Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: inspiration

Cloud based writing

One morning almost 60 years ago I entered a classroom to write my Grade 11 Composition final exam. I breezed through the first few pages, confident that I understood English grammar. The last page stopped me cold. It called for an essay on one of the topics in a long list. None of those topics stirred the slightest interest in my mind.

I glanced out the window. It was a glorious June day with puffy cumulus clouds drifting across the sky. I would rather have been outside, but I was stuck in that desk until I wrote the essay, or ran out of time.

Watching the clouds had a calmchild-830988_640ing effect. I saw a sheep being chased by a dragon. As I watched, the shapes slowly shifted and suddenly it was a Spanish galleon sailing through the skies. Cloud followed cloud and each one took on a recognizable shape then slowly morphed into something different.

Somebody coughed and with a jolt my mind came back into the room. The clock was ticking and the page in front of me was still blank. The list of topics was as uninspiring as ever.

Then inspiration struck: why not write about the things I had been seeing in the sky? I picked one of the topics that more or less fit and filled the page with my imagination. I handed my paper in and went outside into the sunshine.

I received full marks for that essay, 95% on the whole exam. Years later, I read in Writers’ Digest that a writer is doing the most real work when he is staring out the window. When he takes a pen in his hand or sits down at the keyboard that is just clerical work. I felt vindicated.

I still plot my stories and articles the way I did that long ago day in June. Only now the shapes I see are in my mind, not out the window. Clouds, people, ideas, arguments, incidents imagined or real, go drifting across my mind, often changing shape and becoming something totally different from the original idea. Some drift away, never to return. Some will drift through my mind for days, weeks, months, even years, before I put anything down on paper.

Sometimes I will think of a title and write it down. I might even write a list of words under the title, or a sentence or two. I have no idea how or where those words will appear in what I plan to write, but I think they will fit somewhere. Usually they do, but sometimes the whole shape of the story changes before I get it written.

I believe those idea clouds drifting through my mind are inspirations from the Holy Spirit. At least the ones that keep coming back. The changing shapes are the Spirit refining my perception so that I can understand how to put those ideas on paper so others can see what I am seeing.

Writers tend to classify themselves as either outliners or pantsers. An outliner has the whole plot down on paper before she starts – complete with descriptions of the characters, the main incidents and the conclusion. Pantsers start with an idea and proceed “by the seat of their pants” without a predetermined idea of where this is going to lead or what will happen along the way. Which category do I fall into? I don’t really know. I prefer to think of myself as a cloud-based plotter.

If you are a writer . . .

If you are a writer . . .man-29749_640.png

– you love words, you study words, their origins and all the nuances of their meanings. You don’t aim to dazzle readers with the knowledge you acquire, you want to be able to select the best words to make your readers see what you are seeing.

– you know that words are inadequate for what needs to be said. So you spend time searching for the words that come closest to saying what you want to say and avoid words and expressions that make no contribution to what you are trying to describe..

– you know that the reader can only see what you show him. A reader in Saskatchewan doesn’t know what a trillium looks like, or that many people in Ontario say youse when speaking to more than one person. A reader in Ontario doesn’t know what a slough is or what a chokecherry tastes like.

– you know that inspiration is not enough. Writing is the craft that brings the inspiration to life for your readers, by using just the right words and removing all the useless words that distract readers from perceiving what it was that inspired you.

– everything you see, and hear, and dream, becomes grist for your mill. You notice the little wildflower that is invisible to others, you hear the song of a toad at dusk, you see and hear the way people do and say things. These all become part of your storehouse and sooner or later they appear somewhere in your writing.

– you are a writer all the time. You have a full time job, you are a student, a busy mother, a caregiver to an aged relative. In all you do you find insights, nuggets of truth, startling images, moments of tenderness, moments of hilarity, and you tuck the memories away to be brought out when you sit down with a pen or at a keyboard.

– you are delighted to hear a reader repeat something you wrote that gave him new light on a subject, even if he can’t remember who wrote it.

What does the Bible mean to you?

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In the 2011 census, 67% of Canadians identified themselves as Christians. A statistic that is somewhat older and probably outdated says that 25% of Canadians attend church once a week. The latest survey gives a glimpse of the rot at the base of our Christianity: 5% of Canadians read the Bible daily, 11% once a week, 14% once a month. 55% have never opened a Bible in their life.

The fact that 67% self-identified as Christians indicates that they still see some value in the historic teachings of the faith — even though they might not have much of an idea what they are. Do you suppose there would be a way of getting them intrigued about the roots of that heritage? Who is going to do it? Obviously, the majority of church-going people are not Bible readers.

Here are some questions for those of us who say we read the Bible every day:

– Have you ever read a passage in the Bible and realized it was a personal message for your immediate situation?

– Do you pray for understanding when you read the Bible?

* Does a verse from the Bible ever come to your mind when you find yourself in a difficult situation?

– Have you ever read the Bible all the way through? Are there parts of the Bible that you have never read?

– Do you sometimes take time to study a particular event, or teaching, or promise so that you can understand it more fully?

– Do you talk about what you have read with your family? your Christian friends? your non-Christian friends?

If I am reading the Bible and I am suddenly struck about how this is just what brother George needs to hear, I am probably not getting much personal benefit from my Bible reading. Neither is brother George, even presuming that he is in need of help. If brother George truly needs help, then I should be praying for direction on how to talk to him as a brother without sounding superior. Perhaps I should pray to know how to encourage him to talk.

People around us need to read the Bible and believe what it says. Let’s not be one of those self-righteous religious people that have given the Bible and Christianity a bad name.The people around us have a pretty keen nose for the slightest whiff of hypocrisy. How do we avoid having that odour attach itself to us? Well, that might mean taking the Bible seriously enough to make major changes to our lifestyle if it is not 100% compatible with the teachings of the Word.

When we find inspiration in the Bible for our personal life, it is much more likely that we will inspire others to look in the same Book for answers to their needs.

Weeds and stones in our writing

Floyd McNeill* farmed near the banks of the Moose Jaw River, one of those prairie rivers consisting of a deep, wide valley with a little creek meandering its way along a narrow channel on the bottom. Being near the river bank, there were stones scattered through the fields, some small enough that a man could have gathered them up with a few days of manual labour. Some were larger and would have required a tractor with a front end loader. Floyd did not have a front end loader, nor did he have much inclination for physical labour, so the stones remained.

Year after year Floyd seeded wheat in his fields without making any attempt to deal with the stones, or with the weeds that grew. At harvest time, some wheat was too short to cut and more was missed as he dodged around the stones. He was a bachelor, living alone along a back road in a house with no modern conveniences. He didn’t appear to need a lot of money, yet I occasionally wondered if he had some other source of income, perhaps the manufacture of a stimulating beverage.

One year he announced that he was going to farm scientifically. He bought certified seed and fertilizer for his fields, but did nothing about the weeds and the stones. As I drove by his farm that summer I saw that the weeds, particularly the wild mustard, were doing better than ever. The harvest could not have been much different than preceding years.

Too many Christian writers are like Floyd. They start with an inspiration from God, that is the good seed, and believe that is enough. The writing that results is full of weeds that choke out the message and littered with stones that break the teeth of the cutting bar when a reader attempts to glean the meaning hidden in the field of this writing.

Adjectives and adverbs are occasionally needed to make the meaning clear. When a writer adds more than are needed they become weeds choking out the life of the writing. Stones are awkward sentence structure, misuse of the passive voice, or words used inappropriately.

Writers are also readers. Sometimes we come upon a new word, think we understand it and decide to use it in our writing. Often this leaves the reader to guess what it was that we thought we were saying. I recently read an article that referred to “nascent believers.” I think the writer meant new believers, but that wasn’t what he said. Nascent means “in the process of being born.” Close maybe, but not the appropriate word. The writing had a good message, but was marred by a few clunkers like this and a few sentences that took a long time to find a stopping point.

Reading books by good authors will develop an ear for good English. It won’t work to copy their style, but noting passages that are particularly effective will help us in our own writing. Every writer should have a good dictionary and learn to use it, not a pocket edition but one that gives all shades of meaning, word origins and examples of usage. Every once in a while we should read a book about writing to see if we have fallen into bad habits.

We should not be like Floyd and think that having good seed is all that we need. Floyd would have resented any hint that he was lazy. So would most writers, yet the work required to provide a meaningful harvest for the reader may seem formidable. One well-known Canadian writer had this advice for his son: “Revise and revise, and revise again until you think there is nothing left that you can improve. Then revise one more time.”

*Not his real name. I have forgotten his real name, which is just as well.

The foolishness of preaching

For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. — 1 Corinthians 1:17-21

Here is the genius of true Christian preaching: it is not a dry learned discourse, nor is it an exercise in emotional demagoguery. The preacher must have personal experience of the gospel he preaches, or his preaching will have no life. There must needs be something of teaching and something of feeling, but the preacher stands on common ground with those to whom he is speaking and talks of the aspirations and trials that are common to all and of God’s grace which is accessible to all.

A distinction needs to be made between the written word and the spoken word. A Christian writer may be inspired to write about a topic or an event and sit down to get this inspiration into written form. The writer then needs to revise and edit to make sure that the inspiration is not befogged with unnecessary words or digressions into side issues, and that all the information is there for the reader to understand the inspiration. The reader is able to go back and reread a portion that was not clear on the first reading, or perhaps read the whole thing over at a later time to let the meaning sink in.

The spoken word is immediate and fleeting. The hearers will not remember every word that was said and will have no opportunity to go back and listen to it again. If the preacher has been inspired by God with a message and opens his heart to share that message as being as much in need as his hearers, the message will have a lasting impact after the words have vanished from memory.

For this reason, I believe that preaching can truly be described as the living word. A sermon has its most powerful impact upon those who are assembled in one place to listen. I don’t believe it has the same impact when broadcast over a phone line, closed circuit TV, or other means. A sermon that is recorded or transcribed also loses much of its vitality.

In the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, we do not believe in a trained and salaried ministry. Nor do we believe that a minister should write out his sermon beforehand. All these things diminish the leading of the Holy Spirit as he speaks and weaken the authenticity of the message.

The word minister means servant, an apt description of a person who is called to serve spiritual nourishment to a congregation of believers. Ministers are also called pastors (shepherds), bishops (overseers), teachers and evangelists. But they are never to be looked upon as lords over the people of God. All his spiritual work must be done with the collaboration and support of the congregation, or it will never stand the challenges that will come.

All ministers are not equal in their ability to expound on the Scriptures, in eloquence, or even in their mastery of the language. These are all things that can be improved on with time. The most important qualifications of a minister are a pure life, humility, love for others. These are not things that can be learned from books, but the fruit of a life truly dedicated to serving God and his fellow men.

Spirit-led writing

The biggest publishing sensation during my younger years was On the Road by Jack Kerouac.  He had taken a long roll of paper, aligned the top edge of the roll on the platen of his typewriter and never stopped typing until he had filled the roll from top to bottom.  A publisher decided to take a chance on this strange manuscript and it became a runaway best seller.

I read the book – even then I wasn’t sure why – perhaps I needed to read it to realize that this wasn’t a road I wanted to follow.  Nevertheless, I bought into the mythology that this was a genuinely spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness novel produced by the drug addled brain of Jack Kerouac.

I should have known better.  Kerouac broke many rules of writing, but he did it knowingly – he knew words and how to use them.  He was not some ignorant dropout who didn’t know a gerund from a geranium.  He had studied journalism at Columbia University and had been writing for many years before he produced On the Road.

Kerouac’s full name was Jean-Louis Kérouac, born in Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents.  His mother tongue was French; in his youth he was known as Ti-Jean (little John).  He wrote the first draft of On the Road in French, then several drafts in English before his manic stint at the typewriter.

Writing is work, even for the father of the beat generation.  Nevertheless, there is still a naive belief among many people that “I could write a book just as good as those big name writers if only my time wasn’t all taken up with making a living.”  Christians seem to be especially susceptible to such romantic notions: “The Spirit has inspired me to write this and I know it will touch the hearts of thousands of readers if I can just get somebody to publish it without messing it up by editing.”

I think of writing as being much like making a garden.  The seeds are the inspiration.  You need to plant them in an orderly fashion, to provide space for each growing plant to develop.  Then, if you ever want a harvest, you have to be in earnest about weeding.  Get those weeds out of there, don’t let them suck all the life out of your story!

Sometimes the weeds look so beautiful; they have such delightful flowers.  But if left to grow, they overshadow the garden plants.  Their roots go down deep and suck up the moisture and nutrients.  They spread their seeds over the garden and multiply until you can hardly see the rows that you planted and the product of your garden is hardly worth the effort you put into it.

You have to have inspiration to start with – the seeds.  However, as with a garden, the biggest part of the work of writing comes in the weeding – the editing.  A famous Canadian author gave the following advice to his son when he began to follow in his father’s footsteps: “Revise and revise and revise, until your writing is as good as you can possibly make it – then revise once more.”

When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.”—Enrique Jardiel Poncela

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