During his one year in a Catholic preschool, my son learned a prayer that they said each day before eating lunch: In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit [while crossing himself] Bless us, our Lord, in these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit [while crossing himself].
My daughter, who is younger, is now attending the same school and has learned a prayer that is similar but slightly different. It bugs my son that she’s “saying it wrong” and he keeps correcting her. The point of being thankful for one’s food is, of course, lost on them. Usually, she says her own simple before-meal prayer: “Dear God, thank you for our food, for our friends, for our family, amen.”
It is usually accompanied by folded hands and a back-and-forth head tilt with each syllable. She breezes through it quickly these days, fast and mumbled enough that a guest may not understand what she’s saying. It’s also often bookended by my wife or I uttering an exasperated, “Just pray, please” before it and fussing at my son after it. The point of being thankful is, of course, lost on…well, all of us.
Recently, both of them have been learning the 23rd psalm at our church. I’ve been impressed that both of them were able to learn the whole thing. They both recite it quickly (presumably for fear of forgetting it), bumbling the pronunciation of some words and rushing by ones they don’t understand (like “righteousness,” “anoint,” etc.).
As a parent, I sometimes listen to the mindless recitations and think to myself, “What good is this doing?” But then, I remember myself. I earned quite a few memorization stars in Sunday School without knowing what I was saying. But it has been those Bible verses to which I’ve turned time and again for encouraging myself or others. I spent years singing hymns with words I wasn’t even sure were English.
But today, some of those old hymns (especially Christmas carols) impart comfort and stability in the midst of life’s constant fluctuation. In middle school, I sat in the balcony of my church during services and snickered with friends. But it was during that same time that I made my own decision to follow Christ and be baptized. In high school, I’m pretty sure my main reason for attending services was to wait for the pastors to mess up or say something funny.
I distinctly remember the night I broke up with a girlfriend. I sat in my room, reading passages I had marked in my Bible and listening to Christian music to which I had been introduced at church. Even in college, I attended Bible studies where I was often a distracting presence by laughing and cutting up. But I still today quote and refer to one of the books we used.
Today, I’m a pastor…who still mindlessly recites things at times. But my ministry and my life experiences to this point have awakened me to the deep meaning of these things I’ve recited so many times. When we are little children, we learn to walk long before we understand physics. We speak long before we can spell a word. We sing songs and dance to music long before we can read a note on a page. Such is faith. We pray, recite, attend worship, and many other things long before we know what they mean. I’ve learned that one of the important parts is that we are practicing for when we need it. In a recent article, Amy Butler, pastor of The Riverside Church in New York, wrote powerfully about the role of the church today: “We are islands in a world full of increasingly adrift people. We are places of solace and hope, community and hospitality for people who are too smart to believe in God and pretty convinced they don’t need the church — until they do.”
To add to Amy’s words: we all may be children who never grew up, constantly distracted and often guilty of mindless repetition…until the day comes that we need those words and songs that we can say without thinking. Early on in my full-time ministry, a teenage boy in my church was killed in a car accident. As I and the other pastors sat in the emergency room with the parents, waiting on good news that would never come, we recited Psalm 23. The same psalm that I and my children have both mindlessly recited was the only cooling balm on that night of unspeakable anxiety and grief. Its words, dull and familiar though they had been to me, sparked and shimmered and echoed through that room, granting a brief solace that I could have never provided with anything I said. That, though I didn’t know it until that night, was why I had practiced the psalm.
As a pastor, I’ve seen it so many times: we are too busy for church, God, and spirituality. But then a time comes when we need it, and by then, we don’t have the energy for it. That is why we practice. “Seek the Lord while he may be found,” the prophet Isaiah wrote. “Call on him while he is near.”
Similarly, the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come…” “Spiritual practices,” be they prayers, creeds, songs or other traditions, can seem so banal as they roll off our lips time and again. But we practice. Our children practice. Because you never know when it will be all we have.