Thursday, October 24, 2013

Are You A Shepherd?


Are you a shepherd?


Photo by Tom Curtis at freedigitalphotos.net


At this year’s ACFW Conference, Robin Jones Gunn spoke about writing in a way that really challenged me. She told the story of Peter, and how Jesus asks him to do something very interesting. When Jesus first calls Peter, He asks Peter to be a fisher of men. Peter probably thought, "Hey, I could be pretty good at that." Fishing was something He did well. Something he understood. But then, Jesus asks something very different. He asks Peter to be a shepherd.

This is what happens:

“Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep." – John 21:16

As Robin said, Peter must have wondered why Jesus would ask him to be a shepherd. Didn’t Jesus know Peter was in the fish business?

And yet, how often do we do this very same thing?

We stick with what we’re comfortable doing. What we’re good at. When all the while, God is calling us to go after that one lost sheep who’s still wandering around. To care for it. To care for them all.

When Robin related Peter’s story to writing, it resonated with me deeply because her own books have shepherded me on my spiritual journey. I knew immediately what she meant, because I as a reader had been given this gift before. Have you ever read a book that made you blink with the sudden realization you share one of the same struggles as the characters? Isn’t amazing how story can penetrate our hearts so deeply?

Writing is a calling, and a gift, and a ministry. I know a lot of amazing writers. Some are poets, some are novelists, and some are critical thinkers in the academic community. But so very few are shepherds. It takes discipline to be a shepherd, and it takes love for your flock. You must believe in them even before you see them. For as we learn in the parable of the talents, God desires that we would invest the gifts He has given us that we might reap bountifully. He who has been faithful with little will be faithful with more (Lk.16:10).

Photo by Talba on Flickr

So how do we become shepherds with our writing?

  • Be honest and willing to be vulnerable. 
While at ACFW, I attended Jim Rubart and Allen Arnold's class Live Free Write Free. The whole premise is that what is in your heart will come out in your story. This concept runs counter to the postmodern ideas many of us have adopted, that creativity can be completely divorced from the state of the heart. Sure, you can write a story that isn't written out of your heart. But what kind of story will it be? To be a story that touches the heart of your reader, a book must first come from the heart of the writer. To really challenge your readers--and yourself-- with your story, take a good look at what God has been teaching you lately. How can those lessons spill over to your characters? God often uses story as a way of drawing us closer to Himself-- the cool thing is, as well learn about ourselves through writing and we're willing to be vulnerable, other people can also be touched by our honesty. That doesn't mean you can only write a story about a woman your age in your occupation, of course, but it does mean that the preoccupations of your heart-- whether they be for children, self-perception, mercy, forgiveness, equality, value, love, etc.-- ought to come out in a strong way in every story you write.
  • Catch vision.
Ask God to give you a larger vision for your story and for your story. Don't settle for a plot and characters who are "okay" or even publishable. Seek God's heart and vision for the story. Only He knows how He can use it in your life and in the lives of others.
  • Develop empathy. 
What does Jesus tell Peter about his flock? To care for them. We are to care for our flocks in the same way. Your readers should come away feeling valued by God, challenged, and affirmed in their purpose. You do that by becoming sensitive to your readership. Let me be clear-- I'm not talking about people-pleasing. Take Redeeming Love as an example. Can you imagine Francine Rivers pitching her almost-500-page book about a prostitute who marries and keeps leaving her husband. And yet, Francine caught a hold of God's vision. She wasn't afraid to tackle a very gritty topic, but she did so in such a way, that readers come away feeling so very sorry for Angel and all this character endures. To achieve reader empathy, Francine Rivers must have first developed her own empathy for Angel as a (fictional) child of God, who is valued and pursued by Christ. 
  • Expect sacrifice.
Let's face it. Rejection stings. When I first started writing fiction, I was finishing grad school for English and was quite familiar with critique. You don't get through an English degree without developing a thick skin or hearing the phrase, "This isn't ready. Try again." So when the first round of rejections came for me as a brand new fiction writer, I handled them well. Just another chance to grow in my writing skills, I figured. But I've learned that, while I still take critique fairly painlessly, rejection has begun to sting. The reason? I've learned to write more and more from my heart. When you write because it's your calling, you must learn to seek validation from God alone; otherwise, you will feel kicked, knocked over, and stomped on. Writing is like any other ministry--it requires sacrifice. The creation of beauty in a broken world is a work filled with struggle, tears, and pain. But oh, what a worthwhile investment!
  • Be disciplined.
We all have areas of our lives where we struggle to be disciplined. I, for example, would prefer to stay up until 2 each night and begin my mornings around 10. When I have to get up early, I literally set my phone alarm to the exact minute I need to wake up. I hate being late. And yet! It is so difficult for me to wake up early. So few people have really developed self-discipline in all areas of their lives. But in order to shepherd the flock, we must first be able to shepherd ourselves. Maybe that means committing to a regular Bible study, time in worship, or a few minutes each day of peace and quiet. It looks different for each person, but the point here is, it's of vital importance that we give God the avenues to speak to us.
  • Rejoice in small victories
Photo by Steve Slater (wildlife encounters) on Flickr
Do not despite small beginnings (Zeph. 4:10). So often, we set our minds on earthly achievement. There's nothing wrong with setting goals, or feeling good about affirmation from an editor or critique partner. But at the end of the day, value your sheep. Value each one of them. Rejoice in each victory. They may seem small, but they matter. Seek opportunities to be thankful. Did an agent request your work? Did an editor like your hook? Did you have a chance to encourage another writer? Rejoice in these small victories.

Have you ever read a book that shepherded you in your spiritual journey? What about the story challenged you? How can you be a shepherd to your future readers?

8 comments:

Joanne Sher said...

Oh, Ashley, this is an amazing, beautiful, encouraging, practical, and every-other-positive-adjective-I-can-think-of post. You have blessed me beyond belief and given me a new focus. Love love love this ( if you didn't figure that out already!

Ashley Clark said...

Oh Joanne, thank you for sharing that! I'm glad it was an encouragement to you. Shepherding is such a hard concept, but what powerful implications it has for storytellers!

Jeanne Takenaka said...

I'm with Joanne, Ashley. What a beautiful, encouraging, challenging post. I LOVED Robin's talks. They resonated with spiritual truths and oozed encouragement!

One book I read years ago that challenged me in my personal walk with the Lord was The Debt, by Angela Hunt. It got me thinking about living my faith out loud, in the streets of my life, not just in the church.

You have given me much to chew on today as I head into my quiet time.

Crystal Walton said...

Yes, yes, yes! Love this, Ashley. No matter where we are on our writing journey, there are times when we not only lose steam, we lose heart. And when God rekindles that passion & urgency in my heart for my future readers, that's when I find my locomotive to keep going.

http://whitefeatherfloating.wordpress.com/ said...

This is so very true! This is a wonderful piece and is encouraging! God bless you.

Ashley Clark said...

Thank you, Jeanne! I'll have to look up that book! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Crystal, thank you for sharing. Yes, I absolutely agree! This year's conference was challenging for me because I attended with a broken foot, and by the end of the conference, I felt discouraged. But considering my future readers really helped me regain a big picture dream/vision. Thanks for stopping by today!

Ashley Clark said...

Thank you so much!