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"Wasting Time" with God

Journaling and the art of paying attention

Need a cake baked for the homeless shelter? I'll make two. Want someone to organize a small group Bible study? No problem. Doing things for God comes easy for many of us. But learning how to be quiet, and how to "be" with God rather than "doing" for God, can be a major shift.

Three things helped me learn how to cultivate being with God: walking without being plugged in to a cell phone or iPod, spending time outside in God's creation, and journaling. Keeping a journal is a way to pay attention to your life, and to pay attention to your relationship to God. Most importantly, making time to journal prods us to make time to spend with God.

"Being" with God through journaling isn't about doing things—like writing and sketching—as much as it is about changing the way we live. We are no longer "killing time;" an expression I despise, because every minute we take a breath is precious. Rather, pen in hand, we are waiting. Waiting to hear what God has to say us. Listening. Then thinking through our response. We are paying attention to our souls.

I like what the poet Mary Oliver says: "Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it." The big take-away when you journal—pen in hand—and spend time alone with God, is this eye-opening jolt that life is a miracle! We're astonished at the grandeur of the world, at the fact that we are "fearfully and wonderfully made."

This astonishment leads to gratitude. As we become thankful, we move toward empathy for others. We begin to see them as unique, and loved by God. We want to share God with them. Paying attention changes everything.

The poet Diane Ackerman writes: "So much of our life passes in a comfortable blur …. [M]ost people are lazy about life. Life is something that happens to them while they wait for death." Do we want to let life just happen to us? Or do we want to live fully, paying attention to what God is showing us, living intentionally? We honor God when we pay attention.

Building Margin

Journaling also helps us turn off some of the things that keep us from God. It forces us to slow down and carve out a quiet space in our busy, over-scheduled lives. This quietness, and slowing down, changes us. It helps us build margin; we develop more resiliency.

When my children were teenagers, they were aware of the difference walking and journaling made in the way I interacted with them. I remember my high school age son telling me (after I had been impatient and tense with him), "Mom, have you been for your walk and journaling time today?" When I said, no, he said, "Please go!" He didn't know why it made a difference, but he knew it did! And I went.

Although it seems selfish to some of us to take time for ourselves, especially when we have the demands of family, work, and church always in front of us, in a round-about way we're giving others a gift when we make time to journal, to be quiet, and to be in God's presence. As we learn to be fully present with God, we learn to become fully present to the people God sends us: friends, family, co-workers, and strangers in need.

In this way, journaling is much more than writing. It's about living life fully aware of what is going on around us and inside us. It is about a deeper understanding of ourselves, and the world we live in. By this, I don't mean self-absorbed navel gazing. When we spend time journaling, we not only open ourselves to listen to what God is saying, but we tap into our memories. We reflect on relationships. We discover opportunities to look at ourselves in process. Journaling gives us perspective on where we have been, and where we are going. It helps us chart a course forward.

Wrestling with the Difficult Questions

As we journal, we begin to wrestle with difficult questions. In the quiet place where we wait on a God who is sometimes silent, we feel the full range of emotions. We get in touch with a deeper dimension of our lives too easily muffled by the daily grind. This can be a little scary. Sometimes, we don't want to be quiet. We welcome white noise that distracts us. We ignore what is most important. In this way, journaling—at its deepest level—takes courage. Eventually, when we sit with God in the quiet, we'll come face-to-face with what's under the surface of our lives. Some of what we find there may be painful or even ugly. But it's time well spent. We move toward forgiveness, understanding, and acceptance of things that may not change. And we grow, even as we fill the pages of our journals.

Sometimes, journaling feels difficult. If you have a hard time getting started, try a few simple tips:

Make a date with yourself to journal. Put it on the calendar. Allow at least 30 minutes; more if possible.

Combine journaling with walking. Sometimes, 10 or 15 minutes of walking can settle you down, calm your spirit, and prepare your mind for journaling. And if you're squeamish about telling your spouse, friends, or family that you're "going out to journal," "going out for a walk" sounds totally acceptable!

Find a journal you like. If it's portable, you'll keep it handy. Sometimes unexpected moments arise to journal when you're waiting: in the car, at the doctor's office, waiting for a church service to begin.

Find a special place to journal. I know one woman who regularly journals at a coffee shop. Now, when she smells the coffee, hears the grind of beans and hum of conversation, her brain goes into journaling alert. You might also try sitting outside on a park bench or lawn chair in your backyard, or making a special place for your journaling time at home.

Be prepared for criticism. When I mentioned to someone that I was teaching a class on journaling, their spontaneous reply was, "That sounds like a total waste of time." Sure, it wasn't the most sensitive remark, but it reflects society's view of "doing." It takes fortitude sometimes to be still, "do nothing," and to "waste time" with God.

At a time when verbal prayers were difficult, I found I could talk to God through my journal. Try writing your prayers, rather than speaking them, and see what opens up.

Later, go back to your journal and read your prayers. What was the outcome? Gain perspective on how God is working in your life.

If you feel more comfortable with drawing than with words, try sketching in your journal with colored pencils. Praying in Color by Sybil McBeth has some good ideas to get you started.

Still stuck? Read Journal Keeping: Writing For Spiritual Growth by Luann Budd. It's a good resource to get you started.

The danger is reading the above as another to-do list! Rather, it is an invitation to meet God on a regular basis through journaling. The writing is a part of it. But remember to be still, and to listen. It's a two-way conversation.

Cindy Crosby is author of By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer (Paraclete Press).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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