The Ritual Of Prayer

Lord, Teach Us to Pray. – Andrew Murray

Some om, cross legged, eyes closed, hands out in open surrender. Others kneel, nose to ground, stomach pulled in as a physical reminder of smallness. Some pace, some chant a mantra. Some lift their hands and others clasp them tight. Many rock back and forth. Some begin to hum, others sing, others say “thank you” over and over until the words are unrecognizable and begin to echo in their ears. The sounds of prayer fill a room, an orchestra tuning their hearts, finding a rhythm, connecting and listening and joining in with those around them.

Peace is found in the ritual. Peace is found in the music of prayer, the songs, the dances, the sway of a church choir and clapping of hands and the stillness and silence of Lord Hear Our Prayer.

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Prayer is mysterious. It is evasive. It is absolutely impossible to do at times, when the heart is hard and life is loud. I find myself drawn to the rituals, rediscovering the winding cacophony of vocally expressing praise, thanks, amazement, wonder, and needs. I remember the voice of my father, deep and muttering, lost in another world where his words are more than consonants and vowels thrown together. I remember my mother, who rocks back and forth and sings whatever song comes to mind. I see their faith, their rituals of spiritual connection, and I am reminded of the good news that I, too, can have a ritual.

So I quiet my heart. I open my mouth. I sing, I hum, I think of the beauty of the world and the honor of being in it to make a difference. I say thank you. I say wow. I say please. I look at my students, and pray that their lives will be filled with joy, discovery, compassion, understanding and action. I pray for those far and near, during this month of rituals when I cannot be with those I love. I pray that the music of my prayer will change my heart, even if it doesn’t change anything else.

I pray the rituals of prayer give peace to those singing the music in their hearts.

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Sacando las Raíces

By: Jenni Taylor

“Mi pecado es grande,” Cynthia joked, dragging a six foot root behind her to throw into the fire. “My sin is big.”

I was in Iquitos, Peru. A church recently bought a small plot of jungle ground outside of the city to build a missionary school. We had begun by sleeping in tents on shaky platforms made of sticks, but now it was time to clear the land for small houses and a maloca, a circular hut for meetings.photo1 (1)

The property was called the virgin jungle. We were, in effect, destroying a small piece of it. Some of the Peruvians came from the city; many others came from deep within the jungle and had done this many times before.

The men used slashing and burning to clear a stretch of a hillside, down to a small creek that flowed with clear, fresh water. The last mission school had still water, and students had come down with malaria. Cynthia, the young woman who had pulled out the root, was a survivor.

As the men slashed and burned, the women came behind. Mama Noemi, the mother of us all, crouched like a baboon over the burnt earth with her machete. She had loose breasts, strong hands, and wrinkles deep around her eyes. She had come to the mission school with her husband after she said she had been healed of blindness. She spoke more jungle dialects than any linguist at Harvard ever could.

The rest of us girls, eight of us or so, came behind mama. We crouched as she did and used our hands to pull out the root systems that had fed the trees for hundreds of years. We would pull and tug and hack away, sometimes two or three girls working at one root system weaving across the top of this small mountain. That’s when the joking began. We must be pulling out our sins, hacking away in this jungle heat and sweat.

As we pulled the ground, the soil and ashes began to give way to the whitest, purest sand I had ever seen. The afternoon light was beginning to fade into stretches of purple and yellow. The women went down to the creek to bathe, allowing cool water to soothe tired muscles. Mama Noemi crouched again, this time beating her laundry against a rock and then slapping it rhythmically into the water. The cooking fire lit up the dusk and smoke curled into the sky.

That night, after dinner and in the dark, we gathered in a circle and sang. A girl used a tambourine from the city, and a boy beat out a rhythm echoing Mama Noemi’s laundry on his cajon, a handmade jungle drum. The stars above wrapped their gauzy light around the southern cross constellation and twisted their way through the dark, twinkling with the same echoing rhythm and bringing their own music to the cacophony. This wild place, this tiny patch of untamed ground was becoming a home, and each song was a root of their own spirituality sinking into the ground and declaring the land theirs. So they sang, wailing to the sky, their spirits as wild as the jungle surrounding them.

Everyone Loves Hot Chocolate

By: Jenni Taylor

It was my first Christmas away from my family. I was used to White Christmases, or at least cold ones, coating the windows with frost on the south side of Chicago. Now, I was in the depths of the jungle in a tiny city of Peru.

I was visiting my friend, Deysi, for our usual lunch together.

“What are you doing for Christmas?” I asked. Her eyes lit up.

“I’m throwing a Chocolatada,” she said. She went into the other room and came back with an enormous box full of toy airplanes, barbies, and plastic whistles. “I’ve been saving up for it all year.”

She went on to explain that those who had the means would throw a Chocolatada in their neighborhood- a party with toys, bread rolls, and yes, hot chocolate galore. It was made for children who might otherwise not have a Christmas.

When the day came, Deysi was at her best. The pot of hot chocolate was big enough for a bathtub, and had bits of cinnimon sticks poking out of the thick, hot liquid. She placed a sparkly pink sign outside her door reading “Jesus te Ama”, Jesus Loves You, and a Santa Clause pinata. The toys she had shown me were already wrapped and ready, sitting in large piles all over the kitchen table.

The Chocolatada was set for 3pm. Kids began to arrive at noon.

“Tia Deysi, is it ready? Is it ready?” They would ask, smashing their faces through the grate on the door. “Not yet, not yet, have some patience!” She would reply.

It couldn’t come soon enough. When things were finally ready, children and their mothers sat on the few wooden seats placed outside, or stood in the shade out of the hot sun. A small radio with speakers began to blast Christmas carols.

We began to hand out the Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate, bread rolls, and toys. Soon boys were zooming around the dirt road with toy airplanes in hand, and girls were setting up games with their new dolls. The Santa Clause pinata came down in an explosion of glitter and small candies. The children had magic in their eyes.

It was only hot chocolate, really. But it was enough to change the world for these children, even if only for a day. Soon each child had wandered off back home, and the chocolate pot was empty and smelling of cinnamon.

“Worth every penny,” Deysi said. “Here, have the last cup.”Photo by Jenni Taylor

La Cocinera

By: Jenni Taylor

“Wow, your rice is really good,” he says, scooping up the last bits from the rice cooker before tossing it in the sink. We had just finished one of the three meals I was capable of making. I took the basic compliment.

“I just add some salt and garlic, like Deysi taught me,” I say. I turn on the hot water and begin to wash the pot from the rice cooker. It’s thick. “The trick is to always use a thick pot, the thickest you have,” Deysi had said. She didn’t have a rice cooker. Rice to her was an art, including thick pots, salt and garlic, low heat, plastic bags, and the right spoon.

Deysi was a Peruvian woman who had taken me into her home when it became widely known that la americana couldn’t cook worth a lick. At first I was embarrassed to go. I didn’t mind living off tuna and street hamburgers. But there was Deysi, waiting for me with my covered plate, determined to put extra meat on my bones.

I tried to make excuses during the week, so I would only have to go when I really had nothing. I felt ridiculous taking charity from a woman who had a whole family to feed, this woman I had met a church who always sat in the front on the right and spun to the music in her flowered skirts. But each meal was better than the last, and next thing I knew I was there, every day, 2:00pm Peruvian time.

Our friendship started slowly, cautiously. I would talk about my English students, she would gossip about her neighbors. I would try to wash the dishes and she would firmly push me down in my seat, refusing to let me help. She wouldn’t take money, either, though once or twice I was able to sneak it into her bible when she wasn’t looking. It took me a while to realize the most precious gift I could give her was time.

I stopped showing up for meals and began to show up while she was cooking. She wouldn’t let me touch the food, but would stand there stirring and tell me everything. When she was angry, she chopped. She would chop so hard and fast that I couldn’t listen to her words anymore, just watch her fingers and pray they wouldn’t come off. When she was happy, she would always throw in extra spices, and tell me their strange names in Spanish as long as I promised not to repeat them.

Some days, her family was there. Other days, they would come in and grab their meals to go before heading back to work, and Deysi and I would be left alone at the table. It was our special time together.

La Cocinera gave me family when I had none, and I was her daughter for a brief moment in time. She fed my body and soul, always whispering a kind word as she hugged me before I left, giving me bible verses on slips of paper with cartoon characters, and adamantly taking my side when I had been wronged. We cried together a lot, and laughed together even more. She was energy, she was life, she was strength and health and a bleeding heart still beating out love. She was my friend.

I still can’t cook very well, but I try to use the few secrets she gave me. A thick pot for rice cooking, and a smile even when life hurts. Salt and garlic, and some prayers of thanks. Turn the heat low, and life is going to be okay.

She’s the best cocinera I’ve ever met.

Sophia Sighting: Iquitos

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Location: Iquitos, Peru

By: Jenni Taylor

I rediscovered this picture in my files the other day. This was taken in January of 2012, while the city of Iquitos experienced its worst flooding in the last 100 years. One particular neighborhood was completely submerged. People cut doorways into their roofs and laid down new floorboards three feet or so away from the rooftop. Entire families lived in the rafters, cooking, cleaning, and sleeping there for months as they waited for the waters to recede. The man in the baseball cap is tall and lanky. He crawled into a small roof space where the other man had been cooking soup over a small stove. He offered him some bags of rice, and then asked if there was anything he could pray for. The man said yes, and asked for prayer for his health, as the flooding had caused a rise in the mosquito population and more and more people were dying of dengue fever. The two men stayed crouched in the roof space and prayed together.

I found Sophia here not only because of the connection between strangers, but the wisdom to offer prayer after asking first. People’s needs might be different than what you expect, and reaching out to make a connection on their terms is truly wise. Everyone needs something, and while you may not be able to offer it to them, listening to someone’s needs and agreeing to hope with them is one of the most powerful things you can do.

My Big Sister

By: Jenni Taylor

My big sister and I were always up at 7 am Sunday mornings. She would already have her lipstick on and her earrings in while I was stumbling around with a coffee mug looking for my lost flip flops. I’d somehow join her five minutes to 8 and we would grab a taxi to get to the church. It wasn’t far away, it was just nice to take a taxi in the mornings.

The church would be locked with a giant padlock which we would use to bang on the door. Eventually a tired looking guy named Benji would come open up for us. A couple of the guys from church would wake up from where they had crashed out on the platform and start to sweep and set up chairs. Sis and I would head to a classroom in the back and do our own cleaning up. Sweep a little, wipe off the desks, set up a small circle.

She and I were usually alone for the first five or ten minutes. We would talk about my students, or her kids, or whatever else. One by one the other girls would come in. Sometimes it was only three or four, sometimes ten or twelve. we would all smile shyly at each other and pull out bibles and notebooks. We were all friends of a sort, but it was Sis that really connected us together.

We would pray, and then crack open our bibles. Sis had a way of making the time fly by. She would show us verse after verse, and we would all scribble notes and kind of float back in a gentle peace. She does that to people, makes them feel all peaceful. I would be bouncing around a little from having caffeine too early, or start tapping my pencil against my thigh and get that look in my face when we read a verse that threw me off or drove me crazy. But Sis would always calm me down, always listen.

Two hours, sometimes two and a half, would go by easy. We would hold hands and pray at the end, and then go back in the big room where music was playing and other people were praying and singing. Sis and I would always hang in the back for a few minutes, close our eyes and soak it in, and then sneak out to the bright sunshine. This was our routine. Get a taxi, pick up my laundry from the laundry mat, and then go back home and make french toast.

I loved cooking for sis. She was always so happy about it, even if I burned the toast and lost the bacon and talked so much I forgot I was supposed to be cooking while I waved eggs around in my hands to prove a point. Eventually we would be sitting down, and she would be mixing the cinnamon with the sugar, and I would be talking her ear off. I’d talk and talk and then we would finish eating, and I would do the dishes just so I could keep talking again.

My sis is an adopted sis- or rather, she adopted me. She took me in and gave me a home when I was so very far away from the home I came from. The whole week we would be ships in the night, sometimes barely seeing each other at all, but Sundays? Sundays were ours.

When dishes were finally done and I had ran out of breath, she would give me the brightest smile in the world and tell me thanks for breakfast. Any time, I would say. And then we would both wander off to opposite ends of the house for the mandatory Sunday nap that happens when you live in a place of a heat index of 100.

I would leave the kitchen refreshed, rejuvenated, and free. Sundays were my favorite days, always. I had never had a sis before, and now I got one all to myself for a few precious hours once a week. Her peace would crawl into my heart and hug me tight, and last me just long enough to make it to the next Sunday.

We are far away from each other now, but I still think of her pretty much every time I eat french toast and crack open my bible. Journeys were never meant to be made all alone. Yeah, sometimes we get the help only for a little while, but it’s always enough and always in the nick of time.

I’m the luckiest girl in the world to have a sis like the one I have. But you, you reading this, you’re not alone either. Find someone to pray with you and talk with you. Don’t go it alone. Push yourself to learn just enough to share with someone else. Send in contributions here. We’re all ready to listen, ready to be your sister. And if you’re really lucky, I might stop by and make you breakfast.