Author: Erin Taylor Young

217 – Why Fasting Matters for Writers

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Why Fasting Matters for Writers on Write from the Deep Podcast with Karen Ball and Erin Taylor Young

Fasting. We’ve all heard of it, and yet we rarely do it. But this ancient practice is frequently mentioned in the Bible, with Jesus himself leading the way. He did it, he taught about it, and he presumed we’d follow in his footsteps. Join us for a deeper look at this vital aspect of discipleship and why it matters for writers. We’ll even discuss alternatives to try if your medical condition prevents you from practicing typical methods of fasting.

But first, thank you to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

We’ve been talking about various practices for deepening our relationship with God. Here are links to our past episodes about Rest-211Prayer 208Silence-205, Solitude 199, and Fellowship 214 if you missed them. Today we want to cover a practice that isn’t the first choice for most of us. It’s certainly not comfortable, and often put off or not done at all. What is it? Fasting. 

Now, hang in there with us, because while fasting typically involves abstaining from food for a period of time, we’re well aware that some folks, Karen included, have medical issues that make it unsafe, even life threatening, to skip meals. So in this episode, we’ll also cover alternatives to traditional fasting.

First, let’s talk about why fasting matters. I mean, who thought of this? And why?

I’ll sum up my research findings in one sentence: I couldn’t find any source that claimed to know exactly when the practice of fasting started. New World Encyclopedia just says, “Fasting for religious and spiritual reasons has been a part of human custom since pre-history.” 

But it is also found in various ancient written records—including the Old and New Testaments. 

How often is fasting mentioned in the Bible? An article on cslewisinstitute.org lists many occasions:

In Deuteronomy chapter 9, Moses recounts how he did not one but two 40-day fasts when he was meeting with God on Mt. Sinai after leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

In Daniel 10:3, in response to an overwhelming, terrifying vision, Daniel talks about his partial fast for 21 days and says, “I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks.” After this he received the meaning of the vision.

Here’s what it says in Ezra 8:21-23 when Ezra is leading a group of exiles from Babylon back to Jerusalem: “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, ‘The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.’ So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.” ESV

In the book of Esther, when Haman succeeded in getting a law published to kill all the Jews, Esther was going to go to the king to plead for mercy, but appearing before him without being summoned was punishable by death unless the king held out his scepter to her. So here’s what she tells her uncle, Mordecai: “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” Esther 4:16 ESV

Another fast during a national emergency happens in the time of King Jehoshaphat. A giant army made up of different people groups has come against them, and this is the king’s response in 2 Chronicles 20:3-4: “Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah assembled to seek help from the Lord; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord.” ESV

The result of this fast? God delivered them—they didn’t even need to fight the battle because the opposing armies killed each other off.

Fasting is found in the New Testament, too. Mark chapter 1 tells us Jesus himself fasted in the wilderness for 40 days. And Jesus’ teaching on fasting in Matthew chapters 6 and 9 make it clear that he expects this to be a normal practice for his followers after his crucifixion.

In Acts chapter 9, Saul, later to be called the apostle Paul, fasts for three days after being blinded after his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus.

In Acts 13, God’s instructions to launch the first missionary journey come during the course of prayer and fasting, and Paul and Barnabus are then sent off with another round of prayer and fasting. And it’s clear that fasting was a regular part of their journey. Acts 14:23 says, “And when [Paul and Barnabus] had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”

We won’t take the time to give detailed examples of prominent fasting Christians in the centuries after the Bible was written, but we will point out that John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and C.S. Lewis were all enthusiastic supporters and practicers of fasting.

One more thing we should make clear. The article on cslewisinstitute.org states that the Bible specifically defines fasting as going without food. Here’s how they put it: “In the Old Testament, the main Hebrew word used is tsom, which means ‘to abstain from food.’ In the New Testament, the Greek word we translate as ‘fast’ is nesteuo, which means ‘to abstain from eating.’ In both testaments, fasting is simply going without food in order to seek God for some special reason.”

The reason they stress this definition is because this is what the actual practice was and is: going without food. This is what the Israelites did, this is what Jesus did, and it’s what he’s teaching about. So, if your health allows, this is the normal way to practice fasting.

But again, we know not everyone can physically do this, so we’ll also discuss alternatives.

First, let’s circle back to the purpose of this practice. The article on cslewisinstitute.org says it’s “to seek God for some special reason.” So, why would fasting help us do that?

How Does Fasting Help Us Seek God?

1. Fasting helps us divorce ourselves from the ordinary pleasures and occupations of this world. 

Dallas Willard, in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, which we’ve mentioned in previous episodes, writes this: “[Fasting] teaches us a lot about ourselves very quickly…it reveals to us how much our peace depends upon the pleasures of eating.” 

Justin Whitmel Earley, in his book The Common Rule, adds, “Fasting is a way to resist the original sin of trying to eat our way to happiness…”

Earley goes on to describe how he feels during a day of fasting: “It’s midmorning when I become irritable. Not only am I trying to concentrate over a hungry stomach, but I also can’t do what I otherwise do every day: look forward to lunch or snacks as a way to medicate the pain of toilsome work.”

He continues describing the discomfort of his day, then he sums it up with this: “When I fast I see that deep down I’m not actually a very patient person after all. I’m not actually a very content person after all…I’m a weak, impatient, angry person who medicates with food and drink. This is painful to confront. Yet to live without fasting is to live without knowing who I truly am.”

Knowing our weaknesses is humbling, but that’s right where we need to be in order to effectively seek God. Which leads to the second reason fasting helps us seek God.

2. Fasting reminds us that we are humbly dependent on God.

We’re dependent on God for everything. Acts 17:25 (NIV) tells us, “[God] is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”

God supplies our daily bread, our clothes, our homes, our jobs, our stories, our words, our talents and abilities, our book sales, our readers.

Dallas Willard writes, “Persons well used to fasting as a systematic practice will have a clear and constant sense of their resources in God.”

That’s exactly what we need as Christians, a better connection to the reality of God as our constant provider. 

But there’s more. Willard goes on to say that this connection and constant sense developed through the systematic practice of fasting will help us “…endure deprivations of all kinds, even to the point of coping with them easily and cheerfully.”

Imagine what coping cheerfully and easily with deprivations could look like if, say, you find you have to type your next book with one hand because you’ve developed carpal tunnel syndrome in the other? Or if the time you thought you had to write gets cut in half because of an unforeseen family emergency? Or if you lose your publishing contract? Or your day job? Or you have to tighten your belt due to the crazy inflation these days? Or whatever else. 

3. Fasting helps us feast on God.

But God is more than just the giver of stuff we need. Dallas Willard writes, “Fasting confirms our utter dependence on God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food…In fasting we learn how to suffer happily as we feast on God.”

So, fasting helps us see God as more than a provider of resources, but actually as sustenance itself. 

Look at Deuteronomy 8:3 where Moses speaks to the Israelites before they head into the Promised Land: “[God] humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

Now fast forward to the New Testament and look at what Jesus says about this bread of God in John 6, verses 33 and 51 (ESV): “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

So, fasting helps us seek God by seeking to feast on him. On who he is, on what he’s done, and on what he will keep doing throughout eternity.

Look at what Psalm 36:7-9 says: “…The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.” ESV

Not only can we feast on God, we can also feast on doing God’s will. In John chapter 4, Jesus is talking to the woman at the well in Samaria, while his disciples have gone to the village to buy food. When they come back, they urge him to eat. Here’s what he says, “…I have food to eat that you do not know about” (John 4:32 ESV). So the disciples are trying to figure out if someone brought him food while they were gone. But then: “Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.’” (John 4:34 ESV) 

I love how Dallas Willard sums this up. When we fast, he writes, “We learn that we too have meat to eat that the world does not know about. Fasting unto our Lord is therefore feasting—feasting on him and on doing his will.”

4. Fasting helps remind us to pray and serve.

None of what we’ve said so far means we won’t actually experience the discomfort of hunger. We typically do. But one way those hunger pangs can help us seek God is by being a consistent reminder to pray. As we go about the busyness of life, the habit of praying can be something that becomes superficially brief, or put off until we have more time, or forgotten altogether. But prayer is key in communicating with God, so the reminder to pray that hunger brings can help us foster more constant interaction with God.

And hey, if we don’t have to spend time making dinner and eating it, well, we’ve just freed up more time to spend with God.

Another benefit of the discomfort of fasting is that it can help us tune in to the needs of others. Here’s what Justin Whitmel Earley writes of his own experience returning home from a day at work when he’s been fasting, “I come home [at dinner time] not expecting to eat. I’m simply expecting to serve other people as they eat. The most remarkable part is that I’m actually happier that way, because all along I’ve been thinking that food makes me happy. But now I see that only love does that. When that switch happens, ironically one of my favorite things to do is cook for other people when I’m fasting.”

5. Fasting helps us empathize with the suffering of others.

You all will likely find other benefits of fasting that we didn’t have time to cover, but one last benefit we want to mention is that fasting gives us empathy with those who are suffering. That, in turn, expands our capacity and tenacity in our prayers for the needs of those around us.

Justin Whitmel Earley writes, “When we fast, we become more attuned to the stubborn reality of the world’s suffering…while there is a part of fasting that reveals our own needs, there is a part that reveals the world’s need, too…fasting is a way to lean past our own emptiness and into someone else’s. It’s a practice of empathy, of willingly walking into pain for someone else. It’s an imitation of Christ…” 

What if fasting isn’t medically advisable for you?

Now, for those of you who can’t fast—either for physical or mental health reasons—remember the goal as you’re looking for a suitable alternative. As Justin Whitmel Earley puts it, you want to “lean into the lack.” 

  • Simple Meals

One idea, instead of not eating, might be to eat very simple meals.

You can follow what Daniel did, and rather than abstain from all foods, you can choose certain foods to abstain from. Maybe especially those we consume for pleasure rather than healthy sustenance. We need protein everyday, but does it need to come from whatever your favorite source is? What about things like soda? Refined sugar? Chocolate? Potato Chips? These are things we like the taste of, we eat them for pleasure rather than nutritional value.

In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Willard writes, “The desert fathers such as St. Antony often subsided for long periods of time on bread and water…” but he also cautions that “their ‘bread’ was much more substantial than we have today.”

So you might not want to eat just store bought white bread! But what is the simplest meal that can supply the basic nutrients you need? The goal is to experience discomfort, to be humbled, to focus on God as our fullness.

  • Abstain from Snacking

Another alternative, and something that can also be done in conjunction with simple meals, is to not eat between meals—if your medical condition makes that possible. I know I have the habit of grazing. My watch tells me it’s time to stand because I’ve been sitting too long, so I get up and walk to my kitchen where I eat a nice little snack. Which, when you analyze that, is probably counterproductive. For the most part, I don’t need those snacks. I just like them.

  • Abstain from Entertainment

Kelly Minter, in her Bible study Encountering God: Cultivating Habits of Faith Through the Spiritual Disciplines writes this: “When we fast, we’re practicing the needed discipline of saying no to ourselves and yes to God.”

For alternatives to fasting from food, what other things can we say no to? Well, we can say no to entertainment. No TV, no phone games, no social media scrolling for birds and puppies and other fun videos, no Spotify, Pandora, or Podcasts, no reading for pleasure, going to the movies, sporting events, or whatever you do for fun. Take a whole day off, and rather than seeking distraction, seek only God, his presence, his words, his direction. Learn to delight in God, and only God. 

  • Abstain from Something Else 

What are the things in your life that take up time? Things you look forward to and would miss? 

For example, suppose you’re an extroverted person who hates to be alone and spends lots of time getting together with friends. Maybe you can choose to stay home one night a week instead—stay home and have a date with God.

Or, maybe you like to go out and shop. You don’t even necessarily buy things, although maybe sometimes you do. But instead of hitting the mall to look around and see what’s new, you abstain for 40 days. Instead, you use that time to stay home and seek God.

There are probably lots of other alternatives out there we can think of if we give it more personalized time and thought. Ask God to show you. The point is to practice fasting—in whatever way your health allows—and incorporate it into your spiritual life. As Dallas Willard writes, “…[F]asting is one of the more important ways of practicing that self-denial required of everyone who would follow Christ (Matthew 16:24).”

Why do we fast?

Kelly Minter sums up her reasoning for fasting this way in her Bible Study Encountering God: “I believe we can and should fast for guidance, healing, direction, intercession, in pursuit of spiritual breakthroughs, and more. But I believe one of the greatest reasons we can fast is simply in pursuit of a deeper experience with Christ.”

Fasting. We’ve all heard of it, and yet we rarely do it. Take a deeper look at this vital aspect of discipleship and why it matters for writers. #amwriting #Christianwriter Share on X

WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!

Do you practice fasting? What do you find to be the best thing about it?

THANK YOU!

Thank you to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

Thanks so much to our July sponsor of the month, Wendy L. Macdonald. She’s a writer, poet, podcaster, photographer, a maker of journals (find her on Etsy to see them!) and nature lover. I know you’d enjoy getting to know her! Check out the treasury of her website at wendyLmacdonald.com.

Many thanks also to the folks at PodcastPS for their fabulous sound editing!

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214 – Why Writers Need Fellowship

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Why Writers Need Fellowship Write from the Deep Podcast with Karen Ball and Erin Taylor YoungWriting is a solitary occupation, and yet God created human beings with a need for fellowship. This is why it’s crucial for writers to seek—and not neglect—community. Don’t miss being blessed—and blessing others—through this God-designed need for relationships.

But first, thank you to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

Welcome to the deep! In some of our episodes this year, we’ve talked about various spiritual disciplines, by which we mean practices that help us develop a deeper, closer relationship with God. Here are links to our episodes about Rest-211, Prayer 208, Silence-205, and Solitude 199.

The Christian writing life is hard. Knowing God and trusting God is crucial on this journey. Today we want to focus on a practice that we don’t always think of as a discipline, and that we sometimes might even take for granted or feel like it sort of just goes without saying. What is this practice? It’s Christian fellowship.

What is fellowship?

Let’s start with what fellowship is. Among Merriam-Webster’s definitions are:

Companionship, company, the state being comradely.

The BibleProject.com defines fellowship as: “shared participation within a community.”

Dalla Willard in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines writes this about fellowship: “In fellowship we engage in common activities of worship, study, prayer, celebration, and service with other disciples.”

Willard categorizes fellowship as a spiritual discipline of engagement. Whereas things like fasting, silence, and solitude are disciplines of abstinence, where we cease doing certain activities for a time, disciplines of engagement, like fellowship, are where we commit to participation, to involvement in activities we are at times likely to neglect. Bible study and prayer are other examples of disciplines of engagement.

So fellowship is something we do, something we participate in, either in a large group of people or just a few.

Why do we need fellowship?

But why is fellowship important? What is the basis of it?

1. We were made for fellowship.

Justin Whitmel Earley, in his book The Common Rule, has this to say:

“One of the defining marks of the Christian faith is that God is three persons in one triune God. Among the thousands of radical implications of the Trinity, my favorite is that God is a fellowship. This means we are made in the image of fellowship.”

So we’re made for fellowship and in the image of fellowship.

The BibleProject article we mentioned earlier says:

“God enjoys perfect fellowship within himself. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in eternal relationship and always participate in acts of self-giving love toward one another. This fellowship is the essence of heaven.”

Jesus talks about his fellowship with the Father in John 17:5: And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (NIV)

The BibleProject article goes on to say, “[God] created humans in his image so that we could share in his eternal self-giving fellowship and partner with him to share it with all of creation.”

So again, it seems clear that God designed us for fellowship.

Here’s another great quote from the book The Common Rule that talks about the implications of this:

“We came from friendship. Everything in the universe has its roots in friendship. That means the longing to be in right relationship with other people and things is at the heart of every molecule in existence—and most powerfully in our own hearts. We can’t be happy without knowing and being known, because that’s the image of the trinitarian friendship we were made in.”

The bottom line is that fellowship is necessary for human flourishing.

2. We need connections with other believers to help us with our spiritual formation.

The second reason why we need fellowship is that we need connections with other believers to help us with our spiritual formation. We all know how strong the influence of the world around us is. We’re bombarded with messages that undermine the reality and truth God has revealed to us.

Ben Beasley, one of the pastors at my church, was preaching about this a few weeks ago. I loved how he phrased this. He said, “Our spiritual formation must be stronger than our cultural formation.”

We can’t easily achieve that without connection to other believers.

In Dallas Willard’s book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, he talks about how the gifts God gives to the body of Christ are meant to be reciprocal in nature. They’re spread out among the members. Without fellowship, we wouldn’t get the full experience of God’s gifts for his church. We’d only experience a part of what he wants for us.

1 Peter 4:10 (NIV) says, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

Because our gifts are to be used for the common good, our responsibility is to be part of the body so we can both give and receive gifts. This is how we grow and develop in our spiritual formation, and help others do the same.

In fellowship, we also help to sustain each other. Willard says, “The members of the body must be in contact if they are to sustain and be sustained by each other. Christian redemption is not devised to be a solitary thing, though each individual, of course, has a unique and direct relationship with God.”

So in fellowship, we help each other cope, endure, and stand against the world that tries to tear us away from God. We help each other “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” like it says in Philippians 2:12.

3. The amplification of God’s presence and power happens within groups.

The third reason why fellowship is important is that there is an amplification of God’s presence and power found within the body of believers.

Dallas Willard says this in The Spirit of the Disciplines:

“Personalities united can contain more of God and sustain the force of his greater presence much better than scattered individuals. The fire of God kindles higher as the brands are heaped together and each is warmed by the other’s flame.”

Jesus makes a point to say in Matthew 18:19-20 (NIV):

Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Of course this doesn’t mean God only listens to prayers from groups, and it doesn’t mean that prayer asked for with impure motives will be granted. The point here is that Jesus does, throughout the whole surrounding passage, emphasize the power and responsibility of the body of believers.

Why is fellowship specifically important for writers?

We’ve talked a lot about why we as Christians need fellowship, but what about the specific reasons why fellowship is important to writers?

First, as writers, we’re a creative, artistic group, often introverted. Fellowship with other believers who aren’t writers, and who may have a more linear, logical bent helps to round out our perspective on life. The same is true of our relationships with people who are more extroverted. The gifts found in believers who aren’t writers are still necessary and vital to our spiritual and artistic formation.

Second, as writers we also need fellowship with other writers. We share common experiences other “normals” don’t have. We think about ways our characters can kill people, or the designs of storyworlds vastly different from our own. We have coffee with our characters because they’re like real people to us. Amongst other writers, we find support, understanding, acceptance, and encouragement for our unique bent and gifts in God’s overall design.

Practical ways to participate in fellowship

Fellowship is important, even vital. But how do we do it? What are some practical ways? Here are some ideas we’ve come up with, and let me say that while we’ll talk about the benefits for you in all these, please remember that what you bring—your gifts and service and participation—is equally vital to others in the opportunities.

Join a prayer group either in person or online where you not only are praying for each other but you get a chance to get to know others, hear their various perspectives and experiences, encourage and support them.

Attend church services to experience a larger group of believers in fellowship as you worship, take communion, pray, and learn from preaching.

Join a worship group, or a worship band. My husband and I moved to Kansas a few years ago, and eventually he started playing in the worship band at church, which has been a wonderful way for him to begin building relationships with people in the church.

Join a Bible study group, again either in person or online. It’s amazing what other people bring to the table in terms of their perspectives and insights. We can’t help but be enriched. And what we have to add matters, too!

Get involved in parachurch organizations like Fellowship of Christian Athletes, InterVaristy Christian Fellowship or The Navigators. When I was in college, my connection to InterVarsity is what led me to Christ and played a huge role in my spiritual formation as a young believer. It also gave me a place to serve, and to grow through my service.

Go on a mission trip. You can not only enjoy fellowship with others in your group, but you’ll also likely have the opportunity to develop cross-cultural relationships and expand your perspective. You’ll also be helping to meet the needs of others.

Participate in celebrations. These might be potlucks, banquets, parties, or all kinds of other possibilities. In our church, there’s a whole special service where they do baptisms. It’s a big day of testimony, encouragement, commitment, and celebration.

Go on a retreat. This might be a marriage retreat, family retreat, writers’ retreat, or a men’s or women’s retreat.

Join an accountability group of some sort. These might be things like Celebrate Recovery, or it might be just a group formed to hold each other accountable for some common spiritual goal. Maybe help with overcoming some specific sin, or maybe encouragement to engage in other spiritual disciplines.

Join a Christian writers’ group either locally or online. For example, check out WordWeavers or American Christian Fiction Writers. My friendships and connections in my local ACFW group have been an incredible blessing. Our group often got together for lunch before our monthly meetings, which was a great way to foster and nurture relationships.

Go to a Christian writing conference. There are always opportunities for fellowship and for engaging with others to begin developing relationships. Many have worship sessions, prayer teams, or group meals you can participate in.

Join (or start) a mastermind group with other Christians. For me, this is one of my favorite forms of fellowship. I’ve been part of a mastermind for quite a few years now. The women in my group are amazing. They all bring their own gifts, perspectives, specialties, knowledge, experiences. We pray for each other, we encourage each other, we help each other. They’ve been a huge blessing.

Invite others to a meal. Maybe you have one meal a week that’s dedicated to fellowship with others. Maybe it’s as simple as inviting folks over for dinner after church. Or meeting at a restaurant. Or hosting visiting missionaries or international students. Maybe you have a regular brunch group or a group from work that does lunch together.

Nurture friendships. We also don’t want to forget fellowship in the form of friendships with others, either one-on-one or friend groups. As Justin Whitmel Earley wrote in his book The Common Rule, we all desire, deep down, to be known. But we also fear it, so it’s not easy.

In true friendship we learn to be vulnerable. We learn to be people who still love each other when all our human messiness is out on the table. We learn to trust, and to be trustworthy, we learn to protect and to protect others. We hold each other accountable. We learn the value of authenticity and the freedom found in it. We tell truth, and we hear truth from others. This is all a vital part of the human experience and God’s design for us, and we need to dedicate ourselves to pursuing it.

Recently my neighborhood was grieving the loss of a man who committed suicide. Neither his friends nor his family had any idea he was in such a desperate state. That makes it twice the tragedy.

It’s important to be intentional in your friendships. Sure, doing fun activities together is great, but it’s also important for conversation to happen. You’ve probably seen people sitting together at a restaurant and everyone is engaged with their phone. That’s not an experience of knowing others and being known. You might even consider “conversation appointments” where you all know the goal is to talk. Maybe you chat at a park while kids are playing, or you meet for coffee, or whatever. The point is that you’re being intentional about conversation and getting to know each other.

Start now!

Whatever paths you take to engage in fellowship, the most important thing is that you DO it. That you intentionally take steps to make this happen in your life. God designed us for fellowship, for relationship with him and with others because he knows that this is how we work better. This is how we flourish even in the midst of a broken world. Our friends, our fellow believers, are anchors for us in the midst of the trials and storms. Don’t miss this spiritual discipline. It will make your life so much better!

Books mentioned in the podcast

The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard

The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard

The Common Rule by Justin Whitmel Earley

The Common Rule by Justin Whitmel Earley

(Just as a reminder, we use affiliate links for the books we mention. Using one of our links, if you choose to purchase a book, is a wonderful way to help us out, because we’ll get a small commission.)

Writing is a solitary occupation, and yet God created human beings with a need for fellowship. Don’t miss being blessed—and blessing others—through our God-designed need for relationships. #amwriting #christianwriter Share on X

WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!

What are your favorite ways to engage in fellowship?

THANK YOU!

Thank you to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

Special thanks to our May sponsor of the month, Priscilla Sharrow! She’s working on her memoir called Bonked! Life, Love, and Laughter with Traumatic Brain Injury, which will release with Redemption Press. Learn more about Priscilla at her website priscillasharrow.com and follow her blog for the TBI/PTSD community.

Many thanks also to the folks at PodcastPS for their fabulous sound editing!

STAY CONNECTED

Want the latest news from Karen and Erin? Click here to join our newsletter and get an exclusive audio download.

213 – Holiness and Grief with Guest Karen Stiller

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Holiness with Guest Karen Stiller Write from the Deep Podcast with Karen Ball and Erin Taylor YoungThe Bible tells us to be holy, and that without holiness we won’t see God. But what part does holiness play in the face of utter devastation? And how do we write through it? Guest Karen Stiller shares wisdom and encouragement from her difficult journey through grief and pain.

About Karen Stiller

Karen Stiller is an award-winning writer, a senior editor, and host of the Faith Today podcast. She’s written about being a pastor’s wife, and her newest book, Holiness Here, offers practical and inspiring ways to transform your life by helping you see the holiness within your ordinary, everyday life. You can find out more about her at Karenstiller.com. 

Thanks to our sponsors on Patreon, we’re able to offer an edited transcript of the podcast!

Erin: Welcome, listeners. We’re glad that you’re here in the deep with us. Today we’re continuing our conversation with Karen Stiller.

Now, Karen, you did mention grief. Let’s go there, because you had said before, when we were doing some emails, that you had to complete this book during a season of grief. First, how in the world did you do that? How did that affect you and the book? 

Karen Stiller: Yeah, I’ve been thinking so much about that because sometimes I think, over the last year and a bit, I think, I don’t know how I did it either, sometimes. And yet I do.

My husband had a kidney transplant, which should, for most people, be routine. You know, it changes your life, but it’s not a thing that will kill you. But that did happen with my husband.

My husband experienced a very severe and rare side effect of post-transplant lymphoma. He went into the hospital in the end of November, and he was dead by mid-January. He never came home again.

Karen Ball: Oh my gosh.

Karen Stiller: Yeah, it was very unexpected. The way he experienced lymphoma was on his brain, so it was a rocky path. As anybody who has loved anyone into heaven with brain cancer, it’s…well, I guess it’s probably different for lots of people…but it was hard. Very hard.

Karen Ball: Yeah.

Karen Stiller: I had written up till then. When I signed my book contract, I immediately set up a writing schedule. I signed in July, and I was going to do three chapters by the end of July, two by the end of August. One by the end of September, October, November, and December.

The book was due in January and I had built in time for revision. I felt really confident. I’m a big list person. I make lists and I make schedules, and that’s the way I get things done. I love a deadline.

When Brent went into the hospital, I think I was around chapter eight. I just obviously set the book aside. After he died, you know, actually there was a time where I thought, “I’m never gonna write again.”

I just couldn’t imagine…I couldn’t imagine a way forward in many things. But I also thought, “How will I ever find the desire or ability to write again?”

My agent knocked on my door at some point. The timelines are a bit off for me. It’s all a big blur in some ways, but she basically said, “If you can finish the book by a certain date, we can get back on the same timeline. Editing will be shortened. But there’s no pressure.”

My publisher was amazing and said they’d take the book whenever. They were, of course, wonderful during that season. They had sent a bouquet of flowers once, and I remember that theirs was the only one I carried upstairs to my bedroom. I think now that those flowers were like a symbol of hope for me. There is a little dot of light off in the distance if I can keep that alive.

I was off my day job as an editor and podcast stuff and all that for about three months. I just slowly picked up the book again and thought, “Can I?”

I dipped my toes in, and what I found was that writing a few mornings a week gave me a shape to the sort of endless days and weeks I was in.

It kind of woke me up a little bit, and it gave me a sense of purpose, which I had lost, and it changed the book. I would be interested to hear from listeners who maybe made, or would’ve made a different choice, or have thoughts on this, or have gone through this. But my husband was very much part of my writing, obviously in The Minister’s Wife, but again, in Holiness Here.

My husband was very much part of my formation as a follower of Christ. I’d quote him throughout the book, or I’d tell a little story about something that happened in our church that involved him.  All of a sudden he died, and I didn’t know how to handle that as a writer in terms of the actual material.

I talked to a few people and I had in my head—I don’t know if people have heard this writing advice—write from your scars, not your wounds.

Karen Ball: Right.

Karen Stiller: I thought, “Well, I’m bleeding. I am deeply wounded, but yet I can’t not write about this huge thing.”

I felt like it would not have been honest to finish those last chapters without telling some, without sketching out a little bit of what had happened. This has been a big knock for me. I’d love to say that I’ve just been a conqueror in Christ through this, but no. I am pulling apart what it means to trust God and realizing that maybe I did think some things that weren’t true.

I never would’ve thought that, because my husband was a very, “Why me, why not me?” kind of man. He had a very robust, sound theology of suffering, which I thought I believed, too.

Then when he died a very hard death, I just…I just couldn’t believe it.

Karen Ball: Right.

Karen Stiller: I felt like I couldn’t finish this book about holiness honestly without tackling that. I wrote a chapter called “Sorrow,” and I wrote it very carefully because I knew I was writing from my wound.

As a beginning writer who would get an assignment from an editor, I would often write the angle on a post-it note and stick it on my computer wall so that I would stick to my assignment. Now I had a post-it note in my mind where I was like, “Your assignment is holiness. Your assignment is not writing a book about grief. Your assignment is holiness. So where is the holy in this horrible mess?”

I kept my lens tightly in on that, and it was good for me. It was good for me to write that. I offered to show it to all my children. Only my eldest son accepted the invitation. I just wanted their blessing. He thought it was honoring to his dad and to what we had gone through, so that made me feel comfortable, and I trust the editors.

Karen Ball: Mm-Hmm.

Karen Stiller: Where would we be without people telling us hard and wonderful things, right?

Karen Ball: Right.

Karen Stiller: I submitted my work to the process. I also knew that it is a privilege to have a book contract. My husband would’ve kicked my butt if he knew I had let it float away and that I couldn’t finish it.

I knew last year when I was doing this work that this year I would be glad I had done it. There was a discipline there, actually, which we have to have as writers, right? We know that a working writer knows how to work, and that woke me up. That woke me up.

I also thought that if I was a chef, I would be cooking. If I was a painter, I’d be painting. If I was a baker, I’d be baking. I’m a writer, and I’m writing. 

Erin: Wow. Well that was a lot to have to deal with.

Karen Stiller: It was a long answer.

Erin: No, I mean it was a great answer but a lot for you to wade through in trying to deal with that. I think your process was amazing. Just the notion of using holiness as a lens, because writers go through all kinds of things in their lives as they’re trying to write something.

It isn’t always as awful and traumatic as losing a spouse, but if we were able to realize that there is something to be said for just the discipline and the lens and trying to turn this book in even though this, this, and this is happening, because our lives may always be this, this, and this.

It doesn’t mean that we’re not supposed to write, it just means we’re supposed to be learning how to work through that.

Karen Stiller: I think that’s so important.

Erin: I was curious if, after you had been through this experience, when you went back in revisions and in other places in the book, how did your experience through this grief and this theology of suffering, like how did that maybe change other things in the book?

Karen Stiller: Wow, that is a very perceptive question. I did a lot of work. I went back and in every sentence I asked myself, “Do I still believe this, and if I don’t, is this because I’m just in this terrible situation and I will come back to this and I will recover from this?”

I made a lot of phone calls. My husband being a pastor, we had a lot of pastor friends. I probably need to apologize to a bunch of people for all my questions like, “Hi, do you have twenty minutes to talk to me? Okay, tell me why my husband died. Tell me what heaven is like. Tell me what he’s doing right now. Like, what do you think? What do you think? What do you think?”

I did a lot of those kinds of conversations with people to try to sort through my stuff and my pain, and partly so that I could try to understand what was happening, and then have that help me look at the work and say, “Yeah, I can still say this. I can still stand here.”

I think we all have fences in our writing lives, probably, of things that we won’t do, or won’t write about. For me, again, married to a priest, that was very much part of my calling, too. I always had a very simple way kind of guardrail for my life as a pastor’s wife.

It was: Do no harm. Do no harm. I’ll not harm my husband’s work. I will not always say what I want to say. I will do no harm. That probably has seeped into my writing life, too. I would think like if I had just gone full-wound bleeding on the page, it wouldn’t have helped anyone. It certainly wouldn’t have helped the book.

I knew that I was on a journey of hopefully recovery and healing. You know, you always live with grief. I’ve been told that, and I see that that is true. So I just wanted to be really careful, and so I did interrogate the whole book again.

I did make some changes. There are some statements I changed into questions, but that’s the kind of writer I am anyway. I am not an answer giver. I’m a question asker and so I’m pretty comfortable with that. 

Erin: Yeah. What I love is—I know this seems awful—but this was also a gift in terms of how you had to go back and ask yourself those questions.

Karen Stiller: Yeah.

Erin: Not every believer faces that kind of a situation where they’re forced to go back and say, “Do I still believe this? In light of what’s happening in my life, do I still believe this? Do I still believe this?”

I think that is one good thing that came out of that and can come out for other people who are going through these kinds of issues.

Karen Stiller: Yeah. One really big thing I learned…I’d spoken with a spiritual director for writers a couple years ago, and she kind of set me up to think in this way because there was a time, like when I was writing the Minister’s Wife, if I had a little fight with my son in the morning, I’d think, “Oh, there goes my writing day.” Like,”I’m in a bad mood now. I can’t write.”

My spiritual director for writers, she had helped me dig into that a little bit and think about how that kind of compartmentalization cannot help us be writers. Everything does not have to be perfect for me to write. That set me up well for believing, and for the questions we were talking about in the last episode, “Anxiety, what do you have for me? Fear? What are you bringing to the table?”

I had to believe that my grief was then and is now, in there doing something that I will write out of, even if I don’t write about it. I think that’s important for writers.

Karen Ball: It’s a thread. Everything that we’re faced with, everything that we experience, is a thread in the tapestry that God is weaving of our lives. Every single thread adds an element that we may not understand, or see, or appreciate until we see the completed tapestry.

Then we can look at that and say, “Ah. Okay. That’s why that was there, because it needed to be there to compliment this, and to bring this out, and to enhance this, and to clarify things.”

I think when we face these difficult questions, ”Do I still believe this? Is God who he says he is? Is God’s goodness real?” And I’ve heard believers say, “I’m starting to doubt the goodness of God…” I listen to those things, and I think because I don’t have a theological mind, I have a simple mind, a simple faith of trust because I saw such a powerful example of that in both my parents. I was raised with the sure knowledge that God is who he says he is.

But when my husband and I were separated, and I had been emotionally abused and all of those kinds of things, I had to acknowledge that…I’d always thought that when I finally came face to face with God, I would run and leap up into his lap, like a child, just grab him and hug him. One very dark night, I was talking with him and I said, “I don’t think I know you well enough to jump into your lap, and I’m not sure that I trust you well enough to do that, because this was not the cruise I signed on for.”

I’m not at the end of it. Don and I still work through things. We’ve been married for either 45 or 46 years—I’m not a math head. But as I I look at it, I think to myself that I wouldn’t have known God to the depth and the certainty that I know him now, at sixty-six years old, had I not gone through all of that.

All of it, every single thread needed to be there for me to be able to say with absolute certainty that God is who he says he is, and God is good, and all things do work together for our good as followers, because it’s all about him.

It’s not about me. It’s all about him and how I can reflect him. When you’re talking about working toward holiness, that self-examination, that coming to understand ourselves in light of who he is, it’s vital.

Karen Stiller: Yeah. 

Erin: We’re coming to the end of our time here. Do you have any final words of wisdom you want to leave with our listeners?

Karen Stiller: I’m struck, from what you just shared, Karen, about the work of finding meaning and that we can find meaning without getting into causation. For example, I can believe that I will find meaning that will show up in my writing out of what we’ve gone through as a family, and that doesn’t mean that’s why it happened. You know what I mean?

Erin: Right. 

Karen Stiller: The two things do not have to equal, but we will not waste it.

When my husband was dying, and after he died, throughout that time I kept speaking with my children, who are young adults, because Brent could not communicate what he would’ve wanted to communicate. I knew him so well, I knew what he would’ve wanted said, and I said those things.

One of them was that we have to honor what has happened here, this terrible tragedy and pain, by not letting it go to waste. We have to make this mean something, and that hopefully makes us more beautiful people, and more empathetic, and all of those things, and aware of the suffering of the world, and aware that God is with us in that. He is with us.

That is a big faith thing to say.

Karen Ball: Yes.

Karen Stiller: Even that little thing, it sounds so little, but it’s really big. So I guess I would encourage writers, whatever you are going through…you know, we can be like hungry hounds for material, right? Well, you are your greatest material.

It doesn’t mean you have to write about yourself. Of course, we’re not all going to do that. But you can honor what is happening in your life by allowing it to become part of the garden of your writing. I think that’s a beautiful thing that artists do, whatever kind of artists we are.

Writers are artists and makers, which reflects something of God’s creative nature. Don’t build those walls inside yourself. Tear those walls down and see what grows there. I think that can be a beautiful thing. 

Karen Ball: I love the imagery that you mention of it becoming a part of the garden of our lives.

I live in the northern part of Washington state, and right now we’re seeing some blossoms in the garden, but it’s still pretty barren. During the winter with the cold and the snow, it’s easy to believe, to look at it and to think, and I confess, I thought it a few times, “It’ll never be beautiful again.”

A garden has to die in order to come to life. It’s the cycle that God has created. In our own lives, some things have to die before he can bring it to the full, bright, fragrant bloom that he intends for us to be in him. And that he intends us to see him in all that beauty and in all the growth that comes from the death.

Thank you so much for being with us, Karen. You have been a phenomenal blessing, and I pray that God will continue to guide and to touch and be present for you.  

Karen Stiller: Thank you Karen and Erin, and thank you on behalf of writers everywhere who listen to this show and the wonderful guests you bring on and the way you minister. And again, that idea what you said at the beginning that you’re chaplains to writers? Writers need chaplains, so I’m really thankful.

Karen Ball: Thank you.

Guest @karenstiller1 shares wisdom and encouragement from her difficult journey toward holiness through grief and pain. #amwriting #christianwriter Share on X

Holiness Here: Searching for God in the Ordinary Events of Everyday Life by Karen Stiller

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