All Milk, Adonai!
Last year, my wife, our daughter and son-in-law, and I did some Facebook Live broadcasts during Passover, to honor the time of remembrance when God performed a great miracle of deliverance, freeing his people from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. We sang worship songs and took communion each night to celebrate the beauty of our Savior’s miracle when he passed from death to life, enabling all humanity to be delivered from the bondage of slavery in sin.
On the final evening, a friend of ours commented “Toda lecha, Adonai!” The English translation of this Hebrew expression is “Thank you, LORD!”
Thank you, indeed. How can any of us ever express enough gratitude for the mercy and gracious kindness of God expressed through Jesus, our Lord?
But I noticed something interesting. Below the comment, Facebook offered me a chance to have the expression translated. For fun, I clicked the link. It told me that my friend had written “All milk, Adonai!”
The algorithm (or whatever computer magic is used for such tasks) thought our friend had written in Spanish, not Hebrew.
I got a chuckle from that, and I began thinking. How often do we allow social media to translate and define our lives and experiences, our thoughts and the expressions of our hearts? We write something, or post a photo, and suddenly the whole world is invited to comment and critique whatever we have released. Our messages, as well as the intent of our hearts, are suddenly filtered for consumption and translated for other people to read by the “algorithm” of human prejudice and opinion.
The translation may be unintelligible or silly or comical—such as turning “thank you” into “all milk.” But far too often, translators with preconceptions and bitterness determine they will find secrets dark and sinister in your closet. What you say often can, and will, be turned against you.
Hence, the tragic results in some lives from “cyber bullying.” In our case, Facebook’s translation was funny; and it also was not technically incorrect. “Toda lecha” would be translated “all milk” if our friend was communicating in Spanish. But in this case, the meaning was completely wrong, because the intention of the person communicating was not conveyed correctly. Improper “perceptions” based on a faulty assumption led to an utterly incorrect translation.
So it is when we allow social media to influence and inform our perceptions of truth, of “real” reality, of what genuine love looks like and what truly constitutes a life that is good and flourishing, filled with hope.
And so it is when we—unique individuals who in truth have been created by a loving God to reflect his image—allow social media to inform our perceptions of ourselves and our worth (or lack thereof). These platforms are not “wrong” or “bad” when used properly and kept in proper perspective. But when our lives become focused on what we see or perceive through these filters, something gets twisted and our thoughts become subtly and increasingly distorted.
There is nothing new or groundbreaking in what I am writing. Much has been written about this, to the point that I am stating the obvious. And yet, social media continues to dominate the thinking and outlook of multiple millions of individuals. We continue to take social and intellectual cues from our daily Twitter feeds or Instagram posts or Facebook alerts. Dependence on such facile sounding boards will cause us to grovel at the feet of public opinion and harsh pronouncements; we will not be delivered from evil, but instead led into temptation to adjust our lives to become beautiful and appealing in everyone else’s eyes.
Facebook, and platforms like it, can be wonderful tools. But they are only tools. You can use a hammer to drive nails and build beautiful homes; you can also use a hammer to murder your neighbor.
Maria, Did you Know…?
I asked the Father this morning what I should pray about, and I instantly sensed “Pray for Maria.” That’s all; no other information.
Really? I thought. There must be millions of Marias in the world. I guess I will pray for them all!
Dutifully, somewhat sheepishly, I lifted up my voice for all women named Maria, and suddenly my thoughts jumped to the systemic oppression and degradation and exploitation of women and girls worldwide. I also began to picture the staggering number of single mothers working so hard for their children and extended families. Then, it occured to me that I should find out the meaning of the name, and the first results I came across online informed me that “Maria” can mean “sea of sorrow” or “sea of bitterness.”
Now I understood. There are so many ladies around the world who are in anguish, praying and weeping bitterly like Hannah (1 Samuel 1:10) from the pain you carry; the grieving is intense, often because of the injustice you have had to face, but also because you so deeply carry the kind heart of the Father, and like Jesus are touched by the infirmities of those you love, and the comfort and tenderness of the Holy Spirit burns within you as you long to comfort others who are afflicted.
So I pray for you today; you who are “Maria”; you who are heavy-laden and feel yourself flailing in a wretched sea of darkness. The evil one and his wickedness assault you, but look up and see that the Warrior-Bridegroom King of the Universe is enthralled by your beauty! (Psalm 45:11.) I declare the goodness and kindness of ADONAI to be poured out on you, and in the safety of the Rock of His Name, you will find Him to be your defense and your strong tower of assurance.
I speak the mercy of God over your life and over the innocent lives for whom you stand guard. ADONAI proclaims His blessing to you: abundance of mercy and generosity; release of His authority in your boldness; and the glory of loveliness enfolded within the ferocity of your compassion.
My sisters, I am awed by your strength to withstand the sorrow and bitterness wrought upon you. Continue in your bravery. You may not feel brave, but believe this: You are beautiful warriors; you are Deborah and you fearlessly strike blows for justice (Judges 4-5). You are the graciousness of the Almighty, and your love and worship have become sharp arrows in the hand of the King that will pierce the heart of darkness and bring light into waste places.
Never, never, never forget your value.
Show, Dont Tell II
(be concrete and specific)
When you write, your reader assumes you have something important to say.
However, a harsh, twenty-first century reality is that people are overworked and exhausted; their schedules are overflowing with activities and commitments. They have at their disposal more information and entertainment options than any person could consume in a thousand lifetimes.
If you want your voice to cut through the noise of our culture, you must discover ways to stand out from an increasingly crowded public square. Think of your writing as holding a conversation in a packed auditorium. If you speak in a normal tone of voice, casually discussing the weather or recent baseball scores or last night’s TV sitcom episode, the only people paying attention to you will be those right next to you (and perhaps not even then). But if you shout, or speak into a microphone, suddenly the entire body of people are listening. Now that you have their attention, how are you going to keep it?
In the classic work Editing by Design, Jan V. White states:
We hook the uninvolved by using irresistibly fascinating material as bait: self-interest, the What’s In It For Me Factor that must be defined in each story…The Reason For Publishing has to jump out at them at first glance because people examine a page or screen for, at most, 2 ½ seconds before they turn it or click through, unless something intrigues them and they stop.
Anyone who picks up, or clicks on, something you have written immediately filters it through this grid: Why should I care?
So, your story is fascinating. Your ideas are revolutionary. Your insight is extraordinary. The people you write about are wonderful; the places you describe are beautiful; the adventures you recount are exciting.
And guess what? No one cares (except your mom).
You have to make them care.
The way to do that is to use vibrant language; be specific and definite in your descriptions. Great writers are effective because they relate important details in a way that draws a reader into a location or an event or a character’s inner monologue.
“Hold on now. I’m just writing a Facebook post, for crying out loud!”
OK, fine. Every time you share something, you don’t have to craft it as though you are producing the next Great Literary Worldwide Sensation. But whether you are jotting down a Twitter post or developing the screenplay for the next multibillion-dollar superhero movie, you want your writing to be meaningful and immersive. You want to make a connection. You want your readers engaged — whether it is for thirty seconds while reading your tweet, or a week as they make their way through your book.
You engage others by creating an experience for them with words. Draw them into the page, or the screen, by connecting what they don’t know — the story you want to tell them, with what they already do know — their current reality and presuppositions. The opinions and emotions and information you are conveying must be situated in a reality that readers understand, or you will lose their interest and they will move on.
In her book Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor gave the following excellent advice. It is addressed to fiction writers, but it applies equally well to any sort of writing.
Fiction operates through the senses…No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel, the story is going to believe anything the fiction writer merely tells him. The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched…The writer has to realize that he can’t create compassion with compassion, or emotion with emotion, or thought with thought. He has to provide all these things with a body; he has to create a world with weight and extension.
Show your readers what you are talking about — “provide all these things with a body” — and they will intuitively catch what you wish to tell them.
You serve your reader and convey the importance of your story, or your argument, or your appeal to emotion, or your call to justice, by locating your specific characters and events in concrete reality and causing them to interact in meaningful ways. O’Connor later states that the writer “begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.”
If I wrote, “Michael was incredibly angry with his boss for chewing him out,” you might not think much about it, except to wonder if Michael will have a drink when he goes home, or perhaps quit his job. But what if I wrote “Michael’s face was mottled red and his hands were so tightly clenched that his arms shook. He sucked in his breath through clenched teeth as he stood, legs trembling, and walked slowly and methodically towards his boss.” Now you are engaged in the situation, wondering if Michael is going to scream at or attack his boss — or worse. The intensity of Michael’s reaction and his rage are expressed through the physiological signs of his bodily reactions.
Here is a gentler example:
The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell—as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.
The barn was pleasantly warm in winter when the animals spent most of their time indoors, and it was pleasantly cool in summer when the big doors stood wide open to the breeze. The barn had stalls on the main floor for the work horses, tie-ups on the main floor for the cows, a sheepfold down below for the sheep, a pigpen down below for Wilbur, and it was full of all sorts of things that you find in barns: ladders, grindstones, pitch forks, monkey wrenches, scythes, lawn mower, snow shovels, ax handles, milk pails, water buckets, empty grain sacks, and rusty rat traps. It was the kind of barn that swallows like to build their nests in. It was the kind of barn that children like to play in.
(from Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White)
This is evocative writing; simple, straightforward, but with enough sensory details and concrete illustrations that we can see and smell and feel what it is like to be in that particular barn. Those few paragraphs are enough to facilitate an emotional reaction; a desire to visit that place and sit peacefully where “nothing bad could happen ever again,” feeling a connection to the animals and the earth and the simple pleasure of using farm tools, rejoicing in the yearly rituals of swallows building their nests and the innocence of children playing.
And it helped us forget all about Michael and his boss.
Try it yourself. Think about how you can incorporate concrete, sensory details into your writing, focusing on your emotions as they were filtered through sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. You may be pleasantly surprised how much you can recall about past experiences.
Also remember that, as with any technique or advice, you can’t just slavishly “follow the rules” and expect that you will suddenly become the next __________ (your favorite author’s name here). But you will be a better writer, and you might notice that people begin to pay more attention to your brilliance and all the wonderful things you have to share. Isn’t that what you want? Isn’t it time we discovered the treasures God has placed within you?
Show, Don’t Tell
You’ve heard or read that expression, right? Books, magazines, online articles, podcasts…If you go on a search for “writing help,” you invariably come across this phrase. It is well-worn and respected instruction, rising almost to the level of holy grail in some writing circles.
But why is this advice held in such high regard? And what does it mean, anyway?
And how will it enable me to write better?
Since you are so full of questions, we will take the next few weeks to dive more deeply into the subject. If you already know all about it, use the time to do something else you enjoy. Just be aware there will be a quiz on this material at the end of the semester.
You’ve been warned, smarty pants.
Now, for the rest of you: Thanks for sticking around.
First, the meaning of “show don’t tell” is pretty straightforward; it’s not mysterious knowledge that only elite communicators know how to use. It is a technique you can use to help your reader become immersed in what you are writing, whether it is fiction or nonfiction.
I often tell people that movies are an excellent example of “show, don’t tell.” (Side note: I thought of using the acronym STD as shorthand for the technique but decided it might not be the best idea. So I’ll keep writing it out.) Since film is one of the most popular and pervasive modes of storytelling in modern culture, the idea is easily grasped.
Motion pictures are, well, pictures that are moving. (Duh.) The operative concept here is that we are dealing with storytelling through visual means; the narrative is propelled with action and visual cues as much—or more—than through talking. How strange and wooden it would be if, instead of an exciting sequence in a movie about three friends lost in the wilderness, the camera zeroed in on them sitting in a cafeteria, and one of them says:
“Bob, it was incredible when we were running and you fired your shotgun over the head of that mountain lion that was about to attack us, and then Kevin fell in the river and was about to drown but I found that raft and we jumped in and saved him and then got caught up in the current and were spinning downriver out of control in the rapids until we flew over that waterfall screaming but thank God we just missed hitting the jagged rocks at the bottom and we were OK! Except the raft hit the rocks and was ruined. But then we crawled onto shore and we lay there gasping for breath and….”
You get the point. Boring. Yet too often as we begin writing, we think the best way to get our point across is to explain every detail and how we felt about it.
In other words, many people “tell” instead of “show.”
How much more exciting if we viewed that scene, complete with sound effects and intense music (and a mountain lion) so that we see and feel and hear the dread and adrenaline and the pounding rush of water thrusting three men into potential death, and then have the catharsis of relief as they reach safety.
(Oh, by the way, in case you were worried; no animals were harmed during the writing of that scene. Bob’s shotgun was loaded with blanks.)
Believe it or not, you CAN deliver the same level of excitement and drama and even visual interest in your writing. You can put your reader into the middle of your action or your emotions. It is even possible to teach a new concept or make your case for a controversial viewpoint using this technique.
Sound difficult? Well, it is and it isn’t. It takes work; to write effectively and powerfully takes a lot of work. But doing things well always requires effort.
Since I brought up movies, I’ll close with this. Have you ever seen “A League of their Own”? Tom Hanks plays Jimmy Dugan, the manager of a women’s baseball team; and when he finds out that Dottie, the best player on the team, is quitting, the following dialogue ensues:
JIMMY: …Baseball is what gets inside you. It’s what lights you up. You can’t deny that.
DOTTIE: It just got too hard.
JIMMY (leans toward her): It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.
Yes. Writing well is hard. It is not for the faint of heart. To write in such a way that a reader is captivated, immersed, enthralled with what you have to say is hard. But that’s what makes it great.
Next week we look at ways to incorporate sensory details into your narrative to draw in your readers. Until then, watch a film or two and see if you can locate scenes where important plot points are told without dialogue.
Until then, keep writing.
A Song for the Prodigals
Arise, cry out in the night,
At the beginning of the watches;
Pour out your heart like water before the face of the Lord.
Lift your hands toward Him
For the life of your young children,
Who faint from hunger at the head of every street.
We are living in a time of unimagined and unimaginable change.
For countless numbers of young people, their inner self, that person created in the image of the Shining One, has never completely known full release, or surrender, or free joyful connection. It has always been dogged and pursued by a clinging to desire in the infantile crying for indulgence.
There is in every person a longing to be cherished, so that we might be free to express the glory that throbs within us, that exists because we are each an echo of a magnificent, originating Proclamation. We all, with force and gentle fury of tears, and aching longing, stretch and reach for truth, truth unfettered, the real Truth, Truth that reaches to me and tells me I can be free, that I can shake off the clinging accoutrements of flesh tainted by the world and thoughts corrupted by the customs and rituals of a world that has been twisted and tainted.
We try to make sense of our lives and our world through the stories we hear, the stories we tell, the stories we have lived and hope to live. We try, often without success, to listen to each other’s stories, because to hear stories that are true, stories that expose the grit and gristle underneath our skin, is to be alive and connected and aware and comprehending. Through comprehension comes compassion—the “suffering with”—and the opportunity to love.
And so, in our attempts to understand we reach for beauty and goodness and justice, and we are surprised to find that beneath our grasping is a Voice. What is this inner Voice that silences loud clamor in its quietude; that is more powerful than bitterness in its gentleness, that lays claim to me in its respectful wooing, that is undeniably insistent in its profound patience? My heart tears, and burns, and weeps for the purity offered even as other parts of me launch out, or lash out, in confusion and desire that has been twisted into self-satisfaction. And in that is the struggle, and the shame, and the opportunity for overcoming. In that is the invitation into intimacy, which is holiness. In that is the call to follow and surrender.
Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
I always thought the surrender had to proceed the follow: a sort of entry into the deeper paths of discipleship, (or even the primary, introductory path, if truth be known). But I have come to learn that the “follow” precedes the “surrender.” I don’t mean that we must retain our independence until we determine if we are willing to belong to our Creator. I simply mean that there are standards we simply cannot meet; there is a call we simply cannot attain to; there is a love required that we are insufficient to give; there is a commitment and a holiness that we are woefully unprepared for and unable to even desire, until we have made the decision to simply trust and follow. He, the Shepherd, can be trusted. He can be believed. He can be obeyed, and because we are watching him, seeing where he goes, listening to the Voice, he has promised that he will, in truth, be available to the deep caverns within each of us where our little egos and fragile identities curl and hide, then stretch and preen and posture, and then in sudden terror pull back and curl again. We are turtles retreating into shells of pity, of remorse, of shame and guilt and fear.
We pretend to have genuine complaints against all the world and all its evil, but we are actually aware that the evil comes mainly from within; it is simply easier to condemn and to convict all the others out there for wickedness that begins with me. But anguish of soul, the sweet and aching pain of a promise that I can dimly perceive, but never quite attain, is the force and the enticement that draws me on the path I wish to follow, even as other tattered and smelly enticements beckon and even capture for a time. And once again, the ugliness of pig’s food brings me to my senses, and I declare that I will return again to my Father’s house, where there is rich food to spare. The promise of that home, and the recognition of a beauty that I truly desire, is why I return again, and again, and again. Selfishness seeks regency; but the more I turn back and follow yet again, and relinquish my grasp on my own desires, seeking to live under the care of the One greater than all the stars, and be led into green pastures beside still waters, then I am able to look and see what my heart has always longed for. Then I behold the face that is always fully beholding me, though I only perceive dimly even as I run other comforts, behaving as if I were a madman.
But he beckons again, and calls “Follow Me.” And that is enough.
Chert (from “The Daily Word”)
Apparently, even short words can cause confusion to some people.
Just over a month ago, results were published in an important scientific journal detailing answers gleaned from a questionnaire distributed to men and women randomly selected from a database of people with names beginning with “H.”
Participants were asked to read a series of 100 questions about unusual words and write down their responses on an attached answer sheet. They chose from 25 true or false questions, 55 multiple choice questions, and 20 questions requiring a brief written definition.
Besides discovering that people named “Herman” are unusually fond of alcoholic drinks topped with little umbrellas (and there wasn’t even a question about umbrellas), the study also found some amazing insights into random “H” folks’ understanding of various geologic terms.
Project coordinator Constance Germenhausen was astonished when she viewed the following responses to today’s word. Because the results were so unusual, she contacted Daily Word and asked if we would “pretty please, help ‘H’ people understand what ‘chert’ means?”
How could we turn down such a polite, scientific request? However, before we define the term, here are some of the results the researchers collected. (You can find the published results from the completed highly scientific study in the March/April 2014 edition of “Highly Scientific Studies and Other Fun Data” available wherever it is you purchase such magazines.)
As promised, here are some written responses to the question “Please define CHERT”:
A dandruff shampoo (423 people wrote some variation of this answer.)
Small rodent in Australia. (346 people guessed this, including 7 Australians. But the Australians were all in a bar at the time…)
Misspelled the singer ‘Cher’ (264 people apparently thought it was a trick question. Twenty four even added: “You can’t fool me.”)
That place in Europe where they have the big machine that spins particles around and might make a black hole that will destroy the Earth (apparently 89 people watched this video too often.)
Writing in ALL CAPS means you are yelling (12 people, who refused to answer any more questions.)
Sound a bird makes (Three people; all named Herman.)
Of course, most Daily Word followers know that chert is a type of sedimentary rock resembling flint. But you can understand the urgency behind Ms. Germenhausen’s plea. Why, if this sort of unchecked ignorance about geology continues, who knows what might happen? The Earth might turn into a black hole, leaving only pieces of chert spinning just outside the event horizon.