“Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen. He gave it the name Ebenezer, saying, ‘The Lord has helped us this far.'” (1 Samuel 7:12 NLV)
Their plan required a jet ski ride in sweatshirts and a moderately difficult hike on a cool fall day. My daughter and her best friend decided to mark the beginning of their senior year in college by returning to their favorite destination on the Severn River near our home in Annapolis. At the top of the place they call the “clay mountain,” they decided to bury letters to themselves enclosed in a bottle. The plan is to return in a year to uncover their messages and see what next year’s selves think about what they wrote in this space and time. What will they, as college graduates in 2018, know and dream for their lives that is still too far out of focus to see clearly today?
For most of my life, I’ve engaged in the spiritual practice of journaling. Sometimes it’s a daily practice; in other seasons, I spend time with my journal sporadically. I find clarity, focus, and peace in the physical and visual act of scribbling words on paper, praying “out loud” and organizing my jumbled thoughts into phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. I learn what I think when I write it down, and I ask better questions. Sometimes I hear God’s voice most clearly through my pen.
One of my favorite things about journaling is re-reading what I wrote months or years before from the perspective of today. When a journal is full, before I open the pages of the next one, I like to go back and see what God has revealed to me in the weeks, months, or years it took me to fill the empty pages. A bookshelf in our home is filled with years of thoughts, dreams, worries, struggles, and triumphs, wrapped up in the pages of my multicolored journals. I recently re-read one from 1996, written in the weeks after the birth of our second daughter. I had recently decided to quit my job to stay home with my tiny babies, and I was both joyful and overwhelmed. The tenderness I felt for thirty-one-year-old me brought tears to my eyes. She was such a good mommy, despite her fears and feelings of inadequacy. And God was right there with her, every step of the way.
In the pages of Scripture, we repeatedly see the people of God pausing to remember his faithfulness to them. As each battle is won, as each journey of deliverance is completed, as the promised land is revealed, they stop and remember. They remember God’s promises and provision. They remember their wandering and the ways God repeatedly welcomed them home when they returned to him. They remember his mercy, grace, and love. They remember to whom they belong and how brave they can be when they follow God. And when they pause to remember, they are strengthened to begin again.
Remembering is the path to gratitude. Often we don’t see the progress we’ve made or how God is working in our lives and the lives of our loved ones until we view it in the rearview mirror. While our faith asks us to trust God for today and tomorrow, pausing to remember asks us to stop and say thank you for what God did yesterday. In that space, we can rest once more in the knowledge that God is with us, even when—especially when—we can’t sense his presence.
Whether burying a letter on the top of a clay mountain or writing down our prayers in a journal, the practices we initiate to intentionally remember help us to step back and see the hand of God at work more clearly. God is there, as close as our next breath, but sometimes we don’t realize it until we see the footprints he left behind.
Kelly Johnson is a counselor, writer, speaker, and advocate. She leads a weekly Bible study and serves as chair of the board of directors at a local shelter for the homeless. Married to her high school sweetheart, she is the mom of two college-age daughters. Kelly writes about life, faith, and her newly empty nest at kellyiveyjohnson.com.
Photograph © Angelina Litvin, used with permission