A String of Wooden Beads – Jim Lyon, General Director, Church of God Ministries
I bought a rosary. I was standing outside the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth (a gargantuan, stark, modern building, constructed over an archeological site thought to have been the ancient home of the teenaged Mary). It was January of this year, under a startling blue sky, when the air was clean and fresh. A young man was hawking rosaries outside the courtyard gate, pitching their sale to all passersby. It’s a Roman Catholic property; to find rosaries for sale there was no surprise.
“Ten for ten dollars,” he spoke confidently, waving the wooden circle of beads with a cross attached, as I glanced his way. I smiled and said, “No, thank you,” quickly moving on to round up the Christians Broadcasting Hope (CBH) tour group in my care. As the forty-four members of our CBH team filed out and down the street toward our bus, the church bells rang, marking the hour.
I paused and turned back. “My Aunt Sarah would be thrilled to have a rosary from Nazareth,” I thought to myself, remembering my 101-year-old Irish aunt, in her Franciscan Convent in Ballinasloe, Ireland. Born near Belfast in 1914, she became a Roman Catholic nun in her twenties, served over fifty years as a medical missionary in remote reaches of Zambia (what was then Northern Rhodesia), ultimately retiring to the Convent in the County Galway at age seventy-five, on Ireland’s west coast. Devout, disciplined, and deep, Sarah could rarely be seen without a rosary in-hand or nearby. She dreamed of visiting the Holy Lands, but in her century-plus years, never made it to the terra firma of Jesus.
I walked back to the rosary guy. “I’ll take one.” “Ten for ten dollars,” he smiled. “No, I just need one,” I smiled back, handing him a one-dollar bill with George Washington’s sly stare on its face. I dropped the rosary into my shoulder bag and ran back down the cobblestoned street to catch up with the CBH tribe.
Twelve days later, I found the rosary in my satchel, as I was unpacking at home. I hoped to visit Sarah in person later in the year and imagined her grin when I placed the smooth wooden beads in her hand. She suddenly passed away a few weeks later, though, just hours after I had spoken with her by phone; she fell asleep comfortably one night and did not wake up. We should all hope to do so well.
The rosary fell into a drawer. I didn’t think of it again for some time until I inadvertently stumbled upon it, searching for my car key. I picked it up and ran my hands around the circle, outlining the cross at one end carefully with my fingers. I saw Sarah in my mind’s eye, seated in her room at the Convent, daylight softly filtered through sheer white lace curtains, pulled across a large window overlooking a garden always green and splashed with color. I saw a rosary in her hands as she would speak with me, over the course of many visits, about life, her faith, her sense of things, and, always—and I mean, always—about prayer. She seemed to live in a kind of uninterrupted conversation with God.
As she aged, macular degeneration began to claim her eyesight and, by the age of 99, she could no longer read. Her prayer list—a catalog of people, places, and concerns she held dear—sat next to her chair, but for the last few years of her life, she could not read it. But, no problem, because the prayer list was etched on her heart. And, she had attached a prayer request to each of the beads of the rosary. In this way, she would methodically walk through her prayer list, rosary in hand, even as she also, at other times, followed the traditional Catholic practice of using the rosary to pray through “the mysteries” (or experiences) of Jesus and Mary.
The Rosary (with a capital R) generally refers to a long-standing regimen of prayer in the Catholic tradition. Actually, there are several different prayer routines that are prevalent in Catholic communities; most non-Catholics associate the Rosary with devotion to Mary, because of the “Hail, Mary” refrain often tagged to the beads.
A rosary (with a lower-case r) does not refer, however, to a prayer-by-rote or to Marian theology; it is the name given to a chain or circle of beads dubbed in Latin rosarium or, in English, a garland of roses. Most rosaries in use today have five “decades” of ten beads, each separated from the others by a larger or differentiated bead (there are an additional four of them, in between the “decades”), totaling fifty-four beads in all. A cross is often attached with five more beads in a string. Rosaries, however, come in other configurations, some with thirty-three beads (as in Anglican custom—one for each year of Jesus’ life on earth), some with twelve (a prominent Bible number), and so on.
Rosaries first developed in ninth-century Ireland, as monks worshiped using the 150 psalms (called The Psalter). In a world without television or electric lights, in communities devoted to prayer and Christian community, in churches without musical instruments, praying and chanting the Psalms (the original hymnbook of God’s people) was common. The rosary was used to mark progress through the Psalms, in sets of ten. Psalms 1–10, pause, then Psalms 11–20, pause, and so on—until you reached Psalm 50. This was achieved in one circle of the rosary held in hand. Three times around the rosary circle led you through each of the 150 psalms.
Because most people outside of the monastery in those days could not read or write, they were encouraged to recite the Lord’s Prayer (the “our Father,” the paternoster), in succession. Over the centuries, the recitation of verses from Luke 1 (e.g. “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…blessed are you among women…”) became popular. At different times and seasons, over the centuries, individual Scriptures were assigned to each of the rosary beads and it became an instrument of bible memorization, as well as of prayer. The rosary itself has been an emblem of prayer, meditation, worship, and devotion to Christ for over 1,200 years, with a much broader appeal and use than many Catholics or Protestants today would imagine.
Sarah prayed without ceasing. With eyes open or closed, she could touch her prayers as she felt her way around the rosary. She often told me how she prayed for Zambia. And for peace in the Middle East. And for those suffering in hospital. And for me. My wife. My sons. By name, individually—each felt as she walked through her rosary.
She prayed prayers of thanks, too. A walk through the rosary was a chance to thank God for fifty blessings. With this, she smiled, occasionally laughed out loud, her eyes dancing. Sometimes, Sarah wept as she prayed. She said she could, in some way, feel the burden that Jesus feels, watching over this broken world. When I asked her why she visited this sad place in her heart and memory, she replied, “How can you know the Man of Sorrows if you do not know sorrow?”
And, yes, she used her rosary beads to pray through the five “mysteries” as most Catholics do, a whispered “Hail, Mary, full of grace …” and all the rest, actually scriptures woven together in ways I would not.
I held the rosary in my hand, sunshine streaming through the white plantation blinds of my bedroom, overlooking the 450 (the street on which I live). Something inside of me stirred and said, “Pray.” And so, I did.
I held the cross first and thanked God for Jesus. He is Lord. He is Savior. He is the subject. He is the exact representation of God in human form. “Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed—honored—be Your name. In my life. Here. Now.” I moved to the beads. I named my wife. My sons. My daughters-in-law. My grandchildren. My mom. Each one touched, each bead gently held in turn. “Lord, protect them, bless them, don’t let the enemy touch them in any way: physically, spiritually, emotionally, or mentally.”
I moved to the next. I prayed for the Fairview Church in Seattle, to which I owe my life. I prayed for Madison Park Church in Anderson and my pastor (Paul Strozier) and every one of the pastors there by name. One bead at a time. I prayed for the Church at the Crossing in Indianapolis and its pastor (Steve Rennick), which became a refuge for my wife and I during days of transition.
I prayed for Church of God Ministries, asking God to provide for it, asking God to take the enemy’s hand off the spigot constricting resources we need to do what God has called us to do, opening the faucet wide and free. I asked for wisdom as I provide leadership to the ministry. And then I prayed for key members of the Church of God Ministries team and their families.
I prayed for each of the presidents of our four Church of God universities and colleges, asking God to anoint them, provide for them, and give them wisdom beyond themselves in the critically important roles they play.
I prayed for the Kingdom work in India and Russia, two parts of the world that have long laid claim on my heart. I lifted up, by name, pastors, lay leaders, and communities in these areas.
I prayed for the Church of God in Ukraine and pastors there by name—so moved by a visit in 2014 that I cannot escape its promise and challenges. And for our dear friends (and ChoG staff) in Haiti, Mark and Kathy Fulton and their family here at home. I prayed for our ChoG Regional Conventions and ChoG Tables unfolding this year.
I prayed for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and our country. I am much discouraged by the trend of events, public discourse, the challenges of our time, and the prospects ahead.
I prayed for…well, you get the idea. Bead by bead. Slowly, deliberately moving around the rosary, fifty thoughts, ideas, hopes, and fears. And, having walked around it once with these petitions, I began to move around it again, this time thanking God, blessing after blessing, identifying the good I had seen that day.
Time seemed almost to stand still, even as much time had passed. My eyes had closed along the way, as I moved through my prayers. As I opened my eyes, I was strangely calmed, hopeful, content.
Now, I know, I know, some of you reading this are wanting to seize me and say, “Now, Jim, don’t go all Catholic on us.” Not to worry. I am not. But, do not imagine that ancient customs in Christian history are not everywhere in our Christian experience still, born in what many would call a “Catholic” frame. Think: stained glass, traditional church building design, church organs, steeples, Silent Night, and all the rest. These are not signatures of the Reformation—but they have found a place in the Reformation.
And, my reflections here are not to encourage anyone to order a rosary. It is, however, a plea for the Church of God to focus on the necessity, power, and life of prayer, in Jesus’ Name. Often I hear pleas for more of this or more of that to spur the church forward. I am, every day, more convinced that we need first more of prayer. Conscious, intentional, focused prayer, in Jesus’ name. I have learned that I cannot survive in my present assignment without it. Neither can the Church of God.
Which pastors are you praying for by name? What parts of the world beyond your front door are you praying for day-by-day, for Jesus’ sake? What congregations are you lifting up daily before the Lord? How do you remember it all? How can you stay focused in prayer when the mind tends to wander?
Well, for me, I found a rosary. A simple little string of wooden beads that, today at least, keeps my prayers on track—and enriches my alone time with God. I’m throwing in the Lord’s Prayer daily, too, as I have always done. Wow. The discipline is energizing, empowering, humbling, and calming, all at once.
Pray for the Movement. Join the movement. Thank God for the movement. Thank you for praying with us. Jesus is the subject; His passions and pulse our own.
Oh, and my Aunt Sarah? She was very interested in the Church of God that has so clothed her nephew and asked me about it often. “You’re a very spiritual man, Jim,” she never failed to remind me, “Jesus is in you, He is with you.” I pray so. I believe she is with Him.