Words have always captivated me. Writing has been a personal source of joy and release since I was young. Along with my love of words has also come a deep appreciation for story. I come from a family filled with phenomenal storytellers. When we were little, my sisters and I often shut ourselves in the bathroom, in the dark, and shared whatever scary stories we could come up with, each of us trying to scare the others the most. My older brother made up elaborate plots and brave characters for a variety of stories, and he shared these tales with us as we drifted to sleep.
Our world was surrounded by story, and as a family of readers, these stories were not limited to our imaginations but were open to the unlimited treasure box of the imaginations of authors from all over the world. Some of my greatest memories are of sitting cuddled together on the couch or perched on the edges of our beds while my parents read to us. We listened with bated breath, waiting to hear what Aslan did in Narnia and debating what actually happened to Jonas at the end of The Giver. We learned that girls could be the hero and begged to hear The Paper Bag Princess “just one more time.”
Fiction urges me to explore the great what-ifs of the world.
Stories formed my childhood, and continuing to read great fiction today shapes and forms me as a pastor. I would even go so far as to say I am a better pastor and preacher because I read fiction. Fiction is often viewed as recreational reading or fun reading—something you might do in your spare time but which lacks substance and meaning. I have discovered, however, that when I am intentional about reading fiction, I am most in tune with the prophetic imagination of God. These stories, with all their whimsy, their beauty, imagination, inspire me to dream. I find myself transported to other places, wrestling with questions like, “What would I do in this situation?” or, “What does this teach me about God?” or, “What does this story tell me about the way people outside the church view God?” Great stories break me out of my own narcissism to view the world in new and bigger ways than I might do on my own—which, in turn, helps me be a better listener to the stories of the people I pastor.
Fiction urges me to explore the great what-ifs of the world: What if I were more adventurous? What if the world could change into that optimistic future? What if the real world is reflected in this fictional world, and how can we improve it? What if God is up to something bigger than our imaginations can even begin to encompass and this is just a small glimpse of that?
These questions often lead me to becoming a better preacher. Beautiful words tend to beget beautiful words, and I find that it’s often the illustrations in fiction that most connect with my congregation. These stories, though not real, put into words human emotions and experiences that are real. They speak to real fears and joys. They help us imagine beyond who we are. They help me connect in better ways with Scripture as I explore various genres and become comfortable recognizing poetry, prose, narrative, and romance. I am then more comfortable weaving these genres into my preaching, ushering the hearers into a great story or an epic poem that connects with individuals in a way that a lecture never could.
I am years removed from telling stories on the linoleum floor of my childhood bathroom, but I still continue to tell stories each and every week from the pulpit—stories of hope, grace, love, and truth. But I tell better stories when I am immersing myself in consuming good stories. When my imagination is strengthened through the practice of envisioning myself in different places and spaces, and seeing with the eyes of other people, when I wrestle with the big what-if questions that great narratives ask, I begin to do the work of theology out of the depths of imagination. So I no longer view reading fiction as a fluffy activity; rather, it has become a discipline that is integral to my role as a pastor, and I am better for it.