10 Prayers You Can't Live Without
How to Talk to God About Everything
By Rick Hamlin
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc. Copyright © 2016 Rick Hamlin
All rights reserved.
Pray at Mealtime
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"Bless this food to our use, us to your service, and bless the hands that prepared it."
It all started with a nightly blessing.
My father's rambling graces were famous in the neighborhood. Whenever one of us invited a friend over for dinner we usually warned, "Dad always starts dinner with a prayer. Just bow your head. Don't eat anything until Dad says amen.
"And it might take him a while to get there."
I was one of four kids, each of us two years apart. We lived in an LA suburb that looked like any suburb we saw on TV. Our street was lined with palm trees that wrapped themselves around my kites. We had rosebushes in front, an orange tree and a flowering pear that dropped white petals in January like snow. The flagstone walk was lined with yellow pansies leading to a red front door.
We ate dinner in a room Mom insisted on calling the lanai. It had once been a back porch and had been converted with the help of plate glass, sliding glass doors, screens and a corrugated fiberglass roof that made a tremendous racket when the rain hit it. But this was Southern California so it wasn't often.
Dad came in from his commute on the freeway, kissed Mom, hung up his jacket, poured himself a drink, checked out the news on TV. One of us kids set the table. Mom took the casserole out of the oven with big orange pot holders and set it on the counter. "Ta-da!" she exclaimed. She tossed the salad in a monkey pod bowl they had picked up on a trip to Hawaii. "Dinner!" she called in her high-pitched, musical voice. "Dinner's ready."
We converged on the lanai from different parts of the house, my sisters from their rooms upstairs or the sewing room where my older sister, Gioia, was always re-hemming a skirt in the constant battle of fashion vs. school rules. I seem to remember a three-by-five card being slid between the floor and the bottom of her skirts when she was kneeling. The hem had to touch the card or the girls' vice principal would send her home. My older brother and I slept in a converted garage, which was convenient for whatever motor vehicle he was working on. Howard could roll the minibike or go-cart right into the room from the driveway. No steps to climb. I slept with the familiar smell of gasoline, and my brother had to put up with the old upright piano next to my bed.
We were as different as two boys could be. He never held a tool he didn't know how to use. I never heard a Broadway show that I didn't want to learn the lyrics to. He was physical, mechanical. He could fix anything. He was outdoors racing the minibike up and down the driveway with his neighborhood fan base cheering him on. I was inside, listening to a new LP, learning a song inside my head. I was overly sensitive. He pretended to be thick-skinned.
It's a wonder we didn't pummel each other, although as the older brother by twenty-two months, he pummeled me enough. I didn't circulate in his orbit. Not even close. Howard would wake me up early in the morning to go work on one of his forts and I would find an excuse to return to the house to work on a watercolor. Sometimes we had great talks as we were falling asleep. Most of the time, though, we did our own thing, Howard soaking an engine part in a Folgers coffee can of motor oil, me studying the liner notes for a record album.
Then came the blessing.
Dad's graces were a call to worship, an effort to pull these disparate family members together, to get us all on the same page. We gathered at the big teak table and the dog was sent outside to bark. We squirmed, we giggled, we kicked each other under the table, we rolled our eyes, but we were forced to see that we were all one and we had to be silent for a minute or two. We scraped our chairs against the linoleum floor (eventually it was covered with a lime-green indoor-outdoor carpet). We left homework, the kite caught in the tree, the news on TV, the seat for the minibike, the Simplicity pattern laid out on the floor, the rolls in the oven. We rushed in from school meetings and play practice and afterschool jobs. My younger sister, Diane, put her hamster Hamdie back in his cage and we could hear the squeak of the animal running to nowhere on his wheel.
"Let us reflect on the day," Dad began. We closed our eyes.
Then he paused.
There was a whole world in that pause. Silence. Nothing to do but think. I have been in Quaker meetings where we sat in silence waiting for the Spirit to move and it was just like that pause. I have worshipped in churches where the minister was wise enough to be quiet for a moment as soon as we bowed our heads. Every Monday in our office we gather in a conference room at 9:45 and read prayer requests that have come in to us over the past week; then we close our eyes, pausing in silence before we remember those requests.
At first all you hear is ambient noise. The drone of an air conditioner, the hum of a computer, a car passing by, my sister's hamster squeaking in his cage, your stomach rumbling. You think, "That hamster wheel needs some WD-40. ... That car needs a new muffler. ... Boy, I'm hungry." Then you listen to what's going on in your head.
Back then my head was spinning with a million thoughts. I was replaying what my best friend and I had talked about under the walnut tree at school or what Miss McGrath had said about my paper in class or what I wished I could say to the cute girl who sat behind me. What I wished she thought about me. Reflect on the day? There was too much noise going on inside. What did that have to do with prayer?
All we had to do was listen to Dad. Like a great preacher warming up, he cleared his throat and began, usually with something he heard on the radio or saw on TV.
"God, I ask you to be with us in the coming election," he prayed. "May the voters make the right choices in the primary."
"Remember our president as he makes his State of the Union address.
"Be with our astronauts in tomorrow's flight.
"Remember the Dodgers in tonight's playoffs.
"We are sorry about those who suffered from the recent tornadoes.
"We mourn the death of your servant Dr. Martin Luther King."
"It's like the six o'clock news," one of my brother's friends said. "You don't need the radio or the TV. You can get all the headlines from your dad's grace at dinnertime." Prayer can be a way of conveying information. It can be the means of processing history, even recent history. Think of all those passages in the Psalms that rehash the Israelites wandering in the desert: "Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest" (Psalm 95:10, KJV).
A modern-day psalmist in a button-down shirt and a bowtie, Dad prayed us through the 1960s and 1970s, the Watts riots, the flower power of Haight-Ashbury, the turmoil of the Vietnam War, the stock market's rise and fall, inflation, Kent State, Cambodia, Watergate, Nixon, Agnew, Ford, Carter. Dad dumped everything in his prayers, all the noise in his head, all the stuff he worried about. They were throw-everything-in-but-the-kitchen-sink prayers.
Let me extol the benefit of such prayers. First of all, this is a great way of dealing with the news.
I have friends who get so riled up about what they've seen on TV or read on the Internet or in the paper that they can't sleep at night. The first moment you see them you have to let them unload, let them chill. "I can't believe what a terrible trap our president has got us into," they'll exclaim, or "Congress is ruining our nation" or "I just read a terrible story about corruption in government." They're so anxious that you can't have a normal conversation until they've let go of their worries.
Of course, the news can be devastating. The headline splashed across the front of a newspaper in bold type sends a chill through me. The nightmarish scenario on the TV news has me double-locking the doors and tossing and turning at night. But most of those news stories were crafted to make us scared. Fear sells newspapers and magazines. The cover line about the ten most dangerous toys that can hurt your children makes you want to pick up that parenting magazine at the supermarket checkout. Fear about how your house might have a poisonous noxious gas seeping into it keeps you glued to the TV. Scary Internet headlines are designed to make you click through. You're supposed to get upset.
I do. All the time. If I read too much bad news it puts me in a foul mood. Talk about controlling my thoughts. I once stared at a provocative headline in a tabloid at a newsstand and screamed right back at it. My nerves were jangled. Something about the wording set me off there at Madison and 34th Street, right around the corner from the office. I was so shocked I slunk away hoping no one had heard me. Who was that jerk making all that noise? What got into me? The tabloid could have winked and smiled back at me: Gotcha!
Bad news can become a dangerous loop in my head. It's usually about stuff I have no control over: the national debt, the unemployment rate, the decline of the dollar, war, the weather, the poverty level, the stock market, the trade imbalance, the decline of the West, the decline of civility, growing pollution, the polar ice cap melting. It's essential to be well informed. I'm a junkie for all kinds of news. Good thing all those reporters and columnists keep me up-to-date. But there's no reason for the bad news to consume me.
If the news pulls you down it can rob you of the creativity you need to get your best work done. A study has shown that getting your blood pressure up by reading a depressing story in the newspaper or watching a disturbing report on television prevents your mind from doing the intuitive wandering it needs to make creative connections. That sounds like the work of prayer to me (and no, the article didn't put it that way). Save the news for times when your mind doesn't have to be at its best. Or take it in early and then toss it away.
Dad put the news back into God's hands. He asked God to intervene in places God was not necessarily considered. What did God know about the Dow and runaway inflation? What would God think about Nixon and Watergate? The point was, if we were thinking about it, the good Lord deserved to hear it. The good Lord would care.
As Dad's graces continued, he moved on to matters closer to home.
"We look forward to seeing our daughter Gioia march in the drill team at the football game tonight, bless her," he prayed.
"Bless Rick at the piano recital on Sunday."
"We're grateful for the new minibike Howard bought. We pray that he uses it safely and ask him to receive your blessing."
"We're thankful for Diane's good tennis match today."
"We look forward to Back to School Night and meeting our children's teachers. We know you know what good work they do. Bless them."
What a valuable lesson in prayer and parenting. Dad prayed for us. He noticed what was going on in our lives. Not the secrets that lurked inside, like my crush on the girl who sat behind me in fifth grade, but the events that were on his radar. The football game, the homecoming parade, the senior class musical, a tennis tournament, finals, dance class, the prom. He paid attention. At Back to School Night he graded our teachers and came back home to tell us how they measured up, which was to say how we measured up. He wrote it all down on a piece of paper with letter grades. When he gave my fourth-grade teacher, Miss McCallum, an A, I felt like the luckiest kid on earth. You can never underestimate a child's need for love and attention from his parents.
Francis McNutt, the great advocate for healing prayer, would often ask when he spoke to groups how many people remembered their parents praying for them. How many had heard their mother or father pray for them when they were sick, for instance? How many remembered a time when a parent had prayed out loud for them? Maybe twenty percent could recall a moment when their moms had prayed for them, but their dads? Only three percent of them.
I read that figure in astonishment, wondering how my father managed it, especially for a man of his generation, a buttoned-up World War II submarine veteran, the suffer-in-silence type. How did he ever learn to open up like this to us? How did he get over the natural embarrassment that comes from praying out loud in front of your loved ones? I'm far more the wear-it-on-my-sleeve sort, and even I fumble when I have to pray extemporaneously with my family. For Dad it came as naturally as breathing. There must have been something healing in it for him, blessing us and dinner every night.
I thought of Dad's graces recently when we ran a story about a dad, Kevin Williamson, who, with his two teenagers, was celebrating his first Thanksgiving after his wife, Bev, had died of cancer.
Kevin didn't want to get out of bed that morning, let alone celebrate. Long before his children were up, he trudged into the kitchen and got a cup of tea. The only sound was the rumble of the refrigerator. The quiet time reminded him of Bev and the mornings they had spent planning their days and their future, a future that had turned out different from what he'd ever imagined. The phone rang. It was their neighbor who was having them over to dinner. "Can I bring anything?" he asked.
"Just yourselves," she said. "And bread ... we could use some bread."
"Sure." He figured he'd go out and buy some at whatever supermarket was open. Then his eye landed on his wife's recipe box still sitting on the counter. He thought of Bev's yeast rolls, the same recipe that had been handed down in his own family for generations. His mother had taught Bev to make them. He could remember the scent of them wafting from the wood-burning stove at his great-grandmother's home.
Kevin found the recipe card, written in his own mother's handwriting. He put on an apron, got out a mixing bowl and lined up the ingredients on the counter.
"What are you making?" his daughter asked, wandering into the kitchen sleepy-eyed.
"Mom's yeast rolls." He stirred the yeast into warm water, beat an egg, added the flour, kneaded the dough and let it rise. He separated the dough in balls and put them on a baking sheet. Perfect for dinner. But there was still some left over.
Bev had always made an early batch just for the family. Maybe he could do the same. With the leftover dough he made a few more rolls and put them in the oven. Soon the kitchen smelled like all those Thanksgivings of the past. He thought of Bev, how she made her family laugh, how she taught them to love and to live. The timer buzzed. He took the pan out of the oven, then called his kids into the kitchen.
"Let's all have one," he said, putting the rolls on a plate.
They sat at the kitchen table and joined hands, and he bowed his head to say grace. "God, it's been a tough year for us. We miss Bev so much. We thank you for the time we had with her. We're grateful for the little reminders, each day, of her presence in our lives still. And we're blessed that we have one another."
The story was from Kevin's point of view, not the kids', but I don't doubt they were suffering the loss of their mom just as acutely and were comforted by their dad's grace. They knew they had been loved and still were.
My dad's prayers were filled with his love for us and for Mom. He prayed for President Nixon, the astronauts, Sandy Koufax and us. We were on equal footing with the famous people who dominated the news. We were stars. What he couldn't always articulate in a conversation he could say in a prayer. He bowed his head and his heart opened up. He told us the good things he thought of us.
Dad was a far more complicated person than my straightforward, sunny-tempered mother. He worried more, hurt more, suffered more and internalized most of it. He smoked, he drank — the clink of ice cubes in a glass was an enduring part of the soundtrack of my childhood. He could be self-involved. He got angry and didn't know how to express the anger. He could burst out in a frightening tirade, most often directed against himself. The sound of Dad throwing his tennis racket against the fence and chastising himself — "Thornt!!" — was a familiar feature of Sunday's mixed doubles with Mom. You could tell which rackets were his in the hall closet because they were usually bent or patched up with tape. But in his prayers he loved and was lovable. (Continues...)
Excerpted from 10 Prayers You Can't Live Without by Rick Hamlin. Copyright © 2016 Rick Hamlin. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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