If you’ve heard me speak or read my book, you know how I got started collecting – and later making – prayer beads. But that’s not the whole story. The truth is, the prayer beads have led to the most profound moments of healing for me, addressing wounds from an early childhood trauma. That’s why I believe so strongly in their benefits to prayer, to our spiritual lives, to our lives in general.
Here is my story. It is in the form of a sermon I preached in January 2013 at The Academy for Spiritual Formation. I’ve written before about how I’m currently participating in Academy #34. It has been life-changing for me and many others. I’ll talk more about it in later posts. For now, if you are interested in knowing the story behind the prayer beads, read on . . .
“Fringe Moments: A Sermon on Abandonment and Hope”
Based on Numbers 15:37 – 41
It was a warm summer day. I know that because I was wearing my favorite Holly Hobbie halter top and matching blue shorts. And I know that because I and my friends had spent the whole afternoon playing hide-and-seek. I loved that game. I was very good at finding those hiding places that no one else could find – those super duper, totally awesome hiding places.
At some point, my friends went inside. I don’t remember why but I remember knowing that they were going to be back out pretty soon, and so I waited. I sat on the sidewalk and then lay back in the sun to look up at the clouds.
That’s when he approached me.
He was a young guy, maybe early twenties. He had blonde hair and was standing next to a bicycle. He flashed a wide smiled and said, “Hi.” “Hi,” I said. “Looks like you’re enjoying the sun,” he said. “Yep.” “Hey, I’ve got to gather some newspapers for a friend of mine and there’s a lot of them. Would you willing to help me?” he asked.
Of course I would. I loved helping people. I was always offering to help my mom. I liked feeling responsible and helpful at the same time. Even though I was seven, it made me feel older. “Sure,” I said.
And that’s how on a warm summer day, at the age of 7, I walked away with a complete stranger.
I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, we didn’t pick up any newspapers.
The damage had been done. But what made it worse was that young, blonde-haired guy with the bicycle threatened me. He told me that if I told anyone about what he had done he would come back and kill me and my family. I believed him. I had no reason not to.
And so I walked back home to find my friends waiting for me. They were ready to play again, and had been wondering where I was. I didn’t tell them. Instead, I sat with my head in my hands and just stared. “What’s the matter with you?” they asked. They were confused by this sudden change in their playmate. I remember one of them saying, “She must not feel well.” I didn’t say anything. And when my mom called me in for supper, I didn’t say anything to her either. I stayed completely silent. I found a hiding place – a super duper, totally awesome hiding place deep within me – a place I knew no one would be able to find – and I buried that horrible secret.
There are no words to describe how I felt. But abandonment might be a good place to start. Here I had just been victimized. My life was shattered; my childhood, my innocence, and sense of wonder and security, instantly gone. And I had no one to comfort me. No one to weep with me. No one to tell me this wasn’t my fault. No one to seek justice on my behalf.
And where was God in all of this? Why had God allowed this to happen to me, a bright, spunky, little girl with a pixie cut and a love of Barbies and Donny Osmond? Why hadn’t God rescued me? Surely, He could have reached down and picked me up and flown me to safety. But He didn’t.
Yeah, I’d say I felt abandoned.
I know that’s how the Israelites felt out there in the desert. Sure, God had led them out of slavery and towards the Promised Land. But in between, He had left them to wander and languish in that stinking desert. They weren’t getting anywhere. They were hot and tired. Tired of sand, tired of bugs, tired of manna. How could God do this to them? How could He leave them here? Wasn’t it bad enough in Egypt? Now they had to endure wandering in the desert? They were hungry. Their kids were dying. They were battling sickness and snakes. And God was seemingly nowhere to be found.
So they began to act out. They built idols out of gold. They began to break the commandments. They complained loudly and incessantly. They even talked of going back to Egypt! Things were getting out of hand.
That’s when God decided to intervene. Not that He hadn’t before. This wasn’t the first time. Just before this passage, in chapter 6, God had taken the time to give the Israelites His blessing:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you His peace.
This had satisfied them for a while. They didn’t feel quite so abandoned. But eventually, the Israelites forgot the blessing and went back to feeling abandoned.
So God said to Moses: tell the Israelites to take the fringe on their garments and knot it and hold on to it. While they held onto it they were to remember that “I AM the Lord their God,” and to remember the commandments. Doing this, God said, would make them holy.
Now, I can assure you that if I were an Israelite who had been stranded in the desert for twenty years, and my children had known only sand and manna; if I had begun to believe that God had abandoned me; and if God had come to me and said, “here’s some fringe,” I would have said, “Really? Fringe? How in the world is that supposed to make things better?!?” I would have felt cheated.
But indeed, it was the perfect gift, as any gift from God would be. For God knew the Israelites’ limitations. He knew that no matter how much He had promised, no matter how much he had intervened, and no matter that He had taken the time to give the Israelites His personal blessing, the Israelites were human. They were in the middle of the desert. They were struggling. They were physical beings who needed something concrete to hold onto. As much as they wanted to have faith in a God they couldn’t see, there were times when they needed something tangible to hold onto and be reminded that God was with them. And fringe was everywhere. All garments at that time were made with fringe. Everyone would have access to it. Everyone could do this seemingly minor thing and be reminded that God was with them. God had never abandoned them.
In 2009 my family was vacationing in the mountains of North Carolina. We stopped for dinner at Salty Dog’s, a cheesy little seafood restaurant slash biker bar in Maggie Valley. After dinner we were walking out of the restaurant. My husband and son were ahead of me, already out the door. As I walked through the foyer I distinctly heard a voice say, “You need to make rosaries.” “Huh,” I thought. “How strange.” And I kept walking.
For the next several days, I thought about that voice. It had been so clear. And aside from the fact that it came from a biker bar, it kind of made sense. For more than twenty years, I had collected rosaries, though they never did anything more than hang on my wall. I certainly never used them to pray. In fact, I didn’t pray much at all. I think, deep down, that little seven-year-old still didn’t trust that God would really hear her prayers.
The voice kind of made sense, too, because I had a Master of Theological Studies – all of this seminary training- that I wasn’t putting to use. And I was a bit crafty. I don’t want to brag, but I can hold my own in a room full of basket weavers. Still, I’d never made a set of prayer beads.
But I decided to trust the voice. I began doing research, and that’s when I learned about Protestant prayer beads and I realized that’s what this calling was about. That led to making and selling beads and leading workshops and writing about it. You know about that part. But it also led to my relationship with The Upper Room and, specifically, Johnny Sears, who wouldn’t leave me alone until I signed up for The Academy for Spiritual Formation. Great idea, I thought. It will give me time to explore this calling.
But The Academy has ended up being so much more. For it has been here that I’ve begun to heal from that childhood trauma so long ago. Mind you, I’ve had years of therapy and worked very hard to deal with it, but here at The Academy I’ve had major breakthroughs, really profound insights that tell me I’m finally making progress. Yes, God wanted me to be here to explore this quirky calling. But the real reason was so that I would finally experience the healing that only stillness with God could bring.
I was sharing this with my husband after session #2. “How amazing,” I said, “that I thought I was going to The Academy to explore my prayer bead calling, but it’s ending up being more about my healing.” He started laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“You don’t see it, do you?” he said
“What?” I asked.
“That voice at Salty Dog’s – the one that told you to make rosaries – that was your fringe moment. That was God reaching out to you and offering you something to hold onto so that you would know – once and for all – that He had never abandoned you. Not when you were seven, not now, not ever.”
We have all experienced periods of abandonment. We’ve suffered violence or other trauma; we’ve endured divorces or the death of a loved one; we have lost jobs, been told we are not good enough, or been rejected for who we are. No matter the form, we have all plumbed the depths of despair and wondered where God was.
But, hopefully, we have all had our fringe moments as well; those times when God’s light breaks through the darkness to remind us that He is with us. Those times when God uses ordinary, everyday objects like fringe or beads to reach us. Those times when God uses everyday, ordinary times like sitting at our desk or driving to the grocery store to get our attention. Those times when God uses everyday, ordinary people to remind us that “I AM The Lord your God.” I AM. And I AM has always been.
Take your fringe. Take your prayer beads. Take whatever you can grab onto. Let that be a reminder that God is the GREAT I AM. And know this: we are never alone. Yes, bad things happen and there is evil in the world, but God is always with us. We have never been abandoned.
Thanks be to God. Amen.