My father's rambling graces were famous in the neighborhood. Whenever one of us invited a friend over for dinner we usually warned them, "Dad always starts dinner with a prayer. Just bow your head and wait. It could go on for a while."
Dad came in from his commute on the freeway, kissed Mom, hung up his jacket, poured himself a drink, then we converged to the dinner table from different parts of the house. We scraped our chairs on the linoleum floor, closed our eyes and listened to Dad. "Let us reflect on the day," he began.
His day always seemed to include what he heard on the radio on his drive home. "God, I ask you to be with us in the coming election," he prayed. "May the voters make the right choice." Or "Be with our astronauts in tomorrow's flight." Or maybe it was something about what was going on in sports: "Remember the Dodgers in tonight's playoffs..." He'd add in a few details about the weather "We're sorry about those who have suffered from tornadoes" and then something about family news, "Don't forget Auntie Eleanor and her upcoming surgery."
We used to call it The Six O'Clock News. Dad put everything in his prayers, all the headlines of what happened. Prayer can be a way of processing history, even recent history. I think of all those passages in the Psalms that rehash the Israelites wandering in the desert: "Forty years long was I grieved with this generation and said, 'It is a people that do err in their heart and they have not known my ways...'"
Dad was a modern-day psalmist in a button-down shirt and a bowtie. In my childhood he prayed us through the Watts riots, Haight-Ashbury, the Vietnam War, the stock markets rise and fall, inflation, Cambodia, Watergate, Nixon, Agnew, Ford and Carter. He dumped everything in his prayers, all the stuff he worried about.
This is a great way of dealing with the news. Instead of getting too riled up, nerves jangled, temper frayed, Dad put the news back into God's hands. He asked God to intervene in places God was not necessarily considered. What did God know about the Dow and runaway inflation? What would God think about Nixon and Watergate? The point was, if we were thinking about it, if it bothered us, the good Lord deserved to hear it. The good Lord would care. Every day was a National Day of Prayer.
But then as his graces continued he moved on to matters closer to home. He prayed about us kids. "We look forward to seeing our daughter march in the drill team at tomorrow night's football game ... Bless Rick at his piano recital on Sunday ... We're grateful for the new minibike Howard bought. We pray he uses it safely and ask him to receive your blessing ... We are thankful for Back to School night and our children's teachers. Bless them."
What a valuable lesson in prayer and parenting. Dad prayed for us. He noticed what was going on in our lives. The football game, the homecoming parade, the senior class musical, finals, dance class, the prom. He paid attention. You can never underestimate a child's need for love and attention from his parents. Why not pass it along in prayer?
I'm not sure how he managed it, especially a man of his generation, a buttoned-up World War II veteran. How did he get over the natural embarrassment that comes from praying out loud in front of your loved ones? Somehow for him it came naturally as breathing.
Dad prayed for President Nixon, the astronauts, Sandy Koufax and us. We were on equal footing with the famous people who dominated the news. What he couldn't always articulate in a conversation he could say in a prayer. He bowed his head and his heart opened up.
I'm not nearly as good as praying aloud as he was. I fumble for words. I wonder if I've made myself clear. I edit myself. But in my private prayers, I mimic Dad's heart-on-the-sleeve, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink graces. The world is full of heartache, sorrow, disasters, anxiety, tragedies in-the-making, bad news both big and small. I believe in being informed. I'm just as happy as anyone to log on to one news site after another, but if it starts pulling me down, if it makes me angrier than it has any right to, I do just what he did. I give it back to God.
Then I look for someone to bless. Because I was blessed night after night.