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A catalog lives on

Greg Asimakoupoulos

After 106 years the Sears catalog is no more. A symbol of Americana went the way of the drugstore soda fountain, long-play record albums, and the telephone booth. The Sears catalog’s impact cannot be measured. It taught many immigrants how to read English, helped many more read the fashion of the day, and was an indispensable volume for the home.

A time capsule between two covers, the catalog chronicled our changing culture for over a century. I’d never thought of that dog-eared catalog quite that way before. However, I know the value of binding time in a book. For the past 15 years I have cataloged my spiritual journey. What the Sears catalog represents to sociologists, my journal is to me. It is a progressive record of my life complete with episodes of doubt, faith, depression, failure, and success. My catalog is an accurate (though not always interesting) chronicle of me.

My experience suggests that keeping a journal has a threefold purpose:

1. My journal documents God’s faithfulness. Words preserve history. Perhaps that is why God chose the written word as a tangible way of disclosing His plan for the world. In the canonized history of Israel and the Early Church, God’s character and agenda are recorded in permanent ink-bound pages to be read and reread again and again. Candid accounts of God’s involvement with humanity contained in a book give generation after generation reason to trust God.

As I read the Bible I am motivated by God’s faithfulness to Abraham, Moses, Daniel, Ruth, Peter, Jairus, Anna, Paul, and others. As I read my journal I am reminded of God’s faithfulness to me. My entries of past months and years give me a perspective with which to evaluate my present circumstances and emotions.

Two years ago I stumbled about in the shadowy darkness of depression that lasted the better part of a year. A counselor helped me understand what my emotions meant and where they were rooted. I also found comfort reading the journal I began in 1976 when I first entered seminary. Leafing through the pages of that book was like looking in a mirror. I discovered that the doubt and discouragement I was feeling at the time had visited me before. I understood that my melancholy temperament leaves me vulnerable to periods of emotional comas.

My journal also included references to God’s answers to my prayer for deliverance from depression. God had come through for me during those first few months of seminary. The scribbles in my journal resuscitated my lifeless heart. My God could be trusted to come through for me again.

2. My journal disentangles my feelings. It was Plato who said, "Reading makes a full main, conference makes a ready man, but writing makes an exact man." Those sentiments are echoed by the one who said, "Thoughts untangle and make more sense when they pass through articulating fingertips." When I take the time to write in my journal the things I am feeling in my gut, I begin to see the invisible. The strangulating grip of unidentifiable emotions is relaxed when I can see them on paper and push them around on the page. Once I see my thoughts looking back at me I am able to ask myself, "Is this really what I feel? Do I have just cause to feel this way?" or "Am I overstating the facts?" My journal helps me practice what I saw recently on a bumper sticker: "Don’t believe everything you think!"

Like the old pro and con list your grandfather suggested for reaching a decision, keeping a journal brings order out of chaos.

A friend is a professional golfer. When he was in the process of qualifying for the PGA tour, he kept a journal. He wanted to clarify a confusing array of thoughts and feelings. Nerves, fears, questionable motives–they all were Dave’s bunkmates. His caddie’s name was stress. But his little bedside binder helped him find his focus, trust his Lord (and his abilities), and make the tour.

3. My journal details my faith. In its pages are prayers of confession, cries for help, expressions of gratitude, and lyrics of praise. It even contains a few original songs. My, journal is my interactive network which links me with the Lord. In it I give myself permission to be brutally honest and daringly specific. Understandably it is a volume for my eyes only.

The Psalms are a great example of how to write a journal. In ancient Israel the people of God logged their inmost aspirations and desperations–their trust as well as their turmoil. On yellowing sheets of parchment King David bared his soul. As we read his entries it’s like looking over his shoulder as he writes.

David discovered that the discipline of jotting down his prayers and complaints freed his heart to rediscover faith. For example, in Psalm 22 David sensed he was all alone. It seemed God had deserted him. Still he inked his indignation with God in mind. He assumed God was there. David’s freedom of expression and determination to write what he thought (no matter how ungodly) encourages me to shoot straight. Amazingly, by the time David had processed his anger and doubt, he closed this entry in his journal with words that verbalized his trust in an absent God.

My experience is much the same. The discipline of pushing a pen over paper strengthens the muscles of my belief ability. Much like the eureka flash of insight that occurs when you have talked something through, my journal records the rewards of watching faith distill before my eyes.

A few months ago I had lunch with a friend who related the story of her conversion. As an English major in college, Carol discovered the benefits of keeping a journal. She had kept a journal for several years. When confronted with the love and beliefs of evangelical Christians, the Holy Spirit began His work. Carol wrestled with her defenses and her doubts on the mat of a three-ring notebook. While she penciled her struggles in her journal, God broke through. Looking at her ideas in print and reading between the lines, she said, "It all clicked and made sense, seeing it in front of me."

Now that the Sears catalog is out of print, just three books comprise my bedside library–a Bible, a hymnal, and a journal. Two of them contain others’ words that speak God’s language. One is written in my own words that speak the language of my heart and helps me make sense of the other two.

Have I succeeded in whetting your appetite to write a book of your own? It really doesn’t matter what kind of notebook you use or how often you make an entry. My advice:

Be totally honest.

Write about ideas and feelings (not facts). Remember, it’s a journal, not a diary.

Don’t be legalistic about it.

Read it from time to time.

Keep it handy.

Keep at it.