Friday, July 06, 2007

Worry According to Jesus

I was reading through Jesus’ words on worry yesterday and it struck me once again just how down-to-earth and practical they are. In Matthew 6 he says things like, “Doesn’t God clothe the flowers with beauty and the birds with feathers? Hello! Won’t he take care of you too?... So what are you so worried about?... Friend, don’t worry about what you’re going to eat or drink or wear, those are the things that worldly people live for. Choose to focus on living out and spreading God’s story instead and trust me, he’ll take care of all your needs…”

All this makes so much sense to my heart, but it’s so hard to actually do. Then Jesus said, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” And I realized that worry never adds anything positive to life, it only detracts from life. It detracts from peace, from faith, from relational harmony, from your spiritual, physical, emotional health. Worry only takes away from the life and doesn’t actually change anything in the end. It has no power to heal, to add life, to deepen relationships.

I know firsthand just how destructive it can be.

I think if our world didn’t have to deal with guilt, shame, grief and worry we’d be experiencing the foretaste of heaven.

Today my prayer is going to be that God lets me have a little nibble by leading me away from worrying about tomorrow. It’s like Jesus said, “Every day has enough problems of its own.”

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Paradox of Freedom

In a previous post a reader asked me to explain what I meant by the paradox of freedom, one of the tips I list for writing. Good question!

Here’s what I’m talking about. Let’s say that you and a friend are trying to decide where to go our for supper. You say, “Where do you want to go?” And she says, “I don’t care, where do you want to go?” “It doesn’t matter to me.” “Well it doesn’t matter to me either.” “Wherever you want.” “I don’t really care.” This can go on for hours. Days. Weeks.

Sometimes in my writing workshops I’ll say, “Write a story.”

“What about?” people ask.

“Anything.”

And ten minutes later when we check to see how everyone is doing, some people haven’t even started yet. Why not? “I couldn’t think of anything to write,” they say.

But, if I say, “In the next ten minutes write a story about a pickle who doesn’t want to get eaten,” every one of them will have a story. Why? Because the problem isn’t that they didn’t have any ideas, the problem was that they had too many ideas. So many ideas in fact, that it crippled their creativity and decision making ability.

It’s the same with a restaurant. If you can go anywhere it’s more difficult to decide than if you are limited. Perhaps by distance, or price, or preference. So here is the paradox of freedom—the more freedom you’re given, the more crippled you become. I know it sounds strange, but there is nothing as liberating as limitations.

So, the first step to writing, actually to making any decision, is to limit yourself. That will free up your creativity and your ability to make decisions.

For more articles and ideas on writing and storytelling, visit my website.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

How to be Seriously Funny - part 2

I’ve been busy working on The Rook. Forgot about this for a few days. Sorry!

Ok, here are the other ideas. Some overlap a little but you'll get the point.

1. No one gets hurt. Think about the funniest movies you’ve ever seen. Buildings may fall one the actors, they may be right next to an explosion, have cement poured on their heads, catch on fire, and then walk away and brush it off and say something like, “Man that’s going to hurt in the morning." It’s never funny when someone gets hurt for real.

2. Misunderstandings. This is huge in romantic comedies. The guy thinks the girl is thinking one thing, she thinks he's thinking something else. The situation becomes more and more absurd, not just because they misunderstand each other, but because the audience doesn't misunderstand. We see the big picture, we're in on the joke and since we see what's coming. The anticipation of the encounter between the to people is what we look forward to. I think that’s what makes it so funny.

3. Irony and parodies. The secret to using parodies is that the person listening to the story has to know the original story or else the parody isn’t funny. They just don’t get it.

4. Physical humor. Watching movies from other cultures and seeing their comedians is really eye opening. It doesn't seem funny to Americans. It’s almost all exaggerated body language and clowning around. To us, it seems like they’re trying to be funny or acting childish. The early days of TV and lots of our children's programming rely almost entirely on physical humor and silly body language. However, we loved Kramer on Seinfeld and the early antics of Jim Carrey. So there you go. Maybe we're ready for physical humor again.

5. Callbacks. You’ve seen this with comedians. They do a routine early on and then later, they refer back to it and we laugh. I'm not exactly sure why this bit works, but id does. And when it does, when it's done well, it's hilarious.

Finally, a few things that are not funny:
  • Making fun of someone other than yourself is not funny.
  • Sarcasm is not funny.
  • Someone trying to be funny is not funny. In fact, there’s nothing less funny than someone who is trying to be funny.
  • Off-color jokes are not funny.
  • Puns are not funny. At least not usually. We don’t like investing our interest in something that ends up being an intellectual gimmick.
There you go. Hm. Thoughts?

Friday, June 22, 2007

How to be Seriously Funny

In March when I was teaching writing in India, we brainstormed on the topic: “What makes a story funny?” My students came up with a list that really impressed me. Here are a few of the ideas:

1. The Unexpected. Just like a good story, the end of a joke is unexpected by also inevitable. For example, Question: “What’s the difference between boogers and broccoli?” Answer, “Kids won’t eat their broccoli.” But the joke only works if the end is both unexpected and inevitable. If it’s only one or the other, it’s not funny.

2. Truth. Humor almost always tells the truth about life, but from a perspective we hadn’t noticed. We hear the story and we say, “Yes! That’s so true, why didn’t I think of that?” This is evident by the popular comedian shtick, “Did you ever notice that?...” And we laugh because we have noticed it, but we’ve never had our attention drawn to it. I think that's what makes the cars and computers bit so funny (see my last post). But this approach is only funny if people have actually noticed it. If they haven’t they’ll just say, “No. I don’t see what’s so funny about that.”

3. Self-deprecating humor. People don’t ever want you to make fun of them, but you can poke fun at yourself. Once when I was introducing myself at a conference I said, “Last year when I was here a woman said, ‘Has anyone ever told you how handsome you are?’ I smiled and said, ‘No.’ And she said, ‘There’s a reason for that.’” People laughed, but they would have turned against me big time if I told it the other way: “Yeah, it was cool. I went up to this woman who was speaking here and I said, ‘Has anyone ever told you how pretty you are?’ And when she said, ‘No’ I told her, ‘There’s a reason for that.’” Definitely not funny.

More thoughts tomorrow.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Cars and Computers Revisited

Ok, I know this has been around forever, but a friend of mine just sent it to me today again, and I was reminded of how funny it is. It's from some very clever anonymous cyberspace author.

Later this week I’ll write a few thoughts about what makes something funny. Here it is:

At a recent computer expo (Ha! Urban legend warning!... ), Bill Gates reportedly compared the computer industry with the auto industry and stated, "If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon."

In response to Bill's comments, General Motors issued a press release stating: If GM had developed technology like Microsoft, we would all be driving cars with the following characteristics:

1. For no reason whatsoever, your car would crash.....Twice a day.

2. Every time they repainted the lines in the road, you would have to buy a new car.

3. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway for no reason. (My dear MG!) You would have to pull to the side of the road, close all of the windows, shut off the car, restart it, and reopen the windows before you could continue. For some reason you would simply accept this.

4. Occasionally, executing a maneuver such as a left turn would cause your car to shut down, refuse to restart, in which case you would have to reinstall the engine.

5. Macintosh would make a car that was powered by the sun, was reliable, five times as fast and twice as easy to drive - but would run on only 5% of the roads.

6. The oil, water temperature and alternator warning lights would all be replaced by a single "This Car Has Performed An Illegal Operation" warning light.

7. The airbag system would ask "Are you sure?" before deploying.

8. Occasionally, for no reason whatsoever, your car would lock you out and refuse to let you in until you simultaneously lifted the door handle, turned the key and grabbed hold of the radio antenna.

9. Every time a new car was introduced car buyers would have to learn how to drive all over again because none of the controls would operate in the same manner as the old car.

10. You'd have to press the "Start" button to turn the engine off.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Beekeeper's Song

A few years ago when I visited Kazakhstan, our driver stood up to sing during the Sunday morning worship service. That afternoon I wrote about it.

I was thinking about him today when I went outside and heard the summer unfolding around me, saw the bees busy at our flowers.


the beekeeper’s voice

anatole, the man who drove us around the city,
(the man i couldn’t help but smell from the back of the van),
steps to the front of the church,
he is a beekeeper who lives up in the mountains of kazakhstan,
they tell me.

but then, before my eyes, he changes,
and he steps into the music where he was meant to dwell all along
and his voice fills the room and
makes your soul weep and faint and shudder in awe.
and the walls are not strong enough to hold in the voice of this beekeeper.
it spreads out across the land and takes over the world.
something holy and divine and everlasting dwells in that song. in that moment.

and then, suddenly, he is finished.
his big shoulders slump, and he quietly takes his seat.
and he becomes a reeking russian beekeeper once again.

but the rest of us are changed,
forever.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Man of Sorrows

As I was thinking about the topic of discernment and telling the truth in fiction, I remembered a conversation I had with a very thoughtful man from Iran on a flight a few months ago. We began talking about spiritual things and he had a ton of great questions. I struggled a bit with my answers, especially to his question about why there’s evil in the world if God is good.

At one point in the conversation I mentioned that I sometimes struggle with depression and he said, “If Jesus is so powerful, why doesn’t he help you with that?”

Wow. And I had no idea what to say. I sat there for a moment speechless because I do believe in Jesus’s power, but I also know we live in this imperfect, painful world. And we each have our struggles.

Then I remembered the verse in Luke where it says Jesus was a man of sorrows. (I just looked it up, I was wrong. It's Isaiah 53:3. Luke 22:45 just says Jesus was exhausted from sorrow.) I mentioned that to my friend and that also, in the book of John, Jesus is called a man of joy, complete joy (see John 15). I asked him, “Why do you think the Bible would call Jesus a man of sorrows?”

And my friend thought about it for a moment and then he said, “Because he saw the world as it really is.” Then he turned to me and nodded. “Jesus was a man of sorrows. That’s the best answer you’ve given me all night.”

But I think his answer was the best one of the night.

Jesus saw the world as it really is. And the more we become like him, the more we will see and experience that sorrow and that joy too.

I believe that the stories we tell, the novels we write, the sermons we preach, the movies we recommend should be honest about both facets of our world, both sides of the truth. The minute we pretend there’s no reason to feel sorrow, or that there aren’t enough reasons to feel joy, we’ve drifted from the truth and stopped seeing the world as it really is.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Developing Discernment

Just a quick note, I’ve been thinking about how we evaluate media because I received an email last week asking me, “Is The Pawn a Christian novel?”

Hm. What makes a novel, a story, a movie, Christian? I agree with Madeline L’engle that it’s Christian if it tells the truth about the way the world really is.

Ok, so here you go. I think that when it comes to movies and media, discernment involves evaluating at least three things:

(1) The artistic quality. If it’s a film, how well is it directed? Is the acting excellent or cheesy and second-rate? What about the storytelling? How well is the movie edited? How coherently do the scenes fit together? How about the cinematography, camera angles, pace, dialogue?

Many so-called “Christian films” and “Christian novels” are concerned with not offending people, or getting some kind of message across, rather than telling a good story. As a result both the message and the story suffer. And that’s more offensive to me than objectionable content.

(2) The worldview of the movie. Does this movie portray a universe where choices matter, or one in which fate and destiny rule? Are good and evil portrayed as equally strong, or does good have the power to conquer in the end? Are life, and the choices we make, meaningful and substantive, or is life simply meaningless and random? In this movie, do the ends justify the means? Are values of right and wrong dependant on the situation, or are they derived from a higher good?

When the Harry Potter books and movies came out, many fundamentalist Christians avoided them because of the content (spells, magic, wizards, etc…) and didn’t acknowledge the artistic excellence of the storytelling. In addition, the world of Harry Potter is unashamedly moral, choices matter, life is not just a matter of fate and timing. However, in the Harry Potter world, the ends justify the means. I believe discernment is harder than blind condemnation, but also more worthwhile.

(3) The content. I do think it’s legitimate to be wary of a film’s content. Sometimes the images will lead you into thought-territory that you have no business trespassing into. Graphic violence, gory murders, glorified eroticism, titillating sex, and gutter language can all affect the way we think, the way we relate to other people, the way we relate to God--and the scenes don’t typically have a purifying effect. However, content is only one of the factors a discerning person will use when evaluating media.

Undoubtedly some people will not welcome the violence in The Pawn. But I believe discerning readers will connect with the story on many other levels.

There you have it. I welcome your response.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Christians at the Movies

I love movies but I have a problem--I also like to recommend them to other people, and that’s where things get weird.

You see, some of the movies I like include what many of my friends would call "objectionable content." To me, objectionable content includes bad acting, idiotic storytelling, poor directing or lame writing, but usually to my friends it means that the movie includes: (1) sex or nudity (it doesn’t even matter if the sex is between married couples, it’s sex so it’s objectionable), (2) bad language, (3) violence, or (4) depictions of drug or alcohol use.

Their evaluations of the movie tend to go like this: “You should see it, it’s great! There’s no sex or violence or bad language or anything!”

I’m always tempted to point out to them that a blank movie screen also includes none of those things and that I wouldn’t pay eight bucks to sit and watch that for two hours, but I usually hold my tongue. That, or I feel like encouraging them to avoid reading the Old Testament where erotic poetry, brutal violence, blasphemy, prostitution, and scenes of drunken orgy populate the pages. Typically I just say, “Oh, well. It sounds like you really enjoyed it.”

I think that if the content of the Old Testament wasn’t in the Bible, but was published as a novel instead, Christian bookstores wouldn’t carry it because of all the "objectionable content."

Tomorrow I’ll share the three factors I think discerning people should use when evaluating media. Stay tuned 'till then.

Meanwhile, check out some of Ransom Fellowship's thoughtful, insightful and balanced movie reviews at http://www.ransomfellowship.org/movies_reviews.html
I'll bet you leave impressed and filled with great ideas for your Netflix list.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Here's The Pawn Trailer

Part of my brain is still stuck in the 20th century and it took me a couple of days to figure out how to add the video to my blog. Alas, here it is!

Btw, thanks to all the folks at Revell Publishing for inviting me to meet with them in Michigan last week. They were amazingly supportive and encouraging. The coffee was good. The food was good. And I'm excited to see what unfolds. You guys rock! (Or as we say here, "All y'all rock!")

Also, thanks to Kyle Long who produced the trailer. If you want to check out more of his work, go to http://www.digital-fridge.net/

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Stupid Signs

I just feel like sharing some of the weird signs I've seen while traveling. I saw this one at Faith Memorial Gardens (a graveyard) in Huntsville, Alabama: "Buy 3 spots get 1 free!" Now, just think about that. Let that sink in. What kind of a person would offer a promotion like this? What kind of a person would impulse buy four funeral plots?

I saw this sign at a highway construction area in Virginia. Now, track with me here, don't let me lose you. The sign had all these lights around the outside of it and it read, "Construction workers present when flashing."

I just sat there thinking, "That's the last thing I want to see."

And this one up in the mountains of Colorado: "In case of flood, seek high ground."
And this one on a gas station in Kentucky: "One Month Unlimited Tanning!"
And this one on the front door of a supermarket in Tennessee: "Push. Do Not Enter."

That last one's a very bad sign if you're schizophrenic. That, or maybe if you're a college philosophy professor: "What is the meaning of the push if you're not allowed to use it? If you're told to push the door, but have no purpose in the push, do you push it of your own free will? If so, why? If not, why not? Please write a 500 word essay on what the sign really means."

But my favorite of all time might just be the sign I saw a couple of weeks ago in Decatur, Alabama: "Decatur Radiator Service - The Best Place in Town to Take a Leak."

And then next to it, a sign that read, "Customer Parking in Rear."



A few more of my favs are on the right.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Video Trailer for The Pawn

Hey! I wanted to let you know that the video trailer for my new thriller, The Pawn, has just been posted on YouTube. Check it out, I think you'll like it!

Very creepy. Here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_HlC7Kvap8

The book will be released on September 1, 2007. You can preorder it off my website or from Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0800732405/ref=cm_arms_pdp_dp/102-7288999-5686541

P.S. If you like the video, it'd be very cool if you can rate it on YouTube, save it to your favorites, send the link to your friends, or add it to your MySpace or Facebook page. It'll help get the word out and, of course, save us money on marketing. Thanks!!

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Let Me Be Young Enough

This morning we stayed home from church to worship as a family and I wrote this prayer while I was sitting at the dining room table waiting for the service to begin:

God of the Dawn and the Day,
Let me be young enough to kiss your elbow and believe in fairies and dragons.

Let me be young enough to run, not walk, toward the playground,
and when I fall, to just get back up again,
and when other kids cry, to join them and not
be ashamed.

Let me be young enough to make snow angels and
climb trees in the twilight;
to be frightened of the darkness
and unwilling to stay in the big house all alone,
and astonished by dandelions and quick to chase
fireflies.

Let me be young enough to believe,
really believe, that you rose from the dead
and live in my heart, and then, make me
so excited about it that I can’t help but tell
all the other kids at recess that God actually
lives inside of me.

Let me be young enough to be afraid of
what’s going to happen to me when
Dad gets home, but humble enough
to run to him and cling to his leg when he does.

Let me be young enough to spill my ice cream
and then presumptuous enough to just ask for more;
young enough to say my prayers
and trust that they’ll be heard.

Let me be young enough
to bring you my stick-figure drawings
and know you’ll find room for them on your fridge.

Let me be child-enough
to step through the door to your kingdom
and then realize, in one astonishing
moment of somersault excitement,
that heaven is more like a sleepover
than an elders' meeting,
more like going camping and
eating macaroni and cheese with Dad
and playing in the tree house
than sitting through a Sunday morning
church service.

Because then, when I’m finally that young,
I’ll finally be born.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Surviving the Pitfalls

A couple of months ago I was speaking with my pastor and during the conversation I wrote down some notes. They’re all ideas on helping a marriage survive difficult times. (I’ll bet you don’t have to guess who needed the advice more, my pastor or me.) Most the ideas came from him, a few from me. Here they are:

1. Come to the place of loving and accepting yourself. When you’re consumed with guilt rather than acceptance (of yourself and your spouse) you’re caught in a downward spiral that doesn’t serve either of you well.
2. Don’t forget that she is a real person, full of needs and desires and longings and frustrations just like you. It’s easy to forget when you live with someone long enough.
3. Sometimes you need to be a hypocrite to your feelings. If you’re not feeling loving and you say, “I love you,” then you might consider it hypocritical, but you’re also affirming your commitment toward love. If you say, “I don’t love you,” then you might be telling how you really feel right now, but you’re breaking the promise you made to love until death. So, you need to choose—either be hypocritical to your commitment, or to your feelings. And only one serves your spouse.
4. Enter her world, give her what you want out of a relationship. (I suppose this works the other way as well, from wife to husband.)
5. It’s more of a blessing to give than to receive, so look for ways to give rather than defaulting back to finding ways to take.
6. Help her flower. She’ll naturally reflect your moods, so let her reflect light instead of darkness.
7. Guilt can be either a road that leads closer to Jesus or it can become a pit of selfishness, focusing only on your mistakes rather than on God’s grace. Let guilt serve you by leading you further from yourself and closer to him.

I think it’s good stuff, good advice. I’m still working at living it out. Any additional advice anyone wants to offer?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Room Rules

I was digging through some old files and found a copy of the room rules from my 5th grade class.

Yes, this is for real.

I've included the complete list on the right. My favorites are 8, 21, 24, 36, and the granddaddy of all, 27. All of the misspelled words, grammatical mistakes, and poorly constructed passive voice sentences appear in the original.

As I was reading through the rules I realized I don't even remember the name of my 5th grade teacher.

The Ethos of Typos

Yesterday I was working on a book proposal for a series of books I’m hoping to write for preteen boys. To give you the flavor for the series, here’s one of the titles: “The Valley of the Living Dead and Other Creepy Tales From the Bible.”

The idea is to retell Bible stories that boys would like (such as the title story about the vision of the valley of dry bones). Ok. So just before sending my proposal in, I found this typo as I explained that the goal of the series was to “ignite interest and lead kids back to the Bile for inspiration and guidance in life.”

Nothing like a nice dose of inspirational bile to keep you going for the day.

Yummy.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Strings of a Thousand Pearls

Loneliness is the heaviest stone of all to carry around in your heart. I heard about a Charlie Brown comic strip long ago that read, “Nothing echoes like an empty mailbox.” I guess I’d agree.

Wang Wei, and 8th century Chinese poet, captures this feeling so powerfully in his poems that it leaves me breathless. Here is one of my favorites:

Drafted while still of low rank, he was sent far away.
She grieves in her lonely chamber, feeling old and ugly.
Though bravely she puts on her finest silks to match
the spring-clad trees,
Her tears run silently together in strings of a
thousand pearls.

*****

Sometimes Christians talk as if once someone trusts in Christ that person will never be lonely again. As if having a close relationship with God will fulfill us and complete us.

I disagree. I think of the story of Adam and Eve. Adam had a perfect relationship with God, but yet God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Adam had God but was still alone. Even if we have a close relationship with God, our tears may still run silently together in strings of a thousand pears.

*****

God chose not to create us one at a time and place us on a perfect world because it is not good for us to be alone, even if we have him. Our hearts were made to be filled with both God and each other.

Building relationships with each other—our lovers, our family members, our friends, our enemies—is one of the ways we become more fully human. More fully alive.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Fractures

The other day a guy cut me off in traffic. Really close. And I had to crush my brake pedal to the floor, you know the routine, and still, I was barely able to stop in time.

I felt this huge rush of anger and I yelled at the guy who couldn’t hear me and I slammed the heel of my hand against the windshield.

And it cracked.

A spider web of anger, spreading across the glass.

Of course he didn’t see me or hear me, just raced on and I felt slightly stupid and, ok I admit it, slightly proud of myself for actually punching a crack in my windshield with my bare hand. Then I got to tell my wife and that was exciting too.

She took it a lot better than I expected.

And so, now it’s going cost me, not the guy who cut me off, to get the cracks fixed. Or the windshield replaced, we’ll have to see what happens.

I can blame him all I like, but the damage is the fault of my fierce anger, not his reckless driving.

****

My heart, glass as it is, fragile and unsuspecting, stands cracked in so many places where I’ve slammed my fist into it, again and again, pounding my rage against the world, splintering my life from the inside out while the world races past me. And never even notices or cares.

And all the while I am the one.

I’m the one responsible for all of this fractured glass, all of this brokenness, not the world.

Every time I form another fist and start swinging, I just hurt myself. And the world continues to rush past me on its way to wherever it is we’re all going, together.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Story of the Stars

I’m teaching at the Blue Ridge Christian Writer’s Conference this week so I’m thinking about story a lot. And every time I think about story, it teaches me more about God.

Here's what I mean. (I’ll try not to get too theoretical—yawn, yawn). At the heart of every story is a transformative event--either a transformation that we see occurring or one that we realize will occur. Typically, movies begin by showing a portrait of a character in normal life, then a crisis that turns everything upside down, then the person's struggle to return to normal, and finally a discovery and a changed life. Written stories follow this basic pattern as well, but usually include a gripping beginning to snag the reader's attention.

So.

That's what we see in the Bible in the book of Ruth as Naomi moves from a full life to the emptiness of loss, into the struggle to find balance again, and then arrives at last, smack dab in the middle of a new kind of normal. It's what we see in the life of the prophet Samuel as he moves from normal life serving in the temple, (without knowing God), to a transformative encounter with God that leads to a new and different life (both knowing God and speaking for him). It's the story of Jesus's disciples, of St. Paul, of Moses, of Abraham, of Adam and Eve.

And of me.

Every day we live in the middle of another struggle or a discovery on our way toward terror or worship or retirement as we plod through life on our way to a new kind of normal. The sweep of the Bible takes us through God’s narrative of the transformation of a planet and it’s flesh-covered ghosts who are all the time searching for hope and truth and Cool Ranch Doritos.

I think that this universe is shaped from the material of a story. Tales woven through our genes. And, since I am one of its characters, the grand story of the stars is the intimate story of my heart.

Ok, forgive me for waxing eloquent there. I’m at a writer’s conference. What can I say.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Speak

Last week I saw one of the best movies I’ve ever seen—Speak.

You need to watch this movie. Especially if you have kids. Especially if you have daughters. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ll just say that after I watched, the next night that I was home I watched it again with my wife and two oldest daughters, ages 11 and 13.

After you watch it once, watch it again and look for the imagery of hallways and pathways, trees, flowers, voice (for example, in the scene where Melinda is riding on the bus you’ll see a quick shot of her backpack, and on it is a drawing of a face with no mouth. Brilliant.) The subtle use of symbolism is everywhere in the film, in nearly every shot of this film, but brilliantly done and not distracting.

Everyone deserves a voice, everyone’s voice matters.

I don’t know how this movie slipped off my radar screen for three years.
If you have amazing movies to recommend, leave a comment. I’ve listed some of my favorite movies on the right of this page.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Clouds Above Me

I was staring outside at the clouds today and I realized that at no time in the history of the world had any other person on the planet ever seen that exact formation of clouds. I mean, maybe someone else was looking up with me, but never in the thousands or millions or billions of years of this galaxy’s existence has anyone else before, or will anyone else ever again, have the opportunity to watch the clouds meander through the sky in just this exact formation.

Just think, unless the sky is totally clear or completely overcast, the odds of the clouds being formed in just the way that they are right now, at just that height, are astronomical. I’d say, impossible.

The wisps and curls of the clouds are like the whorls in our fingerprints. Every day God leaves his fingerprints etched in the mists of the sky, and most of us don’t even notice. Billions and billions of people have lived and died without ever really noticing. Without realizing how unique the sky above them was every single moment.

In fact, when I look around the street, I see that no one else is looking up at the sky.

Look up at the sky right now. Take a minute to cherish the gift of his moment’s unique view. In all the span of time, no other human being has ever had the chance to watch the clouds outside your window curl and wander the way they are doing right now.

And no one will have the chance, ever again, once this moment has passed.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Honoring Mothers and Comedians

I was speaking at a Christian conference and one of the most famous Christian speakers in the world stood up to speak. I won't tell you his name, but it rhymes with Bosh McFowell.

And, right after a comedian had performed and the band had led us in a great time of worship, he walked up to the microphone and said, "I'm not here to entertain you, I'm going to share with you from my heart."

I felt like slugging him--in a Christian way, of course. What an insulting thing to say to the band members, to the comedian. As if they're not sharing from their hearts. As if actors, storytellers, writers, musicians are not serving God wholeheartedly with their unique gifts just because they’re not preaching. As if the ministry of entertainment, or leading worship, is someone less significant or less genuine than the ministry of giving a keynote address.

I see this attitude a lot in Christianity today. Just this morning on the radio, the host of a program called Real Family Life (I won't tell you what program it was, but the guy's name rhymes with Grennis Plainy), started reading a list of what all the descendants of a Christian man named John Edwards who lived in the 17th century had accomplished. He listed how many had become doctors and lawyers and senators and even a vice president.

My children were in the car and I snapped the radio off. "That makes me so mad," I said. "As if being a lawyer is more noble or important than being a plumber. As if being a mother and waking up in the middle of the night for years on end to take care of your baby is less significant than being a politician. Or that a farmer who works from dawn until dusk to provide for his family isn't worth appearing in a list of important descendants. How many of the guy’s descendants were mothers or farmers?"

Every person can serve, speak, play, work and honor God from the heart. And whether or not my daughters grow up to be lawyers or politicians they are just as worth honoring and remembering as those who do.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Christians & Ghosts

Lots of Christians get uncomfortable when people start talking about ghosts. Well, here’s something to think about: Jesus’s disciples believed in ghosts. Once when he was walking across the water, they thought he was a ghost and when he called out to them, Peter said, “If you’re not a ghost, tell me to join you on the water!” And Jesus could have said, “You moron! There’s no such thing as ghosts!” But he didn’t. He just said, “Come on down.”

Then, after Jesus’s resurrection, they once again thought he was a ghost and he said, “Check it out, I’m not a ghost, look I have hands and feet. Does a ghost have feet?” And then he asked them if there was anything to eat. The last I checked ghosts don’t eat dinner either.

So once again he could have debunked ghosts, but he didn't. In fact, a fair reading of his words seems to indicate that ghosts are real, but are not physical entities like us.

And then of course you have the very strange story of Samuel’s spirit appearing to Saul in the Old Testament (see 1 Samuel 28) when a witch calls him back from the dead. Spooky.

Finally, Jesus sent the Holy Ghost (Holy Spirit) to his followers. And, while most Christians accept the Holy Spirit kind of ghost, when it comes to the others they typically tell me, “Ghosts are demons.”

Perhaps some are, but what about Samuel's spirit? There's no evidence that was a demon. Besides, Jesus didn't refute the existence of ghosts and as far as I can tell, neither does the rest of the Bible.

I'm not sure what I believe about all this, but I think the message woven through all of the Bible is clear: there is more to this universe than meets the eye, spiritual entities are real, and rather than fear the ones we don't know, we should trust the One we do.

Thoughts?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Remembering the Dead

On Sunday, as I was flying back to Johnson City, a man entered the plane. He was obviously drunk and as he staggered aboard I was thinking, “It’s Sunday morning. It didn’t take him long to get wasted.”

And of all the seats on the plane you can already guess his seat assignment. He positioned himself next to me and stared around the plane. “They didn’t want me to come on,” he told me. “But I told them I had to be on this flight. I had to be.”

About then I noticed that no one was sitting in the row in front of us. I figured it would give each of us more space if I went up there. I asked him if it was ok and he said that yeah it was fine.

I slipped up to the front row and somehow we got to talking over the seatback behind me.

“I’m on my way to Blacksburg,” he said. “My cousin was killed there. The sixth one shot.” Then he shook his head. “What could cause someone to do that?”

I swallowed. “I’m very sorry,” I said.

“Thank you,” he said. “I mean it.” We talked a little more and then he fell asleep.

The whole flight I couldn’t help but think about tragedy and how it doesn’t seem real to us unless we meet it face-to-face. Unless it somehow touches our lives. We’re quick to change the channel when we see the starving children in slums around the world until we meet them. We pass by the homeless guy on the street corner without a second thought until we take the time to look into his eyes and see that he’s just like us.

The bombings that happen every day in Iraq aren’t much different than the tragedy on the Virginia Tech campus, but they hardly make a blip on the radar screen of our lives. We hear on the news that another 30 or 50 or 180 people were killed by a suicide bomber and all we can think about is the skim milk we’re supposed to pick up from the store on the way home.

The middle east has its suicide bombers. Here we have suicide gunmen. And we spend a week or a year or a decade remembering their victims and mourning the dead because they are closer to us than the anonymous dead on the other side of the world.

Every day tragedies happen all over the globe. Tears and heartache permeate our planet, but only when they touch our lives do they affect our hearts.

I wonder how long the people of Iraq will mourn the victims at Virginia Tech?

Marketing Genius

Just a quick thought.

The other day I was searching for a place to grab a cup of coffee and I stumbled across a little cafĂ© called, “Coffee, Fudge, and Nuts.” That was the actual name of the place. It’s like calling your restaurant “Hamburgers, Fries, and Ketchup. Or “Pizza, Spaghetti, and Sauce.”

“Are you hungry dear? Let’s head out to ‘Fried Rice, Noodles, and Vegetables’ and grab some lunch!”

Yummy.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mr. White Shorts

Last night my flight was canceled so I got stranded at this hotel in Cincinnati. As I was sitting in the stiff chair in the corner of my room I started thinking about the last time I was sitting in a stiff chair in the corner of a hotel room. That was the night I turned on the TV and found a boxing match.

Usually I’m not really one to watch boxing, but that night I thought it might be cool to watch two guys pound each other to a pulp. You know, just for fun.

As they introduced the fighters I was thinking, “Those guys don’t look all that big.” Then they said what division it was: 115-pound class. That’s like a class for my left leg. I decided to watch anyway. It would be like watching a couple of fifth-graders have it out at recess.

So the match begins and this one guy started beating on the other guy right from the opening bell. I have no idea what the names of the two guys are, but they had different colored shorts. That seemed to be an important part of the whole business because the announcers kept reminding us that the guy in the white shorts was winning. So very helpful.

The guy with the blue shorts stuck his hands in front of this face and the guy with the white shorts pummeled him. That was about it, except for the fact that every couple minutes the guy who was getting clobbered would back up and taunt the dude who was thrashing him. Then he’d run away again and the white shorts guy won every round. And frankly, Mr. White Shorts was getting annoyed and so were all the spectators. They started booing and the announcers were trying to keep things interesting by saying stuff like, “It’s part of his strategy. He’s trying to tire Mr. White Shorts out. It’s brilliant. Just wait until the last round!” It reminded me of a baseball game where every batter is missing the ball, everyone just stinking to high heaven, and the announcers try to keep you interested by calling it a ‘no hitter’ (instead of an ‘everyone misser’) and telling the audience how privileged they are to be watching this “great pitchers' duel.”

So the boxing announcers were trying to make it out like the cowardly guy had a secret strategy no other boxer had ever thought of—to let your opponent work you over until he’s too exhausted to beat up you anymore and then, once you’re a piece of hamburger meat, to punch the exhausted guy out. About then this other announcer got on and I liked him right away because he started saying the stuff everyone in the audience was thinking, “It’s a fight! You step into the ring you do it to fight, not to hide in the corner. This fight sucks.” I don’t know if he kept his job after that, but it was cool to hear him say it.

And here’s what I wanted. I wanted the first announcer to be right. I wanted the whole running into the corner to get beat up thing, to be some incredible strategy where he would suddenly explode to life and come out with his fists flying like itty bitty sledgehammers. But he didn’t. Round after round he ran away, got pummeled, and then he lost.

That was it.

But don’t worry. I don’t think he got hurt. Mr. White Shorts landed almost 1000 punches, but remember he was 115 pounds, so that’s pretty much like bumping into people on the subway on the way to work.

I’m sure there’s some profound truth hidden in that story. Maybe about us cheering for the underdog, or how our expectations frame our view of life, or how important it is to keep a positive attitude, but I just liked watching those little men hit each other. It was so darn cute.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

A Mighty Work and a Mighty Worker

After returning from India last month I wanted my friends to experience a little taste of the exotic and fascinating world I had just been to, so last week we invited a bunch of friends over to our house for an Indian Party. We played music from India, wore Indian clothes, burned some incense, and my wife spent the day (and a couple of days before) preparing Indian food: nan (I know this one, it’s a type of warm flatbread), basmathi rice, mutton vindalu (really spicy), chicken curry, Hyderabadi tarkari, aloo mutter, keema fry, vegetable kurm (you’ll have to ask Liesl about all the rest of these. I just know they tasted good. Everyone else agreed with me…)

Then, after the meal, I showed a slide show about my trips to India and a little about the ministries I worked with over there. (That's my beautiful family in the one pic, and my daughter's lovely friend Sydney in the other.)

During my ten days in India I was privileged to speak at the very first service at a newly-built church, help train writers from various international ministries, lead seminars for Sunday School teachers as well as for a ministry that produces a VBS program each summer for 4 million children. I also spoke at church in a leprosy colony, and told stories at two schools for children who live in slums.

As an added surprise, one of the pastors from India was visiting the states and was able to join us for the party! I first met Caleb last year on my first trip to India. I knew a little about his ministries there, but our mouths dropped open when he nonchalantly mentioned he had started 110 churches in the last ten years in areas of India where there were no Christians at all before.

Then Caleb began to share stories about seeing God heal people miraculously, casting out demons, and about two of his evangelist friends who had been murdered because of their work. We were speechless and humbled. “God has opened mighty doors,” Caleb told us. “He is doing a great work.”

Yes he is, my friend. And so are you.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Long-Term Memory

As I was checking into the airport this morning I walked up to the Delta ticket counter and, before I could say a word, the woman working behind the counter glanced down at her computer and then said, “So, you’re flying to Richmond this morning?”

Now, I fly out of our airport a lot and so I wasn’t so surprised that she knew me, but still, I thought it was pretty cool. “Yes,” I said. “Now that’s what I call service.”

“Oh, we know you here,” she said. I was feeling pretty flattered about then, frequent flyer that I am. Gold Medallion frequent flyer. Oh yeah.

Then she added, “You were mean to me once.”

My heart squirmed inside my chest. “I did? When was that?”

She typed away at her keyboard, avoided looking at me. “You were flying out with your wife and you were trying to use your frequent flyer miles.”

I felt sick. I knew immediately what she was talking about. About a year and a half ago Liesl and I were going to a marriage conference and were trying to fly out together on the same plane. There was some confusion about the frequent flyer miles, or the flight that I was allowed to use them on or something, and I was frustrated. At the time I was struggling with depression, our marriage was on the rocks and, quite honestly, we were going to the conference as a last resort to see if we would actually be able to work through some of our issues.

“That was a year and a half ago,” I said.

“Oh, you’d be surprised what I remember.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I apologize.”

“It’s alright,” she said.

“No, I can’t tell you how sorry I am for treating you rudely.”

“Well,” she said, “you come in here a lot and I’ve been watching you since then.”

Whoa.

And then she said, “You seem a lot more at peace.” When I told her my wife and I were going through a tough time back then, she nodded. “I understand.” Then she told me about her struggles—her father died last year and her husband was just diagnosed with cancer. They would be heading to the hospital together in a week.

“You’d be surprised what I remember,” she told me this morning. “I’ve been watching you a lot since then.”

I felt a little weird saying it after finding out how I’d offended her, but I said. “I’ll pray for you and your husband.”

“Thanks,” she said. “I appreciate that.”

Then I headed to the airplane and she went back to work. And both of us were a little more human than we’d been before.

“You’d be surprised how much I remember,” she said.

I just hope she remembers today.

I know I will.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Bare-Naked Prayers

Everything has been a swirl of activity since getting back from India. Almost immediately after unpacking I had to fly out to Seattle to speak and teach at the Christian Educator’s Conference and then finish editing my new thriller, The Pawn.

But, without boring you with my daily schedule, let me get back on track and share a few thoughts I had recently as I worked on a couple of new book ideas.

Mostly I’ve been thinking about prayer.

All too often today, prayers among North American Christians are unnatural, fluffy, or simply absurd. I’ve heard some prayers that are speeches, others that are sermons in disguise, others that seem to be crafted with the sole purpose of impressing the other people present, others that sound like someone imitating Shakespeare. And of course we’ve all heard these contemporary classics:

“Oh God, we just thank you for just being God and we just ask that you would just help us today and just guide as we just seek to honor you and just bring glory to your name...”

“Father God, you are great, Father God. You’re a powerful God, Father God. And we ask you, Father God, to be with us, Father God...”

As my friend Tim Hawkins, one of the country's funniest comedians, (www.timhawkins.net) pointed out to me, we would never think of talking this way to our friends:

“Oh Bob, we just thank you for just being Bob and we just ask you that you would just come over for dinner and just bring along some Pepsi and Cheetos and just ask your wife if she would just like to come too...”

“Oh Bob Friend, you are a great friend, Bob Friend. You’re a good colleague, Bob Friend. And I ask you, Bob Friend to visit me Friday night, Bob Friend…”

Now, I know that God hears all of our prayers no matter how feeble or ridiculous they are. But imagine how he must long for us to simply talk to him from the heart in a somewhat intelligible way, and to do so without pretense or gimmicks, and without lofty, holy-sounding language or inane repetition.

I believe God wants us to approach him with hearts filled with both awe and familiarity so that we might know him as our king, but yet speak to him as our friend; to pray with openness and vulnerability, with honesty and passion. I think he wants us to share our deepest needs and darkest desires, our hopes and our dreams, our secret little temptations and our dirty little secrets.

What if we came to him with all of our frustrations and questions, like Job… with our deep anguish and bitter tears, like Hannah… with our broken souls and healed dreams, like David… with petitions drenched in sweat and blood, like Jesus? What if we finally brought God all the bruises on our hearts?

We have deep rivers tumbling through our souls, why do we dip so many of our prayers from such shallow, muddy puddles? What would happen if we finally stopped praying comfortable and predictable prayers and started praying honest prayers, raw with the realities of life, tender with the realization of grace? What would happen if we finally brought God prayers with teeth and glory, born of marvel and pain?

Then we would be bringing him our true selves, our unveiled souls. Then we would be offering him our bare-naked prayers.

And I believe our relationship with him would be transformed forever.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Grace of Pain

To celebrate the end of the Writer's Workshop here in Hyderabad, India, we had a special guest: the recently retired head of police for the entire Andhra Pradesh state, a region with a population of 80 million people. Tightly muscled with a steel jaw and eyes like lightning, he entered the banquet hall amid a cadre of bodyguards toting machine guns. Just last week the Naxalite terrorists assassinated a government official near here. The guards had come to protect our guest, but when you met him, he didn't appear to be a man who needed protection from anyone.

I've never in my life met a man who exuded more confidence and poise, whose presence alone spoke with so much authority. During his career he served in the military and the police throughout India, from one end to the other--fighting the Communists on one front and then terrorists on another. And yet, he was remarkably approachable. He joked with me about enjoying basketball and playing a team from the U.S. with his law enforcement friends. "We were evenly matched, of course," he said. "They were all six-foot eight and we were all five-foot eight."

But the most striking thing wasn't his composure and strength, or even his gentle sense of humor, but his words as he spoke during the ceremony. After telling us about his favorite books he mentioned some of his work experiences and said in passing, "I am thankful that God has been kind enough to send a lot of pain into my life."

When the program was finished, I asked him about his words and he nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "I have had many hardships in my life. At one time I was transferred 20 times in 22 years. Always moving with my family. I think of my life like the story of Job. But God has always grown something good. My children and grandchildren are wonderful, and I am thankful."

Powerful words from a powerful man.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Edge of Heaven


Here's the picture of the home of a family of eight in Guatemala City—two parents and six children.

The father gave up a day's income to take off work so he could meet us and thank us.

His wife made us treats and welcomed us with a kiss.

And as I looked around their hovel I thought back to the view from the resort. Earlier in the day I'd thought it was like a glimpse of heaven. But when I saw the thanks on his face and the love in her eyes, I knew I'd been mistaken.

That wasn't a glimpse of heaven.

This was.

The View From Here


I just realized something.

I never told you about Guatemala.

Last month my wife Liesl and I traveled to Guatemala City to visit the work of Compassion International and join other children's advocates on a short spiritual retreat. While we were there we stayed at a beautiful resort at the base of a volcano. (A generous donor paid for the retreat as a way to minister to us, it wasn't paid for through Compassion's funds). I've attached a picture of the view from the resort in this post. Simply stunning.

So while we were there, Mark Yaconelli, the speaker for the retreat, said, "Mel Gibson is staying here too!"

And I shook my head. "No way."

"He is. C'mon."

So Liesl and I followed him to the lobby. And sure enough as we stood there, Mel Gibson was joking around with some of the servers in the restaurant. Then he turned and headed straight toward us.

I wanted to say, "I really respect your work. Thanks for all you do! I'm praying for you," but was too embarrassed to say anything. I just stood there gawking. After he walked past us, gentle warm-hearted Liesl turned to me and said, "That was really Mel Gibson! I could have reached out and tripped him!"

It was so lovely.

In my next post I'll show you a picture of the home of one family Compassion ministers to.

Missing Pearls

Two nights ago when I slipped off to the coffee shop to send some email, I ran into a woman I'll call Vanetta, one of the students in the writer's workshop. She was seated at a table with a man I didn't recognize. Of all the people in Hyderabad I know about eight. Vanetta is one of them.

She told me she was dining with the retired chief of police here in Hyderabad. He nodded warmly and asked me to join them at their table. It seems one of the women she works with had sent the police to her home because the woman's 11-year-old daughter had disappeared and she thought maybe she'd gone to Vanetta's house. This kind man had helped smooth things over.

However, the girl never showed up. She was still missing.

Vanetta works with the sex workers (prostitutes) in Hyderabad, ministering to them and serving as an advocate for them with the police. Last year for several months she had watched this woman's daughter and the girl grew close to her. Vanetta believes the woman tried to sell her daughter for money and the girl ran away.

A shudder ran down my spine. I couldn't help it. I have an 11-year-old daughter.

"The other Pearls were so worried," my friend told me. She calls the prostitutes Pearls. To her they're precious. To the streets they're worthless.

Pearls.

And if these precious women become believers, Vanetta calls them Polished Pearls. "I love them so much and I'm so worried about this girl, please pray for her," she said.

If you can, please pray for Vanetta (God knows her real name), the Pearls she works with, and the young girl who is still missing. Plead God for their safety and entreat him that each of the pearls Vanetta loves so much would be polished by God's Spirit and laced onto the secret necklace that he wears closest to his heart.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Beautiful Fingers

The other day we were driving to the other side of Hyderabad for lunch. As we paused at a red light, I glanced over and saw a Muslim woman sitting beside her husband on a motorcycle. She was wearing a complete burkah with only her eyes and her fingers visible.

And the back of each one of her fingers was covered with ornate markings which looked like tattoos. I later found out that they were traditional markings that would wash off.

But still. I remember thinking, Here's a woman who just wants to be beautiful and the only part of her body she can reveal in public is her fingers. And so, she makes them as beautiful as possible.

And then, the light turned green and we drove deeper into the heart of the city.

Deep in the Story of Life

Every time I think about story, it teaches me more about God.

Here's what I mean. At the heart of every story is a transformative event--either a transformation that we see occurring or one that we realize will occur. Typically, movies begin by showing a portrait of a character in normal life, then a crisis that turns everything upside down, then the person's struggle to return to normal, and finally a discovery and a changed life. Written stories follow this basic pattern as well, but usually include a gripping beginning to snag the reader's attention.

So.

That's what we see in the Bible in the book of Ruth as Naomi moves from a full life to the emptiness of loss, into the struggle to find balance again, and then arrives at last smack dab in the middle of a new kind of normal. It's what we see in the life of the prophet Samuel as he moves from normal life serving in the temple, (without knowing God), to a transformative encounter with God that leads to a new and different life (both knowing God and speaking for him). It's the story of Jesus's disciples, of St. Paul, of Moses, of Abraham, of Adam and Eve.

And of me.

The grand story of the stars is the intimate story of my heart.

When I pause and look into his tale, I see the author of time is flipping through the pages of my life changing me into the person I was meant to be all along.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The God of Lepers

As we entered the leprosy village yesterday, the children ran out to meet us, grabbed my hands and led us toward the church. We stepped through the gate. They'd laid down a carpet from the gate to the doors of the church. All the leprosy patients and their wives and children lined up and, laughing, tossed flower petals onto our heads as we entered.

When it was my turn to speak I shared the story of meeting a man from Iran a few weeks ago on an airplane. He had asked me all sorts of challenging questions about Christianity. In the course of our conversation I told him that Jesus offers us full and complete joy (check out John 15:11). Well, then my new friend asked how I could struggle with depression if I'm a follower of Jesus and he offers such joy.

I didn't know what to say. I wasn't sure I knew the answer. Then, a verse popped into my mind. I said, "In Luke it says that Jesus was a man of sorrows. Why do you think the Bible would describe him like that?"

And my new friend thought for a moment and then he nodded. "Because he saw the world as it really is," he replied. Then after another moment he said, "Jesus was a man of sorrows. That's the best answer you've given me all night."

As I shared that with the lepers, they nodded. They could identify with the sorrows of this world, but also with the powerful hope of Jesus.

For me, yesterday was a day of sorrows and joy; a mixture of laughter and tears. Worshiping Jesus with the lepers, lifting my hands in praise with them, laughing and hugging them, praying with them was an overwhelmingly powerful experience. The same Jesus who reached out to the lepers of his day is still doing so today.

And he's reaching out to me, through them.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Amazing India

Just a quick note today since I'm having trouble getting and staying online.

India.

Amazing.

Outside my window I hear the hum of the cars and the constant beeping of horns on the streets of Hyderabad, here in the heart of south Asia. I'll be here until the 12th of March teaching, writing and speaking at some ministries. It's so breathtaking and overwhelming. Colors and sights and sounds swirl everywhere. So fantastic.

Both heartwarming and heartbreaking when you see the extreme poverty. Hundreds of families living together in slums, under homes made of sticks and rags. Last night we visited a school for the ragpickers—children who can't afford school so different ministries provide for them to attend. They're called rag-pickers because they walk around each day picking up garbage looking for bits and pieces to sell or recycle to buy enough food for supper. I told them stories and was blessed to see them laugh.
Today I taught a group of 40 Sunday School teachers creative storytelling techniques to children. It was so much fun listening to the kind women and men of India read my stories in an accent I never imagined hearing them in before! They loved acting out the stories—goofy actions don't need a translator! Then I did a quick taping of a sermon for a television show that is broadcast throughout Asia. Tomorrow I'll be preaching at a leprosy church and then Monday – Friday teaching writing.

I'm so in love with the people here. So kind. So warm and helpful.

In my last posting I mentioned my friend Cec's home burned down. He was the one who told me about this opportunity to teach writing here. He used to be the teacher before I came. Please do pray for him and for my words tomorrow at the leprosy church. I will be preaching about John 10:10—how Jesus came to give us a full life. For all of us. No matter what our circumstances.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Short is the Life Span of Human Beings

I'm sitting in the airport in Amsterdam on my way to Hyderabad, India. And I think I'm supposed to be tired since it's 4:00 in the morning in Tennessee, but it's 10:00 here. I'm somewhat tired, but more than that sad.

In my last posting I promised to share some thoughts on story and some of the biblical narratives. Well, I'll put that off for now because I just got the news that a friend of mine's house burned down yesterday and his son-in-law was killed in the blaze. My mouth dropped when I read the news, his family is asking for prayers so if you could, please do pray for Cec.

It reminded me, as this kind of thing always does, that life is blisteringly painful and short and tragic and harsh and stinging. And yet, it can be glorious and wonderful and joyful as well. It's a conundrum I can't unriddle. I was actually thinking about this on the flight over here, reading a book called “Living with the Devil” by a Buddhist author. He quotes Buddha: “Short is the life span of human beings. One should live as if one's head is on fire.”

Jesus also reminded us about the brevity of life, and throughout the Bible our lifespan is compared to grass and a mist that passes through your fingers. Today let's do this simple thing, you and I, let's listen to these two great teachers and acknowledge the brevity of life. Do something you would only do if you knew you were not going to live forever. Are you holding a grudge? Life is too short to waste it on unforgiveness. So forgive. Are you bitter, angry, impatient? You are only stealing joy from yourself.

Let's be thankful for the brief moment we have, called today, and let's pray for those who have been recently devastated by the dark side of the gift.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Growing Your Own Tale

I arrived in Portland, Oregon late last night and felt right at home. The weather here in the Pacific Northwest is nearly identical to eastern Tennessee at this time of year and I was glad to see they had drizzle awaiting me so that I would feel even more welcomed.

The culture here is a bit different though, than East Tennessee culture. Instead of barbecue joints lining the streets, you find vegan restaurants. Instead of pick-up trucks, everyone is driving a mountain bike. And instead of finding a church on every corner, you find a microbrewery. To be honest, as much as I love Tennessee, I think I fit right in up here.

It's been a great day speaking at Warner-Pacific College, sharing at chapel, having lunch with some of the students, and teaching a seminar on writing and story craft. As a result of all this I've been thinking a lot about story today – both the shape of a good tale and the movement of a character through the struggle to a discovery and a transformed life.

Here are a few of the points that have been churning around in my brain:
  1. Stories are not lists of events, they are transformative experiences. Every good story pivots on a struggle and a discovery that we, the audience, can identify with.
  2. When God chose to reveal himself to us, he didn't do it by giving us a set of facts but a pack of stories. And even his story, the story of redemption, pivots on the human struggle to find meaning and hope in our splintered world, and the discovery that grace is available from above.
  3. When we study the stories in the Bible it isn't to find the main point, but to enter the story God is telling our world. By identifying with the struggles of the characters in the Bible we can learn with them what it means to be drawn closer to God.
I was able to rethink a few stories from scripture and draw out truths I'd never noticed before. I'll try to share them in the coming week. The excitement and passion of the students here is inspiring. They make me want to dive deeper into the stories I'm writing and the one I'm living. Thanks WP! It's been a great trip.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Moral Meltdowns

Over the last couple of months in the wake of Ted Haggard's widely publicized fall from grace, I've been thinking a lot about pulpits both private and public. If a pastor is caught in a certain type of sin in North America (typically anything sexual) they're asked to leave their ministries immediately. I wonder how often, however, a letter like this shows up at a church council meeting:

Dear Congregation Members,

I'm writing to announce my resignation, as I am no longer fit to be your pastor. I need to make a confession and I can only hope you'll forgive me. I hate to bring such personal matters up in such a public forum, but you have a right to know why I'm leaving the ministry.

For years I've struggled with materialism. I’ve bought things that I don’t need and, I'm ashamed to say, filled my garage with stuff I’ll never use. I have more books than I can ever read, clothes than I can ever wear, and food that I impulse-bought is rotting in my fridge.

In addition, besides being a materialist, I've been an idolater for years. Yes, I know that St. Paul equates greed with idolatry, and yet I've continued to desire more than I need. Rather than sacrificially give to the poor, I've cared more about my own comfort level than theirs. And rather than offering my time and resources to helping the hurting, I've spent huge segments of my life trying to improve my own standard of living. I've been addicted to comfort for years and finally, when I was caught in the act of coveting last night, I've had to admit to myself, and now the world, the extent of my sin.

I know I am getting specific in admitting these sins, and I hope you won't be disgusted by them, but I need to make a clean break and get them off my chest. I want you, the kind people of my congregation, to know that I'm seeking professional counseling to deal with my problems. I know that God will forgive me for being a materialist. I can only hope that, in time, you will too.

Signed,
Your Former Pastor

Your comments are invited.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Audiences and Idiots

On Friday I was teaching creative writing at a seminar in Edmonton, Alberta. The people were great and we had a blast.

Well, I noticed a woman sitting in the front row who didn't seem too engaged. In fact, she seemed well... bored. And even though there were 70 other people in the room who were all totally into what I was doing, that one woman began to bother me. A little voice in my head started saying, "Why doesn't she like me? Aren't I funny enough? Did I offend her? Why won't she smile?" It was annoying. Not only her, but the voice too.

Then suddenly I heard another voice. I wish I could tell you it was God, but I think it was just common sense. It said, "Ok Steve. So 70 people are laughing, learning, connecting, loving this seminar and this one woman isn't into what you're doing and you're letting that bother you? Do you have any idea how stupid that is?"

Um no. I didn't.

Why do I do that? Why do I let these perfectionistic tendencies get such a firm grip on me? I want to be wanted, I love being loved. But in that moment I realized that not everyone is going to love me and I better just learn to deal with it.

That revelation was sort of depressing and also encouraging at the same time. I'm not perfect. Everyone else knows that. And I'll be alot more fun to be around when I can learn that too.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

First Peek at "The Pawn"

Hey everyone. Exciting news! I just had to share this.

For years I've had this idea of writing a thriller that explores the interplay of good and evil in the human heart. Something intense, unsettling and downright scary. My favorite reads tend to be high-octane, adrenaline-laced stories. So, I decided it was time to write one.

Well, it's finally coming together. The Pawn is scheduled for a September 2007 release from Revell Publishing. This is the first in a series of three books featuring FBI criminologist Patrick Bowers. So today, rather than sharing any deep (or maybe not so deep) spiritual musings, I thought I'd just share my good news. Here's a look at the cover artwork, fresh from my publishers. You, my faithful readers, get the first peek.

I'd love to hear your responses—good or bad. What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know. If you don't like it, this is the time to speak up!

You've all been so encouraging and supportive over the years as I've written educational and inspirational books. I can't wait to introduce you to my alter-ego as a thriller writer.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Believing in Forgiveness

I hear people talk about forgiveness all the time: "God has forgiven you, but have you forgiven yourself?" But honestly I have no idea what that means. What does it mean to forgive yourself?

As far as I understand forgiveness, when someone forgives you, they cancel the debt that you owe them. So, when we get consumed with self and materialism and judging others and all that other junk we do every day, we build up a debt of transgressions against God that only he can forgive. Or maybe, we've hurt someone with an affair or a half-truth or a verbal attack and we need them to forgive us. In each case the debt we owe someone else needs to be canceled. All that I can understand. But when we do this stuff we don't owe ourselves an apology, so how could we forgive ourselves?

I think what people mean by that phrase is, "Have you accepted the forgiveness that's being offered to you?" And that's the kicker. Because truthfully, most of the time I would have to say no. I don't really accept the gift of forgiveness because it takes a ton of humility and courage to accept the idea that I owe anyone anything--and even more courage to accept that they have canceled that debt.

So that's my goal for today--to say yes. To accept the gift of God's, and other people's, forgiveness. As hard as it is, as humbling as it is, that's what I seriously need right now. The courage to accept a canceled debt.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Climbing Out of the Cave

I've noticed something during the times when I've gone caving: once you've been underground for a while and your eyes get accustomed to the darkness, it takes some time for your eyes to adjust to the light. The longer you've been in the cave, the more stark even a faint whisper of light appears. You see a glow illuminate the rocks, the walls, the ceiling of the cave. It looks so bright, but it's not. It's just a hint of light climbing into the cave, a promise of things to come. It only seems so bright because you're so used to the darkness.

Over the last few months I've been crawling out of a cave. In my book Sailing Between the Stars I wrote about my bouts with depression and, apparently just to prove I wasn't making it up, I started getting swallowed by the darkness right after the book came out.

So if you've been waiting to hear from me, forgive me. I've been moving back into the light and the eyes of my hopes, my dreams, my writing are only now starting to adjust.

Over the next three months I'll be traveling across the US and aboard speaking and teaching. I look forward to sharing some of the insights and struggles and discoveries I have as I explore the world beyond the cave. The ground is steep here, but the light is getting better with every step I take.