December 22, 2014

Joy to the World

If you have heard the Christmas story your whole life, as I have, you might think, as I did, that you have considered almost every aspect of the Nativity. Nevertheless, I requested a review copy of the new book, Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (And Still Does), published by Image books. I figured that if anyone would have new insights or a fresh perspective into this vital, 2,000-year old story, it would be Bible scholar, Christian author, former pastor, Catholic theologian, and university professor Scott Hahn.

From the first chapter “A Light Goes On in Bethlehem,” we receive this insightful light:

The Christmas story has an unconventional hero – not a warrior, not a worldly conqueror, not an individual at all, but rather a family…. We see the swaddling bands and know they’re for a baby, but someone had to do the swaddling…. We hear tell of the manger-crib where he lay, but someone needed to place him there…. The family is the key to Christmas. The family is the key to Christianity....

That, indeed, is one of the most profound implications of the Christmas story: that God had made his dwelling place among men, women, and children, and he called them – he calls us – to become his family, his holy household.

Today, many people have no family. Many, including children in this country, have no home. They’re homeless, lonely, and alone.

Without Christ, the world was a joyless place; and anyplace where he remains unknown and unaccepted is a joyless place. Everything has changed since Christ’s birth, but everything remains to be changed, as people come to receive the child in faith.”

With the joy of Christ in the world, no one needs to be without home or family. In the church, we can find loving, forgiving fellowship with one another as the Family of God. We can be grafted into Jesus’ family tree.

As Dr. Hahn points out, “The New Testament begins not with a discourse or a prophecy, not with theology or law, but with a simple declaration of family relationships.”

So the book of Matthew begins with a genealogy or, in Greek, a geneseos, which gives the root for genes, genetics, genomes, or generations and can be translated as “beginning” or “origin.” Therefore, “…the evangelist was suggesting a new Genesis, an account of the new creation brought about by Jesus Christ.” Likewise, “In the fourth Gospel, Saint John accomplishes something similar when he begins by echoing the first words of the Torah: ‘In the beginning’.”

In the book of Luke, we get Mary’s perspective and Jesus’ family line going back to Adam to show how Christ came for everyone. Matthew, however, wants to show his Jewish readers how they’re connected to Christ through their family heritage, and so his long list of begats begins with Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people.

As the roll draws to its close, however, it identifies Joseph not as a father, but as ‘the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born who is called Christ’.” Dr. Hahn goes on to say, this “final link breaks with the preceding pattern. Joseph is not called father, but spouse. The evangelist wants to be perfectly clear that Joseph had no biological role to play in the conception of Jesus.

When time came for the infant to be born, what a birth announcement! One angel visited the shepherds, as messengers from God often did in Old Testament Times, calming fears and announcing Good News. But this time, a multitude of heavenly hosts then appeared, singing “Glory to God in the highest,” and lighting up the whole sky with angels!

Later, when the magi visited the Holy Family, Matthew 2:10 reports, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Dr. Hahn then asks us to “linger on that single line. For it captures the very moment when God gave ‘Joy to the World’ – not merely to Israel, but to the whole world: the nations, the foreigners, the Gentiles.”

In the Family of God, the church Body of Christ, love holds us together, and joy radiates from the center. Or, as Dr. Hahn says:

If we truly celebrate Christmas, we’ll exude a joy that people will want to share.”

To be realistic, though, “there are those who would steal our joy by trying to steal our Christmas – by snickering at the lot of it: the Trinity, the virginal conception, the incarnation, the shepherds. How should we respond? By inviting them to the feast. By enjoying the feast ourselves, and by enjoying it for all of its infinite worth.”


May your Christ-mass be filled with love and overflow with joy, joy, joy in Jesus’ Name.

©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler is an ecumenical Christian poet, writer, and lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the church in all its parts.

Note from Mary: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review, but you can order it from Amazon.

Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (And Still Does), hardback

December 19, 2014

Imagination redeemed: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your mind

As an active Christian poet, writer, and occasional poetry editor, I know how important imagination can be. More often, however, I heavily rely on prayer and observation – listening for God’s guidance and paying attention to the details that make a poem or post or book come alive. So I have to admit: I often think imagination is over-rated or, worse, a way to conjure up unlikely thoughts or inadvisable ideas!

Reportedly, God’s people have had similar concerns from the beginning as Genesis 6:5 reminds us, saying, “...the imagination and intentions of human thinking is continually evil.” Ouch! But wait!

What if Christ has redeemed our imaginations along with everything else about us?

I love that idea, don’t you? So, when I saw that Crossway had recently published Imagination redeemed by authors Gene Edward Veith Jr. and Matthew P. Ristuccia, I immediately requested a review copy, which the publisher kindly sent.

The subtitle reveals even more about the authors’ intentions: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind. Excellent idea! But, how do we do that?

Second Corinthians 10:4-5 gives us the short version:

For the weapons of our warfare
are not of the flesh,
but empowered by God
to bring down strongholds.

Therefore, with God’s help

we can bring down everything opposed
to what we know of God,

– that knowledge that comes to us through the Bible, our experiences, our conscience, and our God-given ability to think and reason –

taking every thought captive
in obedience to Christ.

Authors Veith and Ristuccia fully develop that idea in their book Imagination redeemed, beginning with this definition from Gene:

“Imagination is simply the power of the mind to form a mental image, that is, to think in pictures or other sensory representations…. Imagination lets us relive the past and anticipate the future. And it takes up much of our present. We use our imaginations when we daydream and fantasize, to be sure, but also when we just think about things.”

In providing biblical examples from Ezekiel throughout the book, Matt had this to say:

“It is hard to imagine a more difficult faith crisis for Old Testament people of God than what Ezekiel and his fellow exiles faced. The combined loss of hope and reassurance of divine presence were overwhelming. God’s people were in desperate need for something bigger than an oracle. Their thoughts had wandered too far astray to be called back by prophetic logic alone. Instead, they needed to see what they could not see: God’s loyal providence…. So the Lord went after Ezekiel’s imagination, and through him the exiles.”

As Matt goes on to say:“If you capture someone’s imagination, you capture his mind, heart, and will.”

Typing that quotation now, I’m reminded that Matthew 22:37 reports Jesus’ word to us: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

Our imaginations can free us to capture our love for God – in our minds, in our writings, and in our lives.

With vibrant words and poetic imaginations, prophets such as Ezekiel give us examples to consider, which this book also does throughout the text. Sometimes, though, I found the references to Ezekiel distracting and would have preferred the text divided by each author’s emphasis, perhaps in separate chapters, parts, or even separate volumes. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book and the excellent ideas behind it.

Like the authors, I believe, “…the part of the mind known as the imagination – the ability to form mental images – is important in the life of the Christian. Though a realm in need of discipline and sanctification, the imagination is a God-given superpower, making possible some of the greatest achievements of human beings. It makes possible empathy and compassion, shapes our worldview, and is the way into our heart.”

For Christian poets, writers, editors, and other communicators for Christ, I pray that God inspires us and stimulates our imaginations to write in all genres with such winsome words and creative ideas that we bring countless readers to Christ and the church. Imagine what we can do in Jesus’ Name!

©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler is an ecumenical Christian poet, writer, and lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the church in all its parts.

Imagination redeemed: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind, paperback

December 10, 2014

Revelations about the church in Revelation

We’ve been talking about the church – where we’ve come from, where we are now, and where we’re going as the Body of Christ. These conversations came about because of concerns we have as Christians who see church membership declining and people openly maligning Christianity.

Since I believe communicators for Christ can do something about this through our writings, I’ve been searching and praying for inspired ideas that might help us to minister healing and strength to the church – 1, 2, 3 steps we can do – with the grace of God. So, when a member of my Bible study group asked if we could please study Revelation, I sighed, thinking I really didn’t want to get into end-time expectations or personal interpretations about what this symbol or that might mean. I wanted to focus on the needs, concerns, and direction of the church now.

I’ve read the book several times, but actually studying Revelation brings all sorts of revelations about the church. For example:

The letters to seven churches in chapters one through three of Revelation reveal and reflect the very problems we’re having in and with the church today. Consider, for instance:

Sometimes our love needs rekindling in the Holy Spirit

Sometimes we’re so caught up in doing good, we have no time to soak up God’s goodness.

Sometimes we’re so politically correct, we let society dictate, rather than God’s word.

Sometimes we need to admit we’re wrong, repent, and intercede for others.

Sometimes we need to remember how to live in Christ and not just for Him.

Sometimes we need to encourage and strengthen one another in the faith.

Sometimes we need to prayerfully consider how we might fuel our gifts and stoke our passions for Christ.

After the letters to the churches, the next few chapters remind us of Christ’s Passion for us: Who Christ was, Who Christ is, and Who Christ will be in the church, in our lives, and throughout eternity.

Maybe we’ll be excused from terrible sufferings in the future, and maybe we won’t. Regardless, here’s the 100% sure revelation in Revelation.

We are marked as Christ’s own.

Through Jesus Christ, we have God’s Seal of Approval – the exact opposite of the “mark of the beast.” Most of us have heard and heard about 666, but have we heard – really heard – that we have no need to worry about this, because God’s seal is and will be on us.

God’s seal cannot be broken! God’s seal was, is, and will be on the church. And, this seal shows we have God’s authority, God’s ownership, and God’s protection because we wear and bear God’s seal through our belief in the redemption of Christ.

As we are the church, the church is us – you and me. May we all have ears to hear what God says to the churches and reveals to us in Jesus’ Name.

©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler is an ecumenical Christian poet, writer, and lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the church in all its parts.

December 3, 2014

The church: where we're going, why, and with whom

In the last post, we looked at “The church: where we’re coming from and where we’ve been” as individual and denominational parts of the Body of Christ. This time we’ll consider where we’re going, why, and with whom.

Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on our own assumptions and opinions. For the last couple of decades, the Barna Group has interviewed thousands of men and women with no church affiliation or ties. Editors George Barna and David Kinnaman then presented their findings in the book, Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them, published by Tyndale Momentum, an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers.

As a highly ecumenical Christian who has loved Christ and the church in all of its parts since my early childhood, I welcomed the complimentary review copy of Churchless from Tyndale Blog Network. For one thing, I cannot imagine a world without the church, but more importantly, I cannot imagine – nor do I want to! – a life without Christ.

When I was growing up almost everyone “went to church.” In recent years though, Christians have begun to see and say, “We ARE the church.” So, I’m wondering: Are people falling away from Christ or from us?

In requesting this review copy, I wanted to see how other people see Christ. I wanted to know why church doors are closing and why Christian fellowship isn’t being sought. I wanted to find out if statistics can help us to assess and address relevant issues in our churches and/or our writing lives. But mostly, I just wanted to know what we can do!

Although the book did not answer all of my questions, the editors immediately laid out a statement that, typographically, slows down our reading and summarizes the situation:

“If we perceive the gap
between ‘us’ and ‘them’
as W I D E and
essentially uncrossable,
we are less likely
to get close enough
to offer ourselves
in real relationships.”

To that summation, the editors later added, “We hear again and again, both from the unchurched and from local churches that are deeply engaged with the unchurched in their communities, that loving, genuine relationships are the only remaining currency readily exchanged between the churched and the churchless.”

Thinking of ourselves as poets, writers, publishers, or other communicators for Christ, we might ask:

With whom will I get up close and purposeful?

To whom will I offer my poems, books, or other manuscripts?

How might my writing help draw others to Christ and the church?

To find out what we’re up against, I appreciated the quick overview of stats at the beginning of the book that offered this information:

• The Minimally Churched (8%) Attend church infrequently and unpredictably

• The Actively Churched (49%) Attend church at least once a month

• The De-Churched (33%) Were once active in church but are no longer

• The Purely Unchurched (10%) Do not currently and have never attended a church

And so, right away, we find out that 57% of the 20,000+ American adults interviewed do go to church, while 43% do not or never have. To put those present statistics into perspective with the past, only 30% of the people were churchless in the 1990s.

In those earlier years, of course, the Internet did not provide social outlets that meet or, perhaps, mask our need for fellowship. Not only that, but the “digital shift” shifted “the expectation, especially among young people, that they can and should contribute, not just consume. Online technologies… enable any connected person to add his or her image, idea, or opinion to the digital mix. If you consider how most churches deliver content – appointing one person as the authority and encouraging everyone else to sit (consume) quietly while he or she speaks – it is easy to see how that delivery system may come into conflict with changing cultural expectations.”

That same digital connectedness, however, gives poets, writers, and other communicators for Christ direct, instantaneous access to people from the proverbial four corners of the earth!

Nevertheless, we have gaps to fill and negative views to overcome. For example:

“Of those who could identify one way Christians contribute to the common good, the unchurched appreciate their influence when it comes to serving the poor and disadvantaged (22 percent), bolstering morals and values (10 percent), and helping people believe in God (8 percent)./ Among those who had a complaint about Christians in society, the unchurched were least favorably disposed toward violence in the name of Christ (18 percent), the church’s stand against gay marriage (15 percent), sexual abuse scandals (13 percent), and being involved in politics (10 percent).”

With “one out of every five young adults… an exile who feels lost between church culture and the wider culture he or she feels called to inhabit and influence,” we can help by coming together as one Body ready to love, serve, forgive, and heal cultural differences, perhaps through communal outings or community concerts or concerted efforts to reach the underprivileged in our local areas.

We can help by forgiving one another and encouraging others to forgive.

We can help by counseling and educating people about the work of the church throughout history, for example, in establishing some of the finest universities in the world and establishing – throughout the world – orphanages, hospitals, and other missions that meet needs.

As Christians come together, our primary purpose is to worship and fellowship with God, which gives us fellowship, too, with one another. This connection makes us one in spirit and one part of the larger Body of Christ, where we then have the strength, power, and purpose – as a church – to educate, influence, and evangelize others in Jesus’ Name.

©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, is an ecumenical Christian poet, writer, and lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the church in all its parts.

Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them, hardback

November 20, 2014

The church: where we’re coming from and where we’ve been

When we’re with good friends or family most of us can express ourselves without having to explain every little thing. Those who are close to us know us. They know where we’re coming from – most of the time anyway, and hopefully, we know too.

Jesus did. According to John 8:14, He said, “I know where I came from and where I'm going.”

Cultural backgrounds, family histories, and past experiences help to define who we are, where we came from, what we need, and where we’re going. Understanding those aspects of ourselves and those close to us can help to relieve anxiety, suspicions, and misunderstandings.

Similarly, the more we know about the Family of Christ, the more we recognize our ties to one Lord and one faith.

And, the more we know why other Christians believe as they do, the more we begin to appreciate their sincerity and respect their choices.

And, the more we embrace each part of the Body of Christ, the more effective the church becomes in forgiving, loving, and working together in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Such beliefs made me want to know the histories of various denominations, so I can better understand where they’re coming from and what we have in common – in our common union in Jesus Christ. This caused me to request a review copy of God Has Spoken: A History of Christian Theology, which Crossway kindly sent.

In this highly recommended, hefty volume, research professor Gerald Bray shows us how Christian doctrines came about and what struggles caused theological differences or new developments in how people thought. For such a book to accomplish its goals, heavy-duty research and fair-mindedness are a must.

In the Preface, for instance, Dr. Bray shows where he’s coming from by saying: “…very few people would now assert that what their particular church teaches is absolute truth to the exclusion of everything else.” Most Christians today would not welcome a history of the church “whose main purpose is to debunk or defend a particular denomination.”

That said, Dr. Bray also recognizes that “We all have our preferences, of course, but anyone who argues that only the Baptists, or only the Roman Catholics (or the Reformed, the Eastern Orthodox, the Lutherans, or whoever) are right while everyone else is wrong is now regarded as a propagandist, not as a historian – and is dismissed accordingly. At the present time it is universally agreed that the historian must rise above his own bias and be as fair as he can be to others, accepting that even disagreeable facts must be analyzed and explained in their context, even if he might privately wish that the past had been different.”

We now take many principles of faith for granted, but from the earliest days of the church onward, various issues or problems arose that had to be resolved. Each solution brought a new resolution or another step in theology, and then other concerns came to light.

As Dr. Bray says, “Just as a piece of cut glass reveals different aspects of the light according to how it is held, so the New Testament appears in a new light when looked at in response to the different theological questions that have been put to it.”

For example, in the early church, “Christians who prayed to God as their Father had to stress that he was the God of the Old Testament – the Creator and Redeemer are one.... After that was established, the identity of the Son was next on the theological agenda,” which meant expressing “this great mystery in a way that would affirm both the divinity and the humanity of the incarnate Son without compromising the integrity of either.”

Beliefs about the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, and a calling to the ministry needed to be considered too, whereas present-day concerns often center on “the suspicion that either there is no God at all, or that all religious beliefs point to the same transcendent deity.”

Simply reading the Preface of this book will give you an overview of the denominational histories and diverse theological developments in the churches, but, as you might expect, these 1260 pages have more to say! Fortunately, the scholarly author has a conversational style that retains reader interest. Or, the book can be used as a reference guide to church denominations, key figures in Christianity, and historical events.

To organize this wealth of material, Dr. Bray divided the book into eight sections as follows:

Part One
The Israelite Legacy

Part Two
The Person of the Father

Part Three
The Work of the Father

Part Four
The Person of the Son

Part Five
The Work of the Son

Part Six
The Person of the Holy Spirit

Part Seven
The Work of the Holy Spirit

Part Eight
One God in Three Persons

For example, Part One discusses “A Shared Inheritance” among Christians and Jews, while Part Six talks about “The Inspiration of Holy Scripture.”

Regarding the latter, the early Christian theologian Origen considered “the overall purpose of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the Scriptures in the first place. As he saw it, the Spirit had two principal aims in view. The first was to instruct believers in the deep things of God, which only he knows. The second was to help beginners in the faith, who need guidance and can be reached only when the deeper mysteries are expressed in the language and concepts of everyday life.”

For biblical examples of this, consider the settings for Jesus’ parables in a vineyard or field or dimly lit home. Or, consider how the resurrected Christ identified Himself with the individual needs of seven churches in Revelation, letting Christians in Laodicea know He is the “beginning of creation” and not a created being as some thought. Or how they needed Him to clothe them and anoint their eyes, even though the area was known for woolen cloth and eye salve!

Only a God-inspired word could be so relevant and alive – then and now – in Christian lives and churches. God does not change, but circumstances, times, and languages do, causing Christians throughout the centuries to pray about and express their beliefs, so one generation to the next can understand.

As Dr. Bray says in closing, “God the Father has spoken to us in the Word; God the Son calls for us to hear and respond to that Word, which is found only and fully in him; and God the Holy Spirit gives us the understanding and the will to accept that Word and allow it to transform our lives by uniting us to Christ, in whom we dwell in the heavenly places and have fellowship with all three persons of the Godhead.”

May this book help us to have fellowship with one another as we consider each part of the Body of Christ, joined in love, in Jesus’ Name.

©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, is an ecumenical Christian poet, writer, and lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the church in all its parts.

God Has Spoken: A History of Christian Theology, hardback

November 11, 2014

Coloring your parachute and finding a job that pays the bills so you can write

The most popular book on job-hunting ever, What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard Bolles, began because of clerical cutbacks in his church! When he and other pastors lost their pulpits and church staff lost their jobs, Dick Bolles toured the country collecting information to find out what made a job search most effective.

As people talked about bailing out of their jobs, he playfully asked “What color is your parachute?” giving birth to the title of the first edition, published in 1972 by Ten Speed Press. To keep up to speed since then, Rev. Bolles has updated the book every year and revised according to the changing times, technology, and job-hunting techniques.

Years ago, for example, personnel offices, personal connections, and/or job placement agencies helped most people to get a job. Today, “It’s a Whole New World for Job-Hunters” as the title of the first chapter says and explains before closing on this note:

“He or she who gets hired is not necessarily the one who can do that job best, but the one who knows the most about how to get hired.”

That might not be exactly as we expect! Yes, many of us know about social sites, such as LinkedIn, that can help us to make professional connections, but have you recently Googled yourself and considered what you can find from an employer’s perspective? You will be Googled! And, the fact is, almost no one in charge of hiring will be eager to see foul language, sexist remarks, lewd photos, or radical views aired on the Internet!

Potential employers, however, will be glad to find job candidates who show, not only evidence of skills but a well-rounded résumé, including special achievements, volunteer work, community service, recommendations, awards, and, especially, clear evidence of responsibility, reliability, and readiness to do the job for which you’re applying.

We hear a lot about the decline of the current job market, but a better approach, according to Dr. Bolles, is to ask what, where, and how. As he goes on to suggest, ask:

WHAT are your skills that you most love to use?
WHERE would you most love to use these skills?
And finally, HOW do you go about finding such places?

For example, you might:

“Go after new small organizations with twenty or fewer employees, at first, since they create two-thirds of all new jobs.”

Regarding WHO:

“…once you’ve identified a place that interests you, you really need to find out who has the power to hire you there for the position you want…”


“Basically approach them not as a ‘job-beggar’ but humbly as a resource person, able to produce better work for that organization….”

To assess how resourceful you are can be tricky as some have a tendency to over-estimate their abilities while others under-cut themselves to the core! To be fair to yourself, the book suggests doing a worksheet, listing what you know from previous jobs and from areas outside of work.

Also in that chapter on “You Need to Understand More Fully Who You Are,” a page provides a checklist of adjectives to identify your strongest traits, from “Accurate” and “Adaptable” to “Versatile” and “Vigorous.”

In a somewhat surprising turn, another chapter says “You Get to Choose Where You Work,” after you realize “You Need to Learn As Much As You Can About a Place Before Formally Approaching Them.”

You might be wondering, though, why we’re discussing this In a Christian Writer’s Life blog.

For one thing, I requested a review copy of What Color Is Your Parachute?, which Blogging For Books kindly sent in return for an honest review on my blog, so I’m committed to discussing this somewhere. Although I have several blogs, I chose this one because writers often need a job to support their writing habit. At least, that's what occurred to me initially, but as I read the book, I realized that many of the suggestions can be translated into approaching traditional publishing companies or church denominational headquarters about writing assignments and/ or freelance work.

And then I got to “The Blue Pages.”

At the back of the book, several appendixes have been printed, yes, on blue paper, setting them apart for a quick find. For example, Appendix A discusses “Finding Your Mission in Life,” which totally makes sense if you remember Rev. Bolles began his job search when his pastorate ended. Therefore, he knoweth of what he speaks when he says that figuring out your Mission in life “is a learning process that has steps to it, much like the process by which we all learned to eat.”

In the first step, we “seek to stand hour by hour in the conscious presence of God, the One from whom your Mission is derived.”

Second, we do what we can to make the world better by “following the leading and guidance of God’s Spirit within you and around you.

And third, it gets personal. It gets unique. It gets you:

a) to exercise the Talent that you particularly came to Earth to use – your greatest gift, which you most delight to use,

b) in the place(s) or setting(s) that God has caused to appeal to you the most,

c) and for those purposes that God most needs to have done in the world.

©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer and poet-author of 27 traditionally published books in all genres is on a mission to help other Christian Poets & Writers through blogs, writing resources, and e-books such as the Christian Writer’ Guide.

What Color Is Your Parachute? 2015: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers, paperback

I received this book for review from Blogging For Books.

November 7, 2014

The Voice of God

Most of us have heard, or at least heard of, that “still, small voice” of God, which the prophet Elijah perceived in 1 Kings 19:12 and which the New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE) calls “a light silent sound.”

Since childhood I’ve listened for that quiet word or inner “knowing,” but sometimes I suspect I’ve needed a spiritual hearing aid! Even if I’m listening – really listening – will I always hear?

That’s been a lifelong concern for me, but then, a couple of days ago my Bible study group began discussing Revelation, and from the very first chapter, we “heard” God in verse 15 where “His voice was like the sound of many waters,” similar to a rush of ocean waves. Since we live in Florida and have experienced the Atlantic drowning out all other sounds, including our own voices, we began to understand:

• God can be heard.

• God can be heard over a deafening roar.

• God’s voice rises above all others.

If you have ever wondered whether you can “hear God,” Revelation 1:15 will most likely encourage you too. Nevertheless, I confess: I soon forgot!

Then this morning, my devotional readings led me to Psalm 29: 3, where “The voice of the glorious LORD God thunders over the mighty waters,” and I started to get suspicious that maybe God is trying to tell me something vital I need to hear, believe, and remember when uncertainty arises for God’s voice can and will rise higher!

As verse 4 of Psalm 29 goes on to say:

The voice of the LORD
is powerful!

The voice of the LORD
has majesty and splendor.

Blending the voices of many translations found on Bible Gateway, I prayer-a-phrased the above verses in keeping with the adjectives used to describe God’s voice, but NABRE shows the voice as nouns:

The voice of the Lord is power;
the voice of the Lord is splendor.

That power acts, speaking the earth and the universe into being, when in the beginning, God said “Let there be…” and there was.

That power, that voice breaks cedars, divides flames of fire, and shakes the wilderness, yet gently soothes a deer giving birth in a storm-tossed forest!

Let everyone say, “Glory!” and let’s thank God for the peace of knowing the LORD speaks so we who listen can hear.

© 2014 Mary Harwell Sayler is poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem and the Bible-based poetry book, Outside Eden.

October 27, 2014

Literary Forms in the Bible

When we think of the Bible as the written word inspired by God, the laws (teachings) and history will most likely come to mind. However, poetry covers about one-third of the Bible, which also contains almost all of the other literary forms. Hopefully, this will interest Christian readers in general, but as poets and writers, we do well to study these forms and their usages to expand our literary options in what we write.

We can do this by ourselves, of course, but if you’ve ever read one of the many books by writer, editor, and university professor Leland Ryken, you’ll want to see what he has to say on this subject. I certainly did! So I warmly welcomed the review copy I received of A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, recently published by Crossway.

In the Introduction, Dr. Ryken defines literary forms as “anything pertaining to how a passage expresses its content.” So the focus is not on the content or the what of the text but on these categories as listed by the author with my notes added in parentheses:

1. Literary terms (discussed in this alphabetized handbook)
2. Genres (fiction, nonfiction, poetry)
3. Literary techniques (for example, theme and variation)
4. Motifs (pattern or theme)
5. Archetypes and type scenes (recurrent patterns or symbols)
6. Figures of speech (metaphor, simile, hyperbole, paradox)
7. Rhetorical devices (for example, an envelope structure or inclusio, which “consists of bracketing a passage with the same statement”)
8. Stylistic traits (features of style from high to conversational)
9. Formulas (such as a number formula “for three transgressions and for four” or a “woe formula)

You might feel like saying “Woe is me!” if those terms are new for you, but take heart! The A to Z (make that "W") format of the book enables you to look up the entry you want on your own need-to-know terms.

Since I wanted to give the book a thorough reading, though, I began with “Abundance, Story of” and kept going, soon coming to the conclusion that, when I catch up on my stack of review copies, I’d like to read this again and give myself a writing exercise for each entry to which I'm drawn.

For instance, I’ve enjoyed writing acrostics, which, in Bible literature, means, “An Old Testament poem in which the successive units begin with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in consecutive order.” Mine were written using the English alphabet, but the Hebrew Bible includes acrostics in several Psalms where “The most elaborate acrostic poem in the Bible is Psalm 119. The poem is comprised of twenty-two eight-verse units. The units unfold according to the Hebrew alphabet, but in addition, all eight verses within each unit begin with the letter that the unit as a cluster highlights.” To make Psalm 119 even more difficult to write, the poet consistently included words referring to the “law of the LORD” such as “precepts, “statutes,” “commandments,” thereby adding to the impression that the Bible consists primarily of rules.

Dr. Ryken, however, reminds us of so much more in the “Adventure Story,” “Allegory, “Apocalyptic Writing,” “Beatitude,” “Benediction,” “Christ Hymn,” and even the “Comedy,” which he describes as “A kind of plot structure, with accompanying traits, that forms a U-shaped story in which events first descend into potential tragedy and then rise to a happy ending.”

Who would expect that, from a literary perspective, “comedy rather than tragedy is the dominant narrative form of the Bible and the Christian gospel.” For example, the Bible “story begins with the creation of a perfect world. It descends into the tragedy of fallen human history. It ends with a new world of total happiness and victory over evil” – which is surely more than enough to make us smile!

Other examples of the literary form include the stories of Joseph, Ruth, Esther, and Job – none of whom endured the laughing matters we expect to see in a TV sit-com or humor story. Nevertheless, each lived through a U-shaped story where events went from bad to good, shaping their faith and also the lives of readers who welcome the relief of a happy ending based on biblical truths.

Continuing through the alphabetized entries, we find “Drama” and “Dramatic Irony,” such as “Pharaoh’s daughter unknowingly paying the mother of Moses to take care of her own son.” And, in “Epic,” we see that “The biblical story that most obviously fits the description of an epic is the story of the exodus.”

When I came to the entry for “Epistle,” I thought of the form many Christian writers use in their blogs! As a fixed form in the New Testament, the epistle has five main parts, which, according to Dr. Ryken, consist of the following (parentheses his, this time):

• opening or salutation (sender, address, greeting)
• thanksgiving (including such features as prayer for spiritual welfare, remembrance of the recipients, and eschatological climax)
• body of the letter (beginning with introductory formulas and concluding with eschatological and travel material)
• paraenesis (moral exhortations)
• closing (final greetings and benediction)

Instead of focusing on parables, paradox, penitential Psalms, and other forms you’re most likely familiar with, I’ll turn to the entry for “Paraenesis,” which frankly I’d never heard of before, perhaps because, as Dr. Ryken notes, “No English word has gained currency as a designation for this fixed ingredient in the Epistles.” As he explains, however, paraenesis is “A section in the New Testament Epistles that lists moral virtues and vices, or a collection of commands to practice specific virtues and avoid specific vices.”

Hmm. Interesting. Even without know what paraenesis means, I’ve been seeing a lot of it in blogs by Christian writers when I’d much prefer to see the use of literary forms such as the “Penitential Psalm,” “Praise Psalm,” “Quest Story/Motif,” “Witness Story,” or “Worship Psalm,” each of which has specific characteristics and/or patterns (forms!) you might want to study, practice, and enjoy in your Christian writing life.

©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, is the poet-author of 27 traditionally published books in all genres, many of which can be found on her Amazon Author Page.

Literary Forms in the Bible, paperback

October 13, 2014

Writing Irresistible KidLit

When writers of children’s books have a specific story in mind, it’s often their own. Yet the opening chapter of Writing Irresistible KIDLIT by author and literary agent Mary Kole immediately informs us, “As you strive to publish, you’re no longer the solitary scribe shut up in some attic; you are part of a vibrant and rapidly changing industry.”

Yes! So you can see right away that this book thinks bigger than our closed up and personal stories!

As attested by the review copy Writer’s Digest Books kindly sent me to discuss, Writing Irresistible KIDLIT is “The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers.” Having now thoroughly read the book though, I have to say that writers of novels for pretty much any age will welcome this lively text with all sorts of helpful, step-by-step information.

With middle grade (MG) and YA ( young adult) readers the primary concern, however, the first couple of chapters describe the reading audience, give you the typical lengths of manuscripts for each age group, then help you slip into “The MG and YA Mindset” where “tweens are focused on themselves,” and “thinking about how how others perceive them.”

As readers reach teen years where concerns grow faster than bones, they “feel everything very intensely, and two things in particular: An interest in romance and darkness.” Since fears and fantasies abound, “they use fiction to explore these issues in a safe way.”

The same can be said for big people books too, but regardless of the age group we write for, we want our work to be distinctive. As Mary Kole says, “It’s not the story, per se, it’s how you express it, the theme you project upon it, the characters you create, and your own unique voice.”

To get there, we go past a helpful list of cliché characters to avoid and consider the goals and motivations of each story person with whom we people our book. As the author explains:

“We root for people in life when we know their desires and goals. Will they persevere (like we want to with our own goals)? Will they fail (like we’re afraid to)? We start to care once we see a person in trouble. This empathy is an important bond to create between reader and character, and you should do it as early as possible.”

Although we don’t want characters to be too conflicted, we do want them to face conflicts, whether internal conflict such as loneliness or fear that “exists in the character’s head alone,” or external conflict, which can be a societal conflict that “happens on a grand scale” or an interpersonal conflict such as “a fight with a boyfriend, problems with the parents, a forced summer job, a bully at school, etc.”

Also, “Being forced to so something you really don’t want to, or being kept from your one true goal, are two enduring thematic conflicts in MG and YA” but can work well in adult fiction too. To know how this will work for any character of any age though, your characters need you to develop their character.

To give you a few examples from a character worksheet in the book, ask:

• What are a character’s primary objective and two secondary, smaller ones?
• What motivation does your protagonist have for each of the above?
• What value does she hold highest above all in herself and in other people?
• What is his core identity based on the above virtue?
• What is his vision of moral right and wrong?
• What is her worldview?

Although this book addresses manuscripts sought by secular publishers, you can see how the above questions will also help to guide the books you want to write for Christian children and teens and, yes, for adults too.

A novel offers more than a portrait, though, as the main character moves from one scene to another where “The most effective scenes flip action, plot, or character in unexpected ways. They shift mood. They make waves that will affect everything else that happens after. We should also learn something new in every scene; otherwise it’s not worth keeping.”

Similar to actions in a movie, the author advises us to “Vary your story’s rhythm by giving us long scenes and short scenes in a pattern. If we have long scene after long scene, no matter how tight, your readers will start to drag. Too many short scenes in quick succession and your audience will get whiplash.” Keep in mind, too, “You can’t choreograph every moment of your scene, so don’t even try. Leave gesticulation to your reader’s imagination.”

Other chapters break down what works and what does not in plotting plots and setting scenes or people in proper surroundings for a story to maintain credibility and retain reader interest. You’ll also find out more about distinguishing voices, including your own. When you’re ready to release your work to an editor, publisher, or literary agent, this book will show you how to go about that too.

Since I did that on more than one occasion when my now-grown children were growing up, I wanted to see if the time lapse had created an abysmal gap or if I could still relate to MG and YA readers. This book reminded me that trends change, in and out, but kids are kids, people are people, and a memorable story is well-written regardless of age.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, is poet-author of 27 books including Living in the Nature Poem, Outside Eden, and a book of children’s poems, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, recently released by Kelsay Books.

Writing Irresistible KidLit, paperback

September 29, 2014

Witnessing Jesus’ Signature

In the Christian community, important words or phrases get tossed around one denomination or another – spiritually healing words, spiritually vital words such as “Savior,” “resurrection,” “redemption,” but sometimes the significance passes over us without registering the full impact such words can have.

Take “witness,” for example. Does the thought of a witness testifying in court come to mind? When we need to make a case for Christ, that’s exactly the kind of witness we most likely need to be.

A witness testifies or gives a testimony that's often based on a personal experience other people can relate to – or not! In other words, a witness gives evidence that might not be evident to everyone until we explain.

For the growth of the church and the encouragement of other Christians, we need to be witnesses, who spread the Good News by word-of-mouth. If we also happen to be Christian poets or writers, we have the opportunity and unique privilege of putting our witness into writing and signing our names.

But what about the Name of Jesus? We pray in His Name, but how does He sign His name?

In sign after sign, the Bible records Jesus’ miracles, teachings, parables, prayers, love, healing, and sacrifice.

Jesus is Himself the sign of God’s forgiveness and redemption.
Jesus is the sign of God’s mercy and love.
Jesus is God’s signature in the world and in our lives.

As we speak to others about Christ or give our testimonies or write in any genre, may we remain alert and eager to let our witness become a witness to Jesus’ signature.

© 2014 Mary Harwell Sayler - poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem and the Bible-based poetry book, Outside Eden.

September 25, 2014

Writing for the right age

Lately I’ve been noticing a trend that makes little sense: books for children that aren’t! By that I mean the intended age group has not truly been considered as shown by these common mistakes:

• Subjects that interest older readers but are too complex or multifaceted for young children

• Subjects that interest young children but are too simplistic for older readers

• Word choices that the intended age group of readers cannot read, sound out, or understand

• Vocabulary and compound sentences appropriate for older readers but that confuse or discourage younger readers

• Abstract concepts toddlers and preschoolers cannot begin to grasp

• Nostalgia pieces written for the writer with no present-day child in mind

• Bible stories that thrill older children and teens but scare little kids who first need to hear about God's love

If you have noticed similar or other trends in #kidlit, I hope you’ll comment below and let us know what concerns you have about children’s books. And, if you see something especially kid-appealing and well-done, that would be good to hear about too.

You might also welcome these previous posts:

Keeping Your #KidLit User-Friendly

Poems can put FUN back in funny

Writing Children’s Picture Books

Writing children's poems for actual kids to read

Writing Children’s Stories With No Pink Fairies or Old Fads

Writing Winner Nonfiction for Kids

©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet-author of Beach Songs & Wood Chimes and an e-book for classrooms and creative kids of almost every age, the Poetry Dictionary For Children & For Fun, has helped other poets and writers for many years through critiques, manuscript evaluations, and development of poetry and children’s picture book texts. For more information, visit the Contact & Critique page on her website.

September 3, 2014

Timeless Bible questions to answer

As Christian poets, writers, pastors, and/or communicators for Christ, we often begin our articles, books, and sometimes poems by asking questions our readers might ask then thoroughly researching information to provide the solutions or answers needed. In The Jesus Code: 52 Scripture Questions Every Believer Should Answer published by Thomas Nelson and kindly sent to me for review by, prolific author O.S. Hawkins gleaned many, many questions from the Bible then narrowed them down to one a week for a year. Although I liked the idea of the book in general, two premises especially appealed to me:

1. Timely questions asked by the Lord and/or Bible people will most likely be timeless.

2. Each Bible-related question gives a theme and purpose for poets and writers to focus on, research well, and address in all genres of writing.

Both of those aspects make this evangelically-oriented book recommended for poets and writers, regardless of denominational preferences.

For example, the first timeless but troubling question began in the beginning and is still being asked today: “Has God Indeed Said…?” Or, to put it another way, “Does God really mean _______?” (fill in the blank.) So, if I were looking for a new topic to write about, I’d pray about it and ask God to bring to my attention specific scriptures people often question or water down or, in some way, say, “Well, God does not really mean that for us now.”

Another of the many questions the Bible asks is, “Where Can I Go from Your Spirit?” The answer, of course, is nowhere! God is everywhere, and as the text says, “What a wonder! God knows you… your e-mail address… your phone number… your worries… your hurts… your fears… your dreams. And He loves you.”

Thinking again about our potential readers and writing interests, we might ask ourselves, “Who most needs to hear this?” Would people in prison be glad to know God has not forgotten them? Would Christians weighted down by dark thoughts or chemical imbalances or financial woes be relieved to hear that, yes, God is with them? Or, if you’re into politics or social needs more than mental health or legal issues, the Bible question “Who Is My Neighbor?” will surely appeal to you.

If we look carefully into each page of the Bible, we could eventually locate these questions ourselves, but O. S. Hawkins has done this for us with pastoral guidance we can prayerfully translate into that poem, article, or book God has put on our minds and hearts to write.

© 2014 Mary Harwell Sayler - poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem and the Bible-based poetry book, Outside Eden -

The Jesus Code: 52 Scripture Questions Every Believer Should Answer, hardback, imitation leather

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