The magic of mystery

On weaving words

For any preacher to write about mystery is a dangerous thing – since the real mystery with many sermons is why people bother listening to them at all. Linguistically slim, conceptually flat and tonally monochrome – they do little to engage or inspire. I know, because sometimes I have preached them.

At this point, enter Eugene Lowry with his potent little book The Homiletical Plot. Originally written over 30 years ago (and since re-issued) , this slender volume still has an impact, and I continue to promote it whenever I can. Lowry’s plea to preachers was to take a leaf out of the book of those who write stories for a living – playwrights, screen-writers and novelists. He urged his readers to note how those people keep their audience on the edge of their seats. Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat – so there is more than one way to tell a story. The writers of the best stories forebear to deliver everything at the start, but rather they pay out their material, like a rope to a drowning man , over the length of their story. Writers like Amanda Jennings, whose latest book I reviewed on here recently, are past masters at this.

When I published Jonah: poet in extremis, in 2013, it was intended to draw people back to an old story that they might appreciate its true worth. Jonah is not a cutesy story for children – it is a scary story for adults. Whales and storms not withstanding, it is the story of every person whose big moment has come along and they have run from it rather than embracing it.

Knowing my love of the story, somebody bought me a gift back from America this week. As you can see – it is a beautifully crafted hardwood whale:


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Look a little more carefully, and you will see that it is in fact a puzzle. Like the best of stories, it is intricately put together – each piece lovingly crafted to sit alongside its neighbours so that the whole thing fits together. Skilful novelists will know what this is all about:


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Here’s the best bit, though. As with the novel I mentioned above, there is a twist in the tale. To be precise, it is a twist in the belly. Hidden in amongst those pieces, invisible to the naked eye when the whole thing is put together, is a teeny-weeny Jonah, just waiting to be found.


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You will see that he has a smile on his face – but then again why wouldn’t he? Of course, for all we know,  the smile may not be there when he is hidden inside the puzzle. That is like the tree falling soundlessly in the forest, which is another story…

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