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Resting on God’s arm
Journaling provides a private place to pour out our anguish and think the unthinkable


2/1/2006

Carol Barnwell
   (Carol Barnwell)
I felt the pressure building as I griped at my son for breaking his lunch box.  A few days before, my husband, Greg, had been laid off for the third time, and every time something broke or wore out, I felt my tightly bound panic cut loose. I needed to quiet myself before I heaped more shaming, unfeeling words on my family.

I finished preparing lunch and pulled out an untidy spiral notebook and spread my grief before God:

“God, I'm angry that Greg was laid off -- he was the second top salesman!  I'm angry that I don't make more money.  I'm angry that we live simply and spend money wisely, but we can't afford to buy frozen pizza.  I know I need to trust you more, but I don't like the way circumstances are forcing me into it.”

Within the rhythm of my relationship with God, there are times when prayer and meditation seem too ethereal but the concrete act of gripping a pen seems just right.  It's as if whatever is churning in me flows through my arm, cascades through my fingers into the pen and splashes onto the page.  There it is for God to see, for me to see.

In that quiet space, I develop a conversation with God in which I offer my self-absorbed ideas and then allow them to become swallowed up in the goals God is cultivating in me.  I confess the faults and mistakes that I find so difficult to admit elsewhere.  I record flashes of insight and treasured moments of encountering God.

More than a chronicle

The spiritual discipline of journaling moves beyond and behind mere descriptions of life events, providing a place to ponder the pattern our lives are weaving.  If a journal answers just one question, it is:  What is God doing in my life? 

Some of the Psalms David wrote seem to have functioned as David's journal.  When the Philistines seized David, he described these events in a typical journaling pattern.  He began by stating what happened:  "men hotly pursue me" (Ps. 56:1, NIV).  He then recorded his feelings of fear: "When I am afraid," (v. 3).  He expressed his desires to God:  "On no account let them escape" (v. 7).  Concluding with what may have BEEN David's way of being accountable to God, he revealed what he planned to do: "I will present thank offerings to you" (v. 12). 

David's hard honesty reveals that journaling is a place to pour out our anguish, think the unthinkable and presume to know what's best.  In the safe haven of being able to make such outlandish statements, we stumble across our true motives, feelings and desires.
        
This biblical pattern of reflection gives us permission to ask God questions, to try out new choices, to be less than perfect.  A journal becomes the arm of God embracing us and allowing us to look safely at feelings that overwhelm us and situations that don't make sense.

I didn't journal for many years, but when crises erupted that I could not manage, I dug out an old notebook and began. I established only one rule -- it was private.  With no audience to impress, we can be completely honest.

Some people journal every day, I journal as needed, which is weekly, bi-weekly or monthly.  Another person's approach may not provide the rest and reflection you need.  Keep alert for moments when you can't not journal.  When you feel the urge to confess, to grieve, to rejoice, to surrender, act on it.  Pouring this response before God helps you find your center in God.

Reflecting on your reflections

Rereading our journals amplifies God's voice as we note how God has been working in our lives.  The earliest pages of my journal are filled with thoughts of being unloved and undervalued.  I begged for reassurance.

Gradually those statements decreased, and I began to affirm that I am loved and valued by God. I am finally absorbing a truth that has eluded me for so many years. 

My journal itself has become one of the many proofs that I cannot chase God away.  This prodigal child can question God, rail at her enemies or languish in self-pity, and still she's welcome back. As soon as my pen touches the page, loving communication is flowing in both directions.  Perhaps this is what is meant by entering God's rest (Heb. 4:11).    

To respond to this column, write to Episcopal Life or e-mail inpractice@episcopal-life.org. We invite your own “In practice” column.