Sunday, October 31, 2010

Weakness: Faith Makes It Harder

“Faith, alive in our weakness, looks like a war,” writes Michael Spencer in Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality. “It’s an impossible war waged against an untiring adversary: our sinful, fallen nature. Faith fights this battle.”

That’s about as un-American statement as you can make. The way this is supposed to work is – gain faith, grow, be victorious – just like the whole self-improvement thing tells you. And America is not anything unless it’s the “land of opportunity” for self-improvement.

America is that. Or it has been that for most of its history. That idea is a very powerful part of our national DNA (and one reason why the Tea Party has been upending established politicians of both major parties).

But self-improvement – always getting better – always reaching newer and higher and better – is not exactly how faith works. That a lot of us think that way is an example of how culture can infiltrate faith. What we face with faith is decidedly different. Like Spencer says, “What does this fight look like? It’s a bloody mess. There’s a lot of failure in it. It is a battle where we are brought down again and again.”

Nobody tells you this when you become a believer. Often, you’re told just the opposite. You might be told about the process of sanctification lasting a lifetime – but it is usually described in terms of progress as opposed to process.

What no one tells you is that life will often become more difficult. “If anything,” he writes, “it’s a life that is far more uncomfortable than one’s life before encountering Christ.”

And what Spencer describes here has been precisely my own experience.

You study, you pray, you learn, you start doing things differently and thinking things differently, and one day without realizing it you’re suddenly doing what you always did. Bad habits. Addictions. Anger. Holding grudges. Teaching your children to do the same stupid things you do.


It often seems easier to chuck the whole thing because it always seems so hard.

And then someone comes alongside and gives some encouragement, or you’ll read about others struggling the same way, or someone will come to you and ask for help and guidance. And you realize that all of us are broken, the mending will take our entire lifetimes, and it will never be completed.

So why bother?

Because the alternative is brokenness without hope.

Nancy Rosback over at Bend the Page has been leading us in a discussion of Mere Churchianity. Last week she discussed Chapter 11; this week she writes on Chapter 12. Also see Fatha Frank’s postings at Public Christianity, and his post last week entitled “Label Me, I’ll Label You.”

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Little LSU Fan

LSU 's football team has an off-day this weekend, and likely looking ahead to next week's game against Alabama. While we were visiting Louisiana last week, we spent a day at the old alma mater, and we hit the bookstore, which does sell a few books mixed in among all the clothes and LSU fan paraphenalia. And guess what we found?

Cameron's father, who attended the University of Missouri, frowned when he saw all the LSU clothes we brought back for our grandson. He'll get over it.

Photograph of Cameron Young by Stephanie Young (Travis Young would never have dreamed of taking it). Used with permission.

Saturday Good Reads

From the end of harvest to a little black dress, to reading Allen Tate in a hospital room and the last lights of October, it was a great week on the web.


"Do You Hear What I'm Saying?" by Ed Blonski at True Men Ministries.

The Last Dance of Harvest” by Jennifer Dukes-Lee at Getting down with Jesus.

Inner Voice” by Fatha Frank at Public Christianity.

The Little Black Dress” by Sarah Salter at Living Between the Lines.

The Swing Set” by Jeff Jordan at To My Children, If They Are Listening.

Chasing Happiness” by Billy Coffey.

Birthday Requiem” by Charity Singleton at Wide Open Spaces.

It Took Prison: Part One” by Jessica McGuire at Jezamama.

Rescued!” by Doug Spurling at Spurling Silver.

Note for Oct. 28” by Cameron Lawrence at Thirty in the A.M.


"Somethin' Sunday" and "A New Day" by Jerry at Under the Doorframe.

"The Toll of Silence" and “Dear God” by John Blase at Dirty Shame.

"Fire Exchange" and “Autumn Drizzle” by His Fire Fly at Flickers of a Faithful Firefly.

"Prairie Well" by Kathleen Overby at Almost Paradisical.

The Meaning of Being Haitian” by Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

Beautiful” by Kathy Richards at Katdish.

I’m a Second Man” by Michael Perkins at Untitled.

Juxtaposition” by Steven Marty Grant at Urbanality.

While reading Allen Tate in a hospital room” by Justinian at Delight and Glory and Oddity and Light.

My Way” by Karen Eck at Karenee Art.

Paintings and Photographs

"Daisies" and “Calverton Cornfield” by Steve Gravano at Take a Look Around.

"The Frost" and “Autumn Gratitude” by Jessica McGuire at Jezamama.

"Poplars Across the Field," Watermedia on Yupo, and “Menucha,” watercolor on paper, by Randall David Tipton.

"October's Last Lights" by Harriet Gillham at The Other Side of the Mountain.

Home Again with Photos” by Karen Eck at Karenee Art.

A Change” by Susan Etole at Just…A Moment.

Sunday Snapping” by Michelle DeRusha at Graceful.

Photograph: Lamp, by Nancy Rosback. Used with persmission.

Friday, October 29, 2010

What Happened in College

When we were in New Orleans last week, we took one day to head down memory lane and drove up to Baton Rouge to see LSU. I could write volumes on what happened while I was in college, but three things stand out.

First, I started LSU as a freshman in pre-med. I was going to be a doctor, which had been my father’s own career dream until the Great Depression short-circuited any hope of college (he graduated from high school in 1933). I came out of LSU with a degree in journalism, which was a much better fit for my personality and talents even if it would never put me anywhere close to the same socio-economic status as a doctor.

Last week, my wife and I walked though the Journalism Building. It’s radically rehabbed and redesigned form when we had classes there but recognizable enough to identify “This is where I took newspaper and design” and “they was the Law of Journalism class.” What had been the office of the school newspaper (The Reveille) is now a computer lab.

Second, it was in that office of the Reveille where I met Janet, and we were married seven months later. I was the newspaper’s managing editor for my last semester as a senior – responsible for everything except the editorial page. I had four copy editors, three photographers, an arts editor and a sport editor reporting to me, along with 30+ reporters. It was crazy, and I loved it.

I spent long hours in that newspaper office. Within a few weeks of the start of the semester, the campus was hit by a flu epidemic. All of my copy editors got it; my sports editor got it; two of my photographers got it; and several reporters. I was spared, but for weeks, I worked from 11 a.m. to 6 a.m., editing, running my one photographer ragged, writing, laying out all of the pages, cajoling painstaking reporters who were perfectionists about what they wrote (I won’t mention any names but I married one), and then delivering all of the finished copy and photos to the printing office at 2 a.m., waiting around while the typeset was produced, and then pasting up the paper for printing at 6 a.m. We published four days a week.

The third thing had to do with my faith.

Right across the street from the Journalism Building was Lockett Hall, housing faculty offices on the upper floors and large lecture rooms in the basement. Those were the classrooms I took two classes of U.S. history, Louisiana history, Russian history and “Introduction to Fine Arts,” a lecture class complete with slides always held in a darkened room and perfect for taking naps.

In one of those classrooms, on Jan. 26, 1973, about 9 p.m., I was led to Christ by the campus director for Campus Crusade for Christ. In the picture below, I’m sitting in almost exactly the same position I was that night (the seating is a lot newer but similar).

An interesting side note is that when we walked into the classroom last week, there was a pocket-sized copy of the New Testament/Psalms/Proverbs lying on the floor, very close to where I had sat that night. I left it on the desk near the podium.

Who knows, some student journalist might walk in and find it.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

How Am I Hearing from God?

Bonnie Gray over at Faith Barista has been doing a blog carnival for several weeks now, on different questions of faith. For this week, she posed this question: How am I hearing from God?

How, indeed.

I’ve pondered that question for a week; driving home from New Orleans this past weekend afforded some time to think. I realized that it’s actually easier to answer the negative form of the question, or how I don’t hear from God: I don’t hear a voice whispering inside my head, giving me instructions, and I don’t hear a voice speaking to me in the dark of night.

And then, walking to the office building where I work from the parking lot, I saw the sky pictured above, and it all became clear.

I hear God when I read his word. The books of the Bible that are the most familiar to me in this regard are Genesis, the Gospel of John and Acts.

I hear God when I look from the pavement to the sky, and see a sky that stuns me with its beauty.

I hear God when a minister who’s no longer a minister leads a devotion, and there’s pain and searching and love and wonder.

I hear God when our church music director plays Widor’s Toccata from the 5th Symphony in between services, for no reason other than the joy that fills his heart and overflows onto the keys and pedals and pipes.

I hear God when my seven-month-old grandson laughs his seven-month-old laugh.

I hear God when my wife touches my arm or my face, or we exchange a look that only we can translate.

I hear God in the emergency room on a Saturday night.

I hear God in the wind that pulsates the leaves of the trees in my backyard.

I hear God in the calls for help that came from attics in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, cries that continued after the phone batteries died, cries that continued after the voices went silent forever.

I hear God in the tears of abused women and children, in the screams of rape victims in the Sudan and the Congo, in the dying murmurs of the sick and dying in Port-au-Prince.

I hear God in the flowers.

I hear God in the shouting of the stars on the blackest night and in the waves crashing to a beach at full tide.

I hear God in the words of the poets, the paintings of the poets, the photographs of the poets and the music of the poets, because the singing won’t stop because it can’t.

I hear God in the silence of the mountains.

I hear God in the prisons of Iran and China, and in the prisons of America and Britain and France, and in the prisons of Cuba and Venezuela.

I hear God in the one voice that will stand against tyranny.

I hear God in my pastor’s sermon.

I hear God when hearts are made vulnerable, susceptible to breaking.

I hear God because I have to listen.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Post at The High Calling

Today, I have a post over at The High Calling – a story about having no grandfather stories. The post will be live this morning. As a small introduction…

Grandfather’s Story

He stares, dimly, peering
at, listening to this
world he’s been
designed into.
His hand wraps
around my finger, with a
surprisingly strong grip
for one less than
an hour old.
I lean my head and kiss
the little forehead, and
I know:
today, a grandfather
has been born.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Trains of Childhood

Of all the sounds
I knew as a child,
the most familiar,
the most easily
forgotten because
they were the natural
Muzak of life, were
the sounds of the horns
of trains in the new
hours of morning darkness,
long plaintiff cries emitted
where tracks crossed roads.
I lie in my childhood
bed, hearing them now,
remembering when
I didn’t hear them at all.

This poem is part of the poems submitted to One Stop Poetry for One Shot Wednesday. The links will be live at 4 p.m. central time today.

Photograph: Railway Signal by Michael Drummond via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Scott Cairns: The Poet of Pilgrimage

When I attended the High Calling editorial team meeting and writers conference at Laity Lodge last month, I participated in the poetry workshop led by Scott Cairns, professor of English at the University of Missouri. I posted three articles on the workshop: the first day, the results of the overnight assignment, and a kind of summary and thank you to the participants.

Today, Christian Manifesto has posted my article on Scott – “The Poet of Pilgrimage,” in which I consider four of his works – two books of poetry, a memoir and a long essay. Take a look and let me know what you think.

French Quarter Roaming

While we were in New Orleans last week, we did some roaming through the French Quarter. The weather was fantastic – highs around 80, low humidity and sunshine – perfect for roaming.

We wandered around Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral, walked up Royal Street (a pedestrian mall during the day), looked around some shops, and the walked back down Royal, where we were suddenly confronted by none other than the Lizard Lady (that’s what she called herself), a street performance artist who turned her Boom Box on and did odd, lizard-like movements while the music played (the music was odd and lizard-like, too).

Another block down Royal, we turned into Pirate’s Alley, where one of my favorite bookstores in the world is located – the Faulkner Book House, in the house known as the Faulkner House (where William Faulkner lived in New Orleans and where he wrote his first novel). Immediately after the picture below was taken, I slipped inside the shop (tiny by any comparison) and browsed the poetry section. Yes, I walked out with books of poems by Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens, and a couple of others.

Walking alongside the cathedral toward Jackson Square, I looked up, and saw this view below. I thought of Claire Burge, the photography editor at the High Calling, and her conversation about the rule of thirds. Out came the trusty smart phone.

After coffee and doughnuts at Café Du Monde, and more shopping (more books!), we walked along the New Orleans riverfront where my wife was serenaded by an older man with a guitar and I made a $2 donation.

The French Quarter has changed over the years, but it’s always had lots of traffic around Café Du Monde on Decatur Street, artists hanging paintings on the fence around the square, tourists walking around looking like tourists, an always interesting collection of inhabitants, a highly tolerant attitude toward all kinds of behaviors (taken to extremes on Mardi Gras Day), and really fine restaurants mixed in among the really not-so-fine restaurants (and it can be hard to tell the difference until you eat the food). I had the BBQ shrimp in broth at Mr. B’s Bistro on Thursday night, and it was excellent.

What was personally encouraging was to see how crowded the Quarter was; the city is slowly but surely coming back after Hurricane Katrina. And in a city always ready to look for a new and insulting way to make a buck, I saw t-shirts for sale that read “BP – Big Polluter.” Yesterday, BP’s CEO reported that the damage reports from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill had been exaggerated by the media. He should have been with me at the Come Back Inn when my order-taker gave me a look of total disbelief when I asked if they had oyster po-boys. You can find oysters in the city, but you won’t find the large Gulf oysters. I’m sure their demise has been exaggerated, too.

You don’t find a lot of people who live elsewhere and are “from New Orleans.” Natives tend to stay. It’s the food, yes, but it’s also a lot of other things, mostly the people and how they hold both pessimism and optimism together in a creative tension. It’s the place I’ll always think of as my hometown, and there’s more of it in me than I’ve realized.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Home from Home

We were in New Orleans last week, visiting my mother and friends and playing tourist. We ate well, too (something easy to do in New Orleans) – shrimp po-boys, red beans and rice, blackened tilapia with crabmeat, BBQ shrimp stew, café au lait and beignets at Café Du Monde – what’s not to like? Like this picture below – my wife holding a plate of beignets (powdered doughnuts).

I walked almost every morning through the streets where I grew up. It’s amazing how one can associate houses and streets of childhood with vividly clear memories and stories.

There’s the garage window, now hidden between two palms, where the snowball lady handed out cone-shaped cups of flavored ice every summer for a nickel.

There’s the house where Meany lived – she kept every ball than landed in her yard and so earned her name.

Or those two backyards that were part of the field where we played baseball, right next to the woods. The woods have all gone to houses, too, but I still remember how the trail wended through the trees and scrub so thick that you could lose sight of anything to do with civilization.

And the ditch, now covered over, that we knew contained “polio water” – fall into it, and the disease could get you. Of course, we all fell into it at one time or another; no one got polio but the disease held a huge influence over our minds, even after the Salk vaccine.

I walked by my old elementary school several times. It looks radically different than what it was when I was there (first through sixth grades). The building that houses my third grade classroom has been demolished (it was already decrepit enough to need demolishing when I attended class in it). The entire school now has red tile roofs on all the buildings; the roofs used to be flat and prone to leaks.

Only one of the school buildings looks even remotely like what I remember – the two-story classroom building where I attended fourth, fifth and sixth grades. I remembered the fifth-grade class play – Pollyanna. I played Jimmy Bean, the heroine’s young friend. And singing songs in the sixth grade, mostly patriotic ones that today would be considered chauvinistic and militarist.

Gone, too, are the trailers – the temporary classrooms installed to handle the Baby Boom.

And the faces of memory – Paul Laborde, my best friend in the second grade; Brigetta Arwe, my fellow third grader whose family had emigrated from Germany; my first-grade teacher Mrs. Balser, who told us there was no such thing as Santa Claus and faced the wrath of irate parents; my fifth-grade girlfriend, Mary Ellen Shanks, who moved away the following summer.

Home is a special place. And place can be a powerful thing, reminding us all of the ghosts and mists from our childhood.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Michael Spencer doesn’t like adjectives. In Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality, he takes on all those adjectives we Christians – we American Christians – clutter our lives with.

Like in worship. Traditional worship. Seeker-sensitive worship. Emerging worship. Spirit-led Worship. Ancient-future worship. Dynamic worship. Extreme worship.

Or the victorious Christian life.

Or good Christian witness.

Or faithful church member. Or spiritual Christian. Carnal Christian. Reformed Christian. Fundamentalist Christian. Progressive Christian. Pentecostal Christian.

How about, totally confused Christian?

After experimenting with every kind of adjectival Christianity there was, Spencer finally came down to one question: could there be a gospel without adjectives?

The answer turned out to be yes. but a lot of stuff had to be cleared out of the way first. And then he heard a lecture on Martin Luther, and it knocked him flat. Spencer learned what Martin Luther had learned almost 500 years ago.

“For the first time,” he writes, “the truth that Jesus is the One Mediator between God and human beings knocked me to the floor and suspended me over the truth that God had done all things necessary for my salvation. I could stop looking for the secret key, and I could ditch the quest to demonstrate that I was a Christian hero. I was humbled as I looked at a universe of grace that filled my empty soul with the love of God in Jesus.”

There is nothing else I could say to add to that.

Nancy Rosback at Bend the Page, Fatha Frank at Public Christianity and I have been having a discussion about Spencer's  Mere Churchianity. Check their blogs for some really good thoughts.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Saturday Good Reads

I've been mostly off the grid this week, so the list is shorter -- but it's all still good.


Ah, the Sweet Life” and “Beneath the Caribbean Sky” by Louise Gallagher at Recover Your Joy.

Getting Uncluttered” by Bradley Moore at Shrinking the Camel.

Transformation” by Linda Chontos at Linda’s Patchwork Quilt.

Snooze Button” by Michael Perkins at Untitled.

Provocative Readings on the Future of Christianity” by Mark Roberts at BeliefNet.

In Praise of the Temporary” by Bill Coffey via

Breaking Barriers” by Bob Spencer at Wilderness Fandango.

Emma’s Church” by Doug Spurling at Spurling Silver.

The ‘Issue’” by Bill Grandi at Cycleguy’s Spin.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Jeffrey Overstreet at the Image Journal.

The Do-Nothing Kid” by Michelle DeRusha for Make a Difference to One.

Changes Bring Sorrow” by Jessica McGuire at Jezamama.

Sudan: Wrap-Up and a Call to Action” by Sarah Salter at Living Between the Lines.

Learning Lessons Well” by Ted Gossard at Jesus Community.


Sleeping” by Melissa at All the Words.

Silence…Somethin Sunday” by Jerry at Under the Door Frame.

My Arms Tell the Season” and “Drive Me Through the Rapids” by Michael Perkins at Untitled.

Anticipation” by Jeffrey Turner at The World Through My Eyes.

Burn Out” by Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

The passion and the pain” by Pete Marshall.

Fall Drive Through Western New Jersey” by Steven Marty Grant at Urbanality.

Shattered” by David Brydon at Poetry Blog.

Paintings and Photographs

Hobos’ Leavings” by Kathleen Overby at Almost Paradisical.

Shade,” watermedia on Yupo by Randall David Tipton.

Photograph: Lamp, by Nancy Rosback. Used with permission.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Arturo Perez-Reverte’s “Pirates of the Levant”

I will have to admit up front that Arturo Perez-Reverte is one of my favorite authors. Years back, I discovered him accidentally by looking for a novel by mystery write Anne Perry – and Perez-Reverte was right next door (it was a Barnes & Noble, in case you’re interested). The novel I picked up was The Flanders Panel. I bought it and read it, and returned to the bookstore to find everything else I could be the author. Then I went to Amazon to find whatever the bookstore didn’t have.

Then Perez-Reverte began a series about Captain Diego Alatriste and his sidekick, young Inigo Balboa (who is also writing the tales as an old man long after the events). The books are set in 17th century Spain, and they are full of swordfights and romance and palace intrigue and suspense and loads of history about the period.

Pirates of the Levant is the sixth of the Alatriste novels. And it is decidedly different from its predecessors, in that there is no overarching story that frames all of the events and actions. (In The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet, for example, the overarching story is the rivalry between Alatriste and the king of Spain for the attention of the same actress; it tells you a lot about Alatriste that he knows you don’t compete with the king of Spain but stays involved anyway.)

Instead, what Arturo-Perez does in Pirates is to draw a series of stories about Spanish ships patrolling the Mediterranean, fighting pirates and Moors. Alatriste and Balboa are aboard one such galley, and the reader experiences the seagoing life (including that of the galley slaves who man the oars) with the prodigious research the author brings to the each book. The story culminates in a sea battle that looks impossible to win, or even survive.

The point here is what constituted military life at sea during the period. Far from the court intrigues of Madrid, Alatriste and Balboa move from one battle to another, one encounter to another, punctuated by the occasional serious conflict but mostly experiencing a kind of sameness, like life upon the sea is often depicted.

Pirates of the Levant is still a good story, but it is a different kind of story than Perez-Reverte has told before. But it does have all of the richness and historical detail one expects from his fine and entertaining novels.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thursdays - Pleasantly Disturbed

It’s another stupendous edition of Pleasantly Disturbed Thursdays, with our leader Duane Scott in command and leading the way through the darkness.

Speaking of Duane, he’s getting married Nov. 6. You might want to tell him congratulations at his blog or on Twitter -- @duane_scott .

I’ve been reading David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. Add that to Michael Spencer’s Mere Churchianity, and I’m going to turn into a bomb thrower.

I didn’t post anything about when it was announced a couple of weeks ago, but I think the Nobel Committee did a remarkable thing when it gave the prize for literature to Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. I was introduced to his writing in 1986 when I took a seminar on the Latin American Novel for my master’s program.

The first of his novels I read was The War of the End of World, which was based on a true story. And then The Green House, and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. I did my seminar paper and presentation on Conversations in the Cathedral, which is simultaneously one of the most difficult and rewarding novels I’ve ever read. (William Faulkner is easy compared to that book – I thought I was going to lose my mind reading it until I realized how it was structured, and then I started it over again.) I’ve read virtually everything he’s written.

I’ve been mostly off the grid (i.e. Twitter and Facebook) this week, and there’s a reason, which I’ll explain in a few days. Because of that, I'll have a shorter edition of Saturday Good Reads this weekend.

And, last, but not least, what everyone’s been waiting for – a photo of Cameron Young and his grandfather. (I’m the one on the right.)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Have Faith, Be Happy?

Last week, Bonnie Gray over at Faith Barista posed this question for her ongoing blogging jam on faith: How does your faith connect to your happiness?

I thought back to something that happened to a friend of mine many years ago. She walked out on her husband and children to (eventually) marry a co-worker. And her reason was that “God wants me to be happy.” Well, that was the reason she gave. It was a lot more personally palatable to say that than “I’m destroying my family because I think I’ve fallen in love with another man.” In a real sense, she was assigning responsibility for her own actions to God.

I’ve been suspicious of happiness ever since.

It’s not one of the major themes of the Bible. There are about 20 references to words translated as happy, including quite a few in Psalms. But happiness as a concept is mostly connected to obedience and service. There is no statement or passage or teaching in the Bible that could conceivably be stretched to justify abandoning your family because “God wants me to be happy.”

The point of the universe is not our individual happiness. Somewhere along the line we decided that the Declaration of Independence (our creator endowing us with certain inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) was biblical. The pursuit of happiness may be American, but that doesn’t translate into happiness being the point of our faith, or why God created us in the first place.

We’re called to be faithful. That doesn’t mean we’re called to be happy. Nor does being faithful mean that we will automatically be happy, at least in the sense we understand it.

I think of happiness as a temporal, and temporary, thing. Too many things can overcome it. It’s more a fleeting emotion as opposed to a steady state of being. If someone asked me if I was a happy person, I would have to think about it, but I think I would say I consider myself a blessed person, and that’s more important than my notions of happiness.

To see more posts about faith and happiness, visit Bonnie at Faith Barista.

Photograph: Happy Face by Vera Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Pearl

One thing he didn’t say
about the pearl of great
price is what force and
energy and friction are
needed to shape it and
mold it and polish it.
Otherwise, it’s just an
ugly piece of grit,
suitable for irritating
the stomachs of oysters.

This poem is submitted for One Shot Wednesday, sponsored by OneStopPoetry. The links will be live at 4 p.m. central time today.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Inescapable facts:
stark knowledge refuses
to fade into hidden memory,
instead splintering its way
into carefully constructed
walls, opening catalogs of
wrongs, hurts, wounds,
injuries, the seven deadlies
afflicted and received.
Resolutions cast aside.
Determinations sidetracked.
Commitments forgotten.
Promises broken.
Canopies of fig leaves
open at the slightest wind
to reveal separation,
separateness, isolation,
nakedness, shame.
Disobedience is just
another pounded nail.

To see others posts on condemnation, please visit the One Word Blog Carnival over at Bridge Chumbley’s place.

Photograph: Nails by Teodoro S. Gruhl via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Travis Thrasher's Love Stories

Author Travis Thrasher is today associated with well written suspense novels like Isolation and Ghostwriter, including Solitary, the first book in his new Young Adult series. (He’s also got three other writing projects underway for publication in 2011 – the guy not only writes well but he writes well and prolifically.)

Interestingly enough, Thrasher started his writing career with two collections of love stories.

Because I like his novels, and because I usually like to read everything by an author I like, I was able to get my hands on both collections (one was easy; the other was not and took quite some time before an Amazon affiliate got hold of it). The first is The Promise Remains/The Watermark: A Collection of Love Stories (2001) and the second is Three Roads Home: Stories of First Love & Second Chances (2003).

The Promise Remains/The Watermark is two novellas. In The Promise Remains, a young couple who fall in love during a summer camp find their way back to each other (and just in time to avert one’s pending marriage). The Watermark is a more contemporary interpretation of the story of the prodigal son, in which a young man from a wealthy family experiences years of guilt for the responsibility he bears for the death of a young woman because he was DWI.

Three Roads Home is a collection of three novellas, and they continue the themes of first loves and second chances found in the earlier volume. In Somebody, a young married couple have an argument about the wife’s suspected infidelity just as the husband is going out the door to catch a plane to Germany; the plane crashes in the Atlantic. In In Care Of, a successful author with a family he loves receives an email from his first love, and then faces the possibility of meeting her. In Still Life at Sunset, a young woman returns home to make peace with her past, and discovers an old love.

I like these stories. Thrasher early on was demonstrating his ability as a storyteller. But I discovered something else. These love stories foreshadow a number of the later suspense novels to come.

That shouldn’t have surprised me. A love story, after all, has elements of suspense, even considering the suspense is about “will they get together” as opposed to “will they get killed.”

But there are also specific stories lines and plot developments in the love stories that will see a different kind of treatment later on. The geography of The Promise Remains, for example, is very much like the geography of Solitary and plays much the same role. There is a Mexico parasailing event in Still Life at Sunset that will become a major element of the novel Sky Blue (and one of my Thrasher favorites). And then there are the surprise twists and plot developments that are used so well in both the love stories and the later suspense novels.

The love stories all stand on their own, as do the later suspense novels. But they’re of a piece, and it’s interesting to identify and understand the connections. But whether you read his love stories or his suspense novels, you're in for some good reading.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Who Defines Stickiness?

We’reached the final chapter of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survivie and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. The authors have covered the “basics” of stickiness, and now point to four villains that will undo and circumvent stickiness every time:

• The natural tendency to bury the lead – to hide (usually unintentionally) what the real point is.

• A focus on the presentation rather than the message. The forms of a slide show, a formal speech, or a press release are not what should determine what you’re trying to say.

• Decision paralysis – when you have too much choice ot the situation is ambiguous.

• The “Curse of Knowledge” – where you confuse how you arrived at your idea or message and confuse it with how to communicate it. In other words, you communicate it like you were the audience (more on that word in a bit).

A good example the Heaths cite is that tool that has done more to destroy communicate than aything else in the modern era: PowerPoint. “Business managers,” they write, “seem to believe that, once they’ve clicked through a PowerPoint presentation showcasing their conclusions, they’ve successfully communicated their ideas. What they’ve done is share data.”

The point of all this is simple: don’t treat the people you’re trying to communicated with as an audience.

I wrote a paper on this once. I said that, for communication purposes and any other purpose, for that matter, employees are not an audience. No one you’re trying to communicate with is an audience. The word assumes a passive group of people who will listen and “get educated” or be entertained. A group of people watching a movie in a theater is an audience; a person watching a television show may be part of an audience. The person sitting in a conference room listening to you talk, the person in a large hall listening to you speak, or the people joining you for lunch are not an audience. Instead, they are people you’re trying to communicate with, perhaps build a relationship with or become part of a community with.

But they are anything but passive. And today they’re often tweeting what you’re saying while you say it, and offering their own commentary in the process.

(By the way, I wrote in my paper that “message,” as in “my message points,” also should be tossed on the trash heap of bad communications.)

Ultimately, it is the people you’re trying to communicate with who will define stickness. Understanding them, their needs, their desires, and how best to talk with them will make what you’re saying stick or be ignored as superfluous.

Laura Boggess has been leading a discussion of Made to Stick at The High Calling. Last weels discussion on stories can be found here.

The posts in this series:

On Simple: The One Time Something I Did Went Viral

On Unexpected: Singing Opera in Journalism Class

On Credible: As Concrete – as Air

On Concrete: It Was All in the Numbers

On Emotional: An Engineer Got Emotional
On Stories: The Sticky Stories of Billy Coffey

Bible Reading

The night I became a believer (almost 38 years ago), I was given a green padded-cover copy of The Living Bible. I had read portions of the Bible before, and even memorized scripture for catechism (King James Version), but I had never really read the Bible before.

I was told to start reading the Gospel of John. I had never read it, and it was like reading a revolutionary treatise. Yes, Jesus loved me. Yes, he had a wonderful plan for my life.

But Jesus was a bomb thrower.

I hadn’t met this Jesus before. He didn’t mince words. He could be loving and tender, but he could also be fierce. He didn’t duck confrontation. And he had this laser-like ability to cut right to what the real issues were.

This was a Jesus I had never met before, almost a complete stranger.

In Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality, reading the Bible and especially the gospels is what Michael Spencer says will change your life, and possibly change it radically. He also says that it is exactly this practice of “reading Jesus first-hand” that many in the church find so threatening.

I pondered that: the American Christian church would find reading the Bible to be radical and threatening? This sounded almost pre-Reformation.

I didn’t know what I thought this until I pictured Jesus showing up to turn over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple – and it could have been where the prosperity gospel was being preached.

Or showing up at any church that believed it had the whole thing figured out and theologically mapped. Or how he might challenge our own learned teachers and theologians. Or that we would likely find him in the inner cities and Third World ghettos instead of the typical American suburb. He would be wherever the hurting, the needy and the poor would be found.

Spencer isn’t advocating the overthrow of the church. “I believe in the importance of Christian community and the ministry of that community to provide boundaries and definition to our spiritual growth and healthy spirituality,” he writes. “I mourn, however, the loss of our openness to the voice of the Holy Spirit directing us in new and important Jesus-shaped directions…The natural conservatism of institutions is deeply rooted in the desire to survive, and that desire colors and limits the way they read the Bible and how they see God functioning in the world.”

I believe in the church. I believe in the local church. I believe I attend a solid, Bible-teaching, Jesus-based church.

But I still have that copy of The Living Bible. And I remember what it was like to “read Jesus” for the very first time.

Nancy Rosback at Bend the Page, Fatha Frank at Public Christianity and I have been reading Mere Churchianity. Check their blogs for more discussion. See in particular Fatha Frank’s post on “The Perfect Church?” and Nancy’s post on chapter 9 on the book.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Saturday Good Reads

If you got any free time for reading today, there is a lot of good stuff here.


The bird of time” and "Maxi" by Louise Gallagher at Recover Your Joy.

Worth” by A.G. Harmon at The Image Journal.

I Know a Little Bit” by Michael Perkins at Untitled.

The Monstrosity of Christ” by David Griffith for The Image Journal.

What you need to do after next Sunday’s sermon” by Ann Voskamp at A Holy Experience.

5 Characteristics of a Friend Who Cares” by Kevin Martineau at Shooting the Breeze.

Of Fairy Tales and Monsters” by Billy Coffey.

Speaking into Silence” by Karen Eck at Karenee Art.

A Christian Mid-Life Crisis?” by Charity Singleton at Wide Open Spaces.

Hold On Tight” by Jeff Jordan at To My Children, If They Are Listening.

A Letter to North American Churches” by Makoto Fujimura.

Conjuring the Ineffable” by Andy Whitman at The Image Journal.

How Do You Know?” by Jessica McGuire at Jezamama.

Is there a solution to bullying?” by Kathy Richards at Katdish.

"He doesn't give up on me, so how can I give up on you?" by David Rupert at Red-Letter Believers.

"The Cafe" by Jerry at Under the Door Frame.

"Family" by Sarah Salter at Living Between the Lines.


The Fall of New York” and “Spanish Steps” by Steven Marty Grant at Urbanality.

Emily” and "Brown Around" by Jerry at Under the Doorframe.

Worn” and “Once” by Nancy Rosback at Crossroads.

Prayers of the People” by John Blasé at Dirty Shame.

Waiting to be Inspired” and “All is Right” by Jeffrey Turner at The World Through My Eyes.

Not Because of You” by Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

Falling” and “Reaching” by Melissa at All the Words.

Who is for Dinner Tonight?” by Brian Miller at WayStationOne.

A Bell Rung” by David Brydon at Poetry Blog.

Our World’s More Full of Weeping Than You Can Understand: The Stolen Child” by William Butler Yeats via Greg Sullivan at Sippican Cottage.

Burnt Blood and Feathers” by Karen Eck at Karenee Art.

Slip” by Bradley Moore at And the Other Thing Is.

The Fun of the Morbid Man” by Fred Sprinkle at I Force It to Rhyme.

Brush Against My Face” by Michael Perkins at Untitled.

"Autumn Winds" by Justinian at Delight and Glory and Oddity and Light.

Paintings and Photographs

Watching” by Susan Etole at Just…A Moment.

Another Autumn,” oil on paper by Randall David Tipton.

Photo-Playing” by Laura Boggess at The Wellspring.

America” by Nancy Rosback at Crossroads.

Reflection” by Jessica McGuire at Jezamama.

Photograph: Lamp, by Nancy Rosback. Used with permission.

Friday, October 15, 2010


July 3, 1996 - October 15, 2010

Shawn Grady's "Tomorrow We Die"

A dying man hands paramedic Jonathan Trestle a piece of paper with seemingly nonsense scribbles, saying “Give this to Martin.” But the man doesn’t die and discharges himself from the hospital. When Trestle tires to return the paper, he finds the man dead, this time permanently.

Then the man named Martin dies – and his body disappears from the morgue. And then Trestle realizes what the scribbles are all about, and finds himself under arrest and on the run.

Shawn Grady, author of the previously published novel Through the Fire, has written another wild suspense ride through the streets of Reno with Tomorrow We Die. But there are three aspects of his second novel that make it every bit as good as the first one – and even a shade better.

First, Grady draws upon his own experience as a paramedic, to render the action and details of the story vividly real. Instructions at response scenes are barked and received in language that only a paramedic would know and understand, and yet the reader is able to follow closely.

Second, he develops Through the Fire as both a suspense story and a love story. Trestle connects with Naomi, a nurse serving on an emergency medical helicopter and a former girlfriend he walked away from. The romance is rekindled and becomes part of the suspense story.

Third, Grady draws the character of Trestle in complex ways that make him more than only a character is a suspense story. He was to live and deal with an alcoholic father, deal with his own feelings about the death of his mother, find his way back to Naomi, and protect his acceptance into medical school, not to mention deal with several villains and attempts on his life. In the process, Trestle becomes a very three-dimensional and very real character.

Grady’s writing, already solid in his first novel, is even better in Through the Fire. And he tells a first-rate suspense story, too.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Another Pleasantly Disturbed Thursday

Once more, it’s that time of the week, when our intrepid leader Duane Scott officiates at Pleasantly Disturbed Thursdays.

Yesterday, page visits to a blog post I did earlier this month skyrocketed (well, “skyrocketed” may be too strong a term, but my normal number of page visits quadrupled in a day). I couldn’t figure out why – there didn’t appear to be a single source. And then I found out that High Calling Editor Marcus Goodyear had included that post of mine in a Faith in the Workplace newsletter he does for Christianity Today Magazine (online).

Thank you, Marcus. That was an awfully nice thing to do.

In August, something similar (but smaller) happened when someone took a poem I’d posted and linked it in StumbleUpon. Whoosh went the page visits. Thank you, Someone.

I’m familiar with this stuff, and I know this online stuff, but I still get amazed when it happens.

It’s been two weeks since I went to the High Calling editorial team to Laity Lodge near San Antonio (that’s “near” in Texas terms; it was actually about 140 miles away). Since then, the High Calling web site has merged with the High Calling Blogs web site; the combined site is simply The High Calling. I really like the design; and I’ve successfully maneuvered the Drupal platform and actually posted an article this week: Is God More Pleased with My Work than I Am?

Ann Kroeker, one of our number at Laity Lodge, did a blog post this week on the experiences they had at their lodge house (Lodestar) with scorpions. We didn’t have scorpions at our lodge house (Song Bluff). I did have to get rid of a wandering cricket in my bedroom, though. A couple of people closer to the main lodge had experiences with tarantulas. And I was followed by a couple of vultures while hiking one of the trails. (That was a little unnerving; I think I’m on a hike and they think they’re looking at dinner).

I’ve been reading a lot of good stuff lately:

• Billy Coffey’s novel Snow Day was officially published on Monday. It’s storytelling like only Billy Coffey can do it.

• I finished Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, the book we’ve been discussing for The High Calling; my last post on it will be Sunday afternoon.

• I read Three Roads Home, a group of three love story novellas by Travis Thrasher published in 2003.

• I’ve started reading Another Hotel Room: Selected Poems 1988-2008 by Steven Marty Grant.

Thanks to all you who commented on my post yesterday – the one about approaching a tough decision on what to do with our elderly dog. I talked with the vet Wednesday, and we’ve worked out a process for sometime in the next two weeks or so. I was so cool, calm and totally professional with the vet on the phone. I only lost it twice.

Finally, it wouldn't be an official Pleasantly Disturbed Thursday without a new photo of the world’s greatest grandson. My daughter-in-law Stephanie took this picture while trying to fit him for clothes – and she found this hat. So, here’s Cameron in a bear hat.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tough Decision Ahead

The time is approaching. It will be sooner rather than later. And eventually I will have to decide.

It’s about the dog.

He’s 14+ years old. He arrived in our family when he was about three months old and my youngest was in third grade. Son and I had driven one Friday afternoon from St. Louis to eastern Kansas, spent the night in Lawrence, and then drove the next morning to Emmett, Kansas. The breeder lived on a farm (down a long dirt road from the highway and then over a log bridge), had nine children and raised two kinds of dogs – Papillons (or Toy Spaniels) and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. We were there for a Cavalier.

He’s been part of the family ever since. Thoeretically he was supposed to be my son’s dog, but parents know how that goes. Actually, my wife and I took the most care of him.

And now he’s 14+. The vet rather cheerfully tells me he has the heart of a five-year-old dog, unusual in a breed prone to heart trouble. But he’s mostly blind (cataracts), mostly deaf, arthritic and with a tendency to have his back legs collapse from underneath him. He gets a pill for anxiety; he has “accidents” if he can’t see either my wife or me in the house. He spends most of his time now in his crate, sleeping.

His little face is almost pure white. At the kennel, they call him the old man.

The youngest, formerly that third grader who’s now graduated from college and working, came in from Kansas City last weekend. He knew it was likely the last time to see the dog. That’s why he came.

So, it’s now time for a decision.

And I don’t want to make it.

I’ve called the vet, and I’m waiting for the return call. My question is: how do I know when it’s time? What do I look for? Do I wait until the infirmities are overwhelming or do I do something sooner? The dog is still getting around, but each day is a little harder.

No, this is not the worst decision I’ve ever faced. But it feels something like that.

And I’m making it the usual way – by trying to avoid making it.

I will eventually do what’s best for the dog, and I already know what that is. But there may still be a few weeks yet.


But not much longer than that.

Over at Faith Barista, Bonnie Gray had been hosting a jam on a number of topics related to faith. Last week, the topic was “Can Faith Change Your Personality?” This week, the topic is “making tough decisions.”
Photograph: Me and Cody, about three years ago, by Janet Young. Used with permission.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Airports Are Odd Places

Airports are odd places,
a smash of humanity battling
through document check,
(shoes off) (belt off) (coat off),
then imaging or pat down or
wand down and now even
a liquid wand check like they
don’t trust the water bottle
you just bought at the newsstand.
Then you sit and wait,
forced to listen to 17 cell phone
conversations, all shouted,
16 of which are
because people are bored
and forgot how to wait or
forgot how to read.
Finally! you line up,
assuming the flight’s on time,
and you crush into the aluminum
cylinder, fighting for that two by
one space in the overhead bin,
to fly at 450 miles an
hour to a destination of
hope or despair.
Time to board.

This poem has been submitted to One Stop Poetry for One Shot Wednesday. The post and links will be live at 4 p.m. central time today.

Photograph: People Mover, O'Hare Airport, by Peter Griffin. Used with permission by Public Domain Pictures.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Billy Coffey's "Snow Day"

Peter Boyd wakes up and sees a heavy snow falling outside. He decides to call in to the factory with a snow day, and he looks forward to not thinking about impending layoffs. His wife Abby sends him out into the snow to the store for bread and milk. And Peter walks right into life.

Author Billy Coffey has a singular ability to tell a story “true,” and in Snow Day, his first novel, he not only tells his story true, he tells stories within the story just as true. And he tells them well: how scars and a limp can be beautiful; how winning a lottery ticket can be both tragic and redemptive; why one can lose his faith in the face of overwhelming human devastation; and what one can learn from one’s children.

Those are only a few of the stories he tells as the drama of Peter’s impending layoff unfolds. These are stories about brokenness. Not brokenness made whole, but brokenness made livable and breathable, brokenness found in life.

If you read Coffey’s blog, you will know more about Snow Day than you realize. Yes, this is a novel, but it is also Billy Coffey’s life, and it is that life he tells so well from that small town in the mountains in Virginia. He draws the universal from the particular, often in a surprising, unexpected way. And we know these characters in the novel because we know people just like them, and because we are people just like them. He creates them all with fine detail, so that we can hear the elderly man calling for help in the big box “Super Mart” and see the disbelief followed by joy on the face of a six-year-old who finds the best Christmas present ever.

Coffey writes with a vulnerability and openness that’s humbling both to himself and the reader. There’s a sweet tenderness about his characters – even the unlovable ones – and his story.

Snow Day is a quiet story, a humbling story, a story about people we know and ultimately a story about ourselves.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Sticky Stories of Billy Coffey

I wrote speeches for corporate executives for a long time, and now, more often than not, I’m writing speeches for myself. And while substance is absolutely critical, I learned long ago that you can write the most brilliant speeches with the most brilliant thoughts imaginable – but if you want people to remember them, you need to have stories.

And not just any kind of kinds, but personal ones, stories that surprise and entertain and help make the point of what the speaker was talking about. Many speakers often asked for “a good joke” but they were usually the people who hadn’t heard any good ones themselves and would tell jokes poorly, or at least not well. Humor is always a dangerous thing in a speech; the safest humor is always self-deprecating, allowing listeners to laugh with you and at you. Not many executives are comfortable with that, however.

In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath and Dan Heath talk about the three kinds of stories that help ideas stick: challenge plot stories, where a formidable challenge has to be overcome (they give the example of David and Goliath); connection plot stories, in which people develop a relationship that bridges a gap (consider Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan); and creativity plot stories, in which someone makes a mental breakthrough, solves a problem or does something really innovative (the story of the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head, for example).

For stickiness, those three types cover the waterfront. I speak from personal (and unexpected) experience. I gave a talk in June at a conference of university public relations people, and the person who introduced me had done their homework. I was speaking on corporate use of social media, but the introducer included one thing about me – that I edited an online poetry journal called TweetSpeak Poetry. Guess what all the questions were about at the end?

If you need to see examples of sticky stories – where you can find all three kinds the Heath brothers talk about in one place, you need to look at the blog site of Billy Coffey.

You want to find stories that include a challenge? They’re there. Or stories that make connections? Look no further. Or stories where people do unexpected and creative things? You’ve got them with this blog.

Billy Coffey, a writer in Virginia, tells what I call true stories. He watches and listens, and he carries a notebook around to record notes. He overhears conversations; he remembers stories from high school. He recalls people when he first knew them and what they became, and how they handled success and defeat and victory and tragedy.

Some of the stories he tells include all three types of stickiness. There about challenges, connections and creativity. Not once have I known a story of his to disappoint or fall flat.

Tomorrow is the official publication date of his first novel, Snow Day. There’s a Facebook party scheduled; see his blog for details. I will be posting my review of the novel tomorrow as well. (Earlier today, Jennifer Dukes-Lee interviewed Billy Coffey about the novel.)

But you can be assured of this: Snow Day is sticky, exactly the kind of sticky described in Made to Stick.

Laura Boggess is leading a discussion of Made To Stick over at The High Calling. Last week's discussion can be found here.

Previous blog posts in this series:

On Simple: The One Time Something I Did Went Viral

On Unexpected: Singing Opera in Journalism Class

On Credible: As Concrete – as Air

On Concrete: It Was All in the Numbers

On Emotional: An Engineer Got Emotional