I’ll never forget the summer my kids taught me how to pray.
It started with a phone call one afternoon in May. It was my mom calling to tell me that my dad had suffered a stroke on the golf course that morning and was now in the critical care unit.
Once the shock wore off, I started to fret about what I was going to say to my children when they came home from school. How could I help them respond in a way that was meaningful, but did not set them up for heartbreak if their Grandpa did not recover?
My dilemma was really about prayer. All those inconsistencies and unexamined assumptions and vague theological half-truths that had accumulated in my mind for years, like those moving boxes that sit unopened in the basement, suddenly seemed like useless clutter. I felt an intense need to sort through them and discard the things that I had outgrown or no longer needed.
I did not want my children to imagine that God had caused their grandfather to have a stroke, or that his life or death depended on a divine decision, perhaps swayed by the earnestness of their pleas. I do not believe that God is in control of events in that sense. But neither did I want my children to see God as helpless, and prayer as a meaningless gesture—something we do when we have exhausted all other options.
I mulled over the distinction between control and power.
If I did not envision God as being in control, could I still think of God as powerful?
The way a supernova is powerful,
creating new things
and bringing possibility out of destruction and death.
The way water is powerful,
seeping between the cracks,
looking for a way around obstacles,
patiently softening the hardest rock
and nourishing the driest ground.
The way love is powerful,
transforming what it touches,
but never through coercion or force.
I wondered what might it mean to call on this kind of power?
How should we pray for Grandpa?
Not long before, I had been reading a book by Sybil MacBeth called Praying in Color. Praying in Color is a contemplative form of prayer that involves holy doodling—drawing shapes and colours while you bring your awareness to the presence of God and simply hold people in your mind and heart. I had already introduced my children to this way of praying. So when I told them about Grandpa, they immediately suggested we pray for him this way.
So we got out pencil crayons and paper, lit a candle, put on some gentle music, asked God to be very near to Grandpa, and started drawing. It felt right. My tension eased as I saw how my children simply lost themselves in colour and shape and the movement of pencil on paper. Once or twice they asked if I thought Grandpa would get better. I told them no one knew. They seemed remarkably at ease with not knowing.
As it happened, my dad made a remarkably good recovery. A few months later he was able to drive to our cottage on PEI. But on the first night of his visit—another stroke. As Grandpa was whisked away to the hospital, the children got our their pencil crayons and began drawing prayers, as they put it, “so Grandpa would not feel alone.” Once again, their prayers were naturally open-ended. While they clearly hoped for the best, their prayers did not demand specific results.
That summer brought more difficulties. The children’s aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer. And Grandpa, after bouncing back from the second stroke, was diagnosed with a very rare and serious blood disease.
Walking on the beach one afternoon, my daughter found a heart-shaped rock. She held it in her hands for a moment with her eyes tightly shut. Then she gave it to me. “This is for Aunt Colleen,” she said. “I’ve put my love in it so she can take it with her to the hospital.”
In the simplicity of her words, I felt myself relax. There was no need to fret or worry. My children were showing me how to pray in a way that was honest, heartfelt and open—and not dependent on a particular outcome.
Somehow they instinctively knew that the heart of prayer is presence—communion. They did not even worry about power and control. They simply rested in the awareness that they—and those they love—are held in the love of God. This was enough.
Ever since, I have been trying to learn to pray this way. Sometimes I use crayons. Sometimes I sew. Or walk. Or sing. Sometimes I write. This whole experience was the seed of a little book called How Do I Pray for Grandpa?
I look forward to sharing more of the story in May at Rooted in Love: The National Presbyterian Women’s Gathering.
Dr. Laura Alary will be leading a workshop at the Gathering titled, Pray All Ways: Expanding Your Prayer Toolbox.
Feature image: Laura’s daughter holding a “prayer in colour” for a friend who was injured.