Becoming a better faith blogger

The PDF for today is one I downloaded as a freebie for subscribing to Ed Cyzewski’s blog a few years back. I’ve followed his blog on and off since around 2012. This same ebook is available on Amazon and NoiseTrade. The ebook is short, 47 pages of content. It is divided into sections so I will use those as headings in this summary.

In explaining why he has written an ebook focused on faith blogging, Ed states:

The goals for Christian blogs can become quite murky at times since we aspire to physically live out our faith. Thinking and writing about it simply won’t do for serious followers of Jesus.

I think of this from another angle: Because I’m seeking to live out my faith, my goals for blogging are strongly influenced by what I believe. This probably amounts to the same thing but is easier to get my head around.

Go Deep

In this section Ed extols the virtues of being succinct and to the point, then also recommends writers at least occasionally take the time to go deep on a particular topic.

Invite Guests

Don’t be afraid that inviting others to contribute yo your blog will make you look like less of an expert, it will probably make you look better.

I do wonder how this can be applied to a personal blog like mine? A basic premise of my approach is that this blog is mostly about stuff I am interested in rather than being a ‘niche’ blog. Though, asking people who I’m curious to learn more about would be an obvious way to include the contributions of others. This is worth some consideration.

The Essentials

Becoming a better faith blogger begins with zeroing in on the essentials for a blog post

Ed points out how easy it is to ramble on about our faith, obscuring the message by telling too much detail in the stories we share.

Make your point. Tell your story. Keep. It. Moving.

Read and Link

By reading other blogs and noticing what they do well, we begin to improve our own writing. Follow other bloggers in your area of interest, know what is being discussed about a topic, be informed.

I also note that Ed specifically recommends reading high quality blogs. Just as the people we hang out with influence our thinking, what we are reading will influence both the content and quality of our writing.

We read other blogs in order to share our unique perspectives with existing conversations or to start new conversations that aren’t happening already.

Be Yourself

Don’t try to pursue some abstract ideal of what a ‘good’ blogger should be. Write in a style and voice that is your own. This means finding a sweet spot between stiff formality and brash oversharing. A blog is not an academic journal, but neither is it drunken commiseration with your best mate.

… real life experiences, if shared with discretion, can be truly powerful.

A good question to ask in the context of being yourself is:

What does this look like to me?

An Unbound Niche

This section is a bit hard to sum up so I will just quote this one paragraph:

While we can’t always write for everyone, we can write for a niche in such a way that our work has its own integrity and power so that our niche is open and unbounded by insider jargon or divisive language.

Paint a scene

This is clearly an art, one which I have not mastered. The idea is to carefully paint a scene for the reader that draws them in and pulls them along. The big challenge is to engage readers in such a way as to make them care about what you are saying.

What Are You For?

Be a writer who builds up rather than tearing down. Twitter holds plenty of examples of folks tearing others down, don’t go there. This is a section that I think definitely applies to Christian bloggers – I’m baffled by the way supposedly Christian people write about other Christians in scathing and nasty ways. Disagreeing does not need to be nasty.

What Ed seems to be saying on this topic is to write about what you are wanting to build up and just leave behind the stuff you might be against. This enables you to write positively instead of standing in opposition to something you don’t like.

Self-Deprecating Humour

Ed recommends using humorous stories about ourselves to let others see us at our most cringe-worthy, embarrassed and vulnerable. People are able to relate to these sorts of stories.

I’m not even sure how to attempt this. Perhaps this shows it is something I need to try for myself and practise?

Summary

Ed uses examples of Christian bloggers to show what he means with each go the topics covered. All the links to these blogs are working in the version currently available via Noisetrade, except for the link to ‘Then I Like Being Naïve’ by Preston Yancey. Oddly the links to Ed’s newsletter sign up and his old blog at inamirrordimly, including the ‘women in ministry series’ which he mentions are broken.

Despite the examples of Christian bloggers, the ebook does not go into much detail about much that is specific to faith blogging, something I was looking for.

An ordinary Christian

There are many, many days that I question why I blog. I read the blogs of some very talented people – great writers, who lead more interesting lives and seem to walk much closer to Jesus than I do. Many of these folks have suffered much, travelled, served Christ and overcome obstacles beyond my comprehension.

Whereas I am just plain average. I was going to write ‘very average’ but that would be overstating the case and adding the idea of excelling at being average, I don’t, I’m just average. My academic record is average (all B’s and C’s, not many ‘pointy grades’), my income is average, even the size of my family is average! The main point of difference about me is my height (short). One of my struggles in life is finding anything interesting to write in my Twitter bio.

Point of difference

So what purpose does an ordinary person like me have in writing stuff for the whole world to see ? (If they chose to look – they don’t!)

Marketing gurus like to tell us that whatever we are trying to publish needs to have a ‘point of difference’ so that people will be interested. This makes good sense in a marketplace crowded with stuff and an internet congested with blogs.

Within contemporary New Zealand culture my point of difference is that I am a Christian. In our very secular society a person has to be pretty committed to be an active church goer with a deep faith in Jesus Christ. Still, there are plenty of other Christians in NZ, some of whom write blogs and most of those folks are more educated, opinionated and articulate than me.

So I suppose my ‘point of difference’ is that I’m just a very ordinary Christian living in a secular society and trying to figure out what it means to trust Jesus while working to pay the bills.

Ordinary folks welcome!

Given that I’m just an ordinary guy with no special training in theology or such like, I do not set out to teach deep theological truths on this blog or argue about fine points of doctrine. Theology and doctrine are important to me but I have learned over the years that God uses people with inadequate understanding about Him – He has to because nobody fully understands God.

All I’m really aiming to do is share the reality of striving to live for Christ in an ordinary life. Not the life of a missionary or pastor or scholar, just plain old making ends meet in the context of work and family.


What other writers have to say on this topic:

Digging for bedrock

Learning to dig for the bedrock of Christ and writing from that foundation about the messy details of life.

When I was a teenager my Dad worked in the tunnels being constructed to stabilise the mountains around the Clyde dam. It was a strange underground world of darkness, dirt, noise, and water. The work of tunnelling through solid rock was arduous and exhausting.

The reason for all the drilling, digging, and blasting was because the rock is not as solid as it seemed. The mountains in that area are riddled with fault lines, underground water and massive, slowly moving landslides. Placing a gigantic concrete dam smack on top of a fault line meant the mountains had to be stabilised to prevent them cascading down into the newly formed lake.

As humans we like to think our work will last. It is demoralising to work hard on something for it to be demolished by someone who doesn’t care. We order our lives to ensure stability of home and income. Education is an attempt to predict what knowledge is worth gaining that will be of lasting value.

Over recent weeks I’ve been wondering what direction I should take with this blog. Writing blog posts can be a significant investment in time, and running a blog that is not crammed with advertising is a reasonable monetary cost. If I’m to continue writing I’d like it to have purpose and meaning, both for me and the few who read my posts.

I’ve asked God to help me determine what my focus should be, and so far the clearest idea I have is to keep digging into bedrock. The rock is Christ and knowing Him. Encompassing more than just blogging, for the time being I need to single-mindedly pursue Jesus. I’m confident that in doing this, other stuff will slip and slide into their rightful places.

I’m not sure how this will affect my writing, hopefully by making it better. My gut feeling is that I’d like to write about the intersection of life and faith. There are thousands of Christian pastors who write blogs. Yet it is oddly difficult to find blogs written by ordinary Christian men about the challenges of living faithfully for God in the messy details of secular work, marriage, and being a dad. This is where most of us live for most of the time.

Good writing, like any good art, needs to confront the most challenging aspects of life. Whether exploring our pain, anger, or fears, writing won’t ring true if it fails to confront these deeper issues or only offers pat solutions to complex issues. (Ed Cyzewski, How The Examen Empowers Us to Pray and Write)

While I don’t consider myself an artist, confronting the challenging aspects of life is a large part of why I write. I also have a deep dislike for pat answers. Life is messy and complex, trite answers don’t help anyone. This is where blogs can offer something useful with thoughtful posts and discussion in the comments to tease out the knotty intricacies of our real lives.

In the meantime, I have some digging to do. Let me leave you with a reminder that Christ is the rock that even incessant ocean waves cannot erode away.


Image 1:Drilling a blast hole with a jackhammer in 1942. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Image 2:Fingal’s Cave, Staffa (Scotland). Courtesy of Gerry Zambonini (flickr)

Practical biblical advice for despair

When we are hungry, angry, lonely, tired or any combination of the four, our actions, reactions, and choices can be coloured by how we are feeling.

Elijah is one of the outstanding characters of the Old Testament. His epic contest with the false prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel is the high point of his career (see 1 Kings chapter 18). But Jezebel cuts short any celebration of victory, threatening Elijah with death when she catches him. So he runs for his life. I can understand that, I’d skip the country too.

He also becomes quite bummed out by the whole situation, seeing no hope for himself or the nation.

There is plenty of speculation that Elijah was depressed at this time. I’m wary of projecting 21st century psychological ideas onto a person who lived 2,800 years ago. We only have an outline of the highlights of Elijah’s life and that’s not enough information to base a diagnosis on.

Elijah goes from outstanding courage in chapter 18 to despair in chapter 19. Despair is a bad headspace to be in and one current tool used in combating it is summed up with the acronym HALT. This stands for:

  • Hungry
  • Angry (or afraid)
  • Lonely
  • Tired

I can see all of these in Elijah.

He was hungry, so an angel provided food for him. He was afraid to he ran 200km (120 miles) to get away from Jezebel (he was probably also angry at her). He was lonely, telling God he was the only prophet left. And he was tired, sleeping under a broom tree in the desert. He was so fed up that he asked God to take his life.

The idea behind this acronym is that when we are hungry, angry, lonely, tired or any combination of the four, our actions, reactions, and choices can be coloured by how we are feeling. If I am feeling tired, angry or hungry, I am more likely to over react to irritations and inconveniences. By being aware of this I can try to address these things, making it easier to constructively cope with things I don’t have control over.

It seems that God did this for Elijah – he slept, then an angel woke him to eat some food, let him sleep some more and provided more food (1 Kings 19:5-7). Then Elijah took a long walk and was reassured that he was safe and would be given someone to take over the burden of being a prophet from him (1 Kings 19:15-17). God showed him that spectacular signs were not what he needed (1 Kings 19:12). The outworking of seemingly ordinary events under God’s control would fulfill God’s plans.

This is a good reminder to me when I am feeling down and just want a way out. The way out of my current situation is by living through it and God will answer my prayers within the bounds of the ‘ordinary’.

Sometimes when life sucks I just need to have some dinner and get an early night. Once I am fed, rested, and have connected with those I love, I’m better able to seek God.


Image: The Prophet Elijah by Daniele da Volterra, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Scripture references:

Ref 1 Kings 19:1-14 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how qhe had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to sBeersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. tAnd he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food uforty days and forty nights to vHoreb, the mount of God. The Lord Speaks to Elijah There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, wthe word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very xjealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, ythrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, aand I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and ca great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind dan earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, ehe wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, fthere came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, ythrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (ESV)

Shift work is biblical

The prophets were not receiving texts from God on their iPhones but they still endured boring lunches, feeling tired, squabbling kids and in-laws just as we do

My ‘day job’ entails shift work on a 24 hour, 7-day a week roster. This can be a drag and there have been plenty of times when I’ve resented having to work until midnight or endure the graveyard shift. Working weekends when everyone else seems to have time off, or trying to sleep on a brilliant sunny day is no fun. I can easily slip into feeling sorry for myself, thinking that not working 9 to 5 is abnormal and unnatural.

The reality is that a huge number of people work weekends and ‘non-standard’ hours. Statistics vary, but up to 30% of the workforce in NZ, Australia, Britain, Canada and the USA work at least some hours outside of the ‘usual’ 8 am to 6 pm, Monday to Friday work week, with about 15% of workers doing the ‘graveyard shift’ as part of their schedule. In the USA about 28 million people work some non-standard hours, and almost 15 million Americans work the night shift. I’m not alone!

This is not a purely modern phenomenon. During the industrial revolution children laboured in cruel conditions during the night, night work was also common in the early 20th century in mills and factories.

In Biblical times sentries or watchmen were posted to guard cities and warn of impending danger. To ensure these sentries remained alert the night was divided into ‘watches’ and watchmen changed at set times so that fresh sentries replaced those who were becoming tired. Shepherds also remained up through the night watching over their flocks (Luke 2:8). It also seems that occasionally servants were expected to remain on duty during the night ready to serve their masters if they arrived home late (see Mark 13:34–35).

The ancient Jews divided the night into three watches: Sunset (about 6 pm) to 10 pm; a ‘middle watch’ from 10 pm to 2 am; and a ‘morning’ watch from 2 am to sunrise (about 6am). Later, under Roman rule there were four watches: sunset to 9 pm; 9 pm to midnight; midnight to 3am; and 3 am to sunrise (see Smith’s Bible Dictionary).

Even Jesus kept some weird hours at times, going for a stroll across a lake at about 4am, heading off into the hills before daylight, working seven days a week (Matthew 14:25, Mark 1:35, Luke 13:14).

My point is that while we may like to consider ourselves modern (or postmodern, or metamodern, or whatever) with our igadgets and always connected techno lifestyles, the human condition has not changed. Jesus rode a donkey, not a motorbike and the prophets were not receiving texts from God on their iPhones but they still endured boring lunches, feeling tired, squabbling kids and in-laws just as we do. Remember that even Jesus’ parents experienced miscommunication between them as to who was looking after the kids (Luke 2:41-48). If you think a negative Tweet or Facebook update about you is bad, that’s nothing compared to the embarrassment of having the incident recorded in the most widely read book of the next two thousand years!


Scripture references

Lamentations 2:19 Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the night watches! (ESV)

Judges 7:19 So Gideon and the hundred men who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just set the watch. (ESV)

Exodus 14:24 And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, (ESV)

1 Samuel 11:11 And the next day Saul put the people in three companies. And they came into the midst of the camp in the morning watch and struck down the Ammonites until the heat of the day. (ESV)

Song of Solomon 3:3 The watchmen found me as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” (3:3 ESV)

Luke 2:8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. (ESV)

Mark 13:34-35 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— (ESV)

Matthew 14:25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. (ESV)

Mark 1:35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. (ESV)

Luke 13:14 But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”

Baby steps

Last year my Bible reading went out the window. This was an effect of depression, not the cause, but it did not help. It took huge effort to read even a single chapter, an effort I often could not summon in the midst of depression.

In these early stages of my journey to living a better life, I am setting small goals that I hope will be easily attainable while providing big payoffs over time.

One of these goals is to read 5 chapters of the Bible each day. This is enough to get me through the entire Bible in one year even if I skip the odd day. Also, I’ve done it before so know it is achievable with a little focus.

Last year my Bible reading went out the window. This was an effect of depression, not the cause, but it did not help. It took huge effort to read even a single chapter, an effort I often could not summon in the midst of depression. Now I am able to read more easily it is time to correct the imbalance.

Why read the Bible?

Firstly, because this is how I grow in my understanding of God and how I should live as one of His people.

Secondly, as I read and ponder the Scriptures, the teachings of Jesus and His Apostles take root in my heart. They then have a chance to affect and change my thoughts and attitudes. This is the sort of change that really makes a difference, more so than merely following the latest self-help fad.

Thirdly, reading the Bible washes away my own faulty thinking. By filling my mind with words, thoughts, poetry and stories that are from God I crowd out the mistaken ideas and beliefs I have about myself, others and life that otherwise cause me to make bad choices.

How?

I’ve found two useful ways of reading to enable these three benefits to occur. One is to read slowly, thinking over what each sentence means, what it was written to achieve and how that applies to me. The other way is to read more quickly, covering a lot of ground but persisting until the ‘washing’ effect I mentioned has occurred and my thoughts are aligning themselves with what I’ve been reading.

Both approaches take time, but to read 5 chapters at a sedate pace only takes around 15 minutes which can easily fit into most daily schedules. The real battle is often the willpower to block out competing distractions and simply start.

To keep track of my progress I have a printed list of the books of the Bible and the chapters in each book. I simply cross off each chapter once I’ve read it. This allows me to read in whatever order I like while keeping track of progress. There are smart phone apps but I’ve found they don’t give the flexibility of pen on paper.

Here are some suitable checklists:

(I am only recommending the checklists from these websites, I cannot vouch for the other content of the sites)

For a good discussion of the benefits of reading the Bible see:


Image: Shutterstock

Rock bottom

What I am aiming for is to be a better person. Not perfect, not even ‘the best’, just better than I am now.

The inside of an old industrial chimney shaft photographed from the bottom - circular stone wall with tree growing from it and blue sky with white clouds in the opening in the centre, verticalIn 2014 I hit rock bottom.

In just one year I dug myself into a huge credit card debt, gained 10 kg of excess weight, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in a suicidal state, and almost ruined my marriage. Not my best effort.

Fortunately my depression has improved and my wife is graciously giving me a chance to make things better. I urgently need to change how I “do life”. This year my blog will trace my journey to ‘a better me’.

This is not about ‘radical’ or extreme changes, there is no room for such things when I am in debt, have health problems and have to work full time to support my family. It is also not a quest for perfection, all of us let ourselves and others down every day. What I am aiming for is to be a better person. Not perfect, not even ‘the best’, just better than I am now.

Because I have made such a mess of things and failed in a multitude of ways, this self-improvement project will range over many areas. Of particular interest to me is how to make changes stick and finding what will have the biggest payoff for even small improvements.

Is there room for another Christian blog?

The primary goal of this blog is to be an encouragement.

I’ve been mulling over whether I should write about something other than faith. It seems that there are already thousands of ‘faith blogs’ and maybe this space is already full.

On just one directory of Christian themed blogs there are over 2750 blogs listed. Alexa has 63,328 sites listed in the category of ‘Christianity‘. This includes all types of websites, not just blogs, but that’s a large number and these are only Alexa’s “Top Sites”.

Whatever the actual number, there are a huge number of Christian ‘faith blogs’. Why add yet another one?

I have two main reasons:

1) Writing about faith in Christ keeps me focused on this topic, which I want to remain central to my own life.

2) Surprisingly to myself even, I do have a unique story and can add something to the discussion of how we live our faith in the real world.

I used to think that I was a very boring person who leads a boring life. In some ways this is true, but life has thrown enough at me by now to add some flavour into the mundane details of an ordinary life. The ordinariness is even an aspect of what differentiates this blog. I am not a pastor, I don’t work for a Christian organisation and consider my calling is to be in the secular work world.

Because I write as just another ordinary Christian, I’m not out to correct your theology or portray a spotless life of exemplary faith – my job security doesn’t hinge upon a flawless outward appearance. The primary goal of this blog is to be an encouragement. This is the filter I want to be using in deciding what to write about, “is this something encouraging to other Christians?”

So, despite the size of the Christian blogosphere, A Saved Wretch does have it’s own particular flavour, hopefully one that appeals to and encourages some readers.


Image: iStock

When I am weak

when-i-am-weak

As we stare down the rapidly looming freight train of Christmas, it drags with it the realisation that 2014 is almost at an end. Frankly, I will be happy to see the last of this year, or at least the difficulties it has contained. To quote Queen Elizabeth II, for me 2014 has been an ‘annus horribilis’. This year brought weakness and brokenness in my mind and soul of an intensity that nearly did me in.

Recovering from such a place has taken most of the year, and while I’m now much better it has left a sharp awareness of vulnerability along with some fear of ending up in such a mess again. It has been hard work to implement changes of lifestyle to improve chances of recovery, but much of the improvement is due to other people helping me, especially my wife. I suspect that it is by God’s grace that I did not fall so low while I was single and had nobody close to spot when I needed help.

There are many such graces which I now notice looking back over the valley we are emerging from. These attest to God having been with me despite my inability to perceive Him while passing through the darkness and gloom. This also reminds me of some parts of the New Testament where our human weakness is highlighted as having been taken into consideration in God’s plan for our salvation:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6 ESV).

There are times when we do not have the ability to even cry out to God for what we most desperately need, yet He has already preempted such times of desperation by taking our weakness and sin upon Himself so that even the barrier of being weak is no longer a barrier between us and Him. I consider this one of the most hopeful truths of the Gospel; that being weak, foolish, sinful, or despised need not keep us from God. And that nobody in the Church has the right to boast as if they get God’s favour by their own merit because in truth none of us do, or ever will:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1:27–29 ESV).

The great thing about this is that within the body of Christ (the Church) we all have various times of relative weakness and strength so when one member is weak those who are in a place of strength at that time can walk alongside and lift the weaker one up for a while. We all have ups and downs and I am convinced that it honours God more to ask for help when we need it than to feign strength and walk in falseness and pride, refusing assistance despite it being obvious to others that we need help.