Sacred time at the back of the sanctuary

by Kimberly Knowle-Zeller

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. —1 Thessalonians 5:16‑18

Excerpted from The Beauty of Motherhood: Grace-Filled Devotions for the Early Years © 2023 Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY 10016. Reprinted with permission.

IN THE EARLY YEARS OF MOTHERHOOD, I found myself sitting in the back of the sanctuary during Sunday worship. Whether one child was throwing a fit or one needed to nurse, sitting in the back allowed us to be present for worship, but also far enough from others to not cause a scene (and to be close enough to the bathrooms).

With my babies, I’d nurse while we cuddled. The sounds of the service—music, greetings, and prayers—comforted my children so that many times with a full belly, they’d fall asleep in my arms.

Rocking back and forth in the rocking chair, with a baby nestled against me, I watched the congregation: up and down in the pews, listening to the stories of God’s people, mothers coloring with children, fathers doling out snacks, teenagers fidgeting. All of it holy.

All of it worship.

For fear of waking up the baby, many Sundays I’d remain rocking in the back instead of joining the liturgy. I wasn’t able to get up and down and join the congregation. I didn’t sing or speak too loudly. Yet, I learned in those early years of motherhood that this time in worship could all be prayer. My time in the rocking chair was indeed sacred.

I’d rock and pray: Thank you, God, for this baby. Keep him safe. Give us all rest. May we all know love. Thank you for this community and the voices joined as one in song. Thank you for the outstretched hands and the warm smiles. May we all grow together in God’s love and grace.

Sometimes I’d rock the baby sleeping in my arms, and I’d hear the prayers spoken by the assisting minister. Certain words would grab my attention, conjuring a whole host of new prayers. My attention turned to the world, and hope for healing, love, new life, and peace.

Looking at the congregation members in front of me, words bubbled to the surface. Watching two children sleep on their parents’ shoulders, I prayed: May we all know such rest and comfort. Smiling at a high school couple surrounding one another with their loving arms, I prayed: May we all have gentle hands to reach out to us.

Witnessing a family bouncing twin boy toddlers on their knees, I prayed: May we all be so deeply loved.

Listening to the wind against the windows and watching the sun stream through the stained glass, I prayed: Thank you for this creation and the abundance of beauty and new life. Help us steward this earth and preserve its bounty.

Seeing the widow alone in the pew, I prayed: Pour your presence on those who need a friend.

Wondering about those who weren’t among us, I prayed: For those who would never enter a church, may we meet them where they are.

The more I saw the people in front of me, the more prayers I had to offer.

I rocked back and forth. My son slept. I prayed. Sometimes with words. Sometimes with sighs of gratitude. I may not remember the Bible stories or the message from the pastor, but these prayers, I remember.

This sleeping, this fidgeting, this tuning in and out of worship, this longing, this loving, this holding, this noticing, it’s all worship.

It’s all prayer.

One breath and one rock at a time.

However you’re praying—with words, sighs, or tears—God hears you. God hears the whispers of your heart and the screams from your gut. Wherever you are and however you feel, look around and see God’s people inviting you to pray. For your life is a prayer.

These are our prayers. These are the prayers of the people. Amen.


Reflect on your prayer life. Who taught you how to pray? Was prayer modeled for you growing up? How do you integrate prayer into your days with your children? If you would like to dig deeper into your prayer life as a family, consider choosing a daily prayer time during which you’ll name people you’d like God to hold close.


Teach me to pray, Lord, with songs and sighs with singing and dancing with laughter and tears with hope and heartache and in all that I offer may my life be a prayer. Amen.

The Rev. Kimberly Knowle-Zeller is an ELCA pastor, mother of two, spouse of an ELCA pastor and co-author of The Beauty of Motherhood: Grace-filled Devotions for the Early Years (Morehouse Publishing, 2023). She lives with her family in Missouri.



This article is from the May/June 2023 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.


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