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.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Inspiration = Think Weird

Where do writers come up with their ideas? What fuels their creative inspiration?

We’ve all nodded with sympathetic understanding when someone reminds us: “10% Inspiration, 90% Perspiration”, but that doesn’t really address the question about the 10%, does it?

The answer could be as simple as: Think Weird.

Or, to be more accurate, get used to looking at normal, every-day situations, and then asking yourself: “What if…?”

And once you start writing, keep asking the ‘what if’ question. It can open up all kinds of creative ideas, mid-draft.

For example — full disclosure but without spoilers — when I began writing Dissident (the second book in the Tracker trilogy), I wanted to provide readers with a thumbnail sketch of what the Enclave looked like. At the same time, I really wanted to avoid the ‘omniscient narrator’ approach.

And so, the character of Mateo was created, a shopkeeper who worked in the literal shadow of the Enclave’s heavily-guarded wall. Mateo’s role was to give Amos (the point-of-view protagonist) a guided tour of:
  • the physical parameters/description of the Enclave,
  • the ferocity of the guards protecting it, and
  • the societal milieu that had evolved around its borders.
Here’s the ‘full disclosure’: I had already mapped out the majority of the book’s structure. Mateo was a character of convenience, allowing me to describe the Enclave and set the scene through the eyes of my point-of-view protagonist (Amos). Mateo was never intended to go much beyond that.

I had some vague notion of him possibly re-appearing in a minor scene later in the book, but that was it. Mateo was a one-chapter character — an important minor character for the purpose I had in mind, but nothing more.
Until I was about 400 words from concluding the first draft of the first chapter, sitting in a crowded coffeeshop, and I was suddenly ambushed by a ‘what-if?’
I promised there would be no spoilers, but suffice it to say that particular ‘what-if’ resulted in Mateo becoming a pivotal character in the second and third books of the Trilogy. (He really messed up my story outline in the process, but I’ve forgiven him.)



The past two summers in British Columbia have been dominated by record-breaking wildfires. A side-effect has been the dense smoke that has blanketed our city for weeks on end. The sun, when it breaks through, looks eerie, unnatural, almost…
What if…?
What if there was another explanation for the climate crisis — one that was scientifically observable, but ultimately originating from a sinister intelligence from outside? What if the environmental disaster was a symptom of something far worse…?
I went home and started typing: “The unnatural color of the sky caught Jaco’s eye the moment he stepped outside. The saffron-tinged sunlight threw everything – clouds, buildings, foliage – into sharp, brassy relief...”
I am currently well into the second draft of an as-yet-untitled new novel, and that’s exactly how I got the idea. Nothing more profound than noticing the smoky sky, and asking a simple “what if”.

The caste-based society on another world, the forgotten prophecies of a religion based in Nature, the investigation by a local television reporter and her cameraman into a government coverup, and the sudden appearance of a terrified teenager fleeing from unspeakable Darkness — well, that all came later.

But it always starts with a simple ‘what if…’.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Point of View

The creation of interesting, engaging, and believable characters for any novel is a crucial step in the writing process.
(Thank you, Captain Obvious.)

Writing back-stories for each character (even minor ones) helps to flesh out what gives them motivation, inspiration, anxiety, and trepidation. It also reveals how their hopes, dreams, hang-ups and personal history shape how they see the world, and how they interact/react to it.

Nowhere is this more important than your novel’s “point of view” protagonist. The story unfolds through their eyes, thoughts, words and actions. Their opinions, beliefs, bias, and worldview are as much a part of the story as the story itself.

In Tracker, for example, there are two main protagonists, and each chapter/scene is told from either Amos’ or Aubrey’s point of view.
And I learned from experience why so few authors create main characters whose names end with the letter “S”. Hint: you will invest a lot of time looking for new ways to avoid apostrophes. :)
This meant that any given scene/chapter would be told exclusively from one viewpoint — so if the character left the room, for example, there was no way of knowing what happened in their absence. There was no omniscient narrator providing background or context — the story was written so that the reader only knew or discovered whatever the characters knew or discovered.
A third perspective was provided by one of the ‘enemy’ (a Tracker). It was a great deal of fun to write from viewpoint of a Tracker — just how does a fanatical, semi-cyborg killing machine ‘think’, anyway? — and provide an insight into their very ‘alien’ worldview regarding their ‘targets’ (the protagonists).
The second and third books in the Trilogy widened the reader’s experience of the dystopian society where the story takes place. The introduction of Connor provided a fourth point of view: one representing the despised elite class who possessed just about as much contempt/prejudice against Amos and Aubrey, as they felt for him and his companions.

The creative fun/challenge with a viewpoint like Connor’s was to make him believable and even sympathetic: they’re forced into an alliance because of a common enemy, but that doesn’t mean they like or trust each other. And each side had their ‘reasons’ to justify their biases. The inherent conflict of their clashing worldviews provided some great opportunities for character development, as well.
Deciding whose viewpoint will be taken when all the characters are in the same scene can be challenging. Solving that piece of the puzzle just makes the story stronger.
“Point of view” is not just the luck of the draw when a writer begins creating a new work. It’s key to the story-telling, based upon well-thought-out backstories, a combination of strengths & weaknesses in each character, and an opportunity — whether utilizing single or multiple viewpoints — to create compelling fiction that captures the imagination of the reader.

A “page-turner”, in other words. That’s the goal.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

That Was Then, This Is Now

Fifteen years ago today, I embarked on a wee experimental journey: I created a blog called ‘robbymac’.

Blogging was still reasonably new at the time, as was the online software. For example, if you wanted to provide readers an opportunity to comment — and the whole point of blogging was ‘conversation’ — you were obliged to import third-party software (Haloscan was an early favourite).

When Haloscan eventually went the way of the dodo, all of the comments evaporated with it. That was a real shame, because in the early years of this blog (and many others), there was a great deal of conversation. Lively debates, thoughtful discussions, and the inevitable knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers (aka ‘trolls’) who just loved a mean-spirited kerfuffle while insulting people they’d never met.

Looking back now, in the perfect clarity that hindsight provides, I can trace some noticeable shifts/trends/defining moments:
  1. The genesis of the “Detoxing from Church” series in the early years. This was probably what first drew a lot of readers and generated some good discussion.
  2. The ‘Post-Charismatic Project’, with its attendant interactive forum, certainly added a whole ‘nuther level of conversation about a decidedly “hot topic”.
  3. Online e-zines began publishing articles I’d written, including a cover story for Next-Wave. ‘Post-Charismatic’ caught the attention of a publisher in the UK and became a book.
  4. During my fourth year (2007), I began incorporating “creative non-fiction” — fun, creative story-telling written to get people thinking. The Younger/Elder characters were introduced and quickly became regulars, I indulged in some satirical ‘riffing’ on C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters”, and even wrote a metaphorical tribute to worn-out denim.
    • It’s somewhat mystifying, in hindsight, that I was blogging for almost four years before creative story-telling first appeared. Or, perhaps it’s just another indicator that blogs and bloggers evolve over time.
  5. Conversations — and inter-connected webs of blog-responses and synchro-blogs — flourished like out-of-control weeds for a number of years, and then seemed to evaporate overnight. (For a number of blogs, not just mine. It was weird.)
  6. Blogging compadres came and went, for a variety of reasons. Some of their blogs no longer exist, while others remain online but it’s been years since anything new has been posted.
    (The diminishing level of conversation may have had a bigger impact than was first recognized.)
  7. My own shift in self-perception, after I took the “I am a writer” plunge. Obviously, I’ve been writing all along, but there’s a significant difference between writing “on the side”, so to speak, and the time, attention, and creative energy involved/required to pursue writing as a career.
I don’t make a yearly practice of marking each “blogiversary”, but the recent discovery that Len Hjalmarson had retired his blog — with the exception of a single post to say farewell — caused me to stop and reflect. Len was instrumental in encouraging me to begin robbymac.org so many years ago, and while other blogging compadres have come and gone, his departure hit me harder somehow.

The times... they are a-changing.

I will continue to write simply because I’m a writer. It’s who I am, and it’s what I do. Blogging has been and will continue to be a part of my creative rhythm. As a good friend (also an author) once advised me: “Writing is hard. Be a writer only if you simply can’t not write.”

She’s right, on both counts. And because I do want to continue to develop as a writer, I will also follow the advice of another author (Stephen King): “If you want to be a writer… you must write a lot.”

In other words, there’s still lots of gas in the tank. :)

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Bending the Rules: First Draft

Writing speculative fiction is not an exercise in chaos, nor is it the literary equivalent of “throwing spaghetti against the wall and keeping what sticks”.

At the same time, the picture at left does feel strangely familiar. Especially when writing the first draft of a new novel.

The “rules” for writing fiction are very much in the eye of the beholder. While there is a consistent body of wisdom setting parameters for the genre, even among some of the most successful authors, there can be a wide range of strongly-held opinions. A famous example on the topic of adverbs:
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” ~ Stephen King

“Adverbs and adjectives are rich and good and nourishing. They add colour, life, immediacy.” ~ Ursula Le Guin
The same can also be true for the age-old conundrum when approaching a new writing project: to plan, or not to plan?

Many writers and writing instructors insist that you map out the structure, storyline, and characters before starting to create the actual content.

Other writers advocate for sitting down with a blank piece of paper (or a blank laptop screen), and simply begin writing and “see what comes out”. A famous quote for this approach has been variously attributed to Stephen King and Terry Pratchett (and probably others):
“The first draft is just you telling the story to yourself.”
Elizabeth Lyon, author of ‘A Writer’s Guide to Fiction’, has a markedly different view: “Perhaps some writers believe that preparation or structure will stifle creativity... I can understand their choice — and predict their failure.”

So, which of the experts do you believe?

Honestly, when I write, I do a bit of both. The first draft of a new novel is more or less “free-fall”, and then I wrestle it into submission in subsequent rewrites.

My earlier books were in the ‘non-fiction’ category, where the subject matter — and the reams of research and citations — dictated the structure to a large degree. When I decided to write a purely science-fiction novel (and having just finished reading Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ — see quote above), I thought it would be a fun challenge to ‘tell myself the story’ first.

It was fun. And creative. And a huge, heaping pile of hard work in subsequent drafts, as I wrestled with “telling other people the story”.

The first book in the Tracker Trilogy was a free-flow, ‘tell yourself the story first’ adventure. The second and third books were mapped out beforehand — and yet, as the content was written, the map began to resemble (at times) Captain Barbossa’s interpretation of the Pirates’ Code: “it’s more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Creative writing is often like that. That’s why it’s ‘creative’ — it seems to have a mind of its own. What’s important to remember is this:
“First drafts don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be written.”

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” ~ Terry Pratchett

“The first draft of anything is [dreck].” ~ Ernest Hemingway

“Edit. Or regret it. Depend on this, your story does.” ~ Master Yoda (okay, I made that one up, but it’s something he would have said, if writing were a Jedi art)

Monday, July 30, 2018

Soul Rhythm

“Why do you go to church?”

It’s a fair question. A lot of people — many of them long-time followers of Jesus — have been asking it with increasing frequency in recent years.

When my friend Luke Geraty posed the question online last week, it got me thinking about the thin line between why I go to church (regularly) and why I should go to church (regularly).

Here — in no specific linear order — are a few of the things that came to mind:
  1. First, the obvious one. Hebrews 10:24-25: “do not give up meeting together”.
    Not out of some religious sense of drudging duty or slavish legalism — but because I need other Christians in my life. In their original context, these verses were not intended as a whip to enforce attendance, but rather an encouragement to gather for much-needed mutual support.
  2. It confronts my consumerism.
    Like many people, I have an unfortunate tendency to evaluate church through a consumerist grid of “what’s in it for me?” I want to “get something” out of the worship, the teaching, the prayers, the fellowship (even the coffee). I need to be reminded that I’m called to serve. On any given Sunday, there are opportunities to lay down my selfish consumerism and grow up (mature spiritually) by serving others.
  3. Spiritual rhythm/soul care is a real thing.
    Everyone loves Eugene Peterson’s phrase “the unforced rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11:28-30), and we all benefit from regular soul care. For me, part of my ‘spiritual rhythm’ is going to church — regularly. Attending once every three weeks or so (a growing trend observed in many churches) isn’t much of a ‘rhythm’ — you’re there just often enough to say you still attend, but not enough that you make any real connections or impact. Generally speaking, it’s easier to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15), when I see them on a regular basis.
  4. It’s healthy to be around people who challenge me.
    If I only hang out with a few like-minded friends in a coffeeshop or pub, we will have great fellowship and a good time. Church gatherings, on the other hand, are often much more diverse: populated by an admixture of broken, needy, opinionated people who may push my buttons. I won’t mature as a Christian if I don’t learn how to appreciate and minister to/among others who are different.
  5. It’s good to be reminded of the foundations of our faith, even (especially) when I naively think “I already know this”.
    You’ve heard the analogy about how bank tellers can spot counterfeit currency, because they’ve handled the real thing so much that the fakes become easier to detect? The same goes for our spiritual lives — the more we’re deeply, thoroughly marinated in solid biblical theology, the less likely we’ll be seduced by clever manipulators playing “alternative facts” or Twisted Scripture games.
  6. There’s just something about corporate worship that nourishes the soul.
    Whether I’m on the worship team or singing in the congregation, there’s something rich and deep and powerful that takes place when a myriad of voices are raised in song. There’s a solidarity — a unity — that transcends our divergent personalities, backgrounds, opinions, struggles, and questions, as we turn our absolute, unmixed attention to worshiping Jesus. Together.
  7. And finally, if I truly want to “be the change I want to see”, I can neither be the change — nor see it — if I’m not there.
    Regularly.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Prodigals & Pharisees

I thought it was a great idea for a song lyric: “Prodigals and Pharisees, equal at the foot of the cross”. Last week, I even suggested to a friend, who is a gifted songwriter, that he should compose it.

He gave me the same kind of benignly polite look that I suspect would be on my face, if our places were reversed and he had suggested that I write a book based on one of his flashes of insight.

Still, the idea stuck with me. Not being much of a songwriter, it was probably inevitable that it would turn into a blog post instead.

The idea was sparked by one of Jesus pithy stories, found in Luke 18:9-14:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”
The characters were chosen quite deliberately by Jesus. The Pharisees were the super-religious heroes (at least, in their own eyes), and tax collectors clung by their fingernails to the lowest rung on the societal ladder of the day.

The point of Jesus’ parable is exquisitely clear: only those who recognize their spiritual poverty receive God’s mercy. And let’s not lose sight of where Jesus is aiming the parable: those “who were confident of their own self-righteousness and looked down on everyone else”.

The great irony is that both characters in the parable were in need of God’s grace and mercy. They stood in the same temple, prayed to the same God, yet only one went home “justified”. The other wrapped himself in a cloak of his own making and wandered off without even realizing his desperate situation.

It’s the same today: you don’t need a membership card or initiation rite to be a Pharisee. It’s an attitude, not an organization. And there are multitudes of ‘prodigals’ who have wandered in some way from their faith, and yet later find themselves wanting to reconnect with God (like the tax collector in the parable).

At the foot of the Cross, pharisees and prodigals are on equal footing, with equal need for forgiveness and mercy. Whenever a church meets, it’s really just another gathering of “Sinners Anonymous”.

Some may be further along in their understanding and practice of “living by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16-25), but none of us earned it, never did and still don’t deserve it, and daren’t* take it for granted.
*It’s a real word. Google it.
“The Christian does not believe God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.”
~ C.S. Lewis ~

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Creative Non-Fiction = Readable Research

Creative non-fiction is a blend of genres that takes the best of both and combines them into something great.
  1. It’s non-fiction, because it involves real-world research and aims to educate/illuminate people on a topic that the author is passionate about.
  2. It’s also creative, because the style of writing is story-telling in order to communicate the research topic in an entertaining and engaging manner.
I’d done it here before; ie. Wormwood’s Apprentices and assorted posts featuring the Younger & Elder.
I’ve often pictured it, in my mind’s eye, as a disheveled group of academics sitting around a roaring campfire, toasting marshmallows while sharing their latest research under the guise of ‘ghost stories’.
I joined the circle around the campfire — figuratively speaking — for the writing of The Genesis Café: Conversations on the Kingdom.

After the release of Post-Charismatic, I was determined to follow up with a book on the Kingdom of God. I had read and researched a wide variety of authors on the topic, and was eager to put my thoughts into writing, but kept hitting a brick wall. I don’t mean writer’s block; this was more of a ‘what can I add to the topic that hasn’t already been said — and said well — by others?’
The net result was the same: I was stalled.
And so several thick binders of quotes, ideas, and research were shelved in my basement. That’s what writers do when stumped — move on for a season and come back to it with fresh eyes at a later time. As much as I wanted to put pen to digital paper, I was also loathe to write something that lacked originality and was simply a re-hash of what others had already said.

Four years later, I had an epiphany of sorts: rather than deal with a broad range of scholars, I would zero in on just one. George Eldon Ladd had written one of the go-to treatises on the subject, and most of the other writers on the topic of the Kingdom made reference to Ladd’s ground-breaking work. He was the common denominator.

But Ladd, while unquestionably brilliant, was heavy reading, to put it mildly. And that’s when the epiphany hit me:
I could take the creative non-fiction approach, delving into a layperson-friendly discussion on Ladd’s theology via two popular characters from my blog: the Younger & the Elder, and their supporting cast of the Crusty Irish Barkeep, the Barista, and a new character, the Proprietress.
What followed was an intriguing and challenging adventure in research and creative writing. The demands of being conversant with Ladd’s work, in order to write authentically about it through fictionalized characters, was one of the most rewarding roller-coasters experiences for an author to enjoy.

It was also fun to include myself, as the author, into the chapters at the beginning and end of the book. I’d emerge from our basement to share breathlessly with my wife about the great conversations I was having with the Younger and the Elder, and Wendy would look at me with real concern and cautiously inquire:
“You do realize all of the voices are yours, right?”
Creative non-fiction is a blast to write: researching and knowing your material inside and out, coupled with creating believable conversations between interesting characters, and not to overlook the challenge of writing good discussion questions for the end of each chapter — as a writer, it’s challenging, exhilarating, thought-provoking, muse-worthy, and exciting to see it all come together.

Yes, it’s also time-consuming, brain-bending, and good ole-fashioned work, but the end result of The Genesis Café was so rewarding that all the required effort just faded into the distance.

Creative non-fiction: where research becomes readable.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Presence

The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.” (Exodus 33:14-15)

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (excerpt from Psalm 139)

There are numerous examples in the Bible where the curtain is pulled back, and the omnipresent God reveals His manifest presence to His people. In other words, the God who is always there draws nearer in some way, so that His presence is unmistakably felt. As some people describe it: “God showed up.”

The Israelites, for example, wandered through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land, led by the pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21). When Solomon dedicated the temple, the presence of God was so tangible that the priests couldn’t even perform their duties (1 Kings 8:10-11).
Conversely, there is a chilling vision given to Ezekiel when God withdrew His presence from the same temple, years later, due to corruption (Ezekiel 10:4-18).
All that to say: the presence of God is a Big Deal.

When I was a fairly new believer, we tended to use different language to describe our experience of God’s presence. Terms like “on fire” versus “cold”, for example. ‘Cold’ was probably an allusion to Jesus’ warning: “the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12), while ‘on fire’ was mostly likely inspired by the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “were not our hearts burning?” (Luke 24:32).

I can recall a few times, as a teenager, when I would suddenly become aware that my heart had grown cold. I hadn’t ‘backslidden’ into a life of wanton debauchery or anything like that, nor was I defiantly shaking my fist at the Almighty. I was going through the usual motions of an average high school student who also attended church, but my heart had gradually grown cold.
The Spirit was always present, but my cold (distracted, inattentive) heart meant that I wasn’t aware of Him. Until I realized what had happened, and changed (repented).
There’s also those times where you have a sense of His presence being “on” something you are involved in. I recall instances in pastoral ministry where I was faced with a difficult meeting with difficult people, and would spend a lot of time leading up to said meeting in Scripture reading and prayer — for truth to be spoken with love and respect.

And yet despite the normal anxiety, I would enter the meeting with a definite sense of His presence going with me. There would inevitably be some level of fireworks before the meeting was over, but the resulting positive fruit was a testimony to His faithfulness to open and change hearts.

Conversely, like Ezekiel’s vision of God’s glory departing from the Temple, there are times where you sense the absence, or even the withdrawal of His presence — some people colloquially describe it as: “God’s not on this”.
That can usually be understood or interpreted as one way the Holy Spirit warns us to not get involved, or when it’s time to walk away.
There was a time when I was asked by a church to do something that — no matter how I tried to look at it from multiple angles and viewpoints — I knew wasn’t what the Spirit was directing me to do.

The direction the church leadership insisted that I follow wasn’t anything illegal, unethical, immoral or even unbiblical. They simply wanted me to strip out all elements of worship or overt discipleship from a ministry that I was leading, and to focus on ‘purely social events’.

There’s nothing wrong with social events, naturally. I love having fun with friends as much as anyone. ‘Community’ is one of our deepest desires, and social gatherings are a natural expression of relationships.

So, again: the leadership of the church was not asking me to do anything illegal, unethical, immoral, or unbiblical.
But from the moment the directive came down — the proverbial ‘line drawn in the sand’ — I sensed the immediate withdrawal of the Presence. As sharply as if a guillotine had dropped.
It’s one thing, as a teenager, to suddenly realize you’ve gradually cooled-off in your awareness of God’s presence. It’s another thing entirely to sense the withdrawal of the Spirit’s presence, and continue on as if nothing significant had changed. I resigned my position at the church not long afterward.
I am not suggesting or implying that the Presence was withdrawn from the entire church in question — far from it. God is clearly at work there. I am speaking only of my individual following of His leading in one specific situation.
As David wrote in Psalm 139, God’s presence is everywhere, which is a comforting and encouraging thought. I just need to stay spiritually alert. And Moses summed up the other side of the coin succinctly: “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.”

God’s presence — and our awareness and cooperation — is an integral part of what it means to be “led by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16-25). Whatever the cost may be, count me in.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Publishing Journey

From a writer’s perspective, the saga of Post-Charismatic is something of a guided tour into the strange world of publishing, and the various and sundry ups and downs associated with it.

In the early days of this blog, there was a lot of conversation back and forth about the growing number of disillusioned people from pentecostal/charismatic churches who were opting to leave the movements they had once considered a source of spiritual vitality.

I decided — at the encouragement of several blogging friends — to begin what I conceived of as “the mother of all research projects”: a series of blog posts to unpack the why’s behind the growing number of people who would self-identify as ‘post-charismatic’.

It didn’t take long in my research to realize that a blog series wouldn’t do the topic justice. Instead, what was tentatively billed as “the Post-Charismatic Project” would be published as a subsection of my blog — an extremely large (and growing) subsection, as twenty months of research and writing took shape.

Even before it’s release, several people suggested that I should look into getting the content published in book form. I did my best to “shop” the proposal around, but received zero response (note: possibly because my query letters sucked). So I went ahead with my initial plan and designed a website-within-a-blog for the content.


In hindsight, I have no idea what inspired me to create this banner art.

The website went public in early 2006, and word spread quickly around the digital world known as the ‘blogosphere’. A fellow blogger — Brother Maynard from Subversive Influence (who also provided invaluable critique/push-back of the early drafts) — created a forum for the website, where readers could interact on the various issues raised by the Project. To say the forum was inundated with lively debate would be a classic understatement.
The publishing angle took an unexpected turn later that same year. An email arrived from jolly olde England, to inquire about publishing the Post-Charismatic Project. This was considered the ‘holy grail’ of blogging: an opportunity for a blogger to become a published author.
At first, I thought the email was the digital equivalent of a prank phone call. Just in case, I decided to contact the company in question, and inquired whether or not a certain name was associated with them.

“You mean our senior acquisitions editor?” the polite British woman asked over the phone. “I would take any email from him very seriously, if I were you.”
And then it hit me: I had been ‘discovered’. I was going to be published.
After a whirlwind of signing contracts and untangling governmental red tape surrounding a Canadian writer and a British publishing house, I was knee-deep in the process of having editors scour through my book, suggesting additions, deletions, areas where the material could be tightened up, and so on. It was a fun learning curve.

I was even treated to that odd feeling that accompanies the first glimpse of the proposed cover art. Initially, I wasn’t a huge fan of either design, to be honest, but that’s part of the swirl of publication: you don’t have control over what the publisher decides (and they’re the experts, so you have to trust their instincts).

In the end, they chose the second cover design, which was the better of the two in my limited opinion.

And then another unexpected turn occurred.

It took almost two years for Post-Charismatic? to be released in the UK, and over a year later before it finally became available on this side of the Atlantic. The book was being marketed in the UK, and I was already receiving emails and letters from readers, yet the North American release was indefinitely delayed with no explanation.
As I later discovered, the British company had been bought out by an American publishing house, and their ‘rules’ for publication were quite different. In short, their sales department had determined I didn’t qualify to be published, but since legally-binding contracts had been signed, they were contractually obligated to the first print run. But that was as far as they would (grudgingly) go.

For a writer, this was understandably frustrating and not a little deflating. The three-year print run came and went, and the muffled thud you may have heard was the (apparent) end of my shelf life as a published author.

But in the months following the end of the print run, I continued to receive inquiries about the book’s availability, and also requests for a Kindle version. And I realized that there was another option available to me: self-publishing.

It took almost half a year of wrangling with the American company, but I finally managed to obtain an official ‘authorial rights reversal’ (on company letterhead ’n’ everything), which means I was once more in legal control of what I did with my work.

Post-Charismatic 2.0 was a proper second edition of the original manuscript — updated, edited (yet again, ruthlessly) — and with the new framing story of a fictional Charismatics Anonymous meeting to introduce and conclude the book.

The learning curve to create both print and e-book formats was steep but rewarding, and having complete artistic control of my own work was well worth it.

I could never have predicted how this publishing journey would unfold, back when I began researching for ‘a few blog posts’, but it’s been a challenging, satisfying, and ultimately empowering education.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Speculative Fiction: Roots of Another Kind

I don’t remember how old I was when I chanced upon The Runaway Robot in my school library (twelve, perhaps?), but I believe it was the first science fiction book I’d ever read.

I suspect my earliest interest in what is known as ‘speculative fiction’ was sparked by the original Lost In Space television series, and later reinforced by Star Trek (TOS). I was already an avid reader as a child, but once I discovered sci-fi, I knew it was time to leave The Hardy Boys behind.

Junior & Senior high school saw my reading list expand greatly, as science fiction/fantasy became one of my favorite genres. Authors such as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Douglas Adams, George Orwell, and Jules Verne became household names for me.

One of the early gems that I discovered was Aaron Wolfe’s Invasion; Wolfe later turned out to be Dean Koontz, writing under a pseudonym. The Laser Books publishing imprint was curated by Roger Elwood, to whom I — at the ripe old age of thirteen — naively sent a manuscript of a sci-fi dreck-let that I’d written. He declined my submission (graciously).

Andre Norton was also one of my go-to favorites, as the bookshelf in my writing office demonstrates to this day. Her ability to write on both sides of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, and to create complex and interesting worlds — often based on her research into ancient cultures — was remarkable and inspirational.

(Never underestimate the value of anthropological and historical research when it comes to creating fictionalized societies.)



Michael Crichton’s many books have joined Ms. Norton on my shelf. Crichton is an excellent example of ‘hard’ science fiction (as is Asimov): speculative stories set in the future but based on real science of today. Crichton is another author who invests a great deal of time researching new technological break-throughs before crafting a story around them.

Sporadic diversions to authors with names like King, Grisham, Clancy, Koontz, Ludlum and Connelly have been known to occur, but they are just that: sporadic.

Fantasy continues to be represented by J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy and associated tales, and the recent discovery of ‘The King-Killer Chronicles’ by Patrick Rothfuss (please excuse me while I add my voice to  those calling upon Rothfuss to take less the 5-6 years between installments).

As Stephen King states in his worthy tome, On Writing: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

I’m always doing the former, and am now seven months into an obsessive focus on the latter. (That’s called foreshadowing — it’s a literary device that means: “Currently writing the first draft of a new novel.”)