Prayer Beads

Preached by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali on February 9, 2014, at University United Methodist Church.

O God, in the stillness, come meet us.  Amen.

“If we do not pray, we fail to realize that we are in the presence of God.”

This is a quote from Karl Barth that speaks to a deep truth that we know, prayer is an essential part of the Christian life.  Even though many of us struggle with prayer, we know at a deep level that it is a practice that opens our eyes to God within us and all around us.

If we are to have even a small chance to actually pray without ceasing as the apostle Paul instructs us in 1 Thessalonians, we will need some help.

The only good part is that this struggle is not new and we are not alone in wandering from a life of prayer.

In fact, there’s a pretty famous story in our faith tradition about people who wander from connection with God through prayer.  You may remember the story, but I’ll tell you again, just the highlights to refresh your memory.

The Israelites have been delivered from slavery in Egypt and now they are on their way to the promised land, but they are struggling to get there and wandering in the desert.  Not only are they wandering in a literal, physical sense, but they are also wandering in a spiritual, emotional sense.

They feel far from God and far from home, but they can’t seem to remember to pray.  God tries lots of different things to make them pay attention to God’s presence with them. 

God gives them the law and the commandments.  They forget.  Their attention wanders.

God gives them a special blessing.  They forget.  Their attention wanders.

Finally, God gets a little frustrated and tries being very loud to get their attention.  This doesn’t work either.

So, God tries something new in the section of scripture that we read this morning.  God tells the Israelites to make fringes on the corners of their garments.

Now, at a first read, this may not seem to be significant.  But, in this time period, fringe on a garment was considered to be in style and was common in Egypt and Assyria.  In fact, fringe often was a sign of royalty.  The fringe was powerful.  It was believed that if you held onto the fringe of a person’s garment when you were making a request, then your request could not be denied.

So, the Israelites humored God and added fringe to their garments.  They tied knots in the fringe in accordance to the directions that God gave them and the number of knots carried great significance and reminded them of the 613 commandments in the Old Testament.

With time, the Jewish custom about adding fringe to their garments changed a bit and many began using prayer shawls with the fringe.  Others developed a type of shirt with a fringe that can be worn under their clothes.

God told the Israelites to wear the fringe for multiple purposes.  It was a visual cue to remember the commandments that God has given them.  But, in addition, the fringe is to remind them to actually do the commandments.  And finally, the bonus is that if they actually use the fringe in a disciplined way to remember and keep the commandments, they will become more holy and closer to God.

Whenever they felt like they were alone in the desert or far from home, all they needed to do was to touch the fringe and remember that God was with them.

Prayer beads work in a similar manner.  They serve as a visual cue and remind us to pray.  But, they also remind us of God’s presence with us.  And, they also help us to remain focused in our prayers so that we do not wander mentally.  The prayer beads serve as a concrete reminder of God with us.

Now, some of you may be wondering, but aren’t we Methodist?  I thought prayer beads were just for Catholics!  First, let me remind you that we are all Christians and that we share the same heritage.  However, some Christian practices were emphasized by one tradition and forgotten by another.  Prayer beads (or using some kind of a tool to help one focus during prayer) actually goes all the way back to the early church.

Remember Paul’s visit to the church in Thessalonica?  He told them to pray without ceasing.  In Acts, when the early church was forming, the people gathered to pray and worship God.

Later, in the 3rd century, there was a group of Christians who established the first monastic community.  They decided to try to actually pray all the time.  So, they left the city and moved to the desert.  They began praying all 150 Psalms on a daily basis.  Repeating these words over and over helped them to memorize the psalms, but they were also prone to wander and lose track of which psalm they were on.  So, the monks and nuns started keeping 150 pebbles in their pocket or in their bowl to help them keep track of where they were at in their recitation.

Of course, this got complicated, so by the time the next century rolled around, they developed a technique of using a prayer rope made of knots (which was lighter and easier to carry!)  By the middle ages, the prayer practices of praying without ceasing were becoming even more advanced and a schedule of prayers had been established.  The laity wanted to participate, too, but many couldn’t read, so the monastics encouraged them to recite the Lord’s prayer 150 times.  The question became, but how will they keep track?

So, strings of prayer beads were developed that eventually became known as the rosary.  Up until this point, the history of Catholics and Protestants is the same, but in 1535 Martin Luther changed things.  Among other grievances, he criticized the practice of reciting prayers as idle prayer.

Some of the protestant reformers agreed with Luther, others did not.  Even today, there is debate over whether Luther objected to the beads or to the recitation of empty prayers without feeling and faith.  But, because of Luther, there came a split, not only in the church itself, but in the use of prayer beads.  Catholics continued using the rosary and the fledgling protestant church abandoned the beads altogether.

But, just recently, about 30 years ago, a group of Episcopalians in Texas was learning about ancient prayer practices and tools to help them pray without ceasing.  They stumbled across the prayer beads and with time, developed a new form of prayer beads that they started calling “Anglican prayer beads.”  It was different from the rosary, because rather than providing a set of prayers to be recited, the Anglican prayer beads were to be used as a guide and structure for extemporaneous prayer.  Anglican prayer beads have expanded into being known as protestant prayer beads.

Prayer beads can help us realize that we are in the presence of God, as Karl Barth says.  We touch them, hold them, feel the shape and texture of the beads.  If we let them, the beads can still our minds and stop our wandering so that we can focus on noticing God with us.  The beads can help us connect with God.

Prayer beads can also help us learn what to pray, how to pray.  We don’t need to memorize anything, but the structure of the prayer beads guides us.  The prayer beads are divided into 4 sections.

I want you to hold up your beads in one hand and hold the cross with your other hand. 

You will notice that next to the cross is one big bead that is called the “Invitatory Bead.”  This bead invites us to a journey of prayer. 

Then, you will notice that the prayer beads form a circle.  In the circle, there are four big beads, with seven smaller beads in between.  The four big beads create a cruciform shape to remind us of the four points of the cross.  Four also reminds us of the four gospels, the four seasons of the year, and the four directions. 

The smaller set of 7 beads is also significant.  Because a week has 7 days, these are called the week beads.  Seven, of course, is a significant number for Christians.  The church calendar has 7 seasons (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time).  There were seven days of creation and in the book of Revelation, John writes letters to seven churches.  Both Jews and Christians believe that the number 7 symbolizes spiritual perfection.

So today, I invite you to a time of connecting with God through your prayer beads.  These are yours to keep.  In your bulletin, you will find a guide for how to pray with the beads.  This is just one method of how to use protestant prayer beads.  You can find more guides and much of the information I shared today in a book called A Bead and A Prayer by Kristen Vincent.

I would like us to enter into a time of silence to give people space to try this prayer practice.  There are instructions about what to pray about as you hold the cross or each bead.  This prayer guide is called the full circle prayer because it guides us into the fullness of prayer.  Through this experience with prayer beads, you are invited to praise God, to confess sins, to pray for others, and to give thanks to God.

As we enter into this time of prayer, I remind you of the words of Karl Barth, “If we do not pray, we fail to realize that we are in the presence of God.”

Take five minutes of silence to pray, ponder, and be in the presence of God.

The Full Circle Prayer, from A Bead and A Prayer: A Beginner’s Guide to Protestant Prayer Beads by Kristen E. Vincent

Cross: Loving God,

Invitatory bead: You have called me into this time of prayer to be with you.

First cruciform bead: I praise you, Lord, for…

Week beads, set 1: Use each bead to praise God; think of different qualities of God for which   you would want to give praise.

Second cruciform bead: I ask, Lord, for your forgiveness for…

Week beads, set 2: Use each bead to confess your sins to God.

Third cruciform bead: I pray, Lord, for…

Week bead, set 3: Use each bead to list your intercessions — your joys and concerns for yourself or others.

Fourth cruciform bead: I thank you, Lord, for…

Week beads, set 4: Use each bead to offer thanks to God for the blessings in your life.

Invitatory bead: Christ is alive in me.  Thanks be to God.

Cross: Amen. 

Christ is alive in us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen!

Copyright 2014, Rev. Jill Sander-Chali

Material for this sermon developed from: A Bead and A Prayer: A Beginner’s Guide to Protestant Prayer Beads by Kristen E. Vincent, Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.