Elizabeth Stickney is editor, with her husband Gary D. Schmidt, of Acceptable Words: Prayers for the Writer. In this post, she introduces this inspiring new book as she explores the interplay, of faith and writing, language and prayer.
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It’s not actually true that you need words to pray. William Wordsworth, the great romantic, knew that sometimes our feelings and sensations lie too deep for words, “too deep for tears.” Those feelings and sensations can become prayers, no matter how inelegantly expressed: Scripture tells us that when we don’t know how to pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. Anyone who has kept vigil in the ICU unit, who has placed a parent under the care of Hospice, or who has rocked a feverish child to sleep in the middle of the night, can testify that even when words fail us, prayers get said.
And don’t you think maybe words at times get in the way of what we need to be saying to God? We so easily fall onto the crutch of clichéd phrase or into the rut of trite pattern: perhaps it would be better simply to fall prone before an altar in silence than to approach the Lord with our framed petitions.
Yet we are people of the word, and if we have nothing better than our limited vocabulary, than we have that at least. As Christians, we find ourselves again and again in the pursuit of finding the right word for the right petition, the turn of phrase that correctly identifies our situation in our world and our call to be witnesses of God’s grace at work in that world. “May my words be acceptable,” the Psalmist asks, raising the proposition that God might find some of our attempts — dare we even think it? — unacceptable.
For Christians who are writers — those who spend their working hours at a keyboard, or with pen poised over a notebook — the search for the acceptable word is both a vocation and a desire. We want the dialogue in a short story to be exactly right: compact and telling. We work to make the description of a lingering sunset over the mountaintops do justice to the One who created both sun and snow-covered peak. We worry over the argument in a persuasive piece: are we giving credit to both sides? Are we honoring our audience?
And the work and the worry, if pursued under the illuminating presence of the Holy Spirit, become a discipline or practice that brings us closer to God. “Anything,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World, “can become a spiritual practice once you are willing to approach it that way — once you let it bring you to your knees and show you what is real, including who you are, who other people are, and how near God can be.”
On the best writing days the line between prayer and work is hazy, and it is hugely evident to us that our disciplined struggle with words has brought us closer to the Lord. Is it the same for you? Maybe the morning started with a journal entry where you finally came to terms with your need of forgiveness for someone from your past. Perhaps you revised a poem you began last summer and realized that a cardinal’s crimson flight was exactly the image you needed to express a sense of new beginning. Maybe you began writing a sermon or a pastoral prayer, and the presence of the Holy Spirit as you started the introduction was almost tangible. Perhaps you encountered a new idea for a novel, and could only describe its sudden presence as a gift.
But on other writing days — most of them, perhaps — our work is long and isolating. We are riddled with doubts about our calling and our effectiveness. We wonder if we have anything new to say, or anything of merit to add to what has already been written. Over and again we examine our vocation and our desires.
Acceptable Words is a collection of prayers that come from other writers who have answered the call to work with language. They bear witness to the common experiences that writers of faith go through as they engage in the process of writing, to the satisfaction that comes when words work, and to the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit as we practice the discipline. It has been a joy and delight to look for these prayers and to arrange them into a sort of running conversation with God about what it is that we writers do. Who knew that Robert Service (“The Cremation of Sam McGee”) wrote such beautiful prayers? Who would have guessed that an Episcopal priest (David Head) would have expressed so winsomely the secret desires of an aspiring writer?
And we are grateful — more than grateful — to our friends and colleagues who have contributed original prayers for this volume. Their prayers encourage, inspire, and sustain our work.
Click to order Acceptable Words: Prayers for the Writer.
Click to learn more about Elizabeth Stickney and Gary Schmidt’s upcoming author event at Eerdmans Bookstore.