Writing and Prayer: What Do They Have in Common?

Post a Comment » Written on February 9th, 2007     
Filed under: News
By Don Meyer

DENVER, CO (February 9, 2007) – So what exactly do books about prayer and books about writing have in common?

Ask acclaimed author Lauren F. Winner, and she will tell you that writing and one’s spiritual life are more connected than one might think. She shared her insights Friday morning during the closing breakfast gathering of the 2007 Evangelical Covenant Church Midwinter Pastors Conference in downtown Denver.

Winner is a popular author and much in demand as a speaker on the topic of writing as a spiritual discipline “that draws us closer to God and further into the triune life.” She talks about how writing can be one important way for pastors and lay leaders to connect with other church members.

Having come to faith in Christ in England, she revealed her delightful sense of humor, explaining, “being sheltered from an American evangelical Christian subculture during my early years was probably a good thing.” It was during a summer spent in Chicago that she was introduced to the Evangelical Covenant Church that she visited, stating that the exposure to the Covenant helped her transition into the American Christian subculture.

It was during a teaching experience in a southern U.S. writing center that she was drawn into the idea of writing something of her own. A student of hers had written something – a memoir – that was astounding, far better than her usual writing. She asked the student what had transformed her during the past six months.

The student explained that she had become stuck on a major piece she was writing and spoke to her priest about it. The priest asked the student, “Have you prayed about this?” The student prayed – and the writing quality soared.

“It never occurred to me before that there might be a connection” between prayer – or one’s spiritual life – and writing.

Winner is a self-described voracious reader – she watches little television – with some 4,000 books in her library. In her diverse reading, she says she observed an odd connection between books about writing, and books about prayer. “It is easier to read about prayer than to do it,” she quipped. “We fool ourselves into thinking that it somehow counts!”

Both writing and a good prayer life require discipline, she said. She believes good children’s writing is perhaps the best example of what good writing should look like – children have a short attention span, so writing must be crisp and simple. She then proceeded to read a popular children’s book to illustrate her point – “Mr. Putter and Tabby” – holding the pages up so that they could appear on the large jumbo screens in the ballroom where hundreds of pastors were gathered.

The story line is cute – Mr. Putter sees himself as a wannabe mystery writer and proceeds to settle in to write, but is distracted by anything and everything, accomplishing very little in the way of writing on his mystery in a lighthouse setting.

“The book captures truths about writing and spiritual life,” Winner observed. “Both are filled with procrastination . . . and distraction.”

But, harking back to her own stated interest in reading, Winner encouraged her audience to dive into the world of reading – abandon the television set and spend the two hours per day (on average) that studies show Americans spend in front of the tube, and read instead.

Reading does not have to be highly intellectual – Shakespeare for example. Rather, just read. “Spiritual reading is important,” she believes, “for it is through spiritual reading and encountering other’s spiritual stories that we are opened to new thinking.”

Winner wrote her memoir at age 24 – and is often asked why she would do that at such a young age – “isn’t that a bit presumptuous some will ask?” Noting that the writing of spiritual memoirs is quite the rage among publishers, she again humorous noted that she “wanted to catch the wave of the trend before it ended.”

She drew a distinction between an autobiography and a memoir. An autobiography, she says, is a first-person account usually written by a famous person, e.g. “the door-stopper autobiography of Bill Clinton,” she quipped in another moment of humor. A memoir by contrast is not the life story of a famous person. Rather, “it is a first-person account in which the narrator illuminates some portion of the subject through the use of their story.

“It is the substance, not the person, that is important,” she added.

She also provided some historical context, noting that early church writers, beginning in the Fourth Century, were instructing us what to do and how to live. Contemporary writers do not want their work to be viewed much as a cookbook from which to draw spiritual recipes. Instead, they explain what happened between the writer and God, they invite the reader on a journey, and allow the reader to take from the story what they will.

“This provides a more appealing entry point into the Christian faith – it’s my journey, come alongside and travel with me … hang out with me,” she advised.

As a closing observation, she cautioned that spiritual writing cannot be popularized and prescriptive – “the 40 steps to holiness,” as she put it. “Rather, it is a journey, studded with questions and at the same time studded with answers.”

The objective is not to answer questions, she suggests, “but rather to have our questions radically reshaped by the gospel.”

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