It seems like everyone is writing these days. Multitudes are expressing their opinions on the web. Texting is a worldwide phenomenon. Blogging is big, and, of course, it seems everyone is writing a novel or short story. But none of this is journaling. What exactly is journaling?
When I was young, the only people I knew who kept a diary or journal were teeny-boppers who wrote loopy letters with pink ballpoint pens and dotted their i’s with little hearts. But the practice of keeping a diary or journal goes back hundreds of years, with the earliest known example coming from Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Visionaries from Leonardo da Vinci to Charles Darwin jotted down their thoughts and ideas. This art of recording thoughts and daily musings has been found to be beneficial for everything from keeping scientific notes to self-discovery through self-expression of emotions and ideas. We have greatly benefited from the journals of great men and women, learning about their struggles, aspirations, and accomplishments. Without journals, thoughts would remain disorganized and discoveries such as those made by Lewis and Clark would be lost. You could even say the gospels are journals of a sort.
Journaling can be for everyone, not just famous people or teenage girls smitten with rock stars. Without exaggeration I can say that my journaling has been a life-changer and maybe a life-saver. I first discovered journaling when I was in my mid-40s and sinking into depression. It was a safe place to spill out my uncertainty and desperation. In time the hundreds of yellow pages on legal pads became an eye-opening record that documented my slide into confusion and sadness.
What’s more important is that journaling became the pathway that God used to enter my darkness with his light and hope. Writing down only my thoughts grew to also be writing God’s thoughts about me and to me. He reminded me of scriptures that healed me and of His Spirit who would not leave me an orphan during those long and confusing months and years. You can see why I cherish my time of journal keeping and why I still do it almost every day.
Journaling is simple. It’s free. It requires no money for equipment or lessons. You can’t fail. You don’t need a partner and nobody grades you. You can stop anytime you want, take long breaks, and pick it up again whenever you want. All you need is a pen or pencil and something to write on. I started with legal pads and now do it on my computer.
Here are a few ideas that might help you get started.
Keeping a journal is not for everyone. If you find out it’s not for you, no harm’s done and no need to feel guilty. If you want to give it a shot, I suggest doing it for at least a month to adapt to this new habit.
Journaling requires solitude. It is private and if you have someone looking over your shoulder or questioning your work, you won’t feel free to express your honest feelings. If you’re always around people, find a secret place to be alone. Maybe a park or even the bathroom or closet.
Journaling requires silence. Turn off your music, take out your ear buds, and turn off your phone. Don’t check your email, Twitter, or Facebook. If this is a challenge for you, then use a pad and paper and put away your computer altogether.
Journaling requires time. Like any writing, the good stuff usually doesn’t come at once. Thoughts build on each other and you will be examining your motives, actions, and ideas.
For Christians, journaling requires a Bible. Here’s where a computer becomes so helpful: you can instantly check references and look for verses of which you only remember a word or two. But be careful not to get sidetracked by ads, tasks, or the countless interruptions that electronics flood you with every second.
Journaling is personal and for your eyes only. Grammar and spelling are unimportant. No one will see what you write nor should they. Because of this, you can spill out every last thought, dream, frustration, and emotion. This catharsis is extremely helpful
Invite God into your journaling. By that I mean begin with a prayer requesting His presence and reactions.
Allow Him the chance to comment. After writing a few sentences or a paragraph or two, I begin a new paragraph and wait for Him to speak. I then write what I believe He is saying. Of course this can be subjective. It never takes the place of what the Bible says. Even so, I believe you will find that He draws the good out and gently reproves sinful thoughts and attitudes.
Read back through your journals and notice recurrent themes and issues. Are you making progress?
Above all, journaling is a voyage of self-discovery, a place to record spectacular things like epiphanies and God sightings and amazing things like hummingbird sightings and the blooming of a new rose. In this sacred space nothing is off limits and you will find that God is never offended no matter what you say.
I hope journaling will open your soul and bring you hope and light.
Florence Rose Neal was born into a large and loving Norwegian family on Camano Island, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest, an idyllic spot encircled by Puget Sound and stately Douglas firs, and watched over by the distant snow crowned Olympic Mountains. Her hardworking parents spoke Norwegian and they all learned the hard language of living off the land.
While still a child, the family moved to Colorado where life was demanding and money was tight. At fourteen Florence went to work so her youngest sister, Peggy, could graduate from high school.
One day a handsome, young evangelist named John Neal drove up to the boarding house in Uravan, where Florence worked. He was ten years her senior, but his deep faith and snazzy new car won her heart. When John left town, the spunky and fair nineteen-year-old left with him as Mrs. John Neal, her name from then on.
John was a warm hearted, charismatic man with black curly hair and dark Cherokee skin. He abandoned a lucrative career as a tool and die maker to follow his call to ministry, and for the next fifty years, Brother and Sister Neal became the spiritual force that would bring hundreds into the Kingdom in southern California, Oregon, and Washington. They had five children: John was first (after this dad was “John A” and son was “John R”) and the twins, Karon and Karl, arrived three years later. Peter and Rodney showed up twelve and fifteen years later, rather like a second family. Their ministry blossomed as the children grew. They built churches and potlucked their way into the lives of many who still cherish their commitment and uncommon hospitality.
Those were the days when men were the breadwinners and made the decisions. Wives kept house, cooked, and raised their families. Pastor’s wives also ran the Women’s Missionary Society, the local PTA, sang in the choir, and made home make chicken and noodles for church dinners. If she could have played the piano, she probably would have done that, too.
Florence was the consummate pastor’s wife with her bubbly personality, outgoing hospitality, and overflowing love of people. Above all, she was a prayer warrior. She and John A., who also had a contagious, enthusiastic faith, saw many divine healings and marvelous salvation experiences. Many men and women credit the Neals with their call to ministry.
As often happens, life became more complicated as the children grew up. John A. briefly changed careers and then moved into and out of a grueling pastorate unlike those of his early years. Karon and Karl had four different high schools. John R moved on. John A. and Florence maintained their pattern. An opportunity would come up and, although Florence prayed with him about it, John A. made the decisions and she followed. It wasn’t her place to question but to follow.
Lodi, California (where I met them all), Salem, Oregon, and then Seattle Washington ensued. There were rewarding milestones along the way as the older kids married and started having families, but pastoring was becoming more difficult and it was taking its toll. Peter and Rodney were growing up and in high school. In Seattle, Mom began working full time to revitalize a day care at the Seattle church. Frankly, she was magnificent! The day care flourished remarkably. With her eighth-grade education, state licensing could have been a problem. However, she so impressed the examiner with her know-how, administrative skills, and curriculum development that they approved her—and the Day Care—with flying colors. Meanwhile, Pastor Neal struggled with depression, frustration, and conflict within the church. Seemingly endless rain and the dismal gloom of sunless days weighed heavily on him and they returned to California. Brief pastorates followed there and in Nevada—with another declining day care for Flo to revitalize—but Dad’s age and fifty-three years of pastoring caught up with him, and they finally retired.
A second start
With minimal social security and an insignificant pension, they had to find an economical place to live with some way to earn additional income. Karl lived in Sierra Vista, Arizona, which was the perfect spot. They bought a few acres of land and set up a mobile home park that would support them. The freedom from pastoring, abundant sunshine, and the wide open spaces of the high desert brought healing. Florence (few people called her Sister Neal any more) worked as a nurse’s aide and did the bookkeeping for their business. Dad found derelict mobile homes in the classifieds and together they cleaned them up, and built porches. Dad clambered onto rooftops and repaired swamp coolers and Mom fumigated desperate appliances and restored them to a pristine and sparkling state. On Sundays Dad filled in as interim preacher. Life was good for the next few years.
Failing health and bad knees eventually forced Dad off the roofs and they sold the mobile home park and moved to Tucson. This would be their last move together. Decreasing mobility from Parkinson’s disease and increasing dementia (Alzheimer’s was never formally diagnosed) crippled Dad. Mom barely escaped an emotional and physical breakdown caring for Dad, who no longer recognized her, referring to her as “that woman who works so hard.” She dressed him and made sure he always looked good. Weeks of little sleep and Dad’s unpredictable behavior pushed her to the breaking point, yet she soldiered on. It never occurred to her to find a facility where he could be cared for by professionals. She was the wife. It was her obligation. At the breaking point, she finally arranged for a hospice facility, but just one week after taking up residence there, he passed away. It was February 11, 1994. For the first time in her life, she was alone.
For the next three years, Mom—like most widows—struggled to find herself. Profound loneliness descended upon her. She had always been Mrs. John A. Neal, and John A. was gone. Who was she? How would she survive? After a couple of years, she was floundering. Then, three years after Dad’s death, her granddaughter, Jodi, and her husband, Tom, invited her to live with them and help care for their two little boys.
It was a godsend; an important step in establishing her new identity. She had a family again and the little boys were a breath of fresh air each day.
In 2002 she moved across the country to Anderson, IN where we lived, and took an apartment at Harter House, a retirement community where two meals were provided and yet she had her independence. She established herself at South Meridian Church of God where we were pastors, and developed some strong friendships. During the next couple of years she became a vital and positive force in the Harter House community, but she began to realize that she was not ready for group housing and, when we moved to Columbus, Ohio as pastors at Meadow Park Church of God, she followed, renting an apartment overlooking a small lake and not far from the church.
Just call me Flo
Columbus was a new place and Flo emerged from the ten years of becoming. It isn’t that being Mrs. John A. Neal was bad. It’s that she discovered a whole new person inside that was not tied to a profession or another person. As we introduced her to everyone at church, she responded with, “Just call me Flo!” She had been learning many things along that path. We watched in amazement as she taught us what she was learning.
It’s okay to be yourself. It’s all right to have an opinion and to voice your preferences. It’s okay to set boundaries. In fact, it’s critical to mental health. She learned to say “no” to those who would abuse her generous spirit, leaving her broke on more than one occasion. After so many years of squeezing into the role of pastor’s wife and putting the expectations of others ahead of her own needs, she chose to minister where she wanted, and not in the places others said she should. She was more than Mrs. John A. Neal now; she was Flo, pure and simple.
Not setting boundaries had almost destroyed her. Caregiving is exhausting and can be perilous. Mom’s generation grew up with a profound sense of duty, sometimes to the point of self destruction. There’s much to celebrate in this attitude, and many of us have benefited from those who have served us so faithfully. However, setting boundaries is crucial to mental and physical health, especially with loved ones. If we don’t take care of ourselves, no one will.
Mom discovered that certain things she had always done could now be done without the encumbrances of being the pastor’s wife. Her gift of teaching evolved into being an active participant in an adult Sunday school class. (She said she was too nervous to teach any more.) There she shared the spiritual lessons she had learned in a lifetime rich with experiences and wisdom. Many in the congregation benefited and grew to love her.
Always a prayer warrior, she enlarged her focus, keeping a three-ring binder jammed with handwritten requests that she jotted on bulletins and that people slipped into her purse. She especially focused on three areas: her apartment building, the youth in our congregation, and those who were discouraged or ill that could use a visit. She and a friend from church regularly visited those on the church prayer list. People began to come by her apartment for prayer, or bring others for encouragement. Over Scrabble, she counseled young mothers and new Christians. (That didn’t mean she would cut you any slack if you misspelled a word!)
Flo heard that the youth group needed counselors. She was the oldest person to volunteer! Of course, all-night lock-ins and paintball excursions were beyond her. She couldn’t sit on the floor anymore. But she could attend meetings and activities where she ate pizza and kept notes in her prayer journal. She invited some of the youth to her apartment on Sunday after church, where she had prepared special treats and introduced them to Scrabble (no doubt beating them soundly).
Her deep passion to win others to Christ was evidenced in her supreme joy of living, whether riding a roller coaster
or greeting all of the employees by name at the local Kroger store. And at the bank. And at the filling station. She felt that God was inviting her out of her comfort zone and she began to reach out to the many Asians moving into her apartment. Her unique introduction to a new resident was to take them a dish of Jell-o along with a big smile. Her bubbly personality and that Christ-filled smile overcame many a language barrier. Two young Korean men in Columbus enrolled at the Ohio State University became her adopted sons. She brought them to church and, when they graduated, was invited to the celebration dinner with their parents, who flew over from Korea (the only non-family present)! She took books to an elderly Indian neighbor who she was delighted to discover was not only a Christian but also an avid reader. All day long he had sat alone while his adult children were away at work—until Flo showed up, God’s sunshine to a stranger in a foreign land. She hosted a Bible study in her apartment and became friends with a young Japanese woman hungry for friendship. That young woman accepted Christ and later drove all the way from Cincinnati for her memorial service.
In short, Flo, an eighth-grade graduate, a pastor’s wife with five children, a day care and preschool director who brought in educational curriculum that was the best in Seattle, a nurses’ aide in Veteran’s Hospitals, the local Florence Nightingale in her Arizona community, a beloved prayer partner to scores of people, a beloved grandma and great grandma (known simply as “Great”)—that Flo—became more passionate, effective, and loved in her eighties than most of us become in our entire lives.
December 20, 2007, was going to be a full day. She had attended two Christmas parties that week and was going to meet Karon to attend a third. But she never arrived. On the way she had a heart attack that allowed her to slow down, steer off the road, miss fire hydrants, cars, and telephone poles, and come to a stop on the grass across from the church where she stepped into heaven at the age of 86. At her memorial service, just three years after arriving in Columbus, over 250 stayed after the service for a potluck dinner (several brought Jell-o in her honor) where they took two hours at the open mike telling what she had meant to them. One gentleman concluded by saying, “Life is best when you ‘go with the Flo!”
“The world has yet to see what God can do with a man fully consecrated to him” is attributed to the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody, who lived his life with the goal of seeing what God could do if he were totally committed to him. Some of us were blessed to witness God’s light shining through another committed person: a woman named Flo, who wanted nothing more than to be a witness for Christ. And to win at Scrabble.
Have you ever awakened from a vivid dream that seemed, after you were conscious, to be totally ridiculous? As I was growing up, I often dreamed that I was flying, an exhilarating experience swooping up and over treetops and soaring high above the clouds with the birds. I wish I could lasso that dream again! Sometimes I dreamed that after tying up snakes they grew legs through their ropes and ran after me! As I grew older, I began to have that awkward dream in which you find yourself naked in a crowd.
In my teenage years my dreams included sexual fantasies that embarrassed me upon waking up. Usually they included no one I knew. Only once do I remember a truly frightening dream. Our family was being chased by a crazed madman with a knife through endless rose gardens and mazes of a huge mansion. I woke up right after I had stabbed him to death. I was out of breath and wet with perspiration.
One of my most memorable and revealing dreams occurred as I was sinking into major depression. I was on a high suspension bridge over a murky river at the bottom of a rocky gorge. The cold water was foaming and churning far below. Many people were on the bridge with me, all members of the church I was pastoring at the time. One young woman ran to the edge, climbed over the railing and jumped, plunging like a rock. Most of those on the bridge rushed over to me, calling out that I should to jump in after her to save her. I knew that my jumping could not help her, and probably would be suicidal. Even so, after a moment of agonizing indecision, I jumped. I woke up as I was falling.
Today my dreams tend to end in frustration: e.g., I am ready to officiate at a funeral and look in the coffin only to discover that I have no idea who the person is; or I open my Bible to preach in front of a large crowd and my notes are completely blank. For several months last year I had severely troubling dreams which left me feeling hopeless and lost.
Where do dreams come from and what do they mean?
The Bible sometimes describes the purpose of dreams as the foretelling of some future event, such as Pharaoh’s dreams that predicted seven years of famine. Daniel was able to tell Nebuchadnezzar the meaning of his fantastic dream which explained the future downfall of his Kingdom and the eventual rise of the Kingdom of God. Joseph, Mary’s husband, was directed specifically through dreams both before and after his marriage.
Modern psychology has opened doors to dream interpretation. It seems that our subconscious mind uses sleep to process our experiences and emotions. Many dreams are shared by people of all nations and generations: they include falling, flying, being chased, taking a test for which we’re not prepared, and that dream about being naked. Generally, these dreams are easily understood, as they express feelings common to humankind. Normal dreams are forgettable, often nonsensical, and of little consequence. However, dreams can be complex and difficult to understand. Dreams can also be frightening or bothersome, leaving you troubled and fretful. Traumatic experiences often replay over and over in dreams, further exhausting us. War experiences, abuse, deprivation—all of these slog their way through our dreams. And dreams occasionally reflect darker events that reflect severe emotional imbalance, psychosis, or even demon possession.
The Elephant Whisperer
John, a pastor friend of ours, said recently that our emotions are like an elephant and we are the rider/handler, or mahout. The rider has the implements of control, yet sits in a precarious position because the elephant is much stronger. Most mahouts today live in India and Thailand. A recent study of these mahouts divulged that most of them were raised with the elephants they handle, and all of them claimed a deep love for their animals. Yet an overwhelming 91.7% have been attacked/injured by their elephant. Among the mahouts who have been attacked by an elephant, 56.7% were attacked more than three times and remaining 35% were attacked one or two times. According to the nature of injuries sustained, 45% of the respondents received major injuries, 26.7% sustained minor injuries, and the remaining 20% of them were grievously injured with a resultant handicap.
Our emotions are like those elephants. We are familiar with them since they’ve been around as long as we can remember. Yet they can catch us off guard, wound us, or even provoke despair and sadness. Dreams move like shadows, nighttime waves on an ocean shore, difficult to understand because of the darkness of the subconscious. They are unpredictable reflections of our elephants/emotions but often reveal what we cannot see in our waking moments. Dreams are neither right nor wrong. They rise in our deepest psyche where our truest personality resides. Can their meanings be harnessed? Is it possible to tame their frightening episodes or banish their lusty images?
A horse or dog whisperer is someone who has an almost mysterious ability to communicate with horses or dogs. They can communicate on equine or canine levels to bring difficult animals under control and to rehabilitate animals that seem beyond help. Jesus is our elephant whisperer. He not only can tame our emotions but he brings sense out of them and orders them into life-giving patterns. Furthermore, Jesus moves effortlessly through our subconscious world and clearly sees the sources and meanings of our dreams. He can help us control them, banish them, and learn from them.
Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 2 that because of the Holy Spirit, we have access to the very thoughts of God. In chapters 14-16 of his gospel, John explains the work and purposes of the Holy Spirit: God’s constant companionship, his desire to open our hearts and minds to God’s truth, and his superhuman ability to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Paul teaches that those whose lives are under the control of the Holy Spirit—our Elephant Whisperer—will enjoy love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control (Galatians 5:22-23).
But back to dreams…
Remember my disturbing dream of the bridge and the jumper? I was led to a godly counselor who helped me understand that this dream revealed that I had the Messiah Complex: I was operating with the unconscious belief that I was personally responsible for the decisions and actions of my church members. If they did well, I rejoiced. If they made bad choices, I took the blame. The counselor helped me see how ridiculous this was, and I, in turn, have been able to better manage my life. Depression was the end result of this complex, and now I lead a more normal life with the help of medication.
At bedtime I ask God specifically to control my dreams. That children’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I ask the Lord my soul to keep….” is a good idea. God revealed to me that I should ask Karon and my children to pray with me to help control my severely troubling dreams that oppressed me for several weeks. I also have learned to wake myself up if a dream begins going toward that bad ending.
I said earlier that dreams are neither right nor wrong. But they can express horrible emotions or gratuitous sexual fantasies that feed the evil tendencies we all find within us. In that same nighttime prayer—or perhaps throughout the night—ask God to remove all that is profane from your dreams. (For ideas, read Galatians 5:16-21).
How about your dreams? Perhaps the Elephant Whisperer will open a window for you into this mysterious world.
The other day in that moment between waking and sleeping I thought, “What if there were no God? What if this is all there is?”
I lay there wondering what that would do to my most cherished values and beliefs. I got up and let Molly out. Soon the coffee was done and I carried a steaming cup to the recliner to watch the sun rise. Molly jumped up into my lap and was soon asleep.
“No God”? I couldn’t get my mind around it.
“No God” means a meaningless universe. It would mean that we are here by accident and that every fantastic, living, beautiful, inexplicable thing we witness every day of our lives appeared out of nowhere and will disappear in the same way.
“No God” means that human life immediately loses immense value. It would mean none of has a soul and that each of us is no more important than the individual lives of 950,000 species of insects or the billions of protozoa swimming in the farm pond. “No God” makes it possible to commit genocide and feel no pang of guilt. In a godless world those who have things are more important than those who don’t have things. You may as well kill the sick because they are only using up valuable resources.
“No God” means no Bible. No scriptures would guide us, teach us to love our neighbor, or say how important it is to forgive each other. No great men and women of God would have lived to leave us our priceless legacy. We would never read of the way God revealed Himself through prophets, angels, or his son, Jesus Christ. No artists would have been inspired by the Annunciation, the crucifixion, or the resurrection. Michelangelo never would have carved the divine Pieta or the majestic David. St. Peter’s Basilica would never amaze us with its sublime architecture nor any of the world’s other incomparable cathedrals.
A world without God would not have produced those Christians who left Europe to establish what is now the United States of America. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton Universities would never have been founded for they were established by Christians, as were University of Edinburgh, St. Andrews, and Cambridge University in the U.K.
“No God” means no Jesus Christ.
No Jesus Christ means no redemption.
No redemption means no salvation.
No salvation means no heaven.
No heaven means annihilation at death. A godless world makes it a laughable exercise to even imagine being reunited with our dead parents or friends.
“No God” means no worship. No hymns would have been written. No glorious oratorios would be composed to proclaim, “He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords!” Our hearts would never be lifted up in worship. We would never be moved to tears with the love of God for us. Neither Christmas nor Easter would remind us of the greatest story ever told. There would be no such story.
“No God” means no missions or missionaries. The lives of millions would continue to exist in darkness and their bodies would remain ravaged by sickness for no one would have traveled to the far corners of the earth to proclaim the gospel. There would be no gospel. Billy Graham would not have preached on six continents and millions would never have accepted Christ but would still be lost. Countless hospitals would have never been built, clinics would never have been established, and orphans would be left by the hundreds of thousands in the world’s bleak cities.
“No God” means no prayer. I have thought more times than I can count how utterly awful it would be to manange life without prayer. When human help is unavailable, when the help you need is beyond what any human could possibly do, or when no one cares what you’re going through: how would you survive without prayer? A Godless world surely would be a pitiless and pitiful place of unimaginable loneliness and desperation.
“No God” means no personal friend who sticks closer than a brother. Without God we would never hear of the Holy Spirit and never experience His warmest comfort, wisest counsel, or blessed peace in the midst of trouble. There would be no ministering angels sent by God to protect, bless, and carry out His will on earth as it is in heaven. No one would need to explain miracles, for there would be none. No need to talk about divine guidance. It would be massively absent. The human heart that longs for enlightenment would always be dark. Those who mourn would not be comforted. Those who suffer for righteousness sake would perish. The brokenhearted would remain broken. The unborn child would be discarded as carelessly as a rotten cabbage.
“No God” means no judgment. Can you imagine how awful it would be were we to have no hope that people will reap what they sow? What despair would pour into our lives if we thought that the criminal and murderer would never be judged or that the cruelest torturer would never pay for his crimes. How useless it would be to “hope for the better” because there would be no better—ever. Some claim that everyone will be saved. This blasphemy can only be believed if there is no God. And, in reality, everyone would not be saved, but lost.
Many people pose difficult questions about God, such as “If God is good, how do you explain evil?” and “If God is loving, why do good people suffer?” Some keen minds have found the proof of God too difficult or beyond human capability to understand. Some claim to be atheists. Others agnostics. Some even ridicule those of us with faith in God. Everyone must choose what to believe.
No God? For me, there are a thousand things easier to believe than this.
I believe that God does exist. I believe He does love the world. I believe He did send Jesus Christ and His Spirit. I believe His angels are at this moment winging in glorious ministry to the four corners of the earth.
I choose to believe in God. I choose to believe His Word. I choose to believe in Heaven and Hell and am happy to leave their population up to God the Father. Faith in God gives hope and meaning to the universe. It gives me hope. Faith in God gives warmth to life. Faith in God gives dignity to the human race. With a Creator God every life has meaning. Every life is precious. Good is rewarded. Bad is punished. Each person has value. I have value.
I believe these things because I know God. I talk with Him each day. I read His Word that answers many questions if we will but look for those answers. What I know of God, of course, is itsy-bitsy, a mere speck of His vastness. But Jesus Christ said, “Because I live, you, too, shall live.” And I plan on spending an eternity getting to know Him a lot better.
Even were I to discover upon death that my faith was ill-founded, it would be worth it to have lived as though He loves me, to have believed he helps me, and to begin each day with new hope for tomorrow.