When Words Catch Fire

When I remember the Saturday that my seven-year-old self spent in the church library while her father worked on his sermon down the hall, details are missing. I don’t know how long I was there, the name of the book that moved my imagination, or who its author was. Sometimes I long for the facts. But not knowing them keeps me focused on the essentials: I was sitting at a library table reading someone’s words about Jesus as a boy exactly my age when the story captured me. The Word became seven years old and showed me who I wanted to be right then: the kind of person who could be seven and honestly talk to God; the kind of person who could let her spirit flavor everything like Jesus’ did; the kind of person who had a relationship she could never outgrow. I wanted to share my life with God the way seven-year-old Jesus did.

I explained this experience to my dad. The next day I walked the aisle of the church sanctuary to let the congregation know that I wanted to grow up with Jesus.

Years after my baptism, I want to tell the church more about what happens when we read good books in libraries. I want to proclaim that sometimes the words on a page catch fire like a burning bush made of New Times Roman font. If we are wise when we smell the smoke in a sentence, we won’t close the cover quickly. We will lean in closer, lavish our attention on the paragraph and breathe in the whole scene. Maybe we’ll slip off our shoes. When the spark takes hold of the kindling, we can absorb that moment and listen for the holy.

After he saw the burning bush, Moses started looking closer at every desert growth he passed, just in case the flame that changed his life once might be flickering again. After we’ve seen a well-formed sentence become fodder for Divine breath, do we ever stop looking for the new words that God might use to create a sacred sighting?

Learning to gather this kind of kindling, learning to form and celebrate the words that God often ignites, is crucial to vibrant congregations. Yet enlisting poets, writers, and storytellers in the mission of Christ’s Church is seldom a nominating committee’s top priority—even if the Master Wordsmith would love it if it were. What might happen if congregations started calling on everyone to practice praying with their pens? How would a classroom conversation about a Scripture text change if individuals spent three minutes free-writing their response to the question, “God, what do I need to hear in these words?” before their discussion began? How would our communities deepen if we wrote about our spiritual lives, then listened to each other’s stories? If we nurtured the creative gifts among us, would more emerge? Would we learn that Christ’s church has the imagination it needs to turn its challenges into opportunities? When we fail to embrace and nurture the creative gifts God provides for us, how quickly does the body grow weaker? If we practice listening for God with pens ready and notebooks open, what light would we find for the path ahead?

When my faith needs more light, God often sets the work of particular writers ablaze to get my attention, draw me nearer, and help me hear. I met Lewis’ Mere Christianity as a college freshman and started introducing it to anyone I knew who confessed their struggles with faith. Buechner’s Sacred Journey inspired my seminary class to write our own spiritual autobiographies more honestly. Lamott’s Bird by Bird showed me that serious seeking is also joyful. When I failed to write, Dillard’s The Writing Life made me lift the pen again. When I was questioning my purpose a friend tore out two underlined pages from Norris’ Dakota, scribbled These words were meant for you in the margin, and left them in my mailbox. Through Upstream Mary Oliver convinced me that authors were her first friends, and that she would be mine by cutting to the chase with words that made me dizzy: The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

When we pray with our pens we grow less concerned about building our writing resumés and more focused on offering God the kind of kindling that’s useful for feeding a fire. We start to see honest longings and questions given to God become a burning hope. When this foundational purpose underlies our writing and our reading, we discover that the light we need is everywhere. Some of it sits on bookstore shelves. But much of it exists within our congregations. We see it when we set chairs around a table and share the stories of faith we’ve gathered during lunch encounters, routine garden work, tedious times of eldercare, or long silent hours of interrupted sleep.

St. Ignatius taught us to discover the story of our lives within the story of God. His approach to reading Scripture with a pen and notebook helps us slip inside the text and discover the truth we need. Centuries later he reminds us that all of us are rediscovering the Church’s story daily. Our personal stories are not really ours. They are part of the community that is shaping them. My story is part of yours, and yours enriches mine. They all belong to God, who works on countless drafts with us, offering new possibilities for plots, characters, and themes.

Writing prompts:
• Think of a time when a specific Scripture text offered you the light that you needed. Describe the experience. How did those words help you see differently?
• What writing other than Scripture has been important in helping your faith grow? What made those words powerful in your life? How did they point you to God?

Carol Younger is the editor of Reflections.

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