Monday, December 12, 2011

What gets you up in the morning?

I've been meditating this week on a verse from John 4 where Jesus tells his disciples, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to do his work."
This is my food? What did Jesus mean?
This is what nourished Jesus. This is what fed him. This was his sustenance, what fueled his engine, what motivated, compelled, prodded and goaded him.
To do his father's will was what turned Jesus' crank. It inspired, stimulated, stirs and strengthened him. It charged his batteries, got him up in the morning, and got his blood pumping. It satisfied him, quenched his thirst, and built him up. It fired him up, jump-started him, put a spring in his step, put a fire in his belly, fanned the flame, and encouraged him forward.
To do his father's work ignited a passion, birthed vision, and invigorated him.
It popped his buttons, put the wind in his sails, was the wind beneath his wings and stoked the fire.
It transfused him, infused him, motivated, stimulated, caffeinated, and awakened him.
It greased the wheels, was a kick in the pants, got his juices flowing, pumped him up, and put a song on his lips.
To do the will of the Father was what floated his boat, put the wind at his back, empowered, and emboldened him. This is what energized him, got him going, wet his whistle, and lit the fuse. It invigorated him, instilled desire, and stirred him.
How about you?
What motivates you? What gets you up in the morning?

Have a great week!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Security Concerns

There has been a lot in the news about this place. My country of residence's army has invaded their neighbors to the north east to try to root out the religious extremist group that has been slipping across the border to spread their reign of terror. So, of course, there have been threats of reprisal. Two attacks in the capital yesterday. Warnings to stay away from public places such as restaurants and shopping malls. For the first time, I've seen armed police patrolling our hospital grounds (armed but wearing flip-flops!) so I know the government is concerned.
And of course, my friends are writing, expressing their own questions about our safety, their concerns that we are well.
We are safe. Relatively.
We pray. We trust. We try to obey what God has called us to do. (That calling is also for you, by the way, because the Great Commission isn't just for those of us who have decided to cross cultures and oceans for the sake of the gospel. It is for all Christians.)
We follow common sense precautions.
But friends, we have made a choice. No one forces us to take risks.
Other risks exist for me. This week alone, I've done four major abdominal operations on patients with AIDS. Sure, I take precautions, wear two pair of gloves, eye protection etc., but there is always the risk of an inadvertent needle-stick.
What could possibly motivate me to leave the relative safety of America, expose myself to the threat of terror and the risk of deadly virus contraction?
The joy of sharing the good news of Christ and having one of those AIDS patients confess new-found faith in the cross.
I want to see God treasured in the hearts of all people.
I am reading more of David Platt this week. This morning, from his book, "Radical Together," I read:
"God has called us to lock arms with one another in single-minded, death-defying obedience to one objective: the declaration of his gospel for the demonstration of his glory to all nations. This is God’s design for his people, and it is worth giving our lives to see it accomplished."
Sometimes I think that those who warn me to avoid risk don't believe in the reality of hell. Don't they believe that there are some things for which it is worth exposing ourselves to risk? How about the risk of spending an eternity without Christ (not for me, I'm certainly not doing this because I'm trying to win a spot in heaven, but for those I've come to serve)?
We follow the lead of Christ. He risked everything for me. I love him. I want others to love and cherish him, too.
And that's worth risking my life for.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My Trip to Dadaab

During the months leading up to our move back to Kenya, Dadaab was frequently in the news. Lately, it has fallen from the front pages, slipping from the attention of western media who are more concerned with Hollywood, which star was seen with whom, who was arrested, and what he or she was wearing.
Dadaab. Yawn. Why should we care?
Dadaab plays desert host to five camps, home for nearly 500,000 Somali refugees.
They arrive, one thousand in number EACH DAY. Malnourished and driven from their homeland by violence and famine. And Dadaab becomes their refuge.
But as I sat and experienced Dadaab last week, I wondered at how such a desolate, hot place could be considered a refuge.
It's all a matter of perspective, huh? At least in Dadaab, the refugees aren't dodging bullets from Al Shabaab. At least they are given a small ration of oil, sugar and grain.
I arrived with a small team eager and willing to do surgery in a primitive camp hospital. There, I found a hardworking staff accustomed to doing without. There was a gunfight on the Somali border. They brought some of the wounded to us. One boy (was he Al Shabaab?) was carried in suffering from a gunshot wound to the neck. He had obvious spinal cord injury. I wanted an x-ray, but none was available in the camp hospital. We could move him (risky) to a local district hospital, but they don't do x-rays on the weekend. OK, so I felt I was being asked to fight Mike Tyson with one arm.
The UN council for refugees have been trying to resettle the Somalis, but I was told they only moved 800 refugees out last year. When you compare that to the thousand that arrive everyday, you understand the math of overcrowding.
I spoke to a Kenyan working for the Kenyan CDC. He spoke in solemn terms: "We've logged over a thousand cases of measles in the camps since July." Wow. I guess vaccinating our children against these horrible diseases is a good idea.
In the midst of the camps, the UN staff stay in a compound surrounded by a triple razor wire fence. In the evenings, they gather at outdoor tables and drink cold Tusker beer and in general seem to try to forget the suffering around them. I cannot pretend to understand what motivates them. Guilt? Perhaps they get a charge out of life in a dangerous setting? Perhaps they are working at understanding their own plight? Maybe they enjoy patting themselves on the back for a good deed done to the poor.
What about me?
My motives are impure. Sure, I desire to see Christ treasured by all people. I desire to be light in a very dark place. I want to love the refugees or at least be a channel of Christ's love to a people without much hope. For me, this isn't have-to work. It's get-to, a matter of grace. But, somewhere within my motivation to serve Christ by serving the poor, I too, enjoy the admiration of others, the excitement of working in a place where armed escorts are the norm and the odds are stacked against you. But, in my honesty, I come back to Christ and offer my work as a gift of gratitude. My gift is far from perfect and my motives will never be pure, but I'm encouraged that God never requires me to perfect my motives before offering what I've got in my hand.
It was a long trip, nearly 12 hours of bus-travel, culminating in getting stuck in the sand just outside our UN compound in Dadaab.
Yes, Dadaab is a hard, dry, hot place, where time crawls with sweaty determination. For a half-million refugees, it's home with no other destination in sight (some have lived there for twenty-plus years!). At the end of a few days, I got back on a bus and headed for greener pastures, a luxury not afforded those whose life is defined by a number assigned by the UNHCR.
The contrast of seeing Dadaab is good for me. I think I'll whine less. Praise more.
And soon, I'll return to serve Jesus there again. Because I'm pretty sure He lives there too.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

That which is truly life.

I love this phrase from 1Timothy 6:17-19: "that which is truly life." That's the life I want to live, the life that's mine because of my new position as a son of God. But what does it mean? Let's look at the context:

"As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storying up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of THAT WHICH IS TRULY LIFE."

All of the daily "disasters" that we face, such as anxiety, anger, guilt, greed, bitterness etc. can be thought of as the fallout of a life lived in the service of self, a life lived in celebration of the gospel of a domesticated Christ (where Jesus has come to serve me, forgive me, and clean up my life rather than me serving Him). It is the "good life" where we are on the throne, material possessions promise to bring fulfillment and our future is what we make it (i.e. the "American Dream"). What God is offering us in the gospel is nothing short of freedom from a dead life and a life of self-service, a life where love is the currency, peace is the result, and our boast is the cross.

This is what Paul tells Timothy is "truly life."

The gospel of the real Jesus is perfect. It's all about him. In the real gospel, I get to confess my greed and call it the sin that it is. The central focus of the gospel of the real Jesus is the cross. Sacrifice isn't something I do to gain acceptance. The cross already did that. Sacrifice and suffering can be the avenues God uses to help us find our treasure in him.

Yes, Christ promises us abundant life, but I'm not allowed to define the ins and outs of abundance. It doesn't mean I'll drive the fastest car, live in the nicest house, and have the best job. But it does mean that God is the one who is sovereign over all these details in my life. Because of the cross, I can't claim a pain-free life, but I can know the grace that promises to sustain me no matter what the cost.

The abundance Jesus promises has to do with peace in the midst of turmoil, grace in the midst of pain. Confidene replaces fear, and hope dawns after the darkest of nights.

Because I hold the hand of the real Jesus, I don't need to be afraid of sacrifice and risk. If he's in control and I'm in hardship, then I believe he has allowed it for my good.

Because the real Jesus demands our all, the gospel will always stand juxtaposed against the American Dream. That means that the true gospel will never find itself in the "in" position in American culture.

Do my attitudes always conform to the gospel fo the real Jesus?

Sadly, no.

But that's why I'm challenging myself (along with you) to dissect below the skin of our belief structure.

Let's make sure that Christ is at the center.

Then, the fallout of the real gospel will start.

And that's where "that which is truly life" begins.



Sunday, August 28, 2011

Saying "Goodbye."

We've just arrived back in Kenya and survived our first week of unpacking, sorting, arranging, and painting.

But that's not what's on my mind. I'm thinking about saying, "Goodbye," something we who have chosen to serve far away from family and friends seem to have to do too often.

This time around, I've left two sons, my father and two sisters in addition to our friends, those we lean on for support.

Saying goodbye is tough.

Remember Hannah's story in the book of First Samuel? She struggled with infertility, wept for a son, and finally when the Lord granted her request, she raised him only to give him away (to the priest, dedicating her son to God) again.

I think about how hard it must have been for Hannah to say goodbye. Yet just after giving her son up, she prays the most beautiful and interesting prayer. Here is just a part (from "The Message"):

"I'm bursting with God-news! I'm walking on air. I'm laughing at my rivals. I'm dancing my salvation."

Really, Hannah? How can you be rejoicing when you've just given up the very one for whom you wept and prayed?

Hannah must have had a God perspective. Hannah knew that saying goodbye was really, in light of eternity, only a "see you tomorrow."

Yes, we have had to say goodbye too many times. But the one who asked us to follow Him in this endeavor is the same who gave up His only son for me.

God knows our goodbyes will be temporary. Our sacrifices are small in comparison to what has been done for us.

Lord, will you help me pray like Hannah? Fill my heart with the confidence that rests in knowing that reunions are just around the corner.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

In Love's service, only the wounded soldier can serve.

I want to be in Faith's Hall of Fame but I do not want to inherit the suffering that is my ticket in. Without pain there is no victory.

I want to bring God glory, but I don't want to submit to the dizzying effect of the Potter's wheel, the heat of the furnace, or the Carpenter's chisel.

I want to be God's voice. I want to laugh and sing. I want to be God's hands. I want to clap. I want to be God's feet. I want to run and dance.

But to be God's voice, you must be willing to cry. To be God's hands you need to be pierced. To be God's feet will find you dusty and smelly and nailed to a cross.

In Thornton Wilder's play, The Angel that Troubled the Waters, the story is told of a physician at the Pool of Bethesda hoping to be healed of his melancholy. The angel appeared and stirred the water but blocks the physician at the moment he is ready to step in and be healed.
The physician drew back as the Angel said that the moment is not for him.
The physician protested and the Angel explained, "Without your wound, where would your power be? It is your very remorse that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men. The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In love's service, only the wounded soldier can serve. Draw back!"

I want to serve.

Am I willing to submit to the wheel, the furnace, or the chisel?



Monday, August 1, 2011

Reading makes people happy!

According to research done at the University of Maryland, reading makes people happy. This question appeared in a poll published in Parade magazine yesterday. 5. Question: If you're sad, which of the following is most likely to cheer you up?
[a] Watching reruns of your favorite sitcom
[b] Reading a novel
[c] Tuning in to the news
Answer: [b]. People who read often are happier than those who watch more TV, according to researchers at the University of Maryland––even if the plot of their paperback is depressing.

Wow, so even reading a depressing book can cheer you up!

It is interesting to me that what people don't want in their personal real life is exactly what makes for good fiction: CONFLICT! We love to read about other people's misery. It seems that people want a diversion from thinking about their own problems, and what better way than to read about someone else's?

There is a bit of irony in this for me. As a writer, I want to encourage people to think about their own lives. I want them to form an emotional bond with my characters, so that as my characters encounter problems and overcome them, my readers will be inspired to do the same. In other words, I want them to look at themselves! But the very reason they read fiction in the first place is as a diversion (so they won't have to think about their own lives).

Ahh, the challenges of being a writer....

At least the research shows that readers are happier.

I think I already knew that.

Have a great August. I know I will. I'm moving back to Kenya this month. More about that adventure later....


Thursday, July 21, 2011

God's BFF?

I passed a local church with a sign out front today. On one side, it said, "You are God's BFF." On the other side, it said, "Accept God's friend request."


I get the current social media references and it all may be true, but something about the messages seemed to trivialize something that's very precious to me. I am God's friend. But He is also Lord of the universe.

Does God request our friendship? Perhaps so, but the transaction to purchase our friendship and our sonship came at a huge personal cost (to Him). The sign makes it sound like something of an invitation to a party, not a life of sacrifice, growing love, and service. The emphasis seems to be in the wrong place. Instead of what we are to Him; salvation is all about what He is.

Maybe I'm taking it too seriously. Someone may drive by, read the message, drop in for a Sunday service and a life will be changed.

Or maybe not.

What about you? Do you like the message? Why or why not?


Sunday, July 10, 2011

What would you pack?

I am leaving for Africa in less than six weeks. Not just for a two-week vacation, but moving back, taking up Kenyan residence and planning to stay for three years.

So that means packing. My wife has put out an open action-packer (Rubbermaid container, the perfect maximum size for allowable plane luggage) to periodically add the things we think of that we want to take along....Must have books from a crammed bookshelf, my favorite high-tech flashlight, a new pair of running shoes for my wife, her must-have brand of hairspray (unavailable in Kenya), and American stamps for mail we send back to the US with visitors.

That made me start thinking. What would you pack if you could only take one suitcase (let's say, other than needed clothes) and you were leaving for a long, long time to a place far, far away without a lot of American "stuff."

What would you pack?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Are you a good liar?

I ran across this post after an author-friend pointed it out.

Take the test. It's fun and may be a little informative.

My "Q" pointed to the right. How about yours? Do you think it works?

Just a little fun for a Friday!


Follow the link to take the test:

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Great Creator of the Grand Canyon

Why did I wait so long to visit the Grand Canyon? I finally went last month and took the pictures on a hike down from the south rim. I took lots of pictures, but as cliche as it sounds, it's true, "pictures don't do it justice." But they are all I have for illustration, so it will have to do.

I get reflective when I'm surrounded by the awesomeness of nature. I think we all are wired this way to a degree. We see something incredible, and it speaks of the greatness of the creator.

I've been thinking about what John Piper said about visiting the Grand Canyon and self esteem (something man seems to value, but I'm not sure is so important). I'm going to let John's words finish this out because he says it so well.

This is shocking. The love of God is not God's making much of us, but God's saving us from self-centeredness so that we can enjoy making much of him forever. And our love to others is not our making much of them, but helping them to find satisfaction in making much of God. True love aims at satisfying people in the glory of God. Any love that terminates on man is eventually destructive.”1

Later, he summed it up: “Nobody in this room would go to the Grand Canyon to increase your sense of self-esteem. Nobody stands on the edge of the Alps or the Rockies or the Grand Canyon in order to go there to feel better about ourselves. Do you know why you go there? Because you were written to be satisfied with splendor, not self. You were created and a law written on your heart to be infinitely, eternally, fully, joyfully satisfied in a grand splendor not a great self. I plead with you lay it down. Lay down your quest for the applause of men, the approval of men, and begin to get on a quest for the one thing that will satisfy your soul -- the splendor of Jesus Christ and all that God is for you in him. I just plead with you for your own soul's infinite happiness that you will stop pursuing it in the wrong place … We have an invincibly triumphant savior - Jesus Christ. Don't turn away from him to yourself. Don't want praise for you; give praise to him. Know him; he'll satisfy you.”2

1“The Goal of God’s Love May Not Be What You Think It Is,” Dallas Morning News, October 14, 2000.

2 Piper, “Thankful for the Love of God! Why?” November 18, 2001. Both articles available from Desiring God Ministries

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lessons I learned from my mom.

Picture adapted from "Everything's Coming Up Sock Monkeys!" by Bonnie Kraus Connelly

Here are a few edited comments from the tribute I gave at my mom's memorial service yesterday. Mom was in failing health for some time and her passing, although a sorrow to us, is also a rejoicing as she has no more pain.

My mom taught me that life is better if you don’t take it too seriously. She would not want us sitting around mourning. She’d want us laughing.

When I was younger, my mother took me for a weekly violin lesson. Now many of you know that Mildred was always on time. I wasn’t. And she would be in her big green Buick, behind the wheel in the garage waiting for me. She’d wait until I was in the garage, right in front of the car when she’d lay on the horn.
She faithfully wrote her children letters while we were away at school. Before email, when people actually did this. They weren’t profound, but newsy, just making a connection with the twins and me. And at the bottom, she’d adjust the size of her handwriting to fill in the space. Am running out of room now so must close. Small if there wasn’t much room. Or big if she needed to fill up the page.

My mom taught me how to cuss. And not Baptist cussing like gosh, darn or even gee whiz. We weren’t allowed to say those words because they were too close to real cussing. Now, for mom it was, Deed! Or if things were worse, Deed and double! Oh my stars! Or if things were even worse, “oh my stars and garters!” (What does that even mean?) Growing up, I didn’t know who Pete was, but if Mom invoked his name, I knew I’d done something pretty stupid. Oh for Pete’s sake! Most good mothers have a comment specifically to make their children feel guilty for when their stupidity was particularly epic. Christian mothers design these comments to be carried on into the child’s adult life. Mildred’s was remarkably effective in this regard and I still hear her voice when I’m being stupid. “Oh for pity sake or just oh for pity!”

She taught me not to put on airs. She was never one who sought to impress others with social standing or clothing. This carried over into the time she served as a missionary both in Africa and in Albania. She refused to let anyone put her on a pedestal as a missionary. In fact, she never got very spiritual about her calling to go. I remember at a commissioning service before she and pop left for a year in Kenya when she was asked about why she would want to go and serve. Here was her chance to let everyone know of her answer to the great commission or her great calling. Instead, she simply said, I’ve always wanted to be a return missionary and I guess going is the only way to accomplish that.

Mom taught me that the day goes better if you have a secret stash of Three Musketeers candy bars. And in her last months when I knew she didn’t have long and didn’t have an appetite, when I’d help feed her, we pretty much just concentrated on the dessert.

Mildred taught me that the only kind of acceptable snake was a dead snake. I remember my mother watching over us as we swam in the Warwick River. Now, my mother couldn’t swim but she wasn’t there to rescue the kids if they were in trouble. No, she was there, shotgun by her side to kill the snakes. There were always extra kids there. I can’t really imagine what the other parents thought. The only adult watching the children in the river can’t swim. But don’t worry, Mildred’s got a gun.

My mother taught me that the Bible could be read and understood without a seminary education. She had a high school education. She had the audacity to believe that if the Bible said “Do not be anxious,” well then, it must be an affront to a loving God if she walked around in a careful state. She considered worry a sin, and therefore it was a foe that, like a snake, should be vanquished. Once she learned this principle in mid life and started to practice it, she acted like a woman who wasn’t about to be pushed around by a spiritual enemy. And she wasn’t above invoking the name of Jesus out loud to put the devil in his place. I can just imagine the devil’s reaction to hearing my mother was out of bed in the morning. “Crap, Mildred’s up. She’s got a gun.”
Oh for pity sake. I hear ya Mom…cussing in church…but they weren’t my words, I was quoting the devil’s vocabulary.

My mother taught me about contentment. Mom turned everything into a song. Growing up, if we were out of dessert except for applesauce, she made up a goofy song about it. Even in her waning months when she was frequented by pain, she often started grunting or gasping with a pain but quickly turned it into a song so that it would go something like this Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh to be like thee, oh to be like thee. The pain was forgotten, replaced by a melody. Later, when she’d forgotten most of her favorite hymns, she still remembered children’s songs, so she would cry, Oh dear. Oh dear. And soon her pain would find a melody. Oh dear what can the matter be?

In fact, even in her final weeks when she was confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk, on oxygen, non-healing leg wound because of poor blood flow, I said to her, “You never complain.” She looked at me from her wheelchair, oxygen tubing in her nose and she said, incredulous at my comment, “Well, I don’t have anything to complain about!”

My mother taught me about facing tragedy. Many of you know that Mom’s life wasn’t without its sorrow. After having four miscarriages, her doctors told her she was unable to have more children. But then she lost two sons to a river drowning before I was born. Later, she miraculously had twin girls and then me. But how did she respond? With fear and avoidance? No, she responded by facing a threat head on, equipping us, getting my sisters and I into swimming lessons from an early age. And then she moved us down to the river so we could grow up swimming.

She wrote down a few things she wanted spoken at her memorial service and I was reviewing them this week. She wrote this on the bottom of the page. “I’m expecting that I will see all of you again soon in your perfected eternal life. Please, don’t any of you disappoint me! See you soon!”

Well, I’m running out of room now, so must close.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Have Skeleton; need muscle.

I'm in the initial stages of a new novel. I call it the skeleton stage.

I start with a central idea that will carry the meat of the project. The first idea comes with a protagonist, someone who I am determined to get into a lot of trouble before everything is done.

The skeleton stage is all about research. I need to elaborate on the central conflict adding muscle (sub-plots, characters, troubled backstory and layers) that will give my story movement.

Then I'll need organs, the major plot points that will get my protagonist through the chief conflict, arriving at the end with some definite growth as a result of dealing with the conflict.

I need skin and connective tissue to bring it all together in a way that won't seem choppy and disconnected. It has to look real enough so that readers won't think, "that would never happen."

At this stage, I have an open folder called "Novel 15." Inside, I have documents that are nothing but a jumble of ideas. I'm searching for the reasons for my characters to act like I need them to act. I'm learning to know my characters at this stage. Some days, it feel like a bag of loose bones. I've got a tibia, a set of ribs, some vertebra, a mandible, a femur and a humerus.

Now I need to fit them together.

The more work I do now, the better and faster the result later. The problem is, when the word-count on the novel isn't piling up, there is a sense that nothing is getting done. That's not really true; but it's a feeling I need to fight.

I'll be happily writing away soon enough, heading down that road until I reach a final step and pull out the paddles on the defibrillator to see if I can shock this monster into life!

Enjoy the process, folks. Whatever you are working on, I'm pretty sure there is a "skeleton stage." Do the foundation work right and you will see the good results later on.

Here's to the bones!


Saturday, April 2, 2011

Writing From the Heart

Someone a lot smarter than me once said that we write non-fiction to convey information; we write fiction to elicit emotion. I’d like to suggest that the best non-fiction does both: it conveys information by stimulating an emotional response.
So look back over the last scene you’ve written in your work in progress. Forget all the little pearls you’ve been taught about limiting attributions, killing those pesky adverbs, and avoiding repetitive words. Resist the urge to line edit. Just ask yourself one question: How did it make you feel?
Did it make you angry? Good.
Fear? Very good.
Love? Hate? Excellent.
In a novel that may involve hundreds of pages and dozens of scenes, ask yourself whether it deepened your emotional response on any level. Did it make you love more? Deepen your anger? Ratchet up your fear?
If you don’t feel something or feel something more, toss it out! The reader whose emotions aren’t involved is a reader who is going to skim ahead looking for a bit of tension that will grip him or her at a heart level.
Writing that is made up of beautiful sentences, graced with metaphor and simile, but doesn’t make me feel something is unlikely to impact me for a minute beyond the time I devoted to the reading. Words that anger me, touch a chord of fear, or make me love or hate are words which will be remembered!
Mark Twain said, “No tears the writer; no tears the reader.”
So this can become our judge: as you are writing, what are you feeling?
I remember a few years ago, I was working on a novel. I had gotten my hero into all sorts of trouble: false accusations, loss of job, threatened career and relationships, all the cards stacked against this guy. Finally, late in the novel, he comes to faith. I was setting in my favorite chair, writing the conversion scene, and as I wrote, tears spilled onto my cheeks. My wife walked by, pausing to look at me and question, “Are you OK?”
I nodded. “Seth just came to Christ.”
Hardly. If I didn’t care about the outcome for my protagonist, if I wasn’t ├čemotionally tangled in the climax, neither would my reader! Don’t let your friends convince you that just because your characters are imaginary, they don’t matter. They deserve your emotional investment. In fact, if you don’t invest emotionally in them, your readers won’t either.
So forget all the other writing pearls for a minute and reread your last paragraph. Are you touched at a heart level?
I hope so. If not, you risk creating a page of information that your reader will grow impatient with, turning ahead until something strikes them in the heart.
As we reach out to non-Christians around us, we can take this information to another level. Although we carry the great truth of the gospel, unless you wrap it in emotion, your friends will likely keep searching. I wish I knew who said this because it’s so true: they will not care what you know unless they know that you care!
Emotion (love, joy, hate, anger, fear) is what makes a message stick!
We have been told (quite incorrectly) that truth is the engine, faith is the coal car and feelings are the caboose, obviously not reliable and certainly not to be trusted. That’s craziness! The God who asked us to love him with all our minds asks us also to love him with all our souls.
That subject is way bigger than I can address here. For now, give this simple test to your latest writing and see if it will pass. How does it make you feel?

Monday, February 28, 2011

My favorite teachers.

It was in the late 1990s when I had a humbling conversation with one of my writing heros, Frank Peretti. As an author publishing with the same publishing house (Crossway Books), Frank had been gracious with his time and critiqued a manuscript for me. I remember one of his comments like it was yesterday.

"You're breaking the rules, Harry."
I leaned forward. "What rules?"
He smiled. "Don't be afraid to read what the fiction teachers are saying."
When I questioned him further, he gave me an example of how I had broken a point-of-view rule in a scene I had written. Now realize, at that point in time, I had been blessed by having four novels published and had a contract in hand to write a fifth one (that I hadn't yet started). But until that time, I had only written by natural gifting and had never opened a book to instruct me on how this whole fiction world worked, and what the "rules" were (essentially what works and doesn't distract the reader). So I went to work and started reading book after book on how to do what I'd already been doing for years. The result? I had to fight being "gun-shy." As I read "the rules," I found myself worrying. Can I do this?
Of course, that was a silly worry, but when you write without knowing all the rules, you don't really have a basis for worrying if you are doing it correctly!
I think my early success slowed my maturation as a writer. Now, my writing is much tighter, and hopefully I've learned a few tips about conflict, suspense, pacing, and tension along the way. I've been able to polish my dialogue and edit more efficiently.
Now, people often ask me, "who are your favorite fiction teachers?"
I have a few I pay attention to. Here are my favorites: Donald Maass. He has a series of books including the one I pictured above about writing the breakout novel. Read all you can find from Sol Stein and James Scott Bell and even a guy named James Frey (although his books How to Write a Damn Good Novel I and II prompted my then 12 year old to put masking tape over the spine of the book and substitute the word "Very" for "Damn.") OK, so I'm glad my son didn't like the title, but I loved the advice.
Who are your favorite teachers?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Characters that Resonate

If you've ever been to music store you've likely seen rooms with dozens of guitars hanging along the walls for display. I love stores like that. A few years ago I bought my dream guitar, a Taylor made of koa wood.

If you stand in a quiet room with guitars all around you and strum a chord on just one of the instruments, something interesting will happen. The strings of the guitars around you will begin to vibrate. In fact, I've been told that if I wanted my guitar's wood to age (guitars often sound sweeter as the wood gets older...hopefully like experienced authors, huh?) that I should leave the guitar out on a stand instead of always stored away in a case so that the guitar would be exposed to sounds in the room. The strings will vibrate as a result of being exposed to other music.
This is called resonance. It's an important part of fiction, too. What causes readers to remember a story long after the last page? I think it has to do with resonance. Something about the character or their experience or their emotional response to a conflict strikes a chord within the reader and they find themselves nodding their heads in agreement.
It isn't as simple as fashioning a character who acts, looks or thinks just like your readers. No one wants to read about characters who are just like themselves. Protagonists have to in some way be bigger than life. Readers want to read about characters that they wish they were.
But a character can't have qualities that are out of reach. They have to be admirable, but also human. That raises sympathy for the character, something that is necessary if your readers are going to stick with you for the length of a novel.
This also works in life. We all carry our personal stories and we should be sharing them with others. But sometimes we fear that our experiences are unique, different, or weird and that others won't relate to them. Opening up to others about our humanness can be scary, but is almost always freedom-producing. In reality, most of our stories will find resonance with others and will serve to bind us to them in ways that conversations about the weather can never accomplish.
I'm always on the look for qualities in my characters that will find resonance in my readers. And along the way, I need to share my personal stories with those God puts in my path. When I pluck my guitar, other guitars around me start to vibrate.
Just think about it.