For a few years now I have been pondering the words of Julian of Norwich, the medieval woman who at age 30 received a series of “showings” or revelations of the love of God. She dedicated the rest of her life to praying through these visions, asking God questions about them, deciphering their meaning. In fact after she wrote them down, she began writing them again as she understood more.
Julian moved into a small anchorhold–a monastic cell built against a wall of St. Julian’s Church in the city of Norwich, England. Another woman lived in an adjoining cell and took care of her practical needs so that Julian could live as an anchorite, mostly in solitude for prayer and writing but in the afternoons receiving visitors who came to her porch window to seek her counsel.
I feel a great kinship with Julian, not because I possess comparable wisdom and dazzling intellect but because I too have had deep experiences of God’s love. Julian’s insights speak to my heart. They are carrying me through these years of terrifying climate change and pandemic and war and the violence of white supremacy. Julian is an older sister who holds my hand, grieves with me, and helps persuade my anxious body to rest in love.
The title I chose for this post is from an extended meditation on a brief vision Julian received. A lord (remember, she lived in medieval England) is sitting on a throne with a servant nearby. The lord asks the servant to take care of a certain task, and the young man leaps up to obey–but immediately stumbles and falls. Instead of berating him for his awkwardness, the lord descends from the throne and kindly takes his hand to help him up.
Julian is fascinated by this parable/vision and spends several pages interpreting it. The lord, of course, is God, and the servant is the paradigmatic human being, Adam. The first sin committed by the first humans in the book of Genesis has long been called “the fall.” But Julian is moved and astonished to see how gently God responds to Adam’s offense. This was not the God portrayed in most church sermons in her day.
Julian shares other insights as she digs into this parable–too much to explain here. What I’ve been carrying around in the notes app on my phone is one phrase: within the lord she sees “a great refuge, long and wide and full of endless heavens.”
Every time I read it, I must stop and take a deep, glad breath.
God is some kind of a river, some kind of a sky, some kind of a forest in which every vulnerable created thing is welcomed and protected.
Praying with children is one of the most important things we can do to foster their life with God.
My kids and I prayed before meals throughout their growing-up years, and spontaneously anytime they were hurt, frightened, or sick. But the most important time for prayer was bedtime. After I read a picture book or a middle-grade book chapter to them, and a Bible story, we took turns praying. Then I sang something peaceful as they drifted off to sleep. This practice calmed and nurtured all of us and bore sometimes surprising fruit.
Our routine was modeled on my own experiences growing up in a large family with missionary/teacher parents.
Prayer in the Land of Gorings
Not all those early experiences of prayer were nourishing. Our dad would periodically decide to lead family devotions following breakfast. It always fell flat—I can’t remember a single time that morning devotions didn’t feel awkward and pedantic, with Dad posing schoolroom-type questions that failed to engage our lives or our struggles. The practice always petered out after a few dutiful stabs at this perceived obligation.
Bedtime prayers were a whole other story. For years—beginning in our eldest sister’s infancy—little Gorings gathered in PJs each night for the enchantment of a poem or two read aloud, followed by a story or book chapter, a Bible story, humorous songs and a hymn or two, and finally prayers. It was our warmest time together; it grew our imaginations and helped to form an indelible family culture that keeps my siblings and me deeply bonded to this day. We have all remained in the faith.
Bedtime is best
What makes bedtime a particularly rich time to pray with our little ones? I think there are a couple of reasons.
First, as they become sleepy children’s normal defenses go down. Especially if the parent is unhurried and attentive at bedtime, children may get in touch with tender or sad feelings and blurt out things they’d not say in daylight.
It is a gift just to find words for our feelings and experiences. Then they can be brought to God in prayers of thanksgiving and petition.
Two favorite photos of my kids in childhood
Second, bedtime is a natural time to think back on the day and look forward to what is coming. Cindy Bunch’s Be Kind to Yourself (IVP, 2020) wasn’t around when I was a young mom, but if it had been, I’m pretty sure I would have used its simple examen questions—what’s bugging you? what’s bringing you joy?—to help my kids articulate hardships of the past day and places where they had sensed God’s presence.
Prayer with children can take other forms too. My picture book Isaiah and the Worry Pack (IVP Kids, 2021) models an imaginative way of meeting God through guided imagery. It’s based on an experience my son Graham and I had together one night when he struggled with some big worries. Jared Patrick Boyd suggests ways to pray Scripture imaginatively with children in Imaginative Prayer (IVP, 2017).
Memorized prayers can be helpful too. When I was a child, we often recited “Now I Lay Me.” Its mention of death would make it off-putting to many parents nowadays. But falling asleep is entering another country, mysterious and affording children even less control than they have over their waking hours. Maybe it’s not so bad to provide our kids a prayer that contains their fears within a little rhyme that expects God to hold them in both waking and sleeping, living and dying.
Some lovely prayers to read and perhaps memorize with kids—in daytime as well as at bedtime—can be found in Traci Smith’s Prayers for Faithful Families (Beaming Books, 2020). And a great resource is coming soon from IVP Kids: Little Prayers for Ordinary Days by Tish Harrison Warren, Flo Paris Oakes, and Katy Hutson (2022).
Singing as prayer
Singing can be a prayer practice too, of course. I adopted my daughter Claire at age one after she had suffered serious neglect and starvation in an institution during her first six months of life. As she grew, she became especially fond of the hymn “Children of the Heavenly Father.” For years she requested it practically every night, along with prayers that she wouldn’t have bad dreams.
Years later Claire was at the National Registrar’s office in her birth country, Colombia. She’d entered to apply for her identity card so that her dual citizenship could be recognized. An encounter with the director of the new digital population database led to an amazing bonus: printouts of the birth, ID, and death records of her birth mother!
Holding these documents, Claire wandered out onto Plaza Bolívar toward the national cathedral while waiting for a friend to complete an errand of her own.
Then from inside the huge church she heard music—the organist at this Colombian Roman Catholic cathedral dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus began playing a Swedish Lutheran hymn, “Children of the Heavenly Father.”
Claire told me later that her heart began pounding in surprised awe. But she was also flooded with peace. Even though she’d just learned that she’d never meet her birth mother in this life, she might be able to track down other members of her biological family, now that she had her mom’s documents. And the hymn reminded her that the gentle, attentive Father she had met in bedtime prayers would be with her. All along God had been bearing her, as the hymn says, “in his mighty arms.”
Note: I have many stories of funny and extraordinary conversations about God that arose out of prayers with my kids. Too many to tell in one post! So I welcome you to subscribe (above right, next to the title of this post) if you’d like to read them in the coming weeks.
As Isaiah & the Worry Pack‘s launch day draws near–just 11 days from now!–I’ve been happily busy with writing and interviews about this book, worry/anxiety experienced by children, prayer, and my kids’ books more generally.
I’ve thought again and again of an experience during Lent 1991 in a little church in West Chicago. I had been introduced to guided-imagery meditation before then, through books and a therapist, but on this Wednesday night it changed my life.
My first (sad and abusive) marriage had ended, and I still wondered whether divorce was one of the worst sins, essentially a departure from the faith in which I had grown up. I had moved my kids across the country, and now I was in a church service with a bunch of strangers. The woman at the front invited us to close our eyes and participate in a prayer exercise called Garden of the Heart.
Picture your heart as a garden.
Mine isn’t even full of weeds. It is a patch of dry, hard, absolutely barren dirt.
Where are you in the garden?
Right in the middle, lying prostrate with my face in the dirt.
Now Jesus comes into the garden. What does he do?
I suppose he picks up a hoe and starts poking at the dirt to break it up for planting.
No! I see Jesus. He is right beside me on the ground, face down in the dirt.
I cried and cried that night—healing tears. God had come into my devastation, my life’s failure, and instead of hurrying to fix things was mourning with me.
My inner desert had become a place of intimate encounter—a garden for the sprouting of something beautiful, unforeseen, and utterly wild.
Some of my nieces & many of my younger friends are now working from home with young children also out of school because of the COVID19 pandemic. Fun & nurturing activities for the young’uns are much needed in these dire times, so I’ve collected a few nurturing & informative videos that parents & grandparents can use when their own voices have gotten hoarse from so much reading aloud. Enjoy, order these books from local independent bookstores if they offer delivery–& stay safe.
If you have more to recommend or share, feel free to post in comments!
I was interviewed recently by Eve Odum, student at the University of St. Francis, & her professor the poet Beth McDermott for a podcast they’ve been putting together. Book Publishing from Beginning to End focuses on the varying paths to publication for kidlit writers. I had a lovely time talking to these two smart, thoughtful women! It’s a great project. The podcast episode has been up for a couple of weeks, but only today did I have a chance to listen. We focused mainly on my picture book Adriana’s Angels, but along the way we also talked about writing & publishing poetry, the sting of rejection, the perils of social media for writers, how to cope with publication envy, the value of being rooted in a supportive community, & more. So make a big mug of tea or coffee, as the discussion runs for about 50 minutes. Then sit down & have a listen!
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In the meantime, some short but very warm reviews have been coming in for Picturing God. I’ve linked to them on the Press page of this website (see tab above right). I’ve added Eve’s interview there too, so it’ll remain easy to find.
Today I want to share someone else’s writing. My editor for both Adriana’s Angels & Picturing God has blogged about our process with the Picturing God art, which departed from the usual because this art is so concrete & textured. And what she says about how reading/contemplating the book affects her, & how her two-&-a-half-year-old toddler has responded to it, makes me cry: this is how I myself often felt as I was cutting, nipping, stitching, arranging, gluing. As if it was all drawing me into the beautiful mysteries of God. Here, read her lovely words.
Last month in Mampuján, a village in the municipality (county) of María la Baja, Bolívar, Colombia, I met Afro-Colombian women who had suffered terrifying threats & violent displacement by paramilitaries in 2000. In exile they went through a process of art therapy, creating appliqué hangings to tell their story—the displacement, the Middle Passage endured by their ancestors, their vision for peace & healing. The women also went to the river, sang, washed & massaged each other, & wept together.
A Middle Passage quilt they displayed for us.
They call themselves Mujeres Tejiendo Colores y Sabores de Paz (Women Weaving Colors & Flavors of Peace). They now live in Nuevo Mampuján or in their original community; sometimes they travel to other traumatized communities to teach women what they have learned about healing from trauma. In 2015 they were awarded Colombia’s National Peace Prize for the restorative justice they extended to the paramilitary fighters who had done them such grave harm.
We—photographer Michael Bracey, videographers Bobby and David Obermite, and I—spent some beautiful hours with these women, admiring their hangings, learning about their history, traveling to the regional lakes & canals, eating sancocho made over an open fire.
Then on our last afternoon we walked awhile with them in the humid heat & I began to feel faint—something that happens to me occasionally when I’m exercising in hot weather, a drop in blood pressure that leaves me dizzy. My dear friend Juana Ruiz & her companions sat me down while Kevin Coleman, who was interpreting for his friends the Obermites, hurried off to get me a salty snack. The women began fanning me, & Pastor Alexandra prayed powerfully while massaging my neck & shoulders with fragrant oil.
Photos by Michael Bracey.
I began to weep, long deep sobs. I didn’t know where they were coming from—apart from the heat I wasn’t in conscious distress. Maybe it was empathic identification with the suffering my friends had endured. Maybe it was gratitude for their lovingkindness. Maybe it was prophetic weeping for & with Colombia.
Then Pabla, a younger woman, sat down & removed the shoes from my swollen, mosquito-bitten feet. Without flinching she spread some of the fragrant oil on my feet & began massaging it in.
Photo by Michael Bracey.
The weeping, massage & prayers ran their course, the salty snack arrived, my friend Benjamín brought our rented van close by & took me to our little air-conditioned hotel, where I rested & regained my composure. That evening we enjoyed a delicious farewell dinner & then sat out in the María la Baja plaza to enjoy the night air.
With Juana & Benjamín.
This is why I keep returning to Colombia. I’m no kind of savior for its pain. I’m just a grubby human who loves sharing stories & learning from people who have survived immense challenges, & who can comfort me with the comfort they have received in their own distress (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Mamá Carmen is Juana’s mother. Photo by Michael Bracey.
Last night I stayed up late gazing at my Colombia itinerary & gloating. I’ll be traveling in Colombia most of the month of July.
I mostly live such a quiet life, editing & reading & making art in solitude. But I grew up sleeping under mosquito nets & using an outhouse & shoveling our mostly organic trash into pits my dad dug in the backyard, & feeding the chickens & trying to identify rocks from the river beach & helping to push our rattly old jeep out of muddy ditches. And playing under downspouts & in the rain barrel during wild tropical thunderstorms! And listening to the bats fly around under our roof at night, & sweeping up their pellets every morning (don’t worry, bat droppings are small & dry). And . . . doing my school assignments & reading & writing & making art. (Re the art: I sometimes paged through a couple of books of crafts for children, brought or sent from the United States; there were fascinating things to make, but many of them called for exotic objects like egg cartons, which weren’t a part of our life in remote southern Colombia. So often I just went back to pencil drawing. Sometimes it was making clothes for paper dolls.)
Consequently, my adult adventuring is a little eccentric. I actually feel at home in places with only outhouses, with no electricity, with mice & cockroaches running around. I hate the latter if they ever venture into my Chicago condo, but in a little house in the rainforest they are just normal! I’m not any kind of athlete, so the physical challenges I deal with are on the level of surviving uncomfortable bus or canoe rides. (Fortunately my body bounces right back from those.) But I love being in remote places & admiring the skill & ingenuity with which people harvest or hunt their food & then prepare it, or navigate rivers, or build a dwelling in just a few hours. And of course the little towns where I lived as a child are much larger now, & there are wise inhabitants who are helping their neighbors heal from violence, or plan to improve the hospital, or who have established distance learning programs so that people can earn college degrees.
Grinning absurdly because I felt so happy to be on a Colombian river again! Pacurita River, Chocó, Colombia, February 2014. Photo by Michael Bracey, who more recently did the photography for Picturing God.
During this trip I’ll be on a river in Caquetá Department, where I’ve never been before. I’ll be visiting dear friends from childhood there & in Huila, Putumayo, & Nariño Departments. A couple of us will be taking a long bus trip on an impossibly narrow mountain road with switchbacks & sheer dropoffs. My family took that trip many times in my childhood, but it’s very dangerous–we hope to help call attention to its poor condition as part of pressure to gain funding for a new, safer route.
After this I go north along the Andes. I will be reading my picture book Los ángeles de Adriana to preschoolers in a low-income Medellín neighborhood & giving copies away, & I’ll be interviewed at a community radio station there. This is all part of the work of a wonderful grassroots organization promoting literacy & culture. I’ll also visit friends from my teenage years in this city.
Then it’s off to Mampuján, Bolívar, where my photographer friend Mike Bracey & a couple of videographers will join me. We’ll get to witness firsthand the witness art of a group of Afro-Colombian women who won Colombia’s Peace Prize in 2015. Then, as if that weren’t enough, we’ll trek to La Guajira Department to visit a Wayúu indigenous community that suffered a terrible massacre & displacement some years ago but has been able to return to their land, now a national park, & serve as its guardians. Maybe we’ll get to see the flamingos too!
There are no words for how privileged I feel to embark on these adventures! And afterward I’ll come home & resume my life of editing & reading & writing & doing laundry, making soup & making art. But the memories will be little fires that I can return to again & again, & some of these experiences will branch into new adventures in the years to come.
Tiles, fabric, handmade paper, metal pieces . . . to inspire children to contemplate God’s tenderness and power.
My new book will be released September 24, 2019, by Beaming Books. Picturing God is a milestone for me: the first book for which I’ve made the art as well as the text!
Of course there’s no way to create a faithful and complete visual representation of God. We have the stern “no graven image” commandment to protect us from that illusion. But the Bible is full of symbols and metaphors to help us picture and experience God in the depths of ourselves, via our imagination connected to our senses.
In my late twenties, a time of great pain and struggle, I began learning to access these biblical symbols in contemplative prayer and open myself to the healing they can bring—and I’m still learning. God as my Rock. God as an eagle sheltering her chicks under her wings. Jesus as my Shepherd. The Spirit as God’s cleansing breath, filling my lungs. Scriptures and prayers based on these symbols have drawn me into intimacy with God, into awe and wonder at the Love that holds me.
We human beings live by symbols. Strong, beautiful symbols stir us and change us.
Picturing God uses mosaic and collage—tiles, fabric, handmade paper, glass, metal pieces, twine, embroidery floss, paint, and other media—to inspire children and parents to contemplate God’s tenderness and power. Living Water, Bread of Life, Light of the World, Good Shepherd, Father and Mother: these and other biblically rooted metaphors are explored through art and poetic text. The book’s final page is a list of scriptures for each metaphor, so that families can look up and perhaps even memorize some of the related verses.
Making this book has been the most joyful work of my life! Every time I gathered materials and started laying them out on a canvas or square of plywood, I was drawn into a meditative awareness of God’s presence. I hope paging through the book will serve readers in a similar way. This winter I’m making final tweaks to the interior art—and eagerly looking forward to sharing the book far and wide in September!
Today a younger friend texted to tell me that he loves Los ángeles de Adriana. The other day he was reading it aloud to his family (all adults) & had to stop because he was beginning to cry.
He had come to the part where the sharp stones in Adriana’s heart fall out as she sleeps.
Someone who is beloved to my friend has some of those sharp stones inside, & he longs for them to fall out & lose their power, displaced by Love.
If mean words or other cutting thoughts & memories are rattling around in your own heart, may you know yourself loved fully, attentively, creatively. May the stones lose their sharp edges & their purchase. May you look up to discover that God’s world is beautiful & you belong in it.