Prayer (not to be confused with the Sinner’s Prayer). Prayer ropes are still popular in Eastern Christianity today. By the 600s in Western Christianity these prayer ropes evolved into strings of beads serving the same purpose. The most recognizable form of prayer beads is the Rosary of the Roman Catholic Church, a beloved item by many of the faithful. (Fun fact: in the early 2000s the ELCA experimented with a Lutheran Rosary for the season of Lent. You can still find information on it if you look!)
In the 1980s the Episcopal Diocese of Texas developed a set of 33 prayer beads to use as an aid in prayer. Unlike the complicated and specific uses of the Roman Catholic Rosary, Anglican prayer beads are meant to be used in a variety of ways, leaving it up to the individual to decide what works for them. As it turns out, that’s what works for me.
For the last few weeks I’ve been using my prayer beads and Bread for the Day, a prayer book based on the Daily Lectionary and published by our own Augsburg Fortress to guide my daily prayer. I use either the Full Circle Prayer that came with the beads or the popular Trisagion and Jesus Prayer. It is the first time I can remember, in 31 years of life, that I have an actual, solid prayer life. It’s a liberating, exciting feeling; I often cry my way through Evening Prayer, though I’m not exactly sure why yet. It’s made for one heck of an early New Year’s Resolution.
Like the disciples, I had to be taught how to pray. It took a long time. But I’m glad I’ve finally found something that works for me. If you’re looking for something to help you pray, maybe prayer beads can help. Maybe they can’t. Maybe something else will help. But never stop looking, never stop seeking ways to connect with the Holy Spirit. It may be one of the most important things you do in your life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.