I went back to prison on Monday. Over the past seven years, I’ve spent a lot of time behind bars.
Week by week, I walk through a metal detector, listen to 13 metal gates clang shut behind me, and pray.
Actually, my first task is always to help those gathered for a workshop to write their own prayer, which we then pray together. This week it was the opening session of “I’m Still a Mom: a grace and grief workshop for incarcerated mothers.”
I started by passing out index cards and asking participants to use the lined side of the card to address God.
I explained how my spiritual director once told me that he began each day by asking himself, “Who do I need God to be for me today?” He mentioned some of the names and attributes of God in Scripture: Almighty, Eternal, King, comforter, companion, Father, Mother, Brother, the one who knows my heart, forgiving God, loving God, compassionate God, the Way, Holy Spirit, the Light, the Door, our Savior, the Good Shepherd….
He reminded me that God is infinitely more than we can imagine, more than all the names and attributes we can possibly give God. He said that his own needs and wants each day determined which aspect of God he would use to call on God in prayer.
So I invited participants to come up with a name for God, a name that expressed something about their need for God that day, and then on the other side of the card to write down something they would ask God for or thank God for, or both. I collected the cards and combined them as one communal prayer.
The creation of these prayers nearly always binds a group together in profound ways. (I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit has an active part in the process.) Here’s a prayer from a workshop several years back, whose participants are now home:
Dear God, my Shepherd, dear YHVH, Heavenly Father, Higher Spirit, Peacemaker, Mother and Father, my Muscle:
Give me strength to accept my time here.
Please forgive me for my sins, and continue to teach and guide me.
Bless my beautiful children and their caregiver.
Please give me patience and strength and understanding, and keep me and my husband strong.
Please give me the patience and strength it takes to get through the days here.
Please keep my family and children safe, and please watch over me and help me through my time of need when I’m upset or have anxiety about something.
Please give me strength to get through today and the days to come.
Strength for the remainder of my time in prison.
Help me stay clean and sober.
Stay with my family. Keep them safe and healthy.
Give me serenity and acceptance and courage.
I need you to be my mother today, to be close to me and my family and keep us safe, to give us a sense of your presence with us, and to protect us from all evil, all harm; encourage us to do our best and follow you.
Healer Jesus, be my muscle today. I am very weak.
When I use this prayer practice with confirmands, we always offer their communal prayer during the actual Confirmation service. Even for a single quiet day program when we won’t be gathered again as a group, the prayer that participants create begins and ends the day.
I wonder how it would work in a family, to create a communal prayer once a week, or once a month, or quarterly, or on a birthday….
I also know how helpful my spiritual director’s question has been for my personal prayer. Figuring out “Who do I need God to be for me today?” keeps me honest in recognizing how I am, where my mind and heart are, and what I really, deep down honestly, want to ask of God or thank God for today, tomorrow, and all the days of my life. For the past six months, I’ve needed God to be a strong protector, especially for my granddaughter who was the victim of violence at her former preschool. I also need God to be my strength and shield if her abuser ever ends up in one of my prison workshops.
For today, though, God is the Creator of the colors of autumn, the Spirit that breathes leaves into dancing life, and I am thankful that such beauty challenges the encroaching darkness.
Have you crafted common creative prayers at church or home?