By Anne Pharr

Collecting Words: An Artifact of God’s Presence

I’ve been a journaler for most of my life. Over the years, I’ve used countless cloth-covered and spiral-bound books to record everything from sermon notes to prayers to grocery lists.  

While I know some people enjoy looking back at journals from past years, I tend to box them up for the attic, never to be read again. There is one, however, that I keep on hand. Rather than filling it with my own words, I use this particular journal as a place to record Scripture and quotes, a collection of the words through which God has met me, often during hard stretches of life.

I name the struggle at the top of a page in this journal. I write down the passages or verses I’ve encountered that address the difficulty — often adding my own underlines, highlights, marginal comments, or even pictures. I usually leave a few blank pages between sections to allow for other thoughts I might come across in the future.

I don’t write in this particular journal on a regular basis. Instead, I pick it up either when I sense God providing me with words of encouragement, or when I need to remind myself about those moments. And I have certainly found myself picking it up a bit more frequently in recent days.

When my heart and spirit struggle, I can become uncertain about my future, about God’s place in it, and even about his love for me. In those seasons, just seeing this journal in the basket by my favorite chair is a comforting reminder — a tangible piece of evidence — that God has walked alongside me even during the most difficult days, and that he will continue to do so.  Knowing it is there, and taking the time to re-read some of those words, can lend me the courage I need to do what is written on the first page: “’March on, my soul; be strong!’” (Judges 5:21b)

Here are a few of the section titles, along with some of the verses and excerpts that follow:

Acknowledging and accepting my capacity

because of my long-nurtured (but false) belief that following Christ means being able to do every thing, for every one, at all times.

  • “As your spiritual teacher I give this piece of advice to each one of you: Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities by the light of the faith God has given you.” — Romans 12:3 JBP
  • "'I am holding on to my conviction that I can trust God.' . . . I dare to say it even when everything is not perfect, when I know others will criticise my actions, when I fear that my limitations will disappoint many, and myself . . . .  Still I believe that God will accomplish what I cannot, in God's own grace and unfathomable might." — Henri Nouwen, Mourning into Dancing
  • “Each one should use whatever gift he receives to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” — 1 Peter 4:8-10, NIV
  • The false self denies my own limitations and foibles.  — Alice Fryling, Mirror for the Soul

Reminders and reassurances about staying calm

because of a well-tended habit of confusing conscientiousness with anxiety

  • “. . . as a means of spiritual preparation, tighten up the belt around your minds, keep perfectly calm, keep your hope on the spiritual blessing to be conferred on you at the unveiling of Jesus Christ.” —  1 Peter 1:13, Williams Translation (and my grandmother’s Bible)
  • “Therefore, the Lord God, the holy one of Israel says:  ‘In return and rest you will be saved; quietness and trust will be your strength . . . .’  the Lord is waiting to be merciful to you, and will rise up to show you compassion.” Isaiah 30:15-16, 18 CEB

On the importance of remembering God’s faithfulness in the past and noticing it in the present

...instead of focusing my attention only on moments when God’s presence was more difficult to perceive

  • “My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan . . . .” — Psalm 42:5
  •  " . . . emotions affect us . . . via our memory.  We tend to attune to and thereby remember things that have emotional salience. . . .  We [pay attention] to important and relevant things, and so practice remembering them.  The more I practice remembering things I am emotionally drawn to, the more I become that which I remember." —  Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame
  • “The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.  The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help.  From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears . . . . He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.  He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.” — Psalm 18: 4-6, 16-19 
  •  “Do you think so little of the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance, and patience, not conscious that his kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” — Romans 2:4, Williams Translation
  • “Those who cling to worthless idols forsake the mercy that is theirs.” — Jonah 2:8, EHV

Releasing myself from being over-responsible for difficult circumstances

because of my tendency to interpret difficulties as God’s punishment

  • “The events of this year are not just a series of incidents and accidents, happy or unhappy, but the molding hands of God, who wants us to grow and mature.” — Henri Nouwen, Mourning into Dancing
  • "In all those dark moments, oh God, grant that I may understand that it is you who are painfully parting the fibers of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance." — Teikard de Chardin

Surrendering the need to understand 

  • “As you do not know the path of the wind or how the body is formed in the mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the maker of all things.” — Ecclesiastes 11:5, NIV
  • " . . . the events of this year are not just a series of incidents and accidents, happy or unhappy, but the molding hands of God, who wants us to grow and mature." — Henri Nouwen, Mourning into Dancing
  • “The steps of a person are ordained by the Lord—so how can anyone understand his own way?” — Proverbs 20:24, NET
  • "Lord, thank you that there are no surprises with you.  Help me to find deep comfort in the fact that you are unshakable, and nothing is too great, too terrible, too large, or too heavy for you.  Help me to see the problems that I face today in light of how big you are. May I learn to trust you more and myself less." — Max Lucado, Unshakable Hope
  • "Will I relate to my life resentfully or gratefully?  A key in understanding suffering has to do with our not rebelling at the inconveniences and pains life brings us.  If mourning and dancing are part of the same movement of grace, we can be grateful for every moment we have lived. We can claim our unique journey as God's way to mold our hearts to greater conformity to Christ.  The cross, the primary symbol of our faith, invites us to see grace where there is pain; to see resurrection where there is death. The call to be grateful is a call to trust that every moment can be claimed as the way of the cross that leads to life." — Henri Nouwen, Mourning into Dancing

On the importance of hoping instead of expecting or fearing

  • "Hope deepens our love precisely because it does not have to be bound by experience . . . Because hope always admits its uncertainty, it can be disappointed but never killed. It is always open-ended. Expectation refuses to permit wonderings or doubt, and so it is closed off, final, and frozen. When an expectation is not met, it dies. Sometimes, with grace, hope is born from the rubble of dashed expectations.  More often, the death is simply denied, reality is ignored, and another expectation — just as right and just as impossible — is forged. Without some birth of hope, each remanufactured expectation is covered with a thicker coat of cynicism and paranoia.  Expectation is brittle and can only be shored up by delusion, but hope is soft and willing to suffer pain . . . . Expectation, like efficiency, looks at the end of things, for goals and accomplishments. Hope, like love, looks to the beginnings, for promptings, longing, urgings. — Gerald May, The Dark Night of the Soul
  • " . . . fear . . . always sides with the thing we are afraid of . . . . " — George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin
About the Author

A graduate of Baylor University, Anne Pharr has taught English and First Year Seminar at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, since 1998.  In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Anne serves as program coordinator for the First Year Seminar course and, along with some of her colleagues, developed a college-wide initiative, Partners for Student Potential (PSP), whose mission is to deepen and broaden faculty and staff awareness of the challenges and strengths represented by at-risk students.  PSP activities have included gathering and sharing PSCC student stories at the Walking the Hero's Journey blog as well as interviewing PSCC faculty and administrators about their own college struggles in the Partners for Student Potential podcast.  Besides enjoying family and friends, Anne's passions include writing, music, reading, exercise, Huckleberry the dog, and a great cup of coffee — preferably first thing each morning. More of her writing can be found at her two blogs: shadowwonder (on Christian spirituality) and gritology (exploring how educators and parents can cultivate grit, determination, resilience, and perseverance — and why we should).


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