James’s Blog: Creating Life.

James’s Blog:  Creating Life.

I really needed my character to make that phone call, but it just wasn’t working. The story demanded that he pick up the phone and dial those numbers, but it didn’t feel right. So what do I do now, when I have a story, but a character who doesn’t want to play ball? “All right,” I said to my character, “what do you want to do then?” You can imagine my shock and disappointment when he took that scrap of paper with the phone number on it, scrunched it up and threw it in the bin. “What are you doing?” I said, “I need you to phone that number!” But it was no good. He wasn’t going to make the call.

Once I’d recovered, I realised that it made sense. This character, the person that he was, wouldn’t make the call. Not yet. So he didn’t, and I was left at a loose end. Instead of following the plot, we went on a detour and did something else for a while. Then several pages later, he was pulling that piece of paper out of the bin so that he could make the call, all of his own accord. The story was back on track. We got there eventually, but he had to be ready.

A lot of writers advocate this – you don’t write the story, you write the characters and then let them decide on the story. When it works you have a tale that is internally consistent and compelling, but you have to know your characters. They have to be real people who can tell you what they would say and do and feel. You just listen, and put it on paper.

I know there are some writers who don’t even have a story when they start. They just have a bunch of fleshed-out characters and a starting situation (what Robert McKee would call an ‘Inciting Incident’), and see where it all goes. I’m not quite like that. I like to have an end goal in mind, but it definitely works better when I let the characters get me there, rather than railroad them towards their destiny. Of course, that means surrendering some control.

Letting the life that you have created exercise free will is hard work, and riskier than the alternative, but it creates a richer story and leads to a greater reward.

James’s Blog: The Cost of Discipleship.

James’s Blog:  The Cost of Discipleship.

“Go away!” squealed the Ghost.  “Go away!  Can’t you see I want to be left alone?”

“But you need help,” said the Solid One.

“If you have the least trace of decent feeling left,” said the Ghost, “you’ll keep away.  I don’t want help.  I want to be left alone…”

The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis

‘Insufficient’ is not a word that good Evangelicals would typically apply to Jesus’ death, but Paul wasn’t so squeamish.  Notice what he tells the Colossians: ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the Church.’

Paul is not, of course, suggesting that we need more than Jesus to restore our relationship with the Father, rather he is saying, “Jesus’ suffering may bring salvation, but it does not necessarily bring maturity.  Spiritual growth doesn’t just happen.  You need someone to get alongside you and teach you, feed you and change your dirty nappies.  That’s the job that I’ve taken on for the Church, and let me tell you this: It’s a costly business.”

That’s the hidden cost of discipleship.  In our immaturity we don’t realise that the men and women who invest in us, and help us get to know God better, can only do so by giving up something of themselves.  I think about the time people spent with me rather than doing something infinitely preferable; I think about the suffering that others went through so that I could be spared some of the same pain; I think about those who spend an hour on Sunday mornings helping my children get to know God.

But this reliance on one another, rather than just God, isn’t some oversight on His part; some side effect of sin.  It’s the divine core of discipleship.  God wouldn’t have it any other way.  He’s terribly keen on interdependence, you know.  It’s what He wants, for us to need others; it’s the inbuilt ‘flaw’ that forces us into relationships – forces us to emulate the Trinity.  If Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were sufficient not just for salvation, but made our spiritual growth inevitable, then we wouldn’t need community.  We could retreat to our monastic cells and just sit around, waiting for sanctification to kick in.  God’s not going to give us that excuse.  So He made it that for me to grow, I need people, and those people have to pay a debt of love.  And then He made it so that I have to do the same for others.  Clever.  That’s probably why Paul felt able to rejoice in this particular cost of discipleship.

James’s Blog: In Gratitude for Dianne Tyson.

James’s Blog:  In Gratitude for Dianne Tyson.

I didn’t ever meet Dianne, but that didn’t matter.  She didn’t even reach sixty, but that didn’t matter either.  A lot of things about Dianne didn’t seem to matter.  The fact that she was plagued with crippling health problems and constant pain – that didn’t matter either.  She had a lot to bitter about, but she didn’t let those things matter.

She spoke openly about her suffering, but she was a fine example of someone who didn’t let herself be defined by the things that had happened to her, but instead redefined those things in the light of who God had made her to be.  She was physically inactive, but spiritually active.  Not just spiritually active, I suppose, but spiritually vibrant; spiritually contagious even.  For those of you who don’t know, she prayed faithfully for me and many others on a regular basis, and those prayers did matter.  When Dianne phoned you and said, “I was praying for you yesterday and I felt like God was saying…”, well, you’d better have listened.  She was the sort of person that caused Satan to break out into a cold sweat.  That may sound a touch melodramatic, but I have experienced first hand how God used her to thwart the enemy’s little schemes, and I know I’m not the only one.

Of course, like all men and women cut from that beautiful cloth, she would be nonplussed and embarrassed to read such things written about herself, but that’s all part of the deal, isn’t it?  Brokenness and humility are both the things that God uses, and the things that prevent us from getting carried away by our usefulness.

I didn’t ever meet Dianne, but I will miss her and part of me wishes she was still here.  We are poorer without her and there’s a lot of work still to be done, but she’s earned her rest.

One day I’ll thank her face to face, because – one day – we’ll have that first meeting.

James’s Blog: Eight Things that Made me Laugh Out Loud.

James’s Blog:  Eight Things that Made me Laugh Out Loud.

I’ve spent a long time this week working on a blog post about popularity, but I’ve decided that I don’t want to post it. It might have been profound, but it was also quite negative. Being the melancholy sort that I am, I have a tendency to go full Old Testament Prophet sometimes, and it’s not good for me, you or the Kingdom of God if all I do is complain. After all, there’s a reason why we commemorate architects and not demolitions experts. What’s the point of being a follower of Jesus if you can’t lose yourself in laughter every now and then?

So, instead, here is a list of eight things that have made me laugh out loud:

  1. The time I was with my children at a playground and I went down the slide, but my t-shirt got caught at the top of the slide, leaving me dangling halfway down the slide with a ripped t-shirt around my upper chest and neck.

  2. Phil’s Tribute – a dance video that Sam and Ethan prepared for our 2011 end of year formal at Cornerstone Canowindra – Link here.

  3. Walking past Reid and Calvin’s bedroom, and overhearing Reid telling Calvin about a chimpanzee that was found guilty of a crime and sentenced to five years at Wingham Wildlife Park – complete with chimpanzee noises.

  4. The time that my in-laws (Max & Sue) sent some flowers to my parents, and they arrived with a card that read ‘From Mac and Sue’.

  5. That bit in Adventure Time where Ice King says, “Without Gunter, I’ll be all alone. You see, I’m a widower.” and Doctor Princess says, “Oh, I’m sorry. How did your wife die?” and Ice King says, “Ohh…Is that what that means?”

  6. My friend Terry’s story about the time he was using a cubicle in a public toilet, and he heard someone else coming in, and he assumed it was one of his friends who had been waiting outside and he yelled out in a weird squeaky voice, “No, no, go away!” then he heard a voice he didn’t recognise say, “Uhh…sorry mate.” and Terry had to reply “That’s alright.” in the same weird squeaky voice that he’d just used.

  7. Sam, Mark and Darren on the hamster wheel at the playground in Blayney.

  8. The video footage of me on a motorbike, pootling along, suddenly accelerating out of control and crashing into a fence while my wife, who was on the video camera, cackles like a witch in the background.

“Should we not see that the lines of laughter about the eyes are just as much marks of faith as are the lines of seriousness and care?”

Helmut Thielicke

James’s Blog: Two Types of Fire.

James’s Blog:  Two Types of Fire.

God has given me two types of inner fire.

A few months after I became a Christian I was attending a men’s prayer breakfast at my church. During prayer, I experienced what I can only describe as a warm, tingling sensation in my chest. The best effort to put it into words can be found in the Bible, on the lips of one of my older brothers as he and a friend talked about their encounter with the risen Jesus: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he explained the Scriptures to us?” It’s happened to me frequently over the years, mostly during prayer. It’s comforting rather than anything else, and I’ve come to associate it with an awareness of the Holy Spirit. It’s just one of those practical, concrete hooks on which I can hang my faith.

The other fire, however, is different. It’s what I might call ‘the squirming inferno’. Again, the best way to describe it can be found in the Bible, this time as the prophet Jeremiah complains. Frustrated by how much trouble God had caused him, he handed in his notice. “Find yourself another prophet,” he says to the divine. But it’s not that simple, and Jeremiah discovers that the message of God will not be smothered. It was, he said, like a fire in his bones. Sometimes (more often than I would like) I find myself restless, and tortured by the feeling that there is some important truth I should be getting out there. The problem is that it’s a time-consuming, difficult and painful process to set it free. Often it’s like realising that its your job to slay a giant dragon, and not even knowing how to begin. Those are the worst times. The only way to keep it quiet is to actually try and do something with it, however feeble my efforts, but it’s never satisfied. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to completely pay off its debt – the squirming inferno is probably here to stay.

They’re both from God. One is His way of saying, “I love you, and I am always with you”; the other is His way of saying, “But I’m not going to let you get away with being lazy.” I am loved, but I am lazy. I am genuinely thankful for both of these flames, because I need the warmth and the refining.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 5 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 5 of 4

Flannery O’Connor

“She had never given much thought to the devil for she felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn’t have the brains to avoid evil without it. For people like herself, for people of gumption, it was a social occasion providing the opportunity to sing; but if she had ever given it much thought, she would have considered the devil the head of it and God the hanger-on. With the coming of these displaced people, she was obliged to give new thought to a good many things.”

The Displaced Person, Flannery O’Connor

I won’t be surprised if many of you are asking, “Who is Flannery O’Connor, and is that his real name?” Well, she was an American author. She died of Lupus in 1964, aged a mere 39, yet is regarded as one of the most influential writers to ever come out of the American South.

Her stories are invariably set in that particular region of the United States, and she was quite willing to tackle sensitive themes in an insensitive time – notably racism.  However, what was quite noticeable to me about her writing was that she clearly had a deep understanding of human nature.  As grotesque as some of her characters are, they are not only believable, but also relatable.  That’s some achievement.

The thing about her that I’ve found particularly inspiring is this: Many of her stories contain explicit Christian themes, written about subtly but powerfully. She wrote about a world that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, is ‘charged with the grandeur of God’. She writes about grace and redemption and the fact that, in her own words, “grace changes us and the change is painful.”

I think it’s clear from her writing that she was dissatisfied with the particular brand of fundamentalist Protestantism she encountered in the Deep South, obviously seeing too little of the grace of Christ and too much godless moralism, perhaps epitomised in stories like The River and The Displaced Person (which, whether she meant it or not, is almost a parable of the gospel itself).  That is to be expected, as she was a devout Roman Catholic, which no doubt put her in a minority amongst the people she grew up with.

I’ve been making my way through her Complete Stories, and although the first few are a bit of a slog, everything from Enoch and the Gorilla onwards has been, so far, fantastic.

I suppose that I admire her refusal to be bullied, neither by her heritage nor by that culture of Western fiction which is much happier when God is either non-existent or the villain of the piece. She is, I think, more proof that the world actually finds something irresistible about the gospel, and will happily sit and listen to someone who communicates it with skill.  She is one of those writers whose work both inspires me and makes me feel inadequate.  She was dead by my age, so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

James’s Blog: What if it’s Already Happened?

James’s Blog:  What if it’s Already Happened?

Easter is a topsy-turvey time.  Everything is back-to-front.  Suffering brings salvation, death brings life; the established order of things is turned on its head.  Yet we spend so much of our time and energy trying to make things work in a world where we believe that death is stronger than life and that despair is greater than hope.

How much of our well-being do we invest in worry?  How often does the thing that we fear never actually happen?  What about the times when we worry about something we think has happened, only to find out that it didn’t happen after all.  How tiring it is to live in a world where God is a footnote rather than the title.

In the last chapter of Luke we read about two of Jesus’ followers.  They’re taking a long stroll, discussing the events of the past few days and the rumours of resurrection.  Suddenly, they’re joined by a stranger.  He’s not really a stranger, but they don’t recognise him because they hadn’t quite joined the topsy-turvey revolution yet.  They tell this stranger their story of disappointment.  “Jesus has been crucified,” they say, “but we had hoped that he would be one to redeem Israel.”

The two travellers were living under the burden of false disappointment.  They thought that their hope was an illusion, when it turned out that it was reality – a reality that was  standing right in front of them.

This is the way to live back-to-front in our world, the way to get some of the Easter thinking into our heads.  Instead of worrying about things that might never happen, start thinking about all the things that you hope for, and ask yourself if maybe some of them have already happened.

 

James’s Blog: Creed.

James’s Blog:  Creed.

I believe in God the Father, the creator of the world and everything in it.

I believe that He has guided His people over the years, with many miraculous signs.

I believe that He parted the Red Sea, provided manna from heaven and led Israel as pillars of smoke and fire.

I believe in Jesus Christ, the God with us.

I believe that through His life and death, God has worked salvation for all humanity.

I believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and so delivered the ultimate “Take that!” to the forces of evil.

I believe that death is defeated, and life is eternal.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the God in us.

I believe these things, because they are easy to believe from a distance.

But I don’t believe that He is that committed to using me to bring His kingdom on earth.

I don’t believe that He has much interest in my day-to-day life,

or that He even has much to say,

and if He did, He certainly wouldn’t do it through that person.

I don’t believe that God will part my Red Sea, nor do I expect Him to provide manna, or to lead me.

I don’t believe, in the grand scheme of things, that it matters much what I do.

And I don’t believe that He really means what He says.

Amen.

James’s Blog: The World Waits with Baited Breath.

James’s Blog:  The World Waits with Baited Breath.

It’s easy to hold the Church up as a good argument for atheism. Our shame is not that we have been exceptionally bad, but rather that we haven’t been exceptionally good. But you can’t shake off the Holy Spirit that easily. Even after two thousand years, the World still expects us to keep Jesus’ promises. After all, you can’t be disappointed with something unless you’d hoped that it would be better, right? The problem is not that Christianity is bad, but rather that we have made a bad job of Christianity. I believe that even the most die-hard atheist still expects the followers of Jesus to be different to the rest of society; to be good where others are not.

Dennis Prager, a Jewish-American conservative commentator, believes that, regardless of what people think of religion, there remains in our culture an expectation that faith should make a difference to behaviour. He tries to prove this by asking people to picture something particular.

Imagine that late one night you are walking down an alley in a major city. The dim street lights illuminate your car at the other end of the alleyway. Suddenly, a group of boisterous young men turn the corner and start walking down the alley towards you.

Once the listener has this scene in his mind, Prager asks this question: Would you feel safer if you knew that those young men had just come from a Bible study?

Prager says that he has never had anyone answer “No.”

So, that’s the good news. People are just waiting for you to prove them right. Even now they still assume that you will be different. The best thing to do is to live in such a way that our children, our children’s children and our children’s children’s children will benefit from the same expectation.