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Praying with Pencil in Hand

An experienced writer learns a surprising (and surprisingly effective) way to combine interviewing and prayer.

By John Sherrill, New York, New York

As appeared in

I'd never known our friend David Manuel to be so emphatic. My wife, Tib, and I had climbed the steps up to his lighthouse studio overlooking Cape Cod Bay. But David, we quickly learned, hadn't invited us up there for the spectacular view.

"I want to show you something new," he said, pointing us to chairs and handing each of us a pencil and a legal-size yellow pad. "A new way to pray. Imagine yourself climbing the Mount of Olives. You come to a clearing—and there is Jesus, alone, seated on a bench. He motions you to join him, invites you to talk to him about anything that's on your mind or in your heart. Write down what you say to him. Listen to his response. Record the whole conversation on your yellow pad."

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We are journalists, Tib and I. We have interviewed hundreds if not thousands of people. But this was the most unusual conversation either of us had ever been asked to record.

For an hour we experimented with this technique so unlike our usual inside-our-heads prayer approach.

Back home next morning I got up early, took coffee, pencil and pad out to our porch and, as David instructed, imagined Jesus waiting there for me.

Away from David's lighthouse, however, doubts and questions assailed me. What tone was appropriate? Formal and worshipful, or casual and everyday?

Finally I just plunged ahead. "Well, Lord, here I am," I wrote on the first ruled line. "If you want to know what is really on my mind, it's not very spiritual. I'm worrying about our old car breaking down on our trip south."

I waited and listened, then wrote down what I thought I heard.

That worry is masking a bigger concern. Your own aging. Your own health breaking down.

What? I was feeling great! Well, a few aches and pains maybe, but I wasn't the kind of guy who went running to the doctor with every little complaint. "All right, Lord," I wrote. "You must be right. I'm almost 82 and I'm afraid I won't be able to keep up our travel schedule."

Back and forth the dialogue went—other subjects, other insights, corrections, encouragements. Was I really hearing from God? Or were these just my own thoughts?

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In David's lighthouse, I'd jotted down two of his yardsticks for measuring anything I heard: Were the responses in keeping with the personality of Jesus? Were they consistent with Scripture?

Against these standards I found this dialogue acceptable. If it was something important and I had doubts, David also advised, I should check with a trusted and experienced Christian friend.

I put my yellow pad aside, astonished to find that 40 minutes had sped by. I returned to my porch rendezvous every morning for a month. Then Tib and I set out on that editorial trip through the south.

It was our second week on the road, a Thursday in Louisiana, when one of my upper left molars began to throb. Root canal trouble, I thought. The next day the pain spread to the lower jaw.

I phoned my endodontist back in New York. "He says it doesn't sound like a tooth problem," I reported to Tib. By bedtime I was wincing with an earache too.

All night I tossed on the motel bed. The whole left half of my face felt as if it were on fire. By morning it was spotted with red lesions the size of nickels. A little boy saw me in the breakfast room and ran screaming to his mother.

Tib had been on the phone trying to locate a doctor. Naturally it was a Saturday (when else do health crises occur?). I put on dark glasses, pulled my hat down to cover as much of my face as possible and let Tib drive me to the nearest hospital emergency room.

We waited for three hours until the frazzled young physician on duty could see me.

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He did a quick examination, took some samples and informed me that I had a bacterial infection. "This should clear it up," he said, writing out a prescription for an antibiotic. "Stop and see another doctor if it doesn't get better."

It didn't. Monday we reached Lindale, Texas, where Tib had a teaching commitment. Lindale was just big enough to support a one-physician clinic. We made an appointment with Dr. Anthony Davis.

John Sherrill is a roving editor for Guideposts.