Thursday, July 31, 2014

Joanne Norton’s “The Annie Project”

Many novels contain events, scenes and people taken from the author’s life. “Write what you know” is a familiar dictum from editors and critics, and most writers, even those who write fantasy and science fiction, take that advice to heart.

But it’s not often that one reads an introduction to a novel an admission that the author is two of the main characters of the story. Right at the beginning of The Annie Project, Joanne Norton makes that statement: “I am two of the main characters. My official name is Carolyn Joanne, although I’ve been only called Joanne since birth. So, in the book, I am ‘Cary’ and ‘Annie.’”

What that statement does, of course, is tell the reader that while this is a novel, it is also something of a memoir, something of an autobiography, and, in Norton’s hands, something of a testimony.

But most of all, The Annie Project is a story, a big story, the story of how an elderly woman’s concern about a young girl next door leads to the redemption of a family.

Cary Nolan is a recent widow, a former missionary, a mother and a grandmother. After her husband’s death, she moves to a small town called Newton to be closer to her children. And next door is a mother who drinks herself in an alcoholic stupor, a teenaged boy constantly in trouble with the law, and a 12-year-old girl named Annie who’s angry at the world. They’ve been abandoned by the father.

Norton on a mission trip in Uganda
Cary looks at Annie, and Cary sees a lot of herself. Perhaps too much of herself.

So Cary decides to do something. She has enough wisdom to know that reaching out to Annie won’t be an all-or-nothing proposition, but more of a little bit here and a little bit there. And it won’t be all victories.

Things happen in The Annie Project. Lots of things. Annie’s mother disappears. The father returns. Annie’s brother gets into more trouble. Cary goes on a short-term mission trip to Uganda (and, I suspect, an event in the novel that is clearly autobiographical).

Norton writes with passion. She is passionate about Annie’s story, because she is passionate about her own story. She knows the meaning of grace, both receiving and giving it. She’s passionate about sharing the grace she’s been given.

And she knows that while this may be Annie’s/Cary’s/Joanne’s story, it is also our story. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Heaping Burning Coals

At work not long ago, a large group of us were having a luncheon meeting to discuss an upcoming marketing campaign. Part of the campaign involves talking directly with the public, which is something of a leap for a non-consumer business.

This has been building for months. And on this day, the discussion is around the company’s “persona” or voice, and what it should sound like, what language should be used and what language to avoid, and possibly even what movie actors in various roles might suggest for the effort.

The discussion reaches a point where it’s noticeable that I’m not participating. So I’m asked for my opinion.

“When did we forget how to talk with people?” I ask. “When did forget to put ourselves in others’ shoes, hear what they’re saying, and find a way to respond to their concerns? Why do we think we have to script everything? We’re talking about being authentic when it sounds like what we want is to control the conversation.”

The conversation takes a turn, and in a good direction. Not everyone agrees with what I say, but it’s not easy to argue that authenticity may be the antithesis of what’s being proposed. But at least this issue is out on the table, recognized, debated, and, if not resolved, at least understood.

I’m passionate on this subject. The people around the table hear it in my voice. I hear it my voice.

This is one of those days I feel like a dinosaur. This is not generally the way the company is going, nor is it generally the way the world is going.

Afterward, alone in my office, I think about the church. And I understand what has been troubling me for almost the last 15 years. The business conversation we had at lunch applies to what I’ve experienced at two churches for the last 15 years.

Here’s what Francis Chan says: “We’ve created a whole brand of churches that do not depend upon the Spirit, a whole culture of Christians that do not depend on the Spirit, a whole culture of Christians who are not disciples, a new group of ‘followers’ who do not follow.”

I read those words in Chan’s Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, and I feel burning coals being heaped upon my head.

Been there, done that.

When did we forget to depend upon the Spirit? When did we decide that Willowcreek is the model, or Mars Hill is the model, or “one church / multiple campuses” is the model? When did we start applying the notion of “success” to the church and defining and measuring success by size and numbers? If it was about numbers and size, why didn’t God start with the power and size of Rome instead of some fishermen in an empire backwater?

Perhaps it’s the effects of getting older and more curmudgeonly. Perhaps it’s heard one too many church transformational plans. Perhaps it’s walking into too many church meetings or seminars and being ambushed with a great new revitalization proposal to “bring millennials back to the church.” Perhaps it’s singing one too many repetitious praise songs in worship services.

Those heaping coals are burning.

“God is not interested in numbers,” Chan says. “He cares most about faithfulness, not the size, of His bride. He cares about whether people are lovers of Him.”

And big buildings, big music, big attendance, eclectic services, church planning consultants, fundraising programs, new communications technology and coffee bars can’t do that. None of these things can do what God cares most about. These things come from man.

Only the Spirit can do what God cares most about.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading Forgotten God. To see more posts, on this chapter, “Supernatural Church,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

An eternal silence

An eternal silence beneath
the surface of the wave, moves
untroubled by the crashing
sound above, moves forward,
always forward. The line
of sight compresses
to a infinite point
where the four converge:
four corners of sand,
of sea, of shore, of air;
four boundaries of earth
of air, of fire, of water.
Four winds blow unseen.
Four horsemen gallop
unheard and unhearing.
Four muses cry unanswered
and ignored, the cries emptying
into a wave of silence.

Tweetspeak Poetry has a poetry prompt this week, and it’s about waves reaching the shore. To see more poems submitted for the prompt, please visit Tweetspeak Poetry.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Your Work Matters: When Others Don’t Appreciate

I have a job that sounds exciting—I lead the social media team for a large publicly held company.

Every day is different. No day is like any other.

I can plan my day—schedule meetings, carve out chunks of time to get work done, make phone calls, set aside some time for professional development (when it’s social media, you have to keep up)—and about 10 minutes after arriving at my office, I’ll determine whether or not my plans will hold.

They usually won’t.

One recent Wednesday was fairly typical. On the schedule were several meetings, including two with outside agencies assisting with specific projects, one with the company attorney, and another with a visitor from Africa; a special group lunch featuring an outside speaker; and a 90-minute block of time set aside to review a post for the company blog and review online social media activity associated with our company.

I arrived at 8:30. By 8:40, I could see my plans for the day were out the window. 

To continue reading, please see my post today at The High Calling.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures

Poets and Poems: Boris Pasternak and “February”

Perhaps it was the watery eyes of Omar Sharif, the beauty of Julie Christie, the fierceness of Alec Guiness, or the wounded look of Geraldine Chaplin. What it was, I was a young teenager when I was pulled into the movie version of Doctor Zhivago, directed by David Lean. It was one of the movies rarely made today – a big movie, with dozens of characters, stories and sub-stories. It was an epic film based on an epic literary work that had only recently been published.

Published in Russian in Italy and forbidden in the author’s own country.

The movie pulled me to the novel by Boris Pasternak, and I read it when I was all of 14. It’s a love story, actually several love stories, set against the backdrop of World War I, the Russian Revolution and Civil War, and the long Soviet night that followed. Pasternak received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, largely on the strength of Doctor Zhivago and his poetry, but the Soviet regime forced him to refuse the honor.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Painting of Boris Pasternak and his brother by his father, Leonid Pasternak.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The choir wore white robes

The choir wore white robes,
spotless, bright white, bathed
in light, moving, swaying
together, giving the impression
of light shimmering, moving,
swaying, to some unheard music,
an orchestration from an unknown
choir director, raising and lowering
invisible arms.

The choir wore white robes,
and began to sing in voices
of white light, cool white,
shimmering sound,
moving sound,
They sang in white robes,
and the skies opened
in brilliant red.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The language of rivers

The languages of rivers
may on that day become
one, together fused
into one, one speech,
one thought, one belief,
one heart, that day
the streams flowed
into a torrent, a force
swirling, raging, a wave
covering all of it, all
of what was before,
becoming what is now,
what will be.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Sheila Lagrand’s “Remembering for Ruth: Something in the Water”

I could get used to the serial format of publication.

Part 5 of Sheila Lagrand’s Remembering for Ruth serialized novel has now been published. Entitled Something in the Water, it continues the story of the Goodharte family.

The story so far: Paul and Margot Goodharte live in California, and are caring for Paul’s mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Paul is a pastor; his black sheep brother Matthew shows up and seems to have had something of a black-sheep shedding experience. He becomes interested in next-door neighbor Sue, and the family has a coincidental meeting with Matthew’s estranged daughter Amelia. The dog of former neighbors of the Goodhartes is left to them to care for, and Ruth becomes closely attached to him, naming him Zorro. The dog turns out to be a specially trained schutzhund. And Amelia is invited to spend some time with the family she never knew.

In Something in the Water, everyone manages to have a bad day except for the dog. Matthew gets too overbearing with daughter Amelia, and Sue has to tell him to ease up. Best friends Margot and Sue have a fight. Brothers Paul and Matthew have an argument, and Matthew storms out. An elderly church member is upset with the flower arrangements for worship services. Alzheimer’s patient Ruth has good moments and bad moments. The dog, Zorro, however, shows some of what he’s been trained for.

And then the family discovers Ruth is missing.

At the end of each installment, Lagrand usually includes a recipe or two from the story. And I was expecting to see recipes for overnight waffle batter and something called “glom.” But something must have been in the water.

Photograph by Maliz Ong via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bowls of gold

Bowls of gold
bowls of incense
golden bowls of incense
fall with the hands
holding them, they fall
but do not break
do not shatter
but they fall spilling
the incense

Who poured the incense
into the bowls
who collected the fragrances
who gathered the smoke
and aromas spilling
from the bowls
golden bowls

golden bowls of incense

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Your Work Matters

I’m sorting through files at work, files that cover roughly the last 10 years. It’s about four file drawers in volume.

It’s remodeling time at work. We’re facing a total of three moves. We were first moved three weeks ago, into the space we will eventually occupy permanently. But it has to be remodeled, and so we will move again to temporary quarters before we return to our redesigned workplace. I was moved from one office to a smaller office; I was fortunate, as most people moved to cubicles. What I will eventually end up with will make a cubicle look like an executive suite.

They tell us it’s collaborative workspace, designed to foster team communication and synergy.

Whenever you hear the word synergy, you know that someone is trying to save money.

There wasn’t time to do anything with these files except bring them with me. We had about a week’s notice of the first move; I had no time to do the careful sorting they require.

One pile is paper that can be recycled.

One pile is what needs to go in a special cabinet unit for shredding.

And one pile, the smallest, is what will go to the company archives.

It’s all mixed together, so it has to be sorted carefully.

The files represent the last 10 years of my work life. The height of the three piles tells me that most of what I’ve worked out can be recycled.  The second biggest pile has to be shredded. The most valuable pile will go the archives.

It’s easy to start thinking of the book Ecclesiastes in the Bible. Is it really all just a chasing after the wind?

Here’s a brief that was filed in a lawsuit settled years ago. That’s an easy decision – public document, no pending litigation – it can be recycled. Others have to go to the shredder.

And here’s the speech I wrote for the CEO in 2006, given to a large group of college students. It’s a beautiful speech. I heard it when it was given; I was there in the auditorium, sitting on the front row. I flew to the event with the CEO on the corporate plane. That had happened only once before. At the dinner before the speech, I bumped into a fellow speechwriter I hadn’t seen in almost 15 years.

The CEO did a fine job with the speech. Actually, he did a superb job. The speech was widely distributed afterward. It was reprinted in Vital Speeches of the Day, which is a big deal for speechwriters and CEOs.

And now it’s almost eight years later.  I’m not part of the speechwriting group. I’m called “social media strategist” which sounds a bit too presumptuous to me.

What do I do with the notes of my conversation with the CEO about the speech? Part of me says keep the notes with the final text for the archives. Part of me says that isn’t a good idea. I place the notes in the pile to be shredded. CEOs have to trust their speechwriters.

It’s easy to think that this is where all of our work ends up – recycled, shredded, perhaps archived and rarely seen except by an occasional academic researcher (our archives are managed by a local university).

Does this matter? I ask myself. Is it really all vanity?

I think about that speech. It didn’t change the course of history. But it did inspire a few college students to do something with their lives. It moved a few teachers and administrators to think about life outside the university.

And the important point is that the speech was done well. Written well. Written with care and attention, with a special effort to find exactly the right story that would illustrate it. Part of what that speech did was to tell that story, the story of a woman farmer in South Africa who brought in a crop so bountiful that she was able, for the first time in her 45+ years of life, to buy a pair of new shoes.

The story mattered. The speech mattered. The work – the hard work – I put into it mattered.

And it all mattered because I didn’t ultimately write the speech for the CEO, or for my own gratification, or for the story of the woman and the new shoes.

No, I wrote it for Someone else, because the work I do is ultimately about that Someone else.

And it matters.

The High Calling is hosting a community linkup on the theme of “Your Work Matters to God.” Take a look at the submission guidelines, and consider whether or not you might have a story to tell.

Top photograph by K Whiteford. Bottom photograph by Lucy Toner. Both via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. Community linkup badge designed for The High Calling by Jennifer Dukes-Lee.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The One Thing We Want More Than Anything Else

We’re having this conversation at work: How does a big company talk to people?

More to the point, how does a big company talk to people in the age of informality and social media?

Most big companies (especially those in non-consumer businesses) and most big organizations like to talk with people from the perspective of expertise. If the company is big in technology (of any kind), then the conversation tends to reflect scientific or technological expertise.

That was us – scientific expertise central. It’s where we are comfortable. It’s what we know. It’s where we can best debate and defend.

We were having the conversation because, based on extensive market research, we were to speak in a different way – friendlier, and more conversational.

As we talked, it struck me that, no matter if we spoke with expertise or with friendliness, we were actually trying to accomplish the same thing. And it’s the one thing that companies, organizations, and even most of us individuals want and crave more than anything else.


I’m not sure whether it’s because we believe our world is wacky and careening from crisis to crisis, or because nothing seems to make sense any more, or that the wrong party is in control of Washington, D.C., or because politics is making our workplaces turn into some combination of Oz and Wonderland (and we would all secretly like to be the man behind the curtain; he at least has the appearance of being in control). But we want to be in control.

And even we Christians have our own form of this. We’ve been told that God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives. Well, fine. What is it? What’s the plan?

Of course, we don’t exactly ask the question that way. Instead, as Francis Chan points out in
Forgotten God: The Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, we talk about discerning God’s will for our lives, and preferably our complete lives. We want the big picture. As Chan points, out, though, waiting to get “the complete picture” is a way of putting off what has to be done, today, this afternoon, and now.

“Part of the desire to ‘know God’s will for my life’ is birthed in fear and results in paralysis,” Chan writes. “We are scared to make mistakes, so we fret over figuring out God’s will. We wonder what living according to His will would actually look and feel like, and we are scared to find out. We forget that we were never promised a twenty-year plan of action; instead, God promises multiple times in Scripture never to leave of forsake us.”

We want to know God’s will for lives because it’s a means of control, putting ourselves in control. And it’s no wonder that God tends not to cooperate. He doesn’t eliminate obstacles and problems; he doesn’t stop the curve balls; he allows the surprises. He doesn’t give us a nicely detailed blueprint for how our lives will go. He seems to turn his back when we run into the nasty political types at work.

Instead, what he does give us is the moment, living in the moment.

If we had the wonderful plan for our lives, everything would be simple. We would know what to do in each situation. We would know how to respond exactly. Life would be great. We would be in control.


Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading Forgotten God. To see more posts on this week’s chapter, “Forget About His Will for Your Life,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Photograph by  Виталий Смолыгин via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

When You Make a Lot of Money

I was having lunch with a friend. We had met at church, and discovered we not only worked for the same company, we also worked in buildings across the street from each other. We had previously met for lunch, arranging to meet at the entrance of the company cafeteria. This time he was coming from a meeting, so I told him to pick me up at my office on the way and then we’d head to the cafeteria together.

When he arrived and knocked at the open door, his entire expression hanged. I asked if something was wrong, and he shook his head. We walked down to the cafeteria, with me doing most of the talking. He acted and spoke with reserve, and he seemed troubled by something.

As we ate, he finally said, “You’re a grade 41.”

Surprised he would know, I nodded.

“Your office,” he said. “It’s the office for a 41.” Until that moment, I had known there were grades, but I didn’t know that offices also contained their own hierarchal code.

“Stock options,” he said. “Executive bonus.” I nodded again.

To continue reading, please see my post today at The High Calling.

Photograph by Talia Felix via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Poets and Poems: Robinson Jeffers and “Selected Poetry”

I have on my bookshelf Can Poetry Save the Earth: A Field Guide to Nature Poems (2010) by John Felsteiner. I found it in the gift shop at the Missouri Botanical Garden, in the “ecology and activism” section. It’s the kind of book I can’t read straight through. Too much of a fixation on a theme (especially a political theme) is a bit too much to take at once; it’s better consumed in small bites.

One of those bites was about a poet named Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962). In fact, references to Jeffers are sprinkled throughout the book, almost as much as those to Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. (Surprisingly, Wendell Berry is mentioned only twice in almost 360 pages of text.) The chapter on Jeffers was intriguing enough to lead me to his Selected Poetry, first published in 1938 and republished in 2013.

This is a collection that’s not for the fainthearted. The first poem is “Tamar,” a narrative poem that occupies about 60 pages of the 600-page work.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Photograph: Tor House and Hawk Tower, where Robinson Jeffers lived in Carmel, California.

Monday, July 21, 2014

So, 45 years ago

Forty-five years ago this past Sunday, I know exactly where I was.

I was sitting in the living room of the girl I had been dating with about a dozen of our friends and her family, glued to the television set.

July 20, 1969: Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. And hundreds of millions of people around the world were doing exactly what we were doing – watching television.

I had graduated from high school in May. I was preparing to begin my freshman year at LSU in September. But that summer, it was really all about the moon.

The week before, three high school friends and I had driven from New Orleans to Cape Kennedy. We decided that we would go to see the Apollo rocket launch that would carry three astronauts – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins – to the moon. We left a few days before the launch, spent one night camping out at a state park in the Florida Panhandle and another on the beach in Florida, before getting our reserved spot at a state park near the Cape.

Hotel rooms were out of the question. More than a million people converged on Cape Kennedy to do exactly what we were doing. It was a way of participating in what would likely be the most incredible event of our lifetimes.

Early the morning before the launch, we went on a bus tour of Cape Kennedy. One of my friend’s father worked at the rocket assembly plant in New Orleans, and he was able to get us tour tickets. What I remember most were the enormous buildings used to construct and house the rockets.

Late that afternoon, we drove to a road alongside the Banana River and parked. This would be our viewing spot, and we were spending the night in the car to reserve our spot – in a straight line from the rocket, which we could see. There was no sleep that night,; thousands of others arrived to do exactly the same thing. Parked in front of us was a young married couple from Canada; parked behind us were a young couple from the Netherlands. People had come from all over the planet.

None of us cared about the mosquitoes, the noise of cars driving up and down the road, the warm temperatures. Discomfort didn’t matter. We were part of something historic.

The next day, July 16, the rocket lifted off about 1:30 p.m. The cheering, yelling, and hugging along the Banana River went on until the rocket was out of sight. Then it was time for a massive traffic jam, as people attempted to leave the Cape Kennedy area. It took a few hours to get out. We didn’t care. And we didn’t care that while spending the night in a tent in yet another state park somewhere in Florida, we nearly floated away in a rainstorm that lasted all night.

Four days later, we were glued to the television set. I was something of a celebrity for having gone to the launch. But the real excitement was what was on television – Neil Armstrong and his “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

What we thought was the beginning of space exploration was, as it turned out, something else. It was the science fiction writer Arthur Clarke who observed that the only thing more remarkable than how fast we made it to the moon was how fast we abandoned it. It was a high-water mark for the space program, for the belief in technology, and likely for America’s confidence in itself.

But we had that wonderful moment, that moment when the world’s attention focused on the small screen, and then to the bigger screen in the heavens.

It was an incredible moment to be alive, and young.

Related: I wrote about the 40th anniversary back in 2009.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Seals on a scroll

Seals on a scroll are opened,
one by one, each
an individual act, or action,
but the scroll is not read,
the scroll’s words are not seen,
or understood, instead
the seals on a scroll are broken,
one by one, individually,
each break unfolding an event,
a movement, a plan, a shift
in reality, altering, step by step,
until the seals are done,
opened, finished.
What is left on the scroll is
what is left to be read.

What is left to be read?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Always...Patsy Cline

For some weeks, my wife had wanted to see “Always…Patsy Cline,” a play by Stages St. Louis. It had gotten good reviews (excellent reviews, actually). It had even been extended beyond its scheduled run. One weekend I had tried to find tickets, but the only performances were matinees and that posed schedule conflicts. And I have to admit I wasn’t exactly wildly enthusiastic about seeing what sounded like a play about country music.

When I got home from work yesterday, I checked for tickets. And found two good seats for the Friday evening performance. We had dinner and then went to the play.

Yes, it’s about country music. A lot of country music. But also a whole lot more. I loved it.

If you’re not familiar with the play, “Always…Patsy Cline” is a two-woman play covering the six years from 1957 to 1963 Patsy Cline enjoyed a rather meteoric rise in country music with occasional songs (Like “Walkin’ After Midnight”) crossing over to become pop chart hits. The play is also about the friendship between a fan and a singing star, and it’s based on a true story.

Both the actresses in the play, Jacqueline Petroccia playing Patsy and Zoe Vonder Haar playing the fan Louise Seger, are outstanding. My wife and I also enjoyed a little bit of nostalgia, since we lived in Houston for five years back in the 1970s and that’s where the play is set (including a few references to radio station KIKK; country music fans in Houston were referred to as KIKKers). Vonder Haar plays a tremendous comic role; Petroccia sounds so much like Patsy Cline that it’s almost eerie.

The play features some 27 songs sung by Cline. Here are two of them as recorded by the real Patsy Cline – “Lovesick Blues” (also made popular by Don McLean more than a decade later) and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”

Friday, July 18, 2014

Flowers at church

Sunflowers on either side
of the altar, black centers
fringed in yellow, looking
upward as they tend to do,
upward to find the sun,
sunflowers from Arles
painted repeatedly
as he slipped into madness
painted originally
by God.
Was God in the yellow house,
the yellow room in Arles,
the odd-shaped room
and the odd-shaped man
in the odd-shaped house
on Place Lamartine,
in Arles.

 Paintings: Top, Vase with Twelve Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh (1888); bottom, The Yellow House in Arles by Vincent Van Gogh (1888).