Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Praying in Color - the best thing I ever learned at church

One of my favorite things about my Presbyterian tradition is the vocabulary. Not the endless parade of PC(USA) acronyms or technical terms (shall ordinarily and if the way be clear). No, I love the way that my tradition connects with language and the written/spoken prayer; the way our hymns are full of 10 cent words; and the ways that we prioritize the word rightly preached. For example, as a child my favorite verse of my favorite hymn was:
Crown Him the Lord of years, the Potentate of time,
Creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime.
All hail, Redeemer, hail! For Thou has died for me;
Thy praise and glory shall not fail throughout eternity.

I also am a huge fan of liturgy. I love the ways that theological concepts, biblical images and poetry can be woven together seamlessly, and the fact that reading these kinds of beautiful things out loud in worship is what I get paid to do.

Yet as I have struggled in my adult prayer life, I find that the thing which trips me up most often is finding the correct words to say when I am engaged in personal prayer. I believe that this primarily stems from an earnest belief that God is not waiting for me to come up with the perfect turn of phrase in order to understand what it is I am praying for. God does not need me to march through a laundry list of the ill or grieving so that God might know where to focus attention that day.

Kierkegaard wrote, "Prayer does not change God, it changes the one who prays." I recently have found myself asking the question - if I want to be engaged in an extended time of prayer and words in this private moment seem to not be enough, what can I use more effectively to focus my specific and personal prayers without letting my mind wander, while at the same time allowing myself to actually be changed by the act of prayer? Ironically, I can't name any other time that my prayers have been more clearly answered than when a good friend and colleague passed on to me Sybil McBeth's book Praying in Color.

This post is by no means a complete tutorial on this particular prayer practice, and I would encourage everyone to read the book for themselves to fully understand the process. What I can show you here is  an example of how it works for me.

I am a habitual doodler and have been since college, which is why this practice works so well for me. Basically what you are doing is writing down a key phrase, scripture verse, name or even a question around which you want to focus your prayers. After writing that word, you simply use a variety of colored markers (or pencils) to draw, color and doodle around that word. As you work, you may add new words, shift your prayers to a different concern, or even write down insights as they come to you.

One of the most beautiful parts of this technique is that in the process you have also created a type of prayer icon that you might be able to call to mind later in the day, the week or even years later. The image at the top of this post comes from a prayer that an artist in my congregation gave to me as a gift after attending one of my classes. I love it and keep it permanently displayed on my desk.

First, it is very helpful to have good supplies. Sybil recommends, and I strongly concur, that the best markers to use are permanent. I use washable markers or colored pencils when my son and I do the exercise together, but permanent markers provide such vibrant and non-smudging colors that they are worth the effort. When I teach a class on this or we pray this way at youth group, we will often use large sheets of white tag board, but for personal practice, I would also recommend investing in a quality unlined journal.

Here is an example of a prayer that I prayed recently, using the poem "Children Learn What They Live" by Dorothy Law Nolte. I took the phrases: If children live with Sharing they learn Generosity; if children live with Encouragement they learn Confidence; if children live with Fairness they learn Justice; if children live with Acceptance they learn Love. After writing down each of these words, I spent time doodling and coloring around them as I reflected on how I live out those values with my own son. I then added additional words to represent the qualities I believe I need to foster in myself in order to make this happen.

Here are two other examples of how one could either pray prayers of intercession for individuals or pray a particular piece of scripture. These are just my examples, though. McBeth's book has many more, and I would emphasize that there is not one RIGHT way to do this.

This is a wonderful method to use with children and teenagers to engage in conversations about the things that we share in our prayers with God. It is also a helpful technique for a family in times of discernment or in the midst of a conflict. Here is an example of a prayer of thanksgiving that my son did. You can see how he used both language and pictures to express his prayers.

The second best thing to finding this practice for use myself is the reactions that I have gotten from youth and adults who have practiced it along with me. The most glowing praise came from a life-long Presbyterian woman who told me that this was the best thing she ever learned at church. I think I might agree!


  1. My spiritual director mentioned this to me, and I bought the book and it has changed the way I pray. I am a Lutheran pastor, and feel the same as you do about liturgy and hymns and the language of the church, but also have always struggled in my personal prayer life. Now, for the first time that I can remember, I look forward to my time of personal prayer. I use it to pray for my parishioners, and often will give them the prayer when I'm done, and several have hung it on their fridge or put it by their desk or what have you. I led a workshop on it this year as we did a Lenten series on different ways to pray, and people were really into it. I am hoping to use it with my confirmation class in the coming year. For such a simple idea, praying in color is remarkable effective!

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