Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ponte Vecchio and Rahab: The Power of Walls

Meet Tessa Afshar! Tessa is the author of Pearl in the Sand, a new fiction novel coming in Fall 2010 that creatively narrates the dynamic biblical story of Rahab. 

By: Tessa Afshar

Ponte Vecchio is the most famous bridge in Florence, straddling the Arno River with tenacity for almost seven hundred years. According to legend, during WWII when the Germans bombed all the bridges of Florence with meticulous precision, Hitler expressly ordered that this iconic landmark should not be destroyed. Whether it really was Hitler’s artistic sensibilities, or the fact that access to both sides of the bridge was blocked by too much debris at the time, the world remains blessed with an unforgettable structure. The most fascinating feature of Ponte Vecchio is the curious fact that little shops are built right into its stone walls. They bulge out of the sides of the bridge like odd-shaped barnacles sticking out of the hull of a ship. As you cross the bridge, you can walk into these diminutive places of business and do your jewelry and leather shopping. It boggles the mind that a wall could hold so much.

Walking over Ponte Vecchio a couple of years ago made me think of the story of Rahab. The Bible tells us that she lived in the bowels of a wall too. Her house was built right into the defensive walls of Jericho. I wondered what it was like to live in a wall as I crossed the bridge. Then I realized that we all know a little something about that. Most of us have to contend with walls in the interior places of our souls. Walls built on foundations of pride, fear, rejection, loss; walls that keep others at bay and shield us from drawing close enough to get hurt again. Suddenly, I was hooked. I wanted to write about walls, about living in them, about pulling them down. I wanted to write about Rahab.

Rahab was a harlot, according to the Bible. I don’t suppose you can live through that and not build furious walls around your heart. And yet, out of a whole bustling city filled with people, God chose to save Rahab, and for her sake, her family. Not satisfied with that salvation, God chose this woman whose life was scarred by a thousand sins and even more wounds to be in the lineage of His Son. Some of Rahab’s genes were swimming in Jesus’ bloodstream. Think about that!

My novel, Pearl in the Sand, tells this story. It recounts the tale of a woman whose world was a mess, whose life was a mess, whose heart was a mess, but in encountering God, she found to her shock that her life was salvageable. More than that—it was valuable. She found that she was lovable.

God started the most significant part of Rahab’s life by literally pulling down the walls of her home around her. As traumatic as that moment must have been for her, she could not have moved on to the future God had planned for her without it. In a parallel pursuit of healing for her broken soul, Pearl in the Sand portrays a God who just as determinedly set out to ruin the walls surrounding Rahab’s heart.

I wanted to tell this story because I think God sometimes calls us to experience similar assaults on the defunct interior defenses of our souls. Like the warriors of Israel, He single-mindedly pursues us until the walls around our hearts come down and we become more accessible to His love. Like the priests of Israel who walked persistently around the perimeter of Jericho, He surrounds us, not giving up, not giving in, until He opens our souls to the healing assault of His grace.

God’s love cannot always be divorced from pain. But He destroys what destroys us. Rahab learned to cling to God in the midst of her sorrows: to believe in the Lord more than she feared pain. For me, that is one of the most crucial components of faith. Like Rahab, I want to be a person who gives God full access to every part of my soul, even if that access sometimes hurts because it involves the demolition of my walls.

Can a Canaanite harlot who has made her livelihood by looking desirable in bed make a fitting wife for one of the leaders of Israel? Shockingly, the Bible’s answer is yes. At the age of fifteen Rahab is forced into prostitution by her beloved father. In her years as a courtesan, she learns to mistrust men and hate herself. Into the emotional turmoil of her world walks Salmone, a respected leader of Judah. Through the tribulations of a stormy relationship, Rahab and Salmone learn the true source of one another’s worth in God and find healing from fear and rejection.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Kicking Writer's Block! (Or a Few Laughs from Authors Who Fight It!)

By: Christina Berry, author of The Familiar Stranger

During your writing journey along Lonely-Misunderstood Highway—commonly known to be paved with rejection—your focus is on reaching its intersection with Published Avenue. Occasionally, however, you must pass through the maligned neighborhood of Writers’ Block. In this section of town, people wander aimlessly, circling, blank or frustrated looks on their face.

You might hit this detour at the start of your journey, though most trips start off with great excitement. A full tank of gas, goodie bag, sweet tunes on the radio, and the open road ahead—writing is good!

We’re not yet sick of our traveling companions (characters), the scenery (setting), the purpose of the trip (theme), and we’re not discouraged by how far there is still to go (word count).

Imagine this: you’re cruising along at just over the speed limit, impressed with what good time you’re making, when a pendulous, glaring, red eye of a stoplight appears over the roadway.


Suddenly your companions have gone silent, the setting is stagnant, you’re not sure why or where you are headed where you are, and wherever it is … it’s too far away.

U-turn and go back to your existence as a happy non-writer, clueless as to the pain of Writers’ Block, untouched by literary angst? Never! Try some of these things to get, in the timeless words of Willie Nelson, on the road again.

1)      Pray! This is the answer to everything, so a great place to start, no doubt. 

2)      Play a game with yourself. Sometimes I make a list of my chores, and a list of my word count in 100-word increments. After crossing off a chunk of words, I can start a load of laundry or shower or grab a handful of M&Ms.

3)      Read a great book to inspire you, or a horrible book to remind you that even bad books get finished eventually. Some even are published.

4)      Take a walk. The exercise will stimulate the blood flow to your brain, creating instant genius fixes to whatever plagues your manuscript.

5)       Open up a new document or grab a notebook and let your mind go in a stream of consciousness monologue from one of your characters. After ten minutes, reread what poured on to the screen/page. Is there a new conflict you didn’t even know about before that can be explored? What worries does your character reveal?

6)      Vent. Call a friend.  If you call a fellow writer, you might get a bit of sympathy, but she won’t let you whine for long. Choose a non-writer. You’ll have an aura of mystic creativity, which allows for a longer whine.

7)      I know I already mentioned M&Ms, but snacking is always a good thing. Just make wise choices. Carrots, raisins, and a cup of dry Cinnamon Life might allow you to maintain a better lap for your laptop to rest upon than chocolate, ice cream, and cappuccinos.

8)      Have your character do a normal thing, but with a crazy twist. I thought my daughter was building a snowman after the last good accumulation of white stuff. She called me out a few hours later to show off her snowseal, complete with ball on its nose. Those little details, if you’ve stuck in a needed scene that’s been done too many times before, could get your story moving again.

9)  Grab the newspaper. Find the craziest story, then work some aspect of it into your novel. The fresh direction should give you a “novel” wind.

10)   Introduce a new character and see how the dynamic of the novel shifts.

11)  Skip ahead a few chapters, see what’s going on, then go back and connect the dots.

12)  Ask yourself, “If I don’t want to write this, is it because it’s boring and I know nobody wants to read it?” Maybe it’s a scene that can be cut.

(These final two are courtesy of Stephen Bly’s keynotes during the 2008 OCW Summer Conference)

13)  Put some characters together and write only the conversation. NO actions, or dialogue tags, or description—only conversation. Go back and fill in the blanks.

14)   My favorite piece of Steve’s advice? If the scene is dragging, or you seem to be riding a dead horse, shoot somebody. This is especially plot-changing in gentle women’s fiction and Amish.

I hope these strategies work for you. Do me a favor, will you? Give me a little wave when you zoom past and I’m still stuck wandering the block?

Read more from Christina and her fiction novel, The Familiar Stranger, at her blog,

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Keeping the Warmth This Midwinter

By: Stephanie Duncan, marketing assistant at Moody Publishers 

If you are like me, spring fever is about at breaking point in this winter weather! On the East Coast where I live we have lost power, internet, school days, and for some of us, our sanity in all this snow! But one advantage of being snowed in is that you have more time for other times that maybe you've wanted to do but life just wouldn't allow before.  I decided inclement weather is a good excuse to start a new habit: poetry reading.  This is a list of suggestions from Dr. Rosalie De Rosset at Moody Bible Institute, who leads a book club on Midday Connection. Cozy up and enjoy!

Donne, John. Holy Sonnets
Eliot, T.S. The Wasteland; The Hollow Man (pre-conversion); The Four Quartets (post-conversion)
Herbert, George. The Temple
Hopkins, Gerard Manley.
L’Engle Madeleine. The Weather of the Heart
Lewis, C.S. Poems
MacDonald, George. The Diary of an Old Soul
Merton, Thomas. Strange Islands
Milton, John. Paradise Lost; Paradise Regained
Shaw, Luci. Listen to the Green; etc.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Monsters Know about Life Stories

By: non-fiction author Christine Jeske

When my daughter was two years old, she went through a season of cutting teeth that was more miserable than anything we had yet experienced as parents. Some days she would begin crying in the middle of a meal and not stop for an hour. We tried everything—pain reliever, rocking, singing, even leaving her alone to “cry it out.” But the little creature seemed incapable of calming her own sobbing.

Finally one day I stumbled upon something that worked. We had just returned the famous children’s storybook Where the Wild Things Are to the library, and in between sobs, she requested to read it. Knowing her crying would hit new decibels when I told her we no longer had the book, I scooped her into my arms, sat down in our rocking chair, and began telling the story, embellished with enough details to last until her body finally forgot it’s grief.

In the following days I told her more stories, until they became a family habit. Sometimes we told fairy tales, sometimes true stories from our lives. Her favorite were the stories she challenged me to make up on the fly. Some she begged for again and again, like the story of the girl who built a tree house for her animal friends. Others became epics that continued for weeks, like the story of our family on a mystical journey through Silly Putty forests and Pillow Mountains in search of a backpack stolen by a witch who later became our friend. As the stories unfolded, they surprised even me. I found ways to work in life lessons, and many characters lived out our own struggles and dreams.

This was the first time I had made up stories since fifth grade, and I had forgotten how therapeutic the process was. Telling true stories was nothing new though. I had chosen English as a college major in part because there was nothing I enjoyed more than soaking up stories and mulling over their meanings.

Later in South Africa, aiming for the heart of people’s life stories in conversation became a way of life. Not only did the stories I heard people tell of their lives inform my work, they grew into a book of stories (Into the Mud: Inspiration for Everyday Activists) through which God can challenge people serving anywhere in the world.

I am convinced that there is no boring person, although I have interviewed quite a few people who start their responses with insistence that they are, in fact, boring. They are wrong. I am not bored by their stories, and God is definitely not bored by their stories.

A good story does not just describe another person’s life as a passing phenomenon; it forces us to crawl into the minds of people completely unlike ourselves. In the introduction to his classic book of Zulu stories, Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa explains that part of his reason for writing these stories is to build peace across cultures: "There can be no real understanding between [races] so long as neither has a clear picture of the other: what it really things, believes in, hopes for, and why… Only by being presented with a full, clear and unvarnished picture of the African—seen from his worst as well as his best side—can the White man hope to avoid repeating the incredible mistakes he made in the past."

The most significant and the most challenging lessons of life, I believe, deserve stories. History has shown that we are tragically prone to damage and destroy people we do not understand. People of other cultures deserve to be understood through more than graphs or comparisons to ourselves, and there is not better way than through watching their own lives, and hearing them tell about those lives.

Christine's love of stories inspired her to compile a written collection of true life stories of people she met while living in South Africa.  Into The Mud takes readers behind the headlines, into real stories of real people living neck-deep in some of Africa’s most difficult issues — but with hands, minds, and hearts rooted in God’s kingdom. Each of its interwoven stories and related discussion questions addresses a broader issue of missions and development, including: evangelism, literacy and education, microfinance, health services, urbanization and refugee assistance, and more. Reflection questions at the end of each chapter help readers to apply lessons from the chapters to their own ministry contexts.
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