Flash Jabez

This post first appeared on ‘More Than Writers’, the blog of the Association of Christian Writers.

Barbed wire silhouetted against a sunset

I had not heard of the term flash fiction before I joined ACW, although I had consumed many short stories. It has been encouraging to read about members who enter competitions and have these short pieces published. There is a real poetic craft in communicating depth while keeping the word count short.

How short?

As short as you like. According to legend, Ernest Hemingway wrote the following famous six-word short story:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Tight and poignant indeed, whoever composed it.  

You might also want to try your own minimalistic six-word story, or perhaps aim for a little more information with a 50-word mini sagaTwitterature is a great portmanteau term for a 280-character story fit for Twitter. If you have a good one, post it in the comments.

Flash fiction refers to stories of only 1000 words; short, but sufficient space for structure, emotion and key elements and to allude to a rich narrative and possible twists. It is an art. I often mark 1500-word essays. Students struggle to eliminate words when they want to make a good case or to demonstrate the range of their reading and thinking. Exercising restraint is hard.

But there is a real pedigree in tight writing. Hebrew narrative is wonderfully minimalistic, for example. While David, Moses and Noah get lots of column inches, the people with a tight little tale fascinate me just as much. And they leave more questions.

Have you heard of Jabez? His tiny story is found in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10. In the space of these two verses (35 words in Hebrew) we learn that he was named after his painful birth, prays to God for blessing, for enlarged territory, for God’s hand to be with him and to be kept from harm and free from pain. And in an abrupt denouement, we learn that God does just that.

But hang on… who exactly was Jabez, and why is this strange story not also in the Samuel-Kings history? What blessings did God give him and where exactly was his territory? In what ways was God with him? Are we to emulate him? How far?

The story does tell us all it needs to, but it also begs something from the reader or listener; how might this apply to me? Am I supposed to react a certain way, or learn a lesson here?

There was a frenzy of interest and slick marketing in Jabez in the year 2000. It’s not hard to see why: the prayer invites unpacking, and some people started used the words as a mantra, along prosperity gospel lines. This is how a good story turns sour. God loves us and we should ask and seek for good things from him (Matthew 7:7-8, Luke 11:9-10), but life has taught me that my personal and material desires are not more important than my relationship with God and how I serve and love others. If Jabez was praying for blessing for himself and for release from pain, we don’t hear about what he did for others, how those around him were impacted by his prayers and the consequences or whether he left any other kind of legacy.

Like other remarkable short stories, the little we know about Jabez hints and teases. It leaves us pondering. Like much Old Testament narrative, extra information is not revealed, and yet we do have enough to work with. God blessed this guy, who was bold enough to ask him for blessing. His pain was turned to power. In a brilliant literary irony, his territory is enlarged with very few words.

What about you?

Do you stop and think about the short stories you read? What biblical examples have you come across that leave you asking more questions? And have you tried composing flash fiction?If you write, I pray that as you work on your craft, you discover your writing territory enlarged. May God remove those boundaries which prevent you from serving him. In all your writing – long or short – may you be a true blessing to others. 

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