Jenny, how long have you been writing and how did you get started?
I grew up in a house brimming with books and have always been an avid reader – very important for anyone who writes! My imagination was always busy with ideas, daydreams and make-believe scenarios. I’ve been writing stories since I was a little girl; some in my head and some on paper. I remember winning a school radio poetry competition when I was eleven and I wrote a story published in the Girl Covenanter magazine about a year later. School was full of essays of course, but English language and literature have always been the arenas where I excelled (Latin and Maths, not so much…!).
I’ve written various creative drama pieces for churches and, while I was Mum-ing at home with my four children, I wrote a monthly column in our local newspaper for twelve years, and then a discipleship book based on Isaiah 49:2. This was followed by a children’s fiction novel (which is still in a drawer), and once the children had grown and flown, we started to spend more time in South Africa. I knew this was to be a season of focused writing for me and embarked on a six-week devotional which subsequently became a set of four (The Sea, The City, The Countryside, and The Mountains), which I had printed and have sold as I’ve gone along. Spiritual Feasting came after these when I knew it was time for something meatier.
Spiritual Feasting challenges us to press in to discover life to the full with Christ even in the midst of difficulties – what do you think are the main reasons this can be so hard to do?
It seems we may have forgotten that Jesus Himself said, ‘In this world you will have trouble’ (John 16:33). Our usual response is either, ‘Please God, make it stop’ –whatever ‘it’ is – or simply, ‘Get me out of here!’ Fortunately Jesus also said, ‘But take heart! I have overcome the world.’
Some of us have unrealistic expectations of what we feel life should deliver. A Biblical and godly understanding is that the world is a fallen mess; anything we come across that isn’t in that category, we can thank God for and be grateful for His many mercies and lavish blessings. One day that will be different; but not yet.
I think most of us tend to initially react to our circumstances emotionally, but if we stay there then we can end up being fair-weather followers of Jesus, or may even walk away completely; that’s tragic. Part of becoming mature, warrior believers involves engaging with life in the nitty gritty and seizing the opportunities to lean into God’s truth and enjoy relationship with Him in its fullness. This gives our faith depth and authenticity, as well as credibility, which is important if we’re to truly be salt and light in a broken, hurting world.
How would you counsel someone who is being ‘served’ a ‘dish’ they would never have ordered?
I wouldn’t. Compassion always comes before counsel; no one wants to be preached at. Sitting and listening comes first and, very probably, some shared weeping too. ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn’ (Romans 12:13) is the Biblical and kind approach. Most of us need a safe place to vent, unburden ourselves and acknowledge how we feel before we address the challenge in front of us and ask God to meet us there. A ‘quick fix’ is a misnomer in every sense.
Regardless of our current ‘dish’ we all need to truly encounter God by engaging with Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, leaning into His promises, His power and His presence. That’s the place of ‘feasting’ and that would be my counsel. Simply telling someone what they ‘should’ be doing or feeling adds to their pain, trauma and sense of being overwhelmed. Real discipleship involves walking alongside people in and through their challenges, in step with Jesus, and consistently encouraging them to push into Him. Walking with Jesus is just that; a journey, a pilgrimage and we grow along the way.
What is the main thing you hope readers will take away from Spiritual Feasting?
Several things: the joy and delight of relationship over religion. The revelation that God is keener to have time with us than we are with Him. The hunger for more of Him – who He is rather than what He can do for us; the Person of Jesus rather than just His provision. The desire to embrace radical, dangerous faith and the challenge to a deeper, more robust and tested faith which is attractive, authentic and infectious.
Having served God around the globe, what impact do you see COVID-19 and lockdown having on the wider Church?
With so many buildings closed, I think COVID-19 has been a welcome, though painful, wake-up call for the Church worldwide. ‘Church’ which is dependent on a Sunday service is very limited in its benefit for the world; it may inspire for a short time but it doesn’t usually empower the congregation. In many cultures, governments have either confiscated, torn down or banned such meetings and yet those are the places where the gospel is impacting lives and church communities are flourishing in spite of their circumstances. Currently we’re seeing believers reach out to their neighbours in innovative, creative ways, being Jesus in their neighbourhoods.
In the west we need a major re-think about how and what we do under that ‘church’ label. I think it would be disastrous to simply go back to how things were. So many resources get swallowed up by buildings; investing in people is a much more New Testament pattern. We need a ‘new normal’ and it probably won’t be comfortable.
How did writing the book impact you?
Writing took a huge amount of time, effort and emotion, but it also consistently challenged me to take my own place at God’s specifically prepared ‘table’ and pursue intimacy with the Magnificent Host, King Jesus, regardless of what was being ‘served’. The word always needs to become flesh, just as Jesus did. In other words, it must be incarnated; it must look like something or it remains nothing more than an abstract idea or a transitory wish. Even now it’s published, the powerful truths of the book continue to challenge me.
How did you find the publication process?
This was a fairly steep learning curve for me, but thoroughly worthwhile. I was surprised by the number of pre-publishing edits but am so thankful for the outstanding team at Instant Apostle who guided me through. I’m used to having to ‘slash and burn’ my writing so, in a sense, I was fore-warned and fore-armed. The manuscript had become rather unwieldy in the writing process and there were things that needed cutting out and/or moving around for a better flow. I had to write a whole new chapter at one point and there were a couple of things I didn’t want to budge on. It was great to chat to my editor over the phone rather than just have e-mail notes through the process. So, while the final ‘tweakings’ were slightly laborious, I believe it’s a much better book in consequence and it’s also equipped me for the next project which, I hope, should now be considerably easier to navigate.
Did you get input from friends and family for Spiritual Feasting or was it something you felt best to work on alone?
Fortunately, I enjoy my own company and love the total immersion of writing. It’s very satisfying for me to dive into writing in the morning and then lift my head to discover it’s 3pm as my stomach tells me it would like some lunch.
Because I wanted the book to be grounded in both scripture and ‘real life’, I asked some friends whether they would be willing to tell their stories of unpalatable ‘dishes’ for the book. This meant I could balance Biblical and contemporary examples of unpalatable ‘dishes’. I am so grateful for their part in the project and their willingness to be vulnerable in this way.
I also have a group of faithful ‘guinea pigs’ who have always ‘road-tested’ my books and studies by reading and working through them, which has helped me refine and upgrade them. I extended that circle for Spiritual Feasting so that a study group as well as individuals went through it, including wrestling with the questions at the end of each chapter. Their feedback was invaluable.
What one piece of advice would you want to give to a new writer?
Don’t overthink it. Trap your ideas on paper to free up your head space for developing them and keep on keeping on!
What are you working on now?
I have multiple folders on my laptop with ideas. I have started work on one of them but it’s early days and my own cancer diagnosis and treatment has slowed things down somewhat.
Finally, what is your favourite book and why?
Perhaps it would be corny to say the Bible, but that is the book that I read every day and find fresh things within its many pages. A book I come back to over and over again is Hannah Hurnard’s Hind’s Feet in High Places; a great allegory that always resonates with me.
Also, the Narnia series. Don’t let anyone bamboozle you into thinking they are children’s books; they are so much more and are old, wise, familiar friends to me.
If I want gentle fiction, the series of Miss Read books are set in a couple of imagined English villages and are a soothing, undemanding escape to a less frenetic pace of life and a spectrum of wonderful characters.