Saturday, March 2, 2019

I Just Play One on TV

A friend sent me a text the other day: “Dude! You’re on the front page!”

Mystified, I checked the online news source he directed me to, but couldn’t find anything.

Then I chanced upon an article about the Salvation Army’s push for volunteers to help with their roving food trucks.

And the accompanying picture of one of said trucks included yours truly (a volunteer) being served a meal by the nice folks at Sally Ann.

I had a brief chuckle at my inadvertent portrayal as one of the homeless community in K-town. On the heels of that thought, I realized how fitting my ‘mistaken identity’ actually was/is.
People experiencing homelessness—or at risk of homelessness—don’t always fit the stereotype. For every person you see pushing a heavy-laden shopping cart, there are dozens more who look pretty much like… me.
I’ve spoken with homeless people who were once wealthy real estate developers, gifted musicians, nurses, businessmen, etc. Yet in every case, something broke in their worlds, and here they are. They never foresaw where they’d end up. This wasn’t a ‘career choice’.

In any city, there are multiple ways of volunteering to serve among those who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Every person has a story, dreams, hopes for the future. Each one is an unique human being, worthy of dignity and respect.

The reporter who took my photo couldn’t tell the difference. That’s fine—it’s a good reminder that our society’s most vulnerable people look just like the rest of us, more times than not.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Creative Writing is a Beach Ball

I wish I’d kept my first rejection letter.

It’s sort of like framing your first earned dollar bill (yes, I’m old enough to have had $1.00 bills in my wallet).

I’ve been asked in recent years if I’d kept that first letter, and I can only offer my best rueful smile/self-deprecating shrug in response.

But no, I was deep in the throes of a teen-aged fiction writer funk after my stunningly-brilliant creation was rejected. It never occurred to me to keep the letter.
It was a gem, too: photocopied crooked by a machine low on ink. I suspect the editor’s signature was also photocopied. A keep-sake if there ever was one—on so many levels. Alas.
Hey, I was 13 at the time. You don’t make your best life decisions during the early stages of puberty.

I started high school a year later. Despite the Department of Education’s cruel practice of adding Grade 13 to the timeless purgatory known as secondary school, there were exactly zero—ZERO—classes offered in creative writing. So, after a dubious attempt at one (1) short story in grade nine, my only notable output during five years of high school was this haiku:
School really bugs me
My freakin’ English teacher
Makes me write haikus
But writing is kinda like a beach ball. You can try to shove it underwater—out of sight and out of mind—but it eventually and inevitably escapes its watery dungeon and bobs to the surface once again.

I originally enrolled in the “RTJ” program in college: Radio, Television & Journalism. I went there with some vague idea of emulating Dr. Johnny Fever from WKRP in Cincinatti. I really enjoyed being a DJ on the college radio station. I also became fascinated with the Television section of the course. The last thing on my mind—grudgingly done only because it was required—was journalism.

Yet somehow, with far less interest and work ethic than my Radio & Television classes, guess where my best marks kept showing up?
I felt like Lady MacBeth: “Out, damned spot beach ball! Out, I say!”
Fast forward a couple of years, to a different college in a different province. Without planning it, guess who ends up writing an article or two for the college paper? And the following year, becomes the editor?
You’d think the sight of a brightly colored beach ball punching its way to the surface—repeatedly—would eventually qualify as a “sign”. Some of us aren’t as swift of wit as others…
I managed to shove the beach ball down again.

Ten years later, a visiting prophetic dude from Kansas City—not knowing me from a hole in the wall—says: “you put down the pen because you felt your best efforts weren’t good enough, but you’re going to start writing again…” Aside from my beautiful wife Wendy, nobody in the room had any idea I was hiding a beach ball.

Seven years passed before I started blogging. Things went well for the first few years—I was even “discovered” and became a published author. The beach ball had arrived again with a big splash.

Then the marketing department torpedoed the book, and that (I thought at the time) was the end of it. Beach ball deflated.
In hindsight, I should’ve recognized the symmetry with the original rejection letter. But again, I was in a writer-blocked funk and tossed the beach ball away.
Fast forward another four years. The beach ball ambushed me again, like a oceanic saltwater slap in the face. And this time—finally—I surrendered. And I’ve been writing ever since.

Your gift may not be creative writing. But if there’s beach ball of creativity/passion that you keep squelching because of (fill in blank as necessary), learn from my story.

Give up. Surrender. Embrace it. Pursue it as if your life depends on it.
Don’t mess with the beach ball. It’s relentless and will not be silenced.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2019: the Call

My father got fired from his job in the spring of my grade nine year.

We’d moved only eight months earlier, after he’d accepted the position. We were still settling into our new home, new schools, and new routines while Dad endured the daily commute into the Big Smoke (Toronto) to his office in one of the gargantuan skyscrapers near Union Station.

New house, new mortgage, finally replacing an aging automobile, and three kids ranging from 12-15 years of age.

If there was ever a time when a husband/father would be sorely tempted to look the other way regarding some of the companys financial ‘shenanigans’ (one of my Scottish mother’s favorite words), this would’ve been it.

Instead, he stood his ground, refusing to participate in ‘projects’ which he knew were sketchy at best. The company let it slide the first couple of times, but the third time, he was summoned into the president’s office.

“Your ‘style’ doesn’t suit our company. Clean out your desk.”

Later that evening, at our church’s weekly prayer meeting, I sat—a scrawny 15-year-old—and listened as my parents requested prayer regarding my father’s sudden unemployment. Our whole family was a little nervous about our future, for obvious reasons.

I vaguely recall that people prayed for us. I vividly recall, to this day, how proud I was of my dad for not compromising his faith-based principles. My father was—and is—of the firmly held belief that following Jesus impacts every aspect of life, including business ethics and practice.

Even when it cost him.

My father’s simple act of faithfulness—and faith—may not count as ‘epic’ on the world stage.

But it was undeniably ‘epic’ in the eyes of his 15-year-old son.

2019: Let this be a year of faithfulness, unfettered by any desire to be ‘epic’.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Awkward Continuationist: Charis-Missional

I was recently contacted by someone in Texas who is working on a dictionary project. He was seeking my input on a phrase that I’d included in the first edition of Post-Charismatic: “Charis-Missional.”

I’ve always deferred to Kingdom Grace’s definition, since the term was her invention in the first place. Simply put, charis-missional means: ‘Spirit-led Missional Living’.

I liked the phrase, and its definition, and thought it was more of a “moving forward” kind of terminology than “post-charismatic”. (I’ve never been comfortable with the term post-charismatic, but couldn’t come up with a better suggestion, so it kinda stuck.)
My first publisher included the subtitle “Where are we now? Where have we come from? Where are we going?”—and added a big question mark to the book’s title. The phrase “charis-missional” (at the time) seemed like a good counter-balance to too many question marks.
Speaking of questions, there were three posed to me regarding the dictionary in Texas. Briefly summarized, they were:

1. Is the charis-missional movement going strong today, or has it morphed into something new?
Short answer: yes and no.

There’s never been a ‘charis-missional movement’ per se, so it’s impossible to state with any confidence whether it’s going strong, failing abysmally, or morphing into something else.

If people read Post-Charismatic and were encouraged to pursue a Spirit-led life despite their previous experiences, then YES, the ‘movement’ is going strong.

But because it’s not an organized entity—for example, there’s never been any such thing as a post-charismatic/charis-missional conference, book tour, or podcast—it’s hard to quantify.

If there was/is anything resembling a ‘movement’, it was/is very grassroots and non-institutional.

Which is probably just as well, in the long run. :)

2. Do you see charismatic gifts at work in the missional movement, or is charis-missional more about moving past the excesses of the charismatic movement?
Short answer: both/and.

I’d suggest that moving past toxic theology (which always results in toxic leadership/experiences) is a prerequisite for seeing any of the Spirit’s gifts at work as we seek to be missional.
(Without being disingenuous, every gift of the Holy Spirit—including boring old ‘administration’—is charismatic by definition. It’s not just about tongues and prophecy.)
In other words, you can’t have a healthy missional presence without dealing with the toxic teachings which have infiltrated the charismatic movement. It may not be a classic case of “which came first: the chicken or the egg”, but separating theology from practice isn’t an option, even if it were possible.

I’d also point out that if we attempt to be missional without being Spirit-led, we run the very real risk of becoming little more than social do-gooders with a thin veneer of spirituality.

3. Does the term ‘charis-missional’ continue to have meaning for you today?
Short answer: No (but with explanation).

The term ‘charis-missional’ has not passed my lips in quite some time. I also chose not to include the phrase in the 2nd edition of Post-Charismatic (and I changed all the subtitle questions to a simple phrase: “Rekindle the Smoldering Wick”).

*Not because I think charis-missional is passé or unimportant.*

As I mentioned earlier, there’s never been a recognized, organized, institutionalized movement for post-charismatic/charis-missional followers of Jesus.

They can be found in all manner of churches, home gatherings, coffeehouses, and pubs—just going about their Spirit-led, missional endeavors with no thought or desire to be part of some trendy “in crowd” in 21st century Christianity. They are, as I wrote back in 2005, people of the spark.

So, honestly, NO. I don’t call myself or describe myself as “charis-missional” any more. Perhaps I should reconsider.

What’s more important is that I be charis-missional, regardless of what—if anything—I call it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Christmas Stories

(Video Link)
Christmas Eve this year was a roller-coaster of a kaleidoscope—if such a metaphor can fit comfortably inside the human brain.

For my son and I, it was a chance to do something we don’t get to do often: perform in the same band for a weekend of Christmas concerts, to a combined audience of 14,000 people.

The theme of the night was “stories”, and whether sung or spoken/acted, it was a moving evening of shared life-stories impacted by Jesus’ story. It was an honour and also humbling to be part of such a powerful presentation.

An hour or so later, the kaleidoscope rotated. Our (now adult) children and their spouses gathered in our home. We were joined by friends who are navigating their first Christmas after the painful death of a wife and mother. It was an honour to have them in our home.

And then, another rotation of the kaleidoscope.

A long-held tradition in our house is Christmas Stockings—usually crammed full of junk food, inside jokes, and wacky presents. It’s our most light-hearted and quirky piece to family celebrations at Christmas.

“This is the last year,” my youngest daughter reflected. She looks a little misty. She’s engaged to be married next spring, and like her older (married) siblings, the stocking tradition will then shift from Wendy & I to her spouse.

Next Christmas, for the first time since 1989, the stockings hung from our mantle will be merely decorative.

Final revolution of the kaleidoscope:

Christmas Day, and our three children, a daughter-in-law, a son-in-law, and a fiancé fill our house for a fun and memorable day together.

It’s quite a mix in just one 24-hour period: celebratory concerts (seven!), time with grieving friends, a houseful of family—feasting and playing silly games together—and a nostalgic final Christmas stocking for my youngest daughter.

A variety of stories, running a gamut of associated memories and emotions. And, of course, one of our oldest family traditions: The Muppet Christmas Carol, everyone singing boisterously along with the songs.

And if I may be so bold—we sound pretty good.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Literary Bones

“Eat the meat, spit out the bones.”

It’s a valuable piece of advice most of us have heard more than a few times. It also applies to the plethora of available “how-to” resources for writers—not all of whom agree with each other.

It’s a good idea for aspiring authors to read as many different voices as possible, but in the end, you’ll have to decide for yourself which ones qualify as meat and which are bones.

That’s why it’s difficult to say which books should be on an aspiring author’s “must-read” list. Every genre has its own unique personality, and what might make obvious sense in one may be incomprehensible gobble-dee-gook* in another.
*highly technical writer’s term

That being said, there are a few books which I’d suggest are indispensable, regardless of genre, sub-genre, and/or the unique and twisted personality of the would-be writer.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk & E.B. White
  • It’s short.
  • It’s a tech manual for writers.
  • It’s worth its weight in gold, diamonds, and assorted other gemstones. Why? Because it will persuade grammar nazi’s (and editors) to put their long knives away.

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin

The craft of story-telling as recounted by a true master of the skill. Subtitled “a 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story”, Le Guin’s book is a pleasure to read, and the writing exercises she includes are a challenging and fun way to immediately put her recommendations into practice.

On Writing by Stephen King

I’ve re-read this one several times. It’s just that good.
King includes his own journey as a writer, which is as entertaining a read as any of his works of fiction. Nuggets of wisdom are sprinkled throughout—including his famous (and oft-debated) axiom: ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’. In a word: inspirational.

I’ve read quite a few additional tomes on speculative fiction, world-creation, character arcs, dialogue, etc., but I keep coming back to these three.

That’s not to suggest I don’t “spit out the bones” at times (with the exception of Elements—ignore it at your peril), but any aspiring author should give these three books a permanent place of honor on their desk.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Gift ≠ Identity

For just under two years, I couldn’t play bass. Or any guitar, for that matter.

Not because I lacked the talent for it (although some may beg to differ), but as the result of an unfortunate injury that has nothing to do with the picture at left.

I was working in a juvenile detention center at the time, and one day, while supervising a recreational sport activity, it happened.

Don’t assume it was a malicious act by some young punk with a bad haircut and attitude to match. He was simply running laps around the gym like a hyperactive squirrel on a hamster wheel, while everybody else was lined up, ready to return to the main facility.

As I tried to slow him down on his next lap, my finger got caught in the folds of his rolled-up sleeve, and when he twisted away—laughing as if we were playing a game of tag or something—every joint in the index finger of my left hand was dislocated.

The next day, my entire finger was twisted in a slightly corkscrew pattern and had taken on the hue of a Concorde grape (the darkest shade of purple I know).

And it hurt. A lot.

Playing guitar (and especially bass) was out of the question. And as the months dragged on, I was forced to consider that, at age 27, my passion for music might henceforth be limited to listening instead of performing.

When it comes to owning the gifts we’ve been given—whether music, art, creative writing, dance, etc.—it’s a common struggle for many to fully embrace their gifts as a significant part of who they are. Non-creative types have been known to snidely denigrate artistic endeavors as ‘hobbies’, far less down the scale of worth than, say, ‘real’ careers in maths and sciences.

I have several artistic friends who have given workshops to challenge/encourage creative artists to stand up and say, “I am an artist. It’s who I am.” For those who haven’t felt the freedom to “own” their artistic gifts, this is both necessary and validating, and I fully support the idea.

At the same time, my involuntary two-year sabbatical from playing music also serves as a reminder to not equate my identity with my artistic gifts. Whatever gifts I may have flow out of my unique identity, but they do not constitute the absolute be-all and end-all of who I am.

It’s still difficult, at times, when people ask me what I do, to respond with breezy confidence: “I’m a writer.” It’s still tempting to qualify it a second or two later by adding: “Well, actually, I work a lot of construction gigs to put food on the table, play in number of bands to put gas in the car, and I write when I can but I don’t make much money at it.”
As if financial remuneration is the ultimate validation. (cf. Taylor Mali’s thoughts on What Teachers Make)
I was fortunate—and grateful—to recover the ability to play music again, about twenty months after the initial injury. I’m grateful for the lessons learned during that season, specifically about not locating my identity and personal worth in my musical ability.

And when it comes to creative writing, I’ve also learned to embrace the other side of the gift/identity coin: what I do with the creative gifts that I’ve been given is an expression of my identity, not the source.

Now, if y’all will excuse me, I’ve got a novel in its fourth draft that needs my time and attention.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Character Sketch (it's a secret...)

Creating characters that are genuinely interesting = putting in the time & energy it takes to write their ‘back story’.

Characters are like real people: they have likes, dislikes, hopes, anxieties, dreams and phobias. They have families, friends, and life experiences that helped shape their thinking, beliefs, instincts, reactions, and motivations. Real people are a wonderful, messy, walking mass of contradictions, and believable characters are the same.

You may already have a good idea what your characters will be like, but it’s amazing how much fuller they become with a solid backstory that unpacks why they’re like that. For example, activists are typically galvanized by some injustice in their own lives, and cynics are often disillusioned optimists. Without knowing the ‘why’, the characters aren’t fully formed. Even if the specific events that galvanized the activist or frustrated the optimist don’t make it into the finished manuscript, the writer must understand what makes these characters tick.

There are many ways to do this, so there is no standardized system that works for everyone. My approach to creating back stories evolved over time, and is still evolving. But as a starting point, here’s what I’ve discovered:
  1. Many creative writing experts suggest using a grid-like checklist that includes things like: positive/negative personality traits, motivation/goals, hidden past/trauma, relationships, what does success/failure look like, and so on.
    I’ve done these charts. They are great for getting the ball rolling, but they never felt like enough. There was always a sense of something missing. Useful, yes, but more as a starting point.
  2. I've found it even more helpful to write out a literal ‘story’ about your character(s). Tell their family history, the events that shaped them, their hopes & dreams, triumphs and disasters. What injustice lit a fire under the activist? What disaster/betrayal caused the optimist to lose hope?
    The checklist approach is helpful in a ‘bullet point’ manner, but writing short biographies of your major (and secondary) characters brings them into well-rounded life. Suddenly, the question “would (insert character here) really say/do this?” moves from quasi-guess to confident decision.
  3. This one may be peculiar to my own addled writing process, but character sketches and back-stories are written long-hand. That’s right — paper and pen. I just sit down and start writing. It’s proven to be the most reliable way to unleash creativity.
    In my case, it could be a throw-back to my junior high days when my mother’s manual Underwood typewriter was my weapon of choice. Nobody at age thirteen wants to retype and retype, so I’d sit there — hands poised over the keys like a calcified bird of prey — until I was sure what I wanted to say. This creativity-throttling habit may have leaked into my laptop from time to time. So, going completely old-skewl with pen and paper is creatively liberating.
Psst... It’s a secret...

Here’s the hard part: after writing out such breathlessly thorough sketches for your major characters, it’s ridiculously difficult to resist the temptation to include every single detail so your readers will know the characters as intimately as you do.

Resist that temptation.

On the positive side, feel free to sprinkle hints and pieces of their back-story throughout your manuscript. Just don’t front-load your first chapter with an info-dump on each character. Pace yourself (and your readers), and let the mystery of each character unfold throughout the novel.

Another temptation to avoid is the dreaded Prologue.

For the novel I am currently working on, I invested a lot of time in world-creation, and I wrote — yes, using pen and paper — a lengthy treatise on their local history, geography, and civic development, spanning several generations. It resembled something you’d get in a high school Social Studies class.

It was fun to write, and I was so pleased with what I’d created that I foolishly entertained the idea of including the whole thing as a Prologue.
For about ten seconds, and then common sense prevailed.
World Creation’ is simply the back-story of the society where your novel takes place. It’s vitally important for the writer to understand the ins and outs of the fictional world, but unless you’re J.R.R. Tolkien, few readers really need or want the entire history.

Again, feel free to sprinkle tidbits and a short paragraph or two here and there — where it truly helps move the story forward — but don’t give in to the temptation to explain every cultural nuance with its complete historical context. The writer needs to know the whole picture, and the Social Studies world-creation is invaluable in keeping the fictional society consistent, but don’t do a massive info-dump and call it a ‘prologue’.
(It’s also widely whispered that editors and publishers skip prologues as a matter of principle, so you’re not doing yourself any favors by submitting a manuscript that depends on one.)
So, in a nutshell:
  1. Do your homework.
  2. Scatter seeds throughout your novel.
  3. Hold some secrets.
P.S. Give the ‘pen and paper’ method a try sometime. You never know.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Altar Ego

Perhaps you’ve heard the old joke: “The only problem with a ‘living sacrifice’ is that it has a tendency to crawl off the altar…”

Like all good jokes, it contains a cringe-worthy element of lamentable truth.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1).

On paper, it just makes sense that — following the example of Jesus, who gave His life on our behalf — we would reciprocate out of gratitude and worship by offering ourselves to God as living sacrifices.

But when the rubber hits the road, it’s not aways that easy. The implications of allowing God to have a say in how our day-to-day lives unfold is more uncomfortable than we realized. Offering ourselves to God as a “holy” sacrifice — does holiness imply that my morals and ethics may have to change in order to be the living sacrifice that God considers “true worship”?

And the imagery of ‘sacrifice’: that level of helplessness isn’t appealing. Even if we sing that God is a good, good Father, there is something within us that balks or cringes when we are faced with the level of trust required to offer ourselves as living sacrifices.

It’s hard to get ego to stay on the altar. We like to have the final say, the ultimate control, to be captains of our own fate. Many of us like the idea of Jesus as Savior, but find it difficult to surrender to Him as Lord.
(It’s almost as if we want God to save us on our terms: rescue me from the consequences of my sin, Jesus, but don’t interfere with how I live my life.)
“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

Change the way I think? Jesus, I’m just a wee bit offended that You’re implying I might not be thinking straight. I’m perfectly capable of discerning God’s will on my own.

There goes that ego, crawling off the altar again.

I’ve heard sermons, homilies, and devotional talks on Romans 12:1-2 since my earliest days of paying intellectual attention to my faith — cf. Saint Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding” — but the longer I’m a Christ-follower, the more I’m challenged by these two pithy verses.

Pride (ego) isn’t the sole domain of the International Guild of the Arrogant & Unreflective, or those diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Everyday, garden-variety pride rears its ugly head each and every time we find ourselves balking at the idea that Jesus might want to ‘interfere’ in our morality, ethics, attitudes, speech, and worldview.

Romans 12:1-2 reminds me of a simple (yet humbling and difficult) truth: Jesus is Lord, and I am not.

Me and my ego need to stay on that altar.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Happy Hour Library

Once upon a time, there was a young couple named Robby and Wendy. We were part of a larger circle of friends at college, went to classes and concerts together, and often hung out at a local greasy spoon enjoying French fries, “Highway 59 Burgers”, and coffee descended from a questionable bean-ealogy.

As our friendship grew into a ‘relationship’, we went on our first fancy date where we wore fancy clothes and drank the fanciest wine we could afford without bankrupting our meager college funds.
(“Make sure you mention the part where I tripped and fell down the steps in my fancy dress, and the restaurant staff were panicking that I might sue,” said Wendy. Okay, sweetheart, if you insist…)
Another time, in the aforementioned greasy spoon, we sketched multiple designs on paper napkins as we imagined how we could convert a railway caboose into a livable space. (Maybe my bass amp could double as an endtable?) The location wasn’t fancy, nor was Mateus involved, but it was fun to dream together about our future.

As the years have come and gone, we’ve evolved a few traditions as a couple. For example: as the first one up most mornings, I brew and hand-deliver a cuppa java to my beautiful wife in bed. Note to any husbands reading: there are few wives who won’t appreciate this.

A more recent invention is what we call “happy hour library”: we sit on our deck in the evening, sipping wine as we read whatever books have caught our fancy. Occasionally, we read a snippet out loud to each other, whenever we discover a thought-provoking question, an inspiring idea, or a particularly well-crafted paragraph.

A few weeks ago, Wendy brought home a bottle of Mateus, and we sat on the deck with our books and reminisced about that first “fancy” date. We’ve never lived in a converted caboose, but we’ve had a lot of adventures together. None of which we could have predicted — or dreamed — back in the days of the ‘caboose brainstorming’.

But now, it’s the ‘little adventures’ that I appreciate the most: the coffee shared at 6:00 in the morning, and Happy Hour Library.

And Mateus — while not our nostalgic ‘go-to’ wine of choice — held up surprisingly well, all these years later.