Not a Chore! Seven Guidelines for Journaling

Blank Journal

Many people resist journaling because it feels like a chore, like an essay test, or like a duty they “should do.” I can’t tell you how many times people respond to my own testimony about journaling by saying, “I know I should journal, but I just can’t get into it.” I suggest we re-frame journaling as a valuable tool for paying attention to our inner lives, our souls. A journal is not a classroom assignment or a duty; it’s a powerful way to pay attention to your heart and mind.

A journal is more like a letter to God,

a way to focus in prayer,

a way to clear your head and process your thoughts.

A journal is like a great friend who listens on paper instead of in person.

A journal is “holy daydreaming” in ink.

A journal is a way of paying attention. Most of us lack the mental discipline to maintain focus on a consistent train of thought for a significant amount of time. Our thoughts wander, and we have to pull ourselves back to the subject time and again. Journaling keeps us engaged on a topic to the point where we gain new clarity and insight.

It takes a bit of practice to get over the “classroom syndrome” of thinking your journal has to meet a certain standard of excellence. There’s no one grading you. God especially isn’t interested in grades, any more than a parent would grade the spelling or grammar of a note from her kindergarten-age child. It’s all about the connection.

Let me get one thing out of the way: Should you use a computer or keep a notebook? I have read (though I cannot find the research reference—sorry) that there is a significant link between hand writing and heart connection. That intrigues me. I personally find the pace of writing by hand better matches the process of SoulShaping (my own word) than typing on a keyboard. I am quick to acknowledge, however, that the choice is yours. If you use a notebook, shy away from fancy leather-bound journals because they tend to make us think we’ve got be “neat and tidy” in our writing. And it’s often difficult to write in them because they don’t lie flat. I prefer an inexpensive spiral notebook with lined paper.

In previous posts I have written about the benefits of keeping a journal. Now I’d like to share some guidelines for journaling. There’s no right or wrong way to keep a journal.  The basic principle is: Does it help you better understand the Lord, yourself, and others?  Here are seven principles that can set you on the road to developing your own style:

Begin with a simple prayer.

My starting point is that my journal is a spiritual conversation with the Lord. Prayer affirms this at the outset. I use a simple prayer whenever I prepare to journal or to study or to work on a sermon, a blog or any other project. I open my hands, holding them palms up, and say, “Lord, give me what you want to give me in this time.” Trust the Holy Spirit to guide you. The Lord searches our hearts and directs us to the most important matters.

Work with feelings and perceptions.

The journal should not be a chronicle of dates and events.  The insights come from paying attention to how you felt and what you perceived about events and situations.

Trust your own insights.

If they are wrong, that will become apparent in the process of writing.  A proper sense of independence and personal authority is healthy.  After all, who, besides the Holy Spirit, is a better authority on yourself than you?

Anything goes.

Be completely free in your journal.  Write it for your eyes only, not to impress someone who may someday read it.  It is private; no one is looking over your shoulder.  You’re free to go with God over the landscape of your soul: to trudge along, to skip, to run, to roll. Draw, tell your story, write poetry, jot down phrases, record quotes, make charts, delve into memories… use whatever captures your mood and mind in that moment.

Be honest.

Don’t fool yourself with pious talk; if you feel lousy, say it.  We are free to be honest because as someone said, “The One who knows me best, loves me most.”  In honesty, we will see both the light and dark sides of our souls.  The point is to accept them and take God with us as we explore them.

There is a natural tendency to what I call “spiraling.”

This is my own term for going over the same ground again and again. The center of the spiral, the issue, may be the same, but our understanding of it is continually deepening and progressing like the widening loops of a spiral.

Discipline yourself to write positively.

The aim of the journal is to generate the energy to be an overcomer.  State the facts, record your negative feelings honestly, but then seek out the promise.

The Book of Proverbs says,

Above all else, guard your heart,
    for everything you do flows from it. (Proverbs 4:23).

Your journal is one of the most effective ways to guard your heart, to listen to the Lord, to pay attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit around you. Write on!

[Note that I have adapted these from an article I wrote called “Keeping A Personal Journal,” Leadership, Volume III, Number 1, Winter 1982, 156-57, and later published in my book SoulShaping: Taking Care of your spiritual life, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996, pages 72-76].

A Servant Protests

Robert Greenleaf is credited with the term “servant leadership,” but I would say the concept goes back to countless examples in Scripture. Abraham showed servant leadership and humility when he allowed Lot to choose his portion of land (Genesis 13:8-9). Moses demonstrated servant leadership time and again when he made personal sacrifices and interceded for God’s people in the wilderness (Exodus 32:11-14). And David showed servant leadership in his valuing of his men (2 Samuel 23:13-17). But Jesus is The Model of servant leadership. Jesus’ example and teaching made it very clear that leadership is not about accruing power to the leader, but using whatever resources the leader has for the benefit of those in her or his care.

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 NIV)

For those “outside” the leadership task, this may seem like a fairly straightforward paradigm. When a person tries to live into this servant calling, however, the cost becomes very clear.

I remember my own sense of call to ministry and saying to God, “O.K., Lord, I’ll serve you.” I hadn’t realized I expected to serve on my own terms.

When I protested the long hours, the Lord said, “But I heard you say you’d be my servant. Time is not your’s to keep. Time is my gift to you. I promise you time enough for my work now and your Sabbath refreshment. Keep your heart focused on an eternity of joy.”

When I longed for rewards, the Lord smiled, “But I heard you say you’d be my servant. The rewards I have for you are beyond comparison. You’re looking in the wrong place for them.”

When I asked for the pain to be removed, the Lord said, “But I heard you say you’d be my servant. My service is to the human heart– a place of pain. You will feel the pain of those who are broken. That is the only way I can heal.”

When I complained because I felt so alone, the Lord said, “Alone? You are never alone. But if you’re wrapped up in yourself, you miss me. I am with you. Always. You don’t seem to take that very seriously. Believe! And I have given you my children, too. You’ll find they’re a lot like you.”

In the silence of the moment, I realized that the Master of the Universe was not a tyrant, but my Father. His only son rolled up his sleeves to sweat and serve among us. This Jesus was and is the Servant King to whom no nobility can compare.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 
Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

“O.K., Lord, I really do want to be your servant. It’s not easy for me. And I’ll probably start grumbling again. I’m not even sure I have what it takes. But, if you’ll have me, I’m yours.”

And I heard God’s gracious response, “I want you — now and forever. And remember, as you serve me, I serve you .”

Adapted from Douglas J. Rumford, What About Heaven and Hell, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000, p. 124.

 

Gollum and Necessary Companions

We all have people in our lives we’d like to avoid and be done with. But in doing so, we may miss something essential to our life and mission.

Gollum was a disgusting, dangerous and necessary companion for Frodo Baggins. If you’re not familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic novels of the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a brief background will suffice. Tolkien’s epic work The Lord of the Rings, tells the story of evil power rising to tyrannize and exploit Middle Earth, controlled by The One Ring of Power. Thousands of years before the events of the novels, the Dark Lord Sauron had forged the One Ring to rule the other Rings of Power and subdue those who wore them: the leaders of Men, Elves and Dwarves. Sauron was later vanquished in battle by an alliance of Elves and Men. The One Ruling Ring was lost in the River Anduin at Gladden Fields. Over two thousand years later, the ring was found by one of the river-folk called Déagol. His friend Sméagol (who was eventually called Gollum) immediately fell under the ring’s influence and strangled Déagol to acquire the Ring. Sméagol was banished and hid under the Misty Mountains. The power of the ring seduced Gollum, controlling him and making him a lesser being. One of the benefits of the ring was being invisible, which had great advantages for survival. The ring also extended his lifespan and transformed him over the course of hundreds of years into a twisted, corrupted creature. Ironically, Gollum lost the ring, his “precious”, and, as recounted in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins found it. Meanwhile, the Dark Lord Sauron re-assumed physical form and took back his old realm of Mordor. (Hang in there– I’m getting to my point…).

The hobbit Frodo Baggins inherited the ring from Bilbo Baggins, his first cousin (once removed) and guardian. Neither were aware of its origin and nature, but Gandalf the Grey, a wizard and old friend of Bilbo, suspected the ring’s identity. When Gandalf became certain, he knew the only way to destroy the Dark Lord and prevent the absolute corruption of Middle Earth was to keep Sauron from getting the ring. Gandalf strongly advised Frodo to destroy the ring by throwing it into the Cracks of Doom, the lava flow in the heart of Mt. Doom, where the all the rings were originally forged. Frodo agreed, and thus began an arduous and very dangerous quest.

Along the way Frodo was tracked and attacked several times by Gollum who was driven to get the ring back from Frodo. When Frodo had the opportunity to do away with Gollum, however, Frodo showed mercy. Instead of killing Gollum, Frodo made constructive use of Gollum’s knowledge and skills. Like David with King Saul, Frodo never took judgment into his own hands (see 1 Samuel 24:6-15 and 1 Samuel 26:1-25). The result (spoiler alert!) was that Gollum led Frodo to the Cracks of Doom and (there’s a lot more to this story!) the The One Ring of Power was destroyed. Middle Earth was saved.

We all have ambivalent relationships that we cannot avoid, trying as they are. I think of Jesus choosing Judas as one of the disciples and entrusting him with the group’s money (John 12:4-6). That decision takes us into serious contemplation on the nature of fellowship. Even among God’s people there are relationships in which we may feel devalued, undermined, put on the spot by competition and comparison, taken advantage of, taken for granted, and any number of other frustrations. And, to be candid, we often consider ways to avoid these relationships. The Gollum principle (perhaps we could call it the “Judas principle”…), however, sounds a note of caution. Maybe there is a redemptive purpose in the midst of this trying relationship. Gollum is that person who causes persistent irritation, but in the end plays an important, even essential, role.

Some time ago I made a list of my “Gollums.” I know this sounds terrible– but I had to be honest with myself as a discipline of confession and repentance. On reflection, I was able to name not only the “challenge(s)” those few people posed, but also the value they brought into my life. I do not claim I wanted to continue in those relationships. They are not friend-type folks for me. But I’ve learned that I am called to humility and patience, even when I think I have justification to change the relationship. They ended up helping me move along the journey.

We can all understand difficult, antagonistic relationships in the world. The sobering truth is that fellowship in the Body of Christ brings the us into community with those who would not choose to relate to us under other circumstances. It helps me to remember that I am to value and love all whom God calls. Knowing myself in all honesty, I am amazed at God’s love for me. And I sometimes I wonder whose Gollum I am.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord… 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.                  Romans 12:14-21 New International Version (NIV)

Being content when it doesn’t make sense

Even in the midst of dementia, my dad found contentment through God’s Word.

One of the saddest moments in my life was realizing my dad was suffering from dementia. The moment of that realization is another story. What stands out more than the sadness (and the fear that this dreaded condition may lie ahead for me), however, was a phrase my dad used frequently in the midst of his terrible confusion. He would often quote Philippians 4:11, King James Version, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” Those words had a new depth of meaning coming from a man whose mind was betraying him.

It seems to me that contentment was, at some level beyond his compromised cognitive processes, dad’s defense against despair. This verse was the voice of his “inner coach” continually reminding him that God’s presence and care were his comfort and strength.

My experience with dad reinforced the fact that life-choices accumulate. The attitudes we nurture now will either help or hinder our adjustment to the challenges ahead. Beyond attitudes, our choice to soak, to marinate, in God’s Word reaches our hearts and minds in ways we may never fully appreciate. Psalm 119:11 says, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (KJV). This verse has a broader application than keeping us from sin. God’s Word keeps us focused on the mind of Christ.

God’s Word had taken such deep root in my dad’s heart and spirit that even dementia couldn’t smother it. I realize this may not be a common experience for many in dementia, but it gives me hope– and a determination to continue to devote myself to hiding God’s Word in my heart.

I’m also cultivating contentment in a culture of discontent. Learning to be content today will pay rich dividends now and into the future.  Contentment appreciates what we have in life and in Christ. Contentment sees all things in the light of eternity. And above all, contentment trusts God’s wisdom and care, often in spite of appearances.

 

Tags dementia, Philippians 4:11 Psalms 119:11 1 Corinthians 2:16

Who do you really want to be?

I often remind myself that Jesus did not die on the cross so we could remain the same. Jesus died, rose from grave, ascended into heaven and is coming again in order to make us new creations who are living into that new life now and for eternity. Through faith in Christ, we are new creations.

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! (2 Corinthians 5:17 New Living Translation, NLT).

Is that true in your experience? Are the old ways changing? What does that new life look like? Another passage from 2 Corinthians makes a breath-taking assertion and affirmation:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18 RSV).

The key to change is not simply knowing we “should” change, but firing up our emotional engagement to desire and seek change. That starts with vision. We are being changed “from one degree of glory to another!” Like Moses’ face when he experienced God’s presence (see Exodus 34:29-35). If you could really change things about yourself, what would you really like to change? If you could really experience a new way of thinking, speaking and behaving, what characteristics would be top on your list? Here’s the amazing promise of the gospel: God is actively pursuing change in us. This is not a DIY (do it yourself) project.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”  (Philippians 2:12-13 Revised Standard Version (RSV).

We often have vague ideas of the person we truly want to be, but don’t take time to get specific. When you begin to see the person you really want to be, you begin to move toward that vision. Start a list of the qualities you hope to develop, those characteristics you sense God the Holy Spirit wants to shape in you. I began a list for myself and eventually compiled it into this format. I call it “PICTURE A LIFE…”

Picture a life in which…
Joy carries you through the day,
and laughter comes as naturally as breathing.
You are not lured by that which would destroy you,
but are drawn to that which builds you up.
You can trust yourself–
having control over your thought and words,
over your responses and reactions.
You live above the distractions and deceptions of the world,
being a non-anxious, very real presence to others around you.
You have no need to hide.
You can look others in the eye, valuing them for themselves alone,
not for what they would give you.
You find courage to face every conflict honorably,
and strength to fulfill every responsibility faithfully.
You endure suffering with courage,
able to live with the questions.
You can admit when you are wrong:
You can say, “I’m sorry,” and begin again,
and are gentle with yourself,
renouncing the chains of shame, and self-condemnation.
You are connected to God who created you as you,
and are becoming all that God created you to be.
You are at peace in all circumstances,
celebrating God’s faithful provision in times of abundance,
trusting in quiet contentment in times of want.
You are free to serve others willingly,
without thought or need for thanks.
You have the freedom to live for an audience of One.

Picture such a life–
For it is meant to be yours.

(Copyright, Dr. Douglas J. Rumford, SoulShaping: Taking Care Of Your Spiritual Life, Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996, pp. 60-61)

Energy comes from holy imagination. Hope comes from seeing that change is possible. Jesus Christ died so that he, by the power of God at work within us, could transform us into daughters and sons of God who live in freedom and joy, who serve in power and grace. Work in us, Lord!

Getting the Right Boss

11.3.17 Blog Banner_org chart v2
Copyright 2017 by Stephanie Curry

There was a time early in my ministry when I was overcome by the pressures of the congregation.  It seemed that I was encountering low-key opposition and resistance everywhere I turned.  The harder I worked, the more ineffective I felt. I was praying and journaling about my struggles for several weeks.  One day I began my journal entry, “Lord, I am so tired and discouraged. I know you called me to be the servant of this congregation…”

Suddenly it was if the Lord interrupted and seemed to say, “No I didn’t!”

“Excuse me?!” I replied.

“Yes, I called you to serve this congregation, but you are MY servant.  You are not to take orders from them, trying to please them in every way. You do not ultimately answer to them.  You answer to me.”

I immediately thought of the Bible verses that says, “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not [your masters], knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24 RSV).

Since then, I have learned to say to myself, “I am not the servant of this congregation.  I am the servant of Jesus Christ assigned to this congregation at this time.” That simple change in perspective has had a profound impact on my sense of direction and differentiation from the congregations to which God has called me.

Now, you may be thinking, “Well, that’s great for pastors, but in the Real World, it doesn’t work like that.” First, we could have a wonderful discussion about what “the Real World” is! What’s more real than God and spiritual matters and being a part of God’s continuing work in this world — where we pray God’s “kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven”??  Still, I know what you mean: In the “real world” of institutions and organizations and people who do not operate on the plane of the highest of spiritual values and principles, this sounds unrealistic. But let’s test it out.

Whenever we consider our place in this world, we have a choice about how we “frame” our understanding. In the case or work, we ask ourselves questions like,

“Does my faith affect my work in any way? If so, how?”

“How will I honor the Lord in the everyday routine and demands of this job?”

“How does this job affect my sense of self and my participation in God’s continuing work in this world?”

I’m focusing on just one aspect of a “theology of work” here– so realize this is part of a much larger conversation. The key question is: Who’s my real Boss? That’s not just a questions for pastors and people in vocational ministry, serving churches and parachurch organizations (like Young Life, CRU, World Vision). That’s one of the implications what Paul’s advice to the people in Colossae. In the verses immediately preceding the quote above Paul said, “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Colossians 3:22 ESV).

This the exhortation to slaves or bond-servants gives us a framework for approaching our work. Our ultimate motive is honoring the Lord. That perspective brings relief, refocus and responsibility.

Relief. When this thought first came to me, I was relieved. My stress level went down because I suddenly “resigned” from having over 500 bosses to having One. I continued to give my best efforts, motivated by honoring God, not pleasing everyone.

In any workplace, it’s a relief to remind ourselves continually that we are serving the Lord and others in practical ways in and through this job. This will actually make us more effective workers, as we’ll consider in a moment.

Refocus. People-pleasing is a no-win strategy, especially when we realize the limitations of our earthly job circumstance and of our peers, subordinates and supervisors. Paul wrote in Galatians 1:10, Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.

When we live for an audience of One, we live differently. We have a different perspective on people. We value them as individuals created in God’s image without fearing them (Psalm 27:1) or giving them the power to define us. We value ourselves and work on appropriate assertiveness and boundaries. We tell ourselves, to paraphrase Rich Kriegbaum in Leadership Prayers, “This is not who I am, Lord. It’s just what I do.”

Responsibility. This posture does not make our job easier. It will likely make it more “difficult,” but in a healthy way. We actually will work more effectively and conscientiously when we keep our eyes on the Lord. We will ask ourselves important questions, beginning with, “Lord, why do you have me here at this time?” It may be as a healthy presence in the workplace, as an example of a different way to do things, as another voice to speak into the relationships. Instead of asking, “What can I get away with? How little can I do?” we will ask, “Lord, how can I do this in a way that will encourage people to think well of You?”

When we think this way, work becomes a ministry, not just a way to get a paycheck.

Ecclesiastes 3:22 says, “So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot.” Work is not a curse, but it is affected by the curse, and that affects our expectations. Remind yourself continually that, no matter where you are, you know you are working for the best, most gracious Boss of all.

 

Storms are part of the journey

Knowing where you are in a process can bring hope and keep you going when things look discouraging.

 

Form Storm Norm_slide geometric
This is my version of the process, with the graphic developed by Stephanie Curry Copyright 2017

We all know the feeling of starting a new venture or a new relationship with great expectations. Things go well at first. Maybe this time will really work, we tell ourselves. Then… well, some not-so-great stuff starts to happen and the questions begin: “What did I do wrong? Why are they so difficult? Will I ever find the right person, the right place, the right job?” What if I told you that when the questions and challenges begin, you are (most likely) on the road to healthy, fruitful functioning?

Life is a process. It is not always “upward and onward,” as much as we idealists may want it to be. Relationships and groups and projects go through a series of stages and phases. Each stage has its own order and meaning. When you step onto the balcony (a phrase from Professor Ron Heifetz) you can better observe what’s going on.

One of the concepts in organizational development is known as the Tuckman’s stages of group development. In 1965, Bruce Tuckman, professor of educational psychology at The Ohio State University, published a study [“Developmental sequence in small groups,” Psychological Bulletin63 (6): 384–399] that presented the model of group process going through the stages of form, storm, norm and perform. He stated that these phases are all necessary and inevitable in order for teams to grow, plan their work and work assignments, define problems, find solutions, and deliver results. These stages describe company teams in the workplace, but can easily be applied to other groups and personal relationships.

Form is the stage of introduction. In the workplace, a team forms to pursue a certain task, accomplish a goal, or pursue a new project. People are usually on their best behavior in this stage, and likely focused on their responsibilities and desires. On the personal level, forming is that initial period when you sense some connection and begin to learn and explore what type of relationship this will be.

Storm is the conflict-leading-to-clarification stage. Tuckman wrote, “…participants form opinions about the character and integrity of the other participants and feel compelled to voice these opinions if they find someone shirking responsibility or attempting to dominate. Sometimes participants question the actions or decision of the leader as the expedition grows harder…” It is also a time when the group’s competing values are exposed. There’s a lot going on at this stage which should be addressed if the relationship or group wants to move forward in a healthy, productive, satisfying way. The focus must be on developing trust, clarifying the issues and tension-points, and working through misunderstandings.

Norm is the values-and-process-agreement phase. Norm refers to the “norms” established by the group or the parties in the relationship. They have established clarity in core values, in the division of labor, best practices for conflict management, and other important aspects of the relationship and team so the work can proceed more effectively efficiently, and harmoniously.

Perform is the now-we’re cooking phase. The group has figured out how to work and function together in a mutually satisfying and proficient way. Having learned to manage the relational dynamics they are now able to focus on the project. Understanding each other strengths and weaknesses enables them to maximize their output by using their complimentary skills.

It’s important to realize that this process of form, storm, norm, perform continues at a mirco-level on an on-going basis. So don’t be surprised to find yourself storming and norming again and again as new issues emerge.

What has helped me the most in this model is learning to accept and anticipate the storms. Storms are part of the journey. I see this dynamic throughout the Bible. Adam and Eve in the Garden faced the storm of temptation in Genesis 3, but they didn’t handle it well. They found themselves with a very different norm for life in light of the consequences of their fall from grace. Likewise, Abraham and Sarah faced the storm doubt when they involved Hagar in their anxious plan to provide an heir (Genesis 16). Jesus went through a number of “storm stages” with his disciples as they struggled to understand their calling. In Luke 9:54, we read “When the disciples James and John saw [that the Samaritan villages would not welcome Jesus], they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” They had the wrong idea for managing rejection! Jesus’ disciples also “stormed” over their roles and value in regards to “greatness” (Mark 10:35-45).  In the early church, the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) provides a clear example of the “storm” of the basis Gentile inclusion in the Christian community being resolved by clarifying new norms rooted in the gospel of grace.

I see this cycle in relationships, in staff situations, even in my own growth and development. Why does this matter? Because it gives me hope and a framework for progress. When people are aware that they are “storming,” and that this stage is necessary for progress, they learn to lean into the issues with the goal of norming and performing. It helps them to “objectify” the issues, instead of personalizing and internalizing the conflicts.

As I said at the outset, life is a process. Our confidence is that God is in charge. God forms us, guides us through the storms, and reveals the norms that will empower us to perform, living in ways that honor God’s will, our neighbors and others.

3 Personal Benefits of Journaling

Journal 1
Three of my earliest journals with my Bible open to Exodus 17:14

One of the first instructions God gave to Moses after the Exodus was “…write this on a scroll as something to be remembered…” (Exodus 17:14 NIV). Recalling the mighty acts of God was an essential element for sustaining the people’s vision of God. Just try to imagine where we’d be if Moses had neglected God’s command?

What about our own “holy histories?” Our spiritual journeys are too important to trust to memory alone. An invaluable tool for the preservation of God’s work and the application of God’s truth in our lives is a personal journal. To paraphrase a common proverb, “Weak ink is stronger than the best memory.”

A journal is like a spiritual diary. It is more than keeping a chronology of events characteristic of a traditional diary. Your spiritual journal is a record of things that happen to you or around you, with an emphasis on the responses of your heart, mind and soul. It’s a record of your prayers: of your “Yes” answered prayers, your still-waiting-for-God’s-answer prayers, and your honest wrestling with the prayers answered with “No.” It’s a place to reflect on your moods and your personal disciplines (or lack thereof) and what you plan to do about those. Your journal is the means to examine your temptations and failures, celebrate your personal victories, and record your biblical insights.

I think of my journal as a conversation with the Lord. You could say, in many ways, that your journal holds your prayers in ink.  In a future post I’ll share why I think paper and pen are important to the process and more effective than using a computer or tablet.

My own use of a personal journal began when I entered college and started keeping a notebook of insights gleaned from my personal Bible study. I prize those moments of illumination. The thrill of discovery is a gift from God. How is it that, when we pray for God to speak to us, and God does, we let that precious truth slip away like the tide erasing writing in the sand? Trust it to paper–not to memory. Over time, I began to include prayer requests and answers, problems and hurts, and hopes and plans for the future. Initially, writing came in surges, but it eventually became a consistent part of my quiet time and devotions. My encouragement is to begin where you are. You will discovers a pace that fits.

I’ve written about journaling for Leadership Journal and in my book SoulShaping. In future posts, I will share ministry benefits of keeping a spiritual journal and principles for maximizing your journaling. But let’s begin with three ways keeping a journal helps us.

Three Personal Benefits of Journaling

First, our journal gives us insight for our spiritual growth.

Our confidence as Jesus’ followers comes from knowing who we are in Christ. Trust and identity solidify when we pay attention to where we’ve been and where God is directing us. In his Confessions (a powerful illustration of journaling as a spiritual memoir), Augustine (an early church theologian and leader who lived from 354 – 430 AD) wrote, “I want to call back to mind my past impurities and the carnal corruptions of my soul, not because I love them, but so that I may love you, my God…that the bitterness may be replaced by the sweetness of you.” Augustine’s love for God grew as reviewed his life. He saw more clearly his spiritual condition and realized, in awe, God’s hand at work.

As we reflect on our spiritual pilgrimage, we gain understanding of the dynamics of our spiritual lives: the obstacles, the predictable crises, the doubts, and the means of grace God provides to overcome these. The preservation of these insights helps us grow in spiritual maturity. This is the practical out-working of Hebrews 5:11-14 (New Living Translation)

11 There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. 12 You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. 13 For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. 14 Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

Keeping a journal is a tangible exercise for developing the skill of “recognizing the difference between right and wrong” in our daily experience. Paying attention to our inner life helps us become more aware of our patterns of thought and reactivity. As clarity comes, we can surrender these to the Lord and actively embrace God’s grace for change. At the same time, the memory of God’s faithfulness fuels an attitude of praise and thanksgiving.

Second, our journal helps us clarify our priorities.

Life always seems at least a step or two ahead of us. It’s easy to lose control of our time and resources. The urgent always crowds out the important– and we seem powerless to stop the cycle of postponing things we really value because of demands that press down on us. I often turn to my journal as the key to unlock the shackles of the time trap. Reflection enables me to sort out what’s important. The commitments that clamor and crowd in on me lose some of their urgency in the light of my basic goals and values.

Your journal is that place where you put your plans for the day on paper– first thing– and then pray for God’s grace and mercy to guide your steps minute-by-minute. Of course, you will face surprises and interruptions– but you will feel empowered by being more intentional through the day. At the same time, a clear perception of the important matters awakens a new resolve to get on with it.

Third, our journal helps in problem-solving.

Conflicts, problems and disappointments are part of life. We consistently face dilemmas that require wisdom beyond ourselves. Writing crystallizes issues. C.S. Lewis said, “Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing. Ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found long ago.”

In the process of spiritual direction, I ask a person overwhelmed by the number of problems she/he has to write them down. A simple list helps them see the scope of the issues in a more orderly fashion. Most often, they find that the actual number of issues is less than they felt. As the dust settles and specific details become clear, prayer and careful thought often open ways to progress. Our journal gives us a safe place to develop scenarios, practice conversations, and listen for God’s direction. It’s truly amazing how God fulfills the promise of James 1:5 in the context of journaling.

 “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking” (New Living Translation). 

When John began his profound experience with God, God commanded him “Write down what you have seen…” (Revelation 1:19). I believe God gives us the same call today. Just get a simple spiral notebook, put the date at the top of a page and begin writing a prayer, a letter to God, or a special memory of God’s work in your life. Remember, your “holy history” is too important to trust to memory alone.

Backstage Grace

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.  Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. (Ephesians 2:8-9 New Living Translation).

Blog_Eagles backstage
Our backstage pass for the Eagles’ Concert authorized with Bernie Leadon’s initials (BL)

Grace is one of the most significant words in the Christian vocabulary. While it’s a good idea to avoid jargon, it’s simply a fact that all specialties have their vocabulary. In dealing with computers and data, I’ve had to learn megabytes, gigabytes, and terabytes. In caring friendships, I’ve had to learn about gluten-free and vegan. So what about grace? It’s not an easy concept to grasp. Before I share what it looked like once for me, it will be helpful to define grace and how it differs from mercy. The Apostle Paul used these two terms together in the greeting of some of his letters,

“I am writing to Timothy, my true son in the faith. May God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord give you grace, mercy, and peace” (1 Timothy 1:2 New Living Translation, NLT).

In brief, grace is getting what we do not deserve. Mercy is not getting what we do deserve (usually in terms of consequences). Mercy is, well… merciful. It is pardon for breaking a law; it is forgiveness for an unkind word or act. Mercy cleans the slate so we get a new start. Grace is something added. It is a gift that blesses us. It is not only forgiveness, but reconciliation and restoration. Mercy removes the negative. Grace adds the positive.

So now let me share one of my special experiences of grace. Every once in a while I get an email that is quite understated. Here’s one that came out of the blue. I needed to read it twice to fully appreciate it:

“Doug, one of the board members in my motorcar hobby association is Bernie Leadon, founding lead guitarist of the Eagles (the rock group known for “Take It Easy”, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Witchy Woman,” among countless other hits). They are playing at the Inglewood Forum in LA this week and next, and he has set aside 2 VIP tickets for next Wednesday for me and a guest. It also includes 2 back stage passes… Would you like to go with me? Just a thought.  Should be a great show.  (Signed) Bill.

Would I like to go??? Would I?! I play guitar and have enjoyed playing in a band with some church friends—and I’ve listened to the Eagles for decades. I told my wife, Sarah, the news… and let’s just say Sarah was fine with my attending—so long as she came, too! I didn’t want to presume on Bernie’s generosity, but we asked Bill if he could possibly ask Bernie for another ticket and backstage pass. (So you’re already seeing us pushing for more grace….). Bernie came through, “No problem!” he said.

It was an unforgettable experience. When we arrived at the Forum in Los Angeles, we went to a VIP entrance and were ushered to Bernie’s dressing room, where he greeted us warmly. Bernie really respects Bill and truly appreciated Bill bringing his pastor and wife. After some conversation, Bernie asked if we wanted to do anything special, and I asked if we could walk backstage and see his guitars. (I was thinking I might get some pointers for playing with my cover band, The Fabulous Edsels!) So Bernie took us backstage where we saw racks and racks of some of the finest guitars I will ever lay eyes on. In addition to Bernie’s guitars, we also saw two racks for Joe Walsh (of “Hotel California” fame), and guitars for Glenn Frey and the back-up band. Beautiful! (Sorry for all the exclamation points!). Most of the guitarists played a different guitar for every song. We also met the guitar technicians who continually tune and care for the instruments. Then there was the whole backstage set-up with the lights, computers, video equipment and so on.

After that tour we went back to Bernie’s dressing room and “hung out” for nearly half an hour, meeting some of Bernie’s family members and other friends he’d invited to the show. It was such a relaxing time. About 10 minutes before the concert began Sarah, Bill and I were ushered into our seats in Row Six, just to the right of center stage. I have never had such seats before—and never will again, I’m sure. I could watch all the chord progressions and lead-solo fingerings of Bernie and Joe Walsh—a guitarist’s dream! The concert was a blast—in more ways than one—and we felt a connection that really enhanced the whole experience.

The next day I wrote an email to Bernie to thank him. I said, in part, “Last night was a great illustration of grace for me. Grace is getting something we don’t deserve, and there’s no way Sarah and I deserved the VIP treatment we got last night. We ‘coat-tailed’ on Bill’s friendship with you, and you accepted us. That’s a lot like God’s grace toward us. Just had to let you know how deeply it touched us.” Bernie wrote a very thoughtful reply, and we’ve actually corresponded a few times since.

There are many grace-gifts in our lives every day, but some certainly stand out—like this backstage, behind-the-scenes experience. Thanks, Bill. Thanks, Bernie! And thank you, Lord, for your mercy and grace.

When All You Can do is Weep

When we feel powerless in the face of tragedy and wickedness, there is still one thing we can do.

“Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it” (Ezekiel 9:4).

The fall of 2017 has been a cascade of catastrophe. Hurricanes have devastated significant areas of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, other Caribbean islands, and most recently, Mexico and the Gulf Coast of the US. An earthquake in Mexico City claimed 200+ lives. In Southeast Asia over 1,200 lost their lives and over 41 million people have been affected by monsoon rains that have brought flooding and landslides. Even more troubling than natural disasters are those tragedies that have resulted from human aggression. Terrorist attacks and random acts of violence continue, seeming to escalate in scale. For a list that will take your breath away, look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents_in_2017 for a compilation of day-by-day attacks around the world. Then there was Las Vega massacre of October 1 when Stephen Paddock killed at least 58 people and wounded over 500 in the worst mass shooting in United States history.

Some would interpret all these events as signs of the End Times. While, indeed, Jesus could return at any moment, I see these as signs that our world needs Jesus’ followers to pray and serve as we never have before. God’s people have often been at the forefront in giving their time, money and caring compassion to help in times of crisis. That is good, and it must increase. It may be, however, that in certain circumstances, all we can do is weep, grieving over the heartache and suffering the world inflicts on humanity, crying out to God over the brokenness and profound alienation that wreak havoc on human hearts, minds and bodies.

I’m not one given to passivity or inactivity. I want to “fix” situations. My dad always, “Don’t create problems. Solve them.” There are many situations, however, where I don’t have the power, the authority, the resources, the intelligence, or the influence to do anything. And who can “fix” the human heart bent on evil? Who is able to see into the deeply, deeply troubled minds behind these random acts to bring healing and wholeness? We cannot create enough “security arrangements” to prevent all those who truly want to do harm from perpetrating their wicked schemes. What now?

The situation described in The Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament shows the power of continuing to care in the face of a heartless, cruel, and often godless (or worshiping-the-wrong-gods) world. Around 597 B. C. the prophet Ezekiel was taken into exile in Babylon (over 900 miles from Jerusalem) at the time when God was finally bringing judgement against his idolatrous people. Their persistent disobedience and continual refusal to repent was resulting in the logical and natural consequences God had warned would come. What gives me hope as I read this passage, however, is that God would have mercy on those who continued to honor and love him and who continued to show compassion, yearning for repentance and new life for their loved ones, neighbors and friends. We read this in Ezekiel 91-4:

Then I heard [The LORD] call out in a loud voice, “Bring near those who are appointed to execute judgment on the city, each with a weapon in his hand.” And I saw six men coming from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with a deadly weapon in his hand. With them was a man clothed in linen who had a writing kit at his side. They came in and stood beside the bronze altar. Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple. Then the Lord called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side 4 and said to him, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”  (NIV)

The man in linen was to mark those weep. What has always moved me most deeply about this passage is that the Lord notices our tears. There are many verses that have this same message.

“Record my misery; list my tears on your scroll; are they not in your record?” (Psalm 56:8 New International Version NIV). The King James Version says, “…put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?”

“For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17 NIV).

“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4 NIV).

In Ezekiel 9 we read that in the midst of judgment, the Lord instructed his executioners “…touch no one on whom is the mark” (Ezekiel 9:6). This echoes the Passover account in Exodus 12 when the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Israelites who had offered the sacrifice of the lamb and put the blood on their door frames. In Ezekiel, God’s mercy extended to those who grieved over the godlessness, idolatry and disobedience of the people around them. Those who grieved did not retaliate in anger against those in sin. They brought their broken hearts to the Lord.

We cannot control the world that has rejected God and gone its own way. We cannot control other people who’ve done the same. We can, however, continue to keep our hearts soft.  Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, said, “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” That is a powerful prayer. It may, as in Bob’s case, move us to action. At the very least, it moves us to bearing the burden of the Lord’s heart in our hearts in this fallen world.

Many of us respond more quickly with anger than with an anguished heart.

Or we fall into despair instead of turning to God in “desperate devotion.”

Or we want to take action against people in public instead of bringing our righteous indignation in humility before the Lord in prayer.

Sometimes all you can do is weep, letting your tears fall in prayer. Sometimes all you can do is weep—and that is doing something.