I have to admit that I have always struggled with prayer. I hate to say that aloud since I am a pastor. But let's keep that between you and me for the moment. (And the rest of the internet, I guess). It's somewhat embarrassing to admit, but it's true. The moment I begin to pray, my mind wanders quickly. Keeping my thoughts in order is somewhat like herding cats. Cats with very short attention spans!
From time to time I have gotten on my knees and said to myself, "Self, I need to really pray this time! I am just going to work through the Lord's Prayer for five minutes and concentrate on every line." Even then, with such a short prayer, my mind still wanders.
So for the last twenty years of my professional ministry, I have used some form of a prayer journal to keep my thoughts in order. There is something about the tangibility factor that keeps me on pace. Writing, of course, forces the mind to stay in gear and progress from one idea to the next in a linear manner. Putting one word after the other to form entire sentences makes the mind build with concrete ideas; as meaning is designated by purposefully selected words. Putting one sentence after the other in a logically connected order enables me to construe my thoughts into intelligible constructs with a certain trajectory of meaning.
Left alone, the mind tends not to work that way unaided. My thoughts blow around like the fall leaves in my yard on a windy day. The pen in my hand and the paper on my desk tend to function something like the tracks of a train, or perhaps the guardrails on a curvy road. They keep me moving in the right direction.
Using a prayer journal may be a solution to the concentration problem for some people. For me, it has worked quite well over the years. In this post, let me share with you several ways that I have used prayer journals to some advantage. I will describe these in more detail in this video (click here) with pictures of my actual hand-written journals to help you understand what I mean.
- The Prayer Journal. The first method is to actually write out the prayers of the heart in full-sentence form, as one would write in a diary. Instead of writing "Dear Diary," however, we simply write directly to the Lord. Saint Augustine wrote this way in his great work, The Confessions. Notice that his entire work is directed to the Lord. This method has worked for me for extended times, but can also take a lot out of me emotionally. It is hard to force myself to write in this sort of self-revelatory way. Nevertheless, it does work well during important seasons of my life, such as mission trips, new births, or moving- across-the-country experiences. This has the additional advantage of serving as a sort of archive of my life; a personal history that I or my heirs may read to some advantage again in the future.
- The A.C.T.S or G.R.I.P. Model. If writing out your prayers in long form is too exhausting (I can't keep it up myself for long), move to a simpler bullet-point format. You might set up your journal with either four columns or four tabbed sections as I demonstrate in my video here. This allows my prayer to evade the necessary conventions of prosaic written form, but still guides my heart and mind in a more focused manner than praying without a pen in hand. Set up your prayer columns with either acronym that you prefer, either Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication or Gratitude, Repentance, Intercession, and Praise. They are both essentially the same. As you write your prayers in list form, go back through them from time to time to see how God has answered your prayers over the weeks and months. Check especially the intercession (supplication) columns to see how His marvelous hand of providential guidance has led you through various trials. And if this gets boring...
- 10,000 Reasons Journal. ... try constructing a journal with a long, numbered sequence of things that you are simply thankful for. The song, 10,00o Reasons is a well-known praise chorus in the contemporary worship scene, but may also be the motivation to see if you can actually come up with such a myriad of reasons to be thankful. This has worked for me for certain periods of time, particularly when I am beset with anxiety, worry, fear or other affections that draw my heart away from joy, gratitude, and gladness. When making such lists, I have been forced to comb not only through Scripture for the plenteous reasons we have to praise God, but also through the rather mundane affairs of my daily life. (Such as the joy of simply sitting down with all five members of my family for a dinner meal).
For several other prayer journal ideas, please check out this video here.