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The Art of the Written Prayer: A Series on Prayer Journaling (Part 1)

Early one evening, in a Tennessee tent, I lay on a sleeping bag with a girlfriend as she prayed out loud. I grew up in a church that practiced the beauty of liturgical prayer – a congregation of words spoken in one voice. But that was all I knew of prayer – the words printed in the bulletin and recited liturgically and the daily thankfulness of our childhood singsong prayer before dinner. Prayer wasn’t natural to me. And as I lay there in the tend that summer evening back in 2000, I realized: prayer was natural to her.

In Luke 11:1 the disciples begged Jesus to teach them how to pray. I didn’t realize that I was also wondering the same. Until I lay there in that tent that night, my friend praying – casually and comfortably. Her words coming with ease. It was the first time that I realized there is a place for formal, liturgical prayer. And there is a place for the easy prayer-conversation of talking to God the way you and I would chat together, snuggled up in the corner of my couch.

Sometimes the most profound answer is the one to the prayer you didn’t even know to pray.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? God taught me how to pray when I didn’t really even know that something was amiss. I didn’t know I needed to ask for it in prayer – He just taught me without my asking to learn. As I wrote this story, the Spirit of God whispers the words of Exodus 33:11, and I realize: there’s a Biblical precedent for the friendly prayer-talk. Just like Jesus gives the disciples a model prayer to follow and pray corporately and liturgically in Luke 11, God sets the precedent of personal friendship-conversation with Him:

“And it came to pass, when Moses entered the tabernacle, that the pillar of cloud descended and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the LORD talked with Moses. … face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”

Exodus 33:9, 11

Take a look at the Old Testament, and you’ll see God speaking often. But notice the language: more often than not, it says “God spoke to” Moses or Aaron or whoever was receiving instruction. But that friendship-conversation verse in Exodus 33? It reads “the LORD talked with Moses.” Even the Hebrew definition for the talking-word references the fact that the talking was reciprocal.

Shortly after that Tennessee trip back in 2000, a friend gave me a journal that got my feet wet in the world of writing out my thoughts on paper. That journal has long since been discarded (chronicling more of the heartache saga stemming from a disastrous first love that I would rather forget), but it was the catalyst.

I don’t remember the first time I shifted from the angsty narration of the contents of my heart to actually writing my prayers. It sort of became a natural segue and, somewhere along the way, a journal became a regular companion to my Bible. I do, however, remember the first time I tried praying without it. Spoiler alert: I didn’t get far. The time was littered with unfinished sentences, repeated phrases, and circled but incomplete thoughts.

The engine was revving but I got nowhere fast. Focus was difficult to hold, kept slipping off. I needed a way to laser-focus just to complete a sentence. And I decided right then and there, in the middle of the college library, that I would always have a prayer journal nearby.

It was the key that helped me to unlock the one thing my brain needed to engage intentionally in the practice of prayer.

In the last 20 years of my written-prayer practice, I have learned two invaluable lessons about prayer-journaling:

  1. Written prayer is a form of worship. To be sure, there’s no verse in the Bible about physically writing out your prayers, but David did set a pattern for it in the Psalms, leading by example. Showing tangibly that writing your prayers is a form of worship. Sure, it takes time to get comfortable putting intimate and sometimes scary words you are believing by faith alone onto paper for anyone to read, but once you get used to it, you settle into what Eugene Patterson calls the “unforced rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11:28, MSG). Or, as my pastor says, “moving from distraction to presence through the practice of abiding with Christ.”
  2. Written prayer is a form of obedience. It’s not just being bold enough to put to paper the big things you are asking God for. It’s also being brave enough to write the things you think He might be speaking in response. It’s a conversation-recording that can be confirmed later or explained down the road when the 20/20-hindsight thing is on your side. As you practice writing your prayers, you are simultaneously getting to know the voice of God and how He speaks uniquely to you. Also, there’s the command He gave to John in the book of Revelation, just after He revealed Himself in the most jaw-dropping kind of way. “I am the First and the Last,” God said there in Revelation 1:17. “I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen.” And then, He said two powerful words: “Therefore, write.” He told John to write everything that he saw and experienced. And I have taken those words as my own commandment from God, to write everything that I hear and discover through my quiet-time study. Knowing that the wind of His Spirit will come through and blow away the fluff, leaving behind the Truth.

Next week, we’ll talk a little bit more about the “why” behind prayer journaling. And through the rest of this series, we’ll also touch on the “how” as well as tips, tools, and some good, old-fashioned written-prayer-prompts to get you started. I can’t wait!

Do you have a question about prayer journaling?
Drop me an email or leave a comment and I’ll answer it in a future post!

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