Discover New Worlds

Kid reading the Book. EducationBooks take you to new worlds. Your mind tramps through new places and situations, but your feet don’t get muddy. When you read my books you walk through some of the same fascinating cultures and sub-cultures I have encountered as I grew up in American, lived 16 years in Taiwan, and now live in New Zealand.

During my 35 years of writing for Christian publication I’ve seen the publishing world turned upside down. In Taiwan I reached out to Chinese people who knew little about Christianity with ESL Bible studies. In New Zealand I’ve needed to tailor church programs and puppet scripts to fit a small mission church in various stages. In recent years I entered a new world of cooking as I learned to cook gluten-free recipes for my celiac husband. I want to use this website to share these resources with others. I hope you’ll find them helpful.

You may also want to follow my weekly blog in which I talk about subjects of interest to writers and people in ministry. I hope these posts will bring hope and help to others in ministry.

More Christmas Program Solutions for Small Churches

x1agnieszkaAs a missionary pastor’s wife, sometimes I feel like a roly-poly doll. You know the kind. It could be a clown or an animal or a doll with a heavy round bottom. Whenever a child pushes it over, it rights itself to its original position.

This blog is not talking about a need to lose weight. Instead, the analogy of the roly-poly doll shows us how a missionary or small church pastor and wife need to roll with the punches and keep on going. No matter what is happening or not happening at church, we carry on. Year after year, in spite of ups and downs, we need to ensure our churches remain positive, welcoming places in which exciting things are happening.

Christmas offers a great opportunity for outreach, but sometimes it comes with challenges.

Two years ago I wrote a blog with Christmas program solutions for small churches. I discussed creative solutions for these problems:

  • Our kids hate to memorize lines.
  • Our teens are too embarrassed to do drama and won’t memorize lines.
  • Our church isn’t strong in music or drama.
  • Some of our kids hate to wear their costumes.
  • Our church is in the middle of a building program.
  • We have too few people and resources to do most Christmas programs.

We’ve experienced all these problems in our church and  for seventeen years we’ve always been able to offer a meaningful Christmas program.

We have a lot more children than we had two years ago, but now we face other problems:

  • We have a lot of kids who come to a weekly club, but don’t come to Sunday School.
  • We’ve had many visiting families attend throughout the year, but they haven’t been coming long enough to know we can count on them by Christmas time.
  • English is a second language for some of our kids and they don’t have the confidence to say lines on stage. Others have major stage fright.

Like a roly-poly pastor’s wife, I’ve had to go to God in prayer and ask for wisdom again. I believe God has answered and we have a plan. God helped me come up with this plan because I focused on what we have, not on what we don’t have. I also always keep my ears tuned to what others are doing to gain ideas that we can use.  You can find solutions, too, when you look for ideas that fit what you have.

When I looked at what we had this year, I realized we have 15 to 20 kids, but we couldn’t count on them to come to rehearsals, memorize lines, or even show up on the night of the program. We also have built up a good supply of costumes over the years. Angel gowns, shepherds’ bathrobes, and some particularly nice wise men costumes.

Also, last year I heard of a church who tried something different. They took their kids to various locations and video-taped them acting various situations. Some talented person put it all together to make a video of the church kids for the Christmas program.

When I added the costumes we had to the idea of filming ahead of time, I had our solution. On the last night of our Discover program for the year we’ll dress our kids in costumes and pose them in positions to tell the Christmas story.

All the boys under ten will be shepherds. All the girls under ten will be angels. We have enough costumes for our maximum number. If some of them don’t show up, we’ll just take pictures of those who do. I’ve got costumes for two innkeepers, but can work with only one or leave out that part entirely. I’ve picked a dependable person to be Joseph and have several girls who can be Mary. Other boys over ten can be wise men. If we have more older girls, I can pose them wrapping packages or baking cookies. I’ll also get the pre-school girls to pose as angels at a separate time.

When the photos are done, I’ll write a narration that fits the Power Point slides. The narration can be read on the night. We’ll make copies of the photos to give to parents to keep.

We’re also practicing a group song that all the kids can sing. Whether our kids are few or many on the program night, we can still go ahead with it. We’ll also add several songs from our adult choir.

As a result, basically all of our kids can be featured at our Christmas program, but we don’t have to worry about who will show up. We don’t have to beg uninterested parents or those who live far from town to drive their kids to a rehearsal. The kids love parading around in the costumes, but they don’t have to worry about stage fright. We’ll encourage the families of all of our kids to attend, but if some don’t show up we can carry on.

Are their disadvantages to staging the Christmas story ahead of time instead of actually watching kids act it out? Sure there are. We may never do the program this way again, but it gives us a solution for one year. The walk of faith is one step at a time and God has shown us the next step for our Christmas program this year.

If you are struggling to find a solution to your small church problem this year, why not check out the solutions I’ve listed in my blog “Christmas Program Solutions for your Small Church.” Or check my Church Programs page. Some of my programs take a fair amount of advance preparation, but I’ve also included some that can be done with very little preparation.

If you’re a roly-poly pastor or pastor’s wife in a small church with lots of challenges, may God bless you during this holiday season.  And may God give you strength and creativity to meet all the challenges life is throwing at you today.

[image courtesy of agnieszka/Deposit Photos]

How to Write a Novel: A Writer’s Journey from Blank Document to Finished Book

writingIf you came to visit me in Invercargill, New Zealand (home to the Southernmost Starbucks in the world), you’d quickly find out one thing. My husband could drive you to a certain place, or I could drive you, but we’d take two different routes getting there. I’m a cautious driver who likes the security of traffic lights, but my husband takes the side roads to avoid traffic lights and get there quicker.

In the same way, every novel writer takes a different route from a totally blank document to a finished book. Different approaches work for different writers. With my last couple of books I’ve revised my approach and found a method that uses my time to the best advantage. But first, let’s look at some of the basic approaches writers often use.

The Wanderer

This writer starts with a basic story in mind and just writes the story from beginning to end. Every scene is fresh and spontaneous, but there are several problems with this. Wanderers often get seriously lost because they don’t know where they are going. Sometimes these writer s get to the end of their books and can think of no way to end them.

In his excellent book called Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell calls this kind of writer a NOP or a no-outline person. They can feel what plot elements need to be in what place and make the story up as they go along. Of course, these writers usually have to revise heavily after their first drafts to give their novels good structure.

One of my writer friends who is normally an OP (outline person) recently wrote a novel this way. He’d been assured by another writer that this would give him a sense of freedom that would bring great originality to his story. Unfortunately, as my friend neared the end, he realized he had painted himself into a plot corner and much of his story had to be deleted.

I’d be scared to death to write this way, but it works for some writers.

The GPS Addict

This writer plans every detail of his book before he starts to write Chapter One. I did this with my first books. I outlined all the scenes in my story and detailed how each scene moved the plot forward. I did a chapter outline, a chronological outline, and a climactic outline. When I knew where each piece fit, I began writing with chapter one, scene one and worked through the outline. I revised and polished each scene or chapter as I wrote it. When I completed my first draft this way, I ended up with a well-structured, highly polished novel .

But no matter how well I planned, as I worked through my plan I found some pieces didn’t fit. I thought of new scenes that would work better than the ones I’d planned. As a result I had revised and polished scenes that ended up being cut entirely. I mentally resisted cutting highly polished scenes when others would work better. Since every scene was rigidly tied to my outline, I found it hard to be creative and spontaneous throughout the book.

The Middle Road

When I started writing Broken Windows I decided to try a new approach that would guarantee good structure but would allow a high degree of creativity and not waste a lot of time fine-tuning scenes that I wouldn’t end up using. I don’t know anyone else that writes quite like this, but it works so well for me that I’m now writing my second novel this way. I’ll break this down into a step-by-step process.

  1. Basic Storyline

I started with a basic cast of quirky characters that I loved and put them in a setting where they would have to stay together and settle their differences. I gave them some challenges to face together. While I had intended to write Broken Windows as simply contemporary Christian fiction, in time I shifted the genre to cozy mystery. I worked out a basic storyline and determined how the various characters would change and grow.

The planning stage of a book is a good time to read James Bell’s Plot and Structure.  It will help you organize your ideas into a well-structured plot.

  1. Chapter Outline

I put the various story elements into a chapter outline, making sure that each section of the story built into a climax, with the strongest climax coming at the end.

  1. Dialog

I tend to write fiction that is strong on character development more than action and chase scenes. As a result, the dialog carries the book forward. What the characters say is the backbone of the plot.  So for my last two books I’ve gone through the entire book writing the dialog before I flesh out the scenes.

At first I was afraid to do this. I feared that this would lead to sloppy writing that would never be put right. Actually it worked very well.

Concentrating on dialog alone helped me write faster and be able to compare the various parts of the book all at once. I could connect what a character said in one chapter with something he said much later in the book. This approach made it easier to plant a thought early in the book and reap it later. Since I was not bogged down in detail, the dialog flowed better and I was better able to think of creative expressions, snappy comebacks, and unexpected twists.

Writing dialog throughout the whole book also helped me to see what parts worked and what didn’t. A book often evolves during the writing process and the writer finds herself moving in a different direction than first expected. After writing my first draft of Broken Windows I realized some minor plotlines were bogging my story down. I had to rip out whole sections of my book. If you’ve only written dialog for those sections, as opposed to fully fleshed-out, revised, and polished scenes, it doesn’t hurt as much to delete those scenes.

Along with dialog, I wrote the basic action that needed to go in the scenes, but I didn’t worry about details. I just wrote enough to remind me of what needed to happen.

  1. Flesh out the scenes.

Once my dialog was written I knew exactly where I was going with my book. Then I began at the beginning and added the details to every scene. I used checklists I’ve come up with over the years to fill out every scene.

I made sure every scene had dialog, thought, and action. (Think, talk, act.) I put my characters in an interesting setting and had them interact with the objects in that setting. I worked to put a hook at the beginning of each scene and something at the end to make the reader want to read on. I checked for sentence length and action verbs and use of the various senses.

I wanted the basic elements of the scene to be in place so I didn’t have to worry about that part in revision. (You can find more about the things I check for in this article.)

  1. Timing and Weather

Sometimes I’ve worked out the timing of all the events before I start writing the book. This time, however, I’m trying something new. I’m working on the sequel to Broken Windows with a working title of Deja Who? I wanted to work freely with the dialog and flow of the story without being tied to constraints. I decided to add the timing after I was done writing. By then I knew exactly what would happen and I could make that fit into a time frame and weather pattern that worked best for the story.

When I began this process I printed out a calendar for a basic year. Then I put all the events of the book on that calendar. Since I’m not naming the year in my book, I can adjust the dates a few days one way or another to fit the plot. Some events need to happen on a certain day of the week or at a certain holiday. I adjust the events to fit the calendar.

Just recently I went back over my book, scene by scene adding time details. Some scenes only needed a few words added like “the next day” or “on Sunday.” They helped the reader to see the basic passage of time. I also added weather details. Since my sequel takes place in Minneapolis, weather plays a strong part. I can add interest to the book by having the characters interact with weather elements.

  1. Think It Through

When you’ve got a good basic first draft done, you really need to set the whole book aside for a few weeks or a month so that you can pick it up again with a fresh perspective. Then read the whole thing through as a reader, not attempting to correct anything except obvious typos. Then think about it. Take walks, think while you’re cooking meals or weeding the garden or shovelling show. What works and what doesn’t? Are their elements dragging the plot down that need to be deleted? Does the book say what you want it to say? Can you change it to make it less predictable?

  1. Revise and Polish

Then work through the whole book, fine tuning it to make it your best work possible.

I recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King for guidelines for this final revision.

That takes you to the end of writing your novel. After that it’s a good idea to get feedback from advanced readers. You may be sending your novel to editors or agents or you may be going the self-publication route, but that’s another blog topic. I’m nearing the completion the writing process of Deja Who? and nearly ready to take those next steps myself.

How to Disagree in Church Business Meetings

dvargg1You hear about the silly church that split over the color of the carpet. “How ridiculous!” you say—until the decorating committee in your church wants a burnt orange carpet and your daughter is planning her upcoming church wedding in bright pink.

I believe the biggest threat to church unity is personalities that see every decision as wrong vs. right, and they’re right! Some issues are moral issues. The virgin birth of Christ, the infallibility of Scripture, eternal security of the believer—these are important doctrinal issues that I could not, in good conscience, compromise. But I’m not talking about moral issues, things that are morally or Scripturally right or wrong.

Most issues are not a matter of right versus wrong, but one of choosing the best way of several options. I may have strong opinions about the color of the kitchen, when to replace the roof, or what kind of water heater to use for the restrooms. But these are not moral issues. One way may last longer, be more cost effective, and work better than another. But neither issue is morally wrong. I have to be prepared to give in on these issues even when the way I think is best is outvoted.

I believe a healthy church business meeting should allow members to voice their opinions on the subject at hand, and to state the reasons for those opinions. Nicely. Decisions should not pit one side against another with one side winning and another losing. Instead ideas should be evaluated on their merits, with members voting for the choice they think is best. Once the vote is taken and a decision is made, members should support the decision, or at least not verbally oppose it. In this way church members can work with each other instead of against each other.

When have I said too much in a church business meeting? I’ve had people ask me this question. The point of the meeting is to discuss issues, find out how people feel, and make good decisions. If you’re concerned that you’re saying too much or saying the wrong things in a business meeting, you might ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I dominating the discussion by saying a lot more than other people?
  • Am I stating my opinions nicely, and giving my reasons for them, without representing my view as the only right view?
  • Do I keep repeating something I’ve already said, in other words, to answer remarks others make?
  • Am I putting the ideas of others down in a personal way that demeans, or am I talking about the pros and cons of any option in a fair way?

Ask God to give you good balance in the comments you make in business meetings. Then your comments can be helpful and loving at the same time.

[image courtesy of dvargg1/deposit photos]

How to Disagree Nicely

free digital photos by renjith krishnan (2)Some people don’t like cautious conversations. They want everyone to just put all their cards on the table and say what they think. That way everyone knows what everyone is thinking and where everyone stands.

I see a problem with this. In an impulsive moment you may say something that you will hardly remember later, and that I can hardly forget. You may feel better about getting it off your chest, but your hurtful words may bring fresh wounds every time I think about it. And if I share my opinion very strongly, once you know how I feel, you may no longer feel free to share a contrary opinion with me. Friendships can be destroyed by a few careless words.

On the other hand, strong friendships are not built on conversations that never pass small talk. We need to allow our friends freedom to disagree with us and to express their opinions. Arguments, however, don’t usually deepen friendships.

Of course, different personalities and backgrounds strongly influence how much difference of opinion we’re comfortable hearing or expressing. No one wants to have her opinions constantly steamrolled by a stronger personality. But we can also be too sensitive, offended by anyone who disagrees with us. Where can we find a healthy balance? How can we build bridges instead of walls?

I believe the answer often lies, not in what we say, but the approach we take in saying it. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise uses knowledge rightly, but the mouth of fools pours forth foolishness.” (NKJV)

I married into a family who is particularly good at giving soft answers. Many times I’ve seen a Brammer handle a ticklish situation in a way that disarmed the tension.  I’ve learned from them some secrets that have taught me what to do in ticklish situations.

Soft answers don’t make for snappy dialog. As a fiction writer I look for direct dialog that gets straight to the point. I search for clever comebacks that drive my points home and make a great sound bites, like you see posted on Facebook. But clever comebacks, funny as they may be, can sometimes hurt friendships. Sometimes an indirect approach de-personalizes an issue and makes it less confrontational.  When I have to confront friends or disagree with them, I try to avoid a direct attack mode which approaches them like an enemy or a child. I look for a way to come alongside them as an equal and offer helpful words.

Do I always achieve this? No. At times I’ve approached someone in a way that I feel is careful and tries to keep an issue small. They see me as being too serious and making a big deal out of it. Even with our best intentions, we can be misunderstood. However, sometimes we’ve seen friends trying to help someone or witness to them or work out a problem. From our perspective outside of the situation we can see that, though their intentions are good, their approach is making the problem worse. They are pushing a person away from them just when they want to do the opposite. Often people ask my husband or I how to say something difficult to someone in a way in which it will likely be well-received.

I’ve listed six different situations you may find yourself in when you disagree with someone. I’ve given possible responses you could use in those situations. This is not to say that my approach will always be the correct one or the only one. But I hope these ideas may be helpful to you when you’re looking for a non-confrontational, friendly approach to conflict. These are ways you can address an issue in a way that may be less likely to harm the relationship.

 Correcting information I believe is wrong

Have you ever been in a conversation with a man and his wife where one is telling the story and the other correcting it?

“For our fifth anniversary, we went to Yellowstone.”

“No, dear. It was our sixth, and we went to Yosemite.”

“I’m sure it was our fifth. Remember Buddy was still in diapers and we stopped at Aunt Helen’s on the way to Yellowstone.”

“No. Sally was in diapers, and it was Aunt Julia.”

“No, dear. That can’t be right …”

You don’t care which national park they went to or who was in diapers. You do want to go home. Soon. The constant corrections about trivial things make the conversation nearly unbearable.  Some people feel if they don’t correct people who say something wrong, their silent listening makes them liars. Actually God never requires us to verbally correct every fact we find questionable.

But what if someone is relating a story in a way that, to me, seems like a lie or a serious misrepresentation? I feel like I must say something.

  •  Direct answer: “That’s a lie, and you know it! That’s not what the person said.”
  •  Soft answer: “I remember the details a little differently than that,” or “I came away with a different slant on the idea.”

Of course some information needs to be corrected. As in, “Actually, doctor, I believe it’s my left leg you need to amputate, not my right one.” But sometimes you hear people relay information that is different than you remember it, but doesn’t need to be corrected. Often mistakes are a matter of a hazy memory rather than dishonesty. Many mistakes just don’t matter.

 Correcting a viewpoint I feel is wrong

But aren’t some issues important enough to need correction?

Here’s a more serious example you could face. Maybe someone states in a church group discussion that they believe abortion is all right in certain circumstances. You and your church take a stand against abortion on Scriptural grounds. A visitor is standing there and you don’t feel it’s right to let the statement stand unchallenged. You don’t want to argue about the topic, but you feel you must say something.

  •  Direct answer: “You’re crazy! That’s just wrong. How can you condone the murder of an innocent child, just because he hasn’t been born yet?”
  •  Soft answer: “I know some circumstances are so difficult that abortion seems to be the answer. But as Christians, I believe we need go back to the sanctity of life. Psalms talks about the way God plans a child’s life even before he’s born. Even in difficult circumstances, I believe we have to respect the life of the unborn the way we would any other person.”

 Correcting a situation that I think needs to be changed

You see someone making a home repair in a way you think will cause problems later on.

  •  Oppositional approach: “What are you doing?  That’s never going to work! Six months from now you’re going to have water all over the place!”
  •  Friendly approach: “How’s it going here? I see you’re working on the kitchen sink. That’s one way of fixing it but, you know, I just wonder if you do it that way if you might have leaks later on. What would happen if you did it another way? It could save a problem farther down the road.”

 Answering someone who is badmouthing someone else

You are listening to your friend relate a confrontation that happened between him and someone else. You want to support your friend, but you also see that your friend may be unknowingly doing something that offends the other person and makes the matter worse.

  •  Take your friend’s side: “You’re right. That person’s a total scumbag. He has no right to treat you that way.”
  •  Take the other person’s side: “You said that to him? No wonder he’s mad at you! That was a really stupid thing to do.”
  •  Help your friend see another perspective: “I can see what you’re saying, but sometimes things can look very different from a different perspective. You may be trying very hard to help him with all the right motives, but he may not want that kind of help. What is important to one person, the next person might not care about at all. What would happen if you said it this way or did it this way?”

 Witnessing to someone who thinks he is good enough to get to heaven on his own

  •  Attack mode: “Have you ever lied or stolen or had impure thoughts about a woman? Then you’re a liar, a thief, and an adulterer! How can you expect God to accept you like that?”
  •  Soft approach: “A lot of people think that way, but the Bible says God is perfect and we’d have to be perfect for him to accept us. If I compare myself to some people, I might feel like I’m a good person, but when I compare myself to God, I realize I do many wrong things. I can never be good enough for God to accept me as I am. I’m glad God has made a way for us to be accepted by him through Jesus who died and took our punishment.

 Keeping a trivial matter from escalating into an argument

Have you ever gotten trapped in a conversation you couldn’t get out of? Maybe you’re discussing gardening, breastfeeding, health food diets, current events, or the latest car models. You state your opinion. She counters that. You tell her why you think you’re right. She tells you why she doesn’t agree. You tell her why her logic is flawed. She tells you why it certainly is not. Soon a trivial matter   has escalated into an argument, or at least a very uncomfortable discussion.  How can you keep this situation from repeating itself?

  •  Confrontational approach: The next time a disagreement starts, you keep smiling, but you make it clear that you’re right and she’s wrong. As she build her case for being right, you match her, point for point, with why you are right. You may lose your friendship, but if you keep up long enough, you win the argument—even if you lose the friendship.
  •  Non-confrontational approach: You listen to her opinion and leave it at that. While you don’t agree with her, you don’t find it necessary to voice that disagreement on an issue that isn’t important. Pretty soon she has made her point, so she moves on to other topics.
  • Controlled approach: You state your opinion nicely and give your reasons for it, but then you quit. When she responds, you don’t have to respond, because you’ve already voiced your opinion. When she continues to voice her opinion you just shrug, say something like, “I understand where you’re coming from,” or “I see what you mean.” If she continues to build her case, you quit building your case and just keep quiet. If she really goes on and on and you see no end in sight, you change the subject. Many arguments build to a dangerous point simply because each person feels the need to keep responding to the other’s comments instead of just stopping when they’ve said what they need to.

I like to watch how others handle difficult situations and learn from them. I hope something in today’s blog may be helpful to you.

Next Time: How to Disagree in Church Business Meetings


Planning Ahead for Christmas at Church

Christmas wreath.By September most churches have started to plan their Christmas program. If you’re looking for a program which can be done by a small church, check out some of mine here. All of these have been designed by me for our mission church ministry. Most are free. You can feel free to adapt them to meet your church’s need.

I offer many free resources on this website and I don’t ask for anything in return. I don’t even make you enter your email address because I hate it when other websites do that. If, however, you don’t just download, but actually use one of my programs and it works well for you, you could always purchase one of my books to say thank you.

Maybe you have a Christmas party or celebration instead of a program or in addition to a program. Here are three party game ideas that work well for church.

Christmas Relay

by Deb Brammer

Choose two or three teams. Each team chooses team members to do various Christmas tasks down and back. First team done wins.

  • Shine like a star. (Carries a star to the end. Sings 1 verse of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” runs back.)
  • Follow like a shepherd. (2 people. Sheep rides on scooter, trolley, or skateboard on his knees down and back. Shepherd runs beside him wearing bathrobe.)
  • Sing like an angel. (Angel, wearing wings, runs down, sings “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night,” one verse by memory, runs back.)
  • Ride the camel. (2 people. Smaller person rides on the back of larger one. Camel can run on two legs.)
  • Ring the bells. (Runs down ringing a bell, sings “Joy to the World,” one verse, runs back ringing a bell.)
  • Let your light shine. (2 people. Person with matches lights candle. Both run down and back. If the candle goes out, the candle bearer must stop immediately and wait for the candle lighter to re-light it. Candle must be lit as candle bearer crosses the finish line.)

Right/Left Christmas Game

Here’s a creative game that works well for church. Everyone brings a gift to give away that will work for about anyone. During the narration everyone passes the gift on his lap right or left according to the story. At the end of the story you keep the one in your lap.

Ring a Bell Game

From time to time throughout the duration of the party, the leader rings a bell. Every time the bell rings, people should listen to the leader. Each time the one who best fits the description the leader is reading gets a prize.

Christmas BellI am looking for…

  1. the person with the birthday closest to Christmas.
  2. the person who can say “Merry Christmas” in the most different languages.
  3. the person who has been an angel the most times in various Christmas programs.
  4. the person who will travel the most kilometres for Christmas Day dinner.
  5. the first person who correctly lists all twelve gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
  6. the person who has mailed out the most Christmas cards so far this year.
  7. the person who is wearing the most red and/or green.
  8. the person who has spent the most Christmases in another country.
  9. the person who put up their Christmas tree the earliest.


[image courtesy of iofoto and lorelyn medina/deposit photos]