Reflection and journaling alternatives

Journaling is not everyone’s cup to tea. However some kind of record of God’s work in our life and what we are experiencing should be kept if we want to grow in discernment and in awareness of ourselves.

The ancients were instructed to put up stones of memorials to remember the mighty deeds of God. Joshua picked twelve stones from the river bed of Jordan and set them up so that God’s people remember what God has done and therefore what God is like. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob set up stone markers to remember the encounters they had with God and the words God had revealed to them.

Journaling is one pragmatic and simple way of doing this. Recording what God has done for us, in us and through us. Recording our encounters with Him and what he taught us. Recording our insights, emotions, memories, desires, dreams, and feelings. Reviewed regularly, whether monthly, quarterly and yearly to reflect on what God has been doing for you, in you and through you and what he is saying to you is a healthy way to discern God’s work and will in your life.

My new journal. Yes, paper and pen!

With the annual review I could give a name to my year. One was a year of stress. One was a year of desolation. One was a year of clarity. Last year was a year of release of burdens. I could see what God was doing with my life and how I was progressing spiritually and in ministry.

If you want to see spiritual growth in your life the organic way, you will want to record what you are experiencing, reflect on what God is doing and saying to you, and grow in discernment. No short cuts. The path of patience.

However not everyone likes recording their experiences with words, whether on paper or digitally. Here are a few other ways to remember God and our encounters and experiences:

  1. Use a voice recorder and talk through what happened and what you felt.
  2. Draw pictures and images to symbolise or express your emotions and desires.
  3. Make something: origami, clay work or plasticine, or embroidery to represent what happened.
  4. The smartphone is always with us and you could download an app that allows you to take short notes for each month. If you have a Samsung Note like I do, you have wonderful access to S Pen and S Note folders.
  5. Take a large cardboard and draw twelve large stones, each blank stone to represent each month, and write significant key words of events or emotions.
  6. Use Facebook to write private notes of what happened and emoticons to express emotions. Change the privacy setting to keep some of these for your eyes only.
  7. Use Instagram and use pictures and words to record your encounters, feelings and events.
  8. Start a free blog on blogspot or wordpress and keep whatever you record private.
  9. Do a selfie video of yourself talking.
  10. Use that neglected camera in the drawer and set it up on a stand and record yourself talking about what God has been doing in your life periodically.

I am sure there are several other creative ways besides deepening on our unreliable memory.  Do share with us in the comments below how you do it personally?

Making Progress in Stages of Prayer

How do we trace progress in our prayer relationship with God? An author by the name of Mark Thibodeux wrote about The Four Stages of Prayer that may give us a helpful framework to reflect on our personal answer to this question.

Firstly, talking at God. This is where all believers start their prayer life. It revolves around telling God our needs, problems, and desires. We even tell God how he can resolve them. At this level, God is nearly treated like an object, a gigantic prayer answering vending machine. Its a I-it kind of relationship if we go by Martin Buber’s categories. Sadly, many Christians stay at this stage and never move on, even after many years as a follower of Christ.

Talking to God as to a friend

The second stage is where we talk to God. At this stage prayer still revolves around words. The improvement is that we are more aware and conscious of God as a person, usually as a friend with whom we could share our needs, desires, thoughts and ideas, and what has been happening in our daily lives. There is a greater care to treat God as a person, a friend capable of and desirous of mutual love.

The third stage is where we learn to listen to God. This of course is a natural build up from stage two, for when you are conscious that God is a personal friend, you naturally wonder if this Friend has anything to share with you: his heart – thoughts, desires, emotions, goals. The main way of course is through meditation on the word of God. Taking passages and reading and reflecting on what God may be saying to us is listening to God. There are many other ways that God speaks to us too (creation, dreams, visions, objects, events, prophecy, signs)  and we should not limit what he chooses. However, the truths of the Bible is God’s main and sure way of sharing with us what is on his heart. Do not mistaken this for Bible study or exegesis and these are important, but what this is about is the experiential truth encounters with God in scripture meditation and prayer.

The final stage is being with God. This is where we go with God beyond communication to communion. This is similar to human relationships where through knowing a person more intimately there is no need to use words all the time to nurture the relationship. Presence and silence and keeping company would do. We may feel his awesome presence, his overwhelming love, or his compassion or power even though no words are exchanged and we are merely sitting with eyes closed and mouth shut in prayer. At this stage it does not mean you do not interact with God anymore with words. It is a build up of previous stages but each stage layer by layer becoming richer and richer, and deeper and deeper.

So once we know where we are, we can make it our desire and prayer to move to the next stage of prayer and intimacy. We can consciously seek to relate to God as a personal friend and share more of our life without always coming to him only when we need help. Or we may want to listen to God more attentively in prayer, meditation and all the other ways God speaks to us and learn to record what we heard in a notebook. For those who want to go even deeper they will find themselves brought to a place of helplessness and dependence – and usually silence and stillness. Better still, instead of having to go through a trial that brings you to such a place, cultivate times of stillness, silence and solitude with God. Learn to wait on God silently for 15 minutes and progress to longer periods of wordless intimacy.

What do you think of these four stages of prayer? Are they easy to relate to? Do you know of other frameworks of progression in prayer? Do share in the comment below.

The Bible in One Year

Triggered by a conversation

It has been some years since I went the Bible through in one year. This time I went through the Bible differently. Instead of reading, I listened through the audio Bible.

This project was triggered by a conversation with a friend, Jacob Yeo. Over lunch in November 2016, he casually mentioned that he had gone through the Bible six times in the previous six years. I was amazed and asked how he did it. He introduced me to YouVersion, which was a Bible App with many reading plans. The one he had done was The Bible in One Year with devotional thoughts by Nicky and Pippa Gumbel. I felt challenged.

The desire grew stronger in the next few weeks. I thought of preachers I knew who also had a similar practice of reading through the Scriptures annually: Michael Ross Watson and Lawrence Chan of Living Sanctuary,. I recalled a lunch I had with Liew Heng San a former permanent secretary (Law) and CEO of CPF Board. He encouraged me to listen to audio scriptures read, instead of reading them. He cited research in neuroscience that pointed out that more of the brain was more fully activated when we listened than when we read. Or something along those lines. This was new information for me. I felt God was inviting me to do this, and that he would give me the grace to do so.

The Bible in One Year screenshot

Getting started and ending well

So, I installed the YouVersion Bible App, and searched for Nicky Gumbel’s reading plan, and started my journey in middle January 2017. I also encouraged some friends and the pastoral team to do the same. Wanting to complete the Bible in one year, I gradually caught up with lost time and readings. On many occasions, I would miss the readings for a few days but would catch up during my day off, or on weekends.

I would skip Nicky’s devotions and go straight to the audio readings, preferring the NIVUK version because of the narrator’s style of reading. Sometimes I would switch to The Message version or the ESV version for a change. I would use this reading plan in conjunction with the Bible Project on YouTube. They have lovely brief pictorial explanations of every book of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. I went there to get a big picture understanding of each Bible book. This combination of listening to audio scriptures and watching Bible Project videos was absolutely enlightening and useful.

I was glad that near the middle of December 2017, I decided that I was going to speed up and complete my reading plan ahead of time. It was like the last burst of energetic sprint before the finish line. And it felt so good to end early and end well.

What I learned from this exercise

Here are some things I learned in this interesting journey that God invited me to:

  • I found that listening was easier than reading.
  • Sometimes my mind would get distracted and I did not know what I heard.
  • I was reminded of many verses, stories and themes that I forgot existed due to my selective reading of portions of scriptures in the previous several years.
  • I am reminded of broad themes like creation, the fall, calling, Israel, covenants, law and grace, faithfulness, God’s gracious dealing with Israel and the world, salvation and redemption, kingdom and glory.
  • Certain books intrigued me and seemed to invite me to examine them more often and more deeply. Books like Ezekiel and some others beckon me.

What will the next leg of the journey look like? I do not know. I am asking the Lord for guidance for 2018. On my mind are a few options: meditating with the 19th annotation of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, or using some of the other plans in the YouVersion.

What about you? What aids did you use to help strengthen your faith? And what do you plan to do in 2018?