The Power of Parables

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

A lion used to prowl about a field in which four oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them.

At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.

This is one of the many short but thought-provoking fables by the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop I read as a child. It is also the source of the oft-quoted, but rarely attributed, phrase: “United we stand, divided we fall.” The fable is only 90 words long, but it sure packs a punch!

Everybody loves a good story. From the brief to the epic, fictional or true-to-life, historical or modern, there is something compelling about a well-told tale, especially if we can identify a moral in the story that we can apply to our lives. We are drawn to fables, fairy tales, legends, and parables because we’re all searching for answers to life’s questions and dilemmas, but we generally don’t want those answers given to us in the form of a sermon or lecture. Like medicine going down more easily with a spoonful of sugar, life lessons seem more palatable when they’re in the form of a story.

The Bible is not only an historical account dating back to pre-creation, but it is also a treasure trove of stories and parables that still serve a purpose. Parables, we should note, are not the same as anecdotes—they are fictional examples and not true accounts. Unlike fables, which generally feature non-human characters, they are always about hypothetical but realistic human situations. When Jesus, a master storyteller, used parables to teach spiritual lessons, he usually began with phrases such as, “There was a man…,” “A certain ruler…,” or “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

Sometimes his point came across clearly. At other times, it seemed he wanted to provoke his disciples to ask questions and dig deeper. Mind you, Jesus wasn’t the first person in the Bible to use parables. For example, in 1 Samuel 12, when King David committed a series of grievous sins, God sent the prophet Nathan to him, and Nathan used a parable—a story about a rich man who stole and killed a poor man’s lamb—to bring the king to repentance. About 120 words (in the Contemporary English Version) is all it took to get David to confess, because those words became a mirror in front of his face.

That is the power of a good story. Not only does it get the message across in a simple and relatable way, but it also makes the point stick because stories are easy to remember, especially if they stir up emotions.

Despite the vastly different genres of stories that exist today, whether we write fiction or non-fiction, the most effective ones share three key elements: characters, conflict, and resolution. From the account of Daniel in the lion’s den, to the 10th-century fairy tale about Little Red Riding Hood, to the latest episode of our favorite television show, we pay attention because we empathize with the characters and we want to see them have a happy ending.

The more we know and understand Scripture, the better we can tap into the power of story. This is true when we’re sharing our testimony of faith or explaining Scripture to others, and it’s also true when we’re writing a feature article or book.

Language and Story

by Randy Petersen

A story lurks in every sentence.

See what I did there? You probably have a dramatic image flashing in your mind right now—the story crouching under the staircase, ready to pounce.

I’ve been reading a book that is alternately confounding me, challenging me, and dazzling me. It’s deep stuff, rooted in the study of language, its nature, and its origins. I can make sense of every third sentence, which I then have to read three times—and then it blows my mind.

The book suggests that human language is built on story—more specifically, what it calls parable. We find and express meaning as we throw one observation alongside a separate context. Our brains do this so naturally, we don’t even recognize it. When I write, for instance, that “language is built on story,” I’m throwing that philological principle alongside a tale of construction. Somewhere inside my brain, and yours, there are hardhats and backhoes and cement trucks with their spinning payload pouring a story-foundation for everything else we say.

There are two directions I want to go with this. (And you may already be recognizing a story of travel in those words—perhaps I’m stopped at a traffic light with the GPS saying “turn right” and my friend in the passenger seat pointing left. Travel is a common story-thread in language. How often have you written a piece that “doesn’t go anywhere” or “ends up” where you didn’t expect?)

You might already be traveling in my first direction. I say foundation and parable, and you’re thinking about Jesus’ mini-story of houses built on rock and sand (Matthew 7:24-27). A life built on the firm foundation of Jesus’ teaching will withstand storms. So . . . how did Jesus teach? Often with stories. So if human language is built on a foundation of story (as my mind-blowing book asserts), and Jesus asks me to build my life on his own story-based teaching, can I build my writing on that foundation? Is there some way the divine story can inhabit my vocabulary, my syntax, my subject matter?

I’m not just saying, “Use nice words.” And I’m not suggesting that we ensure our writing aligns with theological principles. Quite the opposite. I’m suggesting that there are action-stories at the heart of our faith, and at the foundation of our lives. As language merchants, we can import the action of those stories—in all their vagaries, scandals, and contradictions—into our modern communication.

 Not sure exactly how to do that, though.

My second point is simply a writing tip. Find the stories in your sentences. Language wants to be active, dramatic. Treat ideas like people. Don’t just say what they are. Find out what they do. The resulting metaphors and mini-parables will energize your writing at a granular level.

I wasn’t going to tell you the name of the book, because then you’d buy it and blame me when it baffled you. But if you have the patience, it’s The Literary Mind by Mark Turner. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Reach Further

by Joyce K. Ellis

Ima Writer couldn’t wait to get to her former college roommate’s fortieth birthday party. She placed her gift in a white box, added sparkly tissue paper inside, then wrapped the box in a flowery gift wrap she knew Hope would love. When she got to the party, many of their friends had already arrived, and a dozen gifts piled high on the table next to the black-frosted “Over-the-Hill” cake. Ima slipped her gift among them.

Later, laughter erupted as Hope opened gag gifts, such as Metamucil, denture cleaner, and Depends. But lovely gifts, such as jewelry, framed mementos, and a favorite movie soundtrack CD drew oohs and ahs.

Hope saved Ima’s gift for last. Pawing through the sparkly paper, she stared. Silence. Then she managed, “Um…a magazine?…Uh…thanks.” More of a question than a statement.

“Hope,” Ima hurried to explain, “remember I told you I finally got published? Look, my article is on page 40. Ironic, eh?”

“Great.” Hope’s cheerfulness sounded forced. “When you told me on the phone you finally got published, I thought you meant a…a…book. But this is…um…nice.”

Truly, in our society, people may not respect you as a writer unless you have written a book—even if you’ve written hundreds of articles. And writers who produce magazine articles may feel they haven’t arrived until they see their names on a dust jacket.

Comparisons

Far from being inferior, article writing can actually maximize our ministry potential, extending our reach more than we could ever imagine. Compare:

Average sales of first book: fewer than 5,000 copies, likely out of print in a year or less.

Now consider the circulation numbers of this sampling of Christian magazines.[1] And remember, many copies are read by more than one person.

Did you hurry past those numbers? Read them again. Staggering!

The magazine market has shrunk considerably in recent years, and many print magazines have vanished or gone online. Still, a plethora of editors are still looking for a plethora (I do love that word) of good material. From freelancers. From freelancers who “get” that particular magazine’s style and audience. From freelancers who can bring a fresh voice while fitting in.

That’s why, in nonpandemic times, so many already-swamped editors take time away from work to serve as writers conference faculty. Even during COVID, they prioritize time for virtual appearances. They’re looking for dependable, skillful writers who have something worthwhile to say. The 2020 Christian Writers Market Guide includes almost a hundred pages of magazines looking for our work.

As a bonus, for writers tired of the word platform, article writing can stretch both time and dollars, often shortening the time between project completion and paycheck.

In addition to print and online magazines, of course, who can calculate the potential outreach of blogs and other online posts?

Bullet or Stalactite

Books and articles are both important, but I like to compare them this way: A book is like a bullet, a one-shot ministry opportunity. But articles are like stalactites—a steady dripping of hope into the hearts and minds of our target audience. And if we develop a good working relationship with an editor, we can often keep “dripping” into that audience for a long time.

Every article we publish is a precious, heart-to-heart present we can give to the Master we serve and to the readers we reach.

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10, italics mine).


[1] Sources: The 2020 Christian Writers Market Guide, The 2020 Evangelical Press Association Membership Directory, and the Guideposts website.

Writers Need Community

Don’t use your introversion as an excuse.

Yes, you may prefer to hide out in your creative cave, dreading learning to network and talk to people you don’t know. If you get out and starting practicing now, then your path will be that much smoother.

Start by joining the writers groups and getting to know others in the community.

It may be terrifying at first but it will get easier, and you’ll be surprised at how much fun you’ll have, the friends you’ll make.

Debbie Ohi, children’s author (source)

Time to Fly

by Lisa A. Crayton

One day

That two-word phrase has tanked many Christian writers’ hopes of publishing. While we wait for one day—a day that does not exist on any calendar—we languish in dreams deferred and wallow in regret because oneday we did not take to heart Ecclesiastes 3:1 and submit work for publication or query a dream market.

That famous verse speaks of beginnings and endings. It often reminds me of my first forays into freelance writing. I had quit my corporate job, acting on what I believed was God’s instruction to become “a Christian writer.”

I did not fully understand what that meant. I did know it meant stepping out of my comfort zone and pursuing writing that draws readers into closer relationship with Jesus Christ. It also meant writing for publication, a process that takes words from my heart—and, sometimes, my journals—and placing them before editors who can bring them before audiences small and large. 

I failed miserably in those early days, but I knew that on some Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, if I kept perfecting my craft, querying, and submitting my work for publication, I would realize my dream of being a Christian writer. I was right!

Writing is only one aspect of yielding our words for God’s use. Publishing is the other. One of the greatest barriers to publishing is the reluctance that prevents us from seeing beyond our creativity and marketing efforts to the end results: lives changed. 

Reluctance almost made me miss the opportunity to strengthen the faith of a childhood friend about a decade ago. I was a scheduled member of the faculty of an out-of-state Christian writers’ conference. As the Saturday before the event neared, I kept dithering about my attendance and toyed with cancelling my appearance, but God kept reminding me of Ecclesiastes 3:1. There’s a time for everything. It was time to fly.

Struggling with indecision fueled by reluctance I went to church on Sunday. My pastor’s sermon was “Time to Fly.” When he announced the title, I chuckled, knowing God was secretly sending me a message to stick with my plans.

I flew out the next day. I soon realized God had another purpose for my visit to California. Because of the time zones, I had to stay an extra night after the event. That evening I met with first-ever best friend and her sister. We had a delightful time reconnecting after more than two decades of not seeing each other. For years we had promised to one day visit each other but never did. 

Before they left my hotel room in the wee hours of the morning, I prayed for them, asking God to bless them. A short time later, my friend shared she had recommitted her life to Christ thanks, in part, to my visit. Speaking with her, I understood Ecclesiastes 3:1 more than ever before. I’d wanted to stay home, but I had to fly so that another soul could reconnect with God. 

One day does not exist. For Christian writers to achieve our goals—and God’s ultimate plans for our writing—we must overcome self-placed barriers to publication.  Sure, there’s a worldwide pandemic. Sure, it’s hard to focus because of local, national, and international happenings. Yet, perhaps more than ever, God is saying, “It’s time to fly.”

 It’s time to toss aside one day thinking and commit to writing, and releasing our work on a given Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. Only then can we fully realize God’s greater plans for our creativity. Only then can potential readers receive much-needed encouragement, hope, and peace during and after the pandemic.

Lisa A. Crayton is an editor, award-winning freelance writer and multi-published author, including 15 nonfiction books for kids/teens. She loves helping writers, and challenging them to achieve their goals and dreams! Connect with her on Facebook.

A Lesson from Lizards

Run fast, stand still. This, the lesson from lizards. For all writers. . . What can we writers learn from lizards, lift from birds? In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.

Ray Bradbury (from “Run Fast, Stand Still, or, the Thing at the Top of the Stairs, or, New Ghosts from Old Minds,” in Zen in the Art of Writing)

The Well-seasoned Writer

by Rachel Dawn Hayes, guest contributor

I’ve had three seasons of freelancing during my career—the first was in 2007. That’s when I thought I would soon relocate to a cabin, drive a Grand Wagoneer, wear oversized sweaters, and quickly endear myself to the motley cast of characters inhabiting my mountain town. Instead, I continued living in my parents’ house and barely paid my bills. I had a sweet VW Jetta, though.

Fast forward to 2015. In preparation for starting our family, my husband and I made the decision for me to begin working for myself so I could stay home with our children. (Other mothers/parents, hold your laughter, please.)

It went so well the second time around. I tapped into the network I’d built over my nine-year career in communications—a network that included editors, agency folk, and business owners—and, amazingly, built a profitable business. The difference between 2015 and 2007? EXPERIENCE—experience that bred confidence and connections.

At the end of my first year, my husband and I took a celebratory trip to Ireland—paid for out of my earnings. I got pregnant a few months after that and somehow met my deadlines while spending enormous chunks of time with my head in the toilet or curled up on the couch clutching a box of saltines. My daughter was born in December 2016. She was two weeks early, which meant I filed my final story of the year in the middle of the night while leaking amniotic fluid and forwarded revisions from a source to my editor the next day from my hospital bed. I took a glorious three months of maternity leave and then jumped back into writing in the spring of 2017. “Jumped” is a generous term, though. My return to working while juggling the care of a three-month-old infant was more like the awkward stumbling of a newborn fawn.

Some days it went well, and others, not so much. To my surprise, Lily did not consult my Outlook calendar when planning her nap schedule. She woke up early and upset one afternoon ahead of a phone interview with a source who had proven to be elusive—I wasn’t rescheduling. I placed Lily in her battery-operated bouncer, put in my earbuds, and opened a new document on my laptop for notes. I switched on the bouncer and nothing happened. Its batteries were toast. Then my phone rang—that elusive source was punctual! I took a deep breath, put my computer on my lap, started bouncing Lily with my foot, and answered the phone. Afterwards, I felt a sisterhood with my pioneering ancestors. I had accomplished the modern equivalent of rocking a cradle while darning socks or churning butter.

As Lily grew older and slept less, it was evident that our setup wasn’t going to work. I couldn’t get through story time at the library without thinking about my deadlines, and I couldn’t write or conduct phone interviews without worrying about Lily waking up too soon or remembering that I didn’t thaw meat for dinner. We’re going out, honey! I wasn’t doing either job well, in my opinion, and I wasn’t earning enough money to justify bringing in help. Thankfully, our family’s financial security was not dependent on my writing income and, after a few months of debate and struggle with myself, I decided to take my leave from freelancing and focus on my family.

I have now entered my third season of freelancing—writing for the purpose of building a platform to hopefully publish a book. I wrote my memoir last year while my daughter was at preschool two mornings a week. Since COVID and school closures, I now write at five in the morning. Our coffee budget reflects this. I am writing for free—something I had never done before because it was a cardinal rule of career writing that you “never write for free.” I don’t know who made that rule, but they weren’t trying to get a book published. The absence of invoices has been liberating, though. By nature of promoting my book I am writing about topics I’m passionate and enthusiastic about—there’s no way I’d be up at this hour if that weren’t so—and I am getting to share my story more than I tell the stories of others. Writing has always brought me joy, but in this particular phase it is feeding my soul in a new way. I crave it and choose “putting my butt in the chair” over reading, watching TV, or sleeping in.

I like this season best, even it means I go to bed with the chickens to make it happen.

View More: http://sabrinanicole.pass.us/rachelandjoel

Rachel Dawn Hayes is a mom, wife, writer, speaker, and Native Texan, who is passionate about sharing her story of pregnancy and fertility loss to encourage and edify other women. She has completed a memoir about her experiences and hopes to publish in 2021. Rachel is also an EPA associate member.

Dedicate to the Craft

Serious writing is not something you merely do if or when you can find the time. It’s not just for Sunday afternoons, or the occasional evening, or a few hours a week when you can give it some attention. Make the time, and make lots of it. Tackle the craft daily and dedicate a generous portion of your existence to honing your skills. You’re only going to get out of it what you put into it, and serious writing requires a lot of investment.

Chuck Sambuchino
(10 Tips for Writing, Writer’s Digest, August 2015)

Time Travel of the Nonfantasy Sort

by Joyce K. Ellis

During a rough patch in my personal life, I couldn’t write. I had deadlines but couldn’t focus. God seemed silent, and the Enemy filled the void with accusations. I felt disqualified, unworthy of my calling as a writer. Was it time to quit altogether?

Each night before bed, my husband reads to me from a devotional book, and at that time we were reading Chris Tiegreen’s Hearing God’s Voice. At one of my lowest points, the daily selection was written as though God Himself were speaking. Phrases and sentences burned into my soul:

You would be shocked if I told you how many people refuse to seek My voice because they feel disqualified…They don’t consider themselves worthy enough….

God continues:

Don’t keep your distance from Me. I’ve gone to great lengths to bridge that distance and unite us as one. When you run from Me, hide from Me, or even just grow cold toward Me—whether through your guilt, shame, fear, or apathy—you are wasting a gift I have paid an enormous price to give you.”[1]

I felt as though Tiegreen could peer into my soul at that very moment.

But imagine: That book had been published several years earlier. Considering how slowly the gears of publishing turn, Tiegreen undoubtedly submitted the manuscript at least nine months or a year prior to publication. And because the devotional book covers a whole year, who knows how long it took him to write the 365 devotionals–and arrange them so this one would fall precisely on April 15, right when I would need it? (Of course, he had no way of knowing.)

God’s voice. God’s comfort. God’s encouragement. God’s timing.

A prophet’s time travel, of sorts—projecting those words forward?

I’ve always shunned any possibility that I may have the spiritual gift of prophecy. I can’t tell people what will happen to them in the future like Daniel or Elijah or one of the other biblical prophets did. Besides, the consequences for erroneous prophecies were severe!

Then I learned a definition of a prophet as a “forthteller,” more than a foreteller. And a desire to “tell forth” to others what the Lord is teaching me has been in my spiritual DNA from my early years as a believer. I pondered the way Chris Tiegreen typed words on his computer that “projected forward” to my need years later. I thought about other times I had been helped by that kind of “time travel” from other authors. On the other hand, over the years I have prayed for God’s guidance as I write—that the words would meet the needs of readers. But I hadn’t fully understood their time-travel potential.

It all came full circle, however, when my book, Our Heart Psalms (twenty years in the making) came out at the height of the COVID pandemic, followed by street violence. In God’s time-travel plan, Our Heart Psalms seemed a book “for such a time as this.” There was a reason it had been rejected, rearranged, and rewritten so many times—and finally published in 2020.

A friend gave a copy to an elderly woman whose husband has advanced Alzheimer’s Disease. Quarantined with him, this woman has few interactions with other people. But some of the words, possibly written twenty years earlier, touched her heart, and the woman wept as God met her on those pages.

What if I had quit writing when I was at such a low point? What if Chris Tiegreen hadn’t written those words that encouraged me to keep listening to God? What if he hadn’t followed God’s direction to place them as the April 15 reading? What if we served a God who didn’t have perfect timing?

“Let’s not get tired of doing what is good [what God has called us to do],” Paul wrote. “At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up” (Gal. 6:9 NLT, brackets mine).

“As for God, His way is perfect” (Psalm 18:30 NIV).


[1] Chris Tiegreen, The One-Year Hearing His Voice Devotional (Carol’s Stream: Tyndale, 2014), 105.