A humid July morning. The mist from the waterfalls thickened the air and softened every hard surface: the pine tree bark—blackened and breathing—the fallen needles, the soggy soil, the rounded rocks. Everything was wet and malleable.
The bridges crossing the falls were built from pressure-treated lumber, which soaked in the mist and sprouted green moss in places—quiet threats to every hiker’s footstep. But what I noticed most were the hand railings. A dark, damp, scratchable film of dirt finished each two-by-six. The kids were having fun with it. Little fingernails carved light brown letters into the dark green surface. “John was here.” “Susan loves Rich.” “Charles, king of the falls.” Not all messages are glorious . . . and yet, something kept me from scratching over them with my own fingernail. Something stayed my hand. What was it?
I’m a writer. For better or worse, it’s what I’m led to do each day. God calls words out of me; he draws what’s inside to the outside: journal entries, notes, poems, essays, books. Each morning, as I write with my favorite pen or type on the keyboard, I’m not just writing words; I’m writing myself. The words on the page are markers of my personal presence—my thought and sentiment, my imagination, my unique personhood. Writing is always self-expression in one form or another. It’s a representation of life lived, experiences had, perceptions woven into a tapestry for onlooking readers, like folks perusing a farmer’s market, staring at the crafts of quiet artisans.
Come to think of it, that’s why I couldn’t erase the fingernail carvings on the bridge that morning. People had etched themselves into the wood of that bridge. Who was I to un-etch them? Who was I to unmark their presence in the world? Who was I to erase what had been written?
You see, there are some things you just can’t erase. Personal presence is one of them. It’s sacred to writers and readers. We treasure it; we keep it close. That’s one of the reasons why we write. It’s why we save words in our books and on scraps of paper in our desk drawers. It’s why I have a letter that my father wrote to me when I was eight, before his first major brain surgery: personal presence. As writers, that’s what our words do: they mark the world with our presence—whether on a bright computer screen or a smooth sheet of ivory paper or a dark green railing on a waterfalls trail. We mark.
But why? Where does this desire to mark the world come from? As with anything good and sacred, it comes from God.
God was the first one who marked the world with his presence. The Father uttered his Word in the breath of the Holy Ghost, and community came from chaos; land rose up from the ancient seas; greenery grew from the ground; animals huffed and snorted and slithered. And humans, image bearers of the speaking God, found the very breath of God in their lungs (Gen. 2:7). We were marked by the life of our maker. And every single thing that God made revealed his personal presence. Paul writes in Romans 1:20 that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” God has marked every molecule of creation with his personal presence.
This truth is echoed all throughout Scripture, but the echoes seem loudest in the Psalms. Remember David’s voice in Psalm 139:7–12, when he realized the inescapable presence of God in the world around him? Questions tumbled off his tongue.
7 Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
In another psalm, there’s a glorious declaration of how our world “speaks” of the presence of God.
1 The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
My friends, God has marked the entire world, the entire cosmos, with his personal presence, and it can’t help but “speak” of him. God, in other words, is a writer. He was the first writer. We write reality as we know it, and we write in his image.
Apply this to your craft and calling as a writer. When you scratch down a thought in your journal, you’re imaging the God who writes. When you type words on a keyboard, you’re imaging the God who writes. When you revise and edit and craft and recraft, you’re imaging the God who writes.
The question for Christian writers is this: at the end of the day, how will you have imaged God with your words? Most of us never get to that question, do we? It seems too abstract. We scribble and write and edit without thinking about how we are marking the world with our presence. But, even worse, we don’t think enough about how our personal presence is pointing readers to the personal presence of God, the greatest writer. But we must do this if we are to write faithfully, if we want to be Christian wordsmiths.
I need as much work here as every other Christian writer, but let me off an example of what I have in mind. Here’s a journal entry I wrote recently.
9.18.2019. Stopped at a red light this morning, at a busy intersection. But no one was there. For about five seconds, I sat in silence and felt time trickle by like a stream. I walk through it so thoughtlessly. But here at the red light, I pause and notice that this, too, is spoken. This, too, is a gift. We open it so often that we don’t even see the wrapping paper anymore. Maybe the red light was a bow, and I found five seconds to remove the rest of the paper before the light turned green.
Even in a journal entry, we mark the world with our presence. We draw what is inside to the outside. Here, I was merely drawing out a reflection on my own ignorance, my lack of noticing the myriad gifts of God, even in a traffic light, which maintains order and safety for thousands of drivers each day.
How does this little journal entry point to God as the greatest writer? Well, it’s an example of noticing. More specifically, it’s an example of noticing God’s grace and presence in the ordinary. Everything, really, is a gift that evokes God’s presence in this world that he’s spoken. God’s speech made and maintains the world. The physical laws of molecular structure and gravity are holding the traffic light intact. It’s hanging from a metal pole because of God’s comprehensive, all-controlling speech. But we somehow don’t notice that. We think it’s just a traffic light. We want it to change colors so that we can move on with the morning. This is one of the many tiny ways in which we grow cold, calloused, and entitled. We bypass the countless flowers of grace each minute, as if they were weeds shooting up through cracks in the sidewalk. Stop. Stare. Gaze. Notice the red traffic light; don’t just wait for it to turn green. Notice. And call others to do the same. There’s no such thing as just a traffic light. Even traffic lights mark the personal presence of the God who knows our name, the God who has orchestrated and governs the world at our fingertips so that we can have life to the fullest in his Son. We are surrounded by divine gifts that mark the presence of our personal God. We need to be in the habit of pointing readers to him, of getting them to notice.
For me, a Christian view of writing is really a Christian view of marking whatever is around us with our personal presence, but we have to do this in a way that directs readers to the personal presence of God. That’s the end-goal.
So, mark the world, my brothers and sisters. Mark it well. And let your markings point readers to the Great Writer, who has written reality and writes the smaller stories of our daily lives. Write to show the world that it’s being written.
Pierce Taylor Hibbs serves as the Associate Director of the Theological English Department at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the award-winning author of Theological English (P&R), Finding God in the Ordinary (Wipf & Stock), and The Speaking Trinity & His Worded World (Wipf & Stock). He writes regularly at piercetaylorhibbs.com.