Writing as Naming

fashion woman notebook pen

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

I came across a statement this morning that captured why I write. It is from one of my favorite writers, Tish Harrison Warren, in a new book co-edited by Tim Keller and John Inazu, Uncommon GroundShe writes:

When we write, we participate in Adam and Eve’s vocation in the garden: the vocation of naming. We give words to reality, and through our words, we help shape reality” (p. 73).

Both my outer and inner worlds often feel inchoate. Whether it is making sense of what I am thinking and feeling, describing the gist of a discussion among colleagues, or trying to discern some thread of meaning in the chaos of modern existence, I find myself turning to writing.

I write to know what I think. Sometimes I write to figure out what I think. When I review, I write to crystallize in a few words the thousands of words I’ve read in a book. Sometimes writing is the way I sort out my own sense of how I should live in pandemic times. I give words to reality, and at least shape how I will engage that reality, if not the reality itself.

Writing as naming is communal as well. It certainly is in a medium like that which on which you read my words, or in magazine articles, newspapers, and books. Our writing gives shape to reality not only for ourselves but for others. One of the tests of good writing for me is whether others recognize the reality I’ve tried to name as their own. I love it when someone writes back and says, “you found words to describe what is was like for me.”

More than that, writing as naming, when done well clarifies how we will work together. Lawyer friends of mine tell me that this is at the heart of a good contract. I’ve learned a great deal about getting the words right from my attorney friends. It is equally important on a work team as we discern and decide what we will work on together, and what we each agree to contribute to that work.

I’ve never been a writer of fiction, but I suspect this is part of what drives these writers. They are not just telling a story. They are creating a world. I think of J.R.R. Tolkien, who created Middle-earth, fashioned languages, and a whole mythology of origins and cosmology. That is some serious naming!

For babies to receive a name, a mother must give birth. Many writers describe the labor of giving birth to words that name as akin to the birthing experience. Finding the right words and phrases, the right composition of paragraphs is hard. There is such a difference between “almost right” and “just right.” I think any of us who write feel we rarely totally achieve that end. Sometimes, it feels that the beautiful or pithy thing we want to say is out there, just beyond our grasp. One thing for sure: for writers, words matter.

Why then do we do it? I think it comes back to what it means to be human. We are naming creatures, gifted with amazing language powers far exceeding any other creature. While not all of us are drawn to writing, all of us use words to describe our world. Writing simply allows us to deliberate our words (hopefully) and to extend them in space and time, extending them beyond the circle who can hear our voice, and the ephemeral moment of our utterances.

This helps me understand a bit more why I write.

Review: Liturgy of the Ordinary

liturgy-of-the-ordinary

Liturgy of the OrdinaryTish Harrison Warren (foreword by Andy Crouch). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Walking through the common events of an ordinary day from waking to sleeping, Warren explores how we encounter in these ordinary things the Christ we worship each Sunday.

I work with people in a university context who struggle to connect the Christ they worship each week with the seemingly ordinary, and often repetitive tasks that make up their days–answering emails, running experiments, attending committee meetings, preparing lectures, holding office hours, and grading papers or exams. In many cases, this occupies the most significant part of their waking hours. And for the ones who are followers of Christ, they often wonder what any of this has to do with the Christ they worship, and are attempting to follow. Time spent in a soup kitchen, a prison ministry, a mission trip–that seems closer to the real deal. Some wonder if they should even be doing the stuff that makes up most of their weeks.

There are others who think even the life I’ve described sounds “cutting edge” compared to spending much of their days feeding, cleaning up after, diapering, entertaining, putting down for naps and getting up again infants and toddlers. Or they work in some form of unskilled or repetitive work. And no matter what our work is, much of life involves a daily round of self-care, home care, and meal preparation, and a host of routine activities–every day.

Let’s face it. Much of life is lived in the ordinary and it is to this that Tish Harrison Warren addresses herself. Her book takes the tasks of the “ordinary” day and reflects on how we are met by and may be transformed by the Christ we worship each Sunday. She explores activities like waking, making our beds, brushing our teeth, losing keys, eating leftovers, fighting with our spouses, checking email, getting stuck in traffic, talking to friends, drinking tea, and sleeping. She connects these with the liturgies she participates in each week as an Anglican priest. She writes:

“And every new day, this is the turn my heart must make: I’m living this life, the life right in front of me. This one where marriages struggle. This one where we aren’t living as we thought we might or as we hoped we would. This one where we are weary, where we want to make a difference but aren’t sure where to start, where we have to get dinner on the table or the kids’ teeth brushed, where we have back pain and boring weeks, where our lives look small, where we doubt, where we wrestle with meaninglessness, where we worry about those we love, where we struggle to meet our neighbors and love those closest to us, where we grieve, where we wait.

And on this particular day, Jesus knows me and declares me his own. On this day he is redeeming the world, advancing his kingdom, calling us to repent and grow, teaching his church to worship, drawing near to us, and making a people all his own.

If I am to spend my whole life being transformed by the good news of Jesus, I must learn how grand, sweeping truths—doctrine, theology, ecclesiology, Christology—rub against the texture of an average day. How I spend this ordinary day in Christ is how I will spend my Christian life. “

She connects waking and baptism, as Lutherans often are taught to do in making the sign of the cross and saying, “remember your baptism” upon waking. Making beds reminds of the rituals that form a life. Brushing teeth represents all the embodied tasks that make up our day, and how we meet Christ through the bodily acts of standing, kneeling, and bowing. I particularly loved the chapter on sending email, and the blessing and sending that is part of our worship, and that may be implicit in our responses to our inboxes. She makes drinking a cup of tea a reminder of the enjoyment of all that is good in the sanctuary of God.

She concludes the book with a chapter on sleep, reflecting on the gift of sabbath and our struggle with lives of activism, and a resistance of sleep that may reflect a fear of dying. She poses an interesting question:

 “What if Christians were known as a countercultural community of the well-rested–people who embrace our limits with zest and even joy? As believers we can relish sleep as not only necessary but as an embodied response to the truth of Scripture: we are finite, weak creatures who are abundantly cared for by our strong and loving Creator.”

Warren writes with an unvarnished realism about her own life, and yet there is also this sense of stepping back from the whirl of ordinary life in the various moments of the day to remember, and listen, and reflect on how Jesus as the Incarnate One brings his shalom into the whirl of the ordinary–whether it is a fight with a spouse, lost keys or a traffic jam. Warren’s thoughtful reflections help us move to that same place, a kind of center of quiet where the new creation life of Christ can enter into the ordinary spaces of our days.

This is a book I can give to those wondering if there are greener pastures of Christian activity than the everyday circumstances they find themselves in. It is a book that makes the connection between the extraordinary things we preach and pray and participate in each Sunday, and the ordinary realities of each week. From when we first wake until we lay down our heads at night. And all the spaces between.

_______________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.