24 lbs. of Journal Writing
I had the honor of speaking yesterday to a beautiful group of young ladies. They are rising 3rd through 8th graders participating in a weeklong event at my church called “Created For A Purpose.” Each day the participants work on a creative endeavor such as painting, sculpting, cooking, and sewing, taught by women from the church skilled in those areas.
Their theme for the week is Philippians 4:8, Finally, sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
“LOVELY” and “COMMENDABLE” - those two words were my assigned portion to teach; but more specifically, the director asked me to talk about journal writing. Each girl was receiving a handcrafted journal at the beginning of the week and her hope was that I - ‘professional journal keeper’- as she introduced me to them - could help them learn how to use journal writing as a spiritual practice.
How does one talk about spiritual practices to this age group? Certainly not by talking about spiritual disciplines, desert fathers and mothers, and church history… So I began at the end - by looking at the verse that follows their theme verse.
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:9)
“What do you see that the writer is telling us to do?” I asked them.
“Practice!” they called out.
“Practice what? “ I asked.
“Practice thinking about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable and excellent,” they answered.
“Have you ever practiced thinking about something?”
At first they looked at me quizzically, but soon they realized they had memorized spelling words at school and Bible verses at church; they’d practiced piano compositions and dance routines, sometimes their brains working so fast they don’t realize they are thinking at all. Coaches call it ‘muscle memory’. The thinking is automatic and subconscious. I didn’t tell them we were doing something called metacognition at this point…but we continued to think about our thinking.
We concluded that we don’t earn points or win when we practice and usually no one is there to applaud us. Practice is just…well, it’s practice. If you are practicing your paper isn’t graded, and there is really nothing to be nervous about. When you practice, by definition, you are doing something that you will repeat over and over in order to improve. There is no pressure in practicing. It’s the opposite of performing. When I think of it this way, the way I explained it to pre-adolescent girls, the idea of a spiritual discipline doesn’t seem daunting.
Even better is the result of all that practice : the presence of peace. Practice these things and the God of peace will be with you, the verse says.
After defining lovely as what is dear to us and commendable as speaking well of something, I asked the girls to look around them for what lovely and commendable things were immediately in view. People around us - our friends and family- are gifts from God. The beautiful room we were in, a family to belong to, the sunshine and green grass outside, the flowers, the things they were creating this week in their classes and the people teaching them those skills.
Then I pulled out a fifteen year old journal and showed them how I practice “thinking on these things.” I have been keeping journals most of my life. I’ve been saving them since 1995. My daughter was born that year. That is 21 years of saved journals.
I thought about bringing them all to show the girls but my basket of journals weighs more than my Schnauzer, Wally. Twenty-four pounds of writing. Twenty-four pounds of “practicing thinking on these things” - scripture verses, prayers, letters from friends taped to the pages, stories, problems, hurts, frustrations, gratitude lists- 21 years and 24 lbs. of practice.
Journal writing does for me two things that spiritual disciplines are designed to do: helping me remember and training me to pay attention.
“You are his child. You have the Spirit of Christ living in you and surrounding you at all times. You are never alone,” I said to the girls, but mostly for myself to hear it. And then I confessed to them, “But sometimes I feel alone; don’t you?”
What has happened? God hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s me. I’ve forgotten. That’s when I need my journal. It’s like a museum of my life- I ‘tour’ through it to see all the ways God has taken care of me and blessed me. I re-read pages and see how God has answered my prayers of the past or met a need or grown me up or helped me forgive… I see what I once worried about that never happened. Remembering is lovely and commendable. And there are many lovely and commendable things to remember in your life and mine.
“Have you ever been talking to someone and you knew she was not paying attention to you?” I asked the girls. “You knew the person you were talking to was looking beyond you or she gave you an answer that didn’t fit the question you asked.” I got knowing looks and nods in return.
We agreed it doesn’t doesn’t feel very good. You don’t feel loved when someone isn’t paying attention to you.
When I wrote out my talk for the girls, I spent hours writing what it took only minutes to speak.
Writing forces slowness and concentration. It trains one in the art of seeing. It works its magic even in the moments you aren’t writing. It teaches you to pay attention - a lovely and commendable thing.
My journal writing practice has becomes a way to love God - by paying attention to his creation, his work, his watch care, and his gifts to me.
I held up One Thousand Gifts, Anne Voskamps’ book, showing them a whole book that was born of a gratitude list, and challenged myself and these lovely young ladies to begin each day making a list in our journal of ten things for which we are grateful, trusting the practice to help us remember and pay attention to God and to others.