I remember the old gentleman as slightly odd: he wore clothes just this side of tattered, and had an edge of that old person smell about him. Still, he was a curiosity, somehow intriguing.
He would sit at a table in the student union, where we students would gather to eat ice cream or nachos, study or just hang out between classes. He always carried a pile of index cards, held together by a thick rubber band. On the cards, he would tell you if you so much as looked at him, were prayer requests. He’d smile, hand you a blank card and say, “Write down a request, and I’ll pray for you.”
Most of the students at my Christian college looked on this old prayer warrior with bemused tolerance, some even befriended him. Many wrote down deep concerns and were encouraged and helped by his prayers. I learned a lot from him, although it took several years after graduation for the lessons to sink in.
This man knew how to pray without ceasing. The cards were always in his hands, and when he wasn’t talking to a student, he was shuffling through t cards, praying.
He also knew the power of “journaling” your prayers. And he got us to journal (without our realizing it) by asking us to write down our requests. That old gentleman knew that you don’t need a journal in order to journal.
Love It or Hate It
Journaling: either you love it or you hate it. Those who love to journal, or at least are willing to make a practice of it, often find that a journal becomes a record of God’s activity in their lives. They also discover, by writing, truth they might not otherwise have learned.
But maybe you don’t like to write. It feels too awkward or burdensome to write out prayers, and you’re terrified of what would happen if another person read what you wrote.
Perhaps you think journaling means having to come up with profound thoughts to write in calligraphy in a beautiful blank book. Maybe you think of it as writing a letter to God, or organizing your prayers for various subjects in a loose-leaf binder. Yes, journaling can be any of those things. But there are other creative ways to journal your prayers.
If you think you simply can’t journal, if you feel intimidated by it, or if you are looking for a way to expand your journaling horizons, here are some unconventional ways to journal outside the box, as it were. Careful: these can be habit forming, and might energize your prayer life.
Index cards, like the elderly gentleman used, are perfect for intercessory prayer requests and concerns, or even for listing blessings. A card could read simply: “Jane: job search,” prompting you to pray for your unemployed friend. When Jane calls and asks you to pray more specifically, about an upcoming interview, for example, you add that to the card.
Carry the cards in your purse or pocket, referring to them whenever you have a spare moment. While you may not have as much free time as that gentleman, you will often find yourself with a few minutes to read through one or two index cards.
Pray through the cards, one at a time, whenever you have a few minutes during the day. For example, you can refer to your cards while you are waiting for an appointment or to pick up the kids from soccer practice, when you are brushing your teeth or waiting for the coffee to brew in the morning. Look through them during meal times, or set aside a few minutes at the beginning and end of your work day to pray through them.
When you see an answer to one of your prayers, make a note about how it was answered on the same card. Soon you will have a pile of encouraging answers to prayer. And, in spite of yourself, you will have learned one way to journal.
Looking at the Big Picture
Another way to write out your prayers is to draw. Drawing is one way to engage the right side of your brain, which unleashes creativity. From there, ideas begin to flow.
I once sat at a Starbucks and sketched a drawing of my coffee mug. Another time, I awoke early, and colored a page with the colors I saw in the sunrise. There was nothing symbolic or profound about that simple white mug, except the simple pleasure of a quiet moment to sip coffee and pray. There was no particular meaning attached to the sunrise, other than the gift of another day.
But in both cases, after coloring and sketching for a while, I started writing thoughts and ideas and prayers all around the drawing. Sometimes, using colored pencils and a sketchpad, instead of a pen and spiral notebook, gets your creativity going, and prayers will flow out of that.
You don’t have to be an artist. Even stick figures or simple graphs can work. I have sometimes drawn something as simple as a circle, which represents my life. Within the circle, I answer these questions with words, lists, or pictures: What do I want to learn? What do I want to be? What needs my time and attention? In other words, I am creating a visual representation of how to slice the pie that is my life. I see my priorities, then I pray about what God would have me change.
Another way to journal by drawing is to do a “life review.” This ancient practice of self-examination can be updated in this simple way. Take a large sheet of paper and some crayons or colored pencils. Draw a timeline of your life, dividing it into decades. In each decade, find a way to draw or represent an answer to these two questions: “How did I see God?” and also “How did I see myself?”
Beneath your drawing, write out a letter of confession or thanks or whatever is appropriate, based on what you learn from the drawing. Ask God, what is next for me? How do I want to see God? How do I want to relate to him?
How am I Growing?
I love to garden. Many gardeners keep gardening notebooks, or journals. They note which plants they’ve grown in which beds. They take notes on the progress of seedlings, the effect of shade on certain plants. They make drawings to plot out what they planted where and what each plant looks like. They make lists of everything: plants they’d like to try, ones they have tried that didn’t work, all kinds of landscaping possibilities. The notebook helps a gardener keep track of what has worked and what has not. It’s a way of organizing thoughts and learning from mistakes.
“If you get fed up with your garden looking like a junkyard, get out your notebook,” writes gardening expert Sydney Eddison in The Self-Taught Gardener. “It should be cheap and sturdy enough to hold up if it gets damp. Note taking will clear your head and help you establish garden priorities. Make your notes copious, detailed and as specific as possible. Sometimes, the solution presents itself when you identify the problem.”
In many seasons of my life, I’ve used a gardening notebook as a model for a journal. If the garden of your soul feels like a junkyard, get yourself a prayer notebook. It needn’t be anything fancy; in fact, it helps to have something small but sturdy that you can carry around with you.
In my “soul gardening” notebook. I use words, pictures or sometimes mind-mapping, with lines and circles, to try to discern God’s will on a particular topic. I copy Scripture or quotes from books I’m reading and make them my prayer.
Sometimes I try to listen to God, and take notes on what God is doing in my spiritual life. This helps me clear my head and establish priorities, just as Eddison’s garden journal does.
My journal includes lists of things I’m worried about and people I want to pray for. I write about certain spiritual practices I’ve tried, and whether they seemed to work or not, what was helpful about a time of solitude, or difficult about trying to fast, for example.
When I notice some spiritual fruit growing in my life, I jot it down. If God rains down blessings, I take note of them and say thanks. When I notice a weed, I write about it.
For example, last week, I did something very selfish. Sadly, I didn’t even consider the other person’s feelings, but only what I wanted.
So I wrote it down. I felt sad, disappointed with myself, deeply convicted. I wrote about that. Then, I asked God’s forgiveness. I wrote the words, “I’m so sorry.” Then I wrote down Psalm 103:12, which God graciously brought to mind: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”
I still feel badly about what I did, but writing a confession, and then taking notes about God’s response of grace and forgiveness, motivates me not to make similar choices in the future. I’m educated by my journal, just as gardeners learn from their notebooks. Like Eddison in her garden, I’m often surprised at what solutions present themselves when I identify the problems.
Thinking Outside the Box
If you still think you can’t journal your prayers, try making a list of the reasons why you cannot manage to journal. Guess what? You just wrote your first journal entry. Pray over your list and ask God’s help in overcoming the barriers to journaling.
These suggestions are just a beginning. Once you start using non-traditional journaling techniques, you may invent or discover others. By thinking outside the journaling box, you can open up new ways to creatively connect with God.