Flash Fiction Friday: How I Write Flash Fiction

A looong time ago, a writer friend admiring a piece of flash fiction I had written somewhere on a blog (don’t you love how well I remember details?) suggested I write a blog post on how I go about writing flash stories.

My first reaction was, “Why, of course!” But then I thought better. Who am I to give instruction on writing flash fiction? Sure, I enjoy it, and some of my pieces aren’t bad. But it’s not like I’m a NYT bestselling writer, or have flash fiction published in literary journals and anthologies. I write stories for my blog, and for Janet Reid writing contests. My flash fiction had made it to the Finalist stage a few times in Janet’s contests, but my only win was for a poem. And that was years ago. If I ever won a Janet Reid writing contest with a piece of flash fiction, then maybe I’d feel as if I had enough credibility to write about my flash fiction writing process.

Guess what…! :)

Yes. This past weekend, Janet ran a contest. I entered. And I won. I didn’t expect to win. I never do. There are always astonishingly talented writers competing, so I feel good if I get an honorary mention. To be picked as a Finalist is like being one of Paul McCartney’s top ten bass players. Not that I am. Or ever would be. But I can imagine. Anyway, Ms. Shark picked my story as a Finalist, but since she couldn’t decide on a winner, she asked her readers to vote. And people actually voted for me! And… well… this happened.

SO, with all that said, here are some thoughts on writing flash fiction. I’ll use my entry in Janet’s contest as an example. The challenge was to write a piece of flash fiction using 100 words or fewer including the words oil, boom, mother, ice, and shower. As with all her contests, the words can be used alone, or intact as part of another word (e.g., nice or boomerang, but not icicle or broomstick). This was my entry:

JR_10252014_Contest

That’s the finished piece. But how did I get from five odd words to that?

The Rise and Fall of Mr. Tin Foil Hat

The first thing I do is brainstorm the words. What do they make me think of? What are some obvious lines of thought, and what are some not-so-obvious lines of thought? I tend to lean toward the unusual. “Oil” could be good ol’ black gold, or it could be some other kind of oil. Cooking oil, which might fit with “mother.” Or some kind of aromatic oil, suggesting a love scene. There are also plenty of words that use “oil”–coil, boil, toil, soil, foil. Lots of directions to go there. But what about “boom”? That was probably the hardest word of them all because it seems to have limited range. Then the term “baby boomer” sprung to mind. Suddenly a picture formed, so I opened Microsoft Word and started typing something along the lines of:

I got the call after midnight, but I was sure it was just some baby boomer in a foil hat calling from his mother’s basement. He swore the meteor shower was an alien invasion…

In the end the caller was going to be lying on a table in an alien spaceship about to be brainwashed to spy on Earth. Certainly an unusual idea, but it was getting hard to compress into 100 words, and, in the end, it just wasn’t working.

I hit Return a few times (in case I wanted to come back to our foil hat friend) and tried a different direction.

Shower. Mother. A baby shower? Oil could be baby oil. Quick Google search to make sure baby oil is a real thing and I’m not mis-remembering baby shampoo (it’s been 10 years since we had a baby). Sure enough, it is.

Google_BabyOil

But isn’t a baby shower a bit obvious? Not very original. Maybe…

Now, here’s where some old writerly advice kicked in. When writing, think of your target audience. Not so much to dictate what you write, but the tone. If you’re writing YA, think of your high school friends or your teenage kids. What do they talk about? How do they talk? What kinds of things matter to them? For Janet Reid writing contests, my audience is primarily Janet–she usually judges them, after all. I thought about the kinds of entries that had done well before. I know Janet loves original phrases, well-constructed sentences, humor, and something with emotional impact. Something she’ll still be thinking about when she’s reading the 80th entry.

I deleted Mr. Foil Hat. Maybe one of the other entrants could pull that one off in way that has literary appeal and, perhaps, humor. I couldn’t see how. But the baby shower was promising. The subject of motherhood has a lot of potential emotional power, especially when it takes a tragic turn. *Light Bulb Moment!*

The Final Story Takes Shape

I started writing. “She…” NO. No. No. No. Give the protagonist a name. If this story’s going to pack emotional punch, the protagonist has to have a name and not be a mere pronoun. There are billions of “she”s in the world, but not many of them are Jessicas. And I’m sure most people know a Jessica. That makes it personal. The name Jessica was somewhat random. I like the name, and it seemed to fit this grieving mother character.

I know how powerful that newborn smell is to reawaken memories of babies. I was at each of my six kid’s births, and cut the umbilical cord for most of them. I remember holding them, changing their diapers, and letting them suck my fingers. Open a bottle of baby oil and the memories flood in. That’s where my story should start. Jessica picks up the baby oil. A gift set–from her mother. Not only does that use the word “mother” (two down, three to go), but I can just imagine the excitement on Jessica’s Mom’s face as she writes that card. She’s going to be a grandmother. Her baby girl’s going to have a baby of her own. “From one mother to another.” It’s the kind of rhyming thing a parent would do, and I think it conveys that sense of excitement. And if five words can communicate that, for flash fiction, that’s wonderful.

“She flipped open the bottle…” No. Don’t like that. Too clumsy. I want to convey swift action without repeating “bottle” and without using “she” (she’s Jessica, remember?). “A flip of her thumb released the top…” Much better. Also “released” makes it sound as if the newborn scent and the memories it stirs have been trapped inside the bottle, waiting for Jessica to set them free, which is exactly what I’m trying to get across.

Jessica’s memories were not going to be of the baby because I already knew where the story was going. We miscarried our first child, but it happened only a month or so into the pregnancy. That was sad, but it wasn’t as hard as for some couples we know who have lost children much closer to full term. I can only imagine how devastating it is to see your baby on the ultrasound and feel it kick, then to lose that child. This is Jessica’s experience.

If you’ve ever heard a baby’s heartbeat via ultrasound, it does make a kind of booming noise (at least it did 10-20 years ago). That takes care of “boom.” I remember finishing the story wondering what to do with “ice.” I went through all the possible “ice” words I could think of: dice, lice, mice, nice, thrice… device! “Ultrasound device” doesn’t sound too convoluted. It works.

The ultrasound device gives Jessica a picture of the baby and the sound of the baby; she also feels the baby kick–three senses engaged. With a limited word count, this is about as much as I could do to tell the reader (Janet) that this was a real baby, and Jessica was soaking in the experience of being pregnant. The last three sentences of the paragraph get progressively shorter. This was deliberate. I wanted the reader to remember those last two words into the next paragraph.

When we pick up with the second paragraph, Jessica’s wiping her eyes from the memories. Now we get the full scene: the dining room table where all the baby shower (that’s all five words!) gifts are neatly arranged. Diapers, onesies…. what else? Google “baby shower gift.”

 Google_BabyShowerGifts

Car seat? Too many words. Rattle? Chew toys? Why not just “toys”? Keep it simple, especially when “diapers, onesies, toys” says all we need to say. Detail here is not important. The fact that they’re all carefully arranged on the dining room table is more significant. This is a shrine. We don’t know how long Jessica’s been grieving, but the shower was clearly a while ago. The centerpiece of the shrine consists of the booties. What better symbol to remember the kicks?

That last line was not what I originally wrote. I can’t remember what I put to begin with, but it didn’t feel right. The meter was wrong, and it was just… *bleh*! Then that line came to me: “A reminder of the day the kicking stopped.” I literally typed those words, threw my hands in the air and said, “WOAH!” They were absolutely right. Not only do they reference the booties, but the mention of “kicking” parallels “the kicks” at the end of the previous paragraph. And, most importantly, they deliver the emotional punch that had been building for the last 92 words. I checked the word count according to Word. 100 words on the nose. It may have been over by a few to begin with, but some careful editing took care of that.

So, that’s how I went about writing the story. I know this has been long, but I hope you found it helpful, or at least somewhat interesting.

PS: If you’re interested in reading some of my other stories, I’ve collected all the flash fiction I wrote for this year’s A-to-Z Blogging Challenge into a single pdf. You can get it here, or you can look in the blog archive on the right under April 2014 and find the individual stories. A couple of my favorites are Invisible, Query, and Viola.

Book Review: The Stolen Moon by Rachel Searles

After the events detailed in THE LOST PLANET, Chase Garrity and his friend Parker are now living on the starship Kuyddestor. He has been reunited with his younger sister, but she’s not proving easy to get along with. Which is doubly frustrating for Chase since he is suffering from severe amnesia, and remembers nothing of his life prior to the events of the previous book. His sister, on the other hand, remembers their parents, family outings, birthdays, and all the things Chase wishes he could recall. But their time on the starship is about to get even more interesting as the captain has been called upon to moderate a territory dispute between two rival planets. What seems like a fairly straight-forward mission goes dreadfully awry. Things are not as they seem, and it soon becomes apparent to Chase and his friends that not everyone can be trusted. Our heroes find themselves on strange planets with stranger inhabitants, confronted with vicious creatures, and working against the odds to save the lives of those they care about.

I’ll start by saying if you enjoyed THE LOST PLANET, you’ll enjoy this sequel. It’s another pacy, action-packed Middle Grade story that hits all the right notes for that age group. As an adult I enjoyed it, so I’m confident that my 11-year-old self would have eaten this up. One thing in particular Rachel does well is to leave each chapter with a cliff-hanger. They’re not always edge-of-the-seat, but she manages to draw you into the story and keep you turning pages.

You don’t normally expect a lot of heavy concepts in Middle Grade, especially with adventure stories such as this, but Rachel shows respect for her young audience by not shying away from issues of identity and trust, and even going into some of the political and tactical intrigues at play. Chase’s issues with his little sister, the squabbles, the pouting, and the underlying concern for one another resonate, I’m sure, with everyone who has grown up with a younger sibling. There’s even some jealousy as a new girl enters their circle of friends and seems to hit it off with Parker, much to Chase’s chagrin. With a Middle Grade novel, clearly the kids take center stage, but Rachel’s adult characters are not just Mary Sues, fulfilling expected stereotypes. They are real characters with attitudes and stories of their own, some Chase gets along with, and others not so much.

Oh, and the cover is awesome. It’s by Jason Chan who did the cover for the first book, and I love his style–especially fitting for this series.

To sum up: a great Middle Grade read. Very family-friendly. Full of thoughtful dialog, action, and conflict. I highly recommend it. I read an Advance Reader Copy of the book; it’s due for publication in January 2015. That gives you time to read the first one if you haven’t already.

I’m sorry if this review isn’t too detailed. It’s always hard reviewing a second or third book in a series without giving away spoilers to those who haven’t read the first. Hopefully I’ve at least given you a good idea of what to expect.

Who Review: In the Forest of the Night

DoctorWho_InTheForestOfTheNight_smLondon has been taken over by a forest overnight. In the confusion, young Coal Hill student Maebh Arden has stumbled upon the TARDIS and asks the Doctor to help. Meanwhile, Danny and Clara have taken a class of students for an overnight stay at London’s Natural History Museum, so they are as surprised as everyone else to find the city turned into a jungle. They meet up with the Doctor at Trafalgar Square–or what they can find of it–where the TARDIS is parked, only to narrowly escape Nelson’s Column as it topples over from the growing foliage. But that’s not the least of their worries. Animals have escaped from London Zoo and are hiding amidst the trees. And it seems Maebh knows more about this than even she realizes. What are the voices she keeps hearing? And how is it she was able to predict the coming solar flare? Is the earth fighting back against the humans? With the Doctor running out of ideas, it seems the trees have won…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

Remember this now, do you? I can quite understand if, after the “Next Week” preview, you’ve quite forgotten what this episode was about. More of that later…

Another interesting concept–a major metropolitan city becomes a forest. Trees everywhere. And then the whole world becomes forest land. As you might imagine, my main disappointment with the episode was… a non-baddie! Now, I admit, this was a nice idea–the trees are our friends, protecting us from the sun. It even has some scientific foundation, which is always a plus with Doctor Who (*ahem* Kill the Moon *ahem*). However, as you know, I find these benign threats tend to suck the potential drama out of the story. After a good juicy bad guy last week, this was a bit of a let-down. But not too much.

The CGI and effects overall were great. If you saw the related episode of Doctor Who Extra (it’s on YouTube), you’ll know they used a forest near Newport, Wales for the forest scenes, planting replicas of phone boxes, Underground signs, traffic lights, etc. in strategic locations. Very cleverly done, and, I thought, quite convincing. As usual Capaldi and Coleman gave great performances, as did Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink. Whatever the failings of this season, you can’t fault the acting. Everyone from the lead stars to the child actors has brought their A-game, which really helps lift even the dodgiest episode.

The fact that this episode featured children quite heavily made this more of a children’s episode than a broadly “family” episode. This is a story I could expect from The Sarah Jane Adventures. That’s not necessarily a criticism (I enjoyed The Sarah Jane Adventures… *sniff*), but it does make it stand out from the other stories this season–especially the previous two (“Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Flatline”) which have been particularly dark and scary. The kids were superb (special shout-out to red-headed Ruby, played by Harley Bird, and Abigail Eames who played Maebh), but they rather dominated the episode. If I was still a kid, maybe I’d have appreciated that more.

With ten episodes of season eight behind us, we are left with two to go: the two-part season finale. And what a finale it looks to be! What’s up with Clara? “Clara Oswald has never existed!”?? Clara telling the Doctor he’ll never step inside the TARDIS again?? Perhaps I’ve been suspicious of Danny for too long and I’ve missed something with the Impossible Girl? Then we have Missy’s “that was a surprise” comment at the end of the episode. And, of course, Cybermen! What have they got to do with all this? Are you looking at me for answers? I’ve seen some of the theories (and there will be many more before Saturday), some suggesting Clara’s a TARDIS, or she’s an cyborg, or she’s one of the fragments of Clara that scattered throughout the Doctor’s time line in Name of the Doctor… and frankly, I’m suspicious of them all. Too complicated. Too convoluted. Perhaps Clara’s comment was taken out of context to get everyone to watch the episode. As if we wouldn’t anyway! Seriously, though, I’m still holding out for Danny being not all he appears. I’m not convinced there’s more to Clara than we already know (my goodness, how much more CAN she be after last season?!)… but let’s not put anything past Steven Moffat. I’m still trying to figure out Season 6!

So, share your thoughts! Did you like In the Forest of the Night? Any speculations you’d like to share about the finale? Remember–document it here, and if you’re right you have bragging rights for life!

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 3:10-11

10 For you kept the word of my steadfastness, and I myself will keep you from the hour of testing that is about to come upon the whole world to test those dwelling upon the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Keep what you have so that no-one may take your crown.

I expected to finish up the letter to the Philadelphians this week, but our discussion of verses 10 and 11 kept us going to the end of the class time. Perhaps we’ll finish up next week, and maybe even move on to the next letter. We’ll see…

We started with a recap of verses 7-9, with some discussion around the meaning of “you have a little power” (v. 8), the “synagogue of Satan” (v. 9), and the fact that the letter is addressed to the “angel of the church,” not directly to the church. These are all topics we’ve touched on previously, and it was good to refresh ourselves and consider them again in light of what we’ve seen in Revelation so far. Especially with regard to the “angel,” in light of the trials and persecution the church has been suffering (and should expect to suffer), remembering the fact that, as noted in Revelation 1:20, the Lord hold the angels of the churches in his right hand should be a source of comfort. This is symbolic of the Lord’s sovereign rule over his church, and nothing happens to the churches apart from his will and his decree. Whether we understand these angels to be actual angels standing in the presence of God, or to be symbolic of the elder body of each of the churches, either way, this verse reminds us that we are subject to the Lord of the church, and under his rule and care.

As noted before, this letter is unusual in that it is one of only two that has only words of commendation and encouragement for the church–there is no “this I have against you.” Only Philadelphia and Smyrna have this honor; all the other churches have some issue of sin they need to deal with. It’s also interesting structurally that these letters stand as the second (Smyrna) and second-to-last (Philadelphia) in order.

Jesus commends the Philadelphians for having kept “the word of my steadfastness.” In other words, they have kept the gospel, the message concerning Christ’s endurance and steadfastness in the midst of all he went through for our sake. And it’s Jesus’ steadfastness and endurance they proclaim, not their own. These Christians have been through a lot, but they keep their eyes on Christ, not being willing to compromise with the world to get relief and maybe even some respect.

The Lord then promises to “keep” them “from the hour of testing that is about to come upon the whole world to test those dwelling upon the earth.” This drew a lot of discussion, especially since it is often used to support the idea that the Lord will rapture, or snatch up, the church before an end-times period known as The Tribulation. There are a lot of people in the church that hold to there being a future Great Tribulation from which the church will be spared, and during which the Jews and other unbelievers will be saved. But is that really what this passage is teaching? A few points to consider:

  1. Some of the Smyrnans were imprisoned and the Lord told them to expect death. He didn’t promise them physical protection from tribulation. Indeed, he promised them tribulation, and that they should be prepared to give their lives. From what we’ve read so far in Revelation, the emphasis seems to be on the transitory nature of this life, and the significance of holding on to one’s faith despite the circumstance. The promises we’ve read in the “those who overcome” sections of the letters all seem to point to a heavenly reward, not an earthy one. From this I would conclude that spiritual protection from the sin of compromise while enduring persecution is far more important to Christ than protection from persecution itself.
  2. The same Greek phrase translated here as “keep from” is used in John 17:15, clearly with reference to spiritual protection.
  3. In context, this promise is directed to the church in Philadelphia, so even if it is a promise of physical protection, there’s no warrant for assuming it applies to the whole church.

Was this “hour of testing” something future, or within John’s lifetime? Revelation 14:7 and 15 speak of an “hour” when final judgment will fall, but Jesus also used “hour” to refer to a designated time that is not yet “at hand” or is currently happening (John 2:4; John 12:27). So I think we can understand “hour” to be a fairly generic time period during which something will happen. In this case, a “trial,” or “testing” that will occur “upon the whole world.”

The phrase “whole world” (in Greek, oikoumenê holê) is used on two other occasions in Revelation in the context of an end-times scenario, clearly indicating that it means all the inhabited earth. However, it is also used elsewhere in the New Testament with a much more limited scope. For example, in Luke 2:1, it is used with regard to the census, intending, of course, the Roman Empire–those countries not part of the Empire wouldn’t be included in “the whole world” that participated. Also, in Acts 11:28, Agabus predicts a famine upon “the whole world” that was fulfilled, according to Luke, in the time of Claudius. Certainly it was a widespread famine, but contained within the Roman Empire. We must also remember to keep a first-century perspective: John’s audience would not know about the Americas, Antarctica, or Australasia. The view they had of the “whole world” was limited to the world they knew. This is where the qualifying statement at the end of verse 10 is important: “those dwelling upon the earth”–i.e., all people residing on this earth, whether they know of them or not. To me, that sets the scope of the phrase: worldwide, not just a localized tribulation.

I would also favor the idea that this refers to an End-Times tribulation, primarily for two reasons:

  1. Whenever we interpret a word or phrase, the first place we should look in terms of usage is how the word is used in the same document. If that doesn’t help, then we should look at how the word or phrase is used elsewhere in the New Testament, and then beyond the New Testament to other contemporary literature. While the use of the phrase “the whole world” in localized contexts by Luke is interesting, the fact that the other occurrences of the word in Revelation are in End-Times scenarios is more significant. There is a time coming when tribulation will fall upon the whole world, everyone dwelling upon the earth.
  2. The message of these seven letters is one of endurance to the end, expecting a final vindication at that time. We have seen tribulation come upon both the church and the world during the last 2,000 years, and we will continue to see tribulation on the church and the world until Christ returns. Indeed, we might even expect this to intensity as the time draws closer. Whatever that tribulation will look like, the Lord will protect the faith of His people, and in the end they will be vindicated. So, the church in Philadelphia may be going through a tough time, and Jesus promises tougher times will come, but this is not only for Philadelphia, but the whole world and everyone upon it. Through all this, the Great Shepherd of the church will lose not one of his sheep.

Jesus tells them he’s coming “soon” or “quickly” (Greek: tachu). How soon? How quickly? Some have suggested this points to a pre-parousia coming of Christ to the Philadelphian church (i.e., a separate, “special” coming prior to the Second Coming). I don’t think this is likely since Christ only promised one return, and then that’s it–judgment. Further, he exhorts endurance to the end, not simply “for now.” In other words, as with the Smyrnans, he expected that believers will die either by the sword or naturally during this period. His promise is that history is working toward a crisis, and the end is closer now than it was when Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel laid the prophetic foundations of Revelation. Two thousand years may seem a long time to us, but it’s a few moments in the Lord’s perspective. His point is that the church shouldn’t despair; his return is coming sooner than they think or expect. They (and we) should be both encouraged, watchful, and ready.

“Hold on to what you have” further underscores the point that they should be prepared to endure for as long as necessary–even to the end of their lives. They mustn’t let anyone “take” their “crown.” Don’t cave in to the pressure of society, of the unbelievers trying to get you to compromise for the sake of an easy life and a place at the cultural table. They want to “take your crown”–don’t let them! The crown (Greek: stephanos) was the victor’s prize in ancient athletic games. If a winning athlete was then disqualified, his crown would be taken away. By compromising with the world and denying Christ and the gospel, they would be “disqualifying” themselves from eternal life. Paul uses the same imagery in 1 Corinthians 9:27, speaking of how worldly athletes train and exercise self-control to gain a perishable crown, or wreath. The Christian, however, trains and exercises self-control so that his crown won’t be removed. Of course, this is a hypothetical situation, since the Lord who redeemed us, and in whose hand is our salvation, will never let us go. The interesting point to note is the fact that both Jesus and Paul assume the believer already has the victor’s crown. How else could it possibly be removed? In other words, we don’t train in order to gain the imperishable crown; we have it already.

Next time we will finish the letter to the Philadelphians, and maybe start the letter to the Laodiceans.

Lizard Watch

It’s a long, tiring job, but someone’s got to do it…

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Who Review: Flatline

DoctorWho_Flatline_smThe TARDIS goes a little off-course while taking Clara home after an adventure, landing in Bristol. Soon after landing, Clara notices the TARDIS door has shrunk. They go outside only to find that the entire TARDIS exterior has become smaller. The Doctor goes back inside to find out what’s tampering with the TARDIS dimensions, and sends Clara to scout around for clues in the area. She returns to find the TARDIS has shrunk even more. Stuck inside the miniature ship that’s slowly losing power, the Doctor gives Clara his sonic screwdriver and psychic paper, trusting her to be his eyes and ears as they investigate the source of the problem. It seems it’s not just the TARDIS that’s having dimensional issues. Something is traveling through the walls, sucking the third dimension from anyone or anything that gets too close. Can Clara help the Doctor stop these creatures, “The Boneless,” and their experiments on three-dimensional people, before they take over the whole of Bristol, England, the world…?

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

This season is really coming up with the goods as far as top-notch scripts and dark, atmospheric story-telling goes. The idea behind “The Boneless,” 2-dimensional entities that flatten and experiment on 3-dimensional entities, is unique at least to Doctor Who, if not to sci-fi. And while we’ve had a shrunken TARDIS before (see “Logopolis”), we’ve not seen it small enough to be carried in a handbag (with the exception of “Planet of Giants” perhaps). Not only did this help to amplify the frustration, but it gave Clara an opportunity to take the lead and appreciate what it means to be the Doctor, making the impossible decisions, and trying to hold out hope when all seems hopeless.

It was interesting to see Clara put into the Doctor’s shoes and finding herself behaving just like the Doctor, trying to stop herself asking “what would the Doctor do?” but ending up saying and doing exactly what he would. And at the end, the Doctor bemoans the fact that one of the human survivors is not a particularly nice person. His view that this person didn’t deserve to make it out alive was, I thought, very harsh, but not inconsistent with Capaldi’s Doctor. When he tells Clara that “goodness” had nothing to do with her performance as the Doctor, I can understand what he meant. This, of course, continues one of the season’s themes: “Am I a good man?”

I’m not sure there’s anything I can really complain about this week. The story was good, the acting was excellent (as always–from Capaldi down to the supporting cast), Clara didn’t go rushing off home, it didn’t dive into highly controversial issues, the CGI was well done… and The Boneless were actually bad! If it wasn’t for the fact that this season of Doctor Who was written and filmed months ago, I might begin to suspect that Steven Moffat is reading my blog. At last! An evil monster, who is truly up to no good, and isn’t just misunderstood. The Doctor tried to reason with them but to no avail; he had to blast them back to their own dimension and hope some survived.

The Doctor-Clara-Danny situation gets more interesting as Clara lies to Danny about where she is, and the Doctor knows that Clara lied to both Danny and the Doctor so she could keep traveling in the TARDIS. With only three episodes to go, things are going to come to a head soon, and I expect we’ll see Danny for who he really is… or not, if I’m wrong about him. And then we have the “Promised Land” mystery, and Missy saying that she did a good job choosing Clara. What’s that about? And did you notice that when the TARDIS is in “siege mode” it looks like the Pandorica from Season 5? Do you suppose there’s any significance to that?

Talk to me fellow Whovians! What did you think of “Flatline”? Any thoughts on Danny, Missy, or the Pandorica TARDIS?

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 3:7-9

7 And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: “Thus saith the Holy One, the True One, the One who has the key of David, the One opening and no-one will close, and closing and no-one opens. 8 I know your works (behold I have placed before you an opened door that no-one is able to close) that you have little power yet you kept my word and you did not deny my name. 9 Behold I will give some of the synagogue of Satan–of those calling themselves to be Jews, but they are not, but they are lying–behold I will make them so that they will come and they will bow down before your feet and know that I myself have loved you.

This week we started looking at the Lord’s letter to the church in Philadelphia. Once again, time flew by and we only got through the first three verses, so rather than rush to the end, we’re splitting this study over two sessions. As with the other churches, the church in Philadelphia is undergoing persecution of some kind. While not explicitly stated, I think it’s fair to assume they are feeling the pressure of the pagan culture in which they live–there were few “Christian-friendly” places in the Roman Empire at this time. Also, the mention of a “synagogue of Satan” points to attacks from the Jewish community in the area. As with the church in Smyrna, they were probably experiencing hostility from the local synagogue, perhaps even to the point of being “ratted out” to the local authorities. In light of all this, Jesus writes them a letter of encouragement.

The ancient city of Philadelphia was about 28 miles south-east of Sardis, and about 60 miles east of Smyrna. The area around the city was very fertile with rich volcanic soil that was a cornerstone of their economy. However, the city had also experienced a number of earthquakes, some devastating. One in particular, in 17 AD, had flattened Philadelphia along with twelve other cities.

In verse 7, Jesus presents himself to the church as “the Holy One, the True One.” Back in 1:5 John described Jesus as the “faithful witness”–the one who faithfully represented and testified of the Father. Jesus was true to his calling, and true in all he said and did with regard to God. And, especially in contrast to the “false Jews” of verse 9, Jesus is the “real deal”–he’s genuine, and can be taken at his word. And he is, of course, holy, not only in the sense that he was set apart by God the Father for a specific role in salvation history, but also in the sense that he is unlike the rest of humanity. He is the God-man, perfect and sinless in all his thoughts, words, and actions. To this struggling group of believers who were trying to please the Lord with their witness and conduct within a hostile environment, I think it would encourage them to see Jesus, one who was also persecuted, as their example of holiness and fidelity. Despite all Jesus endured, he remained holy and true; the Philadelphians can draw strength from this as they strive to persevere.

Interestingly, the phrase “holy and true” crops up again in Revelation 6:10 where the saints cry out to God, referring to Him as “the Holy and True.” It’s a phrase Isaiah also uses of God, so it certainly has divine connotations. The fact that Jesus would use this same phrase of himself puts the lie to the claim often made that Jesus never said he was God.

Jesus also says that he has the “key of David.” In 1:18 he said that he has the “keys of death and Hades,” which pointed to his sovereignty not only over when someone dies, but what happens to them after death (another indication of Jesus’ exalted status–no mere prophet would claim such power). It would comfort the persecuted believer to know that the one in whom he has placed his trust, and even his life, is indeed the one who has the ultimate say in such matters. But this is a singular “key” and it is ascribed to David. While it’s a different key, the meaning is connected. In Isaiah 22:15-25, we read of God’s appointment of Eliakim as steward of the household, and one who would hold the key of David. In that capacity, he would be responsible for who enters the sanctuary, and would have charge of the general administration of the kingdom of Judah. Christ is, of course, more than a steward–he is the fulfillment of David, and his kingdom is the fulfillment of kingdom of Judah (i.e., as Judah consisted of God’s faithful, so the church consists of those who are truly the Lord’s). The key of David Jesus holds does not, therefore, grant admission to an earthly sanctuary nor does it signify administration of an earthly kingdom. Rather it grants admission to the presence of God in eternity. So this is yet another affirmation of Christ’s sovereign control over life, death, and the destiny of every soul. Perhaps the Philadelphian Jews were telling the Christians they have no claim upon heaven because they are following Christ, and in response Jesus tells the Philadelphian church that such things are within his power to determine. Since it is only in Christ one can be received into God’s presence, then those who are faithful to him have nothing to worry about. And if Jesus has opened the door to receive the Philadelphian Christians, no-one can close that door on them. Conversely, if Jesus has closed the door on the “synagogue of Satan,” then no-one can open the door for them.

We then come to the point in the letter where Jesus usually lists the faults of the church. However, as with the church in Smyrna, Jesus has nothing against them. Indeed, of all seven churches these two churches stand out as ones that seem to be doing right. We should note, however, that this doesn’t exempt them from suffering and persecution. There is an interesting parenthetical comment in verse 8–at least I put it in parentheses since that seems to me the best way to make sense of the Greek; other translations may differ. Jesus wants the church to know right up front that he has put before them an “open door.” From what he just said in the previous verse, I would take this to mean that they can be secure in their salvation, despite the fact that they have “little power.” They might be a small church, and/or a church with very limited resources and influence. Perhaps they feel beaten down, weak, and helpless against the culture in which they live. Nevertheless, their faithfulness to Christ’s word and his name have demonstrated that they are truly his people. Just as Jesus was a faithful witness, so these Christians are maintaining a faithful witness of Christ despite the cost.

Their witness will not be in vain: the Lord will cause some of the “synagogue of Satan” to bow down to the Christians and recognize who they are before God. I take this as a long way around saying that they will be saved. This is the power of a faithful church, even when it’s weak in human terms. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say he’ll persuade some of these Jews to come to the Philadelphia church, nor will he entice them, or give them a choice hoping they’ll do the right thing. He says he will make them; divine will shall overcome the sinful desires of these “false Jews.” Their hard hearts will be softened by the Spirit of God, and they will recognize the love of God in these helpless believers. The verb translated “bow down” here (Greek proskuneô) is often used in terms of worship, but not always. The context here demands the sense of humility, submission, and giving honor: a recognition that the love of God is upon the Philadelphian Christians.

There is a parallel with verse 9 in Isaiah 60:10-14, except in Isaiah the Lord is speaking to Israel. The irony is that in Isaiah, the nations will bow down to Israel, and here, people from the synagogue take the place of “the nations” bowing down to the true Israel, the church. We’ll see Isaiah 60:11 referenced again in Revelation 21:25-26 where the nations enter into the new Jerusalem, further underscoring this point.

We’ll pick up at verse 10 next time…

Sam and the Lizard

From spring through fall we tend to see a lot of lizards round our neck of the woods. They enjoy climbing up the outside of the doors, and some even make it inside the house, providing a great source of entertainment for the cats. And for the humans too, especially since the cats don’t seem to understand that as long as the lizard stays outside on the screen in front of the door, there’s no way on God’s green earth they will ever catch it. Case in point:

SamLizard_1_smSam sees the lizard. He sits waiting, tail swatting the air, heart thumping, ready to pounce… timing his moment… waiting… waiting… waiting…

SamLizard_2_sm

Crap he got away!

What’s Missing from This Blog…?

Pictures of cats, of course! It seems everyone posts cat pictures at some point in the life of their blog–some at many points. I don’t think I’ve posted one in the three years this blog’s been active.

And then, the other day, my youngest children gave Sam, the newest feline addition to our household, a bath. He’s just a kitten so this was either going to be a cool novelty, or the stuff of nightmares. What do you think: cats and water?

SamBathed_sm

Is that Sam’s opinion of the bath, his opinion of me taking a picture of him with his ginger fur all mussed up, or both?

Your guess and appropriate captions welcome!

Who Review: Mummy on the Orient Express

DoctorWho_MummyOnTheOrientExpressIt seems Clara has calmed down since the end of the last episode and has told the Doctor she’s done traveling with him. But she doesn’t want to end their time together on a sour note, so she agrees to “one last hurrah.” For her final TARDIS journey, the Doctor takes Clara for a trip on the Orient Express–not the original, but an exact replica that flies passengers through space. Clara’s hopes for a peaceful ride are dashed when people start dropping dead. There’s talk of an ancient superstition: a mummy who can only be seen by the person he’s about to kill, and once they see him, they only have sixty-six seconds to live. The Doctor’s interest is piqued, and then made mandatory by the train-ship’s computer, Gus. He has assembled the best minds around to work out how to capture this creature, and they need to hurry up before it kills them all…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

Despite some minor quibbles, this was another excellent Who episode. The BBC always does a great job with period drama, so recreating the 1920s vibe was a no-brainer that they pulled off with style. There’s so much in this episode to call out for praise: the performances by all the main characters (Frank Skinner is relatively unknown here the US–okay, I’ve been here over 20 years and I’d never heard of him–but he was a great side-kick to the Doctor), the design of the train-ship, showing the 66-second count-down on screen to amp-up the drama, and the mummy himself, which was another triumph of design and execution. I loved that the Doctor used the period cigarette case to hold jelly babies. And I really hoped someone (preferably the Doctor) would say “are you my mummy?”–and I wasn’t disappointed. That’s the third time the line’s been used (see “The Empty Child” and “The Poison Sky” for the previous two), and it never gets old!

While I’ve liked Capaldi’s tougher-gruffer Doctor, I was beginning to wonder if maybe it was going too far. The First Doctor was a crotchety old man, but he had a heart and he wasn’t above showing how much he really cared for his companions. In this episode, the Doctor seemed to show his compassion in taking a risk that could have cost him his life at the expense of someone else. We need to see that even from this dark Doctor, just to remind us that the other Doctors are all in there too.

The minor quibbles? First, yet again, we have a monster that’s not really a monster–he’s just an ancient soldier trapped into thinking he’s still fighting a war, waiting for the enemy to declare surrender. When the Doctor figures this out, he cries “I surrender” at the last minute, and the mummy salutes and dies. All very nice and heart-warming, but a bit anticlimactic. This “misunderstood bad-guy” theme seems to be popular this season, and it’s all a bit too postmodern for my taste. Even the Dalek in the second story was a “good” Dalek! Maybe it’s a symptom of the culture, but what happened to the classic “good vs. evil” confrontations? I’m reminded of the Second Doctor’s speech in “The Moonbase”: ” There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.” I think we’re losing sight of that with these stories. Right now, the Twelfth Doctor would say: ” There are some corners of the universe which contain beings that have very different values than us. Beings which appear to act against our preconceptions of what’s right and wrong. They must be understood.” That might go down well in certain parts of modern society, but, frankly, it doesn’t make for consistently good drama.

Other quibbles? Clara’s domestics, and the part-time TARDIS traveling… still happening… say no more…

So what’s up with Danny and Clara now? That call at the end was an interesting development. Danny was checking in to make sure Clara was okay and “that was it.” She gets off the phone and tells the Doctor Danny’s okay with them traveling together, and she doesn’t really want to end her time with him. So, after lying to Danny about the Doctor, she finally told him the truth, and, last week, kept her word by telling Danny when the Doctor pushed her too far. Now, she has lied to Danny about being done with the Doctor, and lied to the Doctor that Danny’s okay with things. Further, since when was her traveling with the Doctor up to Danny? It was Clara who wanted to call it quits, so why does she say it’s okay to carry on because Danny said so? As I’ve said before, I think something’s up with Danny–he’s not all that he appears to be. He’s been passive-aggressively trying to drive a wedge between Clara and the Doctor. Maybe Clara’s becoming wise to that and is choosing sides? And the Doctor seems blissfully ignorant of this whole situation, but is he really?

Your turn! What did you love and/or hate about this episode? Were you heart-warmed or disappointed by the resolution? Do you want more evil baddies or are you happy with the misunderstood foes? And what do you think’s going on with Danny? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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