Point at Things

When you write, you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.

Steven Pinker

Step 1: Wonder at something.

Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you.

Point at things, say, “whoa,” and elaborate.

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

Perseverance

I do not think there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.

– John D. Rockefeller

Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.

– Biz Stone, Twitter co-founder

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.

2 Peter 1:5-7

Your 2021 Writing Goal: Stop Waiting!

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

E.B. White

If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.

C.S. Lewis

If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done.

Ecclesiastes 11:4 (The Living Bible)

Epiphany: A bright thought & the real end of Christmas

by Stephen R. Clark

Christmas is greeted by many with excitement, by others with anxiety. Potential stressors include being thrown together with relatives that grate, dealing with the drudge of shopping, or just enduring non-stop Christmas music.

But whether you love or loathe Christmas, nearly everyone wants to know when it’s over.

Oh, you thought December 26 was it? Nope. The official last day of Christmas is traditionally January 6, which is called Epiphany.

However, the word and the day, Epiphany, hold a variety of nuanced meanings.

A light bulb called “Eureka!”

One of the meanings of epiphany is “a shining forth.”  The word initially referred to divine manifestations. However, over time, it also came to mean “a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something.”

Frank Maier, a journalist, once wrote that he “experienced an epiphany, a spiritual flash that would change the way I viewed myself.” Irish novelist James Joyce is credited with first using the term this way in his novel Stephen Hero, which was a precursor to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He also used the term in Ulysses,where Stephen Dedalus muses, “Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria?”

For Joyce and others who use the word in this sense, it points to those often unanticipated and startling moments when something suddenly crashes into our consciousness with intense clarity. You know, those light-bulb-over-the-head moments. As J. K. Rowling explains, “There’s nothing better [than] when something comes and hits you and you think ‘YES’!”

For writers, epiphanies are coveted and eagerly sought after. As we craft an article or devotional, we hunger and thirst for the perfect “Aha!” image, phrase, or metaphor. That magic thing that will tie our words together, end our piece with a bang, and make our readers go, “Wow! This is an epiphany for me!”

On the thirteenth day of Christmas – Epiphany!

I had a tiny epiphany a few years ago when it dawned on me that I had managed to get through the entire Christmas season without once hearing “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….” Amazing, eh?

The song traverses the full 12 days of Christmas, accumulating a plethora of laying hens, leaping lords, golden rings, calling birds, and a zoo’s worth of other livestock. Unfortunately, our culture only gifts on the 25th. A real disappointment when I was a kid.

Epiphany, January 6, actually marks the true end of Christmas. The 12th day of Christmas is the day before Epiphany.

Some people leave their Christmas tree up until Epiphany, when, traditionally, it is supposed to be taken down and burned, or at least recycled.

All those other gifts accumulated from your “true love”? They can now be returned, put to work, shooed away, auctioned on eBay, or eaten.

We Three Kings a caroling

Epiphany is also known as Three Kings Day (or Festival of the Three Kings, or Adoration of the Magi). Viewed as the traditional day when the three wise men (magi) visited the baby Jesus, it also celebrates the Christmas star that guided them.

For some, Three Kings Day is as big or bigger than Christmas and involves even more gift-giving and great holiday food. In Bavaria, there is said to be a custom called “Star Singers,” where, from New Year’s through January 6, children dress as the three kings and go door to door caroling while holding up a large star. They are greeted at each home with money or treats, the money usually being given to charities.

According to The Christian Sourcebook (Ballantine, 1986), “Epiphany began in the Eastern Orthodox Church—perhaps as early as the third century—and originally was a celebration of Christ’s birth. In the fourth century, however, December 25 was declared Christmas, and Epiphany took on its current significance. Although Epiphany falls on January 6th, it is often observed on the first Sunday after the New Year.”

As I mentioned, the word epiphany derives from the Greek word for “appearance” or “manifestation” or “a shining forth.” So it makes sense that the Christian feast day by this name celebrates the revelation (theophany) of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. It is an acknowledgement of Emmanuel, God with us.

2020—what a long, strange trip you’ve been

So here we are, Epiphany 2021, fresh into another new year. In some respects, it feels good to say goodbye and good riddance to 2020, the year of COVID-19, massive wild fires, endless hurricanes, political madness, and so much more wackiness. It’s been a nauseating roller coaster of a year. Here’s hoping the new year brings less stress!

Still, the start of a new year is always a time of anticipating what adventure this way comes. What epiphanies lie ahead? What new insights will be gained?

In his book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, Christian Wiman says, “Nature poets can’t walk across the backyard without tripping over an epiphany.” I believe the same could be said for Christian writers as we live out our faith, experiencing the woes and wows of this world. Nothing is a wasted moment; all moments are seeds of epiphanies that will yield new insights into the holy.

For Christian writers, now is a good time to reflect and process on what’s passed before. To glean the goodness of God that’s there and leave last year’s tares behind. As we lean into our spiritual journey, we can be sources of epiphanies for our readers.

As John Milton wrote, “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”

Lean into grace and gratitude and let Christ’s truth shine out from all you write.

I pray this year will be filled with awe-inspiring epiphanies as you continue to faithfully practice your God-given—and essential—craft of holy wordsmithing.

No Need for Telling

In a profile I wrote of Christian musician Phil Keaggy, I could have told readers his mother was kind and loving. Instead, I briefly related something he shared in our interview: She warmed his pajamas on the radiator every night before he dressed for bed. That little detail showed her loving heart and kindness. No need for telling.

Joyce K. Ellis, Write with Excellence

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.


Vocation Now and Later

by Stephen R. Clark

Whenever the idea of Christian vocation is addressed in an article or conversation, there’s a well-known quote attributed to Frederick Buechner that almost always comes up: “Vocation happens when our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

Actually, as Buechner himself explained in an interview¹, it’s not a direct quote, but it captures the essence of what he was getting at.

As Christian writers, imbued with God’s image, we all want to know why we’re here. What we’re supposed to be about. For what purpose did God create us?

And we tend to spend a lifetime seeking “the” answer to that question.

In the meantime, we write and live and move and have our being, going about our days, doing our best to please God and enjoy Him for now and here, longing for over there.

This we call our Christian walk.

God-shaped

In the process of living our lives and doing our writing in the light of God’s Word, we seek to be better people. To be Spirit-filled, God-shaped, Christ-redeemed creations.

We care about those around us. Go to work and do our writing as well as we can. Give money to those in need. Do acts of service. Treat people well. Grow where we are planted.

As we do these things, our writing vocation and purpose take shape through our humble, clumsy service to God.

Perhaps we even recognize that our “purpose” is not singular, but rather a series of purposes, a multiplicity of callings. All, of course, anchored in Christ connected by His will flowing through us.

From time to time, our thoughts turn to heaven. “What’s that going to be like?” we wonder.

Honestly, I’m not sure Christianity has done a good job of revealing what heaven and the new earth will be like.

What it won’t be like is how it is cartoonishly characterized: you’re sitting on a cloud wearing a halo and wings strumming a harp. The Bible does, however, refer to us reigning with Christ. It mentions streets, cities, dwellings. All of this implies activity.

Frankly, I’m really hoping there will be books. I think there’s going to be a lot of time to catch up on my reading!

Foreshadowing the new earth

A couple of years ago I read a really great book, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity by Nancy Pearcey. I strongly recommend the book to everyone.

On the topic of Christian vocation, Pearcey states, “In our work we not only participate in God’s providential activity today, we also foreshadow the tasks we will take up in cultivating a new earth at the end of time.”

As Spock would say, Fascinating!

This means we’re going to have stuff to do over there on the other side. Stuff for which we are perfectly suited, that fits to a T our created personalities, that extends our unique giftings into eternity!

Wowza! That sounds, well, darn fun!

And how we live now, all we do here on earth in this short time we have, prepares and shapes us for the rest of our eternal lives.

Holy vocational education!

Going back to Buechner, he explained, “When you are doing what you are happiest doing, it must also be something that not only makes you happy but that the world needs to have done. In other words, if what makes you happy is going out and living it up and spending all your money on wine, women, and song, the world doesn’t need that.”

This helps sift down the possibilities for us in terms of what we’re made for. Wanton carousing isn’t something this earth or the new earth needs.

Glorify and enjoy

The Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

In this we find further guidance when it comes to vocation as well.

We seek to do that which pleases God, serves Him and provides us a sense of enjoyment—joy, satisfaction, contentment—in the process.

Add in the context of Luke 10:25-37, where the double commands to “Love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor as yourself” are clarified in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Clearly, what we do must also benefit those around us.

So vocation is not about us having our fun, doing what we want, living our truth, even if it’s not hurting anyone else. How we live here on earth, what we do now, has eternal consequences.

And so our vocation doesn’t end at heaven’s gate, because death for the Christian isn’t an end. It’s a new beginning to a new life . . . and a truly glorious career!

So, how’s your on-the-job training going?

===

¹ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, “Frederick Buechner Extended Interview,” May 5, 2006

 

Pandemic Frustrations

by Randy Petersen

Where are the words when I need them?

This is my first pandemic, and I’m frustrated. I want to help, but I’m not sure what to do. My stock in trade is language. I want to craft sentences that provide comfort or hope or clarity to those who need it. But I’m drawing a blank.

As a Christian writer, I feel even greater pressure. I am called to love others, and words are generally the way I do that. So where are the words now?

Maybe I’m just cranky because all my activities have been canceled and there are no sporting events on TV, but I do get tired of the platitudes. Facebook seems awash in shallow sentiment. I don’t want to add to the emptiness. Yes, I love the lyrics to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as much as any theater guy, but I long to create a new message for this unique time.

Is this just an inconvenient attack of writer’s block, or is there something about this crisis that disables creativity?

I know it’s absurd to complain about this, when my neighbors are troubled by illness and fears of illness, fears for loved ones, loss of jobs and income, the freefall of retirement savings, etc. No need to cry over my spilt mojo. But maybe you’re feeling something similar.

If so, my writing friends, let me share the things I’m telling myself.

Platitudes. I don’t like them, but most of them were created for times like this. And they carry enough truth that they often help people. For years, my pastor has said, “We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.” Now I want to hear that every day. So don’t be afraid of those truisms. Unpack them. Refresh them. But don’t dismiss them.

Permission. One of the most important things a communicator can do in a tough time is to give people permission to feel what they feel. This is especially true among Christians. Are you frightened? Depressed? Frustrated? Lonely? Angry with God? If you as a writer express your difficult feelings, you’ll have a host of readers thanking you for putting their confusion into words. Don’t tell folks how they should feel. Feel what you feel, and be honest about it.

Purpose. Writers often have a prophetic gift. Not predicting the future, but explaining the present in light of larger truths. The last word of the overquoted but always appropriate Romans 8:28 is purpose. We get to connect perplexing events with God’s purposes. Often people focus on each day’s troubles without seeing the growth that God intends.

Peace. We have the power to speak peace into troubled hearts. In the 1870s, a lawyer/poet named Horatio Spafford responded to a personal tragedy by penning “It is Well with My Soul,” and succeeding generations have found comfort in those lyrics. We can use our wordsmithing gifts to craft a deeply needed message of assurance. Avoid false promises—“It’ll all be over next week”—but keep offering the powerful promises God gives us. He will be with us, always, in this world and the next.