A Simple Refrain

What I learned by incorporating thoughtful repetition into my prayer life

I don’t know God as well as I think I do.

This devastating revelation came after several heartbreaking disappointments in my life, which made me doubt everything—especially how to interact with God. Questions poured out of the darker, hidden part of my brain like ants fleeing a damaged anthill.

Do I even know how to pray? Why do I keep asking Him for the same things? Is there even a point?

To address my doubt, I decided to look into what the first Christians did after Jesus ascended. I figured His disappearance into heaven must have been a big enough event to make at least some of them feel as lost as I did. Were they disappointed? Did they feel abandoned? These people could, only a month prior, hear and hug Jesus. But now they had to communicate with Him somehow through the Holy Spirit. How odd that must have felt. Yet the early Christians not only persisted but flourished. I discovered that praying at fixed hours throughout the day was among their spiritual disciplines.


Though I was afraid it would become another item on a to-do list, I determined to incorporate praying Matthew 6:9-13 into my daily habits. I did so three times a day, hoping it would help me overcome the emptiness that had become all too common. I decided I’d try it for three weeks.


Day 1

When I remembered to pray today, I was already walking my dog for the night. It was too late to space the prayers out. Isn’t the point of praying three times supposed to be about an all-day awareness of God? I pray only once—before bed—and I hope it counts.


Day 7

I find myself saying the prayer to myself as I get the mail or when I am picking up clothes from my bedroom floor—when it’s quiet.

What if silence asks me to stay exactly where I am, as I am, in the reality of my life—alone with the stinging disappointment and the monotony of every day?

I’m realizing there isn’t much silence in my life. When I’m not listening to music, I’m listening to a podcast or watching a video on my phone. These can deepen my understanding of life and relationships or offer relief to the daily anxiety that consumes my mind. So maybe filling up silence isn’t such a bad thing—but I wonder.

What if, like holding eye contact with someone for too long, silence requires confrontation? What if it asks me to stay exactly where I am, as I am, in the reality of my life—alone with the stinging disappointment and the monotony of every day, the deeper questions pushing their way up toward light?

Perhaps that’s why silence draws me to prayer, to God. It creates room to reflect. The deeper I think, the more questions I ask, the closer I get to the answer—and it’s always Jesus. Even in the midst of pain, of hard questions, it comes back to Him. Silence invites me there sooner.


Day 15

The Lord’s Prayer uses the plural. It trips me up. Our Father in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. I consider changing it to singular, but I can’t bring myself to change Jesus’ prayer.

The plural makes me think I’ve ignored the importance of groups in Christianity. Our society is obsessed with individuality, and so am I—fitting people into groups makes me uncomfortable. Those who know me have heard my disclaimers about my own group: I change “Brazilians eat a lot of corn” to “Well, the Brazilians from my town, and my family—actually, just the ones I’ve met—seem to me like they eat more corn than non-Brazilians.” But how do I know when my tendency has gone too far?

The deeper I think, the more questions I ask, the closer I get to the answer—and it’s always Jesus.

When I was a teenager, my father’s soccer team played against a majority Vietnamese team every Sunday. So after a game, when one of the players invited my family to eat at his home, we said yes.

We arrived at the apartment, and the couple led us to the living room. The couches and coffee table were against the wall, and there was a bed sheet spread out on the floor. They brought large plate after large plate—of chicken and beef and vegetables and herbs—and placed them on the sheet. There were clear, small rice wraps and bowls with water. Our hosts taught us how to dip our fingers in the bowls, and dab the sides of the wraps so that when we stuffed and folded them, they’d stay sealed.

We sat cross-legged around the sheet and began the dance of reaching and passing plates. We ate for hours—soccer rivalry, language barriers, cultural differences put aside.

That night, we wouldn’t have eaten, had we not passed the plates. The community in that room wasn’t just enjoyable—it was needed.

Even when we’re eating alone, we can still remember we are part of a greater group—along with the people who picked and packaged the vegetables, the person who cooked them. Maybe that’s why Jesus instructed His disciples to pray in the plural, rather than the singular. He said it as if He wanted us to remember that even when we’re alone, we’re not—we remain members of a larger body.


Day 22

Yesterday was the last day of my prayer experiment. Tonight, when I was walking out of the store, I saw a group of four women and three children sitting on the ground. They were brown-skinned like me, and one woman said “Please,” hand outstretched. Startled, I looked at her and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” and kept walking.

That night, we wouldn’t have eaten, had we not passed the plates. The community in that room wasn’t just enjoyable—it was needed.

I almost turned around. I almost put my groceries in my car and went back. But I didn’t.

What could I have done? Fear made my heart pound heavy. I was one woman. It was dark. Should I have invited them into the store and bought them necessities? Should I have given them the milk from my bag? The cash in my wallet? Maybe yes. Maybe I should’ve done all of it. I am tired of those of us who offer prayer but not bread. But tonight that’s all I did.

I prayed out loud. Our Father in heaven, have mercy on them. I stood outside my car, hand on the handle. Forgive me. I felt the shame, the regret of it. Forgive me. May Your name be kept holy. May Your kingdom come soon. May Your will be done in their lives, as it is in heaven. Give them today their daily bread, all the food they need. I had to believe that my failure wasn’t enough to deter God from helping families like them. Have mercy on them. Have mercy on me. I had to believe that God doesn’t choose between us. That He doesn’t give me cereal and soy milk but ignores them. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us. I had to know that it doesn’t all depend on my efforts, my prayers. And I had to remember that just as they lacked God’s mercy and needed it, so did I. The plural in the prayer included them, too. Don’t let us yield to temptation, but save all of us from the evil one. Amen.


I used to think prayer needed to be felt first, then practiced. It sounds silly in hindsight, but I thought God would hear me better if I spoke with more emotion. I’ve learned that He is always attuned to me, even when I am careless with my time and attention. Prayer is there to make me remember God, not make God remember me. So when I slow down to pray each morning, afternoon, and night, I draw closer to my Father in heaven. And, though I may still not yet know Him as well as I once thought I did, I can reserve time to connect with Him even in my confusion, failure, and apathy—to turn my face toward Him and begin again.


Photograph by Darren Braun

Related Topics:  Prayer

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