The Letters of the Bible

How long has it been since you received an actual handwritten letter in the mail? A real letter in an envelope, with a stamp on it, and a postmark? How long since you wrote one of those yourself? For some of you, the answer is (sadly) never.

During my childhood, we received letters from Grandpa. He lived on the West coast and most of my life, we lived in Tennessee and Kentucky. He never visited us. Just like clockwork, except when he was ill, we received a letter, sometimes as many as three per month. Of course, this was long before free long distance, and cellphones were nonexistent. There were no personal computers. No Facebook or Twitter or Skype. We sent and received news via handwritten letters.

The Bible contains twenty-one letters, originally handwritten (thirteen authored by Paul). These are called epistles. What is an epistle? Wikipedia defines an epistle as a letter written in didactic style. These letters were originally written to teach and train. They were sermons, sent to a specific party, but meant to be shared (as in Colossians 4:16, “Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.).

My favorite of Merriam Webster’s definitions is: a letter; especially: a formal or elegant letter. But as it applies to the biblical, this definition is more accurate: 1. (a): one of the letters adopted as books of the New Testament, or (b): a liturgical lection usually from one of the New Testament Epistles.

I can’t really choose a favorite among so many letters included in the New Testament, but Ephesians is way up there. Ephesians 5: 1-2:

Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savour.

One of the most famous passages is found in I Corinthians 13, commonly known as the “Love Chapter.”

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. I Corinthians 13: 4-7

During much of his ministry, Paul was not a free man. He endured much hardship and pain. His letters often reflected his trials, but throughout, he continued to encourage his readers not to give up. He prayed for his readers. He told the Thessalonians, “We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers.”

His letters were not just utilitarian, but pragmatic. He showed genuine love and concern for his readers. He often ended his letters with personal notations and sometimes wrote the salutation in his own hand, as in Colossians 4:18 “This salutation by my own hand––Paul. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. Amen.”

Interesting, uplifting, encouraging, strengthening are just a few of the words off the top of my head for the many epistles of the Bible. For this reason, I encourage you to take the time to read every one of them and think of them as letters written to you. Because they are.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I Corinthians 1:3

Writing Prompt: I stared at the envelope in my hand for several moments. Why was I afraid to open it? Maybe because it had been twenty-five years since I’d heard from him.

Betty

The Dark Side of the Bible

VaderPerhaps it is just a sign of the times, but more and more I see only half the Bible getting used. By half, I don’t mean that if your particular edition is 1,432 pages long that we’re only using 716 of them. I’m talking about the dark side of scripture. Not the bad side. There is no bad side to scripture. The dark side.

In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul reminds us that: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” All scripture, not some scripture. And not only is it useful of teaching, it has utility in rebuking and correcting as well. Identifying and addressing wrongdoing. To me, that means we should use all of it – even the unpleasant stuff. And since January is “All things Bible” I though it prudent to take a look at a few of the darker passages. Especially since this is first and foremost a writing blog, and in writing there must be a balance between darkness and light or there will be no conflict. And if the Bible is anything, it is conflict. Conflict between good and evil, conflict between God and Satan, conflict between God and man, conflict between man and Satan. A classic literary triangle.

head-of-st-john-the-baptist-1468.jpg!BlogI’ll start with the New Testament since, compared to the old Testament, it is quite tame. The heart of the New Testament is Jesus resurrection, as it should be. But there would be no resurrection if Jesus had not been tortured to death by political bureaucrats, far outside the realm of Hebrew Jurisprudence. The beating and death of Jesus was little different than say, a lynching in the Deep South circa 1920, with the Pharisees standing in for the Klan. They may as well have dragged Jesus to death behind a car. And don’t forget John the Baptist’s “head on a platter.” We’ve all heard the story but we might have forgotten the imagery – guards brought John’s head, on a platter, for everyone to see. Then there’s the way Jesus life got started, amid the slaughter of babies his age. I’m just scratching the surface. These aren’t stories. They are things that happened, complete with the blood and stench of death. But the horror isn’t just physical, it is spiritual as well.

AnaniasAndSapphiraWe have a feel-good culture these days. We’re supposed to be tolerant. Live and let live. If it feels good, it is good. Sadly, this has crept into our Westernized version of Christianity and we’ve created a feel-good God. And while God is all about love, his love is not what our culture calls love. In 1 John 5:13, John tells us that, “To love God is to obey his commandments.” In some cases, God’s patience with man’s bad behavior runs out with chilling consequences. Remember the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts Chapter 5? The happy couple, seeing the praise heaped upon others for their charitable contributions to the Apostles, sought to cheat God by claiming they were giving all, but keeping part of their land proceeds for themselves. They were both struck dead for their lie. Can you imagine the shock of those watching? Luke tells us that “Great fear seized the whole church and all those who heard about these events.” Ya think?

God’s patience does have a limit. In 2 Thessalonians Paul describes an attitude so depraved, and so resistant to the truth, that God actually sends these stubborn people a delusion so they will go on believing their lie and so be judged for the wickedness. Translation: God is going to make sure they go to Hell for their wickedness. I find a disturbing resemblance between this condition and what we’re seeing in our nation today.

Of course, the Old Testament is on an entirely different level. It begins with the entire population of the Earth being wiped out because all of their thoughts were constantly on evil. Entire cities were destroyed by fire and brimstone.  God commanded his people to slaughter the entire population of opposing cities right down to the chickens. Plagues. Famines. Blood, blood, and more blood. I only hope that our own culture repents before God’s judgement is unleashed upon us.SodomAndGomorrah

Everything Bible. It’s a sobering thought. Unlike writers, God doesn’t pull any punches. Many is the manuscript I’ve read where the writer beautifully sets up a scene, and then is afraid to pull the trigger. The beautifully orchestrated scene falls flat. Well, God allowed his own son to die because he so loved the world. The motivation was love. The sacrifice was ultimate. It radically altered the course of human events. 

In today’s writing prompt I want to encourage you to “pull the trigger.” This is an exercise. We’re not going for feel-good here. We’re going for darkness. For what is light without darkness? That is the problem with our society, isn’t it? We have no problems. Sickness has been largely conquered. Widespread hunger is a thing of the past. No marauding barbarians. How can you write a story designed to inspire without the counter balance of darkness?

Today’s Writing Prompt:

The river was wide here, like a broad, flat street lying between the towering walls of the canyon on either side. Josiah looked around the tiny raft upon which huddled his two sisters and his ma, while his pa worked the crude tiller trying to keep the raft in the middle and away from the jagged boulders on either side. They knew what was coming from the stories of other settlers. People who’d turned back when their parties were whittled from a dozen to less than half that. The telltale roar of rapids reverberate to them through the canyon, telling them what was around the next bend.

Find out more about John at his website: johncbrewer.com

– John C. Brewer

The Greatest Storyteller

The first four books of the New Testament have something very important in common. Jesus. Apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all wrote about the Christ, from His birth through His death, resurrection, and ascension. All four books share the various parables told by Jesus.

What is a parable? According to Webster’s dictionary, a parable is usually a short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.

Its origin: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin parabola, from Greek parabolē comparison, from paraballein to compare, from para- + ballein to throw. First Known Use of the word parable: 14th century.

Dictionary.com defines it as a short, allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.

Jesus told stories to make a point. He hid facts of life in the midst of the stories. To some, He knew they would just be stories; entertainment. To others, they would speak life. It was to these “others” He spoke. Why? He answers this question in Matthew 13:11-13 (KJV).

He answered and said unto them, ‘Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.

For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.

Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.’

Still, the disciples asked Jesus several times to explain the meaning of a parable he’d told. It was apparent by his answer, he’d expected them to “get” his meaning, as in Mark 4:13. “And He said to them, Do you not discern and understand this parable? How then is it possible for you to discern and understand all the parables?” (Amp)

Jesus spoke to shepherds, farmers, tax collectors, and rulers, among others. He used illustrations they would understand. A shepherd could easily identify with the one lost sheep. Shut up all those you have and once you’ve made them secure, go out and search for the one that is lost. Yes, they understood the principle, but did they go a step further and perceive that He spoke of people? Leave those who believe and go out and find the one who does not.

Of all the parables Jesus told, my favorite is the prodigal son, found in Luke 15: 11-32 (my link here will take you to The Message version). This passage offers hope to those who have made mistakes. Forgiveness is available for you, no matter how deeply mired in sin you become.

As writers, we can also bury messages in our stories. I’ve seen this done well by some very talented writers. As fishers of men, Christian writers should study Christ’s method and emulate it. I encourage you to perfect your craft. If the bait looks fake, the fish won’t bite.

Do you have a favorite parable? Please take a minute to share it with us and while you’re at it, try your hand at today’s prompt. There’s a $10 gift card out there for someone to win!

Prompt:  Lucy’s mother was concerned that her daughter was eating too much. The six-year-old had been sneaking extra food into her lunch box when she thought her mother wasn’t looking. Then a regular parent-teacher conference revealed the truth.

Betty

Surrender

677px-Foster_Bible_Pictures_0014-1The theme of surrender abounds in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. We see surrender in a negative sense, as Adam and Eve surrender their authority to the serpent. Surrender can birth a nation, when Abraham surrenders his son, Isaac. The ultimate surrender came when Jesus laid down his life as the Son of God for our lives. Surrender.

When I looked up the term surrender in the thesaurus, the verb meant submitted, yielding, and laying down your arms. The Encarta dictionary had several definitions:

• Declare yourself defeated.
• Give up possession of something.
• Give something out of courtesy.
• Give self up to something.
• Abandon rights to something.

In His Word, God constantly asks individuals or nations to give up something, to release tightly clutched attitudes, possessions, or mindsets so that we can receive from Him freedom, joy, love, and peace. The list goes on. The transference of trust from mine to His is monumental and requires surrender.

The correlation between an individual surrendering to God and a writer surrendering to writing cannot be understated. Even a writer who doesn’t believe in God adheres to the definitions above. He or she constantly gives up time, money, and privacy to pursue the dream of becoming a published author. Every time someone changes a story line due to a critique, they are declaring defeat, that they are not perfect and don’t know it all. The abandonment required to freely write from the heart, knowing some will be critical, takes a great sense of yielding.

As a Christian, surrender goes to a different level. Besides giving up and yielding to people, now you factor God into the equation. Questions revolve in your mind. What does God want me to write? How do I approach publication? How is my writing to minister to those around me?

God, what do you want me to do?

“Some time later, God tested Abraham’s faith. ‘Abraham!’ God called. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Here I am.’ ‘Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.’” Genesis 22:1-2

Every time I read this, I shake my head. Abraham, how did you do it? How did you, as Scripture records, get up early the next morning and start on your way? Abraham demonstrates the ultimate sacrifice, a trust in God that speaks to us today. Each time I change a story or lay down an opportunity at the prompting of that still, small voice, I walk the path of Mt. Moriah.

“Isaac turned to Abraham and said, ‘Father?’ ‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied. ‘We have the fire and the wood,’ the boy said, ‘but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?’ ‘God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son,’ Abraham answered. And they both walked on together.” Genesis 22: 7-8458px-Foster_Bible_Pictures_0036-1

Every time a person asks if I sold my novel or have made lots of money writing, I answer truthfully, yet trusting that God will provide.

“And Abraham picked up the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. At that moment the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ ‘Yes,’ Abraham replied. ‘Here I am!’ ‘Don’t lay a hand on the boy!’ the angel said. ‘Do not hurt him in any way, for now I know that you truly fear God. You have not withheld from me even your son, your only son.’” Genesis 22: 10-12

Every time I give up self to promote another writer, lay down a story to start another, or read another rejection letter and choose to trust Him, God is with me and is faithful.

“Then Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. So he took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering in place of his son. Abraham named the place Yahweh-Yireh (which means “the Lord will provide”). To this day, people still use that name as a proverb: “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.” Then the angel of the Lord called again to Abraham from heaven. ‘This is what the Lord says: Because you have obeyed me and have not withheld even your son, your only son, I swear by my own name that I will certainly bless you. I will multiply your descendants[a] beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will conquer the cities of their enemies. And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed—all because you have obeyed me.’” Genesis 22:13-18

For Abraham, the God of provision supplied a ram in the thicket. For the writer, it could be something as simple as an encouraging email from a fellow blogger or as massive as the next best-selling novel. Or somewhere in between.

I love Chris Tomlin’s new song, “Lay Me Down.” The bridge sums up the life of a writer, particularly if you are a Christian.

It will be my joy to say, Your will, Your way,
It will be my joy to say, Your will, Your way,
Always.

The word surrender as a noun has another interesting definition: giving up control. It is the act of relinquishing control or possession to somebody or something.

Selah. Pause and think on that a moment.

Yield your writing today to God. It’s one decision you’ll never regret.

Father God, I give my writing, my stories, my talent, and my all to You today. Take it and make it Your will, Your way. Always. Amen.

Writing prompt: Turn your own surrender into a scene in one of your stories. An example could be as simple as surrendering your need for comfort food after an exhausting day at work.

Poetry of the Bible: The Poeticals

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.

He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake. (Psalm 23: 1-3)

 This is what first comes to mind when most people think of biblical poetry. The Twenty-third Psalm is actually more like a hymn, one of many composed by David, a shepherd, a warrior and a king of Israel.

The Bible contains some of the most beautiful poetry in existence. This includes Job (a didactic poem), Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs). As well, several of the prophets wrote in poetic form, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah. One of my favorite passages is found in Isaiah 18, verses 1 & 2 (NIV):

Woe to the land of whirring wings
along the rivers of Cush,

which sends envoys by sea
in papyrus boats over the water.

I’m not really sure why this appeals to me. The first reading excited my imagination with its “whirring wings,” and “papyrus boats.” Other translations substitute gnats, flies and/or mosquitoes for the whirring wings, and reed boats for papyrus. Doesn’t have the same appeal, does it? Of course, the passage speaks of Egypt with its many rivers and abundant papyrus reeds.

While papyrus was widely used for paper, it was also used for weaving baskets. It was most likely the medium used for Jochebed’s (Yocheved) basket used to hide Moses.

In Ecclesiastes 3:1, we find one of its most often-quoted scriptures:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

You may remember its use in Turn, Turn, Turn, made famous by The Byrds in 1965.

Here is another of my favorite poetic passages, found in Job 38: 4-7 (NKJV) In this passage, the Lord speaks out of a whirlwind to reveal His Omnipotence to Job:

Who is this who darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?

Now prepare yourself like a man;
I will question you, and you shall answer Me.

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?

To what were its foundations fastened?
Or who laid its cornerstone,

When the morning stars sang together,
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?

And of course, I cannot neglect the grace and beauty of the Song of Solomon 4:10-12 (KJV)

Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck.

How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices!

Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.

A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.

These are just a few of my favorite passages. When I wrote my fantasy-adventure novel set in the second century after Christ, I thought it would be interesting to have the people sing the Psalms. This was their way to pass the songs from generation to generation. Through their songs, they taught their children about the God of their fathers. My heroine’s favorite song is found in Psalm 29. “Ascribe to the Lord, ye sons of the mighty….” She sings it to remind herself of her homeland, and to encourage herself as she makes a difficult journey.

What is your favorite biblical psalm, song, or poetic passage? I hope you’ll take a moment to share it with us. If you’d like more information regarding these passages, you can click on the links below. The Westminster link illustrates poetic structure.

I challenge you this week to complete the writing prompt in poetic form. As always, thanks for reading!
Betty

Prompt: As the clouds part, light spills forth and ignites…

Research:

http://bible.org/seriespage/poetical-books

http://www.bible-researcher.com/hebrew-poetry.html

http://www.westminster.edu/staff/nak/courses/BibPoetry.htm