A Hug and a (Christian) Prayer

“People from the United Church of Canada like to hug,” said my friend B.

I filed this random fact away under Important Information. Little did I know it would soon come in handy.

A few days later, I received an email invitation: Might I facilitate a women’s retreat for West Vancouver United Church? The women would love to learn with a woman rabbi.

Certainly, I said, and we set up a planning meeting. Three representatives from the Church would meet me at a local café.

As I walked through the door of the café, a man approached me. “Are you Laura?” he asked.

“I am!”

He gave me a light, friendly shoulder hug.

Well, I was a bit taken aback, but I remembered what B. said. So, I returned the hug and said, “I look forward to planning the retreat.”

The man looked confused. “I was supposed to meet someone named Laura. We met over the Internet, and I don’t know what she looks like.”

“Well, my name is Laura, and I’m also supposed to meet some people I met over the Internet. And I don’t know what they look like either. … But I don’t think I’m your Laura.”

Five minutes later, three women walked through the door. “Are you Laura?” they asked.

“I am!”

They each gave me a light, friendly shoulder hug.

On that familiar, funny basis, we began to plan a program, filled with Bible study, singing, dancing, crafts, study, prayer, and conversation.

One of the women, a skilled artist, had read a book called A Bead and a Prayer: An Introduction to Protestant Prayer Beads, by Kristen E. Vincent. Perhaps — she suggested — she could lead the women in making their own colorful prayer bead strands, and I could teach the group how to use them. She showed me a prototype: a string of 28 small beads, separated into groups of seven, by four large “cruciform” beads, anchored at the bottom with a cross and a “resurrection bead.”

“Of course,” I said. For these welcoming, affectionate women, I was willing to do anything! Even re-negotiate my interfaith borders and lead Christian prayer.

Four large beads, I decided, would cue four types of prayer, familiar to me from Jewish tradition: Praise (shevach), confession (vidui), intercession (bakashah), and gratitude (hoda’ah). And I would re-interpret the “resurrection” bead as a “life” bead, connecting us with the chiyut, energy, of God who is chai ha’olamim (life of all the worlds).

So I taught:

Hold the beads in your stronger hand, hanging them over your four fingers, with your thumb free to feel them. Let the cross rest in your hand. Feel its shape, let associations to its meaning come to you.

Find the rhythm of your own breath. With your thumb, feel the bead of invitation. As you breathe, affirm, “I am ready to move into prayer.” Touch the resurrection bead, and feel God’s life in you and around you.

Touch the next big bead, the bead of praise, of awe and wonder. Which magnificent works of God are present to you today? As you move your fingers along the smaller beads, name seven moments of wonder; or take seven breaths; or simply feel seven beads and allow images to come to you.  

Touch the bead of confession: inviting you to confess not just sins, but the big thoughts and feelings you carry with you today. With God as your inner witness, name the burdens you want God to see and help you carry. Seven burdens; or seven breaths; or seven beads.

Touch the bead of intercession. Intercede for yourself. Ask God to help you develop the inner qualities you need to live into your thoughts, feelings, and challenges. Seven qualities; or seven breaths; or seven beads.

Touch the bead of gratitude. Thank God for all you have received in the past, for all that gives you the faith to pray for help. Or thank God for all you expect to receive. Your prayers may not be answered in the way you imagined, but they will be answered. Seven expressions of gratitude; or seven breaths; or seven beads.

Return to the resurrection bead, and feel God’s life within you. Touch the bead of invitation, and invite God to continue to be present to you, as you exit this time of reflection.

You can imagine the women’s response to this time of prayer: “I felt as though God just gave me a big hug.”

Photo credit: Photo of Wendy and Andrew by Laura Duhan Kaplan

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