Two years ago after an unexpected career loss that happened to coincide with the devastating death of one of my friends, I picked up some sketchbooks and a vibrant assortment of colored markers. For 12 months I sat beneath shady trees or by a fire where I scribbled, sketched, and scrawled images, words, and Scriptures that careened into my imagination. I painted my prayers.
Images of seeds and vines, doves, stitched quilts, and red birds decorated white pages. Almost calligraphic (I'm a writer, not an artist) song lyrics and verses I'd memorized as a child poured out on the paper in vivid color and liberating swirls. Within weeks—and before I even realized it—the first blank book was completely filled with soulful images and God's numinous responses.
Since then I've filled dozens of notebooks with painted supplications, intercessions, and thanksgivings. Before I started painting my prayers, though, I remember feeling guilty if I didn't do Bible study or pray conventionally every day. Somehow, I felt like I wasn't doing the Christian life right. For some unknown reason, I felt that connecting with God in other—less left-brained, more imaginative and creative—ways was, somehow, less spiritual. Time and time again, though, my ideal of faith-filled living bumped on the pothole riddled road of reality. I felt less compelled to do another plug and chug Bible study. I was void of the energy to pray and listen to God in the ways I had for my entire life.
Instead, I found freedom, spontaneity, fun, and a mind-blowing openness to the grandiosity of God when I sat with my markers and sketchbook. With this new, unconventional, beyond formulaic way, I discovered new, deeper, more profound connections with the divine. Surprisingly enough I found that during overwhelmed, stressed-out times when the need for spiritual bolstering was quintessential, I could paint my prayers (just scribble out my heart to God) and fortify my faith in a visual, organic, simultaneously childlike and maturing way.
Answered Painted Prayers
Today, I find it validating to page back through my sketchbook noticing God's promising images: doves, open doors, scriptural assurances, flowers, seeds, sprawling vines. And God's words to me: Behold, I am with you always … I will give you the desires of your heart … I am doing a new thing …
In the midst of scribbling down my heart, the process felt random and abstract. Surprisingly, though, when I look back at the pages I see pattern purpose. God's wise design and intent for my days. It fortifies my faith to see that even when I was filled with doubts and fears about my future, God saw me. He was working and moving, preparing ways to fulfill hopes, realize dreams, and to change me. Because of the painted prayers, I see how God opened doors, stitched tattered ragged life-scraps together into decoratively quilted patchwork. He was faithful. I was scratching out simplistic line prayers, scratching out an existence. All the while, he was like Georgia O'Keefe creating a masterpiece from my mess.
Recently my daughter, Emily, discovered one of my painted prayer books and asked what it was. I told her, "This is Mama's picture prayer book, a place where I draw conversations with God." She seemed to intuitively resonate with the idea, nodding and turning the pages. Later that day, I caught Emily at the kitchen table vigorously scrawling a blue and pink design in Crayola. I bent over her shoulder to admire the work.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"I'm talking to God, Mama," she said, and I smiled.
Four Ways You Can Paint Your Prayers
Anyone can paint prayers. Maybe you're in a difficult season of life: in the thick of mothering toddlers, recently grieving the death of a parent, experiencing an unexpected career nosedive like I did. Perhaps conventional prayer and daily Bible reading feel tough, even arduous and draining instead of life espousing to you. Maybe you're considering grabbing some markers and filling up a few blank pages even now. But maybe you're thinking, I don't have a creative or artistic bone in my body. I like numbers and logic and linear thinking.
I hear you. And I bless the way you're wired. Come tax time we'd all be in a world of hurt without concrete sequential women like you in the world! But for the sake of growing and being stretched, suspend judgment for a second or two and consider experimenting with one of the painted prayer exercises below. Over the last few years I've shared these activities at workshops and retreats I regularly conduct for women.
Surprisingly even women who aren't poets, musicians, or artists find imagination to be a profoundly helpful tool in spiritual growth.
As you begin, try not to worry about the final product. You don't have to be Picasso or Monet. Just let the brush or marker flow freely. Draw geometric shapes or the scene outside the nearest window; write words or ideas or verses that pop into your mind. Go with any image that wafts through the recesses of your mind. Let the "art" be a free-flowing prayer that no one ever has to see (hidden between you and God).
ACTIVITY 1: Take a few moments to draw a picture of your spiritual journey. Perhaps you may want to use a poster board for this. Consider the following questions: What color is my faith journey? Has the path been straight, upward moving, or circuitous? Where am I on the path? Where is God, my family, my friends? What does the environment of my faith path look like?
ACTIVITY 2: Consider negative components of your life (rejection, disregard, disconnection, death to dreams). Draw an image of the way God could turn the negativity into something good (rejection to acceptance, disconnect to connection, loss to growth). As you create, consider: What does it look like for God to work all things for good in my life? What shape, what colors, what space is needed for God's transformative redeeming work?
ACTIVITY 3: Divide a piece of paper in half by folding it down the middle. On one side, draw a picture of how you see yourself on your worst bad-hair, bloated, bags-under-eyes day. Beside that, create an image of how God sees you. Perhaps label parts of your anatomy (your heart, eyes, hands) the way the Lord would lovingly describe them. Consider adding clothing, accessories (a hat, crown, robe, comfy jeans, jewelry). Free yourself to use unconventional colors, textures, and images.
ACTIVITY 4: Paint a prayer of intercession for your friend. Choose a verse that would mean something special to one of your friends. Write that verse on the bottom of a piece of paper. Then illustrate the verse. If you're compelled, roll up the painting, tie it with a bow, and offer it to your friend as a gift. (This exercise works particularly well with water colors.)
Whenever I paint my prayers or do so with a group of women at a retreat or conference, I find it useful to put the prayers away for at least a week. After some time has lapsed, take the piece of art out and study it. Perhaps consider sharing it with a friend over coffee or a meal. Always listen and look for what God has said to you through the prayer. You may be surprised at his answers.
A Gentle Word of Caution
Our imaginations are powerful gifts from God. For centuries Christian thinkers like C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge have written about the role imagination plays in a faith-filled life. In our postmodern world, pastors, theologians, and other teachers are opening to this God given gift. As women, we can be leaders in this arena: seeing God in fact and fiction, poetry and prose, ideas and images, logic and intuition.
We must be careful, though. Given the intensity and power of the imaginative experience, we can become tempted to seek the rush of the experience instead of using it as a tool to connect us with Christ. As we explore, remember that the value is in connecting with the Creator, not in the creative experience alone. The joy is in knowing God, not in glorifying sensual experiences. The meaning is in meeting our Maker, not making "Make Believe" a means and an end. With that in mind, enjoy some Make Believe today, knowing that it will "make you believe" in deeper, richer, more meaningful, life-changing ways.
Sally Miller is a sought after speaker and retreat facilitator. Her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Today's Christian Woman. Sally's retreats and radio appearances are based on her bevy of books including: Walk with Me. Visit Sally at www.thewordgirls.com.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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