My first journal was a yellow legal pad. So was my second. Then came a series of leathers, hardbacks and spiral bounds. The pens evolved from whatever was on hand to a few chosen favorites—mostly black, mostly medium point.
Early on, the pages were filled with the prayers of a high school kid who wanted everything and understood little. I wrote in code about the girls I liked and with bravado about the quality of my faith. I’d finish the last line of the last page of one journal, select its successor and keep writing. The journals from this era make a stack more than a foot tall.
And then somewhere along the way, the writing slowed.
What used to be ten pages per week became more like three. And then what was three pages per week became more like three pages per month.
Vincent van Gogh wrote, “In most men there exists a poet who died young, whom the man survived.” Was the poet in me dying a little more with every unfilled page? Could any day be a good day if at the end of that day its page was empty?
Recently, I noticed that I had taken on a strange behavior. If I went too long between journal entries, I would shelve the journal and buy a new one, as if what words that old journal did hold might blow off the pages like dust if I opened it again. A new book would be a kind of do-over. My first entry would always contain an apology to God, followed by a determination to write more. But, inevitably, before long the journal would find itself at the bottom of my backpack, on hand but unused.
So now I have two stacks of journals, both over a foot high. In the first stack, every line of every page is filled. As for the second, hundreds and hundreds of the pages are empty.
I’ve always carried my current journal with me everywhere I go. I still do. But I’ve hardly written a thing in fifteen months. And sometimes, the sight of that little book no longer filling with words like before embarrasses me, like the truest part of me—the part that prays—is fading. But only sometimes.
More and more I’m making my peace with the empty pages. I know the poet is still alive, it’s just that he’s had a tough year. Sometimes he doesn’t know how to say what is in his heart. Other times he does, but chooses not to write it down. Other times, he’s just too busy to carve out the time it takes to sit still long enough to make a record of the moment.
Regardless, I’m beginning to understand that those empty pages tell a story too. And an important one. It is the story of following a call with my wife, of raising children, of grieving a farewell from a church and friends I’ve loved more than I can express, of selling a house and buying another, of entering in to a new community, a new church, and a new role in a city we love—along with all the new relationships, challenges and adjustments these circumstances bring.
I’m sure your life, like mine, is filled with disciplines abandoned, traditions forgotten and eras undocumented. So we must ask ourselves, is the discipline the excellent thing, or the way to it? Is the tradition itself what is meaningful, or a sign pointing the way? Is an era of life something words can preserve on paper? What are we really losing in the empty pages?
Sometimes the words don’t come. Or they come, but they don’t do justice. Sometimes we just have to put down the pen and leave the journal in the bottom of the backpack and let the empty pages tell the story.
Listen. When the time comes back around to pick up your pen and write, then write. And write without guilt. It’s okay.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).